“Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong what we did to him?’” Genesis 50:15
Decades after Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery, they have encountered him in Egypt. Joseph has disclosed his identity to them. He has given them food to save their lives and invited them and all of their families to come live in Egypt. Joseph’s family have been living in Goshen, raising sheep, in Joseph’s backyard, for years.
Then the father, Jacob, dies in Egypt. And the brothers are afraid that now their brother, Joseph, will turn on them. They are worried and try to come up with a way to gain assurance that he is not harboring a grudge against them.
Once his family has moved to Egypt, Joseph is completely supportive of his family. He has given them no reason to question his sincerity. Why are they so worried about this? I think it is guilt. They still feel guilty about what they did. They are still worrying about it. They are still not out from under their shame and guilt.
When people do something hateful and harmful, there are consequences. Not just immediate consequences to the people involved, but often long term consequences. These consequences are not just to victims but also to perpetrators. Guilt, shame, and regret can linger and fester. This is certainly the case with Joseph’s brothers.
Last year, I was called to jury duty. I ended up spending the day with more than 60 others being considered as potential jurors for a capital case. The judge explained everything and we were questioned one by one about various things. One question was whether or not we could vote for the death penalty in the punishment phase of the trial. There were four of us out of over 60 that said we could not vote for the death penalty. I found this astounding. Here I was sitting in the “pews” in the courtroom with all these other people who were willing to be party to killing someone. They were willing to take responsibility for putting someone to death. I was horrified. I would be tormented the rest of my life knowing that I was part of a process that led to someone being killed. I don’t think I could go through a day without thinking about it. It would haunt me.
We should keep this in mind when we entertain thoughts of doing things that are immoral, hurtful, vengeful, or violent. We should think about residual guilt before we cheat on a test or cheat on a spouse. We should think about guilt when we think about cheating on taxes, stealing something, or saying something damaging and hurtful to someone. We may think that taking revenge or expressing hostility, we will get it out of our system. But we also need to think about the guilt and regret that may very well remain with us.
We know that God is all forgiving. We have seen this in Jesus. May we see the dangerous power of guilt and how it eats away at us. May we prevent this guilt by following Jesus and may we follow his example of forgiveness when it is needed – for ourselves and others. Amen.