Washing dishes recalls timeless story of forgiveness

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, April 12, 2006

Forgiveness is like washing dishes, I wrote in my March 29 column on the rescue of peacemaker James Loney from being held hostage in Iraq. Loney had listed washing dishes among his greatest longings upon being set free.

The simple act of washing dishes indicates that the future matters, I commented. Otherwise, why bother washing dishes at all? Thus it is with forgiveness. Because the future matters, forgiveness makes it possible for the hopes and dreams of tomorrow not to be contaminated by the bitter legacy of yesterday.

So many of you responded to the theme of forgiveness that I'd like to return to it now during this week of Passover, Good Friday and Easter by revisiting the story of my Hebrew hero Joseph, who practiced forgiveness in a big way precisely because the future mattered a great deal.

Joseph, the kid with the coat of many colours. Joseph, son of Jacob and great-grandson of Abraham. Joseph, the victim of bullying by jealous older brothers who were to learn that what goes around doesn't necessarily have to come around.

Joseph had 11 brothers, 10 older and one younger. Jacob doted on his teenaged son, which didn't make the boy with the beautiful coat too popular with his hardworking older brothers.

One day he told them about a dream he had in which they bowed down to him. They wanted to kill him. When Joseph showed up while they were out tending their father's livestock, they saw their opportunity.

Joseph's life was spared at the last minute only because Judah, one of the older brothers, made a deal with some Egypt-bound traders to buy him as a slave. The brothers kept the coat, however, and having dipped it in goat blood, showed it to their heartbroken father as "evidence" that Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal.

Life in Egypt was a roller coaster for the Hebrew slave. Sold to Pharaoh's captain of the guard, he excelled in his service and was placed in charge of all his master's interests, only to be thrown into prison because of a false accusation by his master's wife.

In prison, he was put in charge of the other prisoners, including the former cupbearer to Pharaoh. The cupbearer had a dream which Joseph interpreted, and after the cupbearer was restored to his old job in the royal court, he returned the favour by putting in a good word for Joseph when Pharaoh himself had a disturbing dream.

Pharaoh summoned Joseph from prison. Joseph told Pharaoh his dream meant there would be seven years of plentiful harvest followed by seven years of famine throughout the region, and Pharaoh must appoint someone to oversee grain storage and distribution.

Pharaoh immediately gave the job to Joseph, elevating the slave to the second highest position in the country.

Two years into the famine, 10 brothers from the land of Canaan arrived at Joseph's doorstep, hoping to purchase grain. Joseph recognized them as his wicked brothers, but they didn't recognize him.

After inquiring about their family back home, he sent them away with grain – and with the first of a series of tricks that eventually forced them to return to Egypt with their youngest brother, Benjamin. Benjamin was their father's pride and joy, and as a ruse Joseph had accused him of theft and threatened to keep him in Egypt as a slave.

At this point Judah, the brother who had negotiated Joseph's sale into slavery, stepped forward and pled with Joseph for Benjamin's release, offering himself as a slave instead.

So touched was Joseph by Judah's change of heart that he announced to his brothers, "I am Joseph." His brothers shook with fear, thinking payback time had come.

But Joseph said: "Do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life. . . . Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good. . . . So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones."

And in this great account of forgiveness and God's providence, Jacob's descendants found refuge from famine, and a home-away-from-home for the next 400 years.

For us today, there is an important lesson here: just because we've been victimized along life's journey doesn't mean we have to hold the rest of our lives hostage to the bitterness of the past. As former hostage James Loney demonstrated by washing dishes, the future matters.

Then, of course, there are those immortal words by Jesus from the cross: "Father, forgive them."

© 2006 Warren Harbeck

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