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  • Writer's pictureRev. Izzy Harbin

Genesis 45:1-15 - Joseph and Forgiveness

45 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So, no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11 I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12 And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13 You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14 Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

What a tale of woe. The story of Joseph is meant to inspire sympathy and maybe empathy for the teenaged brat whom we know as Joseph. Early in this story, we get to know the character of Joseph as one who is arrogant and petulant. We see his brothers tire of his antics, especially that of tattling to their father about their behavior when they are not in the father’s sight. This story has all the makings of a classic Hallmark movie, except you’ll never see brothers conspire to kill their brother or sell them into slavery on the Hallmark channel.

We know the story well. One of Joseph’s brothers figures out a way to spare Joseph’s life by selling him to a caravan headed to Egypt. From there he was sold into slavery. The Pharaoh of Egypt, Potiphar, ends up utilizing Joseph’s divination skills which save many Egyptian lives. Joseph interprets dreams for Potiphar, helps him to see the famine the is coming and helps the Pharaoh prepare for this devastating event. As a result of Joseph’s predictions, Egypt is fairing well during the famine.

When Joseph’s brother come to Egypt to receive food assistance, Joseph’s first response is normal. Like any one of us, he was angry. He even tried to manipulate the situation so that he could exact revenge, but then spared them in the end.

Our passage today finds us with one of our last encounters between Joseph and his brothers. This is the moment of the great reveal. Up until now, the brothers did not recognize Joseph. It wasn’t until the moment he told them who he was that they realized Joseph had been taking care of them all along. Not only did they acknowledge Joseph’s role in saving their lives, but they realized his childhood dreams had come true; he indeed ruled over them, in a manner of speaking.

What happens next, though, is nothing short of a miracle.

Joseph had every right to be angry. He could have easily had all his brothers put to death or thrown in jail. He had power and position in a country that was equipped to do just about anything to maintain order during a wide-spread famine. Joseph didn’t need permission, just will. Yet, Joseph decided, for some reason, not to take that route. Instead, he felt pity for them; pity that then turned into genuine empathy.

Anytime I am struggling with feelings of anger and resentment, especially for things that have happened to me in the past, the story of Joseph is my go-to story. First, I need to know that it is possible to forgive others for the stupid stuff they do. Second, I need to know that I can let all of that stuff go for the sake of my own soul. And third, I need to know that in some cases restoration or reconciliation is actually possible.

Before I go any further, I need to make something clear. There are times when we are hurt by others, absolutely no fault of our own (you can imagine the kinds of things that are going through my mind), where restoration and reconciliation is neither possible nor a healthy option. There are, however, still ways to find forgiveness—not so much for their sake, but for my own.

The devastating fact of holding-on to past hurts is that the holding-on process keeps us tethered to the past in unhealthy ways. We get caught in the crosshairs between wanting justice and needing to forgive. Growing up I was taught that when someone does something wrong, then they must pay the price for their indiscretion. Lying could land you in the bathroom getting your mouth washed out with soap. Not coming home on time might result in being grounded for a month. Sassing or talking back to a parent might be switch worthy—and if you try to run from the sting, you’re only setting yourself up for more “licks”. If we were paddled at school, we could expect a paddling when we got home. And, in our minds, although we didn’t like the consequences of our behavior, we could clearly make the connection between cause and effect. You break the rules, you pay the price.

The price we pay is what we would typically call justice. In order for justice to be fair, all parties involved must be punished equally. Well, if you were raised in a family with more than one child, you know that justice is rarely fair. Younger siblings rarely have to follow the same rules as older siblings and are never punished as severely as the older kids. We’re even told to our faces that its because of their age. And yet, they were old enough to do the deed.

But what about those who do things that intentionally hurt others, like Joseph’s brothers conspiring to sell Joseph into slavery and lying about it to their father? Where is the justice in this scenario?

What Joseph recognizes is that whatever consequences he could impose on his brothers would not make him feel any better about his circumstances. In fact, Joseph completely flips the script by not seeking justice. Rather boldly, Joseph chooses the path of forgiveness. Joseph has this epiphany moment that we all need to be cognizant of; justice can look a lot like revenge, and revenge only creates greater dissonance. When Joseph makes the decision to forgive his brothers, he is choosing the wholeness of his own heart over the fracturing of their previous relationship.

In many ways, what Joseph offers us is a radical idea steeped in love and hospitality. There are times when I don’t want to offer either of these, especially to those who have hurt me in the past. But here’s the thing, if I don’t offer these things, the only person that is affected by all of this is me. In most cases, the ones who hurt me are long gone. I’m the only one carrying the hurt. I’m the one who needs to figure out how to let go of the hurt. I must, yes MUST, replace resentment and anger with love and forgiveness. Then and only then will I truly be free.

What keeps me churning in my soul is my unwillingness to set all that stuff free. Most of the stuff that I hold on to I cannot change. I cannot fix yesterday. It is done and gone. I am never going to get an apology, or even a jail sentence, but what I can get is my own freedom. I can be completely set free from my past by learning to forgive. No matter how big or how small the infraction, no matter how devastating or benign the trauma, I can still learn to forgive. And just like Joseph, it doesn’t happen overnight, but over time. Joseph went through a process after seeing his brothers again for the first time. Still, he refused to let hatred get in the way of his relationship with his family.

In this case, Joseph was no longer afraid of being hurt by his brothers. He wasn’t in any physical danger any more. In fact, Joseph clearly had the upper hand. Safety is important and was the catalyst for his forgiveness. While every situation is unique, God is not calling us to put ourselves in harms way, but rather to forgive when and as often as we can. Those whom you are forgiving may never even know that you have forgiven them. As stated before, forgiveness is what sets our own souls free. What we do notice, though, when we start practicing forgiveness of others, we can see more clearly the need to also seek forgiveness for the crummy things we’ve done to other people.

Phillip Gulley, in his book If Grace is True, says, “I do not know what heaven will be like, but I can imagine at the great banquet that I’ll be seated between Grace Received and Grace Required—the person that hurt me the most and the person I hurt the most—and I’ll know what real grace is in that moment.”

My prayer is that we can all be a little more like Joseph; setting our souls free from all that binds us to yesterday, so that we may walk into tomorrow fully alive to ourselves and others.

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