Sermon Commentary for Sunday, February 20, 2022
Genesis 45:3-11, 15 Commentary
Easter in the Western Church can come as early as the third Sunday in March and as late as the last Sunday in April. Falling as it does on April 17 this year, Easter’s late date means an extra-long season after Epiphany and that in turns means getting to some RCL texts we don’t see very often in case Epiphany is much shorter than the 8 Sundays we are getting in 2022. And so we do not very often get to this literary gem from Genesis 45. But what a wonderful narrative to preach on!
The larger story works so well on so many levels. The entire Joseph Cycle in Genesis represents one of the better told stories in Scripture. First there is both the poignance and the humor of the spoiled little brat Joseph who cannot see how Daddy’s special affections for him are setting his brothers’ teeth on edge daily. And so when he has dreams of grandeur that feature Joseph as some sort of figure worthy of worship, he just spools out the narrative of these dreams over breakfast until finally even his own father urges him to shut up already because Jacob can see the blue flames of fury flickering in the eyes of his older sons.
Then of course comes the tawdry narrative of a plot to kill Joseph while the brothers have the chance somewhere in the outback of Palestine. These brothers are so crazed by sibling rivalry hatred that the one who finally suggests they not murder him but sell him into chattel slavery instead comes off looking like the reasonable one. In the end their father Jacob is decimated by the news of Joseph’s alleged demise at the claws of some ferocious beast and the old man looks like he will never be consoled again.
Then in Genesis 38 the narrative takes that strange turn. Joseph disappears and we get the incident involving the elder brother Judah and the stunts he pulls with his daughter-in-law Tamar until she finally turns the tables on him. But as readers while we read all this, the question that niggles the back of our minds is “What about Joseph?” Because we were given one tantalizing narrative foreshadowing in the last verse of Genesis 37: “Meanwhile, Joseph was sold to Potiphar, an official close to the Pharaoh.” And on that little word “meanwhile” hangs a whole lot of providence.
We do finally catch back up to Joseph and watch him move from pillar to post in Egypt, repeatedly the victim of feckless people who find naïve little Joseph to be easy prey for their schemes. That is until the day when Joseph so impresses the Pharaoh of the land that his fortunes are reversed in what we all recognize to be a clever in-swooping of divine providence.
All of which brings us to Genesis 45 and what we could call “the great reveal.” Genesis 45 follows a couple scenes where Joseph’s unwitting—and somewhat witless—brothers bow before this governor of Egypt without having a clue that this now bronzed figure arrayed in all the finery of Egyptian royalty is the snot-nosed little brat they had sent to Egypt in the first place. The scenes are at once uproariously funny and heartbreakingly sad because even though Joseph has a little fun with secretly getting back at these blokes, he finds himself needing to leave the room now and again to go out and weep. Despite it all he loves them and he for sure loves the father he’s now not seen in years.
Finally he can contain himself no more and bursts into joyful tears in front of them and spills all the beans. And his brothers are of course somewhere more than just half scared out of their skulls. With a snap of his fingers Joseph could no doubt order the beheading of all of them. And who could blame him? For sure the heartless men who schemed to murder (but then coldly sell off their little brother instead) would likely have reached for that nuclear option were the roles reversed.
But of course the roles are reversed, just not in the favor of the older brothers. The last line of the lection for this week says that once the brothers were convinced this really was Joseph and that it seemed likely love and not vengeance was on the menu, the text tells us “they talked with Joseph. Hmmm. Wonder what they said? The circumstances were, at best, awkward after all. And you have to believe that even after the whole clan relocates to Egypt, the relationship between Joseph and the older boys would never be particularly close.
At the heart of it all, though, is that message that will come up again at the end of Genesis after Jacob dies and when the older brothers figure that now the hammer was going to fall after all. With the old man out of the way, nothing could stop Joseph from murdering the lot of them. So on that occasion as on this one in Genesis 45, Joseph delivers one version or another of the famous line “You meant it for evil but God meant it for good.”
Too often for us preachers and for others this line becomes a too-trite panacea to address people in distressing circumstances. “I know that his cancer . . . this divorce . . . this rebellious child . . . this physical abuse . . . seems awful but God will bring all things to good. You’ll see. So buck up and don’t complain or lament too much. God means this for your good.” There is too much wrong with this “pastoral” tack to unpack here.
Because we have to reckon with something and not let even Joseph slide us past it too quickly: what the brothers did to Joseph was not just “meant for evil.” It was evil. It was wicked. It was sinful. It was wrong. Period. And there ought not be any easy dismissal of these facts, no swift evacuation of blame for the perpetrators just because perhaps in retrospect one can see God managed to bring something good anyway. Yes, (as my colleague Neal Plantinga likes to say), God can hit straight shots with crooked sticks. But that’s no excuse for being a crooked stick.
Thanks be to God that our providential God is nimble enough to force the arc of the universe to bend toward justice. Thanks be to God that he can take what was truly awful and somehow manage to shake something useful out of it. Because this divine dynamic is on display not just in the Joseph Cycle of stories in late Genesis. This is the entire dynamic of our very salvation: the Son of God entered an evil world and suffered a cruel and wicked fate only to bring life out of death, resurrection out of a Roman execution. This worked for Joseph almost as though God were giving this modus operandi a test spin.
And it did work. And for the sake of all of us and for our salvation, that is something for which to be eternally grateful.
Joseph forgave his brothers. And it seems that the biggest reason he found it within himself to do this is because the good that came out of the whole tawdry mess outweighed any desire for vengeance. And let’s face it: Joseph landed in the gravy at the end of it all so his own lot in life got mighty good too.
The brothers were terrified it would go in a different direction. They blanched in fear when Joseph revealed himself in Genesis 45 and got mighty nervous a few years later when their father Jacob died on the assumption that with the old man no longer there to stop it or to see it, Joseph would now settle all accounts.
That is the way the world works and sometimes even in the Bible. Although we don’t talk about it very much for all the obvious reasons, there is a chilling scene between the dying King David and his son Solomon in 1 Kings 2 in which David ticks through a list of people who had harmed or angered him and although he took no action while he lived to deal with them, he makes Solomon vow to kill them and not let their gray heads go down into the grave old and full of peaceful years. “See that some harm comes to them” was David’s bottom line request.
And in this 50th anniversary year of the landmark film The Godfather, those of us familiar with the plot know that although the old lion of the family, Vito Corleone, had vowed not to exact vengeance on any of his enemies, once Vito died and his son Michael took over the family business, he made it his #1 priority after his father’s funeral to kill every last one of them. And he did.
Forgiveness offers us a better way, of course, but the lure of doing it the world’s way—or alas even King David’s way—is powerful. But if we, like Joseph, can entrust ourselves to God’s providence, a better future may just open up for us all and then the centuries-long cycle of vengeance and counter-vengeance at long last gets snapped.
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