September 14, 2014

Unlimited forgiveness?

Passage: Genesis 50:15-21: Psalm 103:1-13; Matthew 18:21-35

Genesis 50:15-21  Joseph Forgives His Brothers

Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, ‘What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?’ So they approached Joseph, saying, ‘Your father gave this instruction before he died, “Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.” Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.’ Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, ‘We are here as your slaves.’ But Joseph said to them, ‘Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.

Matthew 18:21-35

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.

‘For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, “Pay what you owe.” Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, “You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?” And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.’

There are many challenges before us today as we look at the passages from Scripture. They are so instructive and encouraging if we understand them correctly.

First let us take a brief look at the Joseph saga stories. Beginning at Genesis 37, we have depicted the fall and rise of Joseph, Jacob’s favoured son. Many times in the Hebrew scriptures we have examples of sibling rivalries that lead to catastrophic results but which are very instructive for us. For example: the Ishmael/Isaac split comes right down to today with Arab/Muslim people tracing back to Ishmael and the Hebrew people asserting Isaac as their forefather. Briefly, the brothers cannot stand Joseph their youngest brother and so sell him off to slavery and tell their father that he was killed by wild animals. The brothers had dipped his wonderful coat in goat’s blood and took it to their father Jacob, and let him draw his own conclusions. Meanwhile Joseph is sold as a slave and rises through Pharaoh's court to a position of prominence. He is able to interpret dreams and have the people of Egypt prepare for years of famine. Eventually the brothers come to Egypt because they are running out of food. Eventually they become aware of the presence of the powerful Joseph, and stand before him in fear. This is where our passage begins.

The brothers' continuing sense of guilt is striking. Have they been reconciled to Joseph, or not? With this scene, have we come to the end of the fratricide and familial deception running throughout Genesis? If the story of Joseph is any indication, family wounds continue to fester; those who do the hurt often wound themselves, and the healing balm of forgiveness may need to be applied more than once. And often, the words of forgiveness are not the words we want to hear. Capping off this story is Joseph's insight: where we see hurt, God sees good (50:20). How the brothers, or we, respond to that good news, remains an open question. - Marg Odell

The Hebrew verb is, in effect, a metaphor; ‘to forgive’ is to remove a heavy burden, like taking a dead weight off someone's shoulders. Joseph does not use the words: I forgive you,’ but he does urge them to see their guilt as God sees it. They devised evil, but God saw good. However Joseph does act powerfully to indicate forgiveness: I myself will provide for you and your little ones.’ In this way he reassured them.

Joseph’s declaration that “God intended it for good” reminds us that the stories of biblical families are not just lectionary-sized snippets of individual family dramas, but rather they are part of the long and ongoing story of God’s relationship with Israel, chosen for blessing and in whom all families of the earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:3). - Cameron Howard

A Jewish commentator Wendy Amsellem helps us understand the complexities of forgiveness. She states: They cannot accept Joseph's forgiveness because they cannot forgive themselves. And so, in our portion, when Jacob dies, what the brothers are saying in part is "if only Joseph will hate us and repay the evil we did him." If only Joseph could avenge himself and give us back the wrong we did him, then perhaps we could finally be at peace. It is a complex moment, with their instinct for self-preservation mixing with their desire for ultimate absolution. They both want Joseph's hatred and yet need his protection.

But Joseph does not crave revenge. All he yearns for is reunion with his family. He has spent 22 lonely years, and now he wants his brothers back. He will give them everything--forgiveness, sustenance, vocations, even riches--and all he wants in return is once more to be part of the family.

With that story acting as a backdrop, we come to the Matthew passage which focusses upon forgiveness. Remember the context is Matthew dealing with troubles in his post resurrection community. Peter continues the discussion: How often should we forgive? As many as seven times? It is a quantitative question but Jesus changes the arithmetic and provides a qualitative answer. ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. Some translations have seventy times seven. The 77 may refer to an ancient text about Lamech indicating he would seek vengeance 77 times over. Gen. 4:24. A new order has come into being where in the kingdom of God, vengeance has no place; but rather forgiveness dominates center stage. Jesus then tells another memorable story unique to Matthew.

