Last week we heard about the very interesting and ambivalent character, Jacob. Jacob seems almost like a man of split personalities. He is almost an ancient day Jekyl and Hyde. Jacob is, at first devious, but then, tempered by the experience of being tricked and deceived himself, changed into a new man.
It should be noted that Jacob isn’t instantly and completely a perfect person. He does receive a new name–Israel, which is like receiving a new destiny. But Jacob/Israel still stumbles. And he certainly still has heartbreaks to endure. The greatest of these we see in this week’s lesson.
Jacob had 12 sons. They were all born to him before God changed Jacob’s name to Israel. Their names were: Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulum, Dan, Naphtali, Gad, Asher, Joseph and Benjamin. Each of these 12 brothers would eventually have many sons and grandsons. The family of Israel would grow to become a great nation. But, for now, it was just the 12 brothers.
This was the family that God has chosen to work through to help to improve human beings and to heal the world which was so far from perfect. This family had a big job in front of them. And if there is one thing that will hurt a family’s chances for success it is the danger of fighting amongst themselves. This week’s story is about just such an incident. And it threatened to tear them apart.
This story is the longest single story in the whole book of Genesis. That gives you a pretty good idea of how important a story it is. It’s such a big story that we will have to just hit the high points and skim over a lot of the details.
Our story all begins one day when Joseph, the second youngest son, has a dream. And in his dream his brothers all bow down to him and pay him respects as the greatest among them.
Joseph might not have been the brightest guy in the world because he went and told his brothers all about this dream. And they weren’t too impressed. In fact, they were mad. “Joseph thinks that he’s better than the rest of us,” they said to one another. “We’ll show him.”
So, they decided to kill him. And they would have too. They almost did. But, at the last minute, one of the brothers stepped up and said, “No, that’s too wicked a thing to do. Let’s not kill him. We’ll sell him as a slave.” It just so happens that the brother who said this was planning to go back and rescue Joseph when the other brothers weren’t looking, and to save Joseph from slavery too. But that brother was a little too slow to act. And when he had sprung into action it was too late. Joseph had been bought and sold.
Now the brothers had to do something. They couldn’t go home to their dad, Jacob, and tell the old man that they had just sold his favorite son into slavery. There would be some spankings for that. So, instead, to try to cover up their most foul deed, the brothers told their father that Joseph had been attacked by a wild animal. And to prove it they showed their father Joseph’s new coat–the one Jacob had bought him–all smothered in blood. Jacob was devastated. The old man’s heart was broken. But the brothers figured that he would get over it in time. It took a lot longer and a lot more than they thought it would.
To follow the thread of the story, we have to trace the footsteps of Joseph. After he got sold, Joseph was taken down to a land called,Egypt. Egypt was a powerful nation, with rich and powerful people living in it. Joseph became a household slave to one of those rich men. And he did very well for himself there. Joseph was a hard worker and well liked. In spite of his brother’s intentions, Joseph had met with a great deal of success. But sometimes when things are going your way, you find that they can just as quickly take a turn for the worse. Jacob’s master got mad at Joseph. Joseph didn’t do anything wrong. But lies were told about him. And Joseph’s master believed those lies. So he had Joseph thrown into prison. Up one day, down the next.
But even in prison Joseph found himself well liked. Joseph experienced another turn of fortune when someone whom he had befriended in prison got out of jail and had nice things to say about Joseph. This man told no one less than the king of Egypt himself what a great guy Joseph was. The king would have to see for himself. So the king had Joseph released and brought in before him. He gave Joseph a hard test. “If you are as wise as they say that you are, tell me what my dreams mean.” You see, the king had had several dreams the last several nights that greatly troubled him. But he didn’t know what to make of them. But the king was clever. And he was intending to really put Joseph to the test. So the king did not tell Joseph what he had dreamed. If Joseph was as wise as they said he was, then he could tell the king not only what his dreams mean, but what the dreams themselves were–as if Joseph could creep into the king’s mind and night and see what dreams he had had.
