We can sympathize with Joseph, I think, because he struggles with forgiveness even as he loves his brothers, and they him. It is so painfully apparent in this moment after their father Jacob’s death. There sits this 100 lb. gorilla in the room, the shift in the balance of power, as the brothers who intended to do harm to their twitty youngest brother all those years ago, are now at his mercy. Their fate lies in the hands of Joseph, and they know what they deserve. They plead for their lives as best they know how. They tell him a plausible story! Whether it’s true or not, the bible doesn’t reveal: BTW, the brothers tell Joseph, dad said before he died, to tell you to forgive our intention to do you harm. So look, we’re falling down on our knees and begging for mercy, in the name of, they say, “the God of your father.” And Joseph is moved to tears, cries right there in front of them, and his brothers wept too!
After seeing the Twin Towers engulfed in flames over and over again this past week. What is the take-away? As we remember the nonsensical evil perpetrated on innocent victims on 9/11, what is our response? As we grieve on behalf of the victims, does that help us forgive, or make us angrier? Is it harder or easier, 10 years later?
“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good,” says Joseph. And, does Joseph forgive?
There were a lot of pictures and stories in the news this past week, about 9/11. But there was one that made particular sense to me, more than others. The story of Rick Rescorla, a person, the reporter said, who made a decision between love and duty. Rick was a security guard for Morgan Stanley in the South Tower, who decided to defy the order to sit tight and wait, while the towers burned. As a Vietnam Vet, Rick had recently found love again in his life, having gone through a tough divorce after being in the service. He had found the love of his life in Susan, also divorced, and together they were like high school sweet hearts in their 50’s. They had plans for their life together and every thing was on track for a wonderful future right up until 9/11. Some say it was Rick’s training that kicked in when the Twin Towers were hit. Where other companies lost most of their people, Rick evacuated nearly all of his charge, some 2700 Morgan Stanley employees, only to perish himself, as he went back in to make a final check. Even though great harm was intended that day, Rick, out of duty and practice, intentionally turned it into an opportunity for good!
Though the sadness of 9/11 was palpable in those first days, many people used it as an opportunity for good. New Yorkers recall how everyone pulled together. And then that same spirit took hold and snowballed across the whole country, which in turn produced a mountain of good will overseas and around the world toward the United States. Countries that were our enemies flew the American flag in solidarity. Sympathetic leaders sent messages of sorrow and pledged to stand by us.
By 2003, that all started going south. The harm and evil that was intended for us, we in turn used it as an opportunity to lash out overseas, involving many innocent victims. The tears of reconciliation shed around the world, we ourselves turned into unnecessary retaliation, harming those who looked up to us. Forgiveness in the case of 9/11 is not easy, perhaps not even humanly possible. But as the world stood ready to bring the perpetrators to justice in Afghanistan with us, we squandered that opportunity by flexing our muscles, “seizing” Iraq “by the throat,” and initiated a war under false pretenses, acting on a grudge, in the words of Joseph’s brothers, just because we could.
Peter wonders aloud with Jesus, how often we must forgive another who sins against us? Even on a personal level, this is not an easy thing to do! He’s not just talking about forgiving someone else who asked us first. Nor is it quite the same as the reciprocity of the Lord’s prayer, asking God to “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” But he asking about being the one to reach out first and forgive. Doing that once is pretty good! Seven times seems very generous. “But I tell you,” says Jesus, you must do it “77 times.” In other words, pretty much without end!
Yet Jesus isn’t really talking about quantity. He’s talking about quality, which is why he proceeds to tell the parable of the unforgiving servant. Here too the quantities are wildly exaggerated. “10,000 talents” was about as high as you could count in the ancient world, more than the taxes of the entire empire in a years’ time. Or, something like 150,000 years of wages. Impossible to repay! Whereas the 100 denarii owed the servant is tiny in comparison, about 15 weeks pay. So the hyperbole of the parable speaks for itself. If the lord can forgive the 10,000 talents, certainly the servant can have patience and forgive 100 denarii of debt! It’s not really the quantity, as Jesus concludes. We should “forgive our brother or sister from our heart.”
The choice is ours, what kind of life to live. A life of forgiveness from the heart, or a life heartlessly centered on our-selves, and everything we can get at the expense of our neighbor.
Rick Rescorla, it is said, made a choice between love and duty, between the new love of his life, and his duty as a security guard. But as disciples of Jesus this is happily a false choice. Jesus choose both love and duty in going to the cross. In him the two become one thing. We can choose not to be thrown into prison, but to throw ourselves onto the path of Jesus’ faithfulness, that has already saved us. God tells us we are worth 10,000 talents, more than we can ever repay, more than anyone can pay for us – save Jesus. We are highly valued, and valuable, in the realm of God. That is the only reason we can forgive the debts of our brothers and sisters. One time, seven times… 77 times?! It is a choice, and a way of life, because it is who we are, as a baptized people. We know whose we are and so we know what to do. We don’t do it on our own, but together we thank Jesus for saving us already, before we asked for it, and we rejoice with the whole people of God, indeed with the whole world, and continue to practice it with one another.
We practice it, because forgiveness is hard. “Even though [Joseph’s brothers] intended to do harm to [him], God intended it for good…” The harm may still hurt. But God continues to create opportunities to turn evil into good, wherever possible. And so, as with Joseph, it often is not our place to judge our brothers or sisters on their intentions. And if it is not our place to judge, than perhaps it is not our place to forgive either – it is God’s. Joseph makes it plain that in God’s eyes, his brothers are forgiven. And that is enough, as it is enough for us to practice lives of faithfulness in proportion to what we have been given. If our lives are worth 10, 000 talents, how much easier is it to have mercy with our brothers and sisters!