Joseph’s Story

St. John’s United Methodist Church of Baltimore

Rev. Dr. Jackson H. Day, Pastor

Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany – February 20, 2022[1]

Joseph’s Story[2]

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. (Luke 6:28-29, NRSV)[3]

This is a hard scripture.  Jesus said it, it’s there in Luke, but for 2000 years we really haven’t known what to do with it.  It goes counter to our culture.  It defies common sense.  Enemies are to be hated, not loved.  Those who hate you should face pay-back time.  A curse given should prompt a curse returned; and which of us really prays for those who treat us spitefully?

What we need is a picture of someone who loves his enemies, who gives his blessing to those who have cursed him, and who gives generously to those who have taken everything he had.  We sense there is something of value in Jesus words – but we need a picture.

And in this morning’s lectionary we have such a picture in the story of Joseph, the man who forgives his brothers.[1]  This story of Joseph was one of the first Bible stories I remember from my childhood.  The magic of being the favorite child and being given a coat of many colors.  Going off to Egypt with a slave caravan.  The unfairness of being put in jail when you’re doing a good job.  The wonder of being able to interpret dreams.  And the tricks he played on his brothers when they came to Egypt for food.  The story has everything a child could want for adventure.  

For adults, however, it’s a story of forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.  But before we get to the forgiveness, we need to know what’s to forgive.


Poking around in the book of Genesis, we find Joseph growing up in a family full of tensions.  It’s a dysfunctional family.

It’s a family marked by deception and treachery.  Do you remember the stories of Joseph’s father, Jacob?  How Jacob went back to Harran to find a wife and fell in love with his beautiful cousin Rachel? How Laban, Rachel’s father, got Jacob to work for seven years to earn Rachel’s hand?  And do you remember how finally, the seven years past, and the marriage contract sealed, Laban sent Rachel’s plain older sister Leah to occupy the marriage bed?  So then Jacob worked another seven years to earn the hand of Rachel.  Finally, Jacob has to engage in trickery of his own to separate his herds of sheep from Laban’s, and returns to Canaan with his herds of sheep, and his two wives Leah and Rachel, and their two slave women.  The seeds of a troubled family are planted before Joseph is even born.

It’s a family that treats people as property.  Joseph is one of twelve sons of Jacob –six of whom have Leah as mother, two are the children of Rachel, and two each are the children of the two slave women.  I’m sure there were daughters too, but they’re not mentioned.  

To understand this family it’s important to recall that slavery makes you into property and you have no say over what you do, where you go, or what is done to your body.  I’ve mentioned that I do family history research into the lives of my ancestors who were farmers in Montgomery and Anne Arundel Counties.  And many of them owned slaves, and after a while you get used to the wills that give a piece of real estate to this child, some bedroom linens to that child, a horse and plough to another child, and a slave woman to a fourth.  The dry records of centuries ago don’t capture the horror of human beings keeping other human beings captive, and when we try to understand why people act like they did in Genesis, it’s important to remind ourselves of that horror.

But there’s more about this family.  It’s a family marked by favoritism.   As pretty Rachel was the favorite wife, so her children Joseph and Benjamin were the favorite children. Favoritism engenders a climate in which love and affection and esteem are scarce.  There’s a constant struggle for father Jacob’s attention, a struggle to see who can best out the other.  It feels to me like a very unhappy family.  

And favoritism produces one more thing in this unhappy family: arrogance.  We would call Joseph, the favorite, a spoiled brat.  His father gives him a wonderful coat.  The King James Version calls it a coat of many colors.  Other translations simply say it was long sleeved.  Whatever it had, it was a wonderful coat, and it symbolized Joseph’s favorite status.  Joseph has dreams including one where sheaves of wheat, representing his brothers, bow down to him.  He wastes no time letting his brothers know of this dream and its interpretation.  Everything we read about Joseph doing just made his brothers angrier.  


One day the brothers are in the far field and Jacob sends Joseph out to check on them and probably bring them lunch at the same time.  They talk among themselves.  This is their chance.  They decide to kill their hated brother.  They capture him and throw him into a pit.  Just then a caravan comes along, and they realize they can make some money on this — so instead of killing their brother, they sell him as a slave.   

As a child, I thought of Joseph’s trip to Egypt with the slave caravan as an adventure, but now I think of what it must have been like.  First, to be taken captive by your own brothers and thrown into a pit, and you know that they intend to kill you.  A friend of mine who is a trauma survivor has seen a film about Joseph and she says that in the film his screams, after being thrown in the pit, are horrifying.  

And then sold into slavery, a young teen-aged boy who hasn’t been away from home before, now disappeared from his family’s life.  As a slave, he is property, to be fed as little as possible, worked long hours, kicked, beaten, used.

It’s a wonder Joseph arrived in Egypt able to amount to anything.  We read nothing about his feelings on the trip or when he was in Egypt, only about what he did.  One friend suggests that perhaps Genesis says nothing about his feelings because the intent is for us who read the story to imagine ourselves in his place.  Like many traumatized people, he probably stuffed his feelings into the farthest back closet of his mind where he wouldn’t have to feel the pain of rejection by his brother, separation from his family, and isolation in this new world of Egypt.  

