The story of Joseph and his brothers, which we find at the end of the book of Genesis, has always been one of my favorite stories from the Bible. Since I was a kid, I’ve liked a good story, and this IS a good story.
Just in case you don’t know or have forgotten what this story is about – and just in case you’ve never seen the musical ‘Joseph and his amazing technicolor dream coat’, which is based on this story – let me quickly summarize.
It begins with Jacob – the one who fought with an angel – or was it God? – at the River Jabbok and in the end was blessed by God and given a new name: Israel and thus became the father of the nation Israel.
Jacob has two wives: Lea and Rachel. He loves Rachel, but whereas he and Lea produce several sons and one daughter, Rachel has a hard time conceiving. Finally, she gives birth to Joseph, and, guess what? – Joseph becomes Jacob’s favorite child. And like many favorites, he is spoiled rotten.
His older brothers have to tend to the life stock from an early age – Joseph gets to stay by the tents until he is seventeen. Jacob even has a special coat with long sleeves made for Joseph, a sign of special status. As you can probably imagine, that doesn’t sit too well with his brothers.
But things come to a head when Joseph starts having quite graphic dreams, which he then gleefully shares with his family. In those dreams, he basically describes how his brothers and his elders bow down before him and pay homage to him. The brothers are furious, and even Jacob is taken aback, ‘Shall we indeed come, I and your mother and your brothers, and bow to the ground before you?’
Joseph’s brothers are so fed up with the arrogant spoilt brat that they want to do away with him. And soon there is an opportunity: as Joseph is sent out to check on his brothers in the field, they grab him and throw him in a dried-up cistern to die. But as a merchant caravan happens to travel by, one of the brothers, Judah, is plagued by a bad conscience and suggests that the brothers sell Joseph to this caravan as a slave instead.
And so is happens. Jacob is presented with Joseph’s very distinct coat, which has been ripped and dipped in the blood of a goat. Oh no, Joseph must have been attacked and eaten by some wild animal!
Meanwhile Joseph is brought to Egypt and encounters quite a few adventures, some good, some not so good. Joseph at some point even is thrown in prison on false charges, but eventually ends up as a high official at Pharaoh’s court, second in charge, thanks to his ability to interpret dreams – keyword seven fat and seven emaciated cows – and thanks to his talent to organize and prepare for a severe drought, which hits Egypt after seven really good years.
So whilst people in Egypt are taken care of – thanks to Joseph – the rest of the region suffers a famine – among them Jacob and his extended family in Canaan. So Joseph’s brothers are sent to Egypt, to buy grain. And they have to deal with Joseph, who, of course, now looks totally different – he’s older and now wearing Egyptian fashions. They don’t recognize him – but he recognizes them. Wow, what a setup for just desserts! And now I fast forward, because there are still a couple of twists and turns in the story. To make it short: Joseph tests his brothers if they have changed. And they pass the test.
Eventually, we arrive at the scene of today’s lesson from the book of Genesis: the big showdown between Joseph and his brothers. He has their fate in his powerful hands. And something unexpected and shocking happens – there’s a twist: Joseph forgives them. And he reasons, ‘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.’
Jacob – Israel – and his house are preserved as it is God’s plan. But I still think it is quite amazing that Joseph is able to forgive his brothers and that he chooses to have mercy.
I think part of the reason why this is such a good story is this rather unexpected ending, this surprise element. For how many stories have we heard where there is a different ending, and sweet revenge is taken? There is a whole movie genre about that.
Mercy is not something that comes naturally to human beings. Forgiveness is hard. Even with those we love most – parents, spouses, children, friends – we may forgive them when they hurt us, but usually there is still a sting somewhere, a memory that just won’t go away, something that catches up with us, preferably during an argument. Forgive and forget? If only it was that easy!
Not only is it hard to forgive – but it is rather hard to be forgiven as well.
Let me tell you another story: back in Germany and back in the day, I had a high school sweetheart. He was very kind and a great guy, and I, the typical complicated and at times crazy teenage girl, sometimes took advantage of that. I definitely hurt him, and when we broke up, after more than five years together, I made sure to be hard on him. And that’s something I am not proud of, let me tell you.
About eight years after we split, I found him via the internet. I sent him an email, asking him for forgiveness for how I had treated him. And he was kind enough to write back: Yes, you hurt me. I forgive you.
Now something very interesting happened: I wasn’t happy with that response. It bugged me. And as I reflected on it, I figured out why: I had hoped for a response like, ‘Oh, don’t worry, it wasn’t so bad.’ Instead, I had to truly acknowledge my mistakes. I had to admit that I am not as nice and not as loving as I imagined myself to be. I had to get over this self-deceit. And that was tough. It took me a while to accept my high school sweetheart’s forgiveness. Today, I am grateful for it.
This taught me something about God’s mercy and forgiveness that 7 years of seminary training couldn’t do: that God’s mercy, God’s forgiveness are not a light-hearted absolution, ah, well, it’s not so bad, my dear child. God’s forgiveness is not a blank check for us to just continue in our errant ways and to make the same mistakes over and over again. If it was that easy, Christ would not have had to die on the cross.
As we seek forgiveness, we have to be honest with ourselves. As we seek true forgiveness, we need to be open to transformation. That’s what in church jargon we call repentance. And this is just as hard as to forgive, if not harder.
So as Jesus in today’s gospel lesson continues his sermon in the field, and talks about loving the enemy, blessing the one who means harm, and offering the other cheek, in short, as he talks about being merciful, just as the heavenly Father is merciful, he is not only challenging those who listen to him to take on the hard task of forgiving – consequently those who are at the receiving end of this mercy will be surprised and maybe even shocked – just as Joseph’s brothers were shocked by his mercy. Those who are at the receiving end of mercy are challenged as well – challenged to think about their ways, challenged to be honest with themselves, challenged to admit their mistakes, challenged to change their ways.
And so mercy is a two-edged sword. It cuts both ways.
But why is God so insistent on mercy? Well, God’s endgame is not a society where the wealthiest and most conniving and most powerful are at the top and the rest have to deal with the fact that they are at the bottom of the ladder of social Darwinism. God’s endgame is the kingdom of heaven, which is the total opposite: a realm where all live without any need, a realm where no one needs to hurt or harm anyone, a realm of eternal life to the fullest for all, a realm of shalom, God’s peace.
Without mercy and the hard work of extending and receiving forgiveness, the kingdom of God remains but a utopia, something that is too good to ever become true.
Brothers and sisters, we live in quite unforgiving times – and times, in which people don’t really want to be forgiven, in times when it’s all about self-justification and retribution, hash tag Twitter Wars. And I could go on and on about it, but that’s for another sermon.
God continues to challenge us: to be merciful in a world that mostly isn’t. To model humility and honesty with ourselves in a world that for the most part can’t acknowledge its mistakes. To show what it means to be merciful – and to graciously receive mercy. And we can do all that because we are at the receiving end of God’s mercy and can be confident that nothing can separate us from the love of God.
This post is also available in: German