Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“The Antidote of Forgiveness” (Matthew 18:21-35)
September 17, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This morning I am preaching about the heart of the gospel: forgiveness.  Many centuries ago the psalmist put it this way, “As far as the east is from the west, so far has (God) removed our sins from us” (103:12, The Book of Common Prayer 734).  In response to God’s forgiveness we are called to forgive others.

Today’s lesson from Genesis is the culmination of perhaps the most moving example of forgiveness in the entire Old Testament, as Joseph forgives his eleven brothers for all the wrong they had done to him.

Joseph was one of Jacob’s twelve sons, and the oldest son of Jacob’s favorite wife, Rachel.  Jacob made no secret of the fact that Joseph was his favorite son, giving him, and only him, the famous coat of many colors, which of course did not make his other sons very happy.  The writer of Genesis tells us:

(Jacob) loved Joseph more than any other of his children, because he was the son of his old age; and he had made him a long robe with sleeves.  But when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than all his brothers, they hated him, and could not speak peaceably to him (Genesis 37:3-4).

Joseph had two dreams that indicated that his older brothers who “hated him and could not speak peaceably to him” would one day all bow down before him.  Rather than keeping these dreams to himself, Joseph told his brothers about them.  “Listen to this dream that I dreamed,” he said, “There we were binding sheaves in the field.  Suddenly my sheaf rose and stood upright; then your sheaves gathered around it, and bowed down to my sheaf” (Genesis 37:6-7).

As you could imagine, his brothers were less than blessed by this, but nonetheless Joseph later tells them about his second dream: “Look, I have another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me” (Genesis 37:9).  Again, his brothers were angry at him…and this time they decided to act on their anger.  As Joseph was coming to visit them in the fields scripture ominously continues:

They saw him from a distance, and before he came near to them, they conspired to kill him.  They said to one another, “Here comes this dreamer.  Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; then we shall say that a wild animal had devoured him, and we shall see what will become of his dreams” (Genesis 37:18-20).

However, instead of killing Joseph, they stripped him of the robe and threw him into an empty pit with no food or water.  And as they sat down to eat they saw a caravan of Ishmaelites on their way to Egypt, and they sold Joseph into slavery for twenty pieces of silver.  Then they took Joseph’s coat, dipped it in goat blood, and gave it to their father.  “This we have found,” they told him, “see now whether it is your son’s robe or not” (Genesis 37:31-34).  Jacob was distraught.  And yet not one of the brothers told Jacob the truth.  They all watched him mourn and weep day after day.  And how long did Jacob’s brothers kept this secret?  Twenty years.

Unfortunately such deep seeded hostility in families is not uncommon.  Many family trees have a branch or two that no one will discuss or even acknowledge, especially among siblings—as Paul Zahl describes in his book Grace in Practice:

The relation between siblings can be very touchy.  The incident that most opened my eyes to this took place in connection with a parent’s last illness and funeral.  The father was sick for a long time and was cared for very well by his son and daughter-in-law, with whom he had been living.  The other brother was far away, living out a hippie phase in the Southwest.  He failed to come home during the illness of his dad.  When the man died, that son not only failed to come home, but he would not come home.  He did not attend the funeral, and was harsh to his dutiful brother over the telephone.

He continues:

Things got worse.  When their mother died about a year later, the brother in Arizona again would not come to the funeral.  Later, I spoke to the brother who had buried both his parents alone.  He told me he never wanted to see his brother again, and that if he ever did see his brother again, he would not be responsible for what he did.  This is an extreme case, but not so unusual.  Any minister or priest can tell you stories like it.  Problems between siblings often come out in their final form at funerals (179).

Paul Zahl is right—I could tell you many “stories like it”, and of course each of you could tell your own similar stories too.  This kind of seething bitterness and anger is not only destructive emotionally, but physically as well.  On their website the Mayo Clinic warns:

If you’re unforgiving, you might bring anger and bitterness into every relationship and new experience, become so wrapped up in the wrong that you can’t enjoy the present, become depressed or anxious, feel that your life lacks meaning or purpose, or that you’re at odds with your spiritual beliefs, (and you might) lose valuable and enriching connectedness with others.

There is one and only one antidote for such “anger and bitterness”, only one antidote for what a friend of mine calls “dysfunction junction”—forgiveness.  The Mayo Clinic describes forgiveness this way:

Generally, forgiveness is a decision to let go of resentment and thoughts of revenge.  The act that hurt or offended you might always remain a part of your life, but forgiveness can lessen its grip on you and help you focus on other, more positive parts of your life.  Forgiveness can even lead to feelings of understanding, empathy and compassion for the one who hurt you.

