We often romanticize the Joseph story. We know the ending, so the shock and the horror of a family being estranged for decades are often glossed over. We move too quickly to resolution. We don’t sit with the story long enough to wrestle with the complexity of reconciliation. Anyone who has ever been estranged from a family member can imagine the shock and the pain Joseph must have felt when he realized that it was his brothers who had sold him into slavery who were standing before him, begging for food. In Genesis 45, our text for today, the story comes to its climax, as Joseph erupts into weeping for he cannot contain his emotion any longer. We’ve gone straight from Joseph being sold into slavery to him offering a word of pardon to his brothers, but so much has happened to bring him to this point. The story of his reconciliation to his brothers reaches back well before this story and even beyond it. Reconciliation requires more than one declaration of forgiveness. Reconciliation is complicated.
Last week, we heard the story of Joseph being sold to some Midianite traders, who then sold him to the Egyptians. We read the beginning of Genesis 39 where we learned that God stayed with Joseph, made him successful in the house of his Egyptian master, and took care of him when his whole life fell apart. Joseph has lived quite an interesting life in the house of Potiphar. He’s been thrown into jail after refusing advances from Potiphar’s wife. He has been called from prison to interpret Pharaoh’s disturbing dream that turned out to be about the famine that was to come in the land. After presenting Pharaoh with dream interpretation and a brilliant plan as to how to handle the famine, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of his house, and he became the second-in-command over all of Egypt. Seven years of plenty and seven years of famine came, just as Joseph had said. During the years of famine, people from all over the world came to Joseph in Egypt to buy grain as he had wisely built up Pharaoh’s storehouses to prepare for this natural disaster. One day the people who arrived on Joseph’s doorstep to buy grain were a group of ten brothers from the land of Canaan, a group of brothers who said their youngest brother was not with them and that they had another brother who was no more.
Joseph did not immediately reveal himself to his brothers. We can imagine the great pain and anxiety that filled his body when he realized it was his brothers bowing down before him to request grain. His dream from long ago has now come true. He decides to learn more about the kind of people they’ve become. Through a series of deception and trickery, he attempts to learn more about their character. At some point, you are left wondering if he is ever going to reveal himself at all. He tells them that he will test them, that they will not leave the land of Egypt unless they bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to Joseph. He overhears them telling one another that they are at last paying the penalty for what they did to their brother Joseph. Since he spoke to them through a translator, they do not realize he can understand them. He hears Reuben tell them that this is a reckoning for Joseph’s blood. Joseph picks Simeon to be detained, and then sends them on their way. Jacob is outraged when they tell him that they are to bring Benjamin to the Egyptian leader.
After much argument, Jacob finally complies and sends Benjamin with them. When they arrive back in Egypt, Joseph brings them into his house for a meal. When Joseph sees Benjamin with his own eyes, he steps out of the room to weep. He comes back in and seats the brothers in the order of firstborn to youngest and gives Benjamin five times the amount of food as anyone else! The brothers look at one another in amazement. How did he know their birth order? But they still have no clue that they are being deceived by their brother! Joseph sends them away again, but this time as they go to leave, he has servants frame Benjamin as a thief in order to detain him. The brothers tear their clothes in mourning for now they believe that they have truly lost their youngest brother, and they know their father will be devastated.
Judah pleads with Joseph, telling him that he will take Benjamin’s place as prisoner. Judah tells Joseph that his father Jacob cannot bear to lose his son Benjamin. He says, “When I go to my father and the boy is not with us, then, as his life is bound up in the boy’s life, when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die. Please let me remain as a slave to my lord in place of the boy and let the boy go back with his brothers. For how can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? I fear to see the suffering that would come upon my father.” (44:26-34) This is the same man who came up with the plan to sell Joseph into slavery. After he and his brothers had decided to rid themselves of Joseph the dreamer, he decided that instead of actually taking his blood, they should sell him for profit. And yet he isn’t the same man anymore. He has lived in the pain of the wrong he had done, and now here he is pleading for his brother, Benjamin’s life, pleading to take his place, pleading to keep his father from any further pain. It is after Judah pleads with Joseph that Joseph decides to reveal himself to his brothers. Perhaps, he now realizes that they have changed, that they too have experienced great pain because of their estrangement. He cannot take it anymore; he is overwhelmed with emotion, so he sends everyone away so he can be alone with his brothers.
