I read a revision of a parable the other day. It is interesting how just one new sentence can affect the meaning, helping us see something that maybe was always there but largely unnoticed.
The parable was a re-telling of the first section of Luke 15’s prodigal son. The young man takes his inheritance, squanders it, becomes desperate, and decides he’d be better swallowing his pride and returning home. He’s not though feeling sorry that he asked for his inheritance, insulted his father, offended his family, and left. Rather he’s feeling sorry that he’s broke.
As per Luke’s version the father sees him coming, runs and embraces him, then throws a big ‘welcome home’ party for his boy. The revised parable ends with the younger son in his bedroom weeping; now sorry for the pain he had caused.
The moral of this rewrite, which can be found in the original, is that forgiveness and restoration can precede repentance. The father’s compassion was not conditional upon the son saying sorry.
In the context of atonement, namely how we find oneness with God, this parable has a very different message from the mythology that Jesus needed to die to atone for our sins. We can take from this parable that God, like the prodigal’s father, is always ready to embrace us no matter what state of sin, sorrow, or despair we find ourselves.
This overarching theme of reconciliation is found in the biblical text set for today, namely the story of Joseph revealing himself to his brothers. This text is usually interpreted as a wonderful act of forgiveness by Joseph, who had been bullied and almost killed by his siblings. It is told as a story of love overcoming hate, and is linked in our lectionary with Luke 6:27 “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you”.
The Book of Genesis though gives us complex nuanced stories where heroes may have villainous traits, and the villains may do heroic deeds. And such is the case here.
Joseph was born with a gift to interpret dreams, with 10 older brothers who didn’t have that gift, and a father and family history that played favourites. The father, Jacob, you may remember had manipulated his father Isaac and stolen his brother, Esau’s, birth-right. And Jacob’s grandfather, Abraham, favouring his younger son Isaac had deprived his firstborn, Ishmael, from his birth-right. All these family decisions created a legacy of enmity and distrust, with favouritism trumping justice. All this Joseph and his brothers inherited.
So it is not really a surprise to the reader to learn that Jacob had a favourite wife, and her first born was his favourite son. And it’s not surprising to learn that Jacob was blatant in letting his favouritism show, symbolized by a coat of many colours.
Due to the horror of the violent bullying action of his brothers, we tend to overlook this legacy of favouritism and its fracturing ramifications in a family; and we also tend to overlook the personality of Joseph.
Joseph had a gift: dreams and the insight to the interpret them. Dreams were understood in those days as a source of divine knowledge. Joseph freely wielded this gift, relaying to his brothers prophecies where he, Joseph, would be at the centre and his elder siblings would bow down to him.
Joseph was one of those gifted people with a sizable ego who seems almost oblivious to the sensibilities or wisdom of others. Such people like Joseph believe they are born to greatness, they direct events, and that they are unquestionably the leading characters in the scenarios that unfold around them. It’s a form of narcissism.
Note the first lesson in this saga: to build functional healthy families and communities it is necessary to put justice/fairness-to-all before favourites and egos.
Joseph’s brothers, acting on their jealousy, wanted to kill him. But Reuben, the eldest, stopped this fratricide, and Judah, the 4th born, suggested a sale to the Midianites (or was it the Ishmaelite’s)? They then sold him on to Egyptians.
Joseph survived, and not only survived but prospered. Through his skills and good fortune he climbed in importance becoming the Pharaoh’s “prime minister” and leading the country through a time of preparation for a famine.
That famine also struck Canaan where Joseph’s father and family dwelt. The brothers travelled to Egypt to seek help.
They didn’t recognise Joseph and bowed down to him, thus fulfilling Joseph's childhood dreams. Joseph, recognising them, is awash with the past. He remembers its pain and his anger arises: "You are spies!" he yells.
Joseph has three concerns, none of which have to do with spying. Firstly, he wants his brothers to feel remorse and repent for wronging him. Secondly, wants to see his brother whom he has never met, Benjamin [Rachel's only other son], who is back in Canaan. And lastly he still seeks the praise of his father, Jacob.
