Rev. William Bills
As the story of Joseph draws to a close, Joseph declines to play God with his brothers. In not assuming the role of God, Joseph plays the role of God very well.
To briefly reprise the past four weeks, Joseph had earned the scorn of his older brothers. He was overly favored by his father, Jacob. He shared in little of the work his brothers had to do. He told his brothers and his father about dreams he had. They interpreted his dreams to mean that Joseph thought one day he would rule over his entire family. This made Joseph’s brothers so angry that they considered killing him. Instead, they allowed him to be sold into slavery in Egypt. There Joseph was a slave to a military officer. He also spent time in jail for a crime he didn’t commit. Joseph was released from jail because he proved valuable to the Egyptian king. He became the second most powerful man in Egypt. When famine overtook the world, Joseph was able to save his brothers and their families, along with his parents and all of Jacob’s descendants.
After being reconciled with his brothers, Joseph sent them back to Canaan so they could move their families to the safety of Egypt. Joseph and his father were reunited nearly twenty years after Jacob’s sons led him to believe Joseph was dead. Father and son enjoyed a tearful reunion shortly before Jacob died.
After Jacob died Joseph’s brothers became anxious again. They had sold Joseph into slavery. They allowed their parents to think Joseph was eaten by wild animals. Joseph suffered much at the hands of his older brothers. Now that their father was dead they feared that Joseph might finally retaliate. Though they had been previously reconciled, their guilt, and Joseph’s power, left them feeling anxious.
Twice they said to Joseph, “Dad said to forgive us for the crimes we committed against you and the harm we did to you.” There is no record of Jacob actually have said this, though. While he was alive, Jacob could command his sons to behave well toward one another. Once Jacob was dead, the brothers were free to act on their own. With their father dead, the older brothers probably felt exposed to the power Joseph wielded as prime minister of Egypt.
According to the text, there was a lot of crying and confessing going on. A lot had happened in this family. Family members had been genuinely hurt, especially Joseph. There had been years of estrangement, lying and secret keeping. Once again, the older brothers feared retribution from Joseph. Standing before their younger brother they were powerless. They could only appeal for mercy. They even offered to become Joseph’s slaves in Egypt.
Joseph had forgiven his brothers once already. He brought them to Egypt to save them from the famine. Their crimes against him still weighed heavily on the older brothers. They didn’t know if they could trust Joseph after Jacob died so they said to him, “Dad said you should forgive us for what we did to you.”
Even when one has been forgiven, guilt can hang around for some time. While the one we have harmed may release us from our guilt through the offer of forgiveness, our own knowledge of what we have done might leave us feeling exposed and anxious. It can be hard to depend on the grace of another. Two times in six verses we are told the brothers harmed Joseph. The words, “crime” and “wrong” are also used. Clearly, these brothers were guilty and their guilt drove them once again to fear Joseph. Joseph, though, continued to tell them that they need not fear him. Ironically, the earlier dreams Joseph had of his brothers bowing down before him came to fulfillment as they bowed before him to beg forgiveness. They were still afraid of Joseph. He continually tried to reassure them that they had nothing to fear.
If we know we have done something to harm another it can be hard to accept their forgiveness. Grace can be unbelievable. Grace can be hard to accept. Even when someone we have wronged deals with us graciously we may continue to be hard on ourselves. Someone else might choose to release us from guilt by offering forgiveness. We might choose to hang onto our responsibility for what we have done, continuing to feel guilty or anxious. While the person we harmed may forgive us, even if we are reassured that God has forgiven us, sometimes it is hard for us to forgive ourselves. I think it was hard for Joseph’s brothers to forgive themselves for all the harm they had done to him. It was hard for them to forgive themselves for the lies they told their family for so many years.
We all understand the importance of justice and fairness. When someone has done wrong we expect them to be held accountable. When one harms another we expect the scales to somehow be balanced. The brothers of Joseph understood this. That made it hard for them to understand that they could simply be forgiven by Joseph as a matter of his choosing.
Joseph said to his brothers, “Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God?” He understood that judgment, punishment, justice, all of those things belong to God.
The intense desire to pursue justice at all costs can lead sometimes to injustice. When one has suffered too much and then the tables are turned, the desire for justice can become little more than inflicting more suffering. Sometimes in the rush to even the score, the oppressed turn the tables and become the oppressors.
