For the past four Sundays, we have been hearing the story of Joseph’s odyssey from the boy in a colourful coat, to the Pharaoh’s second in command. Today’s chapter is its most poignant. Joseph finally meets his brothers again, some twenty years after they sold him into slavery. Joseph finally reveals his true identity to his brothers, and declares that he forgives them. As a result, this story is often remembered as a story about forgiveness.
But if you read the story closely, it provides few clues on how Joseph comes to forgive his brothers. We never hear Joseph talk about how much he hates or resents his brothers, nor how he gets over it. Joseph doesn’t wrestle with his emotions much, aside from hiding his tears of joy when he sees his brothers.
This is surprising, because as Christians we consider forgiveness to be one of the great spiritual virtues. We have all been in situations where someone has done us wrong, and we become filled with resentment and bitterness, even hatred. We find our minds ruminating on the person and what they did to us, sometimes for years. How could they? Didn’t they know what this would do to me? And sometimes, we even fantasize at getting back at them, plotting revenge.
All that negative energy can eat you up from the inside. It can make you utterly miserable, unable to enjoy your life, and often, your foe doesn’t even know what you are going through. You are torturing yourself, not them. They become a stick figure, a villain in your drama, blinding you to their real, much more complicated self. Jesus tells us we should forgive others, so we don’t have to go through this. Not only should we forgive them, but that God can forgive us.
Forgiveness is liberating. It can free us from getting stuck in a dark place. Often, the way we get there is by giving our bitterness away. We hand it over to God .We pray, “Take this poison away from me.” Or, we may take a good look at ourselves and realize that we have all the same faults and weaknesses as someone else. We might have done that hurtful act, or something like it in their place. In realizing that we are not so different from the flawed person who hurt us, we are able to give up our bitterness. We give it up, we give it away. That is why the word forgiving means “for” “giving”. It is the act of handing something off, letting it go. We give it away, and we do not want it back.
Our society encourages us to wrestle with these issues privately. When someone steals your car, and they get caught, it doesn’t matter whether you forgive them or not, the jail term is the same. The thief is separated from you and the rest of society by ending up in prison. If you forgive them, they may never know, and you will probably never meet them in person. Our model of justice is based on punishment, not reconciliation. One of the problems with this system is that if you can’t forgive them, it is like two people went to jail, not just one. You get locked up with your bitterness, and they are locked in a cell. Each person needs to work this out on their own.
In today’s story, we never see Joseph struggling with his bitter feelings towards his brothers. There are no Hamlet-like soliloquies where he wrestles with hatred or revenge fantasies. So, at the end of the story, when Joseph declares that he has forgiven his brothers, we have no idea how he got there. He seems to have already forgiven them when they first showed up.
If he hadn’t forgiven them, he could have thrown them in jail or even killed them. He has that power. But he doesn’t. That suggests that he had forgiven them long before they are all reunited.
So, whatever this story is about, it is not intended to teach us how to forgive each other. The how, the psychological process, just isn’t there on the page. So, what is this story about? It’s tempting to think it is about the desire of a man to reunite the family which he has forgiven. That certainly fits with Joseph’s actions – he keeps creating ruses so the brothers will have to come back to Egypt. But that begs the question: why doesn’t he just tell them who he is when they first arrive? “Hey, guess what guys, it’s me, Joseph, the little brother who you sold into slavery. I’m a big shot now. All is forgiven, tell Dad to move here with Benjamin and the whole family, and we’ll live happily ever after. “
But Joseph doesn’t do that. Instead, he keeps his identity secret. Earlier, I mentioned that forgiveness is liberating, it is like getting a new lease on life when you can give away your bitterness, to God, or just let it float away. But there are different kinds of forgiveness. Often, the person we forgive never knows that they are forgiven. They may have left our life, moved away, been a stranger we never see again. They may have passed away. Our act of forgiveness restores our spiritual health, but does nothing for them. They are oblivious. The community is not changed, but you are.
Joseph has forgiven his brothers in secret, so what will it take for him to go public? To tell his brothers he forgives them and reveal his true identity? He wants to test them before he comes clean. After all, he has not seen them for 20 years. They could be lying, scheming scoundrels for all he knows. They did abandon him, afterall. So, he sets up a test. He tells them that he will sell them grain, but if they come back for more, he wants them to bring their youngest brother Benjamin with them. He then secretly puts all of their money back in their packs, and keeps one of their brothers as a hostage. Will they take the money and run, abandoning their brother? That’s what scoundrels would do.
Not too long after, the men come back – with the money and young Benjamin, the son Jacob loves best. It’s risky. If anything should befall Benjamin, it will break his father’s heart. Jacob has never fully recovered from losing Joseph. With the money and Benjamin in Egypt, Joseph holds a big feast, and releases the brother he held hostage. But he still hasn’t revealed his true identity. He is still waiting for something. There is one more test.
