Joseph Forgives His Murderers – Read Genesis 50:15-21
It’s rare that a man alive gets to face his murderers. I believe there’s a Clint Eastwood movie in which a man was hung from a tree and left for dead but survived. He survived and carried out vengeance on those murderers who had hung him.
In our Old Testament lesson today, we read from the end portion of the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph, one of the twelve sons of the patriarch Jacob (Israel), when he was just seventeen years old, was thrown into a pit to be left for dead. His older brothers were his murderers. Joseph’s brothers first plotted to kill Joseph outright, but then one brothers persuaded the rest to throw Joseph into the pit alive where they supposed they would be leaving him for dead. These brothers were murderers against Joseph in heart, if not in deed.
However, if you remember the story, while Joseph languished in the bottom of the pit, his brothers saw an opportunity for profit. They saw traders on the road heading south toward Egypt, so they decided to sell their still living brother into slavery for twenty shekels of silver. Sold as a slave into Egypt, Joseph was gone and as good as dead to them.
However, you might remember, Joseph not only lived but even ascended to a place of power in Egypt, second only to Pharaoh. The one tossed into a pit was eventually raised to a throne. On his throne, God used Joseph to save the lives of many from a great famine in the land.
In fact, that great famine in the land brought Joseph’s murderous brother’s back into Joseph’s life. Those brothers, not knowing that Joseph was still alive, let along a ruler in Egypt, came to Egypt to buy grain. Joseph encounters them and eventually reveals his identity to them. These brothers and their father, Jacob, are all reunited. Joseph then settles the entire family in the best of the land of Egypt.
That all brings us to today’s reading. Joseph, when reunited with his murderous brothers and with his elderly father, took care of them all - He carried out no revenge. But now, when we get to today’s reading in chapter 50, their father is dead. Only the brothers are left. What will Joseph do now?
The brothers, who are now old men, fear. They are afraid that with their father out of the way, Joseph will finally carry out vengeance for their murderous deed which still weighs on their conscience. What will Joseph do?
The brothers, to protect themselves – and this was either a lie or maybe it was true – report to Joseph that on his deathbed, their father Jacob said, “Please tell Joseph that I want him to forgive all of you.” Upon hearing this report from his brothers, Joseph weeps – not because he is moved by the report, but because he is saddened – He is saddened that after all this time his brothers still don’t get it. Joseph loves them. But they fear him and don’t understand that he loves them.
Joseph has already forgiven them. But they still don’t understand that. So, when the brothers plead with Joseph, Joseph gives this response: Joseph says, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.” Then he says, “So do not fear, I will provide for you and your little ones.” [vv.10-21]
Joseph had that impossible opportunity – He gets to stand alive before his own murderers. But unlike the movies, Joseph does not get revenge. Joseph forgives. Joseph is not angry. In all of Joseph’s response, there are no hints of anger or a grudge or even frustration. Joseph does acknowledge his brothers’ wrongs, that they meant it for evil. But Joseph then comforts his brothers, reminding them that, although they did evil, God, nevertheless, meant it for good and spared many lives through it.
Not only is vengeance absent from Joseph’s heart and mind, but his love for his brothers is genuine – it displays itself in loving actions toward them – “I will provide for you and your little ones; do not be afraid.”
Brothers and sisters, why learn this story of Joseph? Because all that Joseph did here – his response in heart and word and deed toward his murdering and betraying brothers – this is all what Jesus is commanding to you when he commands, “Love your enemies” [Matthew 5:44].
“Love your enemies.” And “love your neighbor.” These aren’t out on the fringes of God’s commands but are right in the center. “Love your enemies” and “love your neighbors as yourself” means to be men and women who are like Joseph – men and women who do not hold a grudge, who do not live in frustration about others, who do not hope that those bad people get what’s coming to them – but instead men and women who forgive, who take care, who hope for good things even for those who have done wrong. This is what God has commanded you that you must be – people like Joseph.
When we find that we are not like Joseph who was good to his treacherous brothers, it’s not a light matter. We can’t just brush it off or laugh it off. Instead, we must repent. We must plead with God to make us right – to make us the people we ought to be. Repent, plead, pray: “God, please, turn me from being the way I am and make me the way I should be. I must not be the person I am if I expect to be called your child. Make me like your servant Joseph. Turn me and make me better than I am.”
At times we must slow down and be reminded of the basics. Hear these words from both our Gospel and Epistle lesson: “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful”; “Do not judge (Like Joseph, we still call evil, evil, but, in heart, we care about the evildoer and desire a good turnaround for them), and you will not be judged”; “Condemn not, and you will not be condemned”; “forgive, and you will be forgiven”; “give, and it will be given to you.” (So what does this mean when we do condemn and when we don’t forgive and when we don’t give?) [Luke 6:36-42]
“Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them.” How do we respond to our wrongly-changing culture? With anger? Bitterness? “Bless and do not curse them.” “Live in harmony with one another.” ‘Never be wise in your own sight.” “Repay no one evil for evil.” “Never avenge yourself, but leave it to the wrath of God” – Joseph said, “Am I in the place of God?” Heaven forbid! [Romans 12:14-21]
These commands are not strange – these are Christianity 101 - they are basic to the faith. These commands should be continuously on our mind as our guide and lens through which we examine our thoughts and actions. We should see these commands as part of the mold into which we are being formed. Yet, instead, how comfortably and casually do we live with complaining on our lips and grudges in our hearts – as if this is normal for a Christian! Our complaining and grudges and anger should be abnormal in the household of faith. God is looking for a household of Josephs. (It was his murderous brothers who were vengeful and held grudges in their heart.)
What hope is there, then, for people like you and I who still fall so far from the mark of what is good and acceptable to God? What hope is there for me when I see how far I still fall from the mark of being like that man Joseph? Your sure and certain hope is this - that Jesus is a man like Joseph. Jesus, your coming judge, already came and has proven Himself to be a man like Joseph for you. Jesus has forgiven the guilty and holds no grudge against your sin. He has died for you.
Jesus, the innocent one, was murdered to save the guilty. In fact, it was not just the hammer and nails, but it was our sins that brought that death upon Him – by our sins, we are all His killers. Jesus, risen from that pit of the tomb alive, now lives to face His own murderers. He comes, He absolves your sins, He takes care of you and of your little ones. Jesus, our judge, is our Savior – a man like Joseph.
Those who crucified Jesus meant it for evil – but God meant it for good, that many lives would be saved. Mercy begins with God’s mercy. When you and I fail to be like that man Joseph, we find mercy in the man Jesus. Jesus forgives. And then Jesus helps us forgive. So, we pray, “Jesus, turn us. Help us to be men like you.” Amen.