Near the end of last Sunday’s sermon I shared a quote from Lewis Smedes, author of Forgive and Forget: Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve. “God heals our guilt by forgiving it. We heal other people’s guilt by forgiving them. And in the process, we get healed from the bitter poison in our memory of what they did to us. We can be healed by doing forgiven and we can be healed by doing the forgiving.”
Today’s lessons from Matthew and Genesis show the root behind Lewis Smedes’ insight. We again hear how seriously God takes forgiving and the most excellent fruit born from people taking forgiveness seriously. Jesus teaches us the importance of forgiving when he answers Peter’s question, “How often should I forgive my brother or sister in Christ who sins against me?” Joseph, the son of Jacob, shows the benefit to both himself and his brothers, when he forgives them.
Pastor Scott Dunfee, a teaching parish pastor I was under shared how we need to give Peter a lot of credit, and not just because he has the courage to ask such an important question. His wondering if “as many as seven times” is sufficient is a pretty liberal answer. Many people have a tough time with one. Many more of us have an understandably tough time after three. I remember a pastor speaking at a youth camp “Jesus said if struck we should turn the other cheek from way downtown. Here is Peter suggesting forgiving seven times.
Jesus knocks most of us off our feet when he tells Peter we should forgive “not seven times, but I tell you, seventy seven times (or in other translations seven times seventy). The rabbis of the time taught the holy number 3. Peter offers 7, a perfect or most beneficial number. Jesus uses a number that for some indicated eternity. Jesus in essence tells us not to keep track of how many times we may forgive someone. Otherwise we would be carrying some interesting notebooks that look something like this sheet. (Show the Xavier and Hebzibah sheet).
Jesus teaches us how seriously God takes forgiveness with a parable. He tells about a man who is forgiven much and does not forgive little in comparison. On learning of that man’s action the king in the story makes the point of what our attitude should be when asking the question, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave/servant, as I had mercy on you?” Jesus teaches that God’s forgiving us should generate a free and generous forgiving attitude toward other people. It is one of the few parables where we are promised God will handle us similarly if we ‘do not forgive our brother or sister from our hearts’. One could go so far and say, “When we do not forgive others we are setting ourselves outside and above Jesus’ law of love. We are reminded of this each week when we pray “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
The Word provides a carrot. We are shown what can occur when someone does forgive from the heart. The Joseph cycle in Genesis is about a spoiled boy who becomes a man who sees every situation is an opportunity to serve God. Today Joseph puts a cherry on top of a sundae.
When we first meet Joseph he is living in a family dominated by his father’s grief that honors all associated with his favorite wife Rachel. Joseph is a beneficiary as Rachel’s first biologically born son. His father shows him favoritism. He is the one son who receives a special coat. While his brothers tend the herds and flocks, Joseph lives as cock of the yard. He has strange dreams that he loves to share because they show he is above his brothers and even father. He is the sort of teen you might want to see get his ‘comeuppance’. He does.
When sent to see how his brothers are doing they seize him and toss him in a pit. Their hate is so great they consider killing him but don’t as he is their flesh and blood. Seeing a caravan they sell him. Cruelly they dip his coat in animal blood and show it to their father Jacob with “Gee I wonder how blood got on this coat we found and whose coat could it be?” The father is grieved. The brothers are free of a favorite. Joseph faces an uncertain future.
God is acting. Joseph is sold by the merchants to the captain of the Pharaoh’s guard. Joseph applies himself to his new duties. He becomes his master’s steward. However his master’s wife desires Joseph. He refuses as that would be wrong in God’s and man’s eyes. She accuses him of attempted rape. He goes to prison.
In prison he again applies himself. He is made the prisoner trustee of the jail. He still has an ability to interpret dreams. But now he sees it as a gift from God. He interprets dreams correctly for two prisoners from Pharaoh’s household. The one restored breaks his promise and does not tell the Pharaoh about Joseph. Joseph spends two more years in prison.
Pharaoh begins having strange dreams. His advisors are unable to interpret. The former prisoner now tells about Joseph. Joseph is called. He again interpretation is from God. He hears the dreams and interprets them as forecasting 7 years of bumper crops followed by seven years of famine. When asked for any ideas Joseph using his experience as steward and trustee comes up with a plan to store a % of the bumper crops to see them through the famine. He is placed in charge.
During the famine the famine his brothers are eventually sent by Jacob to Egypt to purchase food. He is given the chance to be as gracious to them as God has been to him. He toys with them. He works it so the younger son of Rachel Benjamin is sent with them when they return for more provision. He plants evidence to show Benjamin is a thief and holds him. His plan is to bring Jacob to Egypt with the others. On hearing his brother speak of how harm to Benjamin would destroy Jacob, Joseph breaks down. He reveals himself. He tells the terrified brothers he forgives them and shares how God worked good placing him in this position to save the family. All reside in Egypt. It is a truly happy ending.
That is not the ending. Jacob dies. The brothers are not so sure of their future without their father’s presence to serve as a guarantee. History and fiction are filled with stories of revenge taken after the family patriarch or matriarch dies. They tell a story that cannot be verified that Jacob instructed them to remind Joseph they are to be forgiven. They offer to be his slaves.
In response Joseph uses the phrase Jesus will use with his disciples, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to harm me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” Joseph reaffirms his forgiveness and care. To quote an old hymn Joseph gives his brothers ‘Beautiful words, wonderful words, wonderful words of life’.
Form Jesus we learn how important our being forgiven and being forgivers to God. Joseph’s life shows how being more rooted in awareness of God can make way for a transformation that helps a person forgive and care like the Lord wherever and whatever situation we may be.
Praise to our Lord and Savior who teaches us the way of loving and forgiving as we are loved and forgiven. Amen.