The Seventh Sunday after the Epiphany, Year C.
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.
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. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 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. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 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. 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. 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. 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.'”
And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Jesus said, “I say to you that listen, 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. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 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. 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. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 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.”Luke 6:27-38
What does it take to make someone your enemy? Do they become your enemy quickly when you don’t know them, and they say something rude? Does it take a long time, where little by little, they show themselves to be working against your goals, needs, or desires? Are your enemies only strangers or are they people you once believed you could trust? Or is that simply saying the same thing twice? What does it take to make someone your enemy? Is it ideological? By simply affirming beliefs you oppose or denying beliefs you hold dear, does that make them automatically your enemy? Or is it not so intellectual? Perhaps because they speak a different language, hold different values, wear different clothes, they threaten everything you understand about the world. Or is it because they come with violence and threaten your way of life? Is that all it takes to make someone your enemy?
Maybe it isn’t as important to know who or why someone is your enemy, but what you do about it? So, what do you do about it? Ignore them? Preemptively strike against their plans so they cannot hurt you? Hold back and be ready to strike back? Ah, but y’all are on to me now, I’ve been leading you all with the wrong questions. We’re all faithful Christians here, right? What does the Bible say about what we should do with our enemies? Let’s take a look at the offerings:
Let’s see… our Psalm today says “do not fret yourself because of evildoers; do not be jealous of those who do wrong. For they shall soon wither like grass, and like the green grass fade away” [Psalm 37:1-2]. Ok that sounds pretty good. So, if we ignore them, they’ll get what’s coming to them…eventually. Oh, but wait, Proverbs says something a little different, “If your enemy is hungry, give them bread to eat. If they are thirsty, give them water to drink…” ok that sounds a little different, but I think I’ve heard something like that before. Oh wait, excuse me, it goes on, “…in sharing with him you will be heaping coals of fire upon his head and the Lord will reward you” [Proverbs 25:21-22]. Oh, that was an unexpectedly dark turn. So, “kill them with kindness”, with an emphasis on the killing part… You know what, the Old Testament is confusing enough as it is, and we are Christians anyway, what does Jesus say about what we should do with our enemies?
“…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… Do to others as you would have them do to you” [Luke 6:27]. Ok that sounds more familiar. Everyone knows this one. It’s the golden rule. Everyone knows what it means too, right? So, if everyone knows this, and it seems like everyone, Christian or not, approves of this message, why do we have so many enemies? Why does everything feel like a battle for the soul of our society? Why has every family picnic and dinner become a carefully coordinated diplomatic mission? Every time this Gospel reading is used in significant and difficult debate, we are very quickly reminded of some other things Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me…” [Luke 11:23], “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” [Matthew 13:41-42]. Seems that you can use the Bible to justify any action or non-action you want if you cherry-pick enough verses.
The problem most of us have with the Gospel reading is that we love it in theory, but in practice it is probably the hardest to follow. What seems to be lacking is a method. Jesus tells us to love our enemies, but how does He expect us to actually do that? There is a lot of bad stuff out there! There are a lot of people who do awful things! We have to drill our children how to barricade classrooms and hide behind desks in the event of a school shooter. The kind of pacifism that Jesus demands out of us seems completely ludicrous. He isn’t just asking us to be nice or be courteous. When we are insulted, which is what He is referring to with the slap on the cheek, we are not only expected not to shoot an insult back, we’re expected to offer the other cheek! Jesus expects us to be so committed to breaking the cycle of sin and violence, we are called to not just ignore or wish well for our enemies: We are to love them. We are expected to truly love our enemies, not in some vague general “love for humanity”, and not like the psalm or the proverb where we love them but are secretly waiting for them to “get what’s coming to them”. We are not even called to love them just because Jesus tells us to! Jesus tells us we are to love expecting nothing in return. Why? Because if we’re only in it expecting something in return, some cosmic justice or comeuppance, we love merely as the sinners do. Without genuinely loving our enemies, we aren’t actually breaking the cycle of sin and violence, and so it will merely continue. But how can we love someone that has or wants to do us harm?
What about someone who sold you into slavery into a foreign land? What is if it was your own family member who did it? That’s where we find the story from Genesis. Joseph, the favorite son of his Father Jacob was sold into slavery by his brothers who were jealous of him. After much suffering he eventually rises to power as one of Pharaoh’s most trusted advisors, and through good administrative planning, he is able to save Egypt from starvation. His brothers come from Canaan to Egypt seeking aid and they don’t even recognize him. But Joseph knows who they are. I grew up on the musical version of this story, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, a fairly light-hearted telling of the story. I remember being so surprised when I first read the passages in Genesis. I was surprised to see how often Joseph had to excuse himself to a private room so he could cry when he saw his brothers. What they had done to him, even though everything was different now, still caused him great pain.
We come in at the end, and when Joseph finally reveals who he is to his brothers, they can’t even speak. Joseph is a lord now. They are at his mercy. They know what they did to him, by right of law and any sense of justice he could have them carried into slavery, jailed, or killed. I doubt any of them in their own hearts would resist. Certainly, we could understand if Joseph did execute his authority on them, he has every right to. But he says something radically different: “…do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life…” [Genesis 45:7]. Now, be sure not to get our order of operations wrong. It was the brothers who sold Joseph into slavery, not God. God did not make the brothers do it. It’s also crucial to note that Joseph isn’t saying that God wanted him to suffer, or anyone to suffer. Joseph may be forgiving and reconciling with his brothers, but he isn’t allowing them to hurt him anymore. We are not all called to be martyrs or to give up the project of establishing true Justice on the earth. What Joseph is saying is that God took the evil done to him and transformed it into something good. Something that has saved lives. Recognizing this, Joseph is finishing this process by transforming righteous anger against his brothers into something good: Love. Because God and Joseph have transformed the evil deeds of the brothers, they have broken what could have become a cycle of vengeance and violence. They have resisted what Proverbs warns us of: “Iron sharpens iron” [Proverbs 27:17].
One of my closest friends in seminary is a Navy chaplain. As part of his military duties every summer he was required to do boot camp and survival training with the Marines. The drill instructors didn’t always have the highest respect for non-combatants such as chaplains. One day, a drill instructor was grilling my friend and asked him, (or rather yelled at him) “what are you going to do for us and these men who are here to kill people?” To which my friend replied, “You may be here to kill people, but I am here to make sure you don’t enjoy it.” Jesus’ call to love our enemies, as simple as it sounds is so hard to actually practice. It’s hard to do the right thing when there are so many who want to do evil, or do evil thinking they are doing the right thing. I’m not going to pretend to be wise enough or even smart enough to say what needs to be done in every situation. But what we do know is that God can transform evil into something good. God from the beginning of time has been working to redeem the evil in the world and bring about the good that He wants for every human being. God tells us to love our enemies, not because they deserve it, but because in actively seeking to break the cycle of sin and violence we make an opportunity to change the world. Or as Jesus told us: “you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” [Luke 6:35b-36] Amen.