In today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew, Jesus was asked by His disciple Peter, how often he should forgive others, “as many as seven times?” Peter thought that he was being very liberal in couching his question in this way. To forgive someone as many as seven times, Peter felt, was the height of patience and kindness.
But Jesus rocks Peter’s world (and ours) when He says that we're to forgive others not seven times, but “Seventy-seven times” or, as some translations put it, “seventy times seven times” or even “seventy times seventy times.”
Whatever the precise phrasing Jesus used, His meaning is clear. Jesus was telling Peter, “Just as there’s no limit to how much I forgive all who repent and believe in me, there should be no limit to your forgiveness of others.”
This isn’t the only time that Jesus said that those who want the forgiveness and new life He came to give to all who repent and believe in Him must forgive others. pull out a pew Bible and turn to page 554 to find Matthew 6:14-15. There, Jesus says,
For if you forgive [people] their trespasses [their sins against you], your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive [others] their trespasses [against you], neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. [New King James Version]If you’re anything like me (and maybe you’re not), the thought that my unwillingness to forgive others for what they’ve done to me in just the same way Jesus forgives me, is daunting.
And when I consider that Jesus says we actually block His forgiveness and life with Him from our lives by failing to forgive, I feel…uncomfortable.
But Jesus’ command that we forgive is more than a stern dictate. You see, forgiving others is also a gift from God that can set us free for living life to the full.
Our first lesson for this morning, Genesis 50:15-21, shows us how this is so. Please pull out the Celebrate inserts and turn to the first lesson.
You know the story of Joseph well. This Joseph, of course, isn’t the one who, nearly two-thousand years later, would be chosen by God to be the earthly father of God the Son, Jesus of Nazareth. At an early age, this Joseph angered his brothers because their father Jacob so favored Joseph and because Joseph reported dreams God had given to him indicating that one day, he would be an important ruler and his brothers would bow to him.
The brothers’ resentments simmered until it reached a tragic boiling point: They sold Joseph into slavery and convinced Jacob that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal.
Joseph’s circumstances seemed to go from bad to worse. He became the slave and eventually the supervisor of all the holdings of Potiphar, one of Egypt’s most powerful generals, only to be falsely accused of attempting to rape Potiphar’s wife, who had been disappointed when Joseph refused to have an affair with her. Joseph long languished in prison.
Eventually, Joseph was delivered from prison and, gifted by God with both the ability to interpret dreams and lead an organization, he led a massive rationing program that saved millions from death by starvation when a famine hit.
You remember how his brothers, not knowing who Joseph was, came to Egypt seeking to buy food and how eventually, Joseph was reunited with his father and how God used Jacob to save God’s people, the descendants of Abraham and Sarah, the Jewish people, from extinction.
This, of course, was important for all of us because it was through the Jewish people, specifically through Jesus, that salvation would become possible for all who repent and believe in Him.
But our lesson takes place after Joseph’s reunion with his father. Jacob and all of his sons and their families had lived in Egypt with Joseph for a while when Jacob died.
There are two scenes recounted in the lesson. Scene #1 comes in verse 15. Jacob has died and Joseph’s brothers are in a panic. Now that Jacob is dead the brothers are sure that, at long last, Joseph would have his revenge for the years of agony he had endured because of their sin against him. The brothers ask each other, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”
Joseph’s brothers were cynical, self-centered men and they couldn’t imagine that Joseph was any different. They projected their own evil ways of thinking and living onto Joseph. People still spend a lot of time projecting their own faults onto others. It's one of the biggest causes of misunderstandings and alienation between people.
So, afraid for their lives, the brothers concoct a phony story to tell Joseph. We read about it and everything that Joseph said and did in response to it in Scene #2 of our lesson, verses 16 through 21. The brothers tell Joseph that, just before he died, their father Jacob had directed them to tell Joseph not to exact vengeance on them for their sins against him.
