In their first musical collaboration, Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice visited the story of Jacob’s youngest son Joseph. Early in “Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” Joseph sings, “Close every door to me. Hide all the world from me. Bar all the windows and shut out the light. Do what you want with me. Hate me and laugh at me. Darken my daytime and torture my night. If my life were important I would ask will I live or die, but I know the answers lie far from this world.”
This song is sung at a particularly vexing and dark time in Joseph’s often tumultuous life, a life that included being tossed in a well by his other brothers and then reported as dead to their father.
Toward the end of the long saga of Joseph in the closing chapters of the Genesis, the young man with a coat of many colors comes out of disguise to reveal his true identity to his betraying brothers. They are rightfully terrified, fearing what Joseph will do to them now that Father Jacob is dead, no longer there to intervene for them.
Years earlier the eleven brothers had concocted a huge lie to tell Jacob about their brother’s disappearance and now they come up with an even greater whopper. Without so much as a blush on their faces, they say to their now powerful brother in Egypt: "Your father gave this instruction before he died, 'Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you’."
Joseph listens carefully to his brothers’ self-serving lie and then he answers them with disarming honesty and with profound words of faith. Joseph says to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”
“God intended it for good.” Those words should always be spoken with a huge asterisk attached, along with this parenthetical warning: “Handle with extreme care.” Too often, people of faith handle those words with anything but extreme care as they turn profound words of faith by Joseph into mindless mantras to explain way horrendous acts of human evil. I have heard people use these words from Joseph to explain away everything from the Holocaust to slavery to the killing fields in Cambodia to the bombing of innocent civilians in Ukraine, as if they have happened to give God a chance to show how God can create good out of evil.
Standing before his brothers who had conspired to kill him, Joseph does indeed say that God can create good out of evil, but he first says, “You intended harm. Your intentions were evil. There is no hiding place from why you did what you did.”
The frank words spoken by Joseph to his betraying and murderous brothers arc over the centuries to the saga of Jesus during Holy Week. Joseph was not suggesting that the brothers’ behavior had any virtue to it, was somehow “for the best.” The Gospel writers do not suggest that Jesus’ brutal death was mysteriously “for the best,” something God secretly orchestrated to bring about the good. No, the cross was an act of human evil at its worst. In his book, Invasion of the Dead, my friend and Union Presbyterian Seminary President, Brian Blount, argues that the cross in on us; resurrection belongs to God. He argues that what the religious leaders, Pilate, Herod, the disciples, and the centurions do is truly horrible; they are not unwitting puppets doing what God intends for them to do.
The Gospel writers consistently betray the cross as an act of human evil at its worst. They do not suggest that Jesus’ brutal death was mysteriously “for the best.” It was never “for the best” any more than the brother’s attempted murder of Joseph was “for the best.” And yet, despite undeniable intentions to do harm and actual actions to inflict harm, God refuses to let the crucifixion of Jesus or our death dealing ways to have the final word.
Typically, during Lent, we focus on shaping up and fine tuning the best of our human intentions – to be more faithful, to be more loving, to pray more, to sin less. While focusing on ourgood intentions during this holy season, the Joseph and the Jesus stories invite us to focus beyond ourselves, to God’s good intentions.
Joseph begins his response to his brothers by telling them not to fear him and then he asks them this rhetorical question: “Am I in the place of God?” From a caravan of traveling, hairy Ishmaelites to a splintered Roman cross, God’s intention is overcome the most consistent and heinous human evil to accomplish God’s good purpose in history, whether God’s intentions are accompanied by our best or achieved despite the worst of our human intentions. That does not make our efforts irrelevant nor does it excuse our horrendous human choices, but it does put all human intentions in the holy and mysterious crucible of the grace of God.
Writing from a German prison cell in 1943, theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer observed: “It’s an [odd] feeling to be so utterly dependent on the help of others, but at least it teaches one to be grateful, a lesson I hope I shall never forget. In normal life we hardly realize how much more we receive than we give, and life cannot be rich without such gratitude. It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the help of others” (Letters and Papers from Prison, p. 66).
Elsewhere, Bonhoeffer will also affirm, “It is so easy to overestimate the importance of our own achievements compared with what we owe to the grace of God.” What if during Lent we spent less time focusing on fine-tuning our intentions and focused far more on the holy and mysterious intentions of God, standing in awe of God’s intention to bring about God’s reign of peace in this warring world, in our warring families, in our warring selves? What if we spent less time with trying to make the cross something other than what it was – an instrument of torture and death – and more time focusing on the power of God to transform death in the resurrection?
What if you and I were to stand astonished during the Holy Week ahead watching Peter preen like a peacock until a cock crowed for a third time, only to be issued an invitation a few days later to begin again with the risen Jesus who awaits him in forgiving love in Galilee? What if you and I were to stand absolutely still before the awful reality of nearly one million of our kin in America alone who have lost their lives to a virus we cannot see knowing that with each death God’s heart was the first heart to break? [a phrase taken from William Sloane Coffin powerful sermon about the death of his son, “Alex’s Death.”]]
The story of Joseph is one that lives large in every season of Lent, but especially in this season when mindless misery is raining daily upon Ukraine. The Joseph saga is finally not about good or bad human intentions, but about the sovereign intentions of our God to bring about God’s redemptive purpose in heaven and on earth and that God’s resurrecting intentions that will not finally be denied.
Go home. Pick any of the four Gospels and read the Holy Week story again. Throughout the story, it seems certain that human intentions will succeed in silencing the dreamer Jesus as he breathes his last breath, just as the brothers were certain that they had silenced the dreamer Joseph. And, yet, somehow despite the despicable act of eleven envious brothers in the Joseph saga and later the cowardice of twelve trusted colleagues and an entire religious community in the Jesus saga, the last word of all four Gospels is a word of hope even in the darkest hour, a word as old as the final words of Joseph to his guilty brothers, “You intended it for harm; God intended it for good.”
May the mystery of God’s good intentions draw us closer to God even in the darkest days ahead.