Joseph knew better than to assume the role of God in judging and punishing his brothers. Perhaps we would not judge him for taking revenge on his brothers. We might say we understand. But our opinion really doesn’t count. Joseph knew that it is God’s opinion that counts the most in such matters. So it was precisely in his refusal to play God with his brothers that Joseph exhibited the grace and mercy of God.
Joseph behaved toward his brothers the same way that God so often behaves toward us. Knowingly and unknowingly we commit wrongs against God and other people. Our wrongdoing might be small or great. Our wrongdoing might be intentional or unintentional. Sometimes we might not even be aware that we have grieved anyone, let alone God. God’s grace and mercy are sometimes even given to us without us even knowing that we need it.
Despite his position and his power, Joseph knew that he could not assume the role of God in dealing with his brothers. If they were to be judged, that would be God’s prerogative. If they were to be punished, that would be God’s doing, not Joseph’s. By not assuming the role of God with his brothers, Joseph was able to offer them grace. By not playing God with his brothers Joseph was able to care for his brothers and their families. By not playing God with his brothers, Joseph demonstrated how the grace of God really works to give people the freedom from fear and guilt that leads to a second chance at life.
Vengeance and punishment are ultimately the responsibility of God. We should work for justice. But we should not try to play God with others. That is not really a role or responsibility that any of us are suited for. If we do want to play God with others the way to play that role well is to offer forgiveness and mercy.
People can be held accountable without anyone taking revenge. Reconciliation can be effected if wrong-doing is properly acknowledged and genuine attempts are restitution are made. Joseph’s brothers acknowledged their crimes against him and he forgave them while leaving their ultimate judgment to God.
Joseph had the power and authority to play God but he chose not to assume that role. Instead, he tried to understand all that he and his brothers had gone through as something that could be used for good. If all of these negative experiences could come to a good end then somehow the events and the people involved might be transformed for the better. This is about more than forgiveness. The story is also about how God was at work in the family to take all the mistakes and all the wrongdoing and transform it into something worthwhile. Joseph and his family went through a lot of hardship. God was able to bring it all to a good end.
Joseph and his brothers acknowledged their actions as the evil that they were. But Joseph also trusted that God’s purposes were larger than his brothers’ wrongdoing. He believed that God would preserve and further goodness regardless of how badly his brothers behaved. Joseph possessed an attitude of trust and humility that said, “While I may have the power to play God with you, I know I am not competent to assume that role.” He chose forgiveness, leaving the larger consequences of his brothers’ actions for God to deal with.
Joseph understood that simply being more powerful than his brothers didn’t necessarily mean that he was morally superior to them. We should all possess such an attitude of humility. We play the role of God best not when we choose to get even or punish but when we let those things go in favor of seeking reconciliation and looking for a greater good according to God’s will.
Joseph saw God at work for a greater good in all his misfortune. It takes a special person to be able to do that. In the eyes of God, each one of us is a special person. While God may be at work in our lives, even in our misfortune, we still have to choose our responses. At any time we may respond to someone with anger or blame; even violence. Or we can choose not to strike back, not to add to the sum total of suffering. We can choose a more graceful path. Everything doesn’t happen because God wills it. Many things in life happen simply because we choose them.
Throughout the story of Joseph and his brothers God was mostly off stage, operating in the wings. God rarely appeared in the story. Joseph understood, though, that God was at work in his family offering him and his brothers time and time again the opportunity to choose to do the right thing. In the end, the entire family did just that.
Genesis opens, of course, with the story of creation. In that story, God looks upon what God has created and calls it good. Not perfect perhaps, but good. Within creation, God has given people freedom to make choices. Often in the story though, God remains offstage, in the wings, not pulling all the levers, but praying and hoping that we all play our roles in the family of God well by choosing the same things that God would choose.
In this story of Joseph and his family we see that the moral order does work. The moral order can work for the family of God. But it is subject to the choices of free human beings. Free human beings are not perfect human beings. Sometimes people make the wrong choices.
In those times when we do make the wrong choice, we receive the second chance from God that we don’t deserve. With that second chance comes the opportunity to choose again. The moral order does work but the choices we make as members of the family of God play a huge role the outcomes. Fortunately, if we do make mistakes, God is relentlessly pursuing good on our behalf. Likewise, each of us should relentlessly pursue good for the family of God, always offering one another the same grace of a second chance that God has offered us.