Nothing to Fear but Fear Itself

Image courtesy of Daniel W. Erlander,

Quite often, at least for me, the way the Lectionary compiles the Sunday selection of biblical readings seem so arbitrary. Not always, but quite often. It’s like each week being presented with a conundrum made from the fragments of a larger puzzle, which as the preacher I’m tasked to try to piece together – in order for our community to hear the conversation that God is inviting us to consider.

It seems to me that in the arrangement of texts, it’s the relationship between the O.T and the Gospel readings that alerts us to the nature of God’s timely invitation. The psalm and the N.T. readings appear, at least to me, as side commentaries – often angling outwards at a tangent.

At first sight the Lectionary’s O.T. choice of the story of Joseph’s reunification with his brothers seems to wing into our awareness towards the end of the story cycle. Of course, we know the story of Joseph – you know the possessor of the coat of many colors sold by his jealous brothers into slavery in Egypt where he rises to become Pharaoh’s prime minister. Why does the Lectionary choose this point in the story?

The book of Genesis is a book about origins. The Patriarch story cycles that form the last part of the book construct a history from Abraham, through Jacob, in preparation for the Exodus event and Moses. The story of Isaac is a link story providing the continuity through the fiction of father, son, and grandson, that links Abraham and Jacob. The Joseph cycle does the same between Jacob and the Exodus- Moses cycles.

These are independent memory fragments of older Hebrew oral traditions, woven together by later authors into a discourse that speaks much more about the issues facing the authors some 500 years after the time in which the stories are dramatically positioned. These stories are set in around the 13-12th centuries BCE. But the Bible’s purpose for telling them in this way – relates more to the politics and ideologies of the 6-5th centuries during which these ancient independent memories and traditions from different communities of Hebrews are woven together into a contiguous story of a multigenerational family to speak about race and community.

Genesis ends with the death of Joseph.  But before he dies, he compels his brothers under oath to promise to return with his bones to the land God promised to Abraham and his descendants. The book of Exodus opens with establishing Joseph’s brothers, the sons of Jacob as the ancestors of the 12 tribes of Israel.

But it seems Joseph’s brothers don’t leave Egypt. They stay and prosper rather too well causing the Egyptians to begin to fear them. Exodus 1:8 opens with the ominous sentence: Now a new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. The scene is now set for the enslavement of Joseph’s descendants as the preface for the rise of Moses and the Exodus event.

Today we drop in – as it were – on Joseph revealing his true identity to his brothers – leading to a tearful reunion and reconciliation. Why this piece of a bigger story? Why now?

It’s clearly chosen to fit with Luke’s portrayal of Jesus’ teaching love your enemies – opening up the complex dynamics of the Golden Rule – do unto others not as they have done to you, but as you would have them do to you. Joseph becomes an exemplar of the power of love to triumph over fear and resentment – paving the way for reconciliation of those who might more easily have remained estranged. As the truth comes out -Joseph has every reason to hate his brothers for what they did to him. His brothers have every reason to fear the revenge of their kid brother whom they had so grievously wronged. But this is not what happens.

The choice of this fragment from the Joseph cycle illustrates Luke’s Jesus’ teaching. It is only love your enemies that offers a cure capable of breaking the age-old cycles of repetitive violence.

A timely message for us living in a society where personal relationships have become poisoned by fear of one another. Once upon a time our fear of otherness focused on external actors – others not-like-us. Today we fear our neighbors next door as the ones who are now not-like-us. Even family members have now come to fear one another -estrangements inflamed by conspiracy theories peddled by social media influencers. We are becoming a society in which the members increasingly no longer recognize each other. Contested truth – contested realities –poison our perceptions – paving the way for new cycles of repetitive violence.

Gil Bailie in commenting on the gospel passage says:

In other words, don’t do to others as they do to you, but as you would have them do to you. Doing unto others as they do to you is the old world of reciprocity. Jesus asks us to do as you would have them do. Love your enemies. Why? Because they’re really nice people after all? Not necessarily. This is the most radical thing in the gospel.

There is nothing sentimental in the teaching of Jesus.

His is a hard teaching – hard in the sense that it’s difficult to put into practice and hard in its stark lack of sentimental warm fuzziness.

James Breech in The Silence of Jesus, says:

Jesus is the most loving and least sentimental man one could imagine. ‘Love your enemies’ is not sentimentality. This is something that goes right to the heart of it. Jesus says, ‘…do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.’ And watch what happens. This is a recipe for destroying the little bundle of lies about myself and my society that came into existence the moment my tribe and I found somebody to hate. Following this injunction is not just a nice thing to do. It’s a matter of destroying the whole system of mystification which has been the womb in which [we’ve] lived and moved and had [our] social existence. It’s the recipe for deconstructing the whole business. We have to recognize the profundity of that.

Do unto others as you would have them do to you is the only antidote for combatting the lies fueled by fear – the lies our fear tells us about ourselves and our neighbors.

Following Jesus teaching is not just a nice thing to do. It’s the only way to expose the fear hiding in plain sight. The cycles of repetitive violence stem from the way we mask and mystify the extent of the fear that lurks at the center of our hearts.

Love you enemies, do good to those who hate you is not the nice – ‘Christian’ thing to do. It’s the only thing to do. This is a hard teaching – hard as in difficult to practice and hard as in the opposite of the pious masochism that sentimentizes turn the other cheek and enjoy being beaten up. The first step has nothing to do with love as we normally understand the word. The first step is to simply to refuse any longer to be afraid – to waste our hearts on fear no more (John O’Donoghue).

In the practice of loving our enemies – treating others as we would wish to be treated by them – the 20th century Benedictine monk and poet Sebastian Moore says something like, Jesus …. lures us, arouses our desire for him. We are caught up in being fascinated by each other, and he steps in to catch our fascination. He came in; he can get out. And we can follow him out. Out – that is – from entrapment within repetitive cycles of reciprocal violence.

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