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Radical Lovers
based on Genesis 45:3-11, 15
by Rev. Thomas Hall

Zaphenath-Paneah, Egypt’s Prime Minister, had a secret. A dark secret. A family secret. The kind of secret you never forget. Ever. Zaphenath-Paneah had long since buried this memory beneath layers of years and experience. Yet he still had flashbacks; times when he watched reruns of the family members who had victimized and abused him, nightmares of being left in a deep well and hearing the voices trail off. Left to go stark mad in abject darkness. He could still remember his "rescue"-but for what? Rescued to be a slave. And the lies. Zaphenath-Paneah had heard them tearing his favorite jacket, laughing as they splattered goat’s blood on it. He knew what they’d tell the old man. "We found this out near a lion’s den; recognize it?" They knew young Zaphenath-Paneah was the only one that owned such a richly embroidered coat. "My son’s flesh has been ripped by lions," his dad had concluded. He had wondered how many nights his father had mourned his death. Zaphenath-Paneah had a dark secret all right; but he had thought it was done. Gone.

But one chance glance, one happenstance look brought the dark secret back. Zaphenath-Paneah, clipboard in hand, had been marking his ledger, keeping track of rations from the commissary. He had created the world’s first banking system and was foreclosing on properties in exchange for life-sustaining wheat. And then it happened. For in that split second, mindlessly watching people milling around the commissary he saw his dark secret appear in the hideous form of ten peasants-the same ten that had tried to kill him, had enslaved him, and then lied to his father as a cover-up. Even twenty years could not erase his parting glimpse of them sitting under a juniper tree, divvying out the money they had gotten from selling him to the traders bound for Egypt. There they were, ghosts out of the past-his brothers-bowing down before him along with the thousands of other peasants who had come to beg food from the great Pharaoh during the God-awful famine.

But though he recognized them instantly, they had no clue who the prime minister of Egypt really was. How could they? During the years, Joseph had become the mighty Zaphenath-Paneah. He had become an Egyptian-he spoke Egyptian, he had the manicured beard and pointy shoes of an Egyptian, the elegant silk clothes, the Egyptian amulets and Pharaoh’s cobra sitting atop his turban.

Revenge is sweet, especially when executed with finesse. "Zaphenath-Paneah," he told himself, "you must use strategy befitting a prime minister. Not like a common thug, like they did to you." So Zaphenath-Paneah engaged in an elaborate scheme of cat and mouse.

"Where are you peasants from?" The Egyptian words from Zaphenath-Paneah were not friendly.

"We are your servants from the land of Canaan and we’ve come to buy wheat."

"Liars! You liars! You are spies, that’s what you are.

"No, we’re not sp-"

"Yes you are!" But if your story is true, then go get that youngest brother that you speak of. Then we’ll know if you’re telling the truth."

All ten spent the next three days abandoned to their own dark hell hole-an Egyptian prison. "See how you like it; that’s what you did to me," Zaphenath-Paneah muttered. And so it went over the months, Zaphenath-Paneah pawing them, clawing them, yet letting them get away for a few moments. Zaphenath-Paneah was beginning to enjoy his own version of "The Game." The plot was quite simple: the prime minister would have his steward plant choice possessions in one of the ten men’s feed bags, he would then accuse them of stealing, they would naturally protest their innocence, and then he would "find" the planted goods. Then he would exact revenge.

One afternoon Zaphenath-Paneah and the brothers were in their usual cat and mouse game. The one had accused the others of being spies. And that’s when he heard them speak in the language he knew as a child.

"This has all happened because of what we did to Joseph long ago. We saw his terror and anguish and heard his pleadings, but we wouldn’t listen. That’s why this trouble has come upon us . . . now we’re all going to die because we murdered him."

They had no clue, of course, that the Joseph they were talking about was standing in the very room with them. He was again hearing the dark secret that only he and his brothers shared. They had confirmed how gutless and heartless they had been. So the abject terror on his face had registered with. They had heard him cry until he had no more voice. And yet they had done nothing. Just the memory of that dark secret sent Joseph away to a private chamber so he could weep over their treachery. But once he regained his composure, Joseph the dead brother returned as Zaphenath-Paneah and this time he was even more enraged. Right before their eyes he had one of them-the oldest named Simeon, hogtied.