The brothers must have been taken aback. This man who is accusing Benjamin of stealing and is threatening to harbor him as a prisoner sends all his servants away and starts weeping so loudly that the entire household can hear him! He then says to them, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” All of his brothers are so shocked that they are rendered speechless. They are stunned. They are frightened. He tells them to come closer. He says what everyone is thinking, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.” But he immediately also tells them not to be distressed or angry with themselves because God has worked through all of this to preserve life, to preserve of remnant of the people God has chosen, to keep alive many survivors of the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Joseph has probably come to this revelation in the midst of his testing them. He is looking back at all that has happened and is realizing for the first time that God has worked in and through and in spite of this horrible family mess. God has used it for good.
Notice that Joseph’s reconciliation to his brothers includes acts of provision. He will demonstrate his forgiveness by providing for them. He will use his political power and authority to take care of his brothers. He will take advantage of his position in Pharaoh’s house; he will use his role as the lord and father of Pharaoh to take care of God’s children. He tells them to go and get their father and bring him immediately and that he will take care of them, their children, their flocks, their herds, all that they have. They will survive five more years of famine to come because Joseph will keep them from poverty. After he gives this word of blessing, promise, provision, after he speaks the gift of reconciliation, he weeps upon the neck of the only other son of his mother, Benjamin, and Benjamin weeps too. He then kisses all of his bothers and weeps, and the brothers talk with him.
You can sense the deep pain and regret and sadness in their encounter. The decades of living without one another flash through their minds – the long years that they can’t get back, the devastating pain this has all caused their father, the damage that has been done among brothers. This moment where Joseph reveals himself allows the wounds to break open. This proclamation of Joseph to forgive and to reconcile begins their journey of healing. As the story of Genesis continues on, we realize that the brothers haven’t completely let go of their fear of Joseph, that they aren’t sure if he will ultimately lord it over them for all the wrong they’ve done. They do bring their father to Egypt and settle in the land of Goshen, and Jacob lives there for seventeen years. But after burying Jacob in the land of Canaan, Joseph’s ten brothers begin to wonder if Joseph still holds a grudge against them. It’s a fair question. Family dynamics between siblings often change after the death of a parent. So they decide to approach Joseph to formally ask him to forgive them for the harm they did to him by selling him into slavery. They declare that they are now his slaves. But Joseph tells them not to fear, that he is not God, that he is not their judge, and that God has used what they did to harm him for good. He declares that he will continue to provide for them and their children, as God has preserved the people of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob through him. For seventeen years they have continued on the path of their healing and reconciliation, and it seems that only at this point, seventeen years after their very first conversation, forgiveness has been both proclaimed and accepted. Reconciliation has finally occurred.
Reconciliation takes time. It demands wrestling, confession, honest reflection upon one’s role in causing hurt. Those who have been harmed need time to see whether or not the person who has harmed them has truly changed. Those who have caused hurt have to change their behavior, their actions. Forgiving someone for their wrongs doesn’t mean you pretend like it never happened. Desmond Tutu says, “Forgiving is not forgetting; it’s actually remembering – remembering and not using your right to hit back. It’s a second chance for a new beginning. And the remembering part is particularly important. Especially if you don’t want to repeat what happened.” You cannot participate in forgiveness by only saying, “Let’s agree to disagree. Let’s forget about what happened and move on. Let’s don’t talk about that anymore.” Tutu says, “True reconciliation exposes the awfulness, the abuse, the hurt, the truth. It could even sometimes make things worse. It is a risky undertaking but in the end it is worthwhile, because in the end only an honest confrontation with reality can bring real healing. Superficial reconciliation can bring only superficial healing.” Sometimes when we read the Joseph story, we think it’s a story of quick forgiveness, superficial reconciliation, but it’s actually a long, complex story of wrestling, testing, fear, and weeping. And only after seventeen long years of being together are the actual words of forgiveness spoken; only after seventeen long years are the brothers able to give up their fear of Joseph acting out in revenge; only after seventeen long years of Joseph providing for them do they believe he meant what he said about taking care of them despite the harm they caused.
In what ways do we try to move toward superficial reconciliation in our families, in our relationships, in our church, and in our world? When we aren’t the ones wronged, we are tempted to try to move too quickly towards resolution without wrestling with the pain. We try to gloss over what’s happened because we don’t want to deal with our own discomfort. Dr. Chenjerai Kumanyika, a black man and a Clemson University professor, traveled to Charleston after the shooting at Emmanuel AME Church. Just two days after the shooting, he gathered with other folks for a city-sponsored vigil on the campus of the College of Charleston. A pastor prayed and then asked those gathered to join hands and sing, “We Shall Overcome.” Kumanyika describes the woman who was standing beside him as a kind-looking white woman with a small white rose pinned to her t-shirt, who offered him a sad smile and a gentle nod, before lifting her hand towards his. He froze, and for thirty seconds he couldn’t move. He knew he didn’t want to hold her hand because she was white. He heard a mentor in his head saying, “Seriously, Chenjerai?! You're gonna do this now? Get over yourself and your racial baggage and support this community. You will hold this white woman's hand. Now!”
