Today, we are concluding our study of Genesis with a quick look at one of the final chapters. We aren’t going to spend a lot of time on it because our Bangladesh team is back. We want to have plenty of time to hear their stories, too.
Before we read the text, you need to remember some important background info.
- Joseph’s brothers hated him and sold him into slavery in Egypt.
- God blessed Joseph with the power to interpret dreams and helped Joseph rise to a position of leadership second only to the King.
- A famine devestated the whole Middle Eastern region, and the only food anywhere was the food that Joseph helped Egypt save.
- Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt to buy food for their families, where they met Joseph. But of course, they didn't recognize him in his role of Egyptian royalty.
- Joseph struggles to forgive them and put them through a series of tests to see if they have truly changed. Our text begins after the final test.
1 Joseph could stand it no longer. There were many people in the room, and he said to his attendants, “Out, all of you!” So he was alone with his brothers when he told them who he was. 2 Then he broke down and wept. He wept so loudly the Egyptians could hear him, and word of it quickly carried to Pharaoh’s palace.
3 “I am Joseph!” he said to his brothers. “Is my father still alive?” But his brothers were speechless! They were stunned to realize that Joseph was standing there in front of them. 4 “Please, come closer,” he said to them. So they came closer. And he said again, “I am Joseph, your brother, whom you sold into slavery in Egypt. 5 But don’t be upset, and don’t be angry with yourselves for selling me to this place. It was God who sent me here ahead of you to preserve your lives. 6 This famine that has ravaged the land for two years will last five more years, and there will be neither plowing nor harvesting. 7 God has sent me ahead of you to keep you and your families alive and to preserve many survivors. 8 So it was God who sent me here, not you! And he is the one who made me an adviser to Pharaoh—the manager of his entire palace and the governor of all Egypt.
9 “Now hurry back to my father and tell him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me master over all the land of Egypt. So come down to me immediately! 10 You can live in the region of Goshen, where you can be near me with all your children and grandchildren, your flocks and herds, and everything you own. 11 I will take care of you there, for there are still five years of famine ahead of us. Otherwise you, your household, and all your animals will starve.’”
12 Then Joseph added, “Look! You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that I really am Joseph! 13 Go tell my father of my honored position here in Egypt. Describe for him everything you have seen, and then bring my father here quickly.” 14 Weeping with joy, he embraced Benjamin, and Benjamin did the same. 15 Then Joseph kissed each of his brothers and wept over them, and after that they began talking freely with him.
Joseph’s story is one of the classic forgiveness texts in the Bible. Joseph actually seems to struggle quite a bit in the process of forgiving his brothers. His struggles and his eventual forgiveness show us three common barriers to forgiveness and the keys to forgiveness.Let’s look at them each quickly.
The first barrier to forgiveness is ISOLATION. The lie is: We are different from them. When we are hurt, the first thing we want to do is to start emphasizing our differences from those who hurt us.
You can’t see it all in the text we read, but when Jospeh’s brothers got to Egypt, Joseph maintained his distance. He kept his identity a secret. He spoke only Egyptian to them. He emphasized his position of power. He accused them of being spies and threw them into prison. He wanted to remind both him and them that he is different.
The cure for isolation is EMPATHY. The lie of isolation is: We are different from them. The truth of empathy is: We are the same.
Miraslov Volf explains this best. He grew up amid the struggles of ethnic clensing and civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Miraslov explains:
“Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion — without transposing the enemy from the sphere of the monstrous… into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person’s humanity and imitate God’s love for him. And when one knows [as the cross demonstrates] that God’s love is greater than all sin, one is free to see oneself in the light of God’s justice and so rediscover one’s own sinfulness.”
Listen to that first part again: “Forgiveness flounders because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners.” We isolate ourselves from those who offend us: He is an inhuman monster, and I am innocent. We overcome this barrier by remembering that he is also human and that we are also sinners. For Joseph, the first step toward forgiveness was seeing his brothers as brothers again. The same goes for us. This is empathy.
The next barrier to forgiveness is BITTERNESS. The lie of bitterness is: It hurts too much to forgive. It probably hurts a lot, or we wouldn’t even be talking about forgiveness. It is true that it hurts. It is not true that it hurts too much for forgiveness to be possible.
