To set the stage here—Joseph was one of twelve sons of Jacob. As one of the youngest, and maybe also the most handsome, AND the son of Jacob’s favored wife, (Jacob had several wives) Joseph was also Jacob’s favored son. Right there you have all the makings of family dysfunction. Lots of tension in that family.
In fact, Jacob so loved Joseph above his other brothers, that Jacob gave him a robe with real sleeves (I guess robes with sleeves were hard to come by in those days).
Joseph’s half brothers were jealous of that robe AND of Joseph. One day, when Joseph was a teenager, Joseph’s 10 brothers (We can imagine that Jacob’s 12th son Benjamin was still a baby)—anyway 10 of Joseph’s brothers were out in the fields looking after the flocks.
Father Jacob sends Joseph to them, to see if they need anything; and maybe also to spy on them—make sure they’re really working. The brothers see him in the distance. They are so consumed by jealousy that they concoct a plan to do him in. But before they can carry out their plan, they see a caravan of traders in the distance. Those traders are leading camels loaded down with merchandise for sale in Egypt.
“Why not sell Joseph as a slave to those traders? Then Joseph will be out of our lives, and we will have some extra money?” That is what they do. The brothers tell their father that Joseph has been killed and eaten by a mountain lion. They bring father Joseph’s robe, which they have stained with goat blood—“Yep,” they tell him. “Joseph is a gonner.” Jacob goes into deep mourning.
Years pass. Joseph has many adventures in Egypt, some good, some bad, too many to recount here. Eventually, though, Joseph becomes second only to Egypt’s pharaoh.
Meanwhile, back home, Joseph’s family is suffering the effects of a serious drought. Joseph has anticipated this dry period and so Egypt’s storage bins are full. Life has become desperate for his family, though. Hearing that there is grain to be had in Egypt, Jacob sends his sons there to buy some. In Egypt the brothers meet their brother. But, the brothers don’t recognize him. Here you have to use your imaginations a little. I am thinking that by this time, Joseph is dressing in full Egyptian garb—you know, the dark eye makeup, the long pointy beard, a headdress like you see on pictures of mummies’ sarcophaguses. With all that in mind, we pick up our story. Listen now for the word of God:
So, the topic for us is forgiveness, at least that is what I believe the lectionary writers have in mind for us to study today. In Luke, Jesus tells us to love our enemies. You can’t love your enemies unless you forgive them for the wrongs they have committed against you.
And, In Genesis, we have the story of Joseph. As a rich and powerful vizier—that’s a fancy name for a Pharaoh’s second in command, he could have had his brothers thrown into prison, or worse. But instead, he forgives them and saves them from starvation.
Forgiveness is an uncomfortable topic for all of us, I suspect. One of the first sermons I ever preached was on forgiveness. That was at that big church in McLean. After the service I was standing at the front door shaking hands, like you do. One woman let me know. “I will NEVER forgive my sister. This is what she did to me.” People waited politely behind her for awhile, but she went into a long exposition. “She did this and she did that.” Eventually the others in line got impatient and squeezed past.
I gathered that the woman’s sister was Lucifer daughter, truly. “If I had the opportunity, I’d throw her into a lake of hungry piranas” or something like that. She was not going to forgive her sister, and she had every reason not to. Certainly, I would give her a pass.
This many years later, I have a ready response for her: “Hey, I have as difficult a time with forgiving others as anybody. I’m just the bearer of bad news. You’ll have to take up your issue with God.” Which she would NOT have appreciated.
I am with her—maybe all of us are : “Do I HAVE to forgive, Jesus? Huh? Huh?” Forgiving is what saints do, not me.
Saints. My Aunt Thelma is as close to being a saint as I will probably ever meet. She should be up here instead of me, talking to us about forgiveness. But she lives many miles away in a different state. She’s almost 100 years old now. She has a lot of health issues. I don’t think at this stage in her life she would mind me sharing her story with you.
My aunt married immediately after WWII. Sadly, her husband, my uncle Jimmy, wasn’t the family-man-type. He took up with another woman even while my aunt was home pregnant with their first child. When he was angry, Uncle Jimmy slapped my aunt. Maybe a lot worse. He called her stupid and probably a lot worse, too. When he was in a rage, my aunt just went silent. In those days, it was the rare woman who stood up for herself. Divorce was out-of-the question in our strict, religious family.
