We get the beginnings of an answer in our Old Testament reading. It is the emotional climax of the entire Joseph story, which is one of the great Bible stories. If you have never read the Joseph story, I encourage you to do so. But I’ll give you the cliff notes version.
Joseph had ten older brothers, but he was his father’s favorite. His brothers already resented him for that. Joseph made it worse by telling his brothers two dreams that pretty clearly predicted Joseph would eventually rule over them. That really made his brothers furious.
We have just finished this story in our Friday Bible Study, so they already know what I confess to you all now: my sympathies to this point are with the brothers. But even to me, obnoxious older sibling though I am, the reaction of Joseph’s brothers is weirdly intense. They sell their brother into slavery in Egypt.
Life is not good as a slave in exile in Egypt. At his lowest point, Joseph went to prison for several years. We are not told much about Joseph’s emotional state during any of this time, including his time in prison. But put yourself in his place at that low point: how would you feel about the brothers who put you there? Hold that thought.
Eventually Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, has a pair of dreams that he knows are important. Pharaoh doesn’t know what the dreams mean, and none of his wise men can help. Thankfully Pharaoh’s cupbearer remembers a time when he had been in prison. He had had a dream, and Joseph had interpreted it accurately. The cupbearer suggested that Pharaoh consult the imprisoned Hebrew slave.
Pharaoh calls Joseph, Joseph interprets his dreams, and Pharaoh is so impressed that he makes Joseph the most powerful man in Egypt after Pharaoh himself.
Years go by. A famine strikes the Mediterranean world. Egypt has plenty of stored grain, but Joseph’s family back in Canaan are not so well prepared. Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt to buy grain. Of course, they have no idea that Joseph has risen to great power in Egypt, and they don’t recognize Joseph when they see him. But Joseph recognizes them.
Now, think back to how you would have felt if you had been in Joseph’s place back in his prison days, what you might have thought about the brothers who put you there. And here they are, in your power. What would you do?
Joseph’s first reaction was to be harsh. He had them all thrown into prison. After three days, he let them go, all but one, and he sent them back to their homes with grain. But he still hadn’t told them who he was, and he held one brother in prison.
Time goes by, and eventually, with great fear and trepidation, the other brothers come back to Egypt for more grain. Joseph threatens them again, but this time he can’t keep up the pretense. Finally, in our reading for this morning, he says to his brothers, “I am Joseph.”
Now put yourself in their place. The brother you sold into slavery so many years earlier has total power over you. He can do whatever he wants, and no one will care. It is no surprise that they “could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence!”
But Joseph does exactly what Jesus says we should all do in his great sermon. Joseph loves his brothers. Joseph does good to those who hated him. Joseph blessed those who had cursed him. Joseph forgave his brothers. And remember, this is about as bad a betrayal as can be.
So how did Joseph do it? How was Joseph able to forgive those who had treated him so badly? How was Joseph able to love those who had acted as his bitter enemies?
A lot of the work of forgiving and learning to love even his enemies must happened in prison. In prison, Joseph could easily have given into his anger. His resentment could have taken him over. But God was with Joseph in prison. And my guess is that Joseph spent a lot of time in prayer. My guess is that Joseph did what Jesus advised, that Joseph eventually got to the point that he was praying for his brothers. What we know is that Joseph did not become bitter.
Still, it took Joseph time to forgive. My guess is, Joseph played his cat and mouse game with his brothers when they first showed up largely because he had no idea what to do. He needed time to process his feelings, to get clarity on what God would have him do with these brothers who had treated him so badly, to learn to love them.
The resolution that we get in our reading this morning comes months, maybe years, after Joseph first meets his brothers again. But at last the long process of forgiving and learning to love reaches the critical point where Joseph can move forward.
But the real key to Joseph’s ability to forgive and to love his brothers comes from God. Through all of his time in Egypt, good and bad, Joseph learns to look for God’s hand at work all around him.
Joseph doesn’t minimize the ugly fact that his brothers sold him into slavery. But even in that horrible act, Joseph sees God. Joseph says to his brothers, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” In case they miss it, he says it again. “God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth….So it was not you who sent me here, but God.” At the very end of the story, Joseph comes back to this point one more time. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Genesis 50:20).
What the brothers did was wrong, and they have their own work to do repenting and doing what they can to make it right. But what Joseph is able to do, what helps Joseph to forgive and to love, was to see God’s hand at work bringing good even out of the bad that people do.
And that is surely one way to fulfill Jesus’ command, for Joseph and for us, too.
Whenever I meet with Bishop Scruton for spiritual direction, he always asks me the same question, no matter what is going on. What is Christ’s invitation to you in this situation? When the situation is not good, I want to say, there is no invitation here!! But Bishop Scruton leads me gently back to the question: what is God doing, even in the parts of my life that I may not enjoy. And when I can get that perspective, things look different.
That, it seems to me, is the lesson in Jesus’ sermon and in Joseph’s example: look for God’s hand, for God’s call, for God’s invitation, in everything around us, including in our enemies. And if we can do that, if we can truly see God even in our enemies, maybe we really can forgive them and even love them.
That is my prayer for us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.