This morning’s Scripture challenges us to think about forgiveness.
In Genesis, we have just a small snippet from the longer, wonderfully complex story of Joseph.
If all you know is the part about the Technicolor dream coat, you’re missing out.
In today’s small bit, Joseph forgives his brothers for their treachery way back when and he suggests that, as he sees it, it wasn’t their treachery that was happening, but actually God working in one of God’s mysterious ways, putting the wheels in motion for Joseph to save them all and many others besides.
So Joseph says, “You meant to do me harm; but God meant to bring good out of it by preserving the lives of many people, as we see today. Do not be afraid. I shall provide for you…” (Genesis 50:21).
And then in Matthew’s Gospel, Peter asks: “Lord…how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?”
Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.”
Then he goes on to tell the parable of an unforgiving servant, generously freed from a multi-million dollar debt for which he is on the verge of defaulting, but who then fails to show that same generosity toward someone who owes him about forty dollars.
It’s very much in keeping with an earlier moment, also in Matthew, when Jesus asks, “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?” (Matthew 7:3)
The unforgiving servant is chasing after a mote of debt, having apparently forgotten the crushing beam of his own debt that has been lifted from him.
The implication is clear:
As any of us consider what to do when we are asked to forgive–whether to do it or not…to mean it or not…to expect something further or not…as any of us consider what to do when we are asked or challenged to forgive, let us be mindful also of that within ourselves that might need forgiving.
Maybe, as Genesis suggests, God is somehow already at work for a greater good, even in what hurts us now.
Or maybe in those moments when we are especially poised to judge…ready to deploy the long, bony finger of blame…we need the humility to remember what it is to need forgiving.
We all do things we later come to regret and then can’t easily fix.
We know what that’s like.
But what I think Jesus wants us to see this morning is that while it is bad, indeed, to do wrong…to sin…there is another kind of danger that lurks even in being right.
So often, it turns out that we’re not quite as right as we think.
Quite often, we also find that being right doesn’t mean quite as much as we might be inclined to believe.
Has anyone here ever really sinned? I mean really sinned…can I get a show of hands… (o.k., just kidding….)
Well, if you have really sinned, then you know that all too often, there is a point where someone who is mad at you, and justifiably so, leaves off with being right, and instead becomes self-righteous.
It does not mean you were not wrong to do whatever it was you did.
And yet, somehow, the moment is not quite so simple as that.
Back in the 70s, the psychoanalyst Eric Berne argued that a lot of human interaction was not all that spontaneous, but was actually a kind of endless sequence of unconscious games people play (which is also the name of his book).
In fact, to prove this idea, he went on to name about fifty of the most important of those games.
“Ain’t It Awful” was one–the kind of interaction we might have while waiting on a grocery store line, or at coffee hour–those strange, one-upping kinds of conversations where you talk about how the world is falling apart, with each example more awful than the last.
But the game that especially applies this morning is the one Berne calls “Now I’ve Got You (You SOB)”–it describes those moments when someone is not so secretly gleeful to have caught you doing something wrong, because whatever it is, all their totally unrelated anger at you for anything and everything is suddenly poured into that one specific thing, and on that narrow question, they have you dead to rights.
“Now I’ve Got You.”
If Berne is correct, then the simple question of right and wrong doesn’t turn out to be all that simple, much of the time.
And if there is a part of us that wants it to be, well, Jesus would have us be very wary of that part of ourselves.
Does anybody really want to be Miss Havisham, the old lady in the gloomy mansion, still sitting there among the cobwebs in her decaying wedding dress, with the wedding feast still on the table, withered and spoiled?
Because you know what? In the matter of what had put her there in the first place, she was “right.”
Clearly, she had been wronged by the man who had left her at the altar all those years ago…and yet…awful as that was…unfair as it had been…though she was clearly in the right to be so hurt…somehow her life had not become what being right is supposed to look like.
Instead, she had let herself become prisoner to a kind of truth that could not set her free.
The truth that sustains us is the truth that challenges us…that expands us…that teaches us to open our minds and our hearts, and not to close them.
So if it turns out that that kind truth is not the truth we’re after just now, Jesus would have us look in the mirror–and look to God.
And he would have us hold back on deploying the long, bony finger of blame.
Again, as Jesus asks: “Why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?”
It isn’t that we’re wrong, entirely. It isn’t that there isn’t something there.
It’s that, if we’re not careful, our lives can shrivel up like Miss Havisham’s wedding cake.
If our lives become nothing more than round after round of the “Now I’ve Got You” game, then really what we’ve got is nothing at all.
That said, if all we do is forgive everything…all the time…it isn’t long before we end up being doormats.
After all, there are some things that really shouldn’t be forgiven…some wrongs that cannot be justified.
If we believe in a moral universe, then, on some level, we must hold that to be true.
Jesus himself says: “if anyone causes the downfall of one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for him to have a millstone hung round his neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea. Alas for the world that any of them should be made to fall! Such things must happen, but alas for the one through whom they happen!” (Matthew 18:6-7 REB).
God’s justice is a real thing.
But more to the point, if our great invitation and our great challenge is actually to love one another, clearly part of that is to care enough to say hard things. And to sit there listening when someone has hard things to say to us.
Neither is easy.
Working things through is a part of forgiveness.
And while it not always possible to work things through successfully, it is far more faithful and far more loving to have tried valiantly and failed than it is to pretend that there was never anything to forgive in the first place, and to breezily let things go.
Christ calls us to love one another, not to enable one another.
But without one another, we cannot become the people that God calls us and needs us to become.
I can’t help but think of Miss Havisham again.
Because for all her failings, there are also the failings of all those people she once knew…the people who should have been there to push her…with great patience and great love, of course…but nevertheless, the commitment to her good that would help her find the strength to live again.
The story seems to suggest that this would not have been possible. And perhaps not, in a story.
But in life, it is possible.
And it’s important that we try. That’s part of what loving each other is all about.
Now…if I’ve made this case correctly, by now you should be playing in your mind some sort of highlight reel of your relationship with someone.
Some people have the premium package and are sort of surfing between several different highlight reels at once. That’s o.k.
But as you’re doing that, you may see that, just as Genesis argues, there was something very hard but ultimately good in some moment you’ve been carrying that has seemed unforgiveable.
Or you may simply hear the call of Jesus to love someone enough to try again…to believe enough in their capacity for change and growth that you are willing to try working things through.
Or if that window is no longer open, then you may hear the challenge to live without bitterness, without the self-righteousness that finally makes us smaller.
But whatever you hear, whatever it is you see on that highlight reel, hear again Jesus’ invitation to live fully and joyfully.
He calls each of us to come and find new life in him…to live once more…with feeling.
May we find the courage to do just that.