These last few weeks, our readings have had a lot to say about love as a guiding principle to live in community. The kind of love that is empathetic, open, wise – and radical. And this morning in our first lesson, we have a most astonishing example of forgiving love, in the story of Joseph, one of the best-known characters of our Bible. Many of us have complicated sibling relationships, but Joseph’s surely takes the cake. His brothers, jealous of his father’s love, sold him into slavery and left him for dead. Now, all these years later, they turn up, needing his help. Joseph has all the power to make them pay. And yet, what happens? He weeps in thankfulness at being reunited with his siblings, and he invites them into his home, extending his aid in their time of need. Would we do be able to do the same? I know of siblings – I am certain we all do – who have fallen out indefinitely for far less. How are we even to follow Joseph’s example? Is his response just one of those cases where we say: I can admire that, but God is asking way too much of me.
Maybe. But if Joseph is a story of incredible forgiveness, it is still a human one. Because a lot happens before Joseph gets to that generous place. Indeed, our three readings taken together describe a path to forgiveness that may be possible for all of us.
First to Joseph: if you are familiar with the story, you will know that Joseph was the little brother, the favourite of the father, gifted with a fancy robe that suggested he wasn’t going to have to get dirty doing manual labour. Maybe we can relate to the resentment his brothers might have felt. But that’s no excuse for the revenge they took, all but Reuben, the eldest who attempts to divert their plot, with the goal of rescuing Joseph later – tossing Joseph into a ditch, leaving him to be sold into slavery and faking blood on his robe to convince Jacob, their father, that he was dead. Off they go, and the scripture focuses on Joseph, now stripped of his favoured-son-status and left with nothing. And yet, Joseph rises in his new house and runs into a new problem: when he rejects the advances of his owner’s wife, she lies about him, and he is thrown into prison, where again he manages by wits and faith to secure his freedom and rise in power, until the day his brothers show up at his doorstep. His moment of forgiveness doesn’t happen instantly; instead, he puts them to the test, and sets a trap involving his very youngest brother to see if they have changed. He overhears them feeling bad about what they did to Joseph, and when they come to Benjamin’s defence, he reveals himself. But his forgiveness is made easier: Joseph has had good fortune; he has the upper hand. And he has information that his brothers regret their actions. Certainly, forgiving them requires a leap on his part, but it comes with two components that would make forgiveness easier for all of us: the person requires our forgiveness, and the person says sorry first.
But this is, often, not how life works, and that is where the gospel comes in. We are rarely, except in our often-toxic dreams, put in a position like Joseph’s; more often, we must make the journey on our own. And, to that end, I would say we often get the practice of forgiveness backwards: we think it is about our relationship to the person, but in truth it is about us and our relationship to God. There is that old classic line: Resentment is like taking the poison and expecting the other person to die. It harms us by consuming us. It harms us by distancing us from God. I have spoken before about the forgiveness triangle: we are one point, those whom we need to forgive are the second point, and God is the third. We can go looking across to the other person and hope it works out. But the first work and the bulk of it must be between us and God, even as it was for Joseph. That is the only side of the triangle upon which we can count.
We receive some guidance on this in our other readings this morning. A reminder that we should not judge people who have opinions different from ours, but try instead to understand them; that our role is to love our neighbors, as we were told, even if we don’t agree with them. But what if disagreement grows into real conflict, resentment? Then the gospel lays it out for us: How often should we forgive, Peter asks, speaking a question we have all likely asked. Is seven times enough, he wonders. “Not seven times,” Jesus tells him. “But seventy-seven times.” In other words, every time and always. Jesus says nothing about testing the other person; or about having power over them. Instead, Jesus makes this point – in rather harsh terms: in the story of the slave who gets forgiven a debt from the King, but then fails to forgive those in debt to him, Jesus says that we who are forgiven first from God, have a role to forgive others their wrongdoings.
In saying this, Jesus is not making fools of us, or saying that Joseph should put himself in harm’s way with his brothers lest their resentment build again. The important distinction here is that the ability to forgive is a gift from God; it frees us. Our ability to find peace with another person, even to find a way to love them, is not dependent on them; it is dependent on God, who is ever-reliable. God says to us, you are forgiven, so that we may forgive ourselves. Resentment has a way of spiralling; we feel anger and then we feel shame for that anger, and back and forth it goes. But if we are feeling resentment toward another person, knowing that we are forgiven; we can let it go, God has wiped out all our debts. The first step of forgiveness is not setting aside our anger; but forgiving ourselves for feeling it. From there, we stop the spiral; and in that stillness, we can, with patience, let it go.
If we think of Joseph as a forgiveness mentor, what really happened to him? First, he needed a lot of patience; in slavery I have no doubt he hated his brothers. But in time, he returned to himself, he earned the trust and love of others; he came into places of power, he refused to give up what he believed was right, and he didn’t use that power for revenge: he looked away from the wrong done to him, and lived his best life. By focusing on patience, on self-improvement, on his faith, his anger lessened, until his anger was no longer needed in his life, and it faded away. Until when he encountered his brothers again, he could ultimately, and in his humanness forgive them. And not only forgive them but love them.
This is the message of the gospel, the very definition of our relationship with God and how it is meant to shape how we see ourselves, and how we deal with everyone else: Love as you are loved. Forgive as you are forgiven. Leave all the rest to God.
Matthew 18-21-35—September 14, 2020