One difficulty of working our way through the Bible in a calendar year is that there are more great texts than there are Sundays. Some days you have to consider more than one and this is one of those days. In his project, Brian McLaren is trying to help us see significant themes from these gathered texts that will help us understand the Bible in new, exciting ways. Today, under the theme “Rivalry or Reconciliation?” we can choose among the reunion of Esau and Jacob, the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers, the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats or the Parable of the Good Samaritan. It is an embarrassment of riches! We will focus on the Joseph story, perhaps the least familiar, but have something to say about the others.
This is not the first time in this series or in this year that we have considered sibling rivalry. Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau – sibling rivalry is as old as humankind. “You got a bigger piece!” “I’m smarter than you.” “Oh yeah, well can you do this?” “Mom always liked you best.” “I hate you and I’m never going to speak to you again.” I’m sure you can add your own lines to the litany. As we considered in the Cain and Abel story, this rivalry may be a result of a deep-seated belief that there is not enough love to go around.
I’m sure no one here ever played favorites or angled to be favored or blamed it on your sibling or took credit you didn’t deserve. I suppose all rivalry is not literally sibling rivalry though we might trace the roots of rivalry to this source. But what if see ourselves and all humanity as sisters and brothers in the family of God. Then all rivalry is indeed sibling rivalry. What difference would it make in our lives and in our world if we could learn to see one another as siblings, children of the one God, one family in faith?
We considered the wonderful story of the reunion of Jacob and Esau earlier this year. Remember how Jacob, the trickster and scoundrel, with his mother’s help, steals his brother’s birthright and blessing? All the scheming does him little good as he ends up fleeing his brother’s murderous rage to live in exile. Eventually Jacob risks coming home because, like the Prodigal Son, he comes to his senses and realizes there is no joy in being separated from home and family. He approaches his brother in fear, not knowing the current state of Esau’s anger, only to be greeted with tears and embrace, with love and compassion. The crucial line comes when Jacob looks at last full in the face of his forgiving brother and says, “…for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor” (Genesis 33:10b). Compassion, love, forgiveness become the very face of God. Rivalry is lost in reconciliation.
The Parable of the Sheep and Goats can be challenging, even painful, if we read it all the way through to the judgment. But, it can be instructive to focus on the first part before the judgment. What can we learn from what is affirmed alone? “Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world…” The blessed, in appropriate humility, are dumbfounded by the invitation. “‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’” We all know the response. We learned it long ago in Sunday School. “‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me’” (Matthew 25:31ff).
What struck me in reading this text this time was the phrase “these who are members of my family.” I hear that as naming the least as members of your family, my family, our family. The crucial thing is that we don’t dismiss anyone, including the least of these, from the family of God. To take a superior, judgmental attitude toward another is to take that attitude toward a sister or brother. It is rooted in ancient rivalry for love and attention, for favor and security, sibling rivalry as old as humankind. To offer compassion, care, forgiveness, welcome to one’s sister and brother is to see the face of God and the family resemblance therein. “…as you did it to one of the least of these who are your sisters and brothers, you did it to me.” Rivalry is subsumed in reconciliation.
Then the self-righteous biblical scholar, the one who knew the law so well, trying to save face under the piercing gaze of Jesus, tries to trap the teacher by asking, “Well, just who is my neighbor?” Most of us could recite the Parable of the Good Samaritan from memory. The religious leaders, whom we think ought to stop to help, take the legal way out. They manage to justify hurrying by, leaving the beaten man to bleed out by the side of the road. You can see the crowd, no fans of the religious establishment, shake their heads and hear them mutter their disapproval. Then, Jesus throws everyone a curve. Enter the Samaritan. Wait a minute! Did I hear correctly? Did he say Samaritan? What’s a blankety-blank Samaritan doing in this story? He’ll probably kick the poor victim over the cliff. History tells us the hatred ran that deep.
