Sunday, August 17, 2014

Sermon; Proper 15A; Genesis 45:1-15

Today is our last lesson from Genesis and it wraps up with, as the bulletin cover proclaims, Joseph forgiving his brothers.  But if you read the Joseph story, it's not really clear if Joseph does forgive his brothers; nor is it clear if the brothers accept an offer of forgiveness.  As my New Testament professor often said, “It's more complicated than that.”

Joseph is an interesting character.  We met him last week as a pretentious teenager who seems to have enjoyed tattling on his brothers, was doted on and coddled by his father, and who relished telling others about his dreams of power.  That is a decidedly negative view of Joseph.  We could just as easily say that he was a trustworthy servant of his father, was showered with love to offset the abuse at the hands of his brothers, and dreamed of the time when he would be treated with dignity and respect.

Today's story is close to the end of the Joseph cycle and shows the brothers in an emotional reunion.  What the Lectionary misses between the time he was sold as a slave by those brothers until today's reunion is significant.  He ends up a house slave in Egypt, rising to a prominent position.  There's a false charge of attempted rape, a prison sentence and a reprieve by the Pharaoh because of his interpretive abilities.  Joseph, against all odds, has risen from abused younger sibling and jailed slave boy to second in power over all Egypt.  He got what he dreamed of: he got a power and role reversal, he got treated with respect, and his brothers did bow down to him.

I want to focus in on some of what we don't hear.  He gets tossed in jail because he is accused of attempted rape by Potipher's wife.  After some time in jail Joseph is joined by Pharaoh's baker and wine steward.  They have dreams and Joseph interprets them:  the wine steward will be returned to his position and the baker will lose his life.  The dreams come true and Joseph is forgotten.

Two years later Pharaoh dreams of fat and skinny cows, but his staff is unable to interpret them.  The wine steward remembers Joseph, so he is brought in.  After getting cleaned up, he tells Pharaoh that his dreams mean there will be seven years of plenty followed by seven years of famine.  Joseph is immediately promoted to FEMA Director, overseeing a system of disaster preparedness.

For seven years he taxed and stored 20 percent of all produce.  For another seven years those stores were used to feed Egyptians and any foreigners who were starving.  And here's where Joseph gets complicated; here is where Joseph is shown to be less of the traditional hero and more entitled tyrant.

For seven years he collects a mandatory 20 percent flat tax on all produce in Egypt.  The amount taken in was like the sand of the sea and beyond measure.  And then the famine began.

When people ran out of food, they went to the government for help.  Under Joseph's direction, the supplies that were forcibly taken from the citizens were then SOLD back to them, as well as anyone else needing it.  As the story goes on, Joseph food in exchange for all the livestock in the land and, eventually, sells food for people, making slaves of every Egyptian in the country.  Joseph, who is now on the side of power and privilege, establishes a system that allows him to continue to prosper while everyone else is pushed further down into poverty and dependence.

What Joseph did to the starving Egyptians is what banks are doing today with predatory lending practices, improper foreclosures, overdraft fees and low balance fees.  It's what home supply stores do both pre- and post-hurricane.  It's what company towns and stores did, and do, to their workers.  It's what payday loan centers do to people desperate for money.  Joseph was, in effect, the very first robber baron.

As this great famine spread throughout Egypt, it also spread throughout the known world, affecting Joseph's father and brothers as well.  Jacob, now known as Israel, sends his older sons to Egypt to buy food for the family.  The brothers eventually meet up with Joseph since he is the sole determining factor on who will receive food and who will not.  It's no surprise that the brothers don't recognize Joseph, but he definitely recognizes them.

The reading for today would have us think that this was a happily emotional reunion between long lost brothers.  You might also think this is a story with a happy ending where the long-separated brothers are welcomed into Egypt, given good land, and provided for out of Joseph's massive wealth.  But you would be wrong.

Before Joseph offers any kind of forgiveness or shows any sort of kindness, he will use his power to get revenge for what they did to him.  He accuses them of spying and throws them in jail for three days.  He releases all but one, holding him as hostage, until they bring Benjamin to Egypt.  He sets them up for theft.  He charges Benjamin with a capital offense and keeps him as a slave, forcing the brothers to grovel for mercy.  For Joseph, revenge is indeed a dish best served cold.

But it really isn't.  All revenge does is lay the groundwork for the escalation of violence and mistrust.  That's not to say reparations for bad behavior cannot or should not be made; but reparations must never be vengeful.

Reconstruction in the South failed because, rather than work to repair the war damage, Northerners worked to punish the South into submission.  WWII was caused, in part, by the draconian punishment meted out on Germany after WWI.  In the movie The Black Book, the lead character is publicly humiliated for her involvement with the Nazis solely to satisfy their desire for revenge and to make them feel superior.

Joseph, the least of his brothers and the one with no power, dreamed of the time he would have power and people would bow to him.  That dream came true.  But instead of using his power to establish a system of equity or a system that cared for those most  in need, he used his power to drive the population of Egypt further into debt and slavery.  And instead of looking at all he had been given after being sold by his brothers and saying, “What you meant for ill, God meant for good,” when they first show up, he manipulates and humiliates his brothers in the name of revenge.

We need to be careful with power and role reversals.  We are told that God will raise the valleys and lower the mountains.  We are told there is no more Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free. But if we take those reparations and reversals and turn them into revenge, we have missed the point.

Unlike Joseph, we should work to raise up the lowly in a way that none feel the need for revenge.  Unlike Joseph, our goal should be to level the playing field so all are treated with dignity and respect from the beginning.  Because it will only be when we actually strive for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being, that we will begin to see the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.



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