Joseph Loves His Brothers, His Enemies
7th Sunday after Epiphany
Genesis 45:3-11,15; Luke 6:27-38
By The Rev. Dr. Deonna D. Neal
St John’s Episcopal Church, Montgomery, AL
24 February 2019
Today’s lesson, as well as last weeks Gospel lesson on the Beatitudes, are part of what is known as Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. This is Luke’s parallel account of the Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew’s Gospel.
Jesus’ sermon has often been read as containing some generalized and extreme ethic for the church. After the 10 commandments, it is often the first place people turn to find a codified “Christian ethic.” As such, people have often interpreted it as a list of requirements that must be checked off to get to heaven.
Some will interpret the Beatitudes, which we read last week, as saying that Jesus requires all Christians to be poor, starving, crying, and hated in order to “get into heaven.” The corresponding curses or woes lead some to think that the rich, the full, the laughing, and the popular will be cursed by God and won’t “get into heaven.”
This way of interpreting the text is obviously very unhelpful. Not only does it seem to overly idealize or demonize entire classes and kinds of people, rich and poor, happy and mournful, but it also doesn’t seem like a very practical way to live in a complicated world. It also seems like Jesus is telling people to focus only on their own personal piety, which often leads to a sense of anxiety about one’s worthiness to get into heaven.
Today’s lesson, too, being told to love our enemies, turning the other cheek, and giving without expecting anything in return, also doesn’t seem very practical. It seems down right naïve in many respects. If we’re honest with ourselves, many of us are afraid that people will take advantage of us and that we’ll simply be doormats for people to walk all over if we live this way. The verses about turning the other cheek has also, unfortunately, been used to justify people staying in abusive relationships. And, like the Beatitudes, today’s passage also seems like a set of behaviors that we need to do so that we can “get into heaven.”
The general mistake, I think, in looking at Jesus’ sermon as laying out some rules by which to measure our worthiness, is to overlook the context in which the sermon was given and what Jesus meant by the kingdom of heaven.
It is important to remember that one of the main goals of Jesus’ public ministry is to announce to people that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Jesus’ himself has come to announce that the God of Israel is returning to fulfill his covenant with his people. Israel had been living either in a state of exile or as a loosely knit people, without a Temple since the end of the reign of King Solomon. They believed Yahweh had abandoned them because of their disobedience and idolatry. For almost 600 years they had longed for a king who would reunite the people of Israel, to restore the Temple, so that they could return to what they thought were the glory days of Israel, when they were a united and powerful nation with Yaweh as their God, dwelling in their midst.
Jesus appears on the scene to announce that he is the long awaited Messiah and that the return of God’s kingdom is at hand. God’s kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, will take place on earth, actually, and not somewhere up in abstract disembodied space. God’s kingdom will be completed when the new heaven and new earth are ushered in, but the in-breaking of God’s kingdom of heaven was now beginning, with the advent of Jesus. In order to grasp this, we have to understand that Jesus’ first century hearers would have thought about heaven quite differently than we do today.
So much of our upbringing in the Christian life has been to think of heaven as something “up there” away from earth. We talk a lot about “going up to heaven” after we die away from the earth, ascending up a ladder into a more ideal world. The earth has been viewed as a corruption that we must escape from. But the Jewish understanding of heaven is something altogether different. The idea of heaven is more like the space God inhabits with us, and our space and God’s space overlap.
This idea was physically depicted in the Jewish temple. God was thought to be physically present in the Holy of Holies which lay behind a curtain. God dwelt among his people on earth. In Jesus’ world, when Scriptures talk about heaven opening, it meant to communicate God breaking through into the space God inhabits with us and is made known to us, like a curtain or a door in front of us suddenly opening. Or like when a thick fog dissipates and we can finally see beyond it.
In other words, Jesus’ listeners to his sermon that that day did not hear his words and think that being poor, hungry, loving enemies, or turning the other cheek, were the prerequisites to “get into heaven” and escape from the earth. It didn’t makes sense for them to want to escape from the earth because the earth was the very place that God dwelled with them and where they encountered God. Jesus was trying to tell them that it would be through the kind of actions he was describing in his sermon that heaven, the realization of God’s blessing and love for the world, will be revealed to the people they encounter on earth.
Jesus is telling his hearers that the people who will follow him will be the kinds of people who will not allow wealth to be an idol in their lives and who used it in the service of others. The kingdom of God will spread through people who can endure hardships, who have the sensitivities to see the sin and brokenness of the world and to grieve over it. Heaven will be revealed on earth through the actions of the kinds of people who hunger for God’s justice and mercy, who can see that their enemies are broken and sinful human beings, just like they are, and not insist on vengeance and retribution. God’s kingdom will be spread by people who can lend to their neighbors, without expecting every act of giving to be reciprocated.
