Amy Plantinga Pauw
Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
February 24, 201919
Gen. 45:3-11, 15
Today’s passage from Luke picks up where Jim Hubert’s wonderful sermon last week left off. Last week it was Jesus’ teaching about blessing and grief. This week it’s Jesus’ teaching about loving your enemies and forgiving those who hurt you. It’s paired in the lectionary with our reading from Genesis 45. Now it’s always risky to try to get inside the mind of the people who put together the lectionary. But their usual MO is to make the gospel reading central and pick an Old Testament passage to complement it. So my guess is that the lectionary people picked Genesis 45, the climax of the story of Joseph and his brothers, to illustrate Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness. In the passage we read, Joseph forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery. Instead of treating his brothers like enemies, Joseph makes sure they get food in a time of famine.
Joseph, the perfect illustration of forgiveness. Wait. Am I the only one who thinks that it’s a little more complicated than that? The story of Joseph is one of the best stories in the whole Bible. It takes up 14 big chapters in Genesis, and I’m sorry to say that for most of it Joseph comes off as a selfish and manipulative jerk. As one commentator put it, “Long before HBO had Tony Soprano, the Bible had Joseph, arguably the original bad-guy protagonist.”
Here is a quick recap. As a boy, Joseph is Daddy’s favorite, and he knows it. He’s a good-looking tattle-tale who has self-aggrandizing dreams about himself. His resentful brothers try to get rid of him in various ways, but Joseph ends up in Egypt and eventually becomes Pharaoh’s second-in-command. As Joseph humbly puts it, “God has made me lord of all Egypt.” (Even when Joseph talks about God he has to make it all about him.) The one who was enslaved himself now “enslaves the Egyptian people from one end of Egypt to the other.”
Joseph and his estranged brothers have no contact with each other until there is a famine. Egypt has stored up grain, so Joseph’s brothers are sent by their father to buy some of the grain hoarded there. Anyone who wants to eat must come to Joseph. He decides who may purchase grain and at what price. Once powerless at the bottom of a pit, outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now gets to decide who will live and who will die. Furthermore, Joseph recognizes his brothers, but they don’t recognize him. That puts the manipulative Joseph just where he likes to be: holding all the cards. His brothers are at his mercy. They need him. He does not need them.
So does Joseph do what Jesus teaches in Luke 6, and immediately show love for the brothers who had done him wrong? Sorry, but no. Joseph first wants to exploit his power and privilege a bit at his brothers’ expense. He pretends not to know his brothers, accuses them of spying, throws them all in jail for three days, plants money on them, setting him up for a charge of stealing, holds one of them hostage until they return to Egypt with Benjamin, their youngest brother. In the end, Joseph does offer forgiveness to his brothers. But his pride and denial keep him from admitting that he needs their forgiveness too.
If anything, the story of Joseph and his brothers illustrates just how difficult Jesus’ teaching is. Life is messy. It’s not that there is a group of good people over here who are called to love and forgive a group of bad people over there. In different ways, we all hurt other people, and other people hurt us. Love and forgiveness are needed on so many levels in our lives. How do we as imperfect people go about loving those who have hurt us? And how do those we have hurt go about loving us? How do we ever get to the point of offering genuine forgiveness to others? And how do we receive forgiveness from people like Joseph, who aren’t exactly paragons of virtue themselves? In the gospel of Luke, Jesus seems to be an ace at forgiveness. Does he have any idea how hard this is for the rest of us?
Actually, I think Jesus does know how hard this is. We should not take Jesus’ teaching on loving our enemies as a threat—do this or else. We shouldn’t take it as an inflexible command—do it now and do it right. We shouldn’t take Jesus to mean that we give up on speaking the truth and pursuing justice. Instead, we should take Jesus’ teaching on dealing with our enemies as an invitation to a fuller, freer life. It’s hard to feel God’s love if we are a ball of pride and denial and hatred and resentment. God is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked, Jesus says. Imagine, he says, what it would look like to step into that. Jesus invites us to take a deep breath, pray for God’s help, and take some baby steps towards loving the wicked and ungrateful people in our own lives, starting with ourselves. Jesus’s teaching in Luke 6 is not so much about what God wants from us. It’s more about what God wants for us.
We won’t get it all right. As the theologian Karl Barth put it, “Christian life is about doing the relatively better relatively well.” Our efforts at loving wicked and ungrateful people are always going to have mixed success. We even have a hard time loving annoying people. Like Joseph and his brothers, we limp along as imperfect people, trying to forgive and trying to accept forgiveness from each other. It isn’t always a pretty picture. But like Joseph, we trust that God is working for good in each situation. Our love for difficult people gets exhausted pretty quickly, but God’s doesn’t. God’s love is new every morning, and that helps us get up and try once again.
I was stuck in the Baltimore airport for a couple days recently. As wave after wave of flight cancellations rolled in, I had time to read cover to cover the book that won the Grawemeyer award in religion for this year. It’s called The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones. Jones’s thesis is that the cultural dominance of White Christian America, meaning specifically white American Protestantism, is over. White Christian America has been in declining health for some time now, and it will not ever regain its position of power and privilege at the middle of American life. With the story of Joseph already in my head, it was easy to see connections between the two narratives. I will focus on what Jones says about predominately white mainline Protestant denominations like ours. It’s painful to read the self-aggrandizing past pronouncements of Presbyterians, Methodists, and other white mainline Protestants. Like Joseph, white mainline Protestants have seen themselves as the favored instrument of God’s providence. Like Joseph, they have enjoyed having a monopoly on civic power and privilege and have used it to their own benefit. Like Joseph, white mainline Protestants have been eager to claim the moral high ground, but they have not been eager to reckon with the shameful parts of their own history, especially their treatment of non-Protestants and people of color. They have been quick to see themselves as the shepherd of America’s soul. They have been much slower to repent and ask others for forgiveness.
But now, according to Jones, White Christian America is no longer lord of all Egypt. And when it comes to following Jesus, maybe that’s a good thing. Now that our power, money, and numbers have shrunk, maybe we are in a better position to hear Jesus’ teaching. It comes back to what God wants for us. What God ultimately wants for us is not power, or wealth, or national influence, or the assurance that we’re always right. What God wants for us is abundant life—and that involves listening to others, repenting, forgiving, hoping, and trying new things. Jesus invites us to come to the table as a guest, not as the host. We are to take our seat beside Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and the religiously unaffiliated. We are to take our seat beside the people whose land and labor we have stolen and exploited. Now that it’s no longer all about us, maybe we can find new ways to rejoice in God’s work through other communities. Now that we’ve given up always claiming the moral high ground, maybe we can live into a new honesty, a new clarity about God’s grace towards all people.
In Luke 6 Jesus issues an invitation to a fuller, freer life. Jesus invites us to move past pride and denial. To move past hatred and resentment. To move towards honesty and understanding, cooperation and trust. Our attempts at offering and receiving forgiveness sometimes fail. They are always imperfect. Forgiveness can’t be demanded. It can’t be forced on anyone. There is no timetable for it. But somehow it does happen, in ways large and small. People who have been divorced for decades start talking again. The family of a murder victim decides not to pursue the death penalty. Students at Georgetown University in D.C. discuss paying reparations for the 272 slaves their university sold almost 200 years ago. Following Jesus isn’t easy. It’s always messy. But it happens. And it can happen with us. It’s what God wants for us. What will it look like in your life?