Zaphenath-Paneah’s sweet revenge might have gone on until he ended up killing one or all of the ten. Except for one thing. It happened on one occasion when Zaphenath-Paneah up to his usual tricks, had had his silver cup placed inside the youngest brother’s bag of wheat. Discovered, the brothers had returned to face once again the wrath of Zaphenath-Paneah.

"Well, this one-the youngest-will stay with me; the rest of you go home." So that’s what Zaphenath-Paneah’s final plan had come to. He would permanently keep the youngest- and only one among the brothers who shared the same father and mother-the rest he would banish from ever stepping foot in Egypt again.

But then the oldest among them stepped up.

"You’ve asked us about our father; here’s what he said as we were leaving. He said, ‘You know this child is my last. My woman died giving him birth. His brother is dead. I guess eaten by wild animals; I’ve never seen him since. If anything happens to this one, it’ll kill me; I will die from sorrow.’"

"O great Zaphenath-Paneah," the brother continued, "I cannot, I will not go back to my father without the boy. I offer myself as a slave instead of the boy; do with me as you will, but let him go."

The words cut Zaphenath-Paneah as no dagger could. It tore past his hearing, through layers of memory, ripping open his soul. So great was the wound that Zaphenath-Paneah could only double over, motioning his Egyptian ministers out of the room. Everything was coming undone inside. He wept. He heaved long and sustained wails; years of hate and anguish and revenge gushed out of the wound. Nowhere in the palace could a place be found where Zaphenath-Paneah’s anguish had not been heard.

For the first time in his life Zaphenath-Paneah had seen a self-less, heroic act done by one who had tried to kill him. This brother had valued Zaphenath-Paneah’s kid brother more than himself. The offer to save his father’s life by taking the place of the youngest brother shamed the prime minister. Mocked his sweet revenge. Judah, the oldest had made peace with the past and was ready to receive any sentence for his deeds.

Ordering all Egyptians out, he stood silent with the ten. And there face to face, the prime minister announced, "I, Zaphenath-Paneah, am your brother. I am Joseph." The news did not rest easy in their ears. They stood, dumbfounded and stupefied. They could say nothing; the man had spoken to them in Hebrew. How did an Egyptian know Hebrew? And how did he know about Joseph? He announced the secret again, this time regaining some composure, "I’m Joseph, your brother that you sold into Egypt."

It was a strange family reunion. A mixture of old time religion and homecoming. Confessing and forgiving. Those words had ended his revenge. Had ended his cruel cat and mouse game. Joseph had broken the silence; he had confronted the dark secret between he and his brothers. The reunion changed their relationship: Zaphenath-Paneah became Joseph once again. No more getting even. No more eye for an eye or tooth for a tooth.

But that’s not all in the relationship that changed. His theology too changed. Joseph’s life had always been a puzzle. And for years the only pieces he had carried around in his memory were the pieces of being hurt, being enslaved, being imprisoned, and yet being promoted. But now reunited with his brothers again, Joseph had discovered a new piece that completed the puzzle: Purpose. God had had more riding on Joseph’s life than a bunch of dreams. God had had more investment in his life than just being victimized and thrown in the dungeon. Everything evil that had happened to him, God had turned around for a higher purpose. So in the end, Joseph could look his brothers in the eye and say to the very ones who had harmed him, "Don’t be angry that you did this to me. God did it. God sent me here to preserve your lives."

The story of Zaphenath-Paneah is our story. Wounds hurt and revenge is sweet. But as Joseph discovered, forgiveness heals.

Next to Joseph’s story, place Jesus’ words in the gospel lesson for this day:

Love your enemies.

Do good to those who hate you.

Pray for the happiness of those who curse you.

…You must be compassionate,

just as your Father is compassionate.

Jesus’ teaching about loving our enemies and Zaphenath-Paneah’s story of forgiveness invite us to be radical lovers in the world. They invite us to give up our dark secrets of wounds and plans for sweet revenge and to replace them with "paying forward" God’s personal compassion. To go down one path is to develop a lifestyle of blaming others-secretly or publicly-who have wounded us. But the other choice leads us to pull unexpected and transforming reversals-to react in very surprising ways. Like paying forward forgiveness when revenge seems the only option. Like praying for the happiness of the one supervisor who has it out for you. Or holding in your thoughts and prayers the very one close to you who has wounded you so severely.

Every day we live the story of Zaphenath-Paneah and Jesus’ teaching. May God help us to be radical lovers and pay forward God personal compassion to the very ones who hurt us most. Amen.