Forgiveness is not something that happens overnight. For Joseph’s story, the journey of grace is long and difficult and it leads to this climactic and emotional moment. In last week’s passage, Joseph was voiceless, cast down and out by his brothers into silence. While the brothers assumed the story of Joseph was over, we read on to see Joseph having more hardships. He is cast out into prison by Potiphar, and though he interprets their dreams, is forgotten by his fellow prisoner who is restored to Pharaoh’s side.
It is not until Pharaoh has a dream that needs interpreted that Joseph is called out of the “pit” again. He concludes that the dream is about an upcoming drought. Pharaoh elevates him to high authority in Egypt as he oversees the distribution of food. Where his brothers tried to cast Joseph out of God’s promise of blessing the nations, all nations flock to him to find hope for the future in the food he provides! The tension builds when his own brothers come to receive food – food from him, the one they tried to destroy. After much deliberation and testing, Joseph, his identity not yet revealed to his brothers, becomes overwhelmed. Everyone, including us, is tuned into each of Joseph’s words – what will he say? Each of his statements have heavy significance to the story of this family of promise.
“Send everyone away.”
The possibility of grace is opened up again. This time Joseph has the power to make the choice. The choice is not like his brothers’ – to refrain from violence toward the innocent. Rather, his decision is whether to include the guilty in the fullness of God’s life-giving work – not only for them to receive food but to know their brother is alive; perhaps to even be restored to him.
With this cry, Joseph seems to have made the decision to reveal himself to his brothers. Though the lectionary begins here, it should be noted that this is the climactic point of a long process. It takes Joseph considerable time to overcome his fear of their reaction. It takes Joseph a long time and much testing of his brothers to trust their sincerity. Even when he makes himself known, there is still great uncertainty! He has not yet restored them or forgiven them. The brothers are speechless and dismayed, unsure now what their fate will be. They are confident they are guiltless of the “official of Egypt’s” tests of character, but they know they are guilty of what they have done to Joseph!
For our congregations and ourselves, there are unresolved issues of forgiveness. There are brothers and sisters who have betrayed and are victims of betrayal. Yet, Christ calls us to love our enemies even as we love those who love us. This call for grace is difficult and we wrestle like Joseph for the decision even to reveal our vulnerabilities and our identity again to those we have been hurt by. We might even wrestle with the brothers about the ramifications of our own guilt. God may very well guide us in the realization of relationships that have unresolved issues. This may leave us speechless and worried. Forgiveness leaves us vulnerable. Its powerful movement leaves the victims’ voices elevated and the perpetrators speechless. And this can be an overwhelming moment. Yet Christ who has invited us, formerly his enemies, close as family, calls us also to echo the work of forgiveness: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained (John 20:23)” and, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” This is what makes Joseph’s next words so impactful for his story and for ours.
“Come closer to me.”
The first words of Joseph to his brothers are not trite. They hold significant weight for his suffering, the journey he has been on, and the restoration of his family moving forward:
The last time they came closer, he was silenced and sold. Now, Joseph has a lot to say!
The last time they came closer, they had all the power. Now, Joseph is second only to Pharaoh!
The last time they came closer, it was to bring death. Now, Joseph holds life itself in his hands.
The last time they came closer, they threw him in a pit. Now, Joseph falls on Benjamin’s neck.
Even though forgiveness is a part of life for the Christian and this is certainly a good story to inspire the change of heart needed, the story is not shy about the gravity of the situation. Neither should we as we acknowledge that many are afraid to invite wounded relationships to a closer place. In many instances it is not safe to do so. Even in situations where reconciliation and peace are not presently possible – when people cannot or are not ready to extend the invitation to come closer - God still calls all the hurting closer to God’s self to find restoration of shalom. And when we come closer to God, we find like Joseph that God will do immeasurably more than we could have asked for.
“God sent me.”
For the first time in the Joseph narrative, we hear extensively and explicitly how Joseph sees God’s involvement in all of this. Joseph shares with his brothers that God has been working the whole time. It is God who has brought him to this place of blessing the nations. Even where the brothers planned harm for him, God brought good to all people. We should not interpret Joseph’s words to imply that it was God’s will for Joseph to be thrown into a pit. God does not will for brothers to destroy one another. Nevertheless, Joseph testifies to God’s providence in every instance of the story. Though God’s involvement has not been explicitly named in the text to this point, we now can re-read the story through Joseph’s interpretation. God has indeed been there the whole time even when it seemed that God was silent. In the midst of suffering, God brought blessings to the nations. It shows that God is faithful to fulfill God’s promises even when others actively plot against those plans. God is faithful to the promise, even when the family of promise is not. God lifted Joseph out of the pit and through him lifted the nations and even the brothers turned enemies out of a drought, yet again restoring them to a future they could not provide for themselves.
“Bring my father down.”
This statement is an indication not only that the redemption process has started but implies it will go on. Forgiveness does not start and end here. Jacob now needs to see his son that was dead and is now alive. Joseph needs to be restored to him too. The brothers and Joseph have a lot of relational work to do from here. For example, when Jacob dies, the brothers still wonder if Joseph will turn around and become like them, taking his wrath out on them, and of course Joseph does not (Gen. 50:15-21). The movement of grace is a commitment to the long-term nurturing of restored relationships. With our relationship with God and others, when we receive this grace to address the brokenness in our lives, it opens us up for the joy and pain of reconciliation.