by Ellen Sims
Genesis 45:1-15; Luke 6:27-38
There’s forgiveness. And then there’s forgiveness.
There’s the perfunctory “Don’t worry about it” someone replies after you toss out an apology for being late to the meeting. And then there’s saving mercy by which your brother spares your life despite the fact that years before you sold him into slavery in Egypt.
There’s the forgiveness you offer friends. And there’s the Jesus-y forgiveness we extend to our enemies.
There’s the easy obligation I have to forgive my granddaughter for . . . absolutely anything! And then there’s the excruciatingly unimaginable challenge to forgive if someone should ever harm her.
Anne LaMott paraphrases C. S. Lewis to say, “If we really want to learn to forgive, perhaps we had better start with something easier than the Gestapo” (128).
But today we’ve jumped into the story of Joseph’s magnanimous forgiveness of his big brothers’ Gestapo-like cruelty. Today we pick up near the end of the most artistically sophisticated story in the Bible, the Joseph Saga (Genesis 37-50). Previously the narrator has already demonstrated the brutality of the older brothers and a patriarchal culture that wrongly assumes God sides with the elders. In fact, Joseph’s story and Jesus’s vision of the kingdom of God upset our usual assumptions about whom God favors and how God works. A challenge we may face in applying Joseph’s story and Jesus’s teachings about forgiveness to our lives is that forgiveness of enemies in these scriptures can seem too easy or might lead us to equate forgiveness with sanctioning injustice.
Let’s begin our study of forgiveness in the easier role of the person receiving, not offering, forgiveness. If you have ever been forgiven with great grace — sincerely, gently, fully — by a sister, a roommate, a coworker, a lover, a stranger, or if you have ever screwed up royally but had someone say, “Okay, let’s start afresh. We can put this behind us,” then you know the sweetness of being forgiven. Sadly, most of us have also experienced the opposite with folks keeping track of our dumbest deed and our lowest low. After all, the extravagant forgiveness Joseph extends to his brothers is exceptional. In fact, it is so extraordinary it might seem more like a forgiveness fantasy. The brothers’ initial response to Joseph’s forgiveness is to be “dismayed” and “distressed” (Gen. 45:3, 5). Even being on the receiving end of forgiveness can be uncomfortable.
But I hear genuine tenderness from Joseph. The tone is too poignant not to be authentic. As we pick up the story today, Joseph, the right hand of Pharaoh, is preparing to reveal his true identity to the brothers who sold him into slavery years before. When famine forced them to Egypt to buy food, the sons of Jacob unknowingly appeared before the brother they’d despised, their father’s favorite whom they reported as dead. But Joseph had been testing them over time to see if they had changed. Their protectiveness of the youngest brother, Benjamin, suggested they had. Finally at a banquet to which Joseph had invited them, he was “no longer [able to] control himself before all those who stood by him. . . . [Joseph] cried out, ‘Send everyone away from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it” (Genesis 45:1-2). Imagine now you are Reuben or Judah or another of the brothers and you’ve just realized this powerful leader granting you aid is the brother you sold into slavery.
Every time I get to this point in the story, I weep. I’m undone by Joseph’s loud, uncontainable weeping that spring from many emotions he’d had to tamp down while testing his brothers’ sincerity: as he recalls the first hours in captivity when he tried fathom what his brothers had done to him and why . . . and then as he recollects all those years in a dark and hopeless prison after Potiphar’s wife falsely accused him of sexual advances . . . and later maybe he returns to the long ago memory of the father who doted on him, and the younger brother, Benjamin, who looked up to him. But Joseph’s weeping surely also reflects his overwhelming relief at seeing his family again, observing his brothers demonstrate courage and selflessness and concern for younger brother Benjamin and for their father. And certainly Joseph is anticipating the promise of regaining and perhaps redeeming that past if he can choose to forgive.
Life is forgiveness school. Our built-in curriculum is based on the many hurts we regularly give and receive from others. So every day we practice both sides of that hurt and forgiveness equation.