Our lesson tells us that when Joseph heard his brothers' story, he wept. It reminds me of the day Jesus wept in Bethany many centuries later. That happened right after the death of Jesus' friend, Lazarus. When Jesus arrived in Lazarus' village, he found everyone weeping with despair. I'm sure that one Jesus wept was from grief over the death of His friend. But I feel equally certain that Jesus wept over the utter hopelessness of the whole village of Bethany. Until Jesus called Lazarus back to life, everybody there seemed to think that resurrection was too good to be true.
In the same way, Joseph's brothers found it hard to believe that Joseph could possibly forgive them for what they had done. That's why they wept. They clearly didn't know nor understand Joseph.
Look at his response to his brothers in verse 19 (read it aloud with me, please): “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.” Though I’ve read them many times, I always find Joseph’s words here breathtaking!
Please notice several things about what he says.
First: Joseph sees his brothers kneeling before him and, even though this was exactly what the dreams he’d had as a boy told him would happen, he didn’t like it. Only God should be treated like God.
Bowing and scraping to human beings is what slaves of human masters do. Only God deserves such submissiveness.
Joseph insisted that he wouldn’t take God’s place.
You know, when someone hurts us, a reflex response goes off in our brains. A part of us seems to think that it’s only our due that the offending party will, in some way, come crawling to us for forgiveness. Joseph remembered that no matter what sins others perpetrate against us, God is really the One most hurt and offended by human sin.
“Vengeance is mine, I will repay” God says in His Word.*
Though Jesus entrusts the Church with the responsibility of declaring God’s forgiveness to the repentant and the opposite to the unrepentant, we aren’t in the vengeance business.
We must trust God to sort things out. That’s what Joseph did.
The second thing to notice is that Joseph could see God at work even in the midst of his pain. It was his connection with God that allowed him to forgive his brothers.
None of us can forgive others and be free of resentments that can destroy our happiness without God’s help and empowerment.
Essayist Alexander Pope famously said, “To err is human, to forgive divine.” In other words, forgiving those who hurt us is foreign to human nature. The ability to forgive others is a divine attribute, something of which only God is capable.
As Christians though, we confess that God works and lives within us. As Paul puts it in Galatians, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” You can't forgive others their trespasses against you. But Christ in you can!
Christ lives in you because you are a baptized believer in Him. Think of what that means for your everyday life! Even on the cross, Jesus Christ was able to pray for those who were killing Him and crying for His blood, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Five years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, a mere human being who followed Jesus and had Christ living within him, Stephen, could pray as he was being stoned to death for his faith in Christ, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Christ lived in him and even as Stephen died, he gave a witness for the one who had changed his life for eternity.
By the way, Christ living within us can also help us to forgive ourselves. Much of my counseling through the years has been with people who suspect that their sins are too terrible for God to forgive. Remember Jesus’ words to Nicodemus? “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son [Jesus] so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Everyone includes you.
The Bible says, “if you confess with your lips and believe with your heart that God has raised [Jesus] from the dead, you will be saved.”
When you believe in the God revealed in Jesus—the God of the Old and New Testaments, you can forgive others because you know that in Jesus, nothing can separate you from God and His love for you. And you can forgive yourself too, for this very same reason.
The most New Testament Greek work for forgive literally means, release. Forgiveness is releasing, letting go of all pretense of being God and instead, trusting God to deal with whatever punishments need to meted out against those who sin against us.
When we forgive others, God releases us to live with Him always.
Holding a grudge is like holding your breath for an extended period of time. As long as you do it, you can’t expel the toxins of bitterness and anxiety and you can’t breathe in the fresh air of God’s Holy Spirit.
If Joseph hadn’t trusted in God to release His grudges and hold onto God through bad and good times, there is no way he could fulfill the good purposes He wanted to fulfill in Joseph’s life.
God can do so much in the lives of people who surrender everything, even their anger and sorrow over the hurts, insults, slights, and horrible injuries others have inflicted on them.
God will do nothing in the lives of people who block His grace by refusing to forgive others.
If you’ve come here this morning holding a grudge against anybody, I invite you to lay it at the foot of Jesus’ cross right now and let God set you free to live the life you were made for!
*In Romans 12:19, Paul paraphrases several different passages of the Old Testament, including Deuteronomy 32:35, Leviticus 19:18, and Psalm 34:1.