It’s as if this were a movie theater, and we’ve just walked in on the last reel. It’s one of those Biblical epics, with long sandy vistas and long dusty robes. We are in a glittering palace in a lush river valley that runs through a desert. On one side of the room we see a bronzed young man, impeccably dressed, clean-shaven, bedecked with gold, his eyes rimmed with kohl. He might be an Egyptian Pharaoh, and in terms of power, he practically is the Pharaoh. And on the other side of the room… eleven men, haggard, looking like they have been through a famine—which they have. Their clothes are humble, their beards are long, and they are bedecked with nothing but their desperation to keep their family together, and to spare their elderly father the grief he cannot bear.
In some ways this is the classic story of a blended family. Jacob longed to marry Rachel, the woman he loved, but her wily father had tricked him into marrying Leah, Rachel’s older sister. According to the custom of the day, each woman had a handmaiden, or a slave, depending upon your perspective, and those women, too, added to the tribes. In the end, Jacob fathered twelve sons and untold numbers of daughters by four women. His beloved wife, Rachel, was the mother of the two youngest, Joseph and Benjamin. And so, in the messy way of families, there were rivalries and jealousies, all of which were brought to the boiling point because Joseph was a dreamer.
We’re first introduced to Joseph as a seventeen year-old, and he’s either incredibly arrogant or pathetically naïve. When you are the favorite son of your elderly father, so much so that he gives you a super-special, extravagantly beautiful coat, and all eleven of your brothers therefore hate your guts, it would be wise to tread lightly, to choose your words carefully. But Joseph apparently doesn’t pick up on these not-so-subtle social cues, because he excitedly tells his brothers about two dreams he has had, that would seem to describe him as being top dog in this family already seething with discontent. And so naturally, his brothers end up hating him even more.
The brothers discuss their options. One faction just wants to kill the annoying pipsqueak. But Rueben, the eldest, persuades them to simply rough him up and throw him into a pit; he secretly plans to get Joseph safely back to their father. But when a caravan goes by on its way to Egypt, another brother, Judah, suggests they profit from their little scheme, so they sell Joseph as a slave, and pocket the proceeds. To cover their tracks, they dip his beautiful, colorful dream-coat in goat’s blood, and break their father’s heart with a story about Joseph being torn apart by a wild animal.
Thus begins Joseph’s odyssey. Now, Joseph has some natural abilities, not to mention the backing and blessing of God, so he pretty quickly finds himself in a position of responsibility and authority. And he also has some natural charisma, perhaps even beauty, and Potiphar’s wife gets a starring role in our film as history’s first would-be cougar. She makes a play for the young man, and when he resists, she has him thrown into jail. This, ironically, is where Joseph’s gifts really begin to shine. He interprets dreams for two of his fellow inmates, and the accuracy of his words gives him a reputation. When the Pharaoh has troubling dreams, Joseph is brought to him to interpret them. Joseph tells the Pharaoh that his dreams are warning him of an impending seven-year famine, for which they will have seven prosperous years to prepare. Joseph advises the Pharaoh to find a wise man—a wise, insightful, dream-interpreting young man, perhaps—to put in charge of shoring away grain for the famine-time. Joseph is abruptly out of jail and into the best job he’s ever had. The only person with more power in all of Egypt is the Pharaoh himself.
The famine doesn’t just hit Egypt, though. Joseph’s family back in Canaan find themselves face-to-face with the prospect of starvation, and like many others from that region, they travel to Egypt, the land that was prepared. Ten of Joseph’s brothers make the trip. But their father Jacob keeps Benjamin, the youngest, back at home, for fear of losing the only other tie he has to his beloved Rachel, now long dead.
And so the brothers present themselves to the great Overseer of Egypt, whom they have no idea whatsoever is the arrogant boy they tossed in a ditch and then sold into slavery, because they didn’t like the way he dreamed.
So, what does it take to forgive someone? For hating you. For hurting you. For throwing you into a literal or metaphorical ditch, into slavery, into prison, into heartache. For lying about you, and in doing that, hurting others whom you love. What does it take?
