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"Forgiveness" - Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

Posted on February 24, 2019 by Kathy Miller


Genesis 45:1-28

Rev. Jennifer Gleichauf

February 24, 2019


So, let’s talk about this act of forgiveness by Joseph.  Joseph forgives his brothers whose jealousy of him led them to betray, reject and leave him for dead.  And doesn’t just forgive them, but welcomes them to come live with him and gives them a king’s ransom of wealth.  It’s an incredible act of forgiveness. 

            It is the kind of forgiveness story that would still make headlines today. Which I know because there are regularly these kinds of amazing forgiveness stories in the news - stories of victims forgiving their torturer, attacker, abuser; stories of forgiveness from the families of murder victims.  Stories of people who have experienced the unforgivable and who are yet somehow able to look in the face of their oppressor, abuser or the person who took a loved one from them, and forgive them. These stories make the news certainly because we are amazed by them, and also because they cause us to wonder if we would do the same.  Would we be able to forgive something so terrible?  Would we even want to? 

And sometimes these stories make us feel guilty for what and who we haven’t forgiven in our own lives.  We hear these amazing stories and compare them to the things we carry anger, betrayal and hurt over, and think – “our hurts are less than those, why can’t we forgive them?”  And we may feel guilty particularly over the situations where we struggle to forgive even and we know we are being small or petty or there may be people we are angry with, but can’t remember why we are mad anymore.  So, we hear Joseph’s story and these other amazing stories of forgiveness and wonder: how could I ever forgive something so terrible when I struggle to forgive what seems like less? 







But because of the way we often hear these stories, I believe we have developed a misunderstanding about forgiveness.  The news stories we hear or when we read just this one part of Joseph’s story can make it appear that forgiveness is a single act or event.  It seems like the people capable of forgiving such terrible acts just woke up that day with the ability to forgive that way.  But that, at least in my experience, isn’t how forgiveness works.  To forgive big, we must have practiced forgiving small. Forgiveness is a practice, a daily practice, sometimes an hourly practice - a spiritual discipline.  And you don’t go around forgiving murderers on your first day of practice; any more then you paint a Monet after one art lesson or land a double axel jump on the ice your first-time skating. 

And even with practice, more often than not, forgiveness still happens over a period of time, not all at once, it takes time to get to forgiveness.  And even once we forgive, our forgiveness doesn’t erase what happened. So, feelings of anger, hurt or sadness may still continue to come up as we continue to experience the effects of the hurtful action on us at different times of our life.  This means we often have to keep forgiving the same hurtful action as we understand it and its impact on us in new ways through our life.  

            So, consider with me that Joseph’s forgiveness of his brothers probably didn’t begin when he was lying at the bottom of the pit they threw him in or as he was shackled in chains walking towards Egypt.  No, perhaps, forgiving his brothers came a bit easier after he found a way to forgive the slave owners who had held him captive or the jailors who locked him in the cell.  Maybe he worked on forgiving Potiphar’s wife for her false accusations.  And maybe in those long hours sitting in a jail cell, Joseph practiced forgiveness a little bit at a time…remembering each brother and the things he loved about him; thinking about the good times they’d had together; and even trying to understand their jealousy of him.


And so, years later, when his brothers come to him begging for food, not even recognizing him, Joseph was ready to forgive them for their sakes.  This isn’t in anyway saying what they did was right, and the reality of missing so many years with his family is still painful, but he forgives in hopes of a better future, and to offer them the forgiveness they surely need.

Which isn’t to say that Joseph forgives only for the sake of his brothers.  Joseph knew he had all the power in this situation. He could send his family to starve and no one would even judge him for it.  But his act of forgiveness is as much for himself, and the future he wants, as for them.  Catholic nun and author, Joan Chittister said, “The great spiritual question is not whether or not this person, this situation, deserves mercy.  It is about whether or not we ourselves are capable of showing it.” Or the Buddha said, “Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one getting burned.”  Joseph chose to love his brothers and thus heal himself as well. He forgives to let go of the anger, the pain, the hurt and betrayal that might otherwise consume him.

