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7. The Truth About Reconciliation, Pt.1: The Conscience Must Be Activated (Gen. 42:1-28)

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After spending 27 years in prison for his fight against apartheid, Nelson Mandela was finally released and subsequently elected president of South Africa. At his inauguration he invited his jailer to join him on the platform for the ceremony. Then, in a bold step to try to diffuse the violence and hatred that revenge often generates, he appointed Archbishop Desmond Tutu to head an official government panel called “The Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (TRC). For the next 2 ½ years, news of atrocities became public as the TRC heard case after case.

In his book, Rumours of Another World, Philip Yancey writes:

“... the rules were simple: if a white policeman or army officer voluntarily faced his accusers, confessed his crime, and fully acknowledged his guilt, he could not be tried and punished for that crime. Hardliners grumbled about the obvious injustice of letting criminals go free, but Mandela insisted that the country needed healing even more than it needed justice.

At one hearing, a policeman named van de Brock recounted an incident when he and other officers shot an 18 year old boy and burned the body, turning it on the fire like a piece of barbecue meat in order to destroy the evidence. Eight years later, van de Brock returned to the same house and seized the boy’s father. The wife was forced to watch as policemen bound her husband on a woodpile, poured gasoline over his body, and ignited it.

The courtroom grew hushed as the elderly woman who had lost first her son and then her husband was given a chance to respond. “What do you want from Mr. Van de Brock?” the judge asked. She said she wanted Van de Brock to go to the place where they burned her husband’s body and gather up the dust so she could give him a decent burial. With his head down, the policeman nodded agreement.

Then she added a further request, “Mr. Van de Brock took all my family away from me, and I still have a lot of love to give. Twice a month, I would like for him to come to the ghetto and spend a day with me so I can be a mother to him.”

Spontaneously, some in the courtroom began singing “Amazing Grace” as the elderly woman made her way to the witness stand, but Van de Brock did not hear the hymn. He had fainted, overwhelmed.

Justice was not done in South Africa that day, nor in the entire country during months of agonizing procedures by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Something beyond justice took place. “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” said Paul. Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu understood that when evil is done, one response alone can overcome it. Revenge perpetuates the evil. Justice punishes it. Evil is overcome by good only if the injured party absorbs it, refusing to allow it to go any further. And that is the pattern of the other worldly grace that Jesus showed in his life and death.” (Philip Yancey, “Rumours of Another World”, 222-224).

Well, we can fully understand from Joseph’s history how he could have been full of anger and the desire for revenge against his brothers for the injustices that they had done to him. But, of course, we must never take revenge or retaliation against those who offend us, not even our enemies, according to Jesus. Instead, what we must do is what Joseph did – seek reconciliation the biblical way.

And the biblical approach to reconciliation is (1) to make the offender aware of their sin against you; (2) assure them of your love for them in the Lord; (3) await their confession of the sin; (4) give time for their evidence of genuine repentance; (5) then assure them of your forgiveness.

Our subject is, “The Truth About Reconciliation” and the sometimes painful process of reconciliation between estranged parties. The lesson in this passage is that the conscience must be activated in the process of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Pop psychology currently promotes the idea that if someone sins against you, all you need to do is forgive them, whether that person acknowledges their sin or not, whether that person is repentant or not. Unilaterally forgiving the offender may make you feel better about yourself but it is not the biblical approach to dealing with offences; and it doesn’t bring about reconciliation, which ought to be our aim in all relational offences – i.e. “to win our brother.”

Now, I’m not talking here about minor offences, which should never be made an issue. Minor offences should not be made into federal cases. Most minor offences we leave with the Lord, seeking his grace so that we do not develop a bitter spirit. This must be our first concern – to deal with our own hearts. Sometimes I think that when people talk about unilaterally forgiving someone for a heinous crime what they are really talking about is dealing with their own hearts. And we must deal with our hearts before God. We must not let a root of bitterness spring up. That can destroy us, cause havoc in the church and damage the public testimony to the gospel.

If we seek to right every wrong no matter how minor by confronting offenders about their offence, we could spend most of our lives dealing with these issues. Most offences fall into the category of “minor” and are not worthy of any further action. In many cases, the person might not even have been aware that they had offended you. But where there is a significant offence, as in the case of Joseph and his brothers, forgiveness cannot be truly extended by the offended party unless there is an acknowledgement of sin by the offender, accompanied by evidence of genuine repentance. This is the only biblical process to true and lasting reconciliation. This is the biblical approach to true forgiveness. Forgiveness is not a unilateral act.

