Lectionary 24 A
September 14, 2014
Because we have been forgiven – because we have been wrapped in the arms of God’s love and filled with unexpected blessings, we, for our part must also forgive – as we say in our pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Joseph was Jacob’s favorite son. There were ten older brothers, but they never quite won Jacob’s heart in the way that Joseph did. And the reason goes back to their mothers (as in mothers plural)—because we are dealing here with a time when it was a normal practice for a man to have as many wives as he could afford. Jacob had two wives—Leah and Rachel. They were sisters, daughters of Jacob’s uncle Laban. Jacob fell in love with Rachel when he met her watering sheep at a well, but because she was his younger daughter, Laban exchanged Leah for Rachel at the wedding, leaving Jacob married to the sister of the woman he loved. But once the older sister was married, Laban agreed to let Jacob marry Rachel as well.
Then came the children. Leah was not the wife that Jacob loved, but she was the one who was able to conceive and bear his children—Reuben, Simeon, Levi and Judah—to begin with. Rachel did not conceive; and she was jealous of her sister—as you can imagine might be the case in that kind of marriage. Now, the sisters each had a handmaid as a slave, and Rachel, to claim children for herself, gave her handmaid Bilhah to her husband and she bore two sons for Jacob—Dan and Naphtali. Not to be outdone by her sister, Leah gave Jacob her handmaid Zilpah, who also bore two sons for Jacob—Gad and Asher. Then Leah conceived again and she bore more of Jacob’s children—Issachar and Zebulun, and finally a daughter Dinah. Then, after the other women who shared Jacob’s bed had given birth to eleven of Jacob’s children, Rachel—Jacob’s beloved—finally conceived and gave birth to a son—Joseph. Rachel was also the mother of the last of Jacob’s children, Benjamin, but in giving birth to this last child, Rachel died.
So Joseph, the eldest of Rachel’s children, was Jacob’s favorite—and should that come as a surprise. Choosing favorites sort of ran in the family. Jacob had been his mother’s favorite, and his brother Esau was his father’s favorite. Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, had chosen between his sons, Isaac and Ishmael, and Ishmael had been sent away to make a life for himself as best he could.
As a teenager, Joseph would sometimes help his brothers with the sheep, and when he came home he liked to tell his father how badly they did things. Then Jacob gave Joseph a beautiful robe of many colors. Soon after that, Joseph started telling his brothers about his dreams. “We were binding grain into sheaves in the field, and all your sheaves of grain bowed down to mine” he told them. Then he told another dream, “The sun, the moon, and eleven stars all bowed down to me.” And all the while, e can imagine, he was dancing around in that beautiful many-colored robe, just to remind his brothers that “daddy loves me more than all the rest of you put together.” And so, is it any wonder that his brothers hated him? Not exactly what you would call a healthy family system.
And you know how the story goes. The brothers gang up on Joseph one day when he far from his father’s protection. First they throw him in an empty well, planning to leave him there to die, and then they change their minds and sell him to some passing Midianite traders who take him to Egypt where he sold into slavery. The brothers take the coat, stain it with goat’s blood, and bring it back to their father, convincing him that Joseph must have been killed by a wild animal.
Joseph’s fortunes in Egypt take several turns. First he is a slave, but gets promoted. Then he is accused of sexual misconduct with his master’s wife and thrown into prison. As a prisoner he gets a reputation as someone who can interprets dreams, which eventually gets the attention of Pharaoh. After interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams, he gets a top administrative position in change of gathering and distributing food. Famine hits the whole region, so that Joseph’s brothers come, bowing down to him as they ask for grain from Egypt. And what should Joseph do with these brothers who hated him so much? They do not recognize him; but he knows them, and so he accuses them of being spies and throws one of them in jail until they can prove their story by bringing their little brother Benjamin to Egypt when they come again. And when they do bring Benjamin to Egypt, Joseph plants evidence to accuse Benjamin of being a thief. It is test, because Joseph knows that Benjamin will have inherited his role as his father’s favorite son, and he wants to know if these brothers will treat Benjamin as badly as they treated him. But the brothers have changed. They have lived with the grief of their father and the guilt of their own hatred, and they plead with Joseph to take any one of them, but to let Benjamin return to his father. And that is when Joseph reveals himself to his brothers, forgives them, and welcomes them to come and live with him in Egypt.
Joseph recognizes that out of all the evil that we do to one another, God always opens up possibilities that can transform evil into good. And in the story of Joseph, there is more than enough evil and blame to go around. All are guilty; all have sinned against one another; generations of parents choosing favorites among their children; jealousy within family systems; Joseph, full of pride and dreams of glory over his brothers; and the brothers, nursing their envy and turning it into hatred and violence. Yes, all have sinned; all have done what is evil. All deserve to be punished for their sins.
And when Jacob dies, the brothers come to Joseph and ask for his forgiveness. They believe that it is only because of their father that he has not taken vengeance on them for what they did to him so many years before. But Joseph had long ago forgiven them. What was meant for evil—including Joseph’s own pride and his brother’s hatred—God transformed into something good. God does not plan the evil. We are in deep trouble if we pray to a god who orchestrates terrible events in this world in order to bring about good. The evil that is done in this world happens because God allows us the freedom to make bad choices. But out of our bad choices, God always opens up the possibility of good coming out of the evil we do.
Joseph finally figured that out, and so he could let go of the evil his brothers had done to him. The cycles of “getting even”—an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth—always spiral out of control, and we hang on to grudges and resentments and anger; and they control us and shape the terrible future we make for ourselves and others—and it is not good for anyone. But letting go and forgiving, opens up the possibilities for a different future—a future that God imagines for us growing out of the troubles we have created for ourselves. That is the gift God gives when we learn to let go and to forgive one another from our hearts. AMEN.