October 13, 2013
“The End of the Joseph Story”
The Rev. Maren Sonstegard-Spray
15 Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
16 So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, 17 ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”
Joseph wept when they spoke to him. 18 Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” 19 But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? 20 Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.
21 So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
So often today we wonder why there aren’t any more miracles, at least not the big flashy kind that we read about in the Bible, the parting of the Red Sea, manna falling from heaven.
We don’t happen upon burning bushes anymore. Ancient rabbis tell the story of the burning bush a little differently – the bush had been alight for a while, passed over by people who failed to notice the miracle. It was Moses who paid attention and saw something holy happening and took of his shoes.
Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning has wonderful words to describe just this sort of thing:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries
It is possible that miracles surround us and happen to us and through us but we just haven’t paid attention. A miracle is a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature.
So could we say that when something is broken beyond what seems like earthly repair, it is miraculous when it is put back together.
Could we say that when a wound that never heals finally scars over, that is a miracle? That is what forgiveness is.
Lewis Smedes in his book “The Art of Forgiving,” has a chapter called “the case against forgiving.” He writes that some critics of forgiveness say that forgiveness goes against nature, specifically human nature. They say that our nature is to get even, “what is natural to human beings is to pin the abusers of the world to the floor and make them pay. Pain for pain. Getting even is natural. Forgiving is unnatural.” There you have it, a perceptible interruption of the laws of nature.
The end of Joseph’s story is a miracle. Who would have thought that after decades these brothers would weep in each other’s arms? The story is not as clean and straightforward as I would like – but then again that’s not the color of our lives either.
There has already been a great reunion and forgiveness offered and accepted. But then Jacob dies and the brothers wonder if Joseph’s forgiveness was all for show and now he will exact his revenge born of a deep well-hidden hatred.
So they come up with an approach. The wording here is a little tricky – literally the text says that the brothers “commanded” Joseph to consider the request from their father to forgive them. The NRSV uses the word “approached” – they approached Joseph with the request. What some scholars think is that a word got lost – that the brothers commanded a messenger to speak for them. The NIV says “they sent word to Joseph.”
Any way you slice it, it is a backhanded approach to say, your father told us before he died that he really wanted you to forgive us, now please forgive the crime of your servants.
One commentator writes, “We see in these layers of indirection the fear that prevents ten brothers from coming face to face with their crimes and face to face with the one brother they have wronged. Their appeal for forgiveness is awkward and complicated. They do not fully own their confession.” They do not say, “Forgive our crime.”
Two things are really interesting here.
First, forgiveness had already happened – and this interaction points to an important truth about forgiveness, that sometimes it needs to happen more than once.
We are relieved of the burden of feeling like failures if we can’t seem to let go of things after one solid shot at forgiveness. There is a conversation between Jesus and his friend Peter about how many times to forgive someone? Peter says, “Let’s pick a number – say seven. Should I forgive him seven times?” and Jesus answers, “Not only seven times, but seventy times seven.”
That answer is not so simple for someone living in a situation of ongoing abuse, but perhaps that is not the time for forgiveness, and Lewis Smedes writes, “The question is never how many times we are supposed to forgive, but how many times we need to forgive. Forgiving is a gift, not a duty. It is meant to heal, not to obligate. So the only good answer to Peter’s question is: Use the gift as often as it takes to set you free from a miserable past you cannot shake.”
Second, even though Joseph had already forgiven them long before, it is the brothers who are still suffocating under guilt. We probably should feel more sympathy for Joseph who was the one almost murdered, sold into slavery, and wrongfully imprisoned.
But it is the brothers’ pain that we see here the most – and it makes Joseph weep. The brothers’ guilt has turned into fear of retaliation. And who wouldn’t be afraid in their shoes?
Lewis Smedes writes, “One of God’s better jokes on us was to give us the power to remember the past and leave us no power to undo it. We have all sometimes been willing to trade almost anything for a magic sponge to wipe just a few moments off the tables of time . . .If we could only choose to forget the cruelest moments, we could, as time goes on, free ourselves from their pain. But the wrong sticks like a nettle in our memory . . . the remedy has existed since the first wrong done one human being by another. Yet, people still punish themselves with the pains of a past long gone. Or punish others in a futile passion to get revenge. Tribes slaughter tribes, ethnic groups assault other ethnic groups, and gangs shoot up other gangs. Couples break their marriages and divide their families into weeping pieces . . . “ And why? “The total answer lies buried somewhere in our primitive need to protect our pride, in our trembling fear of feeling weak, and in our moral instincts for justice, all mingled together as a raw passion to see he who wounded us wounded in equal measure.”