Some people quote Jesus on the cross, claiming that he unilaterally forgave his enemies. But is that true? Yes, he prayed, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). But this was a request of his Father, one which was only granted, I would argue, upon the confession of their sins and repentance. They were not instantly absolved of their sin of crucifying Jesus, as Peter in Acts makes clear (e.g. Acts 2:36; 3:14f.).

Now I know that some people find it hard to forgive. Perhaps you’re one of them. Self-vindication is a powerful emotion. Retaliation rises so quickly in our hearts. It is to these responses that Jesus spoke when he said we should do good to those who hurt us.

In Joseph we see the epitome of godly reconciliation with those who have offended him. And it’s worse, isn’t it, when it’s our own flesh and blood. Yet, Joseph’s first desire is to bring about healing and wholeness to their relationship. Already we have seen many instances when Joseph could have become mired in (1) self-pity (“Why me? Why did I get thrown into a pit like an animal? Why did I get sent to prison for a crime I didn’t commit?”) and (2) retaliation (“I’ll get that butler when my time comes.”).

Sometimes God uses strange and harsh circumstances to bring about the restoration of relationships. Who would have thought that the primary focus of the famine in Egypt was to reconcile Joseph and his brothers? Is that overkill or what? No! This is how strongly God views relationships.

Now let’s look at the story as it continues to unfold. We begin now to trace this story through the process of reconciliation and we find that in order for reconciliation to take place, the conscience must be activated. There are several ways in which a person’s conscience can be activated…

I. The Conscience Is Activated Through Confrontation (42:1-14)

In God’s providence, the famine drives Joseph’s brothers to Egypt. Somehow, Jacob gets word that there is food in Egypt (42:1-2). It seems that Joseph’s brothers weren’t terribly motivated to do anything about the food situation. They were probably sitting around telling each other how bad things were but not taking any initiative. Their irresponsible attitude continues – nothing has changed. So, Jacob says to them: “Don’t just stand there ... do something!” “Go down to that place and buy for us there, so that we may live and not die” (42:2). That’s how bad things were – this was a matter of life and death. It would only be a matter of time before they starve to death.

But Jacob, wily as ever, “did not send Joseph’s brother Benjamin with his brothers, for he said, ‘Lest some calamity befall him’” (42:4). Evidently, Jacob is still smarting and grieving over Joseph’s apparent death by a supposed animal. Joseph had been his favorite son and now, apparently, Benjamin has taken that place. What an irony! A “calamity” had previously befallen his first favorite son; now Jacob fears a “calamity” for his second favorite son. Evidently Jacob did not trust his 10 sons – and quite justifiably. These were the boys who had killed the men of Shechem. Judah was the son who made his daughter-in-law pregnant after committing harlotry with her. These weren’t exactly lily white Sunday School boys.

“And the sons of Israel went to buy grain” (42:5). You can hear the music in the background – dum-de-dum-dum. The storyteller is bringing us to the inevitable moment when the brothers meet Joseph (42:6-14). Joseph is now governor over the land and everyone who wanted to buy grain came before him. Imagine this scene as the ten brothers “bowed down before him with their faces to the earth” (42:6). Another huge irony! The very thing they said years before that they would never do, they are now doing (37:8, 10-11).

We can only imagine what Joseph must have been feeling. What was going through his mind? How would he react? There were only 10 of them - where is Benjamin? Should he reveal himself to them right away? But if he did perhaps he might not find out what he really wanted to know; perhaps they would lie to him - after all, he knew what they were like. So, “he acted as a stranger to them and spoke roughly to them. The he said to them, ‘Where do you come from?’ And they said, ‘From the land of Canaan to buy food’” (42:7).

Joseph immediately “recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him (42:8). This is understandable as he was only a 17 year old teenager when they saw him last and some 23 years have intervened. They hadn’t seen hide nor hair of him since the day they handed him over to the Midianite slave traders on that fateful day (37:27-28). Probably his appearance had changed, not just from the passage of time but also due to his cultural and regal attire. And furthermore, they certainly didn’t expect to meet him in this position, the Prime Minister of Egypt, the governor of state.

