Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.
And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.
Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. I will provide for you there–since there are five more years of famine to come–so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
There is a strange mercy in life which is afforded to us by God. Though we are sinful, we can be saved. Though we do wrong, we may be blessed. Though we have committed the unspeakable, God can do more than wipe away our past – God can make our past shine. In today’s reading we see the greatest possible outcome of this mercy, that Joseph, having been sold as a slave, is now able to look at his brothers, at his slavers, and say that God orchestrated his sorrow to save the lives, not only of his brothers but of Egypt and beyond.
This passage does not make suffering into something good though. Nowhere in this text do we see Joseph say, “I am so glad that I was a slave.” Or “That time with Potiphar taught me I should wear a tighter belt, thank goodness.” Instead, Joseph says that God was able to use the tragedy of Joseph’s life and use it to help others. Joseph decides for himself, “God sent me ahead of you,” placing God as the one who saw him safely into Egypt and through a long and winding path into Pharaoh’s household.
Joseph does not make his brother’s act of slave mongering an act of God though. God directed his path after he was sold, but in the eyes of Joseph, it was his brothers alone that chose to sell him to the passing caravan. Nonetheless, this act which was intended to get rid of Joseph forever, “God intended for good.” The good ultimately being the preservation of life, the gift of God to all people – not just the Israelites.
Already in the story of Joseph we see the promise of God to Abraham begin to take hold, Joseph becomes a blessing to “all people,” through his bizarre journey out of Egypt. It is important though that we do not turn this story into what it is not, namely a blanket endorsement for us to look at any tragedy and decide that God meant for it to happen, that God wanted people to suffer for some far-flung good we do not know yet.
Reading the Joseph story, we see Joseph speak about God frequently, we see Joseph look to God for interpretation of dreams, but ultimately God never speaks to Joseph. Up till this point, the patriarchs have had several face to face encounters with God. Abraham saw God as three visitors to his camp, as a cauldron passing through a sacrifice. Isaac wrestled with God, somehow someway, and was given the name “Israel” the one who wrestles with God.
Yet, in prison, in Potiphar’s household, and in the slave caravan Joseph is never given a direct encounter with God. There is no theophany on a mountain, no wrestling match by the river, Joseph does all that he does in the darkness of life. Joseph lives as we often do today, not as direct but indirect recipients of Divine Revelation. Growing up in Israel Joseph would have heard of God’s work – of the Garden, Cain, Abel, Lot, Abraham – but unlike all those before him all he had were these stories.
Joseph does not have a grand moment of divine revelation like his ancestors, but this does not mean Joseph is alone. All around, Joseph sees moments in his life as divine intervention. That even as he was rotting in prison, God was working to do good somehow. For many of us, this reflects our experience… Well, maybe not the prison part.
We do not see God coming down in a column of smoke and fire, but we feel led to one thing or another in life if we listen. We do not wrestle with God by a river, but we are fighting against God’s will daily. We are interpreters of our own life experience in the same way that Joseph is, we know the works of God in the past and as we go through our life, we are able to see how those works are similarly manifested in our own lives. The key thing to understand is that God is working with Joseph to reach this point, and understanding that eventually allows Joseph to say, “God sent me. Not you.”
What we do not see in this text is Joseph being told by his brother’s, “You got to feed all these people! If we hadn’t sold you as property that would not have happened!” We do not see Joseph crying out to God in prison and then being told, “No no, don’t despair, this is good for someone else – I assure you.” There is nothing in this story, no point of condescension, in which Joseph is told, “Well it really isn’t that bad, is it?”
When we read this story, we should not read it as Joseph telling people who suffer to chin up and get over it. Likewise, we should not read it as God deciding that the brother’s actions were good because they produced good. The evil committed by Joseph’s brother is still evil, nothing can redeem selling another human being as property. Not 400 years removed, not even 3.000 years removed can we ever say ownership of a person has anything redeemable about it.
If a blessing comes from any evil action, it is because of God. The evil is not ordained by God, but God leads us – through God’s mercy to something better than the evil we have brought into the world. We often skip to the last piece of this without acknowledging the first. We take the good God has given us in the face of evil, and attribute it to that evil thing. This is why people can say, and somehow not think themselves in the wrong, things such as “God appointed slavery to bring slaves to be converted.”‘; “God made diseases so that we could be healed and know God’s mercy.”; “God made the Holocaust to create alliances in the West.” In each case, we see something evil and we say, “Well if God does it, it must be ok.”
We know though that God does not do evil. In the thirty-some years that God spent among us in the Christ, never once did God do something evil. Not only did God not do evil, but actively discouraged what could be called justified retaliation to it. Our command to love our enemies is put plainly in the Greek, “Do to others according to what you would will others to do to you.” If you wrong someone and become their enemy, would you hope for them to take revenge?
God walked among us and was very clear that God did not tolerate evil or victim shaming. When asked if an ailing man or his parents had sinned, Jesus said neither was true – the man was simply blind. That particular blind person was placed in Jesus’ path though, so that when people looked to him and asked, “How horrible a thing do you have to do to end up like that.” Jesus could show what was really required of the situation – compassion.
Jesus showed that God is not capricious in giving to people, that the rain falls on the righteous and the unrighteous equally. Thus, to say in the Joseph story that God made the brothers to commit evil, made Potiphar’s wife to accuse Jacob falsely, or that God threw up God’s hands and said, “Well I guess it all worked out.” Is wrong. God does not commit evil so that Good can happen, but God does do more good than we could ever ask for or imagine.
There are only two people who can decide if something that was done to them worked out for Good. These people are God and the person who was wronged. Joseph forgives his brothers, Joseph appraises the situation as a blessing, Joseph finds it within his heart to give to the brothers who otherwise deserve punishment. We need to have a victim-centered understanding of trauma, refusing to focus on excusing the wrong of the person who did wrong.
How often do we speak to people who suffer as if they are somehow responsible for what happened? How many victims of hatred and violence do we look at and command that they forgive people when we cannot understand what they have gone through. While we must ultimately reach a point where we bless those who curse, give to those who take from us, it is rarely an instant turn from curse to blessing. For Joseph, it was over twenty years from being sold to blessing his siblings.
In the ancient world, forgiveness was initiated by the person who did wrong. Joseph forgives his brothers after they grovel before him for another crime – a silver chalice that had gone missing. Only after seeing that his brothers have changed their hearts does Joseph give them his blessing. It is this model of forgiveness we see explained by Jesus, “If YOU have wronged someone and then come to the altar to offer a gift, first go and reconcile with that person, then offer your gift.” The is on the one who commits wrong to seek forgiveness.
This does not mean that anyone who is wronged should sit on their pain, sit on their anger. We all have had times where we forgive someone before they ever ask to be forgiven. However, we are not obligated to restore every relationship with our abusers or oppressors, only with those who are willing to repent. We are not expected to ever be ok with the ways that people have hurt us, but we can see blessings which came after the pain has been given.
What is important is to remember that God seeks for us to be in community with one another. God seeks to give us all the gifts God can. Yet, when it comes to maintaining relationships, God lets the victims of wrongdoing set the pace. The perpetrator of violence has no place in the process except to be silent and to beg forgiveness. After it is given though, then, in this story at least, the family is restored. There is weeping and kissing, and eventually a feast. This is the model we see too in our Eucharist, we ask forgiveness, and only after it is given can we approach the table, feasting on the love of God. Let us do so, may we always be willing to own up to the wrong we have done and forgive as God has led us. Amen.