Joseph sets himself up as a kind of therapist. He first throws the brothers into jail for three days. And then one of them is kept captive while the others return home to bring Benjamin back to Egypt. The therapy does seem to begin to work. “Alas we are paying the penalty for what we did to our brother [Joseph],” they cried.
Note the second lesson of this saga here: violent bullying acts aren’t forgotten, they are carried into the future by both victim, perpetrator[s], and those who by inaction where complicit.
The brothers return to Canaan where, not surprisingly, Jacob isn’t keen to lose his new favourite son, Benjamin. Yes, Jacob is still playing favourites and will do so until he dies.
So the brothers stay at home until the famine strikes again. Then Judah re-enters the picture. It is Judah who persuades Jacob to let them take Benjamin to Egypt.
This is the third lesson: to build functional healthy families and communities it is sometimes necessary to put the good or survival of the whole before personal fears of loss. Like Judah risking the loss of his only surviving son in order to deal fairly with Tamar [chapter 38], so Jacob must risk the loss of his favourite in order that his whole family survives.
When Joseph sees Benjamin he is overcome with emotion. The pain and rage that had hardened during Joseph's 22 years in Egypt were beginning to melt. But he was not so transformed that he had lost all his old desire to dominate. Joseph engineered yet another test for his brothers, which ended with his threatening to keep Benjamin behind with him in Egypt - a loss that their father Jacob would be unable to sustain.
Finally, it was Judah, not Joseph, who brought about the reconciliation and final outcome. In an impassioned speech Judah accepted full responsibility for the crimes of his family. Twenty-two years earlier he had been ready to sell his brother into slavery. Now he was prepared to remain in Egypt as a slave to ensure that Benjamin was free. He offered his own freedom.
The fourth lesson is the power of empathy. Judah had learned what it was like to lose beloved sons. He now empathized with his father, Jacob, a father who had treated him and most of his siblings with years of indifference and neglect. His own suffering had enabled him to enter the inner world of the father who had wronged him – not that his father ever admitted any wrongdoing.
Twenty-two years earlier Judah had stood silent as Jacob wept over the loss of his son Joseph. Now he could not endure the thought of his father going through that again. At last, after three generations, one member of the family had learned compassion, and was prepared to give up his freedom for it.
Then comes our reading this morning: Joseph is profoundly moved by Judah's plea. He burst into tears. “I am Joseph,” he told his astonished brethren. Suddenly Joseph understands the meaning of his life. A light bulb comes on in his head. He could forgive his brothers, he told them, because they had only been "God's tools". Had he not risen to power in Egypt the whole family would have died of hunger.
It's a great Lloyd Weber finale: hugs, tears, and kisses all round, brother loving brother... or so it seemed. Actually the only person weeping, save Benjamin, was Joseph himself. Joseph's speech has a number of disquieting elements about it. It is still full of the egotism. He, Joseph, was the chosen deliverer. He, Joseph, would be the provider! Joseph had not confronted his own faults in relation to the past but, still possessed by dreams of power, he set himself firmly at centre stage. There is something insulting in the way he completely discounted his brothers' responsibility for their crime - turning them into pawns of God. Indeed for all Joseph's sudden talk about God, he really believed he was the one in control.
The silence of the brothers' response to all this is telling. When seventeen years later their father Jacob dies the brothers were filled with fear. “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back...?” All those seventeen years they had worried about his intentions and never fully trusted him.
The fifth lesson is that if we are waiting for the gifted, self-obsessed, and deeply needy person, who is also sometimes a victim, to see and admit that they have done anything wrong we will be waiting a long time.
Like Judah, we need to go on our own journey towards empathy & compassion, admitting our failures and celebrating the times we enhance family and community life. But our journey can’t be contingent upon such people, like Joseph, seeing the detrimental effects of their own behaviour.
Like too in the example of the prodigal son, we have to, like the prodigal’s dad, be true to the compassion, empathy, kindness, and hospitality that guide our life – be true to our best selves in other words - rather than wait upon the son admitting his culpability.