Before I talk about this morning’s scripture reading which is about forgiveness, I want to go to a story in Genesis, Chapter 45, which is about Joseph and his brothers and his rise to power. I am sure most of you are familiar with this story which is very long. Of course the crux of the story is forgiveness.
I won’t go into the whole story of Joseph, but to recap quickly, Joseph’s brothers did not like him very much because he would report to their father if they were shirking their duties, and he was a favored son of his father who catered to him and gave him a beautiful coat, so they kidnapped him. They threw him in a pit to die, but then changed their minds and sold him into slavery and told their father he had been killed by a wild animal. While he was in slavery he worked his way into the good graces of the Pharoah, but then was falsely accused of rape and went to jail. Pharaoh had a dream that disturbed him and having heard that Joseph could interpret dreams, he sent for him to interpret his dream. Joseph told him that his dream was about a huge famine coming and advised him to stock up on grain. Pharaoh was impressed and again promoted Joseph to a high position. This was many years after Joseph’s brothers had sold him. His brothers heard that Egypt had plenty of grain stored and they traveled to Egypt to try to buy grain for their families. Joseph recognized his brothers but they did not recognize him. Many things transpired between the brothers and eventually Joseph revealed himself to them. I urge you all to read the whole story…I think it is a good one.
So Joseph had many ups and downs before he became Pharoah’s right hand man. Think about times you have had to take a detour and gotten lost, or had a change of plans suddenly and because of these things happening something good happened to you. Or on the other hand have you been in a situation where others have hurt you physically or emotionally and you have ended up in the e-r or psychologically pained? In the first instance you might be praising God and thanking Him for the situation, but in the second instance you may be thinking of revenge only. In the first instance you are thinking of God putting you in this new wonderful situation and the second instance you are wondering why God did this to you.
In this story of Joseph all kinds of horrible things happened to him after his brothers sold him, but in the end wonderful things were happening to him.
I can only imagine the fear his brothers were feeling when Joseph revealed himself to them. Here was the man they had sold into slavery 22 years ago, and just recently had stolen from him and he was now in authority and could do whatever he wanted with them. What would you have done if you were Joseph?
What is your response when someone who has treated you unfairly, or even abused you, or even if you feel God has given you a raw deal in life? What does your heart say? “It’s not fair”! I don’t deserve this! Who do they think they are, treating me like this? But that is not Joseph’s thinking. He not only forgives his brothers but he realizes that God used their sin against him to bring about their deliverance from the famine. Joseph said ”You sold me, but God sent me” Their purpose was to destroy but God’s was to save.
We must keep in mind that God does not always work in seconds or minutes, but in decades and centuries. It took over two decades for Joseph and his brothers to see how God uses their sins against him for good. This waiting happens throughout the Bible. In Genesis 45 we read, “ I am Joseph..it is to save lives that God sent meahead of you”. Over 400 years later in Exodus 3 we read, This is what you are to say, I am has sent me to you.” Then 700 years later we read in Isaiah 60, “The spirit of the Sovereign Lord has sent meto bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness the prisoners.” Then another 700 years later Jesus proclaims in John 8 and 10, “I have come here from God”. Everything in God’s time.
It is a very difficult thing to forgive and become reconciled with someone who has treated you unkindly, but we can learn from Joseph’s story how to handle it. We need to forget about getting revenge. This is not easy. It is natural to want to strike back at someone who has hurt you or someone you love. But we need to keep in mind what the Bible says in both the Old Testament and the New Testament in Deuteronomy and Romans. Vengeance belongs to God and God alone. There are a lot of years between the time Joseph’s brothers kidnapped him and when they met again. There is an old saying that “Time heals all wounds”, but how true is that? Time only helps if you lose your memory and can’t remember what happened to you, or you work toward forgiveness with God’s help. Otherwise we are pretty good at remembering and hanging onto every hurt.
One Sunday a preacher was giving his sermon on forgiveness. Toward the end of the sermon he asked,”how many of you have been able to forgive those who offended you?” About half of the congregation raised their hands, so he kept preaching and once again asked the same question. This time all hands were raised except one. “Mrs. Jones?’ inquired the preacher. “Are you not willing to forgive your enemies?’ She answered, “I’m ninety three years old now and don’t have a single enemy”. “Wow, that is unusual” said the preacher. “Would you like to share with the congregation how the Lord has helped you to forgive so you don’t have any enemies?” Mrs. Jones said, “that’s simple, I outlived them all. Through all his mishaps, Joseph held on to his faith in God, knowing that God had a plan for him and it was only a matter of time.