Not only does forgiveness help your spiritual and emotional health, as the Mayo Clinic describes, it also brings many benefits to your physical health:

Forgiveness can lead to healthier relationships, greater spiritual and psychological well-being, less anxiety, stress and hostility, lower blood pressure, fewer symptoms of depression, a stronger immune system, (and) improved heart health.

In today’s gospel passage Jesus also teaches on the antidote of forgiveness.  Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive?  As many as seven times?”  Jesus replies, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times” (Matthew 18:21-22).  Lest you begin keeping a ledger of how close to seventy-seven sins the people in your life are approaching, Jesus’ point is not that seventy-seven is the cap for forgiveness, but rather, that when it comes to forgiveness there is no cap at all.  Then to illustrate his point Jesus tells one of the most poignant parables in scripture, the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant.

A lord had a slave who owed him “ten thousand talents” (the equivalent of several million dollars today) and could not pay the debt, so the lord ordered this slave, along with his family and possessions, to be sold in order to pay what he owed.  The slave did the only thing he could do, he begged for mercy, “Have patience with me, and I will pay everything.”  Then Jesus sums up the lord’s gracious response, “Out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt” (Matthew 18:23-27)…so far so good.

But Jesus then recounts how this same slave encountered a fellow slave “who owed him a hundred denarii” (the equivalent of a few dollars) and instead of forgiving him as he had been forgiven, he seized him by the throat, “Pay what you owe.”  The slave begged for mercy but received none and instead was thrown into prison “until he would pay the debt.”  The other slaves tell the lord what happened.  The lord summoned the slave he had forgiven and released, and rebuked him, “You wicked slave!  I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me.  Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?”  Then the parable becomes very disturbing as the lord “handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.”  Then Jesus concludes, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (Matthew 18:28-35).  Are you uncomfortable yet?

Back to Joseph for a moment…over the course of the twenty years Joseph’s brothers thought he was wasting away as a slave, Joseph, through a series of events orchestrated by God, rose to prominence in Egypt until he was second only to Pharaoh.  When years of famine forced Joseph’s brothers to go to Egypt to get food, unbeknownst to them, they found themselves in Joseph’s presence, begging for food for their families, bowing down before him just as Joseph had dreamed.

And after Joseph finally revealed his identity to his brothers, he did something none of them expected, he forgave them.  In response to being disrobed, thrown into a pit, sold into slavery—in response to being separated from his father and at one point wasting away in prison—at the very moment he had a golden opportunity to exact revenge, Joseph simply administered the antidote of forgiveness.  Joseph forgave his brothers from his heart.  “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here,” Joseph assured them, “for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Genesis 45:5).

In today’s passage we see that after Jacob dies, Joseph’s brothers are afraid that now Joseph will finally take revenge on them, asking themselves, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?”  So they do the same thing the slaves in Jesus’ parable did before those whom they owed more than they could pay, they asked Joseph for mercy, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’  Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.”

And how did Joseph respond?  “Do not be afraid!” he told them, “Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”—and as the writer of Genesis sums it up, “In this way (Joseph) reassured them, speaking kindly to them” (Genesis 50:15-20).  Joseph did for his brothers what the forgiven slave in Jesus’ parable had not done for his fellow slave—he forgave them from his heart.

So circling back to the end of Jesus’ parable, when Jesus said the lord handed over the unforgiving servant “to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” and then warned, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart”—where is the gospel?

Here it is…in the same way Joseph was sold by his brothers for twenty pieces of silver and handed over to the Ishmaelites, Jesus was sold by Judas for thirty pieces of silver, and handed over to sinners.  In the same way Joseph’s brothers ripped his robe off his back before throwing him into the pit, the soldiers ripped Jesus’ robe off his back before nailing him to a cross, and then gambled for it.  In the same way Joseph’s brothers told Joseph that their father Jacob had given them a final instruction to ask Joseph to forgive them, Jesus too uttered a final instruction, “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).

And finally, in the same way the unforgiving servant was “to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt” Jesus was tortured on the cross until he paid not his entire debt—he did not owe anything—but until he paid your entire debt, all of it.  Jesus forgave you from his heart.  That is the good news of the gospel.

Jesus administered the antidote of forgiveness to all….and still does.