If I say that I’m going to preach on forgiveness, what does that kick up inside of you? Does it bring to mind a relationship where there’s a painful history? Is there a raw place where you harbor a grudge because of something done to you? In our Gospel lesson Jesus urges us to love our enemies. I want you to think about who comes to mind when you hear the word “enemy.” Keep in mind these broken ties where forgiveness eludes you as we dig into two hard passages that should prompt some honest introspection.
In Deuteronomy the Jewish understanding of retaliation is clear and seemingly fair: an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. So how did we move from that formula for justice to Jesus’ statement that the number of times we should be willing to forgive someone is 70 x 7?! The radical news in both lectionary stories is that our response to someone cannot be predicated on their behavior. Instead of revenge, we are exhorted to offer grace.
We are still in the season of Epiphany when we watch for a divine manifestation. Do we see God in the story about Joseph and his brothers found in Genesis 45:1-15? The plot to the Biblical drama is so thick and rich that it made it on to Broadway: Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat. His older brothers couldn’t stand how spoiled he was so they sold him into slavery and told their father that he had been killed by a wild animal. Joseph’s new life included prison, false accusations, and isolation. But, by God’s grace and Joseph’s tenacious faith, he ends up as the right-hand man to the most powerful leader, Pharaoh. In a time of famine his brothers come to Egypt for food to take back to their families. Joseph recognizes them and reveals himself to them. They are terrified because they have lived with the guilt of their cruelty for decades and now he has power over them. But in this tender reunion Joseph assures them that he forgives them. What they did to harm him, God used to advance a Divine agenda. This forgiveness means that God’s promise to Abraham can be kept.
What if Joseph had used his power for revenge? No one would have criticized him. Think of the upperclassmen fraternity brothers who are merciless in their hazing of freshmen recruits to exact revenge for their own first-year misery. Think about class reunions where social outcasts from high school can’t wait to show their success to popular sorts who haven’t fared so well. Family members dish out pay-backs like it’s the most natural thing to serve up at the family reunion. Joseph could have sentenced his brothers to death for their treachery and his political fan base would have cheered him on. But the spoiled, arrogant little brother has gained great wisdom from the literal pit of despair. He has witnessed how God took the malicious plot of his brothers and transformed it into a means of saving lives. If you back up several chapters and read the whole story you’ll see that his forgiveness begins and ends with tears. When he reveals himself to them, he has to leave the room because he is weeping uncontrollably. Those tears are the harbinger of healing—for him, his brothers, his family, and the Jewish nation.
Joseph extends unreasonable grace toward his brothers. He doesn’t ask if they’re sorry for what they did. The forgiveness that Jesus extols in Luke 6 does not stem from right behavior of others. It comes from a relationship with the God who sent Jesus to take on our burdens for us. This radical act goes against our human instincts so we are reminded that we can only let our enemy off the hook because of a heart condition. Knowing and loving God changes our hearts—and the rules by which we govern our own lives. It won’t necessarily change the people around us but that doesn’t matter. Through Christ we have the strength to drop our grievances and see the humanity of our enemies. This is not material that you’ll find in a self-help manual in the book section of WalMart. It is a radical offer from Jesus that restores peace to our lives and perhaps preaches a message of grace to those looking in on our actions.
When the older brothers encounter Joseph decades after selling him into slavery, Joseph is in a great position. His life has turned out well in spite of their jealous plotting. What if he had spent all those years in the dank prison where he first landed? Would he have been as likely to be magnanimous toward them? We don’t know. But it’s important to acknowledge that it can be seemingly impossible to extend grace when the suffering is ongoing, and, especially, if there’s no promise of the stress letting up.
Remember that years after Joseph and his brothers had died and their descendants lived in the best land of Egypt, the indigenous people questioned why these foreigners should possess the best real estate. So this clan of Jews who had initially been welcomed as kinfolk of the beloved Joseph, are enslaved and become the backbone to the work projects that made Egypt great. For 400 years they worked backbreaking labor as slaves! There would be 20 generations of Jews born into slavery before poor Moses put his life on the line to lead them to freedom through God’s gracious liberation.
Many people—some of you here today—live symbolically in those 20 generations for whom every day is a burdensome task and there is little promise of relief. If someone has put you in this position or worked to take away from you something that is rightfully yours, how can you forgive them? When your enemy has taken away the life of your choosing, isn’t it unreasonable to extend grace?
