We spent this past summer, as a congregation, in an extended family reunion. Our scripture passages traveled through Genesis, reminding us of the stories of our ancestors in the faith. They were not necessarily the tales that make us beam with pride! However, as with our own family trees, sometimes we find in the raked up pile of dead leaves something of great beauty. The passage from Genesis 50 is one such high point for the family of Abraham and Sarah.
In the Joseph narrative the father plays an ongoing critical role. He has served as the buffer between competitive brothers who have grown into men. Backing up several decades, Joseph faced peril when his father was more than 60 miles away from him and his older brothers were tending the sheep. In this story we jump in where Jacob has died, leaving the scheming older brothers without any protection from the old man. They have reunited with the younger brother they sold into slavery years earlier. They are shocked that Joe is not only alive but now elevated to a position of great authority, second in national command. He is charged with oversight of a national relief program through which folks traveling to Egypt because of a widespread famine would be given food. This is what led to the migration of Joe’s brothers to the country where he had landed in chains years earlier. In their unlikely encounter, foreigners throwing themselves at the mercy of a ruler, Joseph ultimately reveals himself to the brothers. The tables have turned. Joe’s elderly father learns that his son is alive! He is carted endless miles in the company of his guilt-ridden sons for a tender reunion.
In this passage, Jacob has died. The older brothers are terrified because Joe holds the power to do them in. Without the father keeping the peace, why would Joseph treat them with anything but revenge? An eye for an eye, right? So the brothers contrive a deathbed wish of the father who can no longer refute what they say. Dear old dad, they informed young Joe, had pleaded for him to forgive the sins of his older siblings. They are still conniving in an effort to win mercy from their powerful brother. The assumption is that someone who holds power over others will use it to exact justice. Given what they had done to him years earlier, they legitimately had it coming.
Nineteen years ago we kicked off our new program year in our congregation with celebrative worship and Sunday School classes reconvening. People reconnected with each other over coffee, telling tales of their summer adventures. Two days later our Tuesday morning Bible Study class met for the first time. Before class started we had heard about a plane crashing into one of the Twin Towers in New York City. Folks assumed it was a terrible accident. We talked about it in class, prayed for the victims then the students headed home 90 minutes later. During that time three more planes crash landed into buildings and fields, confirming that it was an act of terror. I remember my office administrator and me talking in hushed tones, trying to make sense of the senseless. We didn’t know how to respond to such an assault on our national security. I remember we posted a note on the church doors that read: “The Church is closed due to a national emergency.” Then, like everyone else, we fled for home where we surrounded ourselves with our loved ones and stayed glued to the TV.
19 years later we still ask ourselves what justice looks like. To protect ourselves from further aggression, we put new security measures in place that we still live with today. Think of how different it is to check in for a flight now than it was 20 years ago. We went to war and sought to hold accountable those groups that orchestrated the 9-11 attacks. We hunted down leaders in spider holes and fast asleep in heavily armed quarters. An eye for an eye, our Old Testament lesson proclaims. Our understanding of human justice guided us in our retribution. Did that make us feel better? Safer? Certainly it did, to some extent. But we wrestle with a bigger issue as Christians. What does our love of a forgiving God suggest as the correct response to those who targeted us as enemies and killed more than 3000 of our loved ones? The cost of forgiveness is great. It requires repentance that can only come after a long time of actively seeking to understand each other. Forgiveness in the face of such suffering does not come from our human effort. It can only be found when we submit to the One who instructed us to love our enemies.
Years earlier, without the protection of the father, Joe’s brothers turned their jealousy into an act of terror. They sold him as a human slave to a traveling caravan of merchants. They shook the dust off their feet and headed home to a completely new reality. Their father was never the same again, believing his son was killed by a wild animal. The brothers, who made up the lie to cover their unthinkable crime, lived with guilt and shame. Meanwhile, young Joe suffered at the hands of his captors but ultimately was elevated, by God’s grace, to a position of power. Absent his own family, he established a new community in Egypt. Once his family migrated to Egypt at Joseph’s invitation, Jacob became a father figure not just to his own children. At the time of his death the Egyptian servants mourned his passing just as family would do. Joe hung onto his faith, a man who belonged to two communities.
The brothers assume that justice is meted out with reciprocity. When he weeps at their request for mercy, they fear for their lives. Fulfilling the dream Joseph had decades earlier, they bow down to the one they had sold for a handful of change. In an ironic turn of events, they offer to become his slaves. This, they hope, will pay off the debt which may spare them their lives. But young Joe changes up the narrative. He interrupts the generational cycle of victimization with something the older brothers never saw coming: forgiveness. This is the wildcard that can only be described as crazy! Joe sees something good in these siblings who had tried to get rid of him. He sees their changed hearts. As they weep together, a dozen men grieving the loss of their father and a long-ago loss of innocence, Joseph reminds them of who truly has authority. “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good…”
Charles Colson’s prison ministry takes people into prisons to meet with inmates, to worship with them and get to know them. A group of them visited a large penitentiary where an execution was scheduled for the next day. As usual, every person from the ministry team was accounted for upon entering for the prayer meeting. Afterwards the inmates filed out and Colson’s team was shocked to discover that they were one man short! A frenzied search in the facility located the Christian man sitting in a prisoner’s cell, praying with him. It was the cell of the man who was to be executed. The irate group of missionaries upbraided the man for putting their program at risk. “How could you do this to us?” they yelled. The man answered, “My name is Judge Brewer. I am the judge who sentenced this man. I am here because we both need time to forgive one another.”
In commenting on this text from Genesis, Claudio Carvalhaes states, “For us, as for Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness never comes without weeping.” That’s how we know God is at work. When our own efforts at achieving justice meet with failure, God steps in. When we are unable to forgive someone who has wronged us, the One who instructs us to love our enemies enables us to let go. Our world urges us to ask for the maximum punishment but we discover that we still feel weighted down with sadness after the sentencing. Some people die having carried hatred toward their enemies for decades. Their God-given gifts dried up because they invested their energy into human equations for justice.
The story ends with young Joe proclaiming that God brought good out of their evil. The way its phrased could make it seem like God was the author of the original sibling betrayal years before. This is troubling. Why would God cause significant harm so as to teach a lesson in forgiveness a lifetime later? Timothy Cargal offers an answer that makes more sense of the God I know and serve. He writes, “God is neither directly nor indirectly responsible for the plan to sell Joseph into slavery; rather, God actively engages what they have done so that ultimately it has a redemptive rather than destructive result.”
In this playing field of daily human activity, our interaction is often harmful toward one another. Many times that hurt is unintentional and immediately regretted. But sometimes it is intentional and that kind of malice is deeply damaging. In the midst of our power struggles and insecurities, God is at work. Just as Jesus brought healing and even restoration of life, God redeems our messes into moments of forgiveness. When undeserved mercy is offered, tears flow, hearts are healed, and God is praised.