At first blush, the story seems obvious, but as we examine it more closely questions emerge. In that day, kings would assume absolute power, and become fabulously wealthy. But they have several retainers and managers who assured the system worked and the king’s coffers were always full. From time to time, the king would conduct an audit. One of the slaves, not literally, because a person of such immense wealth, would be very high up in the government of the king. Ten thousand talents is an astronomical sum, exaggerated to make a point. This was a well trusted, efficient and skillful bureaucrat who knew the king’s trust. That is why the king would be so angry as to have his entire family sold into slavery. [likely referring to a Gentile king because Jewish law did not permit the family to be sold to pay the debt of the father and husband.]

No matter, the bureaucrat pleads with the king: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.” And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. Knowing that the bureaucrat could not even come close in a few lifetimes of paying off such a monstrous debt, the king simply decides to write off the entire amount.

William Herzog: “To receive forgiveness both enables and obligates one to offer forgiveness, not as an occasional exception to the rule but as a way of life and not without an awareness of the forgiveness one receives but as a response to it.” p.133

Parables as Subversive Speech

The king’s act of forgiveness is of messianic proportions. It suggests a whole new era is about to begin. Debt forgiveness is all about the messianic age. The king has made it a point of honour - no longer exploitation and ruthless extraction of resources from the common people. What the king has done, the retainers must also do.

But this same retainer, who has himself several underlings, realizes that one of them owes a small sum to him. In words reminiscent of what he had said to the king this slave also pleads: “Have patience with me, and I will pay you.” However, the act of forgiveness does not take place. Perhaps the bureaucrat is trying to reassert his authority amongst the host of underlings and let it be known that he is back minding the shop. Without an ounce of pity, he throws the underling into prison. The other underlings realize his lack of concern and report him to the king who is outraged. A new order of things has been introduced by the king’s magnanimous act of forgiveness, but this high ranking bureaucrat has returned the system to exploitation and injustice. Therefore he deserves the king’s utmost anger.

To be in a state of grace, to realize that you can never repay what has been offered to us freely by God in Christ, is to acknowledge that we have no right to withhold forgiveness from another. Otherwise we do not understand who we truly are. When apartheid was dismantled in South Africa, rather than the country fragmenting and disrupting into civil war, they chose to go a different route and implemented a truth and reconciliation commission.

One of the foundational principles of this experience is what Desmond Tutu calls “Ubuntu.” It is a Xhosa word that stands for the idea that we all share a common humanity. It says that the only way the human family can thrive is together. That means that when we look at another human being, even someone who has wounded us deeply, we cannot see an enemy, but rather a fellow human being, a brother or a sister. It seems to me that, in order to pray the prayer, “forgive our sins as we forgive those who sin against us” and mean it, we have to practice “Ubuntu”—we have to acknowledge that we share a common humanity even with those who wrong us. When we can look at those who inflict pain on us and see brothers and sisters, then we can begin to forgive as we have been forgiven. Then we can begin to set them and ourselves free from the vicious circle of bitterness, hatred, and violence, and move into the freedom of forgiving as we have been forgiven. found in Tutu’s Made for Goodness

Eric Barreto from the internet.

“Forgiveness heals relationships by requiring us to let go, to turn the page, to refuse the right to hold on to bitterness and anger. Forgiveness, in short, sets things right again. Forgiveness is a powerfully healing force but also an incredibly difficult thing to receive or share. ..... Jesus concludes by noting the seriousness of our forgiveness of others. Just as the faithful hold the ability to bind and loose, our unwillingness to forgive will redound on us. Forgiveness is neither optional nor contingent. Why? Because God’s forgiveness knows no end and so also should our relationships be governed by a grace that knows no bounds.

I like the way Nathan Nettleton sums up these stories of forgiveness.

God continues to come to us. For in the extravagant love and mercy of God, even our refusal to accept the way of forgiveness and our inflaming of our man-made hells cannot quench God’s passionate desire for us. Despite all the pain and betrayal and violence, God continues to refuse to bear resentment, and continues to refrain from striking back at us, and continues to absorb all our hatred and hostility and callousness, seeking always to draw the sting out of them and offer back only love and compassion and tender mercy. God continues to forgive, seventy times seven, and to grieve over our refusal to be transformed by that forgiveness into a people who participate in living out that forgiveness in an angry violent world.         Laughing Bird liturgical resources.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. May it have new meaning for each of us when we pray it weekly or daily.