In his commentary on the Genesis 45 story, Allen Hilton raises some important questions: “The Joseph story has it that ‘the Lord was with [Joseph}, and…the Lord caused all that he did to prosper’ (Gen. 39:3), but that is certainly not the way all faithful or faith-seeking people experience their lives or their God. Discussions of why bad things happen to good people fill church parlors and classrooms, because in them we raise hard questions about how we can imagine God’s activity in a flawed world. If God is the divine bellhop, acknowledged only when the parking space comes open at the right time or when the marriage works, the suffering half of our lives and our congregation’s stands knocking outside the door. On the other hand, if we render God the absentee landlord who leaves humanity to fend fully for ourselves, we lock our whole congregation out of meeting Joseph’s living and active God.” (Feasting on the Word, Year C, Volume 1, page 365.)
Do we only acknowledge God when things are going well then curse God the minute our hopes are dashed? Or have we reconciled the junk in our world to a belief that there is no God so it’s anyone’s game? Or is there another way to address the hurt?
Alan Johnson names a crucial element to the life of faith: surrender. Again, this won’t sell books on an end rack near the check out at Sam’s Club. He writes, “Surrender is a painful, personal process in our relationships, our faith communities, and our country. To surrender humbly to a higher good does lead to new life, love, and a deeper joy. Moreover, joy is a sign of reconciliation….reconciliation is possible because in facing our own frailties, vulnerabilities, and even hostilities, we come to understand that divine purposes were at work.”
When we use human systems of law to determine forgiveness, it gets muddy. Do we forgive the 24-year old Alabama mother who admits that it was a mistake to join ISIS when she was 19. Do we open our national arms and allow her to come “home” to America to raise her 18-month old son? Can we forgive someone who has trained with terrorists? Or do we let our justice system mete out a fair response to her request?
The Roman Catholic Church is facing squarely the issue of Clerical sex abuse in the confines of the Vatican beginning this past Thursday. Victims are telling their stories and demanding accountability from the overarching structure of the Church. Should a convicted priest be supported by an ecclesial pension? Are they outside of the law? Should we forgive and move on, as some have suggested? Can the victims find a way to forgive an unrepentant priest and move forward with levity and joy? Or are they condemned to carry that horrific baggage with them the rest of their lives?
Can we forgive a family member (a parent, spouse, grown child, relative) for the pain they caused us? Is your ex-spouse the enemy you have to face far too often and, if so, how might you love him or her as Jesus commands? Is it reasonable to extend grace to the boss who trumped up charges so that you could be fired? Or is it reasonable to fantasize about their own downfall and carry hatred in our hearts toward them?
Maybe the enemy for you has been God? Maybe the child you lost, the husband who never materialized, the terminal disease or the financial destitution cloud your ability to embrace a loving God. In fact, you’ve been mad at God for a long time and don’t want to let go of the grudge. Who is the enemy and how can we let go of the hurt by surrendering to God?
In The Man Who Wrestled with God, John Sanford suggests a three step process that was foundational to noteworthy reconciliation agencies like the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The first step is painful self-confrontation. Whether we were the victim or the perpetrator, we are called to examine our hearts to confess what ill feelings we have harbored toward others. Have we nursed the grudge? Have we done the math more than a thousand times to confirm that someone is seriously in our debt and held that against them? Are we pained by memories of how we betrayed a loved one, took advantage of a friend, derailed a stranger? As we do the hard work of self-examination, we move into the second step: making a reckoning with the past. We face our demons so that we can let them go. We confess to God and anyone we have hurt. This is liberating so that the past will no longer dictate our future. The dark cloud that has enshrouded each day for ages is pushed aside through prayer, counseling, church involvement, and encouraging relationships. Finally, Sanford suggests that the third step in experiencing liberating forgiveness is giving up our egocentrism in order to serve God. As we seek to please God, the injustices of our human world matter less and less. We join with God in creating a new world with rules that lead to a new and abundant way of life.
The stakes are high. Hilton states, “God’s reconciling movement in the world still and always hinges on forgiveness.” The unreasonable grace we extend to someone who may be completely unrepentant; who may have moved on with their life years ago and doesn’t even know the destruction they wrought in us; this radical act of forgiveness impacts our world in ways we will never fully comprehend. Joseph’s forgiveness keeps the family of Jacob’s 12 sons intact. God’s promise to their great grandfather, Abraham, can be fulfilled. They become a blessing not just to their families but to the world—because their brother’s heart was so filled with a love for God that there was no room for hatred. Even when we resist reconciliation (and let’s admit it, we do!), unreasonable grace transforms us along the way. By the power of the Holy Spirit—never on our own inclinations—we can forgive another and, in the process, find that we ourselves have been liberated! The fog lifts. Joy returns. God is praised!