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Genesis 45:1-15

August 17, 2014

Year A

Joseph and his Identity

It’s as if this were a movie theatre and we have just walked in on the last reel. It’s one of those Bible epics, with long sandy vistas and long dusty robes. We are in a glittering palace in a lush river valley that runs through a desert. On one side of the room we see a bronzed young man, impeccably dressed, clean shaven, bedecked with gold, his eyes rimmed with kohl. He might be an Egyptian Pharaoh and in terms of power, he practically is the Pharaoh. On the other side of the room…eleven men, haggard, looking like they have been through a famine…which they have. Their clothes are humble, their beards are long and they are bedecked with nothing but their desperation to keep their family together and to spare their elderly father the grief he cannot bear.

In some ways this is the classic story of a blended family. Jacob longed to marry Rachel, the woman he loved, but her wily father had tricked him into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister. According to the custom of the day, each woman had a handmaiden, or a slave, depending upon your perspective and those women, too, added to the tribes. In the end, Jacob fathered twelve sons and untold numbers of daughters by four women. His beloved wife, Rachel, was the mother of the two youngest, Joseph and Benjamin. And so, in the messy ways of families, there were rivalries and jealousies, all of which were brought to the boiling point because Joseph was a dreamer.

We’re first introduced to Joseph as a seventeen year old, and he is either incredibly arrogant or pathetically naïve. When you are the favourite son of your elderly father, so much so that he gives you a super-special, extravagantly beautiful coat and all eleven of your brothers therefore hate your guts, it would be wise to tread lightly and to choose your words carefully. But Joseph apparently doesn’t pick up on these not-so-subtle social cues, because he excitedly tells his brothers about two dreams he has had, that would seem to describe him as top dog in this family already seething with discontent. So naturally, his brothers end up hating him even more. The brothers discuss their options. One faction just wants to kill the annoying pipsqueak. But Rueben, the eldest, persuades them to simply rough him up and throw him into a pit; he secretly plans to get Joseph back to their father.

But when a caravan goes by on its way to Egypt, another brother, Judah, suggests they profit from their little scheme, so they sell Joseph as a slave and pocket the proceeds. To cover their tracks, they dip his beautiful, colourful dream-coat in goat’s blood and break their father’s heart with a story about Joseph being torn apart by a wild animal.

Thus begins Joseph’s odyssey. Now, Joseph has some natural abilities, not to mention the blessing and backing of God, so he pretty quickly finds himself in a position of responsibility and authority. He also has some natural charisma, perhaps even beauty, and Potiphar’s wife makes a play for him, and when he resists, she has him thrown in jail. This ironically is where Joseph’s gifts really begin to shine. He interprets dreams for two of his fellow inmates and the accuracy of his words gives him a reputation. When the pharaoh has troubling dreams, Joseph is brought to him to interpret them. Joseph tells the Pharaoh that his dreams are warning him of an impending seven-year famine. For which they will have seven prosperous years to prepare. Joseph advises the Pharaoh to find a wise man – a wise, insightful, dream-interpreting young man, perhaps – to put in charge of shoring away grain for the famine-time. Joseph is abruptly out of jail and into the best job he’s ever had. The only person with more power in all of Egypt is the Pharaoh himself.

The famine doesn’t just hit Egypt, though. Joseph’s family back in Canaan find themselves face-to-face with the prospect of starvation and like many others from that region, they travel to Egypt, the land that was prepared for what was to come. Ten of Joseph’s brothers make the trip. But their father Jacob keeps Benjamin, the youngest, back at home, for fear of losing the only other tie he has to his beloved Rachel, now long dead.

And so the brothers present themselves to the great Overseer of Egypt, whom they have no idea whatsoever is the arrogant boy they tossed in the ditch and then sold into slavery, because they didn’t like the way he dreamed.

So, what does it take to forgive someone? For hating you. For hurting you. For throwing you into a literal or metaphorical ditch, into slavery, into prison, into heartache. For lying about you, and in doing that, hurting others whom you love. What does it take?

