Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no-one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, ‘I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?’ But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, ‘Come closer to me.’ And they came closer. He said, ‘I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither ploughing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh and Lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, “Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds and all that you have. I will provide for you there– since there are five more years of famine to come– so that you and your household and all that you have will not come to poverty.” And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. You must tell my father how greatly I am honoured in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.’ then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Joseph never forgot that he was an exile, separated from his family as a result of his own youthful arrogance, his father’s indulgence and his brothers’ jealousy. His first son was called Manasseh (causing to forget), for, Joseph said, God has made me forget all my troubles and my father’s family (Gen. 41:51). But the name itself was a constant reminder. Joseph hadn’t forgotten; he had simply buried the memory deep inside himself, and with it all the anger, distress, hurt and sadness too painful to be borne.
Nor had his brothers forgotten. As soon as their mission to buy grain began to go wrong, their first thought was that they were being punished because of Joseph.
Now Joseph and his brothers stand face to face. There is fear in the room; there is guilt as they all remember the past. There is despair. There is pain – the deep hurt of past sins.
The teller of this ancient story knows how to describe overwhelming emotion. Joseph’s weeping echoed through the house. Joseph needed reconciliation as much as his brothers did. The past cannot be forgotten until it has been forgiven. All the unresolved feelings, kept buried for years, swept over him, and the man who governed Egypt could not govern his own tears.
The spectre of the past is suddenly a present reality. But Joseph has changed: he is able to see the past and the present from a new perspective – it is the hand of a loving God which has brought his brothers into his power and so prepared the salvation of their people, with bread and forgiveness. In the prayer which Jesus taught his followers, the only two petitions are for daily bread and forgiveness. It is only by sharing both that we can bring justice and peace to our divided world.
Unchanging God, when past memories haunt us and we cherish old grudges, forgive us for yesterday and for today. When we come face to face with things we hide even from ourselves, remind us that your constant love understands and forgives us all. When a new future calls give us courage to walk in hope and share bread and forgiveness that your kingdom may come. Amen
The Rev’d Heather Pencavel is retired minister and member of Thornbury URC, South Gloucestershire.