Joseph and His Brothers: The Challenge and Gift of Forgiveness

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

I have always, always loved the story of Joseph and his brothers.

I am not sure when this first came to be so, but I do remember this. I was in the 3rd or 4th grade when I was walking with a friend home from school. Now, I grew up in a faith tradition which did not put much emphasis on ‘evangelism’ — at least not in the way we normally thought of it then. For that matter, I grew up at the tail end of an era when church affiliation was taken for granted. All of my classmates went to church already. Indeed, as I recall, the particular friend who walked beside me that afternoon was Roman Catholic. No matter. Somewhere along the way I had picked up the fact that we were called upon to share our faith. And so as we made our way home, I shared this, my favorite Bible story. I can’t imagine I told it well. I am certain I had no grasp of the larger meaning of the story. All I knew then is that it was a story of a young boy. And that was enough for me to love it for simply because of Joseph’s chronological age, at least at the beginning of the story, he was more like me than any other Bible character I had so far learned about in Sunday School.

And this is always the case, isn’t it? At least at first we often ‘enter’ these stories because we can at some level relate to those whose lives are lived out before our eyes. To be sure, the offering and receiving of — indeed, the powerful, unending need for forgiveness between us and among us — surely gives us entry into this story now.  And oh, isn’t it so that ‘forgiveness,’ or a lack thereof occupies much of our attention and leeches much of our energy much of the time?

Now I know this is so. Forgiveness cannot be demanded. Too often it has been adulterated and used as a ‘weapon.’ There are, no doubt, times and places and circumstances and experiences where forgiveness or even the talk of it has no place. Anything I offer here recognizes all of this. At the same time for all of its complexity?  Forgiveness is at the heart of our shared story and so it seems to me that we must wrestle with it, give thanks for it, offer it whenever possible, and celebrate it often.

And so I would offer now a couple of moments when “forgiveness” was the subject of conversation. And a story of when it came alive for me.

Some  years back I offered a course on “The Power of Forgiveness” based on a documentary which was released in 2007. The course was meaningful for those who gathered for the conversation, in part because the stories shared were such powerful ones. However, after about the third session one of the participants quietly took me aside and said to me, “I think forgiveness must be easier when the one who wronged you was a stranger. It is so much harder when it is someone you have loved.” (And yes, it was so that many of the stories shared in the course were of forgiveness extended in the wake of horrendous wrongs committed by strangers.)

She spoke truth then, it seems to me. For the wounds go deeper when they are borne of betrayal, don’t they?

And this. Years and  years ago I can recall my dad saying to me, “You only truly grow up once you have forgiven your parents.” Now I do recognize that for some these words are powerfully problematic. Some among us — too many among us — live with still open wounds because of the damage done to us by parents. I am grateful to say this has not been so for me, and no doubt my thinking about all of this is shaped by this. It could have been true for my dad though.

For this is how it was. My dad’s own dad died when he was but five years old. It was the heart of the depression and his mother and younger brother and he were left to scrape by. It was some years before his mother remarried and my dad would tell you that it was only from that time forward that he has actual memories of his childhood. It was only then that he lived in a safe enough place to be able to remember. Only this was also so. Even after adopting him and his brother, his ‘father’s’ love was and would always be conditional. And then this. When my dad was a young adult, working in the same industry as his adopted dad, he discovered that he was having an affair. My dad was so angry that he took the first job transfer that became available to him, over a thousand miles away. He drove west from Boston to Milwaukee, never to return except for visits.

I do not know how long the rift remained between them. I do know I did not hear about it until many years later. And I do know this, as the years went on, my dad could have told a story similar to Joseph’s.  For while brokenness drove him away? God picked up the pieces and a life was made. In Milwaukee he met a redheaded Norwegian and fell in love. They married and together they moved to a small town in northern Illinois and raised four daughters. And he would always say that there was “space” here in the midwest, unlike what he recalled in the town he would always think of as ‘home.’  For him that meant especially space and rich soil to garden in, but it was more than that for he often spoke of it all just feeling different. He found a cherished faith community full of people he came to love. He helped ensure his children went to college, something he never had for himself. He welcomed grandchildren into the world. And oh, how he laughed.

It was not Joseph’s story, of course. My dad did not rise to power or wealth or fame. No, he did not provide for the known world as Joseph did. Even so, I think he would have said, as Joseph did, that God’s hand was in it and on it all. And yes, as in the story of Joseph, forgiveness must have been part of it. For when I was in middle school, my dad’s mother’s dementia was advancing and she and the one I always knew as my grandfather moved to Illinois for a time — into the house next door to ours — so that my dad and mother could help care for her.

So many years ago I shared the story of Joseph and his brothers with a grade school classmate. I do not recall that my sharing got much of a response that day for even as I told it I know I did not do so well. For that matter, it was and is but a marvelous story of a family who lived a very long time ago. And while this story is and always will be a gift, it is only as the truth of it comes alive in us and through us and among us that it warrants a response from “those who walk alongside us as we make our way home.”

Again, hear me as I say this:

  • There is no one way to think about ‘forgiveness.’
  • It cannot be demanded.
  • It has, at times been insisted upon before the giver of it is ready or able and in those cases true damage has been done.
  • At times ‘forgiveness’ or a lack thereof has been used as a weapon and I know, I just know, that God rages and weeps at this.

At the same time?

  • Forgiveness is often the very best gift we have been given.
  • It is the center of all we are and all we aspire to be as people of faith.
  • And so it is something we must continue to wrestle with, strive for, hope for, pray for.

Perhaps the story of Joseph and his brothers can be our guide as we do just that.

  • How do you hear the story of Joseph and his brothers today? What parallels to this story have you seen in your own life or in the world?
  • It is my strong sense that ‘forgiveness’ is central to who we are and who we are called to be as God’s people. Would you agree with this? Why or why not?
  • What does it look for you to ‘wrestle with, strive for, hope for and pray for forgiveness?’ How is this calling lived out in your life and/or in the life of your community of faith?

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