Joseph’s brothers were afraid. Years ago, when they were rash young men and Joseph was an irritating and arrogant teen, they saw an opportunity to get rid of him. Joseph certainly was full of himself and he never missed an opportunity to flaunt their father’s preference for him. That day, the brothers simply had enough. Far from home, tending their flocks, they threw Joseph into an empty pit, then sold him as a slave to passing traders. They dipped his coat in goat’s blood and took it back to their father, telling him they found it in the wilderness. Their father assumed an animal had killed him. Many years later, the tables were turned. Joseph was a powerful man in a distant land and the brothers were at his mercy. After their father died, they were afraid that Joseph would take well-deserved revenge on them. So, they came up with another scheme. They told Joseph that their father, before he died, had begged for Joseph to forgive his brothers. However, it turned out that revenge was the last thing on Joseph’s mind. He had forgiven them long ago.
Jesus told a parable about forgiveness where a slave whose master forgave a huge debt then went and demanded payment of a much smaller debt from a peer. When the other slave could not pay and asked for mercy using almost the exact words that had led the master to forgive the first slave, he was unmoved and had him imprisoned until the debt was paid. When the master heard, he reversed his mercy. Jesus tells this story after Peter asks how many times he ought to forgive another person of faith who has wronged him. Picking a high number, Peter suggests, “as many as seven times?” Jesus surprises him by saying, “Not seven times, but seventy-seven.” In other words, forgive until you lose count.
These two stories about forgiveness from this week’s scripture readings (and all the back story on Joseph and his complicated family which begins in Genesis 37) have me thinking about the challenges involved with forgiving people. You already know how complicated and challenging it can be. And you probably also know how freeing it can be for both the forgiver and the forgiven when a wrong is set aside and they begin anew.
Sometimes it is easy to forgive and move on. Other times, it takes a long time and a good deal of patience and compassion. Sometimes we just aren’t able to forgive. Jesus’ parable ends with some harsh words about consequences for those who do not forgive, words that don’t fit with my understanding or my experience of God. But his words do fit with my understanding and my experience of forgiveness. When it is hard for me to forgive or when I don’t forgive, the relationship suffers and I suffer, too. The thing I can’t forgive stays alive, takes my time and energy, and gets in the way.
We are called to forgive as we have been forgiven, and like everything else we are called to do as followers of Jesus, we are imperfect at forgiveness. That imperfection has consequences for our relationships and our own way in the world. The lack of forgiveness itself brings suffering. So, we try to get better at following Jesus and living in the ways we are called to, knowing that we will always fall short. We find hope in our ability to grow and get better at things like forgiveness over time. And we find hope in the knowledge that God has long ago stopped trying to count the number of times God has forgiven each of us.