The crowd is astonished to hear that the Samaritan is the neighbor. The poor lawyer can’t even get the word out of his mouth. When Jesus asks, “Who is the neighbor in the story?” all he can manage to sputter is, “The one who showed mercy” (Luke 10:25ff). But what if we up the ante in this encounter? What if the question is reframed as “Who is my sister, my brother?” and the crowd is invited to consider the Samaritan as a sibling? Oh, my! That may be more than is tolerable. Still, if we are sisters and brothers in the family of God, isn’t that what Jesus is moving us toward? Where do we see the face of God in this tale? In our brother Samaritan who practices forgiveness, compassion and care, seeing the broken one at the side of the road as his own brother and treating him accordingly. Even ancient rivalry can be reconciled.
Finally there is Joseph and his brothers. I imagine we’ve all known a Joseph – a favored child who revels in the special treatment he receives, who has genuine gifts and is not at all reticent to let you know about them, who can’t understand why her siblings resent her and wish her ill. Well, Joseph’s older brothers have come to hate him so much they decide to kill him. But at the last minute they have a change of heart and sell him into slavery. Then they tell their father his favorite has been killed by a wild beast.
Years later, after a series of adventures, Joseph has risen to be the chief advisor to the Egyptian Pharoah. As he had dreamed, a famine comes to Canaan and his brothers find themselves in Egypt, pleading for their survival. Unknown to them, their brother, Joseph, controls their fate. Eventually the whole story comes to light, Joseph forgives his brothers, is reunited with his father and all seems healed. That is until old Jacob dies. There is an elaborate processional of Israelites and Egyptians who bear the body back to Canaan for burial.
However, in the closing verses, the brothers of Joseph suddenly find themselves not feeling so secure anymore. Maybe Joseph has just been good to them because of their father. Now that the old man is gone, are they certain that Joseph has forgiven them and will take care of them? Not really. Their guilt continues to eat away at them. So they approach Joseph with a concocted story that their father has given death bed instructions for him to care for of them. There’s no evidence that Jacob ever said this, but the brothers are desperately trying to cover all their bases. They recognize that Joseph has both justification and power for punishment.
To keep the drama going, Joseph does not give a straightforward answer. Instead, Joseph weeps. Are his tears for his brothers? For himself? Are they tears of forgiveness? Grief? Aching from his long years of painful separation? Accumulated anger at his brothers? Relief? In the end, I imagine some of all this and more was at play. Like Esau before him and Jesus after him, Jacob weeps over his brothers, both lost and found. In the enigmatic response that carries this story and our theme forward, Joseph says, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”
There seems to be personal forgiveness that comes from Joseph, moving the situation from rivalry to reconciliation, “’…have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.” But there is also a significant word about how God operates in the world. As Dan Buttry reminded us last week, it is a word about how God prefers restorative justice to the retributive sort. This word from and about God is good news for us.
Rivalry has come to be a way we commonly see and treat one another, whether we see one another as siblings or not. We compete and judge, we wrangle and fight, we oppress and war, and all too often we engage in these activities with a certain self-righteousness or sense of being favored or special. We fail to understand God as love, a vibrant, sustaining love that looks out over all creation, blessing it and calling it good. As children of that same God, created in God’s image and likeness, if we could look out with those eyes we might see the face of God reflected in all we encounter. We could learn to let go of rivalry and give ourselves over to the work of reconciliation. That is God’s plan, that we live in peace and harmony in one family of faith, the family of God. We can make other plans as Joseph’s brothers did but in the end God’s plan prevails. This does not mean that God ordained Joseph’s suffering so the brothers could learn a lesson about family togetherness, but, as the one who has suffered, Joseph has the right to turn his suffering over to God’s greater plan of reconciliation.
The love that binds us together is operative throughout creation and history. It is at work even in the midst of the most vicious rivalry and awful evil, drawing us ever back with cords of love toward that family in which we were made to live and love for all eternity. Bind us together, Lord. Bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together with love that sees beyond all rivalry and makes us all one in the family of God. Amen.