I would imagine that in this week following our Easter Sunday service, there have been some conversations about forgiveness. Forgiveness was the theme in two of the resurrection stories told last week and then we had a dramatic presentation about the reality of forgiveness at the end of the service. So I as well as others of you have talked and thought about forgiveness this week.
I read through the Bible passages that talk about forgiveness and settled on the story of Joseph in Genesis. You may be familiar with his story. Jacob, his father, had twelve sons through his two wives, Rachel and Leah and their maidservants. Jacob loved Rachel more than Leah and so he favored the two sons she bore to him, Joseph and Benjamin.
Jacob’s favoritism was obvious to all and the other brothers resented Joseph for it. They lived a nomadic lifestyle and the brothers were in charge of the flocks. But Joseph, even though he was just a teenager, was made a manager by his father and this was indicated by the special cloak he was given to wear. It was as if the brothers wore work clothes and Joseph wore a suit.
Joseph did not make the situation any easier for his brothers. He seemed to delight in his role and when he had a dream that all his brothers bowed down to him, he couldn’t wait to tell them about his dream.
Picture yourself working at a company and then the boss hires a young man without experience and puts him in charge of you and all the others who know the business and have worked for years to make the company successful. A young, arrogant, snotty manager, that’s a good picture of Joseph. I don’t imagine that he was an easy person to have as a brother.
One day Jacob sent Joseph out on a four or five day journey to check up on his brothers. They saw him coming in his fancy suit and decided that this was an ideal time to get rid of this obnoxious nuisance of a brother. Some wanted to kill him but Reuben convinced them to put him in a pit, hoping to rescue him later.
Reuben left and with Joseph in the pit, the rest of the brothers sat down to eat a meal when they saw a caravan coming. Judah convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph but to sell him to the traders who were en route to Egypt and then tell their father that a wild animal had killed Joseph.
Jacob grieved when he heard he had lost his favorite son and Joseph ended up in Egypt where through a number of providential events, he ended up in the ruling class of Egypt in charge of food gathering and distribution.
Because of a regional famine, Jacob sent his sons to buy some grain in Egypt and Joseph was reunited with his brothers who did not recognize him thirteen years later, dressed in Egyptian clothing and hair style and speaking fluently in Egyptian.
That’s enough of the story to begin to talk about forgiveness. Who sinned in this story? Joseph’s brothers resented Joseph, they physically abused him, wanted to kill him until cooler heads prevailed, sold him to be a slave and then lied to their father about his death. Joseph’s brothers sinned.
Joseph was 17 years old when he was sold as a slave. He was a spoiled kid who flaunted his status as favorite son to his brothers. There was sin in Joseph’s life. But he was just a seventeen year old kid and how many of us at 17 were mature enough to handle the preferential treatment Joseph received from his father?
Look at what Joseph suffered. As a teenager he was stripped of the love he received from his father; he was separated from those he knew and loved; he was sent as a slave to a culture he did not know and a language he did not understand and even there he was treated unfairly until he eventually was rescued from his circumstances by his faithfulness to God.
This is a complicated story and I’m tempted to talk about all the nuances of this story, but let it suffice to say that Joseph had cause to feel bitter toward his brothers. Joseph could have been like the Count of Monte Cristo in the Alexander Dumas novel who spent his life plotting how to get revenge for the ones who stole from him his wife and business and sent him to prison. Joseph could have sought revenge but he did not. It is clear that he took a quick course in maturity and that God dealt with him in a remarkable way because of the way he acted in the house of Potiphar and in the royal jail. But a transcript of what Joseph said and thought when he was in the pit and when he was being dragged along to Egypt would not make bedtime reading material for children.
Did Joseph forgive his brothers?
When they came to Egypt to buy some grain, word came to Joseph that some people from Canaan had come. When he investigated, he discovered that his brothers had arrived and arranged to meet them. He began to test them to see if they had changed or were the same brothers he had known. In the course of his investigation, he saw that in the thirteen years since he had been sold into slavery, they had regretted what they had done. After Joseph, through an interpreter, told them they would have to leave one of the brothers behind until they brought their youngest brother Benjamin, they said to one another
“Surely we are being punished because of our brother. We saw how distressed he was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come upon us.”
