Preceding the readings this week, the following "Previously On" the Saga of Joseph, recap was offered (including some guiding illustrations)... You can skip to the non-italicised text, below the photos, to just read the sermon.
Two weeks ago we saw how, in animosity born of their father’s favouritism, Joseph’s brothers conspired to kill him. Two of these brothers, Rueben and Judah, sought half-measures to save Joseph’s life, but they were unwilling to fully rebuke the others or put their own bodies on the line, and so Joseph was ripped from his household and homeland.
Last week we saw how Joseph had risen from slavery and imprisonment to become the second-most powerful person in Egypt and has been governing the empire so that they would make the most of their years of plenty in order to survive the coming years of famine.
Since then (and this is more than a little complicated, so let’s all take a deep breath and wish each other luck) the famine has spread through the lands, and now affects Jacob and his remaining sons. So Jacob sends 10 of his sons (the 10 who betrayed Joseph) to Egypt to procure some grain. Importantly, however, Jacob keeps Benjamin home (Benjamin, his youngest and – now that Joseph is gone – only son from Rachel). When the brothers arrive they come before Joseph (in his official capacity) and bow… however, they do not realise it is him, though he recognises them immediately.
Rather than reveal himself, Joseph remains incognito. He accuses the brothers of being foreign spies and declares that they shall all be imprisoned until one of them goes back home, retrieves their youngest brother (Benjamin) and brings him to Egypt. The brothers protest, they know their father will not wish to part with Benjamin, so Joseph strikes a deal – nine of the brothers can be released and take a provision of grain home with them, yet one brother must remain in prison until Benjamin is brought to Egypt. Joseph also, unbeknownst to his brothers, has his servants return all the money they had spent on grain and places it in their bags.
The brothers agree but say to one another,
"‘Alas, we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother; we saw his anguish when he pleaded with us, but we would not listen. That is why this anguish has come upon us.’… They did not know that Joseph understood them, since he spoke with them through an interpreter. He turned away from them and wept."
So, 10 brothers have gone to Egypt, one is now in prison, and so 9 return to Canaan to retrieve the youngest brother and bring him back to Egypt so that the other brother (who they do not know is there brother) will allow all 11 to return home with enough grain to survive the famine… good so far?
As expected, Jacob does not want to let Benjamin go. He has lost too many sons, and cannot bear another. In an attempt to convince his father, Rueben says that should he fail to bring Benjamin home from Egypt Jacob may kill Rueben’s two sons. Jacob does not agree.
But the famine worsens and so Jacob instructs his sons to go again to Egypt, but they remind him, they cannot do so without Benjamin. This time, Judah seeks to convince their father: "Send the boy with me... I myself will be surety for him; you can hold me accountable for him. If I do not bring him back to you … then let me bear the blame for ever." Jacob relents, and sends his remaining sons into the land of Egypt.
When Joseph sees that they have returned with Benjamin he hosts his brothers for dinner. Joseph spends the night swinging between asking his brothers about their father, and running out of the room weeping. And yet, he still doesn’t reveal himself instead, he plays a further trick.
Once again Joseph has his servants secretly return his brothers money to their bags, but this time, he also has them plant his silver cup in Benjamin’s bag. He sends his brothers on the way with all their grain and riches, but then sends his soldiers to confront the brothers and “uncover” the “stolen” silver cup. The brothers are dragged before Joseph who declares that Benjamin must become his slave, whilst the rest are allowed to go free.
"Then Judah stepped up to him and said… if I come to my father and the boy is not with us… he will die… Now therefore, please let your servant 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."
And it is at this pivotal moment, with Judah ready to lay down his life for the sake of his younger brother, that our reading commences.
Readings Genesis 45:1-15 and John 21:1-14
Joseph seems determined to test the great human question: can people change?
At first, it seems not. Jacob still runs his house on favouritism, doing nothing to retrieve Simeon from prison, but holding his beloved Benjamin close to his home and heart. Reuben still attempts a half-measure to save his brother (offering not his own life as guarantee, but the life of his sons). It is only Judah who is now ready to offer his own life for Benjamin’s. It is this act by which Joseph is overwhelmed and undone, he weeps and reveals himself to his brothers. Whether or not everyone can change, Judah has. But also, I think, so has Joseph.
