Rev. William Bills
I need to begin by correcting a mistake which was pointed out to me by my wife, Julie. Julie is very smart. She is always right. And she has a master’s degree in Old Testament. Four weeks ago I told you that not only was Joseph the favorite of his father, Jacob, but I also told you that Joseph was the youngest. Joseph was the second to the youngest. Benjamin was the youngest son of Jacob. In Genesis 37.3 it says that Jacob loved Joseph because he was “the son of his old age.” In Genesis 44.20, Benjamin is described as “the child of his old age” so I got confused. In Genesis 35.24 “The sons of Rachael” are listed as Joseph and Benjamin, indicating that Joseph was born before Benjamin. I have been preaching for almost thirty years and Julie will also tell you that this isn’t my first mistake!
If you have read the story over the past few weeks you may have noticed that Benjamin is the youngest son. You would also know Joseph had played a game of cat and mouse with his brothers. This is not the first time they stood before the prime minister of Egypt. Up to this point they had not recognized Joseph as they were dealing with him.
The brothers of Joseph were sent by their father to buy grain in Egypt. Famine had overtaken the entire world but through the wisdom, discernment and authority of Joseph, Egypt was well prepared for the famine. So well prepared that Egypt could sell grain to the other nations of the world, preventing mass starvation.
Joseph initially spoke through an interpreter. He treated his brothers as strangers. He accused them of being foreign spies and had them put into prison for three days. That was pretty light treatment considering how they had mistreated Joseph. They now needed the brother they mistreated to be their savior.
Joseph had the power to manipulate the situation. After having them imprisoned he released them and sold them some grain. But because Benjamin was not with them, Joseph wanted Benjamin brought back to him. To insure that the brothers returned, Joseph kept Simeon, one of the brothers, in Egypt. Reuben, speaking to his brothers in their native tongue and unaware that Joseph understood every word, said that this was the pay back for what they had done to Joseph some fifteen years before. Reuben now had to go back and tell Jacob that they had lost another brother and that the prime minister of Egypt now wanted Benjamin as well. Thinking Joseph an Egyptian, Reuben had no idea Joseph was hearing his confession.
Joseph also had the money that the brothers had paid for the grain put back into their bags. When the brothers discovered this they thought it was punishment from God for having mistreated Joseph so many years ago. The brothers were afraid that they would be accused of stealing. While they didn’t know that the prime minister of Egypt was their brother, they did know he had the power to save them or enslave them.
Jacob, now grieving the loss of another son, Simeon, realized that his people needed more food. He told Rueben to take the brothers back to Egypt for more grain. They were to take more money to pay for this grain and give back the money that had also mysteriously appeared in their bags after they had paid Joseph for the grain the first time. Judah reminded his father that the prime minister of Egypt told them they would receive no more grain if Benjamin didn’t come with them. Joseph was faced with the prospect of losing a third son now, or letting his clan starve to death.
A similar scenario plays out once again. The brothers went to Joseph a second time. He treated them like strangers and spoke through an interpreter. After they had paid for the grain, Joseph had the money returned to their bags once again, unbeknownst to the brothers. He also had his personal silver cup put into Benjamin’s bag. After the brothers departed for Canaan, Joseph sent one of his servants to overtake them and inspect their bags. The steward found the money and the silver cup in Benjamin’s bags.
When the brothers were brought back before Joseph he told them that they could all go except for Benjamin. Benjamin was to be kept as a slave while the others returned to their father. On hearing that Judah stepped up and told Joseph that Jacob had already lost one son. Losing Benjamin would kill their father. Judah offered to remain as a slave Egypt in place of Benjamin. Judah, on behalf of all the brothers, finally admits that they have brought enough suffering upon their father with all that has happened because of their mistakes with Joseph years ago.
When he heard this, Joseph could no longer control himself. He sent all the Egyptians out. He alone remained in the room with his brothers. He began to address them in their own language. Overcome with emotion, he said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?”
Imagine first of all their surprise. Then imagine as that surprise turned quickly to fear. This is the one they hated. This is the brother they mistreated. This is Joseph whom they threw into the pit. This is Joseph whom they allowed to be sold as a slave. This is their brother who spent years in an Egyptian dungeon because of them. This is their brother, now prime minister over Egypt, holder of the power of life and death over them. They stand before Joseph, who now has the food that their people need to survive the famine.
When he said to them, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” they could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Imagine what must have gone through their minds when he said to them, “Come closer to me.” They did come closer. There was nowhere else to go. There was nowhere to run. They were at the mercy of their mistreated brother. Joseph now had the power to save them or to enslave them. Joseph could save their families from starvation or he could let them all die.
Joseph had been severely mistreated by his own brothers. Moses would later be severely mistreated by his own people. The prophets of Israel would be mistreated and rejected by the very ones they hoped to spare from suffering. Jesus was rejected and suffered at the hands of his own people. What’s the old saying? “We hurt the ones we love the most.”