22 Reuben replied, “Didn’t I tell you not to sin against the boy? But you wouldn’t listen! Now we must give an accounting for his blood.”
Joseph sent them back with grain but kept Simeon as guarantee that they would return with Benjamin. When they ran out of the grain they had brought, they convinced Jacob to allow Benjamin to come with them to Egypt to buy more grain. On this trip, Joseph had them invited to his home and to their amazement had them seated in the order of their birth. And he heaped special honors on Benjamin to see if they would be jealous of Benjamin as they had been of him for receiving favorite treatment.
After Joseph had tested them and seen that they had changed, he revealed himself to them and wept.
So did Joseph forgive his brothers? He had power of life or death over them. He could have had them killed and no one would have blinked. He could have paid them back for what they did to him but he did not. His father had given him one special cloak. He gave each of them five special cloaks and urged them to return with Jacob and all the household to be taken care of in Egypt. He arranged for them to be treated favorably by Pharaoh and they were given good land where they could care for their flocks.
Joseph forgave his brothers.
What allowed Joseph to do this? How was Joseph able to move past his bitterness to forgiveness?
In Genesis 45 Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and when he does so, he explains at least part of the reason he was able to forgive them.
Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will not be plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt.
Joseph was able to forgive because he saw how God had used what happened to him for good purposes. What his brothers intended for harm, God intended for good and through his being sold as a slave, he had ended up being in the position of saving Jacob and all his household.
It seems to me that there are three steps in healing a broken relationship. Forgiveness, reconnecting and restoration. To forgive does not mean that there is reconnecting and to reconnect does not mean the relationship has been restored.
The Biblical record does not mention what changes Joseph went through over the thirteen years he spent in Egypt before he met his brothers. But it seems that there was a maturing change that took place in his life and what is clear is that he did not hold on to bitterness and seek revenge. When he met his brothers, he waited to see if they had changed. And he wept when he heard them talk about how they had been wrong to do what they did to him. To do this seems to me that he had forgiven them. He no longer sought to revenge himself for what they had done to him.
Joseph, through the work of God in his life over those thirteen years, forgave his brothers but when he met his brothers he still had choices to make. He had forgiven but did he still feel the pain of what had been done to him so that he did not want to have anything to do with them? He could have sold them grain, found our what was happening to his father and let them go. The pain of what had happened to him could have prevented him from reconnecting with his brothers. But because he had forgiven his brothers, he was able to reconnect. He revealed who he was to his brothers and brought his father and all the household to Egypt. Joseph entered again into a relationship with his brothers.
Joseph forgave his brothers. He reconnected with them. But I don’t think there was ever a restoration of the relationship. The relationship was always ruler and subjects, just as his dream at the age of seventeen had revealed. When Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers began to fear that the only reason Joseph had not exacted revenge on them had been because he did not want to add to the grief his father Jacob had experienced in his life. So they invented a message they said came from Jacob urging Joseph to be forgiving.
When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?” 16 So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “Your father left these instructions before he died: 17 ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.” When their message came to him, Joseph wept.
18 His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said.
But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? 20 You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. 21 So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.
To the end they were subjects of Joseph the ruler. They feared Joseph. Why was there no restoration of their relationship as brothers? Why was there no trust between them so that Joseph’s brothers felt the need to make up this message? I think it was because Joseph never asked his brothers to forgive him for his sins. If you measure sin on a scale, it is clear that the sins of Joseph’s brothers outweighed Joseph’s sins. But in order for a relationship to be restored, both sides need to see their sin, no matter how small, and confess it and ask for forgiveness.
Can you see how the story would have been different if Joseph had confessed to his brothers that he had been arrogant and proud and lorded it over them? If Joseph had been able to see his own sin, restoration with his brothers would have been possible and trust between them could have arisen.