Forgiveness, to hear Jesus talk, is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of his, and that includes forgiveness from both angles – receiving it and giving it. As Christians, as people who follow what Jesus said, we understand that we are asked to participate in the gift of forgiveness. We are also advised of our responsibility to forgive one another. The question I want to talk about now is: how we forgive and why we forgive and why we should forgive.

What does it take to forgive some-one?

First of all, you have to see forgiveness as an option. You would be amazed at how many people drop out right there. Let’s be clear: Joseph has all the cards at this moment in the story. All the power is in his hands. He could throw the whole lot of them in jail, all eleven brothers, and give them a taste to what he’s had to endure.

But of course, that’s not what he does. Joseph seems to want to forgive. Still, he requires some sense that his brothers have truly repented of what they did to him. That seems reasonable. It’s far easier to forgive someone when you can see that they are sorry. Joseph is looking for real, tangible evidence of this. So here’s what he does: He tests them. Without letting them know his true identity, Joseph demands that they produce Benjamin, the youngest – the one who stayed home, the one who is his full brother. Then he lays a trap by having a servant plant a valuable cup in Benjamin’s luggage. When Benjamin is caught red-handed, Joseph watches very closely to see how his brothers will handle the situation. Will they once again punish the son of the favourite wife? Will they cut and run, leaving Benjamin to fend for himself? Will they concoct yet another story to account for their brother’s absence? Will they break their father’s heart all over again?

No. They won’t. They don’t. They pass the test, more than pass it. They plead for their brother. They tell Joseph of their old father in the land of Canaan, whose heart they can’t bear to break. Judah, the one who suggested they sell Joseph in the first place, offers himself as a ransom. He offers to go to jail in Benjamin’s place.

Joseph can see the brother’s remorse for the pain they have brought on their family. He can see their willingness to protect the youngest, even at the cost of their own freedom. He can see that they embrace Benjamin as one of their own.

We usually require some sense that our forgiveness is not being squandered on those who don’t deserve it. There is nothing wrong with that – that is so very human of us. But it kind of misses the point. Because, the truth about forgiveness, the counter-intuitive reality, is that we need to forgive for our own sakes even more than we need to forgive for the sake of the other person. Hurt and anger are dark, stuffy, claustrophobic prisons we are locked inside.

When we are able to forgive, we step out into the fresh air and the warm sunshine. We feel the grass soft beneath our feet. Joseph sets up his tests and his trials, to see whether his brothers should be forgiven, but the truth is, Joseph needs to forgive his brothers for himself. He needs his family. He needs to be reconciled. He needs the warm sun and the fresh air and to step out of that prison.

That is what is happening in this final, climatic scene. “I am Joseph,” the Egyptian-seeming young ruler states. Actually, sobs…the tears of Joseph are abundant in this beautiful scene in the lavish palace. His heart has been breaking to forgive, and no one is more relieved that he can forgive his brothers than he is. His forgiveness comes with his fresh re-interpretation of the dream that has been his life: That somehow through wrong doing, through mistakes made because people were hurt, angry and jealous we have come to this time and place. In the midst of much pain we have found our way to come together.

Joseph re-interprets his dream through forgiveness and he is clear that the Holy Spirit is part of his journey. That is not to say that God/Spirit intended the harm that came to Joseph. Rather, it is to say that our good intentions in relationship with the Spirit have the potential to be more powerful than our bad intentions towards one another. But our greatest hope perhaps, is that our hurtful actions, even our angry behaviour, can be used in some way for the good. Between each one of us and God these broken fragments can create a mosaic, beyond our wildest dreams. It is a view of wide open spaces.

God intends for us to forgive. We are created and we come to places, where we are taught what it is to love and to be loved and to be hurt and let down and all the rest. God shows us through our experience, again and again, that forgiveness and reconciliation are the way out of the prisons we fashion for the pain we have endured. We learn again and again through relationship with others and with God that we don’t have to live there, that we can step out into the sun and the breeze, and let the air fill our lungs and give us life.

Thanks be to God.

Sharon Ferguson-Hood

(Exegesis Magdalene’s Musings)