The importance of being forgiving

In a world of hurt, it is not merely God's forgiveness, but our forgiveness that brings healing and peace.

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The Seventeenth Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 50:15-21The importance of being forgiving


            Today we come to episode three in the narrative lectionary series.  It is not exactly a trilogy.  But all three texts so far have come from the book of Genesis.  And I believe there are themes that tie them together.

            In the first episode, we heard how God created human beings in his image, to be divine representatives on earth.  At the same time, we also heard how God created human beings out of the soil to be servants of the earth and of all living things.  In addition, God created human beings for each other, to be partners with each other.

            We also heard how human beings reached across the boundaries of those relationships to take what was not ours.  God was merciful in sparing and protecting human life, but this transgression unleashed consequences we could not see and for which we were not prepared.

            For then out of jealousy and resentment, one son of the man and the woman – Cain – took what was not his – the life of his brother – Abel.  Again, God showed mercy to Cain, but he was forced to wander the land as an exile.

            Things went from bad to worse until God regretted making human beings.  And God decided to wipe out the whole lot – as well as all animals and birds – with a flood.  But, out of mercy, God decided to save one man and his family, as well as pairs of animals, so that life might begin again.

            Afterward, God realized that this didn’t work either, because not one human heart was changed.  And God resolved never again to destroy the earth by a flood.

            But the trouble didn’t stop.  The people were living all in one place and all speaking one language.  They said, “We need to secure our future.  We need to make a name for ourselves.”  They built a tower that would reach all the way to the heavens.  God destroyed the tower and confused their languages so they would not be able to hatch such a plot again.

            And again, God showed mercy.  For in the second episode we heard how God went to one man – Abraham – and promised him land and descendants and blessing – not only for him and his family, but for all the families of the earth.  While it took some time – and God had to endure Abraham and Sarah’s own doubts and plans – Abraham and Sarah at last had a son, Isaac.

            Isaac married Rebekah.  They had twin sons – Esau and Jacob.  While Esau was the elder and was his father’s favorite, Jacob was the favorite of his mother.  With his mother’s help, he tricked his father out of the blessing Isaac intended for Esau.  To avoid their anger, Jacob high-tailed it out of there.  He went to live with his mother’s relative, Laban.   He married two of Laban’s daughters (this is a long story which I hope I get to tell next year) and, along with two of their slaves, had 12 sons.  Jacob eventually returned home.  He and Esau became reconciled, but they never lived together after that.


            So, now we come to episode three. 

            This story really starts in Genesis 37:3 – Now Israel [Jacob] loved Joseph more than any other of his children… Joseph was not the first or the second, but the 11th of Jacob’s 12 sons.  Jacob had his reasons for preferring Joseph, but you’d think he would have known from his own experience what trouble might come from the father’s preference of one son over another.

            Not only that, Joseph was a teenager.  He is seventeen at the start of our story.  And he is spoiled to boot.  He is a tattle-tale.  He reports to his father when his brothers don’t do as he has asked them.  And he is full of himself.  He has grandiose dreams about his own self-importance.

            Not surprisingly, his brothers hate him.  At first they were going to kill him, but then they simply sold him into slavery instead and sent him on his way to Egypt.  Then they told their father that his beloved Joseph had been mauled by a mountain lion. 

            When Joseph got down to Egypt, things went well for him.  He was purchased by Potiphar, an officer in the Pharaoh’s army.  Joseph served him loyally, but when he was falsely accused by Potiphar’s wife of trying to seduce him, Potiphar had him thrown in the dungeon. 

            When Joseph got down to the dungeon, things went well for him.  He earned the trust of the chief jailer and so was put in charge of caring for all the prisoners.  In this way, he came into contact with the Pharaoh’s chief wine steward and chief baker.  Joseph correctly interpreted their dreams – that one would be restored and one would be beheaded.  And this is eventually how Pharaoh came to learn of him.

            For Pharaoh had had his own dreams.  Joseph correctly interpreted them – that there would be seven years of feasting and seven years of famine.  He also advised the Pharaoh to stockpile grain now so that when the famine struck, they would still have food.  The Pharaoh thought this was an excellent idea and put Joseph in charge.  And when seven years of feast were followed by seven years of famine, Egypt was ready.

            This is how the brothers of Joseph came to Egypt – in search of food during the famine. 

