I am delighted to host Anita Mathias today. I’ve been reading Anita’s blog for quite some time, and always find her posts to be beautiful and encouraging. I am honored to share her words of wisdom here.
I am reading through The Book of Genesis.
Joseph’s ten older brothers hated him. Of course, they did. The favourite son with the ornamented robe, who told tales on them, to whom they bowed in their dreams–dreams they uneasily sensed were prescient.
Eight brothers wanted to kill him. Reuben suggested throwing him into a disused well (perhaps intending to regain Jacob’s favour by rescuing him). Judah suggested selling him into slavery, exchanging a pesky little brother for 20 shekels of silver.
Joseph had every reason to hate and fear them.
* * *
But when they appear, all ten, bowing before Joseph as both he and they had always suspected they would, they are different.
They express regret. “We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen,” Reuben says.
Judah, who suggested selling Joseph into slavery, now offers himself as a slave so that Benjamin can return his father. “How can I go back to my father if the boy is not with me? No! Do not let me see the misery that would come upon my father.”
Twenty years ago he was perfectly capable of going to his father falsely stating that Joseph was dead. He silently observed Jacob’s misery, but did not divulge the truth—effectively ensuring that Jacob did not recover Joseph.
Twenty years and fatherhood have softened him. He is behaving like a good son and brother.
Though the brothers appear to be different—regretful about selling Joseph, mindful of Jacob’s misery, Joseph still acts with wisdom. He weeps and embraces them, but has no illusions about this family with a feral streak, so rapid to blame and betray each other. (“Why did you bring this trouble on me by telling the man you had another brother?” Jacob asks, quite irrationally. )
Forgiving is one thing. Foolishness is another. Joseph forgives, but does not entrust himself to these men who were prepared to kill him. He does not share power with them, or involve them in Pharaoh’s government. He does not invite them into his household. He relocates his brothers a safe distance from him, in Goshen on the outskirts of Egypt. He gives them no opportunity to harm him. He provides for them, but contains them.
* * *
This too is forgiveness. Be gracious and kind because that is the kind of person you want to be: gracious and kind. But be as wise as a serpent.
I love this fable in the movie, “The Crying Game.”
“Scorpion wants to cross a river, but he can’t swim. Goes to the frog, who can, and asks for a ride. Frog says, ‘If I give you a ride on my back, you’ll go and sting me.’
Scorpion replies, ‘It would not be in my interest to sting you since as I’ll be on your back we both would drown.’
Frog thinks about this logic for a while and accepts the deal. Takes the scorpion on his back. Braves the waters.
Halfway over feels a burning spear in his side and realizes the scorpion has stung him after all. And as they both sink beneath the waves the frog cries out, ‘Why did you sting me, Mr. Scorpion, for now we both will drown?’
Scorpion replies, ‘I can’t help it, it’s my nature.’”
When I remember how I have changed from my harsher teens and twenties, I know that people do change.
However, without solid evidence that they indeed have changed, it’s best to proceed with caution, being gracious, courteous and gentle as a dove, but, sadly, as guarded, wise and shrewd as the proverbial serpent.
People do change, and that is a miracle of grace—but a miracle is just that, a miracle. Do not presume on it!
* * *
Columbanus’ Letter to a Young Disciple: “When we are aware that another person has lied to us, deceived us, betrayed our trust, or deliberately misled us, if we are wise we will not easily trust them again. We are required to show them love, to meet them with forgiveness, not to close our heart to them—but trust should be earned.” (From Celtic Daily Prayer)
We must seek God on this. Sometimes, keeping the dialogue open with a sincere Christ-seeker I have had differences with clears the air and my heart feels healthier for dropping suspicion and judgement and opening channels of communication.
However, my intuitions are often wiser than my mind and conscience. I have often silenced my intuitions about people in the interests of being nice and friendly, and regretted it when words I spoke bounced back to me morphed, when my doings were reported with a malevolent spin.
Once you have been betrayed, back-stabbed, gossiped about, you must treat that person with caution. So now, when the spirit within me warns me that I am speaking to someone who envies, dislikes, or resents me, and I have the uneasy sense of being a sheep among wolves, I am wondering it might be best to limit interactions, even in social and church settings. Be guarded in my speech, politely cut the conversation short, and return to safer ground, to people to whom I can be a blessing.
* * *
The Christian life is a tight-rope walk between wisdom and agape—and we need the wisdom of Jesus to walk it, Jesus who counselled us to be as wise as a serpent but as gentle as a dove; Jesus who embodies contraries in himself, on occasion not entrusting himself to even to believers, but at times graciously saying to his betrayer, “Friend, what you are about to do, do quickly.”
Anita Mathias is the author of Wandering Between Two Worlds (Benediction Classics, 2007). She has won a writing fellowship from The National Endowment for the Arts & her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The London Magazine, Commonweal, America, The Christian Century, and The Best Spiritual Writing anthologies. She recently visited Cambodia as a Tearfund blogger.