Well, lo and behold, with God’s help, Joseph passed the test. The king was so impressed that he promoted Joseph to second in command of the kingdom; second only to the king himself. Once again, Joseph was flying sky high.
Now we have to go back to the brothers. Things were not going so well for them. There had been bad weather and not nearly enough food in the land to feed their families. They were starving. Skinny and depressed, the brothers were instructed by their father Jacob, still grieving deeply over his lost son, Joseph, to go down to Egypt to buy some groceries. “Surely Egypt will have food. They plan ahead.”
In fact, Egypt had planned ahead. They had saved up and stored plenty of food just in the chance event that there would one day be a shortage. In fact, this was all Josephs’ idea. He thought it up. He got the idea, in fact, from the king’s dreams, which Joseph had taken to mean–’store up some food.’
So, Joseph’s brothers went down to Egypt to beg for a bite of bread and at least a few snacks.
And guess who they were sent to?
You guessed it–Joseph.
Now here’s the thing: so many years had passed since last Joseph and his brothers had seen each other that the brothers didn’t recognize Joseph. Apparently Joseph had changed more than the brothers had, because he instantly recognized them. But Joseph didn’t say anything. He just sort of played dumb.
“You want food,” he asked? “I can sell you some. But, next time you come, bring your youngest brother, Benjamin.”
‘Now that’s weird,’ the brothers thought. ‘How did this Egyptian know that we had a brother still left at home?’ You see, Benjamin had been left behind because their father, Jacob, refused to let him go. “Too risky,” Jacob complained. “I can’t stand to lose another one of my two favorites.” So Benjamin stayed home.
But Joseph, in disguise, knew that Benjamin was missing, and told them, next time, to bring him.
And when next time came around, and the brothers were starving to death again, they brought Benjamin. The father, Jacob was against it at first. But the brothers told him, “It’s this or starve.” So, he gave in.
Once again the brothers appeared before Joseph begging for food; this time with Benjamin. And this was when Joseph played a little trick on his brothers and really scared them. He pretended to get mad and said that one of the brothers was a thief. And if he found out which one, that brother was going to jail. Well…Joseph had it rigged so that it appeared as if Benjamin had stolen something of his. So Joseph called the brothers back and said, “You all can go home, except that one; that little thief. He stays here. He’s going to jail. And to think–here I had been so generous to you, selling you some groceries because I felt so sorry for you looking so skinny and all. One of the brothers begged to be taken to jail in place of Benjamin. He thought, ‘this is going to kill my father, if we don’t bring Benjamin back.’ Joseph looked really mad. He wasn’t about to make any deals. But on the inside he was laughing. Finally he couldn’t contain himself anymore. “No, I’m just kidding guys. Hey, it’s me–Joseph.”
When Joseph dropped that bombshell on them, the brothers didn’t know what to think. What kind of a joke is this? And what is Joseph going to do with us now, knowing the rotten thing that we did to him all of those years ago, selling him into slavery? Joseph had set them up for the wickedest revenge story anybody ever could have dreamed up. Here they were, his treacherous brothers, completely in his hands; completely in his power. One wave of his finger and they would be utterly destroyed. And well they deserved it.
And do you know what he did? Joseph forgave them. He let bygones be bygones. And they–the brothers–could hardly believe it. In fact, for years after, the brothers never could quite believe that Joseph had fully forgiven them. They figured that when their father finally passed away that Joseph would get his revenge then.
But, you know what? He never did. He had really and completely forgiven them. That’s the only way that people and a family can survive; if there’s lots of forgiveness.
Joseph moved the whole family down to Egypt so that they could get groceries whenever they needed them. And that is how the family of Israel lived together in forgiveness; happily ever after…at least for little, short while.
The easiest and most obvious connection in the catechism to the Joseph narrative is the 5th petition of the Lord’s Prayer. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. The peace and harmony that forgiveness brings is most powerfully and pronouncedly acted out by the community of faith in the sacrament of the altar, where the family table (our Lord’s family) becomes the ultimate representation of mutual forgiveness. The one bread of which we eat and the one cup from which we drink is forgiveness enacted in the most vivid manner.