Based on Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35
We are often inspired by true stories of forgiveness. Members of a black church publicly forgive a white young man for murdering several of their sisters and brothers at a Bible Study. An Amish community forgives the murderer of several of their children. In a Dallas courtroom a black man forgives the policewoman who killed his brother, testifying that he wanted her to know Christ’s own forgiveness of her, and then he crosses the floor and embraces her.
Such true stories inspire us. Truth told, they inspire us because often we find it difficult to imagine that we could or would do the same. There is something tragically common in the human spirit that prefers to hold on to hurt, that prefers to be identified as victim, because that, at least, to our maladapted thinking, gives us some sense of power and agency. But that is not the full and free life that God desires for us.
Joseph knew that. Jesus clearly knows that, which is why he tells a parable that is so over the top with hyperbole, like using the proverbial two-by-four to get our attention. God’s mercy and grace are in fact so unimaginably voluminous that our very being is swallowed by God’s forgiveness, in the fold of which our petty self-absorption shows that we still would act out as if we were our own gods—pretentious godlets!–over and against each other. But it bears much repeating: that is not the full and free life that God desires for us.
Choosing not to forgive is to choose a bondage that only increases the pain and anger over time, such that our bondage to the trespass against us becomes the fear of others and loathing of self that translates to untold hurt of others, even of large communities, even to becoming a nation wherein one-third of the populace looks like it would gladly attack another third while the remaining third just watches. Hurt people hurt people, individually, and then aggregately into the weird phenomenon that a public health crisis morphs into an even larger one the size of a civil war. It is an understatement today to say that Christians are reminded forcefully that it takes hard work, a lifelong discipline of forgiving—seventy-seven times—to live freely and fully with gratitude and joy. Which is why we do and must learn to forgive and do so first by receiving the gift of forgiveness, for also only by receiving forgiveness can we finally forgive ourselves.
So what about Joseph and his manipulative brothers. They were in deep anxiety. They had suppressed their sin and guilt for so long. Even having lived in the air of Joseph’s amazing forgiveness, they had not forgiven themselves and were still steeped in “transactional” behaviors. So it is that they likely here lied about “their father’s request” through them to Joseph; we don’t see that otherwise anywhere in the story, and Joseph was close to his dying father the whole time. Then, with the gospel story, we have the unforgiving servant who has his own disability at accepting grace and mercy as real.
I see that Jesus’ hyperbolic parable portrays an abuser who was blinded fully to the fact that he injured others because he himself was so injured. Joseph worked through what we recognize now as moral injury. The unforgiving servant did not. Moral injury, which is the soul wound that happens when betrayed by a trusted authority or when one must do something against one’s own moral compass, is healed only by the long and arduous process of re-membering. Joseph did it by repeated discovery of God’s grace in his own life after awful betrayal at his brothers’ hands. He could only understand and offer forgiveness to his brothers after many years of experiencing God closely notwithstanding many challenges to his very life. He came to see himself embraced by grace. His brothers, on the other hand, had so long been identified by the guilt they willfully denied that they could only think transactionally even to the fateful point told after Jacob’s death. So aware of and yet repressive of their trespass, they could not believe yet in Joseph’s forgiveness in which they already had been living.
We acknowledge sin and MI on personal scales. But what of larger offenses committed? What about when the MI and its malevolent consequences morphs into something systemic? It is one thing for an individual to go toe to toe and face to face with honesty in the discipline of confession and forgiveness. But how is forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation fulfilled when it is a voice against the systemic whirlwind of untruths? Can my personal discipline of daily conversion have a social consequence? Will my giving my heart to Jesus save the nation like Joseph giving his heart to God even in a God-ignorant land? It can and will if we wake up to the fact that we as both sinned against and sinners have common cause, that God is not merely our personal chaplain but also the team’s hard-driving prophetic coach. People of faith in the merciful and gracious God have common cause to teach and lead even this riven nation into the full and free life together that comes from confession and forgiveness.
An ancient practice on a large scale gives witness to what is possible. About social healing in the Greek-City States.
Those who are morally injured suffer what I call here a spiritual respiratory illness, a certain shortness of breath. With a guilt they do not admit, those who perpetrate moral injury also suffer. Like Joseph’s brothers, they live in denial and with the illusion of total control. It is not until they accept their real situation that they finally repent and beg forgiveness. Not until the injured and the injurer too breathe the fresh air of forgiveness can both be reconciled; not until each has admitted one’s own and the other’s broken humanity can there be the possibility of both forgiveness and reconciliation. And those who so recognize and confess their own brokenness admit also that they need the help of God through an-other.
So it is, as the gospel of John shares, the resurrected Jesus enters the locked-down spaces of emotionally and morally traumatized disciples. There he breathes own spirit into them. He gives spiritual CPR. Keeping the sins of others or our own sins repressed literally drains breath from us. Not unlike Joseph’s brothers or the parabolic wicked servant, it can be like living in an endless anxiety attack. So, you who in illusion think you are alone, breathe. You, this church, all you of Christ’s church, breathe! Breathe his resurrecting breath! Tell truth. Hear and practice repentance. Forgive. Heal. Live. In Jesus’ own breathing of himself into us, we are healed with Joseph, his brothers, and with all redeemed servants of the king.
This does not excuse accountabilities and consequences. Forgiveness must ensure the dignity and safety of all others within one’s sphere of relations. Forgiveness of an abusive spouse does not mean she or he is off the hook, and it certainly does not necessitate being friendly. Likewise with someone who has defrauded a congregation. Forgiveness gives that congregation the ability to move forward in faith and freedom, not to be defined by the sin while having eyes opened and minds more disciplined to minimizing the possibility of a repeat. I can love another and quite dislike them too! More simply, we re-member; we accept the re-write that is truer than the story we wrongly accepted, that our broken stories are in fact wholly embraced by God’s unlimitedly gracious story with us. In so re-membering, we live into our life as God will have it.
Duane H. Larson Christ the King Lutheran Church, Houston, TX September 13, 2020