Then Joseph remembered the dreams (42:9), the dream of their sheaves of wheat bowing down to his sheaf, the dream of the 11 stars and the sun and moon bowing to him. And he remembered their reaction to his dreams, their hatred, their murderous plot. This dream was really coming true! God was confirming once more that he was with Joseph and that the dreams were visions from God. Perhaps in that instant, he understood the sovereign ways of God in his life – something perhaps that he had not fully understood before. God had orchestrated all the events of his life – the good, the bad, and the ugly – to accomplish his purposes not only in Joseph’s life but also in the lives of his brothers, his father, and all their descendants who would comprise the nation of Israel.

What would he do now? Would he retaliate as he certainly could? If so, how? Perhaps he would send them to death row to experience the threat of death that he had experienced. Perhaps he would deny their request for food and send them home empty handed to let them slowly starve to death. But no, Joseph wasn’t looking for retaliation nor to scare them. You can see the wheels turning in Joseph’s mind - what to do? Perhaps he would reveal everything right now.

But no, wisely Joseph decides to hold back. Before anything else he must find out the truth. After all, they were expert liars – he knew that from experience. These were men without moral scruples. These were men who would stop at nothing to accomplish their purposes. Had they changed since he last knew them? Were they reformed men? Were they still treating their father with disrespect? Worse yet, had they killed Jacob to keep their dirty little secret safe? How were they treating his little brother? Was he still alive?

So, this is what he decided to do - Joseph confronts them: “You are spies! You have come to see the nakedness of the land!” (42:9). The threat of spying must have struck fear into their hearts. Images of the gallows must have danced in their heads. Desperately they plead their innocence. You can hear the terror in their reply: “No, my lord, but your servants have come to buy food. We are all one man’s sons; we are honest men; your servants are not spies (42:10-12). Really? Honest men? Since when?

Notice now, Joseph is their “lord” and they are his “servants”. Funny how things change, isn’t it? Perhaps if they revealed their family history, that would boost their credibility with this man, the governor of the land? Well, that’s exactly what Joseph wanted to hear. Evidently, he had questioned them about this (cf. 43:7) for they say: “Your servants are 12 brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, in fact, the youngest is with our father today, and one is no more” (42:13). “Oh, really?” Joseph must have thought. “Is that so? I don’t believe you. But we’ll find out.”

So, first, the conscience is activated through confrontation. And second ...

II. The Conscience Is Activated Through Testing (42:15-28)

Test #1: The test of guilt (42:15-24). “‘In this manner you shall be tested: By the life of Pharaoh, you shall not leave this place unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him bring your brother; and you shall be kept in prison, that your words may be tested to see whether there is any truth in you; or else, by the life of Pharaoh, surely you are spies!’ So he put them all together in prison three days” (42:15-16). “If what you say is true (that your youngest brother is at home with your father and that another brother is “no more”), prove it. One of you go and fetch your youngest brother and the rest of you can jolly well stay in jail until he comes so that your words can be tested to see whether you are telling the truth.”

That was clever wasn’t it? Keep nine of them as collateral security (otherwise known as hostages) to ensure that the other one comes back with Benjamin. I think I hear Joseph say: “So there! Let’s see if you are honest men.” I think that’s what Joseph was saying when he “put them all together in prison for three days (42:17). There, they could think for a bit about who they were and what they had said and done. The pressure must have been overwhelming. They all needed time to cool down and think.

What an ironic reversal of fortunes now! They had previously thrown Joseph into a pit. Now the tide had turned and they were being thrown into jail by Joseph! Things aren’t looking good for the boys.

After three days, Joseph softens his approach and test. “Do this and live, for I fear God” (42:18). Here was the first clue that Joseph gave to his brothers as to who he was - he was a worshipper of Yahweh, just like them. And the question that is inferred to the others is: Are you right with God? Do you worship him? Or are you still living like heathen men?

Here’s the test of their spiritual condition: they must bring Benjamin to Joseph. “‘If you are honest men (the implication being: if you are, you don’t have anything to lose or fear), let one of your brothers be confined to your prison house; but you, go and carry grain for the famine of your houses. And bring your youngest brother to me; so your words will be verified and you shall not die.’ And they did so.” (42:18-20). Perhaps, after thinking about it for three days, Joseph decided that keeping nine brothers in custody while one returned for Benjamin might be a bit stiff. So, he reversed it – one will stay while nine will go home to fetch Benjamin. Perhaps, as he reflected on the situation, he realized that for them to take grain home for Jacob it would require more than one person. Or, perhaps he figured that it would be too hard on his father if only one brother returned. In any event, the brothers agreed to the test – after all, what choice did they have?

