Proper 19, Year A, Church of St. Joseph of Arimathea

I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you” (Gen. 50:17).

To use an over-used word, the family of the patriarch Jacob was famously dysfunctional. Jacob had many wives and they had many sons, among them Joseph, who was so annoying and so despised by his siblings that, instead of murdering him, they sold him into slavery. There’s a back story to Jacob too: he got his start in life by stealing his brother’s birthright. Just this brief synopsis will give you some idea of the problems this family faced. Too bad they didn’t have reality television back then: Jacob’s family would have been stars.

As the story unfolds, the wretched Joseph is taken to Egypt, where he overcomes his lowly status as a slave by becoming a successful seer and administrator, the Pharaoh’s right-hand man, in fact. Along the way, he’s accused of sexual assault, and spends years in prison. Eventually, however, Joseph rises to the top, where he occupies a position of prominence, able to command all the resources of Egypt.

It’s at exactly at this point of prominence that Joseph’s brothers come calling, looking for relief in the midst of a world-wide famine. It could have been a sweet moment of revenge, of course, and Joseph messes with his brothers a bit, but in the end, he reveals his identity and forgives them for what they did to him. As Joseph says in our first reading today, Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good” (Gen. 50:20). In many ways, that’s the point of the story: God’s providence in the midst of events that we cannot understand. Not a bad point for us to remember as we make our way in the midst of our own global crisis, our own pandemic.

Another part of the Joseph story, however, has to do with forgiveness. His brothers are already frightened of him when they get to Egypt, before they know who he is, because Joseph is a powerful leader whom they believe they’ve offended. Yet when he reveals who he is, as it says earlier in Genesis, “But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence” (Gen. 45:3). Dismayed, indeed: I bet their hearts sank when they realized who they were dealing with!

Joseph reassures them that everything will be ok; but here at the very end of the story, after the death of their father, they are still wondering whether they’ve been forgiven. Maybe Joseph will come after them, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather settling scores with his brother after the death of their father. So, Joseph’s brothers cook up the message from their father Jacob, “I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you” (Gen. 50:17). The patriarch is enlisted posthumously in the cause of forgiveness! Almost the last word of the book of Genesis is an assurance of pardon, extended by one member of the family to the others.

Forgiveness is hard work: for the members of Jacob’s family, it extended over two generations. Joseph and his brothers spent their lifetimes coming to grip with longstanding hurts and grievous wounds inflicted on each other. Joseph’s brothers, at least, found it hard to get beyond their fear of retaliation; hard to believe that they were forgiven! We can find ourselves in their story, as we reflect on our own personal and family dramas. At the same time, there are ancient wounds within our society, multi-generational scandals, that require reconciliation and healing; hurtful things that are in need of forgiveness. There is no one among us who is not in need, both in receiving forgiveness, and then extending it to others.

In our Gospel today, Jesus reminds us that God has extended a wide margin to us, and called us, in turn, to offer the same to others. He tells the story of king who says to the ungrateful slave, “I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” (Mt. 18:32-33). It’s in forgiving others that we find our own forgiveness.

Jesus underscores the lesson of Jacob’s family: how hard it is to forgive. Sometimes the action needs to be repeated seventy-seven times, as he says; that is, to an infinite degree. Forgiveness is hard work; sometimes the work of a lifetime. It takes us a while to get there; but it’s rooted in Jesus’ death and resurrection. This life and death business is the hardest work of all, but it makes all forgiveness possible. Because it’s rooted there, it also means that Jesus has done the heavy lifting. And that’s good news for us, who are in need of forgiveness, and who need to learn to forgive.

  • The Rt. Rev’d John Bauerschmidt, Bishop of Tennessee