21 Then Peter came and said to him, "Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?" 22 Jesus said to him, "Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 "For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.' 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, "Pay what you owe.' 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, "Have patience with me, and I will pay you.' 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, "You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?' 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart."
Along with expressions of the value of hard work, personal responsibility and caring for others, typical among lists of parents’ wishes for their children, my father had another refrain that I recall from my childhood. As a one who deeply values studying history and had lived through some interesting history himself, my father would frequently tell my siblings and I that he “hoped we lived through interesting times.” Now, I do not know exactly the specific content of that phrase, but I am certain that he did not mean the events that transpired on Sept. 11, 2001. I am certain of this because he was the first person I called after a new dorm mate of mine informed me of what was happening, as we were brushing our teeth in a communal bathroom. I remember returning to my dorm room, turning on the tv, and promptly calling my father. He was steady and reassuring, in that way that fathers tend to be, though I could tell that he too was shaken up. Shaken up because, in spite of that paternal steadiness, there were no answers that could be easily accessed, no answers for his sobbing son who was already having a hard time adjusting to college, no answers that could rationalize the radical evil that that was now being broadcast on every television channel across the country.
And ten years have past, ten years full of political and economic strife, ten years in which we have become increasingly divided in our politics, though oddly unified in our belief that we have nothing to learn from the other side, ten years and two wars, the question of radical evil remains, and it is just as stupefying as it was on that horrible Tuesday morning. The questions persist, and though we can hazard answers as to the geo-political and in some cases religious realities that gave rise to this brave new world, none of that is fully satisfying. None of the analysis, regardless if it comes from Foxnews or MSNBC, can actually make us feel any safer, and if there is one reality that has persisted and grown in these ten years, it is the awareness that the world is perhaps infinitely more dangerous and our own stations in life infinitely more fragile than we once believed. The impossible was being broadcast into every living room and there were no easy answers available to make any sense of it all.
And while this horrific event may have shattered our collective notions of invincibility in a new way, that the world is a dangerous place and that we are implicated in this danger, this is a reality as old as humanity itself. Take, if you will, the first reading for the day. What we have before us is the culmination of one of the most marvelous stories in the whole of Scripture: the reconciliation of Joseph and his brothers. As beautiful as the passage is on its own, when taken in the context of the whole story, it is almost too wonderful for words. So, to remind ourselves as to why Joseph’s brothers might be a bit afraid of him, let’s briefly look at the entire story. If you will recall, Joseph’s father, Isaac or Israel, loved and cared for Joseph more than his other brothers, Joseph being the youngest. One way that Isaac demonstrates this love is by giving Joseph an absurdly expensive coat, the one of amazing Technicolor dream fame. What is more, this Joseph is not exactly the victim who receives this extra attention with any sense of awareness or humility. Instead, this boy, given to ecstatic dreams, informs his brothers that they will someday bow down to him, an act that occasions even the rebuke of his doting father. This is not what one would call keeping a low profile. To put it frankly, and this might be the middle brother coming out in me, Joseph is a bit of a brat, a bit spoiled, protected as he is by his father’s strong hand. The other brothers, understandably jealous and tired of the unfair treatment, stop just short of killing Joseph, instead putting him a pit and then selling into slavery in Egypt. Now, as these things tend to go, the brothers end up relying on Joseph in a way they could have never anticipated. Turns out that that whole crazy dream thing Joseph had going actually ended up being quite an asset. It lands him in the halls of power, his dreams being politically useful, predictive as they are of a coming drought and famine, allowing Egypt to be prepared with enough food to make it through. You can see where all of this is headed, the brothers literally on starvation’s inhospitable door, and now unknowingly dependent on the mercy of the brother that they submitted to treatment a tad bit more harsh than typical fraternal hazing. Though there is a scene of reconciliation prior to this reading, a scene in which Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers and extends forgiveness, the brothers, still rotting from the guilt of their pasts and with father Isaac now dead, his controlling influence gone with him, need a bit more reassure. Realizing that their fate rests entirely in the hands of Joseph, they need to know that past grudges are forgiven so that their futures may be secure.
And you can’t really blame them for this due diligence or their expectation that forgiveness from young Joseph might still be a ways out, given what they did to him. Sibling rivalry and jealousy are givens, we all know this from our own life experience; literally selling your brother off is quite another. Dr. Phil, then, does not have the market cornered on family dysfunction. So, having been ground down by the harsh unpredictability of life, they throw themselves on the mercy of their brother, hoping, it seems, for the bare minimum, a cease fire, a truce. But what they receive they could have never anticipated. They, for what feels like the first time, actually receive their brother. Amidst their own tears and recollection, they are given back to the brother that they never really had. They are given the joy of relationship with the brother they had envied, hated and left for dead. In a word, they are given grace.
What, then, compels Joseph to behave this way, holding all the cards and yet throwing them away in favor of fraternal embrace? Well, it is this most remarkable statement: “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.” It was the realization that not even the evil intentions of his brothers could preclude God’s activity; which is perhaps the deepest mystery that we can fathom. That God remains active in a world where brothers will sell each other off out of jealousy and men will turn commercial airplanes into missiles. That however fragile we are in this world, and make no mistake, we are indeed fragile, God’s love and care will continue to uphold and sustain us. This is what Joseph realizes: the profound mystery that God can use human evil and make of it something life-giving, even to those who perpetuate that evil. This is the story that Joseph learns, and it is the story that will continue to be enacted until God, in the flesh of Jesus Christ, suffers our evil and gives in return the life, peace and joy he shares with the Father and the Spirit through all eternity. There is no way to rationalize radical evil, not the radical evil we saw ten years ago nor the evil that is radical in its subtlety, asking us to dehumanize those with whom we disagree until all manner of chaos ensues. To this, there is no human answer, but there is a divine one. Even this evil can be used by the God of cross and open tomb for divine good. This we cannot explain but only offer our deepest praise and thanksgiving. In Jesus’ name, amen.