Sermons That Work

The Old Testament Scholar…, Proper 19 (A) – 2008

September 14, 2008

The Old Testament scholar Gerhard von Rad wrote: “Real forgiveness is not a purely interpersonal matter, but it reaches deeply into the relationship of men before God.”

The three lectionary passages today, taken from the end of the book of Genesis, from St. Paul’s Letter to the Roman Christians, and from Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ parable to his disciples, present us with profound lessons on tolerance and forgiveness.

In the very last chapter of Genesis we read the finale of the Joseph story. There is nothing easy or light or sentimental in the ending of this story, one that reads like an exciting short novel.

Out of jealousy and spite, the sons of Jacob had committed a grave crime against their brother Joseph. Years later they discover that their victim has survived and has become a great man in another land: Egypt. They, too, eventually go to this land to escape starvation, and their wronged brother is the only one who can save them and their huge clan.

Today’s lesson picks up the story right after the death of the patriarch, Jacob. Now that their father is dead, the brothers, filled with guilt, are afraid that Joseph will take revenge on them. They tell him, probably falsely, that it was their father’s last wish that Joseph should forgive them. Joseph’s answer is surprising, even today: “Am I in the place of God?” he asks. “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

This is the crux of the story. God takes evil and turns it into good in order to achieve God’s purpose of salvation. A human being cannot change this. We can hear Joseph’s thinking: What good would it do for me to take revenge on you, when God has changed your evil act against one person into a great good for so many?

Today, we are bound to wonder how different world history would be if all persons and nations thought this way: History is in God’s hands; how can we become gods and change it through war, revenge, and evil?

In the second lesson, St. Paul is not confronting evil but cultural differences that stand in the way of what is good for all. There is that marvelous verse that says, “Welcome those who are weak in faith but not for the sake of quarreling over opinions.”

This hits at all of us. We love to quarrel with others over attitudes, opinions, and customs, over petty things that ultimately have very little to do with who God is and God’s desire for us to live in communion and peace.

The same old arguments that the Pharisees used in their efforts to make Jesus stumble in his answers are now being confronted by Saint Paul in today’s reading. The Jewish converts to Christianity are scandalized by the Gentile converts who are used to eating meat and drinking wine, and who don’t have any traditional commitment to Sabbath observance. So they pick fights with one another. Who here is the weaker and who is the stronger, Paul doesn’t say, but we can guess. He seems to be comfortable with those who eat meat and who don’t agonize over all the minutiae of keeping the Sabbath, but he is also understanding about the differences and a bit amused with the pettiness. We can see him smiling under his beard.

Paul’s reaction is founded on tolerance of differences and respect for those who seem weak to the strong. This is an excellent lesson for us in this age of multicultural encounters and global concerns. Two thousand plus years ago, when people prided themselves on not being tolerant of strangers, comes this early Christian who urged us to respect and tolerate what today we would call cultural differences. We need to remember this urging as we contemplate the differences in our Anglican Communion.

The passage in Matthew delves much, much deeper into the realm of forgiveness, which is profoundly more serious than tolerance.

Like all parables, it is set in its own context, and portions of it may seem harsh to modern sensibilities.

Two points must be clarified about the context of this parable. The law of Moses as presented in the book of Leviticus says this about poverty and being sold into slavery: “If any who are dependent on you become so impoverished that they sell themselves to you, you shall not make them serve as slaves.” We see that being sold into slavery is allowed by the law but the mean treatment of poor people who have to sell themselves into slavery is forbidden.

The second point that must not be ignored is this: Jesus makes it clear that God’s forgiveness is unlimited; that’s what he means by seventy times seven. But the story also presents an obstacle to forgiveness and we will come to that in a moment.

The king in the parable acts with magnanimity and compassion. When the slave begs to be forgiven the debt and not to be sold, the king releases him and forgives the whole debt, which is enormous. The problem comes when the man who is forgiven does not have the same grace and compassion toward those who are indebted to him. This parable makes tangible the meaning of the pleading in the Lord’s prayer: “Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.”

Like so much else in the life of faith, it is a paradox. God cannot forgive us until we forgive others. Instead of the Creator initiating the act, it is the creature who must make the first move in forgiveness. This is the only obstacle to God’s forgiveness: our own refusal to forgive.

Forgiveness is much more beneficial to the one who forgives than to the one who is forgiven. All of us know that this is not just theory but understand its truth from experience. Jesus told it as a story that fitted the context of his time. Centuries later, human understanding of emotions would assert this in psychology: forgiving, letting go of feelings of revenge and retribution, is a potent healing act.

As individuals, most of us have experienced the great release of being able to forgive. It has nothing to do with sentiment; it is a powerful act of will. As nations, we have failed miserably. As communities, we have not learned to forgive.

The last verse, with its harshness, is appropriate for all those who seek war instead of peace and who hold on to revenge and meanness instead of practicing forgiveness. “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

We, as individuals and as nations, need to take this very seriously indeed. “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.”

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Christopher Sikkema