Forgiveness, to hear Jesus talk, is at the heart of what it means to be a follower of his, and that includes forgiveness from both angles—receiving it and giving it. Followers of Jesus are encouraged to receive the great gift of God’s forgiveness, and we are also advised of our responsibility to forgive one another. I’m not going to try here to answer the question of the deep mystery of God’s forgiveness. I’m more interested, right now, in talking about how we forgive, and why we forgive, and why we should forgive.
What does it take to forgive someone?
First of all, you have to see forgiveness as an option. You’d be amazed at how many people drop out right there. And let’s be clear: Joseph has all the cards at this moment in the story. All the power is in his hands. He could throw the whole lot of them in jail, all eleven brothers, and give them a taste to what he’s had to endure.
But, of course, that’s not what he does. Joseph seems to want to forgive. Still, he requires some sense that his brothers have truly repented of what they did to him. That seems reasonable. It’s far easier to forgive someone when you can see that they are sorry. And Joseph is looking for real, tangible evidence of this. So here’s what he does: He tests them. Without letting them know his true identity, Joseph demands that they produce Benjamin, the youngest—the one who stayed home, the one who is his full brother. And then he lays a trap by having a servant plant a valuable cup in Benjamin’s luggage. When Benjamin is caught red-handed, Joseph watches very closely to see how his brothers will handle the situation. Will they once again punish a son of the favorite wife? Will they cut and run, leaving Benjamin to fend for himself? Will they concoct yet another story to account for a brother’s absence? Will they break their father’s heart all over again?
No. They won’t. They don’t. They pass the test, more than pass it. They plead for their brother. They tell Joseph of their old father in the land of Canaan, whose heart they can’t bear to break. And Judah, the one who suggested they sell Joseph in the first place, offers himself as a ransom. He offers to go to jail in Benjamin’s place.
Joseph can see the brothers’ remorse for the pain they have brought on their family; He can see their willingness to protect the youngest, even at the cost of their own freedom. He can see that they embrace Benjamin as one of their own.
We’re not God. God is able to forgive freely. We usually require some sense that our forgiveness is not being squandered on those who don’t really deserve it. There’s nothing wrong with that—that’s so very human of us. But it kind of misses the point. Because, the truth about forgiveness, the counter-intuitive reality, is that we need to forgive for our own sakes even more than we need to forgive for the sake of the other person. Hurt and anger are dark, stuffy, claustrophobic prisons we are locked inside. When we are able to forgive, we step out into the fresh air and the warm sunshine. We feel the grass soft beneath our feet. Joseph sets up his tests, and his trials, to see whether his brothers should be forgiven, but the truth is, Joseph needs to forgive his brothers for himself. He needs his family. He needs to be reconciled. He needs the warm sun and the fresh air and to step out of that prison.
And that’s what is happening this final, climactic scene, also known as “the Big Reveal.” I am Joseph, the Egyptian-seeming young ruler states. Actually, sobs… the tears of Joseph are abundant in this beautiful scene in the lavish palace. His heart has been breaking to forgive, and no one is more relieved that he can forgive his brothers than he is. And his forgiveness comes with his fresh re-interpretation of the dream that has been his life: This is what God intended all along, he says. God sent me here—through your actions, even through your cruelty—God sent me here to save all our lives. I suspect God also sent Joseph there to teach all twelve brothers the essentials of repentance and forgiveness. And by teaching these twelve brothers, the patriarchs of the twelve tribes, God teaches all God’s people. God teaches you and God teaches me.
Joseph is able to interpret the dream of his life as being all about God’s good intention. That is not to say that God intended the harm that came to Joseph. Rather, it is to say that God’s good intentions for us have the potential to be more powerful than the our bad intentions towards one another, that God can use our hurtful actions, even our cruel and angry behavior, to do good. God takes the broken fragments of our lives and crafts a gorgeous mosaic, beyond our wildest dreams. It is a view of wide open spaces.
God intends for us to forgive. God creates us and places in families, where we are taught what it is to love, and be loved, and to be hurt and let down and all the rest. And God shows us, again and again, that forgiveness and reconciliation are the way out of the prisons we fashion of the pain we have endured. God shows us, again and again, that we don’t have to live there, that we can step out into the sun and the breeze, and let the air fill our lungs and give us life. Thanks be to God. Amen.