Pentecost 18 – September 14th, 2008
Genesis 50:15-21 (Matthew 18:21-35)
“Forgiving in the Place of God”
If you've ever had anyone hurt you in life, you probably know what a grudge is. When you hang on to that hurt and hold it over that person who hurt you. When you bear anger for them and desire to see them suffer. Our memory is short when it comes to love, but a grudge can last a lifetime...
Joseph's brothers had hurt him. They sinned against him. They sold him as a slave, off to a foreign land, cut off from his family and everything he knew. They might as well have killed him.
But God was good to Joseph, and despite slavery, an unjust imprisonment, and against all odds, Joseph ascended almost to the throne of Egypt – second in power only to Pharaoh. His dreams and wisdom had insured Egypt would be well fed when the drought and famine came. God watched over Joseph, and blessed him beyond imagination.
So when his brothers came begging for food years later, when Egypt had much and Israel had little... Joseph tricked them into bringing the whole family to Egypt, especially his beloved father Jacob.
So far Joseph, a powerful man now, had not sought revenge against his brothers. But now that their father had died, they feared the gloves would come off. Perhaps he was holding his anger out of respect for Dad. But now dad's gone, and he'll give us what we deserve. In great fear, they sent word to Joseph with a mixture of deception about their dying father's wishes, and perhaps even genuine repentance for the wrongs they had done to their brother.
They even fell down before him in humility, asking for forgiveness.
And in a dramatic moment, Genesis concludes with this story of brotherly forgiveness and reconciliation.
Last week we heard from Jesus in Matthew 18, telling us “if your brother sins against you go and tell him...” Today our reading in Matthew continues with a parable about a servant unwilling to forgive, even after he himself is forgiven. That unmerciful servant stands in contrast to Joseph, who shows great mercy to his brothers. If the man in Jesus' parable is the example to avoid, Joseph is the example of forgiveness to follow.
But it hardly ever works out so neat and clean, does it? Life is messy, forgiveness is messy. We are not immune to grudge-bearing and miserly mercifulness. Too often we are like the unmerciful servant who wants to exact the price from his debtor, rather than Joseph who shows mercy to his brothers. Or we say we forgive but we won't forget – qualifying forgiveness in a way that Christ would never support.
There is the good example of forgiveness which shows us the model. Then there is the bad example which gives us stern warning. But then there is Jesus. And while some would make him into just another example, he is so much more than that.
Jesus, of course, is the fount and source of forgiveness. Without him, we have no forgiveness. With him, we have perfect forgiveness. Without him all we have is our outrageous debt of sin. With him – we have all the riches of God's grace. His cross and tomb and resurrection do not show us the way to act, they are the actions that win God's favor for us. When it comes to forgiveness, it's not so much “what would Jesus do” as “what DID Jesus do?”
For we are all the servant with the great debt. We are all the brothers who have offended the other. We deserve the retribution and the punishment of our Lord and Master. But the Master and Lord is merciful and kind, and he pays the debt himself, by sending his Son to suffer and die. And when we come before his throne, and beg, “have mercy on your humble servants”, he is quick to grant mercy, and more.
This forgiveness changes the heart. So where the sinful nature wants to avenge itself, the new man first seeks forgiveness. Where the Old Adam wants his own warped justice, the New Adam knows grace and acts in mercy. It couldn't be different than night and day. But it's a struggle that goes on within us, isn't it? And so we need forgiveness every day, as we ourselves struggle to trust in the promises of the gospel, and live according to it.
Not only are we the ones to ask for forgiveness, yes, but we the ones to give it on God's behalf! Joseph asks an interesting question: “Am I in the place of God?” The answer of course is no! (and yes!)
No – when it comes to God's judgment, “ vengeance is mine, says the Lord.” We are not the judge of souls or judge of faith. We are not the ones to mete out the punishments for sin, acting on our own accord to determine its consequences.
But yes! When it comes to sharing and declaring the forgiveness of Christ, we are most certainly in the place of God. For Jesus gave us this charge. When he appeared to his disciples on Easter Sunday, breathed on them and said, “receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven”. This is why the pastor forgives, “in the stead and by the command of” Christ. This is why the Christian consoles his brother with the promises of Christ, and forgives trespasses when others trespass against us.
So, more about forgiveness today – and as we learn from the bad example of the unmerciful servant, and the good example of Joseph, we see also the source of all forgiveness and life. Jesus Christ – the Lord and Master, who forgives his servants, and gives us, his servants, the charge to forgive others. For the forgiveness we need, we thank him. And for the hearts to forgive others, we pray his strength and Spirit.