How do you forgive someone who has hurt you deeply? Anthony Paul just returned from a month with his wife and son in India. Because of his work he is able to go back to his family just once a year. In the course of this past year, his sister was left destitute by her Hindu husband. So Anthony sent money to help his sister get a house so she would have a place to stay. When his sister’s husband heard that she had a house, he returned and then the next thing I heard was that Anthony’s sister and her husband came to the house of Anthony and demanded from his wife the papers to Anthony’s house. They threatened to take Anthony’s and her son to hold as ransom if the papers were not given to them.
This was horrible news and when Anthony received the news, many of us prayed with him for God to intervene. When Anthony went back to his community, he and his wife, Minnie, had to decide what to do in relation to his sister and his family who had supported his sister against he and his wife.
Anthony is going to come forward to share with us how he reacted to this betrayal of his parents and sister against his wife and son.
As Christians we forgive because we have been forgiven. Forgiving someone who has hurt us is a healing experience. Holding on to bitterness and unforgiveness is more destructive to us than it is to the person who has hurt us. As Anne Lamott has written, “Not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.” We forgive because God has forgiven us and because it is an act of healing for ourselves.
But then we need to take the next step and reconnect with the person who hurt us. To reconnect does not mean we return to the level of trust we once had. That may not be possible at this stage. But we reconnect and allow ourselves to be used by God in the other person’s life to bring that person to a deeper awareness of God’s love and need to be cleansed and receive God’s forgiveness for themselves.
If we do not reconnect, we limit the ways God can work in the other person’s life by refusing to be available. Anthony chose between his hurt at the way his sister and parents treated his wife and son and his desire for them to come to faith and grow in their experience of God’s love. And he chose to be used by God in their lives. Reconnecting is a way of opening yourself to being used by God in the other person’s life.
When both people in the relationship are able to see their sinfulness and are filled with the love of God in their lives, then restoration is possible. All believers will have broken relationships restored when we get to heaven but how marvelous it is when the kingdom of God breaks through into this world and broken relationships are restored in this life.
We can look to Joseph and settle for forgiveness and reconnecting but who is our model in the Christian life, Joseph? No, Jesus is the model for us and so I want to take us to a higher level. Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, used this formula, “You have heard that it was said, … but I tell you.” And so I want to take us from Joseph to Jesus.
When we look at Joseph we say that we cannot move to restoration of a broken relationship because it hurts too much and because the other person has not repented for their own sinfulness. And so we hold back, not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable to the person who has hurt us. I have said in the past in regards to my own broken relationships that when you stick your hand in the lion’s cage and have your hand bitten you may visit the lion again but you won’t put your hand in the cage a second time.
When we look at Joseph and his brothers we agree with this. But when we look at Jesus, we see someone who puts his hand in our cage over and over and over again and no matter how many times we bite his hand, reject him, abuse him, he continues to come to us ready to forgive and ready to accept our repentance that will lead to our restoration with him.
We have a long way to go. There are people who have hurt me deeply and I still feel the hurt. What I have learned in this past week is that I cannot be content to have forgiven the ones who have hurt me. It is not enough to reconnect and exchange pleasantries with the people who have hurt me. What is required of me is to go all the way and once again extend myself and open myself one more time to the possibility of being hurt.
I don’t know if I can do that. It hurts me to even contemplate doing that. I will need God’s help and mostly his love in my life to be able to do that. But I know that I must do that. True forgiveness is unilateral.
I know that most of us in this room have been deeply hurt by someone. Most of us have broken relationships. As we come forward for communion in just a few minutes, I want to urge you to forgive as you come forward. If you have forgiven but are not in relationship with the person who hurt you, determine to renew that relationship. If you view yourself as the innocent one in the broken relationship, pray that God will help you see your sin and then ask for forgiveness so restoration can be possible.
Come to the table of our Lord Jesus to be loved so that you can forgive, reconnect and seek restoration.