You see guilt must be realized. It cannot be masked forever; it will eventually come out. What had been their worst nightmare all these years now is verbalized by them. Try as they might have for the last 23 years to hide their sin, it was just like yesterday. Isn’t that the way our consciences work? You might try to put things behind you but unless they are dealt with, they keep coming back. Your conscience nails you, like a jack hammer pounding away in the background, saying, “You’re going to get caught. You know you did it. You need to confess.” Sometimes, my wife and I watch detective shows about real detectives, investigating real crimes. And so often, they wait and wait to find the culprit and when they get someone, they interrogate them until they finally confess. And all the while the culprit is being interrogated you can see their consciences pounding away at them.

That’s what happened to the brothers. “They said to one another, ‘We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us’” (42:21). Perhaps this was the first time they had discussed their guilt openly with one another. That’s what prison can do to you! Reality sets in and the conscience pricks oh so hard and “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45). This was the only way they could get some relief – to talk about it. And they not only talk about it, they actually confess what they had done was sin. This is good! Spiritual progress is being made now. Joseph’s wisdom in handling this encounter was evident again. God is with him.

Reuben said to his brothers: ““Did I not speak to you saying, ‘Do not sin against the boy’ and you would not listen? Therefore, behold, his blood is now required of us”“(42:22). “This is why we are in this mess – because you would not listen to me. I told you so.” There’s always an “I-told-you-so” in the crowd. Perhaps this was a way for Reuben to lessen the guilt – “If you had just listened to me, things would be different now. I am morally a step above the rest of you. It’s all your fault.”

Don’t you see the dramatic irony here? I think it’s wonderful how the biblical narrators constructed their stories so very carefully, very skillfully. The story teller says (like an “aside” in a play): “But they did not know that Joseph understood them, for he spoke to them through an interpreter (42:23). Hearing their conversation, Joseph was overcome emotionally, so “he turned himself away from them and wept” (42:24a).

Doesn’t this remind you of John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” Jesus wept in sympathy with the grief of Mary and the Jews at the grave of Lazarus. He wept perhaps because of their unbelief in his power. He wept perhaps because of the ravages that sin had caused – disease, depression, disaster, sorrow, guilt, and death. And here Joseph wept. Perhaps he too wept because of all the sorrow and trouble that sin had caused in his family. Perhaps because of the lost years of family relationships. Perhaps because he saw the torment of soul through which his brothers were currently passing. Perhaps because it didn’t have to be this way - they could have acted differently back then; they could have believed his dreams, or at least waited to see if they came true. Perhaps he wept as he realizes that this was the moment that God had been preparing him for all these years. Perhaps he wept out of a combination of sorrow and joy - sorrow about what had happened and the consequences for his brothers, but joy that he can see the possibility of reconciliation because of their recognition of guilt.

But is this true and lasting remorse? It’s one thing to be sorry for what you’ve done because you got caught. It’s quite another thing to be truly remorseful for your sin. Remember our thesis for this message: The conscience must be activated in the process of reconciliation and forgiveness. Evidence of true repentance takes time. That’s why people should not be in a hurry in matters of reconciliation. Acknowledge and accept the expression of remorse, yes. But only time will tell if the offender is truly remorseful. Genuine repentance is manifested in a dramatic and lasting change in a person’s behavior, relationships, attitudes, speech, spiritual practices etc. Only when that is evident can there be true and lasting reconciliation.

In order to be sure his brothers are truly repentant, Joseph still did not reveal himself to them. Joseph would not let emotion override what he knew to be the right course of action. So, “he took Simeon from them and bound him before their eyes” (42:24b). What a dramatic turn of events from a few years ago. They had captured Joseph and bound him in a pit. Now the tables are turned and there is nothing they can do about it – Joseph is all powerful. All they can do is return home as he had instructed them. But what would they tell their father? How would they explain Simeon’s disappearance? With another lie? How would they persuade Jacob to let Benjamin return with them? These may have been the questions uppermost in their minds but little did they know that worse was yet to come.

Test #2: The test of honesty (42:25-28). Joseph gave the command to “fill their sacks with grain, to restore every man’s money to his sack, and to give them provisions for the journey. This he did for them. So they loaded their donkeys with the grain and departed from there (42:25-26). They probably departed with a sigh of relief but also with trepidation for what lay ahead, for they still had to tell Jacob what happened and they still had to get Simeon back. There were still big tests ahead.