A former KNU teacher, Trevan Hauk, traveled to Africa on an educational exploration of peace and reconciliation. While he was there he met a Rwandan woman was kidnapped during the 1994 genocide. She was held by four young soldiers for months. Every day, she was beaten and raped. 15 years later, she was traveling around the country talking about the horrors of her experience and why forgiveness and reconcilation are important. At every speaking engagement, she has a speaking partner who discusses the same topics. This speaking partner who travels the nation with her is one of the four men who kidnapped and raped her. Amazingly, they go all over the place explaining the quiet sense of peace and joy that reconcilation has brought them.
If her great pain is not too great, then we can also forgive.
One key that Joseph discovers in his journey toward forgiveness is GRATITUDE. Joseph has discovered how to look at his pain in a new light. The pain was real. The wrongs done to him were very real. However, in a great mystery, they allowed him greater access to God’s grace. In a great mystery, the pain opened new possibilities. Joseph is able to make peace with his brothers because he has made peace with his own history. Joseph discovered one of the great mysteries of life. Sometimes our greatest blessings are burried inside our deepest pains.
I’m not telling you that you need to ignore your pain. I’m not saying that your pain was not real or that God intended those bad things to happen to you. I’m saying that all of your experiences have shaped you into the person you are today. You are marked by your suffering, and not all of those marks are bad. We take a huge step toward healing when we can look back onto our histories with a sense of gratitude – even if it is a kind of backhanded gratitude.
You might say, “I wouldn’t wish that suffering for anyone, but in a way, I’m kind of grateful for that experience. I’m grateful for how it has shaped me and how God has taught me and healed me. I’m grateful for the proces of getting from there to where I am today.”
The third barrier that Joseph faces on his path to forgiveness is JUSTICE. The lie of justice is: They don’t deserve forgiveness. Justice almost stopped Joseph’s forgiveness. Genesis spends three chapters describing the games Joseph plays as he tests his brothers’ repentance. It’s as if he’s only going to forgive them if they’ve really changed. He’s only going to forgive them if they’re really, really sorry.
Thankfully, they pass his test. But many of the people who have wronged us would fail our tests or are simply unavailable. If we wait until they deserve our forgiveness, we might be waiting a long, long time.
The antidote for the justice barrier is FORGIVEN-NESS. We have to look beyond Joseph’s story all the way to Jesus and his parable of the man who wouldn’t forgive (Matthew 18:21-35). He was forgiven a huge debt, but he wouldn’t forgive the smaller debt someone else owed him.
The lie is: They don’t deserve forgiveness. The truth is: Neither do we.
Last year, in Bangladesh, I heard James, one of the Bangla pastors, tell this parable. In one family there were two brothers, and the older brother was always taking care of the younger brother and getting him out of trouble. When they grew up, the younger brother developed a very bad temper. One day, he got into a fight and killed a man.
In a panic, the younger brother ran home and found his older brother. “I’ve just killed a man. What am I going to do? They’ll know it was me. I washed my hands, but I can’t get the blood out of my shirt. Save me brother! What should I do?”
About that time, they could hear the police coming toward the house with a big crowd of people. The older brother said, “Quick, give me your shirt and take mine.” The younger brother quickly obeyed.
Then, the older brother put on the blood stained shirt. When the police got to the house, they found the older brother with blood all over his shirt, and they arrested him for murder. He was sentanced to death, and the younger brother went free.
This is what Jesus, our older brother, has done for us. We have rebelled against God, and we deserve death. But Jesus took our bloody, sin-stained shirt. He took our death, and through his death, we have life. Because of Jesus’ death, we are completely and utterly forgiven. All we have to do is say, “Save me,” and then put on Jesus’ clean shirt, his clean life. This is the gospel.
When we embrace that forgiven-ness, that opens doors to a whole new life for us. Once we grasp how our wrongs have been forgiven, then we gain the strength to forgive those who wrong us. Forgiven-ness is the ultimate key to forgiveness.
Miraslov Volf reminds us that the obtacles to forgiveness are immense. And “when forgiveness happens, it is always a miracle of grace.” May God’s beautiful miracle of grace happen in us and in our community. For this miracle of forgiveness is an essential part of being a loving community that changes our world.