God was already at work in the new nation and he worked through Joseph to sustain the new nation through the famine. God put him in the right place at the right time.
There is another take on this story that doesn’t paint Joseph as always so perfect.
When you read this whole story, you are going to see that Joseph was not really this perfect guy. He has really had a roller coaster ride of a life. We certainly can’t have much admiration for him in his younger years. He was a tattle-tale and a braggart and he is favored by his father and frequently reminds his brothers of this. Then we feel sorry for him when his brothers take revenge and throw him in a pit and later sell him into slavery. Then he becomes a handsome and successful young man and works his way up to becoming an overseer. Then he is again on a downward spiral when he is falsely accused of rape and ends up in jail. Then when Pharoah has a disturbing dream and finds out that Joseph can interpret dreams he rises up to be Pharaoh’s second in command. He has gained authority over the land of Egypt. Then when famine strikes and Joseph’s brothers are sent to Egypt for grain, not recognizing that this is their brother Joseph who is the one in charge, Joseph begins a series of manipulations because he recognizes them. He does have moments when he goes off privately and cries, but he continues his manipulations. Once powerless at the bottom of a pit and outnumbered by brothers who hated him, Joseph now gets to decide who will live and who will die. Having that power does not necessarily make Joseph a bad guy, but his use of that power to control those around him surely does, no matter how much he cries.
The power to forgive must always be in the hands of the one who has been wronged; it is right for Joseph to be empowered to forgive the wrongs done to him by his brothers. But he does play on their fears and exploits his power over them.
So now we get to the scripture reading, Luke 6:27-38.
This is a tough passage. A problem with this passage is that it encourages a passive response to violence and evil. Does turning the other cheek teach the strikers anything? Does it help them to understand that hitting is wrong? Does this lead to abuse? Jesus is talking to the disciples in this passage. They expect to be treated unjustly. He tells them that theirs is the kingdom of God. This knowledge transforms the disciples’ actions from compliance to resistance in the face of evil. The giving of a shirt after a jacket is stolen breaks the cycle of retribution. The reward comes from God.
What is our response to treating others as we want to be treated? Jesus tells us to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us. In other words, our response to others is not predicated by their behavior. It is diametrically opposed to the way others treat us.
How do we move from our natural instinct to match blow for blow and word for word? How do we live our lives responding with grace and kindness? Remember how God responds to us. Jesus says, “be merciful just as the Father is merciful”. Luke wants us to use that faith in Christ in more than just saying, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” Rather it is a way of life that contradicts our own inclinations. To answer hurt with forgiveness is plausible only because Christ is our strength.
Rather than preach from the mountain top as Matthew has Jesus doing, Luke brings him down to the plain where everyone is on an equal footing. All are equals…friends and enemies. There is only one who is unequal and that is God.
In Matthew, Jesus also preaches righteousness…cheeks are turned, coats given away, and beggars given money. Enemies loved and prayed for. But Luke’s Jesus also preaches that enemies, thieves, and beggars are to be blessed. In Matthew, Jesus reminds everyone that they must be perfect as God is perfect. In Luke, Jesus seems to have a kinder, gentler reminder. He promises that good behavior and attitude will be rewarded by God who is kind and merciful.
These teachings are to me the most difficult of Jesus’ words. The very idea of forgiveness is radical and powerful. Love our enemies? How do we do that? What is our first impulse when someone hurts us? When we hear about a child molester or a rapist? I don’t know about you, but I do not feel love for that perpetrator. That is our instinct, and we can practice and practice and try and try to love all, but we are asked to live in a way that is contrary to our human nature. We are asked to live Christian lives.
The word “Christianity” is not used in any of the gospels. Charles Bugg writes “Luke wants us to see that faith in Christ is far more than giving cognitive assent to doctrines. Rather this faith is a way of life, a way that is contrary to our inclinations. To answer hurt with forgiveness is plausible only because the Christ is our strength.”
In Paul’s letter to the church at Rome, he writes, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purposes.” (Romans 8:28) The trials we go through test us and cause us to trust God and to see his power in desperate situations, and equip us for the very thing he wants us to do that we’re not yet equipped to do, so that others will see not us, but God.
Instead of asking, “How can a good God allow evil?’, you can ask, “God, how can you turn the evil in my life to good?” Instead of asking “Where is God when I really need Him?”, you can rest assured that God is present with you in every circumstance. Then you will know “that in all things God works for the good of those who love him and who have been called according to his purpose.” Amen