We love the story of Joseph and his mean brothers, don’t we? Andrew Lloyd Weber made sure the entire world knows the story. Last week’s passage from Genesis gave us the beginning of this now world-renowned account: how Joseph was loved by his father Jacob, how his brothers were green for envy that he was so favoured, how they schemed to kill him but then sold him as a slave to the Egyptians. Today’s passage skips over all the gory details, and takes us close to the conclusion of the story.
But before Joseph made his identity known to his scheming, but now trembling and needy brothers, some strange shenanigans went on: Joseph didn’t tell them right away who he really was. First Joseph turns the tables on his brothers and becomes the one who schemes: Joseph deliberately deceives them, makes false accusations, forces his brothers into painful choices. What’s all that about? Revenge? No, not really, because Scripture tells us that at every encounter, Joseph weeps – twice in secret, a third time in public which is what we are hearing today. People who desire revenge don’t weep like that, do they?
Remember the book by Jonathan Sacks I referred to a few weeks ago when we spoke of Jacob and Esau? Well, Sacks has another very insightful commentary on this yet another account of sibling rivalry. Before the story gets to the part we heard this morning, Joseph makes his brothers shake with fear at having to make difficult choices. Sacks states that Joseph’s strange scheming has an important purpose, and that is to bring about repentance. Joseph is forcing his brothers into a painful role reversal. When he was younger, the brothers suspected Joseph of ambition. Now they had to learn what it is like to be under suspicion. They planned to sell their brother as a slave. Now Joseph is letting them feel what it’s like to face enslavement themselves. They made their father Jacob go through the grief of losing a beloved son. Now they must witness that grief again, even if through no fault of their own.
Above all, they treated their brother as a stranger. Now they must learn that that stranger, the “Egyptian,” is actually their brother. Before revealing his true identity, Joseph takes his brothers through a process that finds them in another’s place of suffering, which ultimately leads to the brothers’ realizing their guilt and their need to repent.
There’s a well-known, well-worn, saying that says: You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. In effect, Joseph constructed a controlled experiment in perfect repentance by letting his brothers walk a mile in his shoes. And what a success it was!. The brothers become truly remorseful of their past misdeeds, and at that moment Joseph can reveal his true identity, without feeling any revenge or anger in his bones …
Wow, imagine that … Imagine the people we don’t want around. Imagine the people that upset our routines. Imagine the ones we’d rather ignore or push away, like Joseph’s brothers did out of envy and spite. Imagine the people who are way too different for our own comfort …
First, Joseph shows how to maintain integrity in the face of scorn and rejection. next, and maybe more important, Joseph shows how not to be consumed by revenge and anger for what is done to us, but to extend mercy and forgiveness, in order that God can use for good what we intend for wrong.
We have another account today that teaches us a similar lesson. In today’s Gospel, Jesus meets a person who nobody really wants to be around, including at first – shock! — Jesus himself. We all know folks we’d rather avoid, right? The kind we’d rather not see as our own brother or sister. But that’s kind’a hard in today’s world. In today’s pluralistic, multi-cultural world we cross paths with people who are different from us – different ethnicity and culture, different colour, orientation, religion, etc.
But how often do we take the time to stop and to really listen? We can easily just keep on walking and keep on thinking of and viewing these ‘others’ according to the soundbites, talking points and stereotypes of the day. Hey, even Jesus did that: “Not my problem. I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”
But sometimes, these folks keep on … Sometimes, with great courage, these ‘others’ continue to reach out, to call out, to refuse to be labelled and written off: Even the dogs get the scraps … They invite us to look closer, to hear their stories, to meet their families, to put ourselves in their place, and to learn … And when that happens, everything can change, just as it did for Joseph and his brothers, just as it did for the Canaanite woman who encountered, and dared to challenge, Jesus, the very Son of God.
You can’t understand someone until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. When ‘others’ remain strangers we can easily find reasons not to understand each other or to stay apart. Refugees, First Nations and people of colour find themselves in this situation. Today, with the Covid-crisis, Hutterites find themselves in this situation. LGBTQ+ people find themselves in this situation. But what can happen when we risk recognizing our common humanity, when we begin to care? What can happen when we find common ground and listen to their stories, with a willingness to walk a mile in their shoes? Would this have the power to silence the demons of prejudice and contempt that would rather keep us estranged from one another?
Joseph created an opportunity for his brothers to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes Joseph had walked in caused by his brothers’ actions which had been intended for harm. Jesus showed a radical reversal in his attitude: the Son of God changed his mind, by the persistent faith and witness of an outcast, a woman…
So this week, like Joseph, think about this: who is it that has wished us wrong? And how do we carry ourselves in the face of that wrong? How do we engage those who wish us wrong? And like Jesus, who is pulling at our heartstrings despite our reluctance to engage? Who is the other that is calling us to notice them? What might happen if we stop, open our hearts and listen? What might happen if we share the table of dialogue and friendship, and let our faith in one another as God’s children recognize us as sisters and brothers? As it did for the Canaanite woman, that faith could save us too. Who knows, we might find a heavenly feast of communion instead of crumbs falling from the master’s table. Amen.
Homily preached on August 16, 2020
Genesis 45:1—15 and Matthew 15:21—28
- With thanks to Jonathan Sacks’ insights into the Genesis themes in his book Not in God’s Name, and thanks to Rev. Scott Sharman for his thoughtful FB reflection on the Canaanite woman.