Learning from the Past

Genesis 42:21-25

Bil Keane who gave the world the one frame comic series The Family Circus was a person of deep faith. That faith sometimes found its way into his comics. One of his most famous lines where faith and his comic strip met are in this statement, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.”

In essence, this quote from Keane provides a good way of thinking about our text for today as Joseph and his brothers meet for the first time since the day the other siblings sold Joseph into slavery when he was 17 years old. That moment is now roughly 20 years in the past and yet it still has an effect on all 11 of the siblings as is clear from our passage.

On one hand, they are all at the same place in that again this event in their past still has a grip on their lives. At the same time, they are different in that they respond to their past in two similar yet unique ways. I want to suggest to us today that both of their ways of responding – the way of Joseph and the way of his brothers – are good ways. And, I want to suggest that both of their ways of responding are faithful, healthy ways to respond to the past as people of faith. Finally, I want to suggest that both ways get at a section of Bill Keane’s quote that “yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery and today is a gift…”

On the one had, Joseph responds by embracing the phrase “yesterday is history”. Joseph’s response to seeing his brothers again and to having their collective past resurface is primarily centered on letting it go and moving on. Even though it is true that Joseph puts them through a series of tests to gauge how they have matured and grown over the twenty years since he last saw them, it seems clear that Joseph has already resolved in his mind that they are to be forgiven and that there really is nothing that he can do about what has already taken place. It is over, it is done, it is the past. Joseph has no desire to hurt them. He has no desire to hold what they have done over their heads. Overall, his desire seems focused on loving them, forgiving them and on starting again. And let us be clear, this was no small thing. After all these are the brother who had sold him into slavery and told their faith he was dead.

It is interesting that Joseph apparently goes so far as to name one of his children in light of this decision he has made about his brothers. Genesis says that one of Joseph’s sons who is born to him in Egypt is named Manasseh. It is a name that means “God has caused me to forget”.

On the other hand, Joseph’s brothers seem to respond by living more into the phrase from Keane’s famous quote that says “today is a gift”. While they seem to recognize that they cannot go back and change the past, they seem to have also reached a point in life where they are doing their best to allow their past to influence their present. What makes me say this? I take this from they way their interact with each other in this moment of meeting Joseph.

As you know, the brothers don’t yet know that they are in the presence of Joseph. In fact, they are speaking the Hebrew language and they assume Joseph is an Egyptian and that he cannot understand their words. Of course, Joseph knows exactly what they are saying and he is moved to tears as he eavesdrops on their conversation and hears them remembering their failures with him when he was a boy while at the same time vowing to each other not to make those same types of mistakes again. In essence, they realize they cannot rewrite the past. Yet, having learned from their past, they seem eager to do everything they can to craft a better present.

The past is past. Joseph teaches us this. He cannot go back and change it. There is no use in continuing to beat up his brothers over what they did 20 years ago. A far better thing for him to do is to try to create a better present with them by forgiving them, loving them and beginning again with them. That is what he does.

The present is a gift. This is what the brothers teach us. They recognize they can’t change the past either. But, they can learn from it. They can grow from it. They can live determined to make better decisions this time around. They choose not to forget the past. They do so in order to continue to learn its lessons.

Joseph is right to forget and move forward. This is how God loves us. This is the very essence of God’s grace and mercy that God whispers to us that the past is history.

The brothers are right too. While the past is history, we must allow it to continue to teach us a better way. Scripture affirms this truth as well. We are to mature, to grow, to develop. Remembering our past helps us to do this. Yes, God forgives us and wipes the slate clean, yet God does want us to remember where we have failed and to work hard to grow in light of our past mistakes.

One of the books that has influenced me deeply over the years is a work of fiction called Saint Maybe. It is by Anne Tyler and it is the story of a young man named Ian Bedloe. In the story, Ian makes a horrific mistake. He shares a piece of gossip with his brother that he believes to be the truth. The false information that Ian passes on to his brother Danny destroys Danny’s marriage and ultimately leads to Danny committing suicide and to Danny’s wife shortly thereafter dying of a drug overdose.

The aftermath is that the couple leaves three young children behind without any parents. Ian feels responsible. After all, it was the lie he told his brother that was the catalyst for all of the bad things that ultimately took place. During this same time of mourning his mistake and the loss of his brother and former sister-in-law, Ian has a spiritual renewal. Through the help of a kind minister and an unusual community of faith called The Church of the Second Chance, Ian learns the two critical lessons that the Joseph story teaches too. First, Ian learns that he cannot change what has happened. The past is past. But, second, Ian learns that he can live now in light of what he has learned and try to make better choices in his present. It all leads Ian as a young adult to make several mature, hard decisions as he chooses to be a second father to the three children who have been left behind by his brother and sister-in -laws’ death. In turn, Saint Maybe becomes a powerful story about the hard work of both forgiveness and redemption. Its the same sort of hard work that Joseph and his siblings did in Genesis. (Saint Maybe, Anne Tyler, Knopf Publishers, 1991)

The past is the past. We can be forgiven. We can go on. The present is the present. Through the present, we can redeem the past by allowing what we have learned to help us to be better people who make better decisions now. We can be like both Joseph and like his brothers as we both let go of the past and continue to learn from it at the very same time.

The past is history. The future is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why we call it the present. Amen.