Isn’t that the way it is with backsliding and sin? The way back is simple but it’s not easy. It’s simple – confess your sin, repent, and change. But it’s not easy, as there will be many tests to prove the genuineness of your repentance. The way back is simple but it’s not always quick. There are lessons to be learned, relationships to be fully restored, trust to be regained.

Joseph didn’t have to fill their sacks with grain but “this he did for them.” He could have made them wait until they brought Benjamin, but his heart would not have it so – they and their father must have food. And he gave it to them free of charge for as one of them opened his sack to give his donkey feed at the encampment, he saw his money; and there it was, in the mouth of his sack. So he said to his brothers, ‘My money has been restored, and there it is, in my sack!’” (42:27-28a).

They had stopped for the night and one brother makes the shocking discovery that the money he had paid for the grain was in his sack. How gracious is that of Joseph! What an amazing demonstration of unconditional love is that! What a dramatic contrast with the previous actions of his brothers towards him! They had sold him to slave traders and pocketed twenty shekels of silver from the deal (37:28). What did they do with that money? The question is, what will they do now with this money? This was a really clever test by Joseph. He had accused them of spying. Were they also thieves? Or, were they truly “honest men” (11) as they claimed?

When the one brother tells the others about this discovery “their hearts failed them and they were afraid” (42:28b). Basically they wet their pants with fear. Joseph already thought they were spies, Simeon is in custody and now they might be caught stealing! Things are going from bad to worse. But listen to what they said to one another, “‘What is this that God has done to us?’” (42:28c).

Finally, they seem to be getting it. Finally, there seems to be evidence that they are changed men – their consciences are at last active and they recognize God’s hand in all of this. God has been involved all along. God is in control of all that is happening to them. This isn’t just Joseph’s doing, this is God’s doing. Previously they had recognized that what was happening was the consequence of their sinful actions to Joseph. But now the lights go on – God is holding them responsible. They can’t escape God’s judicial ways.

Do you see where one sin can lead? One decision can lead us down a long road of trouble. They had gone to Egypt to buy food but look what happened – one brother’s money was in his sack. How would they explain this to Joseph? How would they explain everything to their father? He has already lost Joseph and now Simeon. How would they convince him to let them take Benjamin? “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” (from Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, Marmion: A Tale of Flodden Field). The longer we try to cover up sin, the more complicated our lives become. The easiest and quickest way to deal with sin is to respond to our conscience by confessing it, repenting of it, and changing. Remember our thesis for this message: The conscience must be activated in the process of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Final Remarks

So, what are some of the principles in this story about sin, forgiveness, and reconciliation?

1. Sin is our worst enemy. Unconfessed sin causes us untold, extended problems.

If we try to cover it up, recovery from sin can be a long road back.

2. We need to keep short accounts with God. We must deal ruthlessly with sin in our lives. Don’t hide sin or let it linger unjudged as Joseph’s brothers had done all these years. We need to maintain an open, transparent relationship with God that makes us sensitive to sin, unable to rest until it is dealt with.

3. God will work in our lives to restore us when we sin. “... for whom the Lord loves he chastens and scourges every son whom he receives (Prov. 3:12. This is a guarantee for all believers. God does not abandon us when we sin but works in us for our restoration.

4. Before we can truly forgive someone, the offender must confess the offence and repent of it. You can’t forgive someone unless they see the need for it – otherwise, what is there to forgive? You can’t forgive sin that the other party doesn’t recognize. To do so would make forgiveness a farce. And that’s what it has become in pop psychology. There is a proper process for forgiveness of significant sins against us and the reconciliation with the offender. That’s the principle we learn from this story: The conscience must be activated in the process of reconciliation and forgiveness.

I would argue that the biblical approach to forgiveness and reconciliation is (1) to make the offender aware of their sin against you; (2) assure them of your love for them in the Lord; (3) await their confession of the sin; (4) give time for their evidence of genuine repentance; (5) assure them of your unconditional forgiveness; and (6) restore a trust relationship.

5. The restoration of the offender must be our first priority. When someone sins against us, their relationship with God should be our foremost concern, not our self-vindication. God will vindicate us if we are wronged. We must focus on the spiritual restoration of the offending party.

Related Topics: Character Study, Christian Life

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