Have you ever noticed that when siblings bicker and fight on TV shows or in a movie, it’s so cute and comical?
We all know that’s not true in real life, right?
It’s never cute or comical when I have to be in the same room, or God forbid in the car where I can’t escape, when my kids are fighting. And it’s even worse when I am called upon to referee these conflicts where inevitably two of them, or sometimes all three of them, feel wronged by another. They look to me to answer to the outrage that they feel over their mistreatment they suffer. It’s just SO dramatic. And definitely contributing to my graying hair.
Even if they are priest’s kids, my kids clearly don’t remember their Bible stories, if they think their siblings are so bad. The Hebrew Scriptures are rife with stories of siblings who treat each other far worse than anything they have experienced from one another. Our Hebrew ancestors cheated each other out of birthrights, sold favored siblings into slavery, and even murdered one another out of jealousy or in bids for power. Compared to these stories, my kids might be exaggerating their offenses a bit.
But if deceit and violence are themes throughout our scriptures, so is forgiveness.
As a teenager, Joseph was sent out by his father, Jacob, to check on his brothers who were caring for the sheep in the fields. His older brothers had grown tired of Jacob’s apparent favoritism of Joseph so when they found him alone in the fields, they captured him and sold him into slavery. This would have been for most of us an unforgivable offense. And yet, many years later, when his brothers showed up in Egypt desperate and starving because of the famine, Joseph, no longer a slave, but the second most powerful man in Egypt, forgave them. And he saved their lives and reunited the family by sending for his father and all of his brothers’ families and bringing them to live in comfort in Egypt.
So when the brothers go to Joseph to ask for forgiveness in our story today, they are asking to receive what has already been given. It seems that after the death of their father Jacob, they feared that Joseph would regret his earlier generosity. They worried that Joseph still held a grudge and had been waiting for his father’s death to exact revenge upon them.
Or perhaps their fear was simply an acknowledgement that forgiveness usually doesn’t happen one particular day with one particular apology. Forgiveness is an ongoing process. Especially when the injury done is deep and painful. Perhaps they feared that Joseph’s process of learning to forgive them could be interrupted and even reversed. After all, they had admitted and grieved just how terrible their offense against him had been all those years ago. Maybe they just couldn’t believe that Joseph could actually forgive their great sin against him.
Jesus understood the magnitude of forgiveness. We enter the Gospel today following those rules for settling disagreements within the church community that were part of our Gospel reading last week. As usual, Peter is willing to ask the question that nobody else will. So Jesus, he asks, how many times do I actually have to forgive someone? Would seven be enough? Seven is a number that he can count, that he can keep track of. If seven is the rule, he can follow that.
But Jesus answers him, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” And many translations actually say seventy times seven, which captures Jesus’ intention even better. Because the forgiveness that Jesus calls us to is to be a reflection of the forgiveness we glimpse in God. Not a forgiveness that can be used up after seven times, but a boundless amount of forgiveness like we experience from God who is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” as we heard in our Psalm. (Psalm 103:8)
But before I go any further, it’s important to make something clear. Even though our Bible teaches us of God’s vast forgiveness, our call to reflect the forgiveness of God should not mean that we allow injustice, oppression, and abuse to continue. Repentance and change are part of the narrative, too. This is true for societal systems and for personal relationships. For example, how many women have been told they need to forgive their husbands and return to abusive situations because God calls them to forgive? We have to be clear that it is never the intention of God’s compassion and mercy to send people back into harm’s way. And furthermore, just because we are called to forgive, that doesn’t mean that there are never consequences.
So with that said, we can return to the truth that forgiveness and reconciliation are at the heart of our Gospel, of our Christian discipleship. Paul said it like this, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” And “in Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Corinthians 5:17, 19).
The Good News of Jesus is not that God loves us and we don’t have to do anything. God does love us, and from that love, calls us to nothing less than becoming a new creation. To reflect more of who God is and less of our human desires. And, if we trust that God forgives us, seventy-seven times, or seventy times seven, we are called to look at our own lives and ask: where is forgiveness needed? Who needs it from us? Perhaps even just to be reassured of it as Joseph’s brothers needed. And whose forgiveness do we need? Where are the places in our lives where we need to repent and seek forgiveness from those we have injured?
God can make new creation of us. But we have our roles to play in forgiveness and reconciliation, too. May it be so. Amen.
September 13, 2020