“Although Joseph had recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him.”
Last week I attended the annual conference of the Theological Society of South Africa in Stellenbosch. One of the lectures, given my colleague, Professor Robert Vosloo, was entitled “Justification and Mutual Recognition in the Age of Migration.” I won’t try and summarize what he said, but I was struck by the way in which he unpacked the word “recognition.” Recognition is more than seeing another person. It can mean acknowledging someone for what they have done as when we say John Smith was recognised for his achievements; or it can mean recognizing someone in a crowd who you know; or it can mean acknowledging the worth of someone who is generally overlooked. To recognise someone is more than simply seeing them.
There are many stories in the Bible where recognition as more than seeing is demonstrated. Included among them is the well-known story of Joseph and his brothers. We know how much they dislike him because he is his father Jacob’s favourite, and how, eventually, they beat him up out of jealousy and sell him into slavery. But we also know that Joseph eventually became a powerful member of Pharaoh’s court, and it was in that capacity that years later, during a famine, his brothers came to ask him for help. But even though they saw him face to face, they did not recognize him as their brother, even though Joseph immediately recognized them. We also know how the story unfolds through several phases until Joseph can no longer keep his secret, and so makes himself known to his brothers. At first they were not only surprised but also fearful, after all they had sold him into slavery. But in the end, as the tears of recognition flowed, they were reconciled as brothers. It had been a hard lesson for his brothers to learn. They had treated him so badly, but he had treated them so generously; they had turned him into a slave, but he had saved them from starvation. And throughout, he had always recognised them as brothers even when they did not recognise him as their brother else they would not have sold him into slavery in the first place.
Isn’t this so true to life? We treat others badly, we deny them their rights as human beings, we do not recognize them as fellow human beings. And then, if and when the tables are turned, and they make themselves known to us as fellow human beings, we are fearful of them expecting revenge, and not quite sure how to relate to them. Isn’t that the greatness of a Nelson Mandela and of others like him? Incarcerated for 27 years on Robben Island he became invisible to South Africans. The apartheid government even banned photographs of him, so much so that when he was finally released everyone was waiting to see what he really looked like! But then, we not only saw his face but began to recognise him for who he really was, not just in appearance but also in character, not portrayed in propaganda as a terrorist but in reality, we were all surprised by his generosity of spirit to his former enemies, recognizing even those who supported apartheid as fellow human beings and citizens.
Is this not something that continually repeats itself. We vilify people who are different from us, turning them into enemies, instead of recognizing them as human beings, as brothers and sisters. We bomb and destroy their houses, reducing them to statistics and their homes to rubble, instead of recognizing them as created in the image of God. Black lives don’t matter racists say, because they think blacks are inferior to whites, not fellow human beings, brothers and sisters in the community of faith, or fellow citizens in the land.
But this is not the way of Jesus. Zacchaeus, the tax gatherer was excluded from society, pushed onto its margins, forced to climb a tree if he was to see Jesus. He was an invisible nobody. But not to Jesus. When Jesus sees him up that tree as he passes by, Jesus immediately he recognises him as a person — not an unclean tax-gatherer. He calls him by name even though they had never been introduced. He goes home with him. He restores his dignity and transforms his life. Zacchaeus was not just an invisible nobody, but a person a person longing for love, a person who Jesus recognised, affirmed and changed.
How often we pass by on the other side, as did those travellers on the road to Jericho in Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. They saw a man lying there in the dust, battered and robbed, but they did not recognise him as a fellow human being, a brother and sister in need. But the Good Samaritan stops, stoops down, lifts him up and takes care of him. He recognizes his kinship with the man in need. Which brings us to another great parable of recognition, the parable of the Last Judgment in Matthew 25: “Then the righteous will answer: “Lord when was it we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something drink? And when was it we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” Of course they saw all these people in need, but they did not recognise their God-given humanity, they did not recognise the Christ in them.
The two disciples n the Emmaus Road obviously saw, did not recognise Jesus for who he was, when he joined them on their journey. He was simply a fellow traveller; his true identity hidden from them, invisible. It was only when Jesus broke the bread and gave it to them at supper that their eyes were open and they recognised who he truly was and that changed their lives. Yes, when we come week by week to the Eucharist, we come to meet with the risen Christ, but we only recognise him for who he is if we see him in the broken bread, the bread of life given for the sake of the world, given to enable us to share his love with others, especially those who are invisible, those whom the world passes by, the despised, the rejected, the sorrowful — that is what it means to recognise Jesus in the breaking of bread. To recognise him in all lives which are being broken, all bodies that are suffering from injustice and hunger. To have our eyes opened by the Spirit does not simply mean that we can see others, but that we recognise them for who they really are.
John de Gruchy
Volmoed 29 June 2017