Lewis Smedes tells the story of Jennifer Klein who was the kind of person you could always count on if you were in trouble. So when Archie, her husband of twelve childless years, came home with the story of a poor kid named Lennie who had been kicked out of her house by her parents, Jennifer responded, “we’ve got an extra room, maybe we can do her some good. Why don’t you bring her here?” Lennie was seventeen, mousy and weepy, and irritable and Jennifer was sure that they were really helping her. Two months after she moved in Jennifer strained a muscle at the gym and came home a half hour earlier than she said she would, and found Archie and Lennie together in a compromising position. And Jennifer felt like she had been mugged inside her soul. And she wasted no time finding herself an apartment and left Archie the next day. Two years later, her spirit is still aching and wracked by pain. She still has a hankering to kill the two of them. She says that she hates that man so much it’s killing me. And she doesn’t want to forgive.
Lewis Smedes shares there are these fundamental steps to forgiveness – the first is rediscovering the humanity of the person who hurt us, meaning that we come to see them as a person who is faulty, and bruised and human, like us.
The second is that we surrender our right to get even. After we are hurt, we want the person who hurt us to suffer, and we want them to know they are suffering only because of what they did to us. This is what Joseph’s brothers were desperately afraid of. Smedes is careful to point out that letting go of our right to vengeance is not the same as giving up on justice. Human forgiveness does not do away with human justice, or divine justice. But here is what Smedes says is the crucial difference, why it is so important to let go of the need for vengeance – sometimes we get pretty close to justice, but “we never bring closure to vengeance, because in the exchange of pain the accounts are never balanced . . . When I am on the receiving end, the you cause me always feels worse than the pain I cause you. When I am on the giving end, the pain I cause you never feels as bad to me as the pain you cause me.” This is why family feuds go on for generations. The third step of forgiveness is that we revise our feelings – we just feel differently.
There was a great interview this week on the John Stewart show with Malala Yousafzai, the now sixteen year old girl, who when she was fourteen was almost assassinated by the Taliban for speaking out for women’s education. And she talks about how she had thought about what she would do when the Taliban came for her because they had been making threats. And she says at first she thought she would take off her shoe and hit them, but then she thought that an act of cruelty would make her no different from the Taliban, so she would tell them how she wanted education even for their children, and then she would say, “Now do what you want.” These are her thoughts after having been shot in the head by the Taliban. Her story paints for us a picture of forgiveness.
As Joseph’s brothers came to him, he saw them as people who were afraid (and he says to them, “Don’t be afraid.”), and he sees them as people burdened by years of guilt. And they bow down before him and say, “we are here as your slaves.”
The dreams came true, but not at all in the way we thought they would. Remember back to the beginning of Joseph’s story, he has these dreams that his brothers would all bow down before him. Everybody thought, including us probably, that those dreams were about power and success. Who would have thought decades later, those dreams were about forgiveness, about righting a wrong, and binding a family back together?
There is one more gift that forgiveness offers – and that is the chance to see the past differently. From his chapter against forgiveness, Lewis Smedes shares this argument: “Forgiving makes believe it did not really happen. Let a Nazi storm trooper shoot innocent Jews. Let a bully beat his wife. Let a mother abandon her children. Let a friend betray a friend. We will sweep it under the magic carpet called forgiving and pretend it never happened.”
Forgiveness is not forgetting, instead it helps us to see the past differently – which is what it does for Joseph and it is how he tries to help heal his brothers’ guilt. He says to them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
Miroslav Volf is a theologian famous for his book, “Exclusion and Embrace,” which deals with the challenges of reconciliation in contexts of persisting enmity in which no clear line can be drawn between victims and perpetrators and in which today’s victims become tomorrow’s perpetrators.
He writes, “You see, it is important not only that we remember, but how we remember – with love or hate, seeking reconciliation or going after revenge.” Joseph invites his brothers to remember the past through the lens of God’s goodness, rather than through the lens of their hatred.
The Hebrew verb translated “forgive” coveys an action, to take up or lift up, which is what the brothers are asking – to have their guilt lifted and taken away. Interestingly Joseph doesn’t say, “I forgive you,” or “you are forgiven” which would make this a nice clean ending – but this is what he does, he tries to lift their guilt by helping them to see their guilt as God sees it – they wanted to do evil, but God pursued goodness. Joseph says, “Do not be afraid.” Fear has been a poison in this family all along.
What does any of this mean for us today? I hope it means that the Holy Spirit is speaking in some way to you through this story (I hope that happens every time you encounter God’s word) in ways that surprise you and convict you – perhaps to ask for forgiveness, and try again at forgiving another person. We walk sightless among miracles and here is our chance to see miracles in our own lives.