And then there is the added trauma of his service in Egypt.  Joseph rises quickly in the household of Pharoah.  Pharoah’s wife exercises her power to seek an affair with Joseph; he runs away but she grabs his shirt.  With this evidence in hand, she has him put in jail.  Again, through his ability to interpret dreams, he rises to the top, commanding Pharoah’s entire program to store up food before seven years of famine arrive.

In all this, does Joseph ever think of his family back in Canaan?  Does he have any emotions about what has happened?  Does he miss his brothers, or his mother, or his father?  Is his heart filled with hatred for all that has been done to him?  We can imagine, but Genesis doesn’t tell us.


So now we come to the forgiveness and reconciliation part, where Joseph loves his enemies and does good to those who have hated him, welcoming those who have abused him.  It’s a good end for a story, and most of us here today who have gone through some bad times in our own lives would wish for the same end.  We know that ultimately, forgiving others is for our own sake because to be unforgiving is to carry around with us a poison that will eat away at our own lives.  

When our lectionary group read these scriptures Monday night, we noticed how well the psalm fit with the Joseph story – except that in the psalm, there is no forgiveness of the enemies.[1]

So the really critical question is, “what does it take to get to forgiveness?”  I’m sure there are some of us in the congregation who have forgiveness on our “to do” list.  We know it’s something we need to do, but we haven’t moved it up to the top of the list yet, or we don’t know how, or it just doesn’t feel right.  What does it actually take to get to a forgiveness that is more than empty words, which means we have let the past go, that permits us to move on into the future?

I looked at this story and asked some friends who work with traumatized people like Joseph to share their thoughts.  These are some of the answers we came up with.

First, forgiveness and reconciliation take time.  Joseph was probably a teenager on the day he was almost killed and then sold into slavery.  Now, how much time has passed?  At least nine years, the seven good years it took to store up all the food that they sought and 

then two years of famine that have already passed.  And probably several years in Pharoah’s household and in jail.  You are probably looking at 15 or 20 years.  So Joseph is 35 or 40 years old.

We too often want forgiveness to be a quick fix.  A friend of mine was abused by her father and well-meaning people made her say she forgave him.  She said the words, but it just added more pain to her life. A pastoral counselor in Richmond simply says, “it takes a long time for any of us to be ready to offer forgiveness and reconciliation to people who have hurt us.” 

Second, forgiveness requires genuine repentance.   Persons engaged in domestic violence often say they’re sorry when what they mean is they’re sorry people are upset.  It takes a deeper change of heart to face the pain they’ve caused.   In the Joseph story, the brothers appear from Canaan hungry and needing to buy food.  Notice that Joseph doesn’t rush to forgive them.  Watching from the sidelines, I’m inclined to raise a cheer: the tables have turned, the victim is now in power, the perpetrators are humiliated.  That’s how I like stories to be.  But I don’t see Joseph cheering.  I think he’s in a lot of pain – all the feelings of love he wishes were there and all the wounds of the past and wondering if he can share anything with them and not be hurt again.  Joseph is cautious.  He recognizes his brothers, but they don’t recognize him.  Joseph tests them: when the sacks of grain they have bought have been loaded, Joseph has the brothers’ money put in the sack.  What will they do?  He makes them bring Jacob’s remaining favorite son Benjamin on a return trip and hides one of Pharoah’s chalices in his bag. He tests their remorse to see if they have changed in the years that have passed.  Only when he trusts their remorse does he reveal who he is.

Third, forgiveness and reconciliation involve our emotions.   Our lectionary reading of the Joseph story today starts at verse 3, leaving out verse 2.  But listen to the missing verse:

Joseph could no longer control his feelings in front of his attendants, and he called out, ‘Let everyone leave my presence.’  So there was nobody present when Joseph made himself known to his brothers, but so loudly did he weep that the Egyptians and Pharoah’s household heard him.

This is a great moment of letting go, and Joseph can no longer control his feelings. Though he has closed the doors, his loud weeping is heard all over Pharoah’s household as Joseph lets go of the anger he has held against his brothers from the day they threatened to kill him, threw him in a pit, and sold him into slavery.  He lets go of the sadness of loss for the years away from his mother and father.  And he lets go of trying to hold back the very real love and affection he also feels.  These enemies are his brothers!   What the household heard were not quiet sobs, but the unleashed passion of a man in his 30’s who can no longer hold his emotions in check.

Most important, to forgive and reconcile, Joseph has to make new meanings.  Joseph tells his brothers, in the moment of reconciliation, “it was God who sent me ahead of you to save men’s lives.”  Years later, after their father’s death, the brothers ask again for forgiveness, and Joseph says, “You meant to do me harm; but God meant to bring good out of it by preserving the lives of many people.”

Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and psychotherapist, believed that humans have the ability to use the experience of unavoidable suffering as a means of spiritual growth, by finding meaning and purpose in the experience; in fact, that is the only thing that will bring us through.  

There’s a very important thing about the new meanings we make: they have to come from within.  Now, once Joseph makes the meaning and shares it with us, we know it is true.  We can look back with him and see the hand of God each step of the way.  We can see that the brothers had their purposes, but God used the events for God’s own purposes.  “You meant to do me harm, but God meant to bring good out of it.”  And so Joseph’s meaning is enshrined in Genesis in this morning’s reading, but in our hearts we know it had to be Joseph’s meaning at the beginning.

Remember that, the next time you see someone suffering!  Can you imagine going up to someone who is suffering great pain – perhaps a child has had an accident, or their marriage has ended, or their parent has died, and saying, “God means this for good, or “this is all part of God’s plan.”  That would be cruel, insensitive and simply wrong to do, because we would be imposing our meanings on their suffering, and only adding to their pain.  Imagine if it had been the brothers saying, “we meant to do you harm, but God meant to bring good out of it.”  Now it sounds self-serving, excusing their perpetration.    The interpretation, the meaning, is something that ONLY Joseph could say.

If you or I are the person enduring difficult times, harsh people, or traumatic events, it is an act of great courage to ask God to show us how God wants to use the situation for good.  Talking about the experience of the Holocaust, Viktor Frankl said, “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life: We had to learn… that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.”  In suffering, Frankl found “the uniquely human potential at its best, to transform a personal tragedy into a triumph, to turn one’s predicament into a human achievement. When we are no longer able to change a situation…we are challenged to change ourselves.”  And when we do, God can help us grow from unavoidable traumatic experiences.  

In our discussion another friend wrote, “when our belief in God’s goodness overwhelms us more than…wrongs done to us. forgiveness results…. I love how God has taught me through trauma/trials – I love who I have become having endured them, and I love to see how God has used these experiences to bless other people in really amazing ways. 

Because Joseph had the character, courage and faith to find a new meaning in his experience, Joseph allows us too to join him in a larger vision.  A friend wrote, “It’s as if Joseph was telling his brothers, “Hey — get your mind off yourself — I have. Look at the bigger picture — catch a bigger vision that goes beyond our human frailty, our understanding of “why”, even beyond our own cruelty to one another.” In the end, she wrote, “this story is not…about trauma or identifying perpetrators and survivors. It is about catching a bigger vision and examining the roles we play in a story that stretches far beyond ourselves.


Comparing our stories to Joseph’s, many of us live our lives somewhere between the pit that began his trauma, and the moment of forgiveness and reconciliation where Joseph’s larger vision is revealed.  His story inspires us to move forward, to treat the forgiving we haven’t yet done as unfinished business, and to treat the sufferings we have as an opportunity to ask God to show us what new meanings God might want us to have from it.  A lot of time has passed since Joseph’s story, 3500 years ago.  On the surface, our lives are very different.   But our hearts and spirits haven’t really changed all that much, have they?  When can we look at the troubles that have come our way and say to our brothers and sisters as we let the blame go, “Yes, you meant it for ill, but God meant it for good.”

[1] Lectionary:  Genesis 45:3-11, 45; Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40; 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50; Luke 6: 27-38

[2] Adapted from a sermon preached at St. James UMC, West Friendship, Maryland, February 18, 2001

[3] Luke 6:27-38

6:27 “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,

6:28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.

6:29 If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.

6:30 Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again.

6:31 Do to others as you would have them do to you.

6:32 “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them.

6:33 If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same.

6:34 If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.

6:35 But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.

6:36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

6:37 “Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven;

6:38 give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”

[4] Genesis 45:3-11, 15

45:3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.

45:4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt.

45:5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.

45:6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest.

45:7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.

45:8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt.

45:9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay.

45:10 You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have.

45:11 I will provide for you there–since there are five more years of famine to come–so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’

45:15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.

[5] Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40

37:1 Do not fret because of the wicked; do not be envious of wrongdoers,

37:2 for they will soon fade like the grass, and wither like the green herb.

37:3 Trust in the LORD, and do good; so you will live in the land, and enjoy security.

37:4 Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.

37:5 Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him, and he will act.

37:6 He will make your vindication shine like the light, and the justice of your cause like the noonday.

37:7 Be still before the LORD, and wait patiently for him; do not fret over those who prosper in their way, over those who carry out evil devices.

37:8 Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath. Do not fret–it leads only to evil.

37:9 For the wicked shall be cut off, but those who wait for the LORD shall inherit the land.

37:10 Yet a little while, and the wicked will be no more; though you look diligently for their place, they will not be there.

37:11 But the meek shall inherit the land, and delight themselves in abundant prosperity.

37:39 The salvation of the righteous is from the LORD; he is their refuge in the time of trouble.

37:40 The LORD helps them and rescues them; he rescues them from the wicked, and saves them, because they take refuge in him.