To appreciate this passage, you have to know the full story. Here it is: Abraham begat Isaac, who begat Jacob, who begat twelve sons, including young Joseph. Joseph was handsome and spoiled. Joseph got the “coat of many colors.” His brothers did not. Then Joseph, who was a gifted interpreter of dreams, told his brothers of his dream that they would bow before him. Fed up with their insufferable brother, Joseph’s siblings sold him into slavery in Egypt. “You like to dream? Welcome to this nightmare.”
For his brothers, that was the end of the story. But not for God. So, the story gets better, right? No, it first gets worse. Joseph served his Egyptian master. Soon the master’s wife wanted service from Joseph, too. But Joseph refused. Enraged, she accused Joseph of attempted rape, which landed Joseph in prison. Joseph was done. But God was not.
Interpreting dreams made Joseph famous in prison – and that got the attention of Pharaoh (Egypt’s king), who had a recurring dream nobody could decipher. But Joseph easily did: “Pharaoh, these are fat times, but lean times are ahead. Your farms are flourishing, but famine is coming. You better get ready.” Since Joseph could foretell the future, Pharaoh put Joseph in charge of it, elevating him to his second in command. And so, Joseph began stockpiling grain for the coming famine. Which hit Egypt – and Canaan where Joseph’s family was starving.
In desperation, Joseph’s brothers traveled to Egypt for food – only to meet their brother, who was positioned perfectly to take revenge. Except he didn’t. Instead, Joseph forgave his brothers, saying: “I was rotten. You were wrong. But God was faithful. God was good. God sent me ahead so that this could all work out right. Bring everyone here. I will feed you and our family will live.” And all Joseph’s shocked, forgiven brothers could do was receive Joseph’s kisses, tears, and love – and then learn to live into the happy ending that they never saw coming.
If your family is dysfunctional; if you are estranged from family; if you fear for a loved one whose life is hitting bottom; if you despair that you’ll never get out of the hole you’re in, the good news is that God isn’t done with your family or with you.
By grace and with time, people can and do change. There is a way out of hell. As Winston Churchill said: “When you’re going through hell, keep going.” Keep looking to God, who won’t forsake you, and just keep doing the next right thing. Suffering can break us down. Or suffering can open us up to be more compassionate and forgiving.
The spiritual writer Richard Rohr says: “You must transform your pain or you will transmit your pain.” Translation: If you don’t work with God to heal, odds are that you are going to hurt someone else. By grace, Joseph transformed his pain. God will help you do the same.
We all need to do that as our national trauma continues. Joseph suffered in prison. We are suffering in a pandemic. Suicide, depression, domestic violence, and addiction have all increased. We are stressed and exhausted. But God isn’t done with us. This old saying is absolutely true: “When you’re down to nothing, God’s up to something.” So, hang in there; keep the faith; and know that God will see you through. That is the slow-motion miracle that God gave Joseph and that God is giving you.
But this miracle requires our involvement. What can we do to help God help us? We can be grace-giving with each other. Everyone is struggling. We can be more encouraging, generous, forgiving, patient, and kind. While in prison, Joseph was recognized for his unique qualities and was blessed. We will be, too, as we are patient, kind, and loving.
In so doing, we follow Christ, who Joseph prefigures. Christ also suffered for family. Christ took on the slavery of our sin to share with us the salvation of his victory. Like Joseph, Christ was betrayed, falsely accused, and imprisoned in suffering and death to bring our starving souls into his Life and Love. Like Joseph, Christ has forgiven us, his guilty brethren. And like Joseph’s brothers, all we as Christ’s shocked, forgiven family can do is receive Christ’s saving mercy and love – and then learn to live into the happy ending that we never saw coming.