It appears that Joseph had already forgiven his brothers for selling Joseph into slavery (45:6), at least he has asked them not to hold on to their guilt. Why then do the brothers come to Joseph after the death of their father Jacob and seek again Joseph’s forgiveness? Perhaps they feel that despite Joseph’s previous words, with Jacob dead, Joseph is in a far better position to seek revenge. Perhaps they are unable to accept their own forgiveness, and are hoping to hear it again.
Or, perhaps they are hoping to pull one more ruse over their favored brother’s naive eyes. The text is ambiguous. Joseph’s brothers come to him and say, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” As readers we are left to wonder if Jacob did indeed give this instruction, or if Joseph’s brother’s made it up to protect themselves and receive forgiveness. We are never told if Jacob even knew of the brother’s evil actions.
Whatever the case Joseph’s response is telling. He weeps. Joseph weeps and in turn his brother’s weep and declare themselves Joseph’s slaves. Joseph has none of it, and says to his brothers, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God?” Joseph’s question is important. For ultimately sin and forgiveness are cosmic in scope. Ultimately forgiveness is a divine initiative. We share in this initiative in as much as we imbibe and live to others the grace of God which we all receive. What Joseph will do is treat his brothers as welcome kin, and provide for them and take care of their little ones. In Joseph’s actions we see the heart of God who is compassionate to bring the sun on the good and the wicked. Joseph’s brothers do not earn Joseph’s forgiveness and provision, they simply receive it. That is the way of God. So why do we continually insist that people earn ours?
Psalm 103 functions as a response to the Hebrew Bible lection in that it recalls God’s providential work in the Joseph narrative by describing God as one who “redeems your life from the pit” and “works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.” In addition the psalm brings to mind the forgiveness received by the brothers–a forgiveness not earned, but given: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse,nor will he keep his anger for ever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.”
A lot has changed in the years between the writing of the Galatian letter and the writing of the letter to Rome. In the Galatian letter Paul chastises the Galatian Christians for “observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years.” Paul sees these observances as a “turning back…to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits” and thus an abdication of the freedom the Galatians had found in Christ. In the Roman correspondence however Paul encourages the celebration of special days for those so inclined, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honor of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.” What are we to make of the difference?
Times change, and so does the application of the theological norms. At the genesis of the church issues of special days and seasons and table fellowship had the potential of tearing the church apart. Warring camps had not yet found a way to compromise their daily habits and scruples and be at peace. This inflexibility caused even Peter, a leading apostle, to sever table fellowship with gentile Christians. At the time of the Roman correspondence the mood had calmed, and so the message is one of tolerance of diversity of opinion. Yes you can eat meat offered to idols, and yes you can abstain, and yes you can observe special days, and yes you can see all days as the same, and yes you can all abide, in one place, at the foot of the cross, in common-union.
In our own day the times have changed yet again. Table fellowship is not a burning issue, and most holidays have universal support. But there are still points of major contention that threaten to tear us apart. To these points we need to apply the wisdom of Paul, and be reminded of our common circumstance: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgement seat of God. For it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.’ So then, each of us will be accountable to God.”
Sometimes we need to be reminded of the absurdity by which we live. Jesus’ parable of the forgiving king is just such a reminder. The parable is preceded by Peter’s question, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against you how often should I forgive?” That the NRSV uses the word ‘Church’ to translate ‘adelphos’ (i.e. brothers) is in keeping with the NRSV’s attempt to be gender inclusive, and likely maintains Matthew’s intended subject. Matthew is the only gospel to use the word ‘ekklesia’ (church) and it appears that Matthew’s occasion for writing it to encourage and unify a persecuted and fractured body of believers. In this case Peter asks the very question many in Matthew’s community wanted an answer to, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against you how often should I forgive them?”
The parable that follows is a wake up call. We live with absurd notions about right and wrong, guilt and forgiveness, debt and balance. Our tendency to place ourselves in the center of the universes we construct, and have our thoughts/ideas/actions be the normative ethical and moral standard for all leads us to believe that the scales of fairness and justice are tipped heavily against us. It is we who have been wronged by all of them. We are the sad victims of other people trespasses. Forgiveness is our currency to give, and our burden to maintain. Jesus’ parable of the king who forgives shakes us out of our self concern and reminds us that that forgiveness we give is predicated on the generous forgiveness we have received. No matter what is done to us, we have done worse and been forgiven for more. In order to highlight his point Jesus depicts a man who owes a king a ridiculous sum of money. The king forgives the man’s debt. The forgiven man then meets another man who owes the forgiven man a far smaller debt. The forgiven man does not forgive this smaller debt, and instead has the man arrested. The man with the great debt who received an incredible forgiveness is not willing to pass that forgiveness along to another. The king hears of this and says to the once forgiven man, “Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?” In fury the king hands the man over to be tortured until his original debt is paid in full.
An excellent commentary showing the astonishing difference between the great debt and the little debt can be found here.
The message the Matthean community received to their question about forgiveness of a brother or sister is that we forgive not to benefit ourselves, or even to benefit the one receiving forgiveness, but rather because we are ‘the forgiven.’ We forgive because we are apprenticed to our father who is a God of forgiveness. We forgive because it is absurd not to. If we do not forgive we make a mockery of the forgiveness we already received, and we are once again called before the king to give answer for all our short comings.
Celebration of Worship
As you prepare your hearts and minds for worship consider your own forgiveness. How many talents were blotted out from your balance? God is a poor accountant. God’s ledger is a scribbled mess. God’s business is cash strapped–it must be, for who can forgive so lavishly and survive in our cut-throat markets? This Sunday consider what does it means to be like God? How does our worship pronounce the joy of our own forgiveness, and present God’s forgiveness to those in our community. How does our worship say, “No, you can’t earn it, but you have it anyway.”