How easy it would have been for Joseph to spend these long years in Egypt hoping for a day when he could see his brothers get their comeuppance. He would not be the first nor last, for we all know the satisfaction of a story where the betrayers are brought low before the one once powerless, now powerful?
Joseph has the opportunity to enslave those who sold him into slavery, to cast out empty those who soaked his cloak in blood. The brothers, in a vindication of his earliest dream, bow before him. With the flick of his wrist, he could have his revenge, and yet he chooses to offer a second chance. In doing Joseph makes possible forgiveness, apology, reconciliation, and new beginnings. But also, in choosing forgiveness, Joseph demonstrates that he has managed to break free of the arrogance and insensitivity of his spoilt youth. For though the brothers bow before him he says nothing of the dreams which caused them such anger. Rather he embraces them as he weeps. Joseph no longer celebrates the visions of power and prestige brought on by his dreams, but rather gives thanks for his ability to preserve life.
Joseph, as we saw last week, has done the difficult though important work of discerning the movement of God in his life. Because of this we have seen his ability to rise to the occasion, foreground the needs of many, and offer gratitude for God’s faithfulness. This does not mean that he is without grief or longing. In the presence of his brothers Joseph is barely holding his emotions together – he longs for word of his father, longs to see restoration, longs for some sign of change. Judah gives him the sign that he too has changed, that he too has realised what he is called to do. The willingness of Joseph to let go of rightful grievance, and the willingness of Judah to break the cycle by which this whole horrid affair began, together transform the relationship, ushering in a new beginning.
As much as we love the satisfaction of poetic retribution, I think we appreciate all the more the beauty of second chances, because we know we all need them. Big or small, we make mistakes, and hurt others. At (almost) the end of this long book of Genesis, where we have seen so many stories of betrayal and mistreatment we are reminded that change and transformation are possible, forgiveness and reconciliation are possible, new beginnings are possible. Who we are is not determined by the worst thing we have done: we can break cycles, learn from the past, right wrongs and repair harm. None of this happens by accident, but this is the work that we, like Joseph, are called to do. For as satisfying as it would have been to watch Joseph get even, the kingdom of God works on an entirely different economics. In the kingdom debts are forgiven, captives set free, and the year of jubilee proclaimed. In the kingdom last and first receive their daily wage, those excluded are brought into feast, and there is as much rejoicing for the child who spoilt their inheritance as the one who stayed faithfully at their father’s side.
The enduring beauty of the stories of Jesus appearing to his disciples after his resurrection is found in the tender way he seeks out those who abandoned him in his hour of need. He comes to them and says, fear not, and, peace be with you. He invites them to touch his wounds and breaks bread with them at tables. He shows up at the shoreline, calls them children and feeds them by the campfire. And following this, Jesus takes a stroll with the one who not only abandoned but denied and says, feed my sheep. Jesus affirms the mutual love between Peter and himself. And with that love intact, Jesus reminds Peter that his denial does not define his worth or disqualify him from his commission.
All this points toward the great paradox of Christianity. There are absolutely zero hurdles we must overcome in order to receive a share in the divine life. There’s no test or trial to receive Christ’s grace, salvation, and love. And yet, the Christian life costs something. It makes demands. We are asked, after all, to take up our cross and follow Christ. This means, like Joseph, we are called to lay down the worldly wisdom of getting even. As those forgiven, we are called to forgive. As those reconciled, we are called to reconcile. Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, pray for our persecutors, and find greatness in service. To seek first the kingdom of God requires active choices that go against common sense and economics. None of this is easy, and we will need all those second chances. And I’ll always stress that the way we practice forgiveness and restoration needs to be worked out with pastoral sensitivity. But being a disciple looks foolish to the world, for being a disciple means embracing the wisdom of God revealed most fully in the cross of Christ. For it is here that we might learn the strength and compassion that Joseph required to forgive and restore his brothers, and lead them into life.
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