You remember the Joseph story:
“Way way back many centuries ago, not long after the Bible began…”
Jacob was the grandson of Abraham, and the father of the twelve tribes of Israel – in fact, it was Jacob who was given the name “Israel.” Unfortunately, favouritism was well in fashion in the Bible, and Jacob made no secret that he favoured Joseph, the first child of Jacob’s favourite wife. Joseph unfortunately absorbed all of his father’s fondness and allowed it to make him proud, puffed up; he lorded it somewhat over his brothers, relating dreams of them bowing before him and the like. The brothers, as you can imagine, didn’t like it one bit. In fact, they threw Joseph in a pit, then sold him to slavers, and told his distraught dad that he was dead.
Joseph went to Egypt, and after a story worthy of an afternoon soap opera, or even a Broadway musical; after a story filled with ups and downs and dreams and dilemmas, Joseph ended up in charge of the Pharaoh’s stocks and shares, with the power to give or withhold life from any suitor when famine fell across the region. When his brothers came begging for food, Joseph had the perfect opportunity to take his revenge – but fortunately, he recognized instead the opportunity for mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation. All of which didn’t happen at once, but he worked through it and in the end, they all lived together happily ever after.
Until their father died. After all was said and done, after Jacob died, Joseph’s brothers were afraid he’d take back his forgiveness.
They were afraid, in fact, that Joseph would behave like the King in the parable, offering mercy with one hand, and taking it away with the other – they were concerned that his forgiveness was conditional, temporary, unreliable.
Is that the message of Matthew, that God’s grace is unreliable? I think that if that’s the message that we are getting, we may be reading the parable wrongly.
One commentator puts it this way:
“It is better to let the story remain unallegorized, so that it is an earthly king who reneges of his original gracious forgiveness, and let it illustrate, in an analogous way, the awfulness of failing to forgive as God forgives.”*
It says in the Bible how fearful a thing it is to fall into the hands of the living God (Hebrews 10:31); and yet it may be more terrible to fall into the hands of one another, imperfect in mercy as we are.
The King, in the parable, is more like us than like God. He is happy to be dispensing mercy, it makes him feel good, right up until the moment when he realizes that his reach is limited, his influence only felt by those who choose to be converted by his mercy and grace. We are fools if we think that our mercy waves a magic wand and heals the world.
And yet we are called to persevere. Not seven times but seventy times seven. No matter whether the rest of the world joins us and joins in.
In this past week alone, we have remembered the victims of 9/11. We have been rudely reminded of the shootings in Chardon High School, when the killer briefly escaped incarceration. Countless smaller, sharper shocks have no doubt punctured our own dignity and shaken our complacency. How many times have you found yourself apologizing this week? How many times have you been called upon to accept the repentance of another, at face value, at the cost of giving up a comforting and comfortable grudge?
We will be challenged to give up on forgiveness, grace and mercy. But forgiveness, grace and mercy are grounded in the hope that things can be better; that, as Joseph told his brothers, “God intended it for good” – not that God intends each act of evil, so that good can come from it; that would make no sense. God did not will Joseph’s brothers to put him in the pit – how could God will creatures made out of the goodness of God to do evil? But God is able to twist even our acts of evil, even our worst atrocities, and make good out of them. Not make them right. This is not a whitewash. But God can make good out of everything. And so the arc of history, however crooked, will always end up bending towards mercy, grace, love.
You remember the people of Nickel Mine, Pennsylvania. After a man killed their children in their one-room schoolhouse, and himself, they turned to forgiveness to heal themselves and others from that terrible act.
After the July 2005 bombings in London, many of us wondered about the widows of the men who carried out the attacks – how much did they know? Were they complicit? Even in they were innocent, could we forgive them for loving the men who tore our capital, so many families apart?
The Amish community of Nickel Mine had no such reservations. They reached out to the widow of their killer and pulled her to their hearts. I can only imagine that they saw this as the one way that they could twist some good out of something so terrible; wring life out of death. And so with God. God creates only good; and God intends for our good; and God will not, eventually, be denied.
If you were to ask me how we are to forgive certain acts – acts of terrorism, the beheading of the innocent, the murder of children – I would have to tell you plainly, I don’t know. I don’t know. We all struggle with forgiveness, sometimes as much in the small as in those great things.
It is rarely easy. But I do know, I believe that it is our call to uphold hope, to preach the gospel that God intends the world for good, and good for each person in it. And it is in that gospel context that we are to extend mercy, to practice forgiveness, by the grace of God. Seventy times seven we are to meet the cruel realities of the world with the gracious reality of the gospel.
Will we be taken for fools? Maybe so. But the foolishness of God is beyond the wisdom of humanity. More than seventy times seven times beyond.
And so, at the end of their little story, Joseph forgave his brothers. He forgave them all of their petty acts of evil and all of their grand gestures of hatred because he knew that God is bigger than his big brothers. He knew that the mercy of God is true and that the justice of God is loving. He knew that the good that God intends for the people of God is bigger than any foil we can find for it; God’s good creation can withstand any evil we invent for it. Joseph was able to continue in forgiveness, many times over, because he knew in the end that God is good, all of the time; and that all of the time, God is good.
* Leander E. Keck in New Interpreter’s Bible (Book 8): Matthew, Mark (Abingdon Press, 1995)