Suffering servants are not limited to the Bible. Nobody should ever have to suffer, especially unjustly. When one is hurt it can be tempting to exact revenge. Especially if the opportunity to get even presents itself. Joseph was recognized by the Egyptian king as one who had become wise and discerning. The king recognized that the spirit of God was upon Joseph in a unique way. Now that Joseph was in the position to exact revenge, what would he do? Surely that was the question uppermost in the minds of his brothers as they stood before him.
Joseph said to them, “Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Joseph saw the hand of God in all his misfortune. He was in the position to save his brothers, to save their families, to save all of the people of Israel. He chose to interpret his suffering by saying, “It was not you who sent me here, but God.”
He was truly a wise, discerning and spirit-filled man! Would any of us have dealt so graciously with those who had treated us so unfairly?
When it comes to suffering, we cannot, I believe, prescribe a proper response for anyone but ourselves. I don’t think we should tell someone else how they should understand to their suffering.
Joseph saw God’s hand in all the mistreatment he had suffered. Joseph was at a point in his life where he could see it all in a positive light. Joseph chose to offer grace rather than inflict suffering and exact revenge.
The one who suffers has to interpret the experience. The one who suffers has to find the meaning in it. The one who undergoes the suffering has to understand God’s role in it. We cannot prescribe to another how they must respond to injustice. We may believe we know God’s will but we can’t make someone else see what we see or believe what we believe. Each person has to find the will of God in their own experience.
I once knew a married couple whose adult daughter was diagnosed with a life-threatening illness. She was put on many prayer lists all over the country. Both parents prayed for their daughter without ceasing right up until she died. The wife responded by saying often and publicly, “this was God’s will for us and our daughter.” Her husband responded often and publicly with, “This is not fair. God is not fair. Prayer doesn’t work and I am angry.” The wife repeatedly said to her husband, “Your faith is simply not strong enough. Accept God’s will.” She sincerely meant to be encouraging. But with each attempt at encouragement the grief, anger and disappointment of her husband increased. They had suffered the same loss with very different understandings of what it meant.
We should certainly support others when they are mistreated and suffer. But we cannot prescribe to them how they must respond to it, even if we are sure that we know how God would want them to respond. Each person has to come to grips with their own experience and each one has to choose the appropriate response.
Joseph and his brothers were in a life or death situation. He could exact his revenge. His response to his brothers would have broad implications for their father, their wives and their children. I wonder how many times Joseph had envisioned coming face to face with his brothers over the previous fifteen years. How many different scenarios had Joseph played out in his head over the past fifteen years? There he was, the second most powerful man in the world. He could do to his brothers anything he wanted. What would you do?
Joseph didn’t even ask for an apology. He offered his brothers grace. He didn’t kill them. He didn’t enslave them. He saw an opportunity to offer them salvation, a second chance at life; and he gave it to them. They had terribly mistreated him. He became their savior. Real grace is amazing.
Real grace is hard to give. The temptation to punish and the desire to get even when we have been treated unfairly can be overwhelming. It takes a very wise and discerning person to choose a graceful response. Often that response can only be offered with the help of God’s spirit.
Justice doesn’t always mean punishment or retribution. Justice can be obtained through the offer of grace and reconciliation. Sometimes it is most difficult to offer compassion to those who seem to have none themselves. But if a person was dying from starvation surely we would feed them. If someone is dying spiritually because they lack compassion, we should feed them compassion.
Imagine the surprise of Joseph’s brothers. The one they thought dead was now, remarkably, alive. But they are not immediately sure that his being alive is a good thing for them. Even up until chapter 50 they will wonder at their good fortune. They had treated their brother badly. What if Joseph decided to even the score?
Joseph, by imprisoning his brothers briefly, by having their money put back into their bags, by holding Simeon hostage, by placing his personal silver cup in Benjamin’s bag, proved repeatedly that he had the power to manipulate his brothers. Joseph held the power of life and death. In the end, he let that power go. He let go of any desire he had to get even. Joseph chose to offer grace and a second chance at life to his brothers.
Rather than punishing his brothers, Joseph allowed their guilt and fear to be resolved. He allowed the grief of his father, Jacob, to be resolved. Imagine Jacob’s joy on learning that after all those years Joseph was not dead. If Joseph had enslaved killed his brothers, what would have been resolved? The mistreated brother didn’t get even. He became his brothers’ savior.
Joseph made it look so easy. For him it was pretty clear-cut. The spirit of God was with him and he could see God at work in all his mistreatment. For me it isn’t always that easy so I won’t presume to tell you it should be easy for you to see God’s hand in suffering and injustice. I do try to heed Joseph’s advice to his brothers, though: “Don’t be angry, or distressed with yourselves for what has happened.”
Instead, we can try to see where God is at work in our misfortune. That might be hard to see, especially when we are suffering. It might not be possible to see it at first. But we will never see God at work in our lives, especially in our most troubling times, if the eyes of our hearts remain closed and we are unwilling to look for God.