Summary: God tells us how we are to forgive others through the example of Joseph and his brothers in Egypt.
The Path to Forgiveness
A sermon for the 7th Sunday after the Epiphany in Year C
commonly called Sexagesima Sunday.
Preached at St John the Evangelist, Cold Lake, Alberta 18 Feb 01.
Gen 45:3-11, 15
Ps 37:1-11, 39-40
1 Cor 15:35-38, 42-50
The readings today are linked together by one theme: forgiveness and our role in the act of forgiving. This culminates in the words of Jesus in the closing words of the Beatitudes this time presented as the “Sermon on the Plain” as recorded by Saint Luke. It is this theme of forgiveness, and how it applies to us today that I will focus on in this homily.
Imagine yourself in the place of Joseph’s brothers: here is the youngest and least of your brothers, innocently telling you about dream after dream in which he is the most important. He was also the best loved son of Jacob, being the ‘son of his old age’. Jacob honoured him with the wonderful ‘tunic of many colours’, an honour usually saved for the eldest son. And so we are told that his brothers hated him. This theme of family unrest is something just as common today as it was then. One day, far from home, they had the chance to rid themselves of Joseph and, stopping just short of murder, they sell him into slavery and bring home the beautiful coat torn and soaked in goat’s blood, telling Jacob a wild beast had devoured Joseph.
Now can you imagine his brother’s fright when they met Joseph in Egypt? Now the tables have turned and Joseph commands great authority in Egypt and literally has the power of life and death over them – they are completely at his mercy. Picture if you can the overpowering sense of helplessness and fear that must have been washing over them. And what does Joseph do? Is this not the time to punish his brothers, to gain retribution for the wrong they dealt him?
Instead, Joseph says to them, “do not be distressed or angry with yourselves…for God has sent me before you…” and so totally absolves them of their guilt and wrongdoing. “So it was not you who sent me here, but God…” acting through you. Even more astounding to us, he tells them to go back and bring their entire extended family back to dwell in Egypt under his protection and care. This history is a fine example of the economy of God’s grace – God uses even the evil that we poor sinners do to forward his work. With “God’s will being done” how can any mortal person remain angry? Even more important, if we judge another’s actions based on our limited view of time and space, how can we flawed humans see the divine plan being worked out? This divine plan often takes many lifetimes to understand – as we see in Joseph’s actions as, of course, Joseph had just delivered Israel into bondage in Egypt, which would again serve God’s will through the person of the Prince of Egypt, Moses.
What was it that allowed Joseph to forgive such a great wrong? When I think of how violently my emotions respond to even small perceived slights against me I am shocked that Joseph washed the slate clean so quickly. It boggles the mind to think that he was so aware of God’s grace in all around him that he would grant so big a boon to those who had hurt him. When we look to the sacrifice of the last Adam, Jesus Christ, maybe this isn’t so hard to understand. But the question remains…how did he do it?
We are called by God to transcend our sinful physical selves and to allow the growth of our spiritual selves. What constrains us in this is, more often than not, ourselves – in many things it is said, we are our own worst enemies. It is easy to live in what is comfortable and what is habit, but much harder to challenge ourselves to critically examine our lives to find what God calls us to transform. The dictionary defines an enemy as someone who wishes to harm another, and in many ways we are enemies to ourselves. The person who most stands in the way of my spiritual growth is not my wife, my family, my fellow members of St Johns – it is myself. I am the enemy of my spiritual development. In this sense, since God wants nothing more than us to become like Christ, I am also the enemy of God. Even though I fall into this trap over and over again, God does not give up on me, even though at times I seem to dedicate myself to thwarting his every effort. This limitless forgiveness is what gives us as Christians our boundless hope: as Christ said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This is the forgiveness as modelled by Joseph, but again, how are we poor sons of Adam and daughters of Eve to become able to do this impossible task?