Sunday, August 14, 2011

Gone Wandering 5: The Best of All Is Yours

Gone Wandering 5: The Best of All Is Yours

© 2011, Robert J. Elder

20th Sunday in Ordinary time: August 14, 2011

Genesis 45:4-20 (-28)

If we were going to make a modern film of the story of Joseph, we might be tempted to take the sort of liberties with the original narrative for which Hollywood has become famous. Remember, it is Hollywood that has turned such classics as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter from a tale of tortured 19th century guilt over sexual indiscretion into the sort of modern R-rated film that would have caused Hawthorne to blush and run from the room. It is Hollywood that transformed Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame from a dark and brooding story ending in tragic death into a cartoon tale of bright songs and happy endings.

So, being possessed of such artistic license, we might take another look at the story of Joseph. What would be the motive running the narrative if Hollywood were to write the script? It would be revenge!

We could cast Matt Damon in the part of Joseph; Harrison Ford is old enough now to play Jacob; Justin Bieber could be the youngest brother, Benjamin; Keifer Sutherland as the waffling eldest brother Reuben; and maybe someone like John Malkovich as scheming Judah. We might then make the ending of the Joseph saga go more like this:

So, many years after they threw him into a ditch to leave for dead, years after they pulled him out of that terrifying pit only to sell him as a slave to a passing tribe of Bedouin traders, Joseph is only too happy to see the faces of his evil brothers again. They come to him in Egypt, hats in hands as it were, to beg for a bit of food to feed their starving people back home in Canaan. They do not know that the all-powerful representative of Pharaoh to whom they address their requests is none other than the very brother they had as good as left for dead so many years ago.

On that day, tied to that Bedouin trader’s camel, bound hand and foot, Joseph looked his brothers in the eye as they rode off and, quoting an older anti-hero, muttered, “I’ll be back!” But this was even better. He didn’t have to travel back home to make good on his threat. They had come to him. He had them right where he wanted them. The irony of it was too good to be true. His chance for sweet revenge stood right before him.

After toying with them for a time, forcing them to perform a handful of degrading tasks, then threatening their little brother with capture, Joseph finally revealed himself to them. He dropped his regal face down close to theirs and growled, “Don’t you know me? I’m your very own brother!”

After a brief gasp of recognition, swords were drawn instantly, once the ten realized the danger this one they had thought long dead now represented to them. Surely he would kill them like worms. Their lives weren’t much, yet they realized their only hope for such lives as they had would be to fight their way out of the Egyptian court. They would have to make plans on the run from there, if they managed to get out alive. Reuben – the cowardly eldest who on that fateful day so long ago had failed to stand up for his youngest brother, only lamely suggesting that they not kill Joseph – Reuben now lived to regret his long-forgotten moment of compassion. Joseph dispatched him first with a fierce swing of his broadsword. Then he turned on the others, all but young Benjamin, who wouldn’t have been much help in a Pillsbury bake-off, much less a sword fight. Benjamin spent the next half hour cowering in the corner, whimpering.

One by one they came at Joseph, and one-by-one, his excellent swordplay and superior weapon dispatched each maniacally bad brother to his well-deserved fate, until at last he was face-to-face with his real nemesis: Judah. Judah was the evil one who had not only come up with the idea of selling his own brother – he had personally dispatched his own sons when they displeased him, and killed one of his daughters-in-law. This was a bad man. After a furious fight, where the two combatants spun through the room, tearing at every drape and smashing every bit of crockery that was at hand, Joseph looked him in the eye and said only, “Hasta la vista, Baby!” before dispatching him.

Afterward, Joseph rescued his innocent brother, Benjamin, rounded up his wives, and went back to his father Jacob where they lived happily ever after.

Cue the music. Roll the credits.

That might be the way Hollywood would prefer to play on a story so ripe for the revenge motif, isn’t it? But that’s not how it went, was it? On one level, our passage celebrates something very unusual that happened in the life of this peculiar family. On another level, it celebrates something much bigger, standing as a sign of God’s loving grace that until that day had been only a dream in the mind of a slave boy in the Pharaoh’s employ.

After all the teasing and testing, most of which we did not get to read because it would take up too much time (you may want to go home and catch up on the rest of the story this afternoon), after all that the moment came when Joseph’s brothers, appearing before their former victim in a scene rich with irony and potential for revenge, Joseph’s brothers knew to their horror who it was that stood before them, clothed with the authority of the Pharaoh. This one they had believed was long dead by their own violence against him now stood before them with the power of life and death over them. And in that moment, Joseph did an unexpected thing, the sort of unpredictable thing that makes for the sort of story which could be remembered for 30 or 40 centuries. He did not pull out a sword, he did not call down the guards on his hapless former tormentors, he simply cried out to them instead, “Come closer to me!”

He laid aside the marks of his office, his royal authority, his golden robe, his magnificent turban, and in their place he reclaimed the office which he had craved ever since he last laid eyes on them, the role of son to his father, brother to his siblings: “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” Old Jacob, who got this whole story rolling. Was he still alive? It was a way of asking, “Is there still a family in which I may be a brother, a son again?”

When I was a young boy scout, I found myself on a long hike with some of my scouting friends. The talk turned to another scout who was not walking with us. Pete, the son of our pastor, was my friend. But because others I was with started bad-mouthing him, I joined right in. I found myself going on the way gossipers do when the person whose character they are assassinating isn’t within earshot, and had just said something like “He thinks he’s too good for us because his father is the minister,” when who should step out from behind a tree just ahead of us but Pete! I was mortified, but only for an instant.

Without missing a beat, Pete – a mature 13 year-old to my young 12 – said, “Aw Rob, you don’t mean any of that,” and put his arm around my shoulder as we walked on. It was a moment of grace I never forgot and never shall. As Joseph said to his brothers when his father, Jacob “was gathered to his people,” as the Old Testament described his death, “Do not be afraid! ... Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good...”[1] My comments must have been intended to do hurt and to harm, but my friend Pete absorbed them in his goodness. Probably part of my penance is that I would one day become a pastor and repeat this story on myself.

Joseph prefigures the work of Jesus in an important way, doesn’t he? In Jesus’ earthly ministry, God set aside his divinity and took up humanity. In Christ God set aside righteous vengeance toward those who have wronged him, and took up forgiveness and reconciliation instead. Faced with the pure goodness of God, we may be only too aware of our failures, our shortcomings, our inabilities to love fully, our submission to hatreds both petty and profound, we may fear evil at the hand of God and desire to run away, to separate ourselves from him. But in the person of Jesus, God turns to us instead and says, “Come closer to me.” Coming close enough to us really to know us, God fell upon us and wept with us in Jesus, and weeps with us still for all the distance we so stubbornly place between ourselves and God in every single day of our lives. God weeps, and yet God repeats, “It is I, Joshua ben Joseph, Jesus, son of Joseph, your brother. What you meant for evil, I turn to good. Come closer to me.”

copyright 2011, Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved

[1] Genesis 49:33 and 50:19-20.