How feasible is forgiveness?

September 17, 2017


When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “It may be that Joseph will hate us and pay us back for all the evil that we did to him.” So they sent a message to Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this command before he died: ‘Say to Joseph, “Please forgive the transgression of your brothers and their sin, because they did evil to you.”’ And now, please forgive the transgression of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. His brothers also came and fell down before him and said, “Behold, we are your servants.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not fear, for am I in the place of God? As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today. So do not fear; I will provide for you and your little ones.” Thus he comforted them and spoke kindly to them. (Genesis 50:15-21 ESV)

Remember we are in the green – the growing – season of the church year – of the Church where the focus is not so much teaching about Jesus but about teaching how to follow him. What’s it like? What does it involve? Our first reading takes us to the last chapter of Genesis – not the last verses because that is the death of Joseph – but his last recorded deed of this family narrative about Abraham, Jacob, and Joseph. Genesis begins and ends with what people need to know and I would argue that it is not about creation per se but more importantly it is about the mysterious way God acts towards rebellious people – that he doesn’t treat us as we deserve but sets in place a rescue – mercy – and forgiveness.

And this is always tricky. How do we know for sure things such as grace, mercy, and forgiveness are real? That’s what confronted and troubled Joseph’s brothers who worried now that Jacob has died … how long can grudges be held? It is said revenge is sweet when served cold – how long does one wait for the ‘killing blow’? We know today that our world’s method of getting on together – our systems of justice – where the person who does the crime pays the fine or does the time – doesn’t preclude revenge – because justice rarely fully heals the breach, the burn, the hurt, the insult, the disfigurement, the loss – justice just pays us what the world thinks is a fair price for what was done to us. And even though Joseph has done well – second in charge of Egypt isn’t small beer as they say – he might have still smouldered on the inside and now he has power to do what he wants.

So they send a message – whether it is actually true or not is something to ponder – but the sentiment in Jacob’s name is what he would have wanted – reconciliation – don’t let evil have the last say.

That’s why mercy and forgiveness are so prized – and are gifts – we never can earn them – but we do know that only forgiveness and mercy can mend, restore, rebuild in such a way that people do not live in fear of revenge. And in such a way that the person wronged can leave the past in the past – not with amnesia – the deed was done – but it no longer infects and affects the person or the present – it no longer triggers all the reactions as if you were back there being wronged again.

Forgiveness truly sets people free.

That’s what Joseph did in his forgiveness – set them free from fear. He was merciful because he saw his life and what he went through from another perspective – and that simply isn’t easy to do because we, of course, see things from our perspective – from our hurt, from our need for sanity, for respect, and for justice. To see things from God’s perspective means giving up that way of defining things and trusting what God says about us – about what has happened to us – and about those who did it to us. Joseph clearly understood that what the brothers did was evil – he’s not minimising their deed – but he is not letting that be the sole definition for he sees God’s working good from evil – and he is letting God’s perspective have the last word. And that’s the hardest thing, I think, of all – letting God’s Word speak and hearing it, trusting it. And God’s Word can be hard to hear when our ears and heart are filled with our words: Can’t you see, God?! Don’t you understand what was done to me?! Don’t you care?! Lord, I’m hurting here! They can’t get away with this! And lots more. Yes, we can understand how hard forgiveness can be. Is that why Jesus taught us to pray for it each day – for the strength to forgive – for the trust that God forgives us – and for a confidence that this isn’t weakness but strength? Forgiveness can be a single event – a word event ‘I forgive you’ – as well as something we struggle with for many days, months maybe, even at times longer. Forgiveness is both an act and a process.

The Church often suggests by quick teaching that forgiveness is really just words and any struggles we might have to forgive are not important. Say the words – get over the hurt – move on. Parents can teach their squabbling children that’s forgiveness in the busyness and tiredness of parenting. Relationship hurts can be troublesome if we’re expected to forgive. It’s as if people are minimising our suffering and hurt and sense of injustice. And then there’s the forgiveness we know we should do but the other person doesn’t believe they’ve sinned against us – that’s got to be one of the hardest situations of all.

We have no way of looking inside Joseph to see how he lived his forgiveness among his brothers and their families. Forgiveness is not amnesia and it doesn’t make us forget but paradoxically it allows us to remember the past rather than live in the hurt and it also allows us to forget – or not be consumed by the sin done to us. Forgiveness requires the action of the forgiver – not the forgiven – which we usually expect or want to see. So Joseph names the sin accurately and reclassifies it from God’s perspective – and reconciliation occurs when both sides agree with the words said – about the sin / wrong / hurt and about God’s perspective.

In Christianity there is one thing we must never forget about forgiveness. It is implicit through the whole of the Bible – associated with sacrifices – and it is explicit in Hebrews 9:22 – Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.

We hear this at each Holy Communion – Jesus saying that his blood is shed for us for the forgiveness of sins.

The reason the world is so sceptical about mercy, grace, and forgiveness is that instead of the sinner paying the fine or doing the time, it is the one sinned against who acts mercifully – “there is no debt to me – you are forgiven”. Forgiveness is sacrifice – and what sane person does that in this world?

We come here Sunday by Sunday and we go to God’s Word during the week and whenever we pray the Lord’s Prayer and maybe many of our own prayers and what God gives to his people all the time is forgiveness. The gospel is Good News because we can tell the world – “You’re worried about being too ‘bad’? Too late! God has already forgiven you in Christ! That’s the good news! Something you can trust as you follow Jesus!”

Of course the brothers could reject Joseph’s forgiveness. We have no indication they did. Sadly, of course, many in the world can and do reject God’s forgiveness in Christ. However Jesus’ followers – fools for Christ – seek to follow him in what is probably the hardest part of discipleship – the hardest part of being a Christian – forgiveness. That is why Jesus speaks to us, feeds us, blesses us, and actually forgives us. That is why we are placed in congregations to support and help each other. It can be done even as we struggle to do it but when forgiveness – both as act – a declaration – and as a process – where only love for the one who hurt us is left – where forgiveness exists in relationships then both the one who forgives and the one who is forgiven need have no fear – reconciliation has occurred – and life amazingly can continue where love is the order of the day.

Bible References

  • Genesis 50:15 - 21