They had three children together. I stress the word, together. My aunt discovered years later that my uncle actually had a “love child” during their marriage. That’s the stuff of movie stars and politicians, right? Uncle Jimmy WAS something of a celebrity—a wealthy and high profile figure in their community. Proof, I guess, that life isn’t always fair.
After years of abuse, my aunt finally went to her pastor for counseling help. He knew about my uncle’s exploits. The whole community knew about my uncle’s exploits. This Southern Baptist pastor told her what everyone else already knew, and he counseled my aunt: “Thelma, get a divorce.”
It was as if my aunt had been sailing along in her life. She and my uncle had figured out how to live separately, together—or maybe it’s together, separately. It worked, most of the time. Now the pastor tells her the ship has sprung a leak. Time to deploy the life raft. She was angry, she was sad, she was frightened. Worst of all, though. My aunt told me: “My friends, the people at my church—THEY all knew that Jimmy was cheating and no one told me.” Betrayal.
How do you start a new life at 53? She locked herself in her big house for a time. Either she didn’t sleep at all, or she slept all the time. Depression. The thought played in a loop in her head: “What shall I do, what shall I do?” It was her unbidden mantra. I’m certain she prayed a lot, too. She is a praying woman.
Eventually, she saw a suspicion of a path to her future She filed for divorce. She and Jimmy sold their mansion. She bought a smaller home in the city. That’s right. She stayed IN the community, wonder of wonders.
She had been a nurse during the war, so she brushed up on her nursing skills. She became the head nurse at a nearby nursing home. She stayed in that position until she turned 80! That’s 25 years! My, what a retirement party! So a little like Joseph, although not as dramatic, I realize. She started a new life under some horrible circumstances. And I know my aunt. She cared for her patients with tenderness and compassion, just as Joseph cared for the Egyptians in his role as vizier.
But we are talking about forgiveness, remember? Maybe because of his lifestyle, my uncle didn’t age well. The last in his series of girlfriends, was touring Europe when Uncle Jimmy took ill. She would not come back to The States until after his death. My aunt visited Uncle Jimmy, though, in the hospital. She took care of some of his physical needs—feeding him, even bathing him. Can you believe that? Would you do that? I don’t think I would do that.
In the hospital, Jimmy asked her, “Can you ever forgive me?” Aunt Thelma said, “I did that, a long time ago.” Like Joseph, she forgave. A saint, right? If you had passed by her on the street, you wouldn’t know you were in the presence of a holy person, but she’s a saint.
When my uncle took his last breath, maybe it was with some degree of peace.
Having thought about this a lot, here’s my own take on forgiveness. I think that as we age, we put some time between us and the offense. We gain perspective. It is not for nothing that folks associate wisdom with getting older. In Proverbs we read: Wisdom is with the aged, and understanding in length of days. And in Job: Many years teach wisdom.
At least at this stage of my own life, when I look back, I understand how young and inexperienced I was when I made some of the decisions I made! Most times I did the best I could at the time in some difficult circumstances. So did others who, over the years, have moved into and out of my life. As 20, 30, 40, 50 year olds, we were children, playing with grown up tinker toys --only that play had real life consequences. Sometimes we hurt people. Sometimes they hurt us. We didn’t know better.
As an old person, or let’s be kind, and say “older person,” some days it’s as if I am looking down from a mountaintop. Living hour by hour, day by day, I wasn’t able to see the whole landscape. I was stumbling around in tall weeds. Up on that mountain, though? Patterns emerge! Yes, there are the weeds over there, but there’s farmland over there and there? —a distant city. On a clear day, it’s true, you can almost see forever. My life is a river running through it all. In these transcendent moments I can see what I believe is God’s greater purpose to the challenges and the tragedies that befell me, that befall us all.
So it is that an older and wiser Joseph forgave his brothers. And, he is able to say to them when they show up in Egypt, “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on the earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it is not YOU who sent me here, but God.”