What do our life experiences and today’s scriptures show us about forgiving others? Well, forgiveness of our enemies is hard. Forgiveness of our brothers can sometimes be harder. And forgiveness of an ongoing pattern of cruelty . . . may not be possible. Sometimes the thing to do is to get out of a situation. Get safe. Let’s be clear about that. Consider that when Joseph offered forgiveness, he was many years removed from the injustice done to him and in a position of power over the brothers who’d once abused him. Too often clergy have sent women back into domestic abuse situations, investing victims with the responsibility to forgive their still-abusive partners. Too often churches have invoked the “love your enemy” verse from today’s Gospel text and twist it to mean “Suck it up, take the high road, and forgive all wrongs without addressing injustices.” We sometimes have put the onus on the person who’s been harmed to be ready to forgive. But as Zora Neale Hurston said, “If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
If we journey deeper into today’s scriptures, we might recognize that injuries and forgiveness have contexts, ,and sometimes there’s a way to respond nonviolently to violence to expose the injustice. That ethical option might take us to an even deeper context for forgiveness. At some point we can imagine that real forgiveness is not an inauthentic knee jerk response to an injury. Forgiveness is a spiritual practice that over time gentles us as individuals and mends frayed relationships and disciplines entire communities in the ways of justice. Forgiveness is a starting point that modulates the strident tone and monitors harm. What we can all be working toward together is an eventual practice of forgiveness that releases us from the control of the oppressor and enslavement to our own unreflective egos.
Which directs us back to Luke 6, which might sound mealy mouthed when compared to Matthew’s version of this part of Jesus’s sermon. According to Walter Wink, Matthew’s Jesus is instructing his followers in a form a guerilla theater, a means of nonviolent resistance that will shame the oppressor. Turning the other cheek, going the second mile, and giving the shirt off your back—are subversive acts of resistance against the Roman Empire, just about the only way a subjugated people could protest injustice. (Link to former sermons here and here.) But Luke’s version of this lesson is less obviously resistant.
Still, Robert Tannehill hears Jesus’s language in this passage as “forceful and imaginative.” Because “turn the other cheek” here is not “legal language,” that means it “is not at all clear when we should act as indicated in v. 29 . . . and when there might be good reasons for not doing so. Offering the other cheek when struck and giving up one’s tunic . . . as well as one’s cloak are examples of surprising actions that may or may not fit situations faced by the listeners. . . . Forceful and imaginative language is not concerned primarily to regulate external behavior but serves to stimulate moral insight by challenging the ruts in which people move. Such language succeeds when it stimulates the moral imagination to imagine the possibility that breaks out of these ruts. It can change action by working through the imagination, challenging the hearer to work out the details. Luke 6:27-36 is a carefully crafted attempt to awaken the imagination so that radically new ways of relating to enemies will result” (Tannehill 117).
Tannehill goes on to insist that “passivity in the face of aggression” is not what Jesus is suggesting. “Passivity would mean doing nothing. Offering the other cheek is doing something provocative. It risks greater harm in order to make a (nonverbal) statement, which requires the aggressor to take a second and more careful look at the one who is being victimized. . . . The purpose must be to find the good not only for oneself but for the enemy” (118).
The previously prideful Joseph became a world class forgiver by forgiving his brothers who’d been his enemies. Our challenge is often to see our enemies are our siblings. Flawed Jospeh endured, tried to make sure a pattern of injustice would be extinguished, and cared for the innocent and even those who wished him dead.
The Joseph story closes out the book of Genesis, which is followed by the book of Exodus, of which these words are among the first: Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor” (Exodus 1:8-11). Injustice within families and empires will always require forgiveness–expressed within the demands of justice.
Jesus, of course, was the supreme icon of forgiveness—-the one who prayed from a cross, “Father, FORGIVE them for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34 KJV).
Today Jesus followers like us are trying to love our enemies in hopes of bringing God’s peaceful kin*dom to a fuller reality. Joseph and Jesus offer us examples of forgiveness so necessary for the kin*dom.
Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Amen.
Hurston, Zora Neal. qtd in “Living the Word” by Denise T. Anderson The Christian Century 30 Jan. 2019 p. 18.
Lewis, C. S. qtd in Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, by Anne LaMott (New York: Pantheon Books, 1999).
Tannehill, Robert C. Luke: Abingdon New Testament Commentaries. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996).
Wink, Walter. The Powers That Be: Theology for a New Millenium. (New York: Doubleday, 1998).