Joseph’s crucial question––“Am I in the place of God?”––calls on us to stop judging others, taking the first step on the road to being able to forgive. But it is not easy to do.
Stories of forgiveness always catch our breath: the parents of the peace worker killed in an African village where the parents, then, continue their daughter’s work by building wells; the Amish community in Pennsylvania that forgave the killer of several young children in the school; the families of murder victims who plead that the killer’s life be spared.
To forgive is to be transformed. That is what we hear today in all the readings.
When responding to Peter's question about how often to forgive, Jesus' answer must not be construed as a program specifying a maximum of seventy-seven occurrences. The parable suggests that forgiveness becomes a lifestyle for those who have received God's forgiveness. Peter's question had to do with granting forgiveness for repeated offenses, while Jesus' parable deals with forgiveness for an immense debt, yet both are focused on the same problem. Forgiveness does not flow naturally from the human heart.
For the believer who lives in reconciled relationship with God, the character of God will have a transformative effect on the character of the believer. The story asks the listener to contemplate whether a person could receive the mercy of God while remaining unmerciful toward fellow believers (those whom Paul describes in Romans 14:4 as servants belonging to God). The believer will find that forgiveness not only sets the offender free, but also gives life and freedom to those who do not hold a grudge or seek revenge.
This parable does not address every question one might have about forgiveness, but addresses the listener with both the overpowering judgment and demand of God and with the life-giving power of God. The parable may call the listener to consider whether he or she is continuing to hold on to resentment for wrongs suffered in the past. The listener is invited to consider relinquishing some hurt, so as to be set free from its power.
– Aaron J. Couch
Anticipating Jesus' words concerning forgiveness, the first reading recalls how Joseph reassured his brothers that he would not take revenge on them for all the suffering they had caused him. The brothers had worried that Joseph's only reason for restraint had been out of respect for their father. Once Isaac was dead, the brothers feared that their lives were in danger. Even though Joseph held a position of great power (almost as good as God, as far as the brothers were concerned), he did not presume to be able to judge them as God would judge, deserving life or death. With a display of irony, however, Joseph acts as God does act, extending forgiveness and promising to provide for them and their children. Joseph has learned that appearances may be deceiving. Even though the brothers had desired to harm Joseph, God used their actions to give life and blessing. Joseph interprets his suffering as having an important role to play in the unfolding of God's hidden purposes.
– Aaron J. Couch
We may not always be able to see our suffering––or that of loved ones or strangers whose lives have come to our attention––as “unfolding God’s hidden purposes,” but that does not mean God’s purposes are not hidden in what befalls us.
As Paul writes, “we live to the Lord.” We live and die “to the Lord.” What we are then called to do is to love our neighbors.
Paul is most concerned about the potential for conflict and judgment to divide the church. . . . Whether it is observing the Sabbath or eating meat that may have been sacrificed to an idol, the Christian must act in accordance with his or her conscience. Even more important, though, the believer must recognize that those with whom he or she disagrees belong to God. No believer has the right or authority to pass judgment on another believer.
– Aaron J. Couch
Aaron J. Couch is co-pastor of First Immanuel Lutheran Church, Portland, Oregon.
Homily Service 41, no. 4 (21 July 2008): 14-25.