He further describes what happened: “My arm didn't move. I had no doubt that this woman was at the vigil because she cared and wanted to help. And, just like me, I'm sure she was hurting that night. As a college professor and activist on diversity issues, no one needs to convince me that there are genuine, engaged, committed white people in this fight. I fully believe we all need healing in these moments, and that night, the symbolism was clear: a white person and a black person holding hands in the face of horrific racial violence, singing songs of freedom. What could be more comforting?” But he goes on to talk about the conversations he had with black men and women on the streets of Charleston earlier that day. He starts to wonder what he can actually offer them because he knows he can’t offer them comfort. He says, “I can't promise them that things will change, that their sons and daughters will make it to happy, healthy adulthoods, that one day they won't have to work in brutal heat for insultingly low pay or that a police officer or angry young white man won't snuff out their happiness in a single instant. I could offer them a hand, too, but I can't offer real comfort.” So a few moments after taking his neighbors hand, he let it go again. He confesses, “That didn't feel good, but maybe we're not all supposed to feel good right now. Not yet.”[i] It had only been two days. How could there be forgiveness? How could there be comfort? Sure, holding hands was stepping into the promise of what was to come, but he was overwhelmed by the fact that holding hands at the vigil that night only felt like superficial reconciliation. It was going to take a lot more time, a lot more wrestling, a lot more conversation before true reconciliation could occur.
It’s a hard story to hear, because it’s only the beginning of the story. But it’s also the beginning of hope. It’s the part where everything starts to break open. It makes us uncomfortable because we don’t want to sit and hear from those who are hurting, particularly when it comes to issues of race. We get offended all too easily and say things like, “Can’t we all just get along and move on?” We think that if we personally haven’t intentionally caused harm, there’s nothing to talk about. But we have to be willing to live in the middle of the story. We can’t just move from recognition that there is a deep systemic problem to wholeness and resolution. We have to wrestle, to struggle with working it all out. And if we can sit with deep pain and hurt, if we can listen, even when it makes us terribly uncomfortable, God can enter into our brokenness, God can bring new life and provision, God can begin the work of reconciliation among us. We can become a part of God’s great work of taking what was intended as harm and using it for good.
If there’s anything that the story of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the book of Genesis teaches us, it’s that God is in it with us for the long-haul. The God who created us and brought us into being chose to enter into relationship with Abraham, to make his descendants as numerous as the stars, to show all the world God’s love through him. This God keeps promises, promises that we can’t even begin to believe are possible because they are beyond our imagination. This God sees us when we veer off track, when we stop trusting in God, when others treat us as disposable, when we treat others as disposable. This God provides for us when we can’t see a way into the future. This God favors the weaker, the younger, the vulnerable, the poor, the orphan, the widow, the ones who have been treated as lesser than because of their race or class or gender or sexuality. This God wrestles with us through our weakness, humbling us, bringing us face to face with God. This God stays with us when our whole world falls apart, when the people who love us don’t even know we are alive, when our whole lives change course and become unrecognizable. This God works to reconcile us to one another even when we’ve done immense harm, and this God works in and through and in spite of the hurt we cause to one another.
The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God of Jesus. After denying and betraying and abandoning Jesus, the disciples were faced with the resurrected Jesus in their midst. I can imagine that they felt a lot like Joseph’s brothers, overwhelmed with fear and regret and disbelief that this one whom they loved and then betrayed just before his death was actually alive. Jesus too, like Joseph, spoke words of peace. He said, “Peace be with you.” Because of those words of peace Jesus spoke to the disciples and to us, we are forever reconciled to God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and invited into the work of reconciliation among the people of God. We are invited into doing the work that needs to be done for the long-haul. We are invited to labor alongside Christ in birthing the kingdom of God – the kingdom that has dreams we think impossible, the kingdom that keeps promises beyond our imagination, the kingdom that favors the younger, the kingdom where the first shall be last and the last shall be first, the kingdom that brings about reconciliation for all of God’s children.