The Story of Joseph and the Purposes of Forgiveness
September 17, 2017
I’ve always been bothered by the end of the story about Joseph. His brothers did this terrible thing to him and at the end he says, “It’s okay. It was all part of God’s plan.” That seems like too easy of an out for his brothers. And since those days, bad behavior has often been either glossed over or completely ignored by simply bringing God into it. Then I read the end of the story again this week and noticed I had been missing something pretty important. Joseph said that because he was sold into slavery by his brothers a chain of events began that ultimately led to Joseph having the authority to make sure thousands of people didn’t starve to death. Joseph could have made this all about himself and the terrible things that had been done to him. Instead, he realized that something more important was going on that was more about all those women, men, and children who would be dead.
Jesus talked so much about forgiveness. He was pretty hard core about it. If you don’t forgive others, God won’t forgive you. When he was asked how many times a person had to forgive someone who wronged them, he said as long as you have to. We know what psychiatrists and others say about the personal benefits of forgiveness. People who are more able to forgive, let go of the grudges they hold tend to have happier lives. But when Jesus talked about forgiveness I think he had more in mind than the psychological and physical benefits it offers.
Jesus came to build this movement around the Realm of God. No movement works without people. And when people are working together we are not always at our best. We do things that hurt each other. There are slights that are rightly or wrongly felt. We carry all of this negative stuff with us from prior experiences that keep showing up. I think Jesus knew we could hold on to all that stuff that happens between us and forget that God has called us together for something that is so much beyond ourselves, just like with Joseph.
It wasn’t just Jesus. This is what we read at the end of Ephesians 4: be kind to one another and tenderhearted, forgiving each other as God has forgiven you in Jesus Christ. What the early church faced was probably more difficult then what even we face these days on the issues of race. The church was doing okay while it was all Jews, but when the Gentiles started becoming believers it seemed like it was going to be impossible for the gulf that divided those two groups of people to ever be bridged. How were Jews and Gentiles ever going to be able to be come together as one in Jesus Christ? It was going to take many things, including forgiveness. You couldn’t bring such widely different world views and life experiences together into one worshiping community and not expect people to bump up against each other.
The issues could also, of course, not be on such big issues such as race and culture, but the everyday stuff that comes along. Paul mentions Euodia and Syntyche in Philippians. They have had a falling out but Paul wants them to have the same mind in the Lord because, as he writes, “they struggled alongside me in the work of the Gospel.” Whatever their differences were, the work of the Gospel is much more important. And Paul had seen the work they had been able to do.
I’ve told the story a couple (or maybe a few times) about two women who were a part of the congregation I belonged to when I became a Christian in High School. They were in their 70’s or 80’s and would not say a word to each other. They wouldn’t acknowledge each other if they passed in the hallway of the church or were together in a room. So I asked somebody what that was all about. It turns out that when they were in High School, they fell in love with the same man. One of them ended up marrying him, and they had never spoken to each other since. It’s sad for them and an extreme example. But it was also bad for the church. It would have been so much better if they had spent those decades doing the work of the Gospel together because there is so much that needs to be done.
In these tumultuous political times, the call has been issued for us to be more forgiving of each other. But that is forgiveness in the abstract. I can forgive Donald Trump for some of the things he has done, for example, but what does that mean? We obviously don’t have any relationship. But it is in our relationships that forgiveness takes on flesh.
Most of us are aware of the stories of Amish people who have offered incredible forgiveness to people who have done awful things to their communities. There was the shooting in the Amish School with all those children killed and then the Amish community rallying around the family of the man who had killed their children. They weren’t going to hold on to what many would think a reasonable grudge because they knew it would make things worse and not better. And it was a powerful witness.
Another thing about the Amish, though, is that they are not so forgiving with each other. Shunning is one of the more noted practices among the Amish. When someone violates the community norms people do not rally around them. They literally turn their backs on them, refuse to be in a room with them, make them eat alone in their homes, prohibit them from participating in the life of the community, and even expel them from the community. Forgiveness becomes harder because they are living in that community together as opposed to one violent and awful interaction with an outsider.
Forgiveness and the need to maintain the integrity of the church for the gospel work we are called to does not, however, give us a free pass to be ugly with each other. If I do or say something that is hurtful to you it just doesn’t become your issue to get over it. Some, or maybe even all of you, have been grace filled enough with me to let some of that pass. But it damages the work of the church for me to not engage in meaningful repentance and change as much as it does for us to hold on to our hurts and grudges. Then, of course, it is important to realize that it is, at least, as important to the Body of Christ to do less of the things that need to be forgiven as it is to forgive.
The story about forgiveness, even more impressive than Joseph is, of course, how God has forgiven us in Jesus Christ. We, individually and collectively, have done plenty to affront God. But God doesn’t hold on to that stuff because God has important things for us to do. We get to build a new world with God. There are limitless possibilities for the Body of Christ. God is not about to hold grudges against us because the work we are called to do with each other and God is too important.
The Apostle writes about this at the end of Romans 7. For if I know the law but still can’t keep it, and if the power of sin within me keeps sabotaging my best intentions, I obviously need help! I realize that I don’t have what it takes. I can will it, but I can’t do it. I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly that it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question? The answer, thank God, is that Jesus Christ can and does. He acted to set things right in this life of contradictions where I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
This marvelous thing we call the Body of Christ, the gifts we bring with us for the work of the Gospel we do together, also come with the other stuff of being human. We really are, as the Apostle says, earthen vessels holding this great treasure.
Let’s go back to the Joseph story. It’s kind of involved about how Joseph and his brothers got reunited, but when they did it turned out Joseph had immense power. The brothers figured the only thing saving their necks was that Joseph didn’t want to do anything to them that would upset his father. But then his father died. So his brothers told Joseph that right before he died, their Dad told them to tell Joseph he should forgive them. They were lying. Isaac didn’t say any such thing. But Joseph knew that. They didn’t have to lie to get his forgiveness. Again, he knew something much bigger was going on. And as incredibly dysfunctional as it was, it was family. He was able to listen to his better angels. The same angels that are with us as we do the work of the Gospel together.