Jesus sermon, and so much of the New Testament if read carefully, I think, says that the point of the Christian life and what it means to be part of a church, is not about being preoccupied with our own personal salvation or even “getting into heaven” at all. Perhaps “getting into heaven” is really just a 2nd or even 3rd order consequence of another primary purpose for the Christian life. In Jesus sermon, he is telling his hearers that the point of the Christian life is simply to try to live as the kind of people through whom God’s blessing can be made known to other people on earth. It will be through our actions that people will see revealed the love and generosity of God and experience God’s in breaking into their lives.
Think of it like being a doctor. The point of being a doctor is to be a person who practices medicine to heal people and promote health, not to be voted in to any medical honor society. The physician might be named to the honor society as a result of his exceptional and devoted practice, but that is not why he became a physician or motivates him to practice. If he practices medicine for reward alone, it also makes his profession look completely self-interested and not at the service of others.
The Old Testament story about Joseph and his brothers, I think, is a beautiful example of the kind of person Jesus is calling us to be and the kind of disposition and attitude required of us, especially when we interact with those who have hurt us.
Joseph was one of 11 brothers, but he was his father’s favorite. So much so, that his father had given him a special coat to wear. His brothers were so jealous of Joseph that they sold him into slavery. Luckily, Joseph was good at interpreting dreams and found a place of honor in the Pharaoh’s house. He eventually became Pharaoh’s second-in-command and a very wealthy and powerful man of Egypt in his own right.
During this time, however, there was a famine in the land, and Joseph’s family came from Canaan into Egypt in order to get food. They encountered Joseph, who was in charge of all the food supplies, but didn’t recognize him at first. After a series of events, Joseph finally revealed himself to his brothers and told them of his plans to help his family and other members of Israel to escape starvation.
After all that had happened, Joseph, after encountering his brothers, could have very well turned his back on them and said, “You’ll get no help from me. I hope you starve and die. You betrayed me. You sold me into slavery and I hate you. You are now getting what you deserve.” But Joseph didn’t do that. He reveals himself to his brothers and says, “Come closer. I’m your brother Joseph. I forgive you and I’m here to help you.”
Joseph tells his brothers that the famine will continue for a few more years, but that he has made arrangements for them to come settle in the land of Goshen, where they can all be together, and where Joseph will provide for them.
One of the most remarkable things in the story is that Joseph tells his brothers not to be distressed or angry with themselves for selling him into slavery. He comes to the conclusion that it was part of God’s plan. This doesn’t justify his brothers’ actions, of course, but his new found perspective helps Joseph have a different attitude toward what happened to him. It is doubtful Joseph would have been so generous to them in the immediate aftermath of his sale.
But as time passed, and the events of Joseph’s life unfolded, he was able to gain a broader perspective. He was able to see that during his time in Egypt, God had been in the process of redeeming the terrible injustice that was done to him. By acting with love toward his brothers, who had become his enemies, Joseph became a person through whom God’s generous love, mercy and blessings were revealed. The scene ends with Joseph kissing his brothers and weeping upon them, after which Joseph’s brothers were finally able to speak. They were on the receiving end of Joseph’s great witness to the character of God. In that moment of reconciliation, grieving over all of those years of their lost relationship, but looking forward to a new future together, I imagine Joseph and his brothers all felt the presence of God among them as the anger and division among them was healed.
The actions of Joseph show us the kind of people God calls us to be. Joseph is not poor, or starving, or mourning. He is a rich and powerful man. Yet he uses his wealth and status to rescue the poor and starving. He gave his family and others from Canaan the land of Goshen, and did not ask for anything in return. His brothers were his enemies and he forgave them. Joseph was merciful, just as God was merciful to him in Egypt. Joseph’s actions were pure gift, motivated by love. His generosity healed and redeemed the injustice which had been done to him. His actions reflect the nature of the loving, generous, and gracious God who sent him to Egypt in order that he might be later equipped to rescue the people of Israel from famine and death.
This is the kind of life Jesus was talking about in his sermon that day, whether it was on a mountain or on a plain. He was not articulating some abstract and impossible ethic, designed to engender guilt and anxiety about our worthiness to get into heaven. Rather, Jesus exhorted his followers to be the kind of people through whom God’s kingdom of heaven would be experienced and made known throughout the world.
Jesus did not come to return Israel to its glory days of the past, but was preparing them to be ready for the kingdom of God over all the earth. It was a challenging message for people to hear and Jesus knows that what he is asking of his followers requires a different kind of courage, a different kind of perspective, and a different way of life. And, it is the kind of life God calls each of us, both individually, and as a church, to live.