Readings: Genesis 50. 15-21 and Matthew 18. 21-35
You have to take your hat off to Joseph, don’t you? He had been his Father’s favourite son. He was given a coat of many colours (I know you can all hear the song in your head!). But then, he gets sold into slavery by his own brothers. He spends years in an Egyptian prison, but then with God’s help, rises to the second most powerful position in the land. His brothers, now penniless and starving come to him for help. What a chance he had! What an opportunity to get revenge on those who had treated him so cruelly! But what does Joseph do? He forgives. He forgives his brothers, and promises to take care of them.
In so many ways, Joseph represents God in this story. He lives out the very heart and nature of a God who freely offers forgiveness to ALL his children.
As a priest, who has heard many a confession or life-story, I know that forgiveness is one of the hardest callings of the Christian faith. How can someone be expected to forgive another who has abused them, or stolen from them, or falsely accused them, or hurt them in a myriad of ways? Or how can we, as a society, forgive the bombers of 9-11, 19 years ago, or of Manchester?
And yet Jesus calls us to forgive those who trespass against us…as much as seventy times seven, he says metaphorically to Peter.
As always, context is everything. Peter and Jesus are talking, on this occasion, in the context of a church fellowship. Note that Peter’s original question is ‘if a member of the church sins against me, how many times should I forgive him?’. The original word here is ‘brother’ (not ‘member of the church’ – but inclusive language is highly valued these days. But the discussion is focused on how a lack of forgiveness can completely wreck a church fellowship.
And I guess we’ve all at least known people who have been affected by an inability to forgive in churches, as well as other social institutions. The classic conflict often seems to arise between flower artists and vicars, resulting in the classic joke, often repeated in vicaring circles, ‘what’s the difference between a flower artist and a terrorist? (Answer: you can negotiate with a terrorist!). I have to say that our flower artists are nothing like that!
But the reality is that sometimes, an inability to forgive some slight, or careless action by another member of the church can so often, sadly, lead to long-term pain and a continuing and deep sense of hurt. But Jesus suggests a radical alternative….
To forgive someone is, quite literally, to give up one’s right to feel aggrieved or hurt by another. When we do that, we actually deny the person who has wronged us any power over our own emotions. We take away their ability to hurt us, or damage us in the longer term. Altogether.
In fact, true forgiveness means giving up the right to feel hurt before the hurt even has a chance to take root in one’s soul. To forgive is to give up the hurt before it can take hold.
But does this mean that the person being forgiven gets away with whatever they have done wrong? Well, perhaps – especially for the little things…the annoying word, the careless insult. By forgiving someone for that, we recognise them for what they are…symptoms only of that most common of diseases…the disease of being a failing human being. Just like us.
But what about the really big things…the systematic abusers, the scammers, the murderers, the suicide bombers? Well, for such people, Jesus offers further advice. In Matthew chapter 10 he advises that we need to be ‘as wise as serpents and as gentle as doves’. If I know that someone has the potential to cause great harm to another, I have a duty and a responsibility to do all I can to prevent that harm. So it is only right that I must, and should, involve the appropriate authorities in stopping them. But never out of revenge. The gentle dove releases the hatred. But the wise serpent makes sure – as sure as they can – that the wrongdoer is prevented from causing further harm to anyone else, and suitably punished for the wrongdoing they’ve already wrought.
This is why we have a justice system, after all. Having forgiven the wrong-doer, so that they no longer have the power to hurt us, we hand over the responsibility for punishment and correction to the society in which we live. There, appropriate punishment is meted out, without passion, without hatred. A just punishment is handed down, hopefully, but not by the person who was harmed. Not least so that the harmed person is not further damaged by committing some act of violence or retribution themselves.
So, may you find the strength to let go of the hurt that others have done to you. As Joseph did, and as Peter was encouraged to do, may you release your heart from the resentments it holds onto, so that your heart may fly free, and straight into the heart of the forgiving God of Love.
Father, forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.