Be Ye Merciful

Text: Genesis 50:15-21

St. Paul wrote to the Romans, “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them…live in harmony with one another…repay no one evil for evil.”[1] Some of these words we heard last week at the Feast of the Visitation. They also serve as our Epistle this week. It may be that, as the Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to write these words, He also brought to Paul’s recollection our forefather in the faith, Joseph. One needs only glance at the end of the reading to think of Joseph – how his brothers envied and hated him; how they plotted to kill him and then sold him into slavery; and, how, in return, he forgave them and provided for them and their families in time of hardship.

We have in Joseph a picture of the life to which we have been called: a life where we have been crucified and buried with Christ and, through our Baptism, been raised to new life with Him. In this life, we seek to bear each other’s burdens, to love genuinely, to abhor evil and hold fast to good. One paramount aspect of our new life in Christ is brought up especially by our text from Genesis: Forgiveness. Joseph shared with his brothers that, as God has forgiven them, so he, too has forgiven them. We also should aspire to the same. As God has forgiven us all in Christ, so we, too, forgive those who sin against us.

I.

But, boy, can that ever be hard. We pray for the grace to forgive as we’ve been forgiven in the Lord’s Prayer. If we were ever going perfect it at in this life, our Lord wouldn’t have encouraged us to pray for it. If there ever was, by human reasoning, someone who deserved to get revenge and right a wrong, Joseph would’ve qualified. Joseph’s story is one of the most vivid, and most relatable in all Scripture. Our text from Genesis takes place near the end. We read, “When Josephs brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, ‘It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.’[2] As you can imagine, there’s a backstory here.

Jacob had eleven sons. Joseph was one of the two youngest. Scripture tells us that, as Joseph was born to Israel in his old age, he was particularly dear to him. It was for Joseph that he made that special robe. God also blessed Joseph with many spiritual gifts, including interpreting dreams and wisdom. Joseph’s brothers did not take these things well. Scripture says, “they hated him and could not speak to him on friendly terms.”[3] Over time, their hatred for him only grew. They even plotted to kill him. They would’ve, too, had not Reuben suggested they throw Joseph in a pit. Rueben thought he’d come back later and save him. But, while he was away, the other brothers decided they should at least make a profit off Joseph and sold him into slavery. Then they dipped his robe in blood to cover it all up.

Long story, short. Joseph ended up a slave in Egypt. However, God richly blessed him. Joseph used the gifts of dreams and wisdom God have given him and ended up as Pharaoh’s righthand man. God caused everything Joseph did to prosper. That included Egypt, in general. Because of Joseph, Egypt fared very well during a seven-year famine. That famine brought Joseph’s brothers down to Egypt for food. Joseph revealed himself to them and provided for their families out of his abundance. That provision lasted for 17 years. Then Israel died.

When their father died, Joseph’s brothers feared greatly. They feared that – now that dad was dead – nothing would hold back Joseph’s wrath. Maybe he was just waiting…even 17 years. They were so afraid, they sent message to him by a third party. We’ve heard the whole text, so we know how it ends. But, this here is a picture of how the world works and what it expects. When someone does you wrong, you get back at them. And, according to the world, you have every right to do so.

Here’s an example. There is a thing called a spite house. A spite house is what it sounds like. It’s when you’re mad at someone, so you build a house and live in it to get back at them. There’s one in Boston called the Skinny House. Two brothers inherited a piece of land. While one brother was away on military service, the other built a house that took up most of the lot. He thought, surely, there would be no room for his brother. His brother got back and built a house on the remaining portion, anyway. The nine-foot wide house was built specifically to block light and air from his brother’s house.

II.

When Joseph heard his brothers’ message, he wept. Then, it says, “His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, ‘Behold, we are your servants.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not fear, for am I in the place of God?’[4] If anyone had a right to get revenge and return evil-for-evil, it was Joseph. His brothers hated him. They wanted to kill him. They did sell him into slavery. But Joseph offered them these words, “Don’t fear. Am I in the place of God?” Joseph means this: God has surely forgiven them; how should he not also forgive them, as he, indeed, already had 17 years earlier. Or, was God wrong and Joseph should seek vengeance? That’s essentially what his brothers were expecting.

I don’t think any of us have built a spite house, at least not physically. No, most of us bear our grudges and disdain for other people on the inside. If we could afford a spite house, we’d do it. Instead, we settle for internal hatred, favoritism, and gossip. If we can’t get back at people with our actions, we do it with our words. And we even feel justified in it. My friends, that is terribly sinful. Every grudge we hold, every lie we tell, every time we get back at some or desire to do so, we earn God’s eternal wrath and punishment. When we lay in our beds and plot out how to get back at others, we should not think to escape God’s right and just judgement. Except, that is, by His grace and mercy.

God in His mercy sent His Son to die for us, to die even for you. When He was cursed, He did not curse in return. When He was struck, He did not strike in return. Instead, He bore the hatred of the world so that He might redeem the world by His death on the cross. By His death, He has made atonement for our sins. He has paid in blood for all the spite houses we build in our hearts and minds. Joseph knew that. So, when his brothers came to him expecting the worst, he spoke the Gospel to them. Since God had forgiven all their (and his) sin in Christ, so he also had forgiven them. Then Joseph promised to continue providing for them and their little children.

In Joseph, we have a picture to the life to which we also have been called. Like Joseph, we’ve been sinned against. In some cases, greatly sinned against. But we’ve also sinned in return, sometimes greatly; and we’ve felt justified in it. That has all been forgiven us in Christ. We have received mercy through the blood of Jesus. So now, as our Lord says, “Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.”[5] We see in Joseph an example to follow. Joseph forgave his brothers and did not hold their sin against them. He even had mercy on them by providing for their bodily needs in time of famine. We have received the same mercy of God that Joseph did, and so we, too, seek to forgive and do good to those who have sinned against us. As the hymn says,

“Keep me from saying words that later need recalling;

Guard me lest idle speech may from my lips be falling;

But when within my place I must and ought to speak,

Then to my words give grace lest I offend the weak.

 

Lord, let me win my foes with kindly words and actions,

And let me find good friends for counsel and correction.

Help me, as You have taught, to love both great and small

And by Your Spirit’s might to live at peace with all.”[6]


[1] Romans 12:14, 16-17, English Standard Version.

[2] Gen. 50:15.

[3] Gen. 37:4, New American Standard Bible.

[4] Gen. 50:18-19, ESV.

[5] Lk. 6:36.

[6] “O God, My Faithful God,” Lutheran Service Book, 696.

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