Friday, February 26, 2016

The path to boundless mercy

Sieger Köder's depiction of Joseph, reunited with his brothers.
On this Lenten Friday, we get a hint of Good Friday in the readings at Mass. Today’s first reading, in particular, is a sad story of betrayal: the story of Joseph and his brothers.

Although we won’t hear the whole tale at Mass (the reading ends with Joseph being sold to the “Ishmaelites”), the general outlines of the Joseph story are somewhat well known thanks to a certain delightful Broadway musical. Joseph spends years as a slave, is betrayed again (by his Master Potiphar’s wife), and lands in Pharoah’s dungeon.

Thus far, Joseph sounds like the Count of
The Count savors his revenge.
Monte Cristo. Alexandre Dumas’ novel is also about a betrayal—and an elaborate plan for revenge that threatens to destroy more than the original traitors.

Joseph’s brothers, too, will fear the worst when they learn that he not only survived the ordeal, but ascended to the highest post in the realm, second only to Pharaoh. Thinking he is simply biding his time until after their father dies, the brothers, in Jacob’s name, craft a groveling (but on point) plea for mercy.

But Joseph had not spent that time in slavery and in prison plotting his comeuppance. He did not spend that time rehashing the whole sad story to himself, bolstering an image of himself as a perpetual victim. Somehow Joseph, the master storyteller, was able to retell his own story (to himself!) from a completely different perspective. He  used all that downtime to great advantage.

Although the son of Jacob had the power to execute exquisite revenge on his brothers, he chose a different path, and God had everything to do with it. “You meant harm,” he told his brothers frankly, “but God meant it all for good: for the salvation of many people.”

A tip in a book read long, long ago keeps coming back to me. I don’t remember the context, but it applies (and how!): Sometimes we find ourselves facing a brick wall—-and the wall is time. For years, Joseph was facing not one, but four brick walls. But his soul was not held within those limits. Having experienced the special love of his father, Jacob, he was perhaps better equipped than most to believe in the providential love of God.

Mercy is not an easy gift to give, and it doesn’t come automatically. I am learning that mercy becomes more of an option when I can get some distance from the impact of a hurt or injustice on me, using my imagination and giving to God the power to make all things work together for the good, even for someone else’s good.

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