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Seventh Sunday after Epiphany

Readings: Genesis 45:3–11,15, 1 Corinthians 15:35–50 & Luke 6:27–38

What a strange and disparate collection of readings for this morning!

Our first reading, from the Book of Genesis, appears out of nowhere in the Lectionary cycle for this week. Normally we will read a passage from the same book for several consecutive weeks, following a particular story from its beginning to its end. 

But this morning, we find ourselves reading the tail end of the story of Joseph being reunited with his brothers in Egypt, where he is now the second most powerful man in Egypt after the Pharaoh. These are the same brothers who left him to be sold into slavery in Egypt. But after a rough and uncertain beginning, things have turned out remarkably well for Joseph. He now rules all of Egypt on behalf of Pharaoh. 

And when his brothers finally realise who he is, and just how powerful he has become, they are more than a little bit worried, thinking there might be some serious brotherly payback headed their way. But Joseph, obviously sensing their trepidation, tells them not to worry. He says to them, “And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” 

Joseph acknowledges that the troubles which had befallen him, which let’s face it were pretty severe, were not the fault of his brothers. That’s an incredibly generous and forgiving attitude! Let’s just remind ourselves of what Joseph experienced: he was betrayed by his own flesh and blood; forcibly separated from his father (whom he loved greatly) and his homeland; sold into slavery in a foreign land; and then thrown into prison, where he faced the very real possibility of death.

Based on his experiences, you couldn’t really blame Joseph if he had been angry with his brothers, and we could probably understand it, if he had exacted some form of brotherly payback against them. But Joseph doesn’t blame them, or anyone else for that matter. And he isn’t even angry! He’s actually grateful for what has happened to him, because he tells his brothers that it was all part of God’s plan for him. 

He is able to discern that he needed to go through the bad experiences that he did, in order to truly appreciate the position that he now finds himself in. And everything that has happened to him has been God’s plan for him. God has used Joseph to ensure that the nation of Israel will survive. You might be wondering what I mean by that.

Well, you have to remember that a severe famine has afflicted most of the known world at this time. But Joseph had interpreted a vision that the Pharaoh received from God relating to the famine, and as a result Egypt had built up sufficient stores of grain in the presiding years to survive the famine. Joseph’s father Jacob, who is the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, is often referred to in the Old Testament as Israel. His twelve sons, become the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel, and each of the twelve tribes is named after each of Jacob’s sons. Through Joseph, Jacob and his other sons come to live in Egypt where they survive the famine. They are the “remnant on earth” that Joseph refers to in the passage. Their descendants will become the Israelites living in Egypt, whom Moses will lead out of slavery in the Exodus to the ‘Promised Land’.

In a way, I feel that I can relate to Joseph. Not that anyone in my family sold me into slavery, although I’m sure the idea must have crossed my mum’s mind at certain times, especially when I was younger and causing her a bit of grief! But I have experienced dark times in my life, situations which, at the time, were incredibly painful and, which also seemed as though they were going to last for ever. But they didn’t, and when I look back at those times in my life now, I can clearly see that it was all part of God’s plan for me. It was not the fault of those people who were involved in those particular situations.

I also like to think that I’ve been blessed with a pretty good temperament and disposition. Even when I was going through my dark times, and I did blame certain people for the hurt they had caused me, I always found it difficult to stay angry with those people, or to hold any grudges against them.

In today’s gospel passage, Luke tells us of the extraordinary command of Jesus to, “Love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us”.

Brendan Byrne, who’ve you’ve heard me quote in a number of sermons previously, refers to this passage, and the instructions from Jesus that are contained within it, as being all about “Generosity in Relationships”. Byrne suggests that the examples which Jesus uses to demonstrate exactly what ‘loving your enemies might mean’, “all involve responding to injury or unreasonable demand with nothing but generosity and the abandonment of all claim to retribution”. 

And as Byrne says, Jesus isn’t really expecting people to follow these rules of conduct literally, instead he is once again using the tool of exaggeration to instil in people an attitude where they might allow themselves to be vulnerable by the standards of our society, because that vulnerability and generosity is what one discerns in God and experiences from God.

Allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, to put ourselves in positions where we might be hurt, or taken advantage of, is not an easy thing to do. But that’s what Jesus encourages us to. And as he said in today’s gospel passage, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again.” 

Jesus tells us to love our enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. We should do those things because they are the right things to do. But Jesus also says that if we do those things, then God will reward us. Not that we do them for that reason. We don’t do them for reward; we do them because they are the right things to do in the eyes of God. But God will reward us and be merciful to us, because we are His children.

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