For those who want a change from the Gospel
Trinity 14 – Genesis 50:15-21 (Related)
On a first reading today’s passage, and that of the accompanying gospel from Matthew 18, are both about forgiveness. But in fact there is so much more to it that that. I want to encourage us to read it today from the point of view suggested by the Romans 14 Epistle (although I would have preferred Philippians 2) about seeing things through another’s eyes.
The story is straightforward. Joseph’s brothers, who, you will remember, have chucked him in a pit, sold him as a slave, and reported his death to his Father Jacob, are expecting Joseph to act as they would have done now that dear old Dad, the glue in this dysfunctional family, has died. Their guilty consciences are still expecting punishment, and now is the time, they fear. And, it has to be said, Joseph has not always treated them with total kindness. But the bottom line is that they expect he will act out of cruelty and revenge, as they did all those years ago. So they make up a story about Jacob’s final wishes, just to cover their backs.
Joseph, though, will have none of it, and would have forgiven them, the passage suggests, even without the supposed words of Jacob from beyond the grave. He puts flesh onto the bare bones of the idea of forgiveness with three things: humility, understanding and action. Maybe we, as those commanded (and indeed threatened) to forgiveness by the Gospel, can gain some insight into what this might actually look like.
Humility – ‘Am I in the place of God?’ asks Joseph. God alone is the one able to forgive or not, although of course as Jesus’ followers we do have the power to bind or loose on earth, whatever that means! To refuse to forgive is to attempt to hold on to some kind of power over people, and that is not our job. Forgiveness requires the humility to believe that ‘It is [God’s] to avenge – [he] will repay’ (Deuteronomy 32:35) and to let go of the desire to punish and leave it up to him.
Understanding – ‘God intended it for good’. Just as it is up to the person injured to choose to forgive – it can’t simply be demanded of you – so it is the privilege of the person injured to see things not from our own point of view but from God’s. Imagine how hurtful this comment would have been had it come from the brothers! ‘It was fine to sling you in a pit because God has brought good out of it!’ Please don’t ever say anything like this to someone who has been mistreated. But it is Joseph’s privilege to understand the hand of God even through the pain. I preached on this passage on my final Sunday at the church which I had been forced to leave through having been bullied out, and I made the point that there is a great difference between the perfect will of God and the redemptive will of God. Only the victim can articulate this kind of understanding, but it does remind us that God is greater than our pain.
Action – ‘I will provide for you’. Again the brothers can only think of what they would do in his place, but Joseph reassures them and in doing so puts his money where his mouth is. His forgiveness is not going to be mere words: he is going to take deliberate action to bless those who have sinned against him. Sometimes, of course, this is neither possible nor desirable. Sometimes you just have to get out and go as far away as you can – we’ll consider trust in a moment. But since their paths had to keep crossing, Joseph decided to bless rather than to curse.
So let’s end with perhaps the most important aspect of putting ourselves in others’ shoes. Are they to be trusted? When we have been hurt by someone else, is it possible to rebuild trust? In fact this whole paragraph is about trust, or the lack of it. The brothers have apparently been reconciled to Joseph in chapter 45, but they clearly don’t trust him an inch if they think that now Dad has died he can finally get the vengeance he has been brewing up. And Joseph’s articulation to them of his humility, understanding and actions in the future are clearly meant to rebuild trust between them. So when well-meaning Christians tell damaged people that they just have to let go, forgive and be reconciled, is this sound advice, or yet another barb in the whipping they have already received?
The answer is ‘It depends’. I love that line in Romans 12 (where the Deuteronomy bit about vengeance is quoted by Paul: ‘If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.’ (12:18). Clearly it isn’t always possible, and doesn’t always depend on us. My advice to a victim of repeated domestic violence, for example, would be to get out now and get away. Trust is what got you those repeated beatings in the first place: you trusted someone who was untrustworthy. But at other times, yes, trust can and should be rebuilt. But it takes time – note that Joseph promises to provide for the brothers and their children.
But trust is not to be confused with forgiveness, and the two are not interdependent. If you have heard the command to forgive to include restoration, you might have felt deeply upset, and even scared, by today’s Gospel, if you have not found reconciliation to be possible. You clearly can’t have forgiven them, or you’d be best mates now. So no way is God going to forgive you. But if we redefine forgiveness as we did above, as the deliberate choice to place someone who has harmed you into God’s hands for him to punish, that is completely different from liking or trusting them. It’s much more about letting go and walking away than hugging them and making up. The second isn’t always possible: the first is a choice any of us can make.