So, Joseph forgives for his brothers’ sake, and for his own sake, but there is still more.  Joseph forgives for the sake of the one harmed second hand by his brother’s evil actions - his father.  The first question he asks them is: “is my father alive?”  And learning that his father is still living, he knows the only chance to be reunited in relationship with this father is to forgive his brothers.  By forgiving his brothers Joseph can also be reunited with his father.  And after being apart for so many years, after so many years of grieving for each other, by forgiving his brothers, Joseph gets his father back as well.

So, Joseph forgives for his brothers’ sake, for his own sake, and for the sake of his father. 




But that is still not all.  There is still another important aspect of Joseph’s forgiveness.  And that is Joseph’s understanding of his part in God’s providence—God’s plan. Joseph says “God sent me before you to preserve you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors.  It was not you who sent me here, but God.”

Now, we should be careful here because this has been misinterpreted as Joseph saying that God caused his brothers to do this terrible thing to him; that God planned and orchestrated the violence of Joseph’s brothers because it would bring Joseph to this place. This understanding leads to the kinds of common platitudes like “The ends justify the means.” “God won’t give you more than you can handle.”  As if to say, God causes suffering and pain to see how strong we are or that God makes terrible things happen to eventually lead to something good.   

But this God is not the God of love, mercy, justice and forgiveness to which the Bible bears witnesses. God did not literally send Joseph down into the pit and force his brothers to sell him into slavery.  The human intentions and actions were evil, his brothers chose to harm him of their own accord, but God is able to turn evil to good for God’s purposes. And at this point, Joseph was able to look over his life with a long view and see God’s hand in his redemption.  Joseph sees God’s hand in the dreams he interpreted; he sees God’s hand in the right people placed in his life at the right time; he sees that God did not cause the bad things, but God was there through all the bad things. God allowed his brothers the free will with which to make their choices; God did not stop them from choosing evil, but neither did God allow that to be the end of Joseph’s story. 

Joseph says exactly this to his brother’s later in chapter 50 – “even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good.”

            Joseph looked back at the course of his life—and could see God’s hand in it, God’s providence working for good.  While his brother’s actions could never be forgiven, his brother’s themselves could be.  While his brother’s actions caused great harm, God did not let that harm be the end of Joseph’s story. 

            This understanding of God’ providence, God’s plan is also a spiritual practice.  There will be parts of God’s plan we will only have to the ability to understand in the long view, even some that we will never understand in our lifetime, but God’s plan does reveal itself in plenty of moments of our lives – sometimes with a great a-ha; other times with a slow revelation; sometimes in the words of a friend or stranger; sometimes in a dream or vision.  But, just like forgiveness, if we don’t make it a practice; if we don’t open our eyes and hearts and minds to consider where God is moving and working for good in our lives, we will certainly miss it.  We are invited to consider each and every day, where was the good?  Where was God?  How has God used me for good today and where did I choose something else instead?

            The Bible is full of stories of amazing forgiveness.  Joseph for one, and of course, Jesus as well.  Jesus who also had abiding faith in God’s providence and plan.  I can hardly imagine the kind of forgiveness and providence that allowed Jesus to hang upon the cross and whisper “Forgive them Father, for they know not what they do;” or to kneel in the garden knowing what was ahead and say to God, “not my will, but yours.” 

But, with Jesus and Joseph as our example, we have the opportunity to start in the daily work of these practices; to ask ourselves each day where we have the opportunity to forgive and where we see God’s hand at work for good.  With regular practice of these spiritual disciplines, we hope to find ourselves better prepared in the times when the wound is so deep or a great evil makes us fear God has abandoned us entirely.

So, may Joseph be an example to us of, yes, this incredible act of forgiveness, but let us put it into the context of a man who had practiced forgiveness over time, who forgave for the sake of his brothers, for himself and for his father, Jacob, but ultimately who forgave because he had come to trust in God’s providence—God who continued to work for good in and through Joseph and who promises the same to each of us.







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