A New Understanding of Forgiveness

A New Understanding of Forgiveness

11th Sunday after Pentecost
Pastor Mitch Coggin August 20, 2023 Proper 15 A

“Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” Of course these are Jesus’ words that underscore the most basic tenets of forgiveness. He answered Peter’s question, “Lord, how many times should I forgive, 7 times?”

Peter, knowing that 7 is the perfect number, was sure this was the right suggestion. The Lord answered however, “No, Peter, not 7, but 70 X 7.” Forgiveness is more than a single act.

Jesus’ example of forgiveness extended to Judas who sold him out for 30 pieces of silver, to Peter for denying him 3 times in public, and even the Romans for crucifying him. Jesus chose not to be a victim of the cruel and inhumane acts against him.

Jesus underscored forgiveness as essential in human relationships and, yet, it may be one of the most challenging components of our lives. In order to grasp what this passage is saying to us today, we may need to forget everything we think we know about forgiveness.

Last week we heard the first part of the Joseph story when his brothers sold him to a group of Egyptian slave traders. While we feared the worst for him, at least we were challenged to not write the end of Joseph’s story, or our own, before the actual end.

We’ve skipped a good bit of the story between Joseph being sold into slavery and our scripture for the morning, when his brothers show up on his doorstep in Egypt for help. The brothers had come to buy grain since there was a famine in their land. They were summoned to appear before Joseph who had become Pharaoh’s Minister of Agriculture as a result of his ability to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams predicting the famine.

Joseph recognized his older brothers but they had no idea who he was. Twice Joseph sets his brothers’up for arrest by planting valuables in their possessions. He wanted to lure them back to keep the conversation open so that they would receive the help and renew their relationship. Now, the brothers feared for their lives. This is the point in today’s scripture where Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers.

The story to this point may seem more like revenge than forgiveness. Joseph excuses everyone from the room except his brothers. Scripture says, “He could no longer control himself. He wept so loudly the Egyptians heard it.” He asked his brothers to come closer for the big reveal, “I am your brother who you sold into slavery.”

It is easy to see this from a multi-camera perspective, with a camera on each of the brothers and a camera on Joseph. We would see the shock and apprehension on each of their faces. Would the brothers recoil in fear?

Joseph changes the story to one of forgiveness. Joseph refused to blame his brothers for what had been intended for harm. He said to his brothers, “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves.” Joseph tells his own story, not as a victim, but from the perspective of how God worked in spite of what happened.

Joseph tells his brothers how his being in Egypt was redemptive not only for him but for his entire family. The famine had been in the land two years already and there will be five more years ahead where there will be no harvest. Joseph instructs his brothers to tell their father, “You shall settle in Goshen, be near me and all your children’s children. I will provide for you through five more years of famine. You, your household and all you have will not come into poverty.”

Joseph hugged and kissed his brothers. Finally the brothers were able to move beyond their own story of what had happened. Forget everything you think you know about forgiveness where you see yourself as a victim.

Forgiveness is not about swallowing hurt and humiliation. It is not about forgetting a hurt you have stomached for God only knows how long. It is not about simply forgiving and forgetting. What happened to Joseph was greater than the betrayal of his brothers. God worked within him in spite of what happened.

How does God work in spite of our circumstances?

All of us have specific stories of those who have wronged us. As a church, we harbour stories of conflict and loss. When we hang on to our story of hurt or blame, we remain in control. However, God’s generosity moves us beyond our need to control our lives and opens us to the place where the purposes of God are at work among us in ways we do not even recognize. If we are willing to give up our hurt or blame, God does more for us than we can do for ourselves.

We have the power to change the story. When we live according to our fears and our hates, our lives become small and defensive. When we forgive, yield, share, and are generous, it is because of God’s love and generosity toward us that opens us to receive it for ourselves and then gives us strength to move toward others in love.