A few years ago a professor of religious history was diagnosed with liver cancer. Her name is Kate Bowler and she was in her mid-thirties, with a very young son and an academic career that was really taking off, and all of a sudden she was confronted with a direct threat to all her hopes and plans. She ended up writing a book about the experience called Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I Have Loved. It’s a very powerful story about someone encountering the very cheap, sometimes religious words of consolation we often give out when we come face to face with something inexplicably horrible. “Everything happens for a reason,” people say. Maybe we say this to minimize our own dread. Maybe we say it as a gesture that there really is an explanation. God is in charge. Therefore everything that happens is in accordance with God’s intentions. Therefore your incurable cancer happened for God’s reasons.
Please do not tell people this. No one needs to hear it. But I’ll admit that there is a flip side to this cheap kind of consolation. It’s when we tell ourselves that there is no reason for anything. Life is just random chance or blind fate, which we alter with our choices. Nothing happens for a reason. The world isn’t about reasons. That’s just something our minds come up with and project onto a random and meaningless world.
I promise I’ll get to the Bible story in a minute. But I want to talk about this. Because one big difference between our world and the ancient and medieval worlds that our theology comes from is that we tend to imagine that effects in the world have a single definitive cause or reason. But people did not always think this way. The Greek philosopher Aristotle identified different kinds of causes that together created a single effect in the world. Take our altar. In one sense the “cause” of the altar is the material it’s made from--the wood. In another sense the cause of the altar is the form or shape--a table that could be made from wood or stone or marble or concrete. In another sense the cause of the altar is the work of the craftsman who turns the material into the form. And in yet another sense, the cause is the purpose of the altar--the worship of God.
Every effect has many causes. Everything happens for many reasons.
Today we hear the conclusion of the story of Joseph and his brothers. It’s a powerful story that takes up the last fourteen chapters of Genesis. Joseph is the son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel. And he dreams that he will be raised up over his eleven brothers. He is favored by Jacob and given a special coat of many colors. His brothers are jealous of his dreams and the favor their father shows him, so they sell him into slavery and tell their father that he’s dead.
Joseph is purchased by a powerful man in Egypt. Because he thinks Joseph has attempted to assault his wife, he throws Joseph in prison. But thanks to Joseph’s gift for interpreting dreams, he gains the attention of the Pharaoh and becomes the most powerful man in the kingdom.
There’s a terrible famine, which Joseph’s leadership helps Egypt survive. His brothers come down to Egypt looking for grain. And rather than take revenge on his brothers, who took everything from him many years before, he decides to help them. He is reconciled to them and he brings their families down to Egypt to live in safety. The snippet of the story we hear today is from the very end, when Jacob has died and Joseph’s brothers worry that he is still nursing a grudge.
He tells them not to worry. While they intended to do evil by selling Joseph away, God intended their actions for good. If they had not done what they did, none of them would be in safety during this famine.
The story does not have to go that way. In plenty of ancient stories, Joseph would be fully entitled to punish his brothers violently for their betrayal. He chooses mercy and reconciliation instead. He forgives them.
Their action really was evil and it was meant for evil. But their intentions were not the only cause at work. God had his own intentions, and that was to bring Joseph and his family to safety. He does not excuse his brothers. He doesn’t say “yeah, I was kind of a pest and I get why you were angry.” He doesn’t treat it as a mistake or tell them that their choices didn’t matter because it was all God’s plan. But he does forgive them.
That is important context for Jesus’s demanding words to Peter in today’s Gospel. How many times should I forgive my brother? Peter asks. He certainly knew the story of Joseph. Seven times? Seven is more than a number here. It represents something like completeness or perfection. Jesus says that this is not enough. Forgive seventy-seven times--perfection, multiplied by ten, and added to perfection.
This is not a call to be a patsy or a punching-bag. Forgiveness in the Biblical sense is not excusing or indulging or just shrugging off the evil that is done to us or by us. Let alone allowing it to continue. Our sinful actions have many causes and we do them for many of our own reasons, and they are truly bad. But one purpose God has in allowing sin to abound is that mercy and forgiveness might abound even more, as Paul the Apostle says.
Joseph does not merely tolerate his brothers or overlook their crime. He truly releases his claim of vengeance against them. He blesses them by showing them mercy. And he becomes greater by showing them mercy. Joseph returns good for evil, and in doing so he makes both himself and his brothers richer.
This is not an explanation for evil and suffering in the world. But it reminds us to search for the purposes of God in the midst of life’s randomness. Like the altar that uses the wood from the earth and the skill of the worker to make a place for the worship of God, our lives are shaped by many causes that we don’t see and can’t understand. But the materials and the skill and the intentions of our own lives can always be made to serve God’s purposes. And they do this in very ordinary, obvious, unavoidable ways: Showing mercy. Persevering in prayer. Being generous where the world allows us to be cruel. Living in hope.
The professor, by the way, ends her story with a successful treatment that has extended her life beyond what she could have expected at her diagnosis. She continues to write and speak and teach, not just in her field but in that broader struggle of human beings to understand and find meaning in the randomness of life. Her work touches people, including me, with the urgency and beauty and fragility of a life that does not make sense at any given moment but that can serve a purpose in every moment. That is a path open to all of us. Amen.