Is there an end to forgiveness?
I find it quite interesting how often people dismiss the Old Testament as simply an ancient history – one more full of violence and vengeance. But the Old Testament holds the seeds of the teachings that Jesus drew out during his ministry and that form and inform what we have come to know as the New Testament. We do well not to forget that the design for life and the ethics that are to guide that life have ever been in the mind of our God and have been expressed by individuals in the record that is the Old Testament. The fact is that the Old Testament is a complex document that not only gives laws, ordinances, and ethics for living but also records in great detail the history and personal struggles of the people throughout time. We get the good, the bad and the ugly. It is all there so that we may know that the generations that preceded us did not get everything right and so that we may have the privilege of reading the wisdom of those who sought to lead and support the people in their lives.
The fact is that human beings have always struggled with how to live in peace with one another. Jealousy, envy, pride, covetousness – these are part of the human condition. The behaviours that can result from such things range from simple anger and hurtful actions to more damaging words and lasting actions.
Today we look at one record from the Old Testament which is a perfect example of how such elements in the human condition can lead to destructive behaviour but also of how such elements can be overcome and lead to a positive outcome.
Joseph was the favourite son of his father Jacob. He was the second youngest. He had ten older brothers. He was the first born of his father’s second wife, Rachel. While the other brothers worked hard for their father, they never seemed to gain their father’s love. Of course, Joseph didn’t seem to help matters by the dreams he had. In those dreams, he saw himself as the one to whom his brothers would bow down. In one of those dreams, Joseph was to become a great leader and his brothers would be subject to him. The last straw came when his father gave him a coat of many colours.
At first the brothers were determined to rid themselves of him by killing him but none of them could bring themselves to do that. So, they decided to simply drop him down a well and leave him there to die so as to not directly have his blood on their hands. Fortunately, some traders came along at the right time and they decided that making money off of their brother was an even better solution. They sold him as a slave. He would disappear into the ancient world and no one would ever hear of him again. They spread blood on the coat and told their father that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. The old man grieved his loss.
But that was not the end of Joseph. God had another plan for Joseph’s life and in spite of all that had happened to him – more than enough to make anyone bitter and twisted – he remembered the lessons of his youth and remained faithful to God and to the pattern for life that his parents had taught him. He acted with integrity and when his virtue got him in trouble, he held firm. In the end he rose in the society to a position of great power.
After this time, a great famine spread throughout the whole region. Jacob decided to send his sons to Egypt to secure food for the family. He had heard that the land of Egypt was surviving thanks to a great administrator. Unbeknownst to him, it was his son Joseph who now was known by a different name. The brothers came and received food, but Joseph planted a silver cup in the sack of young Benjamin – his brother. When the cup was discovered, the brothers were fearful for their lives. Young Benjamin would have to suffer for his misstep, but the brothers knew that this would be the death of their old father. They pleaded for the life of their brother. Joseph saw that the old jealousies of his brothers had been set aside and he was moved by the concern of his brothers for their father. He then revealed himself to them and encouraged them to return to Egypt with their father.
A great family reunion – one which Joseph had no doubt longed for and yet never expected to happen because he was still under the impression that his brothers harboured feelings of jealousy, envy, and hatred toward him. But time had changed them. They were no longer the young brash brothers he had known. And while Joseph found himself in a position of holding their lives in his hand, his actions showed that revenge was not what he desired. His desire was to seek for reconciliation and healing. His desire was to find peace in his spirit. And so, he was once again united with his father and his brothers. And while there was a lot of history between them – a lot of bad blood – Joseph chose to overcome it and looked beyond what was past to what could be in the future.
But the brothers still feared the future beyond the life of their father. They worried that Joseph would only be reconciled to them out of respect for their father whose greatest joy was to see his sons together again and living in harmony.
Jacob also feared that Joseph was only being kind and compassionate to his brothers as a mark of his great love for his father. And so, he had cautioned Joseph’s brothers to be sure that they were truly forgiven. They were to tell Joseph that this was their father’s dying wish. They came and begged that they would be forgiven for all the harm they had caused.
Joseph’s answer is one that seems so out of place in a world where revenge and killing were the norm. In a time before the giving of the 10 commandments, in a time when the path of God was still in its infancy, Joseph chose forgiveness. His response was well out of the norm for that day. No one would have thought less of him if he had done to his brothers what they had done to him. “Fear not,” he says. “Am I in the place of God?”
Yes, life did not turn out as Joseph had expected. Yes, he had suffered much but it was not his place to judge or condemn his brothers for their actions. What was in their hearts at that time and the actions they took were not going to guide Joseph in the decisions he would make.
Whether his brothers fully appreciated his act of forgiveness is something we will never know but we do know this: Joseph had found peace in his life. His willingness to forgive his brothers was a sign that he knew that he had not given life to his brothers and that he could not take that life. It was also a sign that he could not judge his brothers for their actions. It was for their Creator to judge them. For him, it was to forgive. That was what God asked of him. That was what his father asked of him.
“How many times must I forgive my brother?” asks Peter. “Not seven times, but seventy times seven”, says Jesus. That’s 490 times! Sometimes we believe that a person only deserves forgiveness so often and then they are beyond it. But Jesus tells the disciples that that is not so. For when we withhold forgiveness from one another, we deny one another the opportunity to find peace and healing in our lives – the chance to make amends and to be reconciled. Whether or not the other person accepts that offer of forgiveness, we are able to put the matter behind us and move on in our lives.
When Jesus healed the body, He first healed the spirit and the mind. Remember what I said last week about how we are knit together as one. Jesus’ first concern was forgiveness of sin and the restoration of the person’s relationship with God and the society. Without that, the healing of the body was only a temporary relief from an inward pain.
We forgive one another because we desire to reveal that this is the will of the God in whom we have faith. And when we forgive others, it is a sign that we are grateful for the forgiveness we have received from God. Our acts of forgiveness are the tangible signs that God is alive and with us.
Is there an end to forgiveness? Yes, when all in this world are reconciled to each other and to God. Until then, there is no end – simply new beginnings.
As it is said in the Celtic early Morning Prayer: “Forgive my many sins that I may start this day anew, and as you forgive me, may I learn to be forgiving and compassionate to others in return.”