8th Sunday after Pentecost July 15, 2018
38, 399, 408, 361:4-5
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept. His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
You’ve probably heard the saying, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” The saying suggests that a person will get the most satisfaction out of his revenge if he waits awhile—perhaps a long while, until just the right moment when he can inflict the most anguish on the one who has wronged him. You’ve also no doubt heard the philosophy that “revenge is sweet.” Again suggesting that it is a desirable and honorable thing to “get back” at someone who has done you wrong. The Bible, however, paints an entirely different picture of revenge. As far as Scripture is concerned, we might well say that “Revenge is a dish best not served at all.” The LORD hardly wants us paying back evil for evil. When someone does wrong to us, we are not to lie in wait looking for an opportunity to settle the score. And when we seek revenge on someone against God’s will, we cause problems among friends and families; we ruin relationships and cause general disorder.
If anyone ever had a so-called reason for settling a score with someone, it would have been Joseph over against his brothers. Joseph’s brothers had done the unthinkable to him. Because of their jealousy, they had decided to get rid of him. After planning to put him to death, they ended up selling him as a slave into the hands of men on their way to Egypt. Then they told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
39 years later, the tables had turned, so to speak. God had brought tremendous prosperity and honor to Joseph in Egypt. He was second in command in all the land. He had graciously helped those very same brothers who had come to Egypt looking for food during time of famine. He had forgiven the wickedness they had done to him and had brought all of them and his father down to Egypt to live near him.
But when father Jacob died, suddenly Joseph’s brothers were terrified. What would Joseph do now that their patriarch was dead? Would he choose this time now to take revenge on them? Would he now return to them the sort of evil that they had once dealt to him? They were so afraid that they made up a story, claiming to Joseph that their father had left specific instructions that they should not be harmed. They fell at Joseph’s feet, pleading his mercy. They went so far as to offer themselves as his slaves.
But why were the brothers so afraid that Joseph would take revenge on them? Because that is the way so many people operate. It is the way of man’s corrupt heart that he tends to resist forgiveness and embrace revenge.
You can see what damage the idea of vengeance was doing to the relationship between Joseph and his brothers. Even though Joseph had shown every kindness to his family and had no intention whatsoever of taking any kind of revenge, the very thought of it in the minds of his brothers made them afraid of him. It made them doubt whether or not they could really trust him.
Thoughts of revenge can cloud our own thinking too. When someone wrongs us, are we always quick to forgive? Or are we quicker to repay evil with evil? Does it happen that we hold grudges (which are just another form of getting revenge) by holding back a certain amount of love from someone who has hurt us? When someone has hurt us by their words or actions, do we keep bringing those things up against them at every opportunity—sometimes even after we know their repentance and their desire to be on good terms with us? (Or do we keep bringing it up in our own minds even if we don’t say it?) Joseph could have held his brother’s wickedness over their heads until he died, but he did not go around with a chip on his shoulder toward them.
Thoughts of revenge are like a cancer that eats away at you until all you can think of is, “What am I going to do to make them pay for what they did to me.” It ruins relationships and causes trouble.
Joseph explained to his brothers why he was resisting the temptation to take revenge on them. He said, “Am I in the place of God?” With that simple statement he made clear that He understood that vengeance was God’s business.
Does evil ever get repaid? Yes, it does, because God is just and He must punish the unbelieving evildoer, but the important thing to keep in mind is that HE does it, not you. The Lord’s instruction in this matter is especially clear in Romans 12, “Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: ‘It is mine to avenge; I will repay,’ says the Lord. … On the contrary: If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. … Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:17-21)
There are many examples given in the Bible where God sends hardship and trouble upon people as part of a judgment against them. Think about the Children of Israel themselves who turned away from the LORD and began to worship idols. They threw away their faith in Jesus, the coming Messiah. God allowed their enemies to attack them and to conquer their lands. In those cases, God’s revenge was fully justified. It was part of His response to their unbelief. But the point here is that it was God taking this action. It was not people taking matters into their own hands.
When we have been wronged and are then tempted to “fight back” doing evil in return, we need to remember what Joseph said to His brothers. “Am I in the place of God?” Are any of us in the place of God? The answer is no. Only God is in the place of God and has the right to execute vengeance. Psalm 94 says, “Who will rise up for me against the wicked? Who will take a stand for me against evildoers? … He [the LORD] will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the LORD our God will destroy them.” (Psalm 94:16,23) Surely at times the temptation must have been strong for Joseph to do something wicked to get back at His brothers. Yet in the end, he was able to leave that matter in God’s hands—right where it should be left.
For the Christian, the idea of repaying evil for evil does not fit with who we are or the way we have been treated by God. In connection with Christ Jesus we have been treated better than we have deserved. For there is no denying that we have been rebellious and sinful toward our Creator. We have heard His commandments and done the opposite. We have known His will and not always put it into practice. And yet, because of Jesus, we are safe from God’s vengeance. For in Christ, on the cross, the whole world’s evil was repaid. Jesus’ offering on Calvary (His very life) was sufficient to cover all of it for all time. For you who trust that He has done this, that payment is also credited to you personally—as if you had made it yourself. Therefore, because of Jesus you do not need to fear God’s righteous revenge.
“He hath for us the Law obeyed
And thus the Father’s vengeance stayed
Which over us impended.” (TLH #377:5)
God avenged our evil in Christ, giving us far better than what we deserved—giving us freedom even from the last judgment and from eternal death. So then we who have been freed from the fear of God’s vengeance, would we want to turn around and repay with evil those who hurt us?
The fact is that God is in charge of all the “repayment” plans for sin. It was He who arranged to put the world’s sin on His own Son. It is He who has the right to pay back those who reject Him in unbelief. Any issues of revenge are His and any vengeance He decides to take is holy and right.
What if Joseph had decided to act on His own and settled the score with his brothers in his own way? It is impossible to guess exactly what would have happened, but we do know that God had a plan to turn the evil that was done to Joseph into a blessing for many people—and if Joseph had taken matters into his own hands it certainly could have interfered with that.
One of the most striking statements found in the Old Testament is what Joseph says here to his brothers about their sin: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” Now Joseph was not saying that sin is a good thing, but he was pointing out the fact that God’s hand is so mighty and so gracious that He can even cause evil and wicked things to work out for the good of His believing children. The devil may work his troubles, but the LORD can even turn that around.
It’s a good thing for us to think about when we are hurt by someone else. Do we stop and think about what Joseph said? Wouldn’t we do well to remember that even when others do us wrong, our God has the ability to cause even that to work out for good? It will surely make us think twice about taking revenge when we remember how things were turned around in the life of Joseph. In his case, millions of people were saved in spite of what his brothers had done to him. What good might God work when we are wronged? If we try to settle the score ourselves, we may never have a chance to find out.
Resist revenge, dear friends. That is, resist the urge to repay wrong with wrong. Recognize the problems this causes for you and others. Understand that vengeance belongs to God alone. And be at peace knowing that even when evil is done to you, God is able to make it serve His purposes. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.