My thanks to Maggie for giving us some of the background to our Genesis text during our Time for Young Disciples. Forgiveness is an essential component of our faith, a critical practice of Christianity, and a difficult one. We are called to work toward forgiveness and reconciliation. We are also called to practice repentance. Even as we forgive others, even as we work to forgive others freely and easily, we must also work to hold ourselves to a higher standard. If you follow the lectionary you may have noticed that we skipped several years in the past week. In last week’s passage, Joseph’s ten older brothers threw him in a pit and sold him to a passing caravan headed to Egypt. Today we skip ahead, jumping over everything that has happened to Joseph in Egypt, including both his promotion to Pharaoh’s principal deputy, and spending at least two years in jail.
More importantly, it skips over the tests he put to his brothers. Today’s passage is not their first encounter in Egypt. On their first visit, he accuses them of being spies, and makes them pick one to leave behind in jail until they come back with Benjamin, the youngest, the only full brother of Joseph, who seems to have replaced Joseph as their father’s favorite. The brothers are afraid and think that they are finally being punished for their betrayal and sale of Joseph, and Joseph overhears their remorse, but keeps Simeon as a prisoner
When the nine return, their father, Jacob, now called Israel after wrestling with God, is not thrilled with this plan to return with Benjamin, especially after learning that they may have inadvertently stolen the grain they were sent to purchase, since Joseph, without telling them, had their money returned to them.
Eventually, they convince their father to let them return to Egypt with Benjamin.
When they return, they bring both the money they meant to have paid the first time and money for a fresh purchase and they offer to pay both to Joseph, but he tells them God must have refilled their money bags, since Joseph received their money…which is true, he just gave it back to them without their knowledge.
Joseph is excited to see Benjamin, and so he gives a feast, where we learn two things: Joseph gives Benjamin a larger portion than the other 10, and that, even though Joseph has risen to such power, second only to the Pharaoh, even still, the Egyptians consider it “an abomination” to eat with him, foreshadowing the change in fate for the Hebrews that will occur between Genesis and Exodus.
Joseph still does not reveal himself at this feast, which was already awkward with the segregation from the Egyptians. Instead, Joseph has his servants again pack his brothers’ bags with the grain they came for, the money they brought with them to pay for it, and they hide Joseph’s cup in Benjamin’s bag. Joseph gives them a head start and then sends his steward after them, to accuse them of stealing the cup.
After finding the cup in Benjamin’s bag, the steward tells the others that they can go, and only Benjamin must return as a thief. All the brothers return to plead for Benjamin’s release, and Judah offers to stay in his place.
This is what finally moves Joseph to reveal himself. Joseph has been testing his brothers to see if they have changed, or if they will again sacrifice one of their own.
Too often, we place the burden of forgiveness on the victim. We tell people that it happened in the past, it is time to get over it, especially when we are the ones at fault.
We want to start, like the lectionary does, at the point where Joseph reveals himself and forgives his brothers, welcoming them into his home and setting aside choice lands for them.
We want to skip the work. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer has a name for this: “cheap grace.” Bonhoeffer writes: “Cheap grace is the grace we bestow on ourselves. Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, Communion without confession…Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
Yes, in our passage today from Romans, Paul writes that God forgives because of disobedience. God forgives our disobedience because we will always fall short, will always remain imperfect, and because without imperfection, without disobedience, there is nothing for God or anyone else to forgive.
Paul urges the early church not to seek revenge for their persecution, coming at times from both Jewish and Roman authorities, but he does not urge them to forget. Paul emphasizes that forgiveness comes from God, but Paul also demands that Christians respond to God’s grace and forgiveness by working to ensure they do not perpetuate the systems of oppression that have impacted them. Paul places demands on the later church that the church has rarely, if ever met: to avoid seeking power for the sake of power, to adopt what later theologians, notably Gustavo Gutierrez would call “a preferential option for the poor,” which means that when the church has a choice between serving power or serving the poor, and it is always a choice, the church should choose the poor, the immigrant, the orphan, the stranger.
Joseph spent seven years gathering and storing the grain of Egypt so that others could survive the famine. The text tells us that Joseph did not put Egypt first, but that the grain supports not only the people of Egypt, but that people from many other countries came to Egypt for grain during the famine, including Joseph’s brothers.
Joseph gives his brothers the grain for free, even before he decides to reveal himself and forgive them, even when he is mistrustful, and in so doing, he ensures that he is not punishing others for their sins while he decides what to do.
And yes, Joseph forgives his brothers, and while the text doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the brothers while Joseph is in Egypt, aside from a chapter on Judah, we see, as Joseph sees, that they have done the work. We see that they have repented. We see that they not only regret their actions but are working to ensure they do not repeat the mistake.
I do not know if I could do what Joseph did. I do not know if I could bring myself to forgive them. I am thankful I am not likely to have to find out. I am sure at least a few of you have heard other sermons on this text. I am sure that at least one of those sermons has called on you to forgive freely, to forgive as some might say Joseph did, as Paul says God does.
I am not telling you not to do that. We are called to forgive. We are also called to do the work to make ourselves worthy of forgiveness, and so my charge to you today is not just to practice forgiveness like Joseph, but to practice repentance like his brothers.