            When Joseph saw them, he recognized them immediately.  They had no idea he was their brother – the brother they had tried to get rid of so many years ago.  There is some back and forth with lots of crying by Joseph, but eventually Joseph reveals himself to them.  They are reunited.  Joseph tells them to bring their father to Egypt, so they are reunited as well.

            Now when Jacob finally dies, the brothers say to each other, “With the old man out of the way, there will be nothing to stop Joseph from getting back at us.  Let’s tell him that it was our father’s death bed wish that Jacob forgive us for what we did to him.”  And this is what they do.

            But Joseph says, “Am I in the place of God?  What you intended for evil, God used for good that many people might be saved from starvation, as you can see for yourselves.  So, don’t be afraid.  I will take care of you and your children.”


            In the end, Joseph forgives his brothers and so stops the cycle of violence that has been continuing throughout the entire book of Genesis.  He does so by standing the words of the serpent on their head. 

            The serpent says, “You will be like God, knowing the difference between good and evil.”

            Joseph says, “I am not God.  I do not know the difference between good and evil.”

            How did Joseph get there?  I imagine that through the ups and downs of his life that Joseph learned equanimity.  I imagine also that, down in the dungeon, serving all of those prisoners, Joseph learned compassion.  I imagine also that, seeing his life turn out so well, that helped Joseph.

            Even so, it was hard.  It was hard to forgive.  Joseph weeps seven times in less than ten chapters.  No one in the Bible cries more than Joseph.  I think he cried for a number of reasons.  I think he cried out of happiness.  I think he cried out of joy.  But I also think he cried out of what his brothers did to him, how they mistreated him and forced him to live in exile apart from his father who had so loved him.  And I think he cried because it was such a struggle to forgive.

            But that’s what Joseph does.  Joseph forgives rather than lashes out.  He forgives rather than seek revenge.  And forgiveness is what brings peace in the end.  It is forgiveness that stops the cycle of violence.


            Last month, while I was still at Meriter, I heard one of the other chaplains give a presentation on healing and forgiveness.  She said a number of very good and worthwhile things.  But the thing that has stuck with me most was this:

            Medical research does not show any health benefit for knowing that one is forgiven by a divine source.  There is research, however, to show that there are health benefits to forgiving others, even to forgiving oneself.

            We Lutherans, along with many other Christians, talk continuously of our need for God’s forgiveness.  Far more infrequently do we talk about our need to forgive others.  Jesus certainly talks about.  In fact, we are reminded of it each time we pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.  Mostly what we preachers try to do is explain that God’s forgiveness of us isn’t really dependent on our forgiveness of others.  But maybe Jesus was pointing out what modern medical research now shows us – while we may need divine forgiveness, we don’t get the full benefit of that forgiveness until we forgive others.

            Indeed, God has been forgiving all along the way in our story so far.  God has been treating our often errant and sometimes violent ways with mercy.  And that has saved us time and again.  But it is only when Joseph forgives his brothers – when he stops playing God by withholding forgiveness – that the war stops and peace is attained.

            Forgiveness does not mean we condone what has been done to us.  It also does not necessarily mean reconciliation.  The most frequent question I get when I talk about the importance of forgiving others is, “Do I have to be friends with them?”  No.  In fact, you might need to keep your distance from them.  It also doesn’t mean facing them personally.  It doesn’t even mean waiting until they apologize.  Because I don’t think forgiving others is so much about them as it is about us.  When we forgive, we who let go.  We let go of our anger and resentment.  We let go of our blame, whether it’s of others or ourselves.  We let go of wanting things to be different than they were or the way they are.  When we fail to forgive, we’re not really punishing anyone but ourselves. 

            This does not mean it’s easy.  This does not mean it happens all at once.  This does not mean that you should do it right away.  But we should take a look at what not forgiving others or ourselves is doing to us.  Because when we forgive, the war stops and we can live in peace.


            Of course, the problems of jealousy and violence and revenge – human sin – do not stop with the forgiveness of Joseph.  And neither does God’s love for us and God’s desire for us to live together in peace.  This love stretches to Jesus and beyond.  It stretches to his death and resurrection and even to our death and resurrection.  But, in the story of Joseph, we see how we can live as people of Hope – living in forgiveness and trusting the power of God to bring good even out of our bad intentions.