Now we have caught up with today’s scripture reading. Joseph sells the brothers grain, and is willing to let them go back to their father Jacob. But Joseph has his staff secretly plant a silver cup in Benjamin’s bag. When the steward stops the brothers, and says a silver cup has been stolen, Judah denies it. He declares that if any one of us has stolen the cup, you can put that man to death or enslave him. It is the kind of rash thing people say all the time in fairy tales. Never pretend you know the whole truth about anything, that is God’s department, not ours. When the steward finds the cup in Benjamin’s pack, suddenly, he is doomed to be killed or be enslaved.
The brothers now face a terrible situation. Once again, they are going back to their father Jacob without his favourite son. What will they tell him? Will they lie again and claim an animal killed him? Joseph has recreated the same conditions that led to his exile in Egypt. The question is: are these brothers just as wicked now as they were back then?
It is one thing to forgive a person secretly, it is another thing to tell them to their face. When you tell someone you forgive them, you are taking a chance. They may reject your forgiveness, defend their actions, protect their ego. Or, they may accept it, and take it as an opportunity to have a renewed relationship with you. An honest one, where they admit what they have done, and why they did it. Honesty can pave the way for a new relationship, a reunion based on reconciliation.
That appears to be what Joseph is trying to discover. He does not want to reveal his true identity to his brothers until he has proof that they are different men from the ones who abandoned him years ago. Will they leave Benjamin behind and repeat history? It is at this moment that Judah speaks up. This is the same Judah who sold Joseph into slavery.
This is the same Judah who had been confronted by his pregnant daughter in law Tamar. This is the same Judah who recognized then that he had cheated her, that she was more righteous than he was.
It is this big brother, standing before Joseph who says he will sacrifice himself so that Benjamin can return to Jacob his father. Judah has changed. He has learnt from his encounter with Tamar to care about other people’s feelings. He has become a moral agent, more concerned about his father’s broken heart than his own welfare. He declares that he will give up his life for another.
And it is at that moment that Joseph breaks down. He orders all the Egyptian guards out of the room. He tearfully reveals that he is Joseph, the lost brother. All this time, Joseph was waiting to see if his brothers could understand another person’s pain. Reconciliation is the stage after forgiveness. We can forgive privately, but reconciliation is only possible in public, with the people who have wronged you. Joseph knows that for a reconciliation to be possible, the other person needs to have the moral character to be able to hear about another person’s pain without rejecting it. They need to be open to the feelings and needs of another. Judah’s sacrifice shows he can do that. A woman, Tamar, awakened in him humility and empathy. And now, Joseph can reveal his true self to his brothers, because this time, they can see him.
Facing someone who has hurt you takes courage. It is hard to look someone in the eye and reveal your feelings. It is hard for them, too. But if each side is willing to listen, open enough to really hear what the other side is saying, then a higher order of healing is possible for the victim, the perpetrator, and the entire community. This is what happened in South Africa during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
It was chaired by Bishop Desmond Tutu, who opened each meeting with a prayer. Whites and Blacks faced each other, giving statements about both sides of apartheid.
They were difficult encounters between people who had been enemies. But, It seemed like the only way to clear the air so that a post-apartheid society could be possible for both races.
Here in Canada, our Truth and Reconciliation commission took a different route. Its mandate was to give victims of abuse in the residential school system a chance to speak about their traumatic experiences. But the people who abused the children and ran the schools did not have to face their victims, or give statements. Perhaps that is why so many of us feel like Indigenous concerns are not really our problem. That face to face encounter didn’t happen, and neither did reconciliation.
But the desire for face-to-face reconciliation is growing. Last summer, Black federal members of parliament, the Black Caucus*, issued a call for a change in how the justice system works. Among their recommendations was the increased use of restorative justice. This process has victims and offenders meet, with family and members of the community present.
It is Similar to indigenous healing circles. It allows victims to express their hurt directly to the offender. But more than this, it allows them to ask questions. Why did you do this to me? What brought you to this? And the offender gets to provide answers.
For many people, this system provides a way to give emotional closure and healing which would be impossible if the offender was sent to jail. The system is slowly being tried across the country, because it is less expensive and it provides the possibility of reconciliation and rehabilitation in a way the prison system does not. This approach is used in many schools in Toronto, and studies have found it is more effective than expelling students. They are less likely to misbehave in the future, and get expelled less.
Facing the person who hurt you and telling the truth takes us beyond forgiveness, into reconciliation. Where forgiveness can relieve the pain of a victim, reconciliation can heal an entire community, including the offender. In the Joseph story, Joseph is finally able to fully reveal his identity. His brothers bring his father to settle in Egypt. The Pharaoh gives them the best land for their herds. The entire family is finally reunited and knows the truth. It is a happy ending.
In real life, we are still struggling to create more happy endings. Forgiveness is part of the answer, but not all of it. Honest encounters with those who hurt us, and those whom we have hurt, are needed to heal communities. Joseph found a way, we can too.