by Benjamin M. Stewart
Gordon A. Braatz Associate Professor of Worship, Director of Advanced Studies
Do our courses in pastoral counseling really prepare us to deal with the family-systems issues going on among Joseph’s relations?
The father, who had been married to four different women… (simultaneously) …has this big Brady-bunch family, and in front of the whole gang blatantly pampers one of his youngest sons, Joseph, who walks around in that kaleidoscope coat from daddy, in case anybody forgets which star stands at the center of the sky.
The brothers, wanting to address this problem, decide that better even than calling a family meeting, would be Joseph not being alive anymore. But then they do some cost-benefit analysis and realized that it’s a better deal, financially, to sell your brother into slavery rather than kill him.
So they splattered goat’s blood on Joseph’s coat, brought it home it to dad, and to kind of soften the blow, said, “Guess what happened while we were at work today? Something ate little Joseph!” (Quote from William H. Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, Lord, Teach Us: The Lord’s Prayer and the Christian Life. Nashville: Abingdon Press (1996), p. 61.)
What if pastors had to give pastoral counseling to families of biblical matriarchs and patriarchs? All under one roof, there’s polygamy, favoritism, human trafficking, deceit, and simulated large-predator maulings. Rosanne, Kadi, are we training people for this?
The text that Rob read today is one of the places in the Joseph narrative in which the layers of faults, schemes, injustices and misfortunes converge and reach a critical mass, and the brothers approach Joseph out of the reasonable fear that they are finally going to be done in—crushed—by those circumstances that are largely of their own making. They have broken so many bonds, breached faith with one another in so many ways, that there may be nothing left to hold them together or even keep them alive. They’re far past the point when you could kind of piece things back together. They’ve shattered their relationships.
And so when Joseph responds to them, he’s not offering some kind of magical superglue that could put everything back together again. He offers something more powerful: he offers to his family mercy that is broader, wider, deeper than all their faults and even then their evil acts.
Joseph’s words indicate that there is both divine action and divine paradox in all of this. He says to his brothers, “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” Or as some translations read: “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” The language of mercy that Joseph speaks does not shy away from naming evil and injustice, which then only deepens the force of the mercy that it speaks.
This mercy leaves them not with settled scores or balanced ethical accounts. Mercy washes away those calculations and leaves that broken family weeping together, reconciling, embracing… newly looking toward one another’s well being. Mercy does not restore some old broken reality. But it creates a new one of its own.
Just yesterday at my church we discussed that terrible event in an Amish community in 2006 in Pennsylvania when a troubled non-Amish neighbor named Charles Roberts entered a one-room schoolhouse of 26 students, held them hostage, and shot 10 of the children, killing five of them, and then killing himself. The country was shocked by the shooting, and then, beginning on the same day, people were stunned as they watched a procession from within the Amish community to the Roberts family home, to comfort the murderer’s widow. In addition to caring for families in their own community, the Amish took up a collection to take care of the widow’s family. That week, at the funeral of the non-Amish man who killed Amish children, the Amish outnumbered the non-Amish. Mercy does not restore some old broken reality. But it creates a new one of its own. Even while much of the reporting missed the profound complexities, difficulties, and even dangers of keeping these Christian commitments, in that reporting, across the country, people recognized in the actions of that Amish community, a new world appearing even inside of our old one, with those “old-fashioned” Amish in their horses and buggies leading us into it.
The speaking of divine mercy on Joseph’s part is one of the reasons preachers in the early church saw an image of Jesus in Joseph. Both escape death by going into Egypt, both are betrayed by those closest to them, both are believed to be dead, but found to be alive and, living, both offer mercy and life to those who had betrayed them. Even their iconic images bear a paradox: Joseph is sometimes pictured in the royal Egyptian garb of Pharaoh’s court, which is precisely where Joseph (the slave) undermined systems of oppression and slavery; Jesus is pictured with a crown of thorns and a purple robe, mocking reminders of Roman imperial power—power that Jesus is unmasking and destroying in his suffering and death. Joseph in Pharoah’s court, Jesus in a Roman execution, unarmed freedom riders facing dogs and bombs and police batons, the Amish surrounded by a culture of vengeance: right at the point that looks like powerlessness and weakness, there is a kind of suffering love, a kind of divine mercy, that is the most powerful thing our world has ever seen.
A friend of mine told me about non-denominational conference she attended that gathered people working on the cutting edge of new approaches to evangelism and worship renewal. Her group lead a service in which they invited participants to come forward to receive the laying on of hands while they declared to them ancient words from confession and forgiveness: “In obedience to the command of our Lord Jesus Christ, I forgive you all your sins.” After the service she was mobbed by stunned people who said “where did you get that?!” It totally blew their minds, she said, that she “got that” from …Jesus and from her tame-looking ELW. For these young leaders for whom this practice was foreign, in a flash they recognized its power to open a new world, to overcome evil with good.
When God comes to renew this world, it is not simply to pick up the broken pieces and put them back together again, and it is certainly not something done from a safe distance, from somewhere up above the stratosphere. Rather the renewal of our world is an inside job, deep inside the broken and often destructive systems of this world: in the middle of messed-up family systems, in captivity to one Pharaoh or another, in broken churches and even in broken seminaries, in the young chosen one abandoned and betrayed by his own disciples and executed by an occupying power. From deep within our broken systems—even from within death itself—God’s mercy breaks into our world, close enough to lay hands on us, and creates something new—a new world emerging even in the midst of the old one.
The divine power that caused a new world to erupt even in the courts of Pharaoh, even in the family-system of Joseph, is the power we study here. It is not magic. Its path runs through Egypt, and through broken streets and broken families. It is not cheap. It names injustice and evil for what they are. It may take time: it stands with, honors, and guards the vulnerable. And then, in that great risky leap, it overcomes evil with good, not seven times, but seven times seventy times. That’s the business God’s gotten us into in baptism, with waters of mercy washing over us, yes, three times, but also seven, and seven times seventy times.
Martin King famously said “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” What that means is that when you find yourself in any Pharaoh’s court, when you seek to bring healing to family systems—your own or others—that are self-destructing, when towers crumble in our own nation and around the world in our own name, and you seek to overcome evil with good… like Joseph in Egypt, like that procession of horses and buggies in Pennsylvania, you do not go alone. The maker of heaven and earth who raised Jesus from the dead goes with you, to bring life out of death, and by grace to make of all things, in Christ—even in Egypt, even through your own hands—a new creation.