September 14, 2014

Virtues, Lost and Lived


Text: Genesis 45:5: “ not be distressed, or angry with yourselves,
because you sold me here....”

Joseph’s brothers have a lot to answer for.  They didn’t like the favor he found in the eyes of their father. After all, he was the youngest. By rights he should have come last in line when it came to his father’s attention, or the division of his property; but even by the time Joseph was just about finishing high school, his older brothers could tell that Jacob, their father, preferred him.

There was something else they didn’t like about Joseph. Joseph was smart. He was smart, but not smart enough to know it might be better to hide how smart he was. He had ideas. He had standards. His brothers dissed him as a “dreamer.” He was he kind of guy who somehow just rubs everyone the wrong way.

So, they did something about it. It probably started out as a sibling prank, but it pretty quickly got out of hand. It ends up with Joseph first at the bottom of a pit, and then being hauled out of that trap by his brothers and sold by them as a slave to some passing traders. Joseph’s brothers quite literally sold him down the river, or at least down the gravel path.

We are at the other end of the story today, and it’s a story that is kind of familiar, but perhaps not entirely familiar. It’s a story about revenge that doesn’t happen, about scores that don’t get settled. It is a story about reconciliation—what it costs, and what it makes possible.

Joseph turns out to do just fine in his new situation. He comes to it by means of a great injustice, but his gifts serve him well, and soon enough he rises to the top in his new circumstances. The text tells us that he becomes the head of Pharoah’s household in Egypt, so literally from the bottom of a pit to the top of the heap.

It might be enough to leave the story there; but the injustice that the story springs from has to be addressed, and some years later, under extremely difficult circumstances, the brothers who so wronged Joseph now stand before him as supplicants, not even knowing how deep is the hole in which they find themselves. They have no idea that the king’s minister to whom they are pleading their case is in fact the annoying brother that sheer envy drove them to destroy.

I suppose if this story were being told today, the end of it would have been decided by some kind of popular poll. You know, at the commercial break right before the end of the story we’d all have to whip out or cell phones and text 4413 for “let them go,” or 4415 for “throw all of them into their own pits,” or 4417 for “make them all fight it out in a steel-cage death match!”

There really is something about the story of this denouement between Joseph and his brothers that is perfectly suited for reality television. It’s like something straight out of the Jerry Springer show.

Except that it doesn’t end that way. It doesn’t end in a way that seems even remotely believable, because the way it ends involves an almost superhuman act of forbearance and forgiveness.

Joseph forgives his brothers. That’s the easy summary of the story. But there is a lot more here.

First, he has to deal with the simple but profound fact that the burden they have been carrying from the knowledge of the wrong that they had done to their brother has quite literally blinded them. We are very good at doing things we know are wrong, and even better at justifying ourselves in the doing of them. We are even better at remorse, at knowing that we messed up when we gave in to our worse instincts.

But the problem with that self-awareness, with that moral conscience that seems always to arrive just a little late for the party, is that too often the only way we can figure out how to deal with the knowledge of our own shortcomings—dare I say our own sin—is to build defenses against that knowledge. We either become blind and deaf, or self-justifying, or, what is worst, righteously indignant.

Whatever the symptom, the cause is the same. We are unable to be at peace with ourselves, because while we can commit the fault we are never able to pretend that we didn’t. All we can do is try to come up with some way of insulating ourselves from the reality of our failure. And the result is that we nurse a kind of disgust with ourselves.

We’ve known from the earliest part of the story that Joseph is uncannily wise. He has visions. He interprets the dreams of others. He accurately predicts both prosperity and poverty, and wisely counsels the king to make provisions for famine. Joseph is a man who sees things as they really are, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding.

So when his own brothers, the brothers who sold him into slavery, don’t even recognize them, he knows exactly why. It’s because to recognize him would mean having to recognize the full weight of their own mistake. They have had years of nurturing their own anger at themselves to make that impossible.

So Joseph ends up doing it for them. Only he can do this. Because he was the one so badly wronged, he is the only one who holds the power to determine how the story will resolve.

This may all seem like a story about a group of people in a place far away and a time before imagining that has nothing to do with us. But as soon as we leave this place this morning we will be surrounded again with the human misery that comes as the bitter fruit of wrongs for which the solution seems only to be revenge, and not reconciliation.

Whether it is the violence between peoples of differing creeds, or the violence between communities separated by race and inequality, we are surrounded by examples of endless cycles of revenge. And it seems as though we can nearly see the edge of the abyss into which it all inevitably leads.

Joseph gives us hope, gives us an example, gives us a way out of our mess. All of us have lost our virtue in various ways and to various degrees. All of us have been the cause of someone else’s injury, and all of us have been injured.

And all of us end up in possession of the power of a fundamental choice; whether to recoil from our own fault by claiming the greater wrongs that have been done to us, or live the virtue of forgiveness.

By choosing the latter course, by living out that virtue, Joseph exercises the greatest power of all—the power to change the direction of a story that otherwise would be trapped in the tragedy of our thirst for revenge. He doesn’t pretend the wrong wasn’t done; he doesn’t simply belittle the injury and say, “oh, no worries, really, it was nothing”—because it was very much something.

Instead what he does is see the burden his brothers are carrying and relieve them of it directly. And in that simple and profound act he shows himself to be the most powerful actor, the agent of grace, the person who redeems the wrong and makes possible a new and reconciled future.

We need more Josephs. Who better than us to follow that example? Amen.