This was the week that the end of the Joseph saga in the lectionary coincided with the Ray Rice/NFL horror show.
The long-reviled RCL lectionary has been earning its stripes this year as week after week, I wished that I could finally just preach on something relaxing, like God’s unconditional love for kittens! Only to have another headline slam into the biblical texts with that stomach-twisting crunch that signals you have to gear up to Say the Hard Thing.
This week, it was trying to preach about forgiveness in the middle of a domestic violence mess–in which some pretty warped concepts of forgiveness had been trotted out into the public conversation again. The church has long been guilty of condoning (and enabling) patterns of domestic violence–both through our silence, and, at times, through our outright complicity. So preaching about forgiveness–what it is, what it isn’t, is no small matter.
Here’s my take.
September 13-14, 2014
Genesis 50, Matthew
Desmond Tutu came to speak at my seminary the first year I was there.
What I remember most about this, is two things. The first is that I bumped into him in the hallway of my dorm when I was taking out the garbage early that Saturday morning, and he turned to me, and said, quite chipper, “Oh,good morning!” Like I was the person he most wanted to see in that moment. I was so freaked out, I almost dropped garbage all over the feet of the living saint who defeated apartheid.
The second is a comment he made in his speech to us. He was talking about reconciliation, and what he witnessed in South Africa post-apartheid. He talked about the dynamics of the Truth and Reconciliation commission, and how that had worked, and everyone was impressed, but in describing the mechanics of how reconciliation and forgiveness works, he commented.
He pointed out it’s not as easy as it sounds. “If you steal my bicycle, and later you come to me and you ask for my forgiveness, I can forgive you, but unless something changes—it’s cheap. I need to lock up my next bike so you can’t steal it, at least. Or I need you to give me back my bike, maybe. Forgiveness and reconciliation only work if you give back my bike. “
—Forgiveness, like grace, is one of those words we toss around
—but Arb. is right. We frequently use it cheaply. I’m sorry. Oh I forgive you! That’s supposed to be the response to make the apologizing person feel less guilty.
—That’s not actually how forgiveness works.
—In Jesus’ parable, people are going to freakin’ jail. Jail, guys. JAIL.
—And note, in Joseph’s story, as well. It’s more complicated than a simple, I’m-a-nice-person-I-forgive-you.
-Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery. They beat him up, and threw him in a pit, and told his father he was dead. That’s not great. That’s some insane abusive behavior right there, even for the mythical characters of the ANE.
—And afterwards, Joseph’s life is not fantastic. He is sold to Potiphar, whose wife attempts to entrap him with false accusations.
—Potiphar sends Joseph off to jail, where he sits for a couple years.
—So though he eventually ends up as governor of Egypt, let’s not forget his initial family situation was not pleasant. And it came with consequences.
—Then his brothers show up and ask for 1. Forgiveness! They feel bad for that whole you’re dead, we almost killed our father (also a lunatic, btw), and they want to make amends.
2. But mainly food. They want food, since Egypt has food, and Canaan doesn’t have any.
—So what does Joseph do?
—He gives his estranged family food. And he embraces them. And he sends for his aged father (who, really, I’m shocked the man hasn’t had a HUGE heart attack by now. Kid’s dead! No he’s not! )
—But please notice: This isn’t cheap grace. This is bicycle forgiveness. This is forgiveness with a change. In both these situations—Jesus’ parable and the story of Joseph, forgiveness comes only with real change.
—At no point, in this reunion scene, does Joseph volunteer to return home to Canaan with his brothers. At no point, does Joseph volunteer to rewind the clock, and make everything just like it was when they were little. At no point, either, does Joseph apologize, or try to explain away what his brothers did. They did bad things, and he says so.
—Forgiveness can happen here because something has changed. You have to move out, you have to move on, whatever that looks like. The offense has to end, with no risk of going back, before you can forgive.
—if nothing changes, then forgiveness doesn’t work—you’ll just keep doing the same thing over and over because it’s what you know. it’s not until the circle breaks that you get a chance to stop and evaluate.
And it can’t be hurried. Forgiveness only comes when it’s ready. When you’ve stopped living in that particular moment, either literally, or just emotionally. You have to move on, in all ways in order for forgiveness, in order for reconciliation to work.
Because most of all, forgiveness is a gift of God. Forgiveness is ultimately a work of the Spirit, where we can lean into the love of God for one another, and we can release the hurts done to us. We get to forgive, in those moments where we see we have come so far due to the love of God, and there’s no longer any point in carrying the burden of anger or resentment anymore—however justified, because it’s not helpful.