"Brothers," Sermon by Rev. Fred Kinsey
Before we take on the impossible sayings of Jesus, in Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, I’m proposing that we divert our attention away, to the story of Jacob’s son Joseph, in our First Reading, that concludes the book of Genesis, (shall we)?
I mean, “…do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return…”? “Be merciful, just as your (heavenly) Father is merciful,” as Jesus says. You see what I mean?! Best to find another way around, to these weighty matters. Get some context, first.
And, nothing like a good Novella to take your mind off your difficulties! The story of Jacob’s family, and his favorite child, Joseph, takes place at the tale-end of the period of the Patriarchs of Israel: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. So, this is just before Moses and the Exodus from Egypt. Long before David and Solomon.
Do you remember the Joseph story, the 11th born, of 12 sons of Jacob? Joseph was the first born, of Rachel, Jacob’s 2nd wife, and his true love. Rachel was the one he had to wait 20 years to marry, because of his devious uncle Laban, who tricked him into marrying Leah, his oldest daughter, first? All this, just to explain why Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other 12 children. Perhaps, the favorite-child syndrome is created here, for the very first time. In my family, it’s the youngest, William, an ‘oops’ child, an unexpected blessing, that was the favorite of my parents.
So, Jacob treated Joseph, his favorite, differently. He dressed him in finer clothes, for example, which has made for some very memorable stories to this day, even theatre, like Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. All of this to say, that Joseph’s brothers had reason to be jealous of him. And then, on top of that, Joseph was blessed with the gift of dream interpretation. And one day he had a dream about his 11 brothers, that, a more discriminating person, may have kept to himself! A dream about his brothers bowing down to him, as if to worship him. And so, they hated him all the more. (Robert Alter translation: 37:8)
Do you remember, then, that when Joseph’s brothers were tending their flocks, how they conspired to get rid of him, once and for all, that Dream-Master, as they called him. ‘Let us kill him and throw him into a deep pit,’ they said. Reuben, the oldest, tried to dissuade them from it. So, they held off, killing him. Instead, they strip him of his beloved beautiful coat, before flinging Joseph into the hole. Then, they sat down and ate lunch, right there! Can you imagine?! Perhaps they wouldn’t kill him directly, they’d just leave him to die on his own, probably by a lion, or jackels.
But then, a caravan of camel traders from the east, came by. And Judah, the 4th son, suggested they sell him into slavery, instead of killing him. And they got 20 pieces of silver from the traders, who brought Joseph to Egypt.
But now they had to decide how to tell dear ol’ dad! And since they still had Joseph’s coveted coat, they conspired to dip the coat in goat’s blood, to make it look like he was attacked, and that they had nothing to do with it. Then they gave the coat to a messenger, to bring to their father Jacob, so they wouldn’t have to lie to his face.
When he saw the bloody coat, Jacob rent his clothes, and put sackcloth round his waist and mourned for his son many days. (vs. 24) Convinced that Joseph was killed by a wild beast, Jacob refused to be consoled by his one daughter, and 11 sons, saying, “Rather I will go down to my son in Sheol mourning,” and so Jacob bewailed Joseph.
Many years pass. And Jacob grows old. And never, is quite the same.
But down in Egypt, Joseph works his way up the ladder, going “through a roller-coaster of good and bad fortunes as he rises to the highest position among his enslaver’s household, falls to the depths of false imprisonment, rises to be in charge of other prisoners, languishes in prison, and finally experiences a resurgence to new heights as an advisor—even “a father”—to Pharoah (Genesis 39–41, see also Genesis 45:8) (Justin Michael Reed).
And all because of his skill at dream-interpretation, including his last and most famous one! For while all of Pharoah’s soothsayers fail to understand his dream about the seven fat and lean cows, and the seven goodly ears of grain swallowed up by the meager ears – when Joseph is called up from prison, given a quick shave and haircut, and fresh clothes, he responds immediately! knowing it means that there will be seven years of plentiful harvests, followed by seven years of famine, when nothing will grow. And Joseph doesn’t hesitate to set out a plan for Pharoah: store up from the plentiful years, all the crops you can, so when the famine years come, you’ll have enough for yourself, and to feed the world.
Then Pharoah said: Hmmm, where can I find someone with the wisdom to carry out this plan?! And he looked at Joseph, and right there on the spot, gave him the job. And Joseph was put in charge of everything, being Pharoah’s right hand man for the next 14 years, and to the end of his long life. ‘And Pharoah took off his ring from his own hand and put it on Joseph’s hand, and had him clothed in fine linen clothes, and placed the golden collar round his neck. And he had him ride in the chariot of his viceroy.’ (41.42-43) Joseph was thirty years old, and now he was on top of the world. Not bad!
But the famine that was coming, was not only in Egypt, but stretched all the way into Israel as well. And Jacob, his one surviving wife Leah, his one daughter, and his other 11 sons, soon had nothing to eat. So, Jacob sent 10 of his remaining sons down to Egypt, where they had plenty of food to sell, he’d heard, to keep his family from starving.
There were actually three trips down to Egypt, but long story short, our reading today is the Season Finale of our main saga!
Joseph has kept his identity concealed from his brothers, on purpose, up to this point. Testing them, to make sure that his father is still alive, and pushing them to remember how they sold him into slavery 17 years ago. Which brings up a lot of guilty feelings. But he can see, his brothers have grown and changed. They are no longer proud of what they did. And still, they have no idea, they have been in the company of their long-lost brother, Joseph. That he is now this powerful man - their lives in his hands.
And when Joseph puts all the Egyptian servants out of the room, and finally blurts out, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” His brothers were dumbfounded, their tongues tied, so dismayed were they, at his presence.
So, Joseph bid them, come closer to me. And, no longer speaking through an interpreter, he said to them in their native Hebrew, ‘I am Joseph your brother whom you sold into Egypt. And now, do not be pained and do not be incensed with yourselves that you sold me down here; for God sent me before you’ to preserve life. There are still five more years of ‘famine in the heart of the land. And God has sent me before you to make you a remnant on earth and to preserve life, (and) for you to be a great surviving group.’ (ch. 45; Robert Alter, translation)
And to reassure them, Joseph tells his brothers, who had betrayed him all those years ago, this theological truth: ‘so it is not you who sent me here - but God!’ ‘Hurry,’ I want you to go to my father, and bring him back here, so that all of you can live here – so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty. And then, Joseph ‘fell upon the neck of his brother Benjamin and he wept… And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them.’ And finally, his brothers, having taken a breath, and gotten over their initial shock, were able to talk with Joseph, after all those years.
Forgiveness and reconciliation. Brothers, who were enemies, became, brothers, once again.
It doesn’t always happen like this, does it? Joseph had all the power, now that he was viceroy to the Pharaoh himself. Usually, that kind of power, doesn’t lead to forgiveness and reconciliation. How easy it would have been for Joseph to ruin the lives of his brothers. Even in our own families and relationships, retaliation often seems, so much sweeter.
Be merciful, says Jesus, just as our God is merciful. When you lend – whether it’s money or a helping hand – expect nothing in return. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But, love your enemies. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
And Joseph’s father came and lived in Egypt. He was reunited with his whole family, including his lost and beloved son, Joseph. And Jacob died a very satisfied old man at 147 years old. His sons were reunited. And his favorite son Joseph, loved his brothers, who once had wished him dead. But God used them for good. And grace and mercy, had triumphed.
Let us never forget the story of Joseph.