Toward Miracles of Reconciliation - Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Charles Westby, Pastor
Genesis 50:15-21, Matthew 18:21-35
September 13, 2020

God’s Word speaks to us today about forgiving others. It also speaks to us in the epistle reading from Romans 14 about not judging others over things that are matters of opinion, that are debatable. Let’s focus on forgiving others.

God’s Word talks to us about forgiving others from the story of Joseph and his brothers. Christ then talks to us about forgiveness from His parable of the unmerciful and unforgiving servant (Mat. 18:21-35). Christ’s statement after His parable packs quite a punch, doesn’t it: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Mat. 18:35 ESV).

Now before we go on, there is something vitally important to notice in both of these sections from God’s Word. It is that in both the story of Joseph and his brothers and Christ’s parable, the person who was supposed to be forgiven by another actually asked for forgiveness. This tells us that if you want to be forgiven for something you have done to someone else, you shouldn’t really expect forgiveness from that person unless you actually seek it from them. So the person who harmed another wonders why that person is alienated and has gone away and does not seem to be reconciled. But the question is for that person: have you actually sought that other person’s forgiveness?

This also tells us that Christ’s teaching comes into play when someone actually seeks forgiveness—though if a person does not already have a heart willing to forgive, it may be difficult to forgive when the time comes.

There are also a couple of secrets in our readings for being able to forgive, for having a forgiving heart —though they aren’t really secret. I will point those out.

Joseph’s brothers did a horrible, despicable, and evil thing to Joseph, didn’t they. They were jealous of Joseph. Unfortunately, Jacob, the father of Joseph and his brothers, tended to spoil Joseph. But that is no excuse for what the brothers did to Joseph.

Their jealousy grew into hatred and malice. And one day they thought: we have had enough. So they actually began talking about how to kill Joseph. And then one day they thought: here is the opportunity to get rid of this pain in the rear, once and for all.

So what did they do? They are out in the fields tending flocks. Here comes Joseph. They conspire against him to get rid of him. They want to kill him but Reuben speaks up and saves his life. So they strip him and throw him into a pit. They see some Ishmaelite traders coming. They said let’s sell him to these Ishmaelites, so at least we won’t be guilty of murder, since Joseph is our flesh and blood.

Here is additional horror: they knew exactly what they were doing.

They sold their brother to the Ishmaelites. They received twenty shekels of silver for him. That is not a lot of money, though, of course, it wouldn’t make it right if they had received a lot of money. They sold their brother to others, though Reuben seemed not to be all in with the conspiracy, to his credit.

What violation of brotherly love and trust. What infliction of terror on their youngest brother who was completely at their mercy. What utter disregard for the well-being of another, whom God would require one to protect even at the cost of one’s own life, precisely because that person was vulnerable and utterly reliant.

It would not take much imagination to understand the fear, the terror, the heartache, the utter alienation and lostness; the utter alone-ness and futile anger Joseph was feeling. What they did was quite real, and quite awful. The Scriptures are brutally honest with us about how rotten human beings can be. And there is no such thing as sin in the abstract.

The brothers covered up their awful deed by lying to their father. In their lie they caused him deep and indescribable grief. Some wild animal got him, they say. See, here is his cloak, which they had soaked in the blood of a goat.

God was with Joseph in the midst of it all. He ended up in Egypt in the household of a man named Potiphar. God ultimately did things to make Joseph second in command in all of Egypt, second only to Pharaoh himself in power and authority.

Then came the day when Jacob and Joseph’s bothers needed what Pharaoh had to offer: namely, food. To get the food, Joseph’s brothers had to deal with Joseph himself. Joseph finally caused his brothers to realize it was him.

Fast forward in the story. Jacob, their father, died. Now his brothers think, like guilt ridden, sinful human nature always thinks: Joseph is going to hate us, like we hated him, and he is going to repay us for the evil we did to him. The perpetrator of the crime also has an inborn sense of justice and just deserts—unless he or she is a sociopath—and it haunts the perpetrator. They come to realize that they better throw themselves on the mercy of the court; we better ask for Joseph’s forgiveness.

Joseph forgave them.

How could he do it? We notice that he relies on the actions of another character in the story, the most important character. This character does not approve of the human actions, but He is also working in the story in them and through them. This character is God. “You guys meant it for evil, what you did to me,” Joseph says. “But God meant it for good.”

 This is one of the secrets of having a forgiving heart, when the time comes. Joseph’s heart has been moved by God to think: “Because God has enabled me to see His hand and purposes operating in the mystery of God’s ways beneath the awful things you did to me, am I now in the place of God not to forgive?”   

By the way, I want to say this to you if someone has done something awful to you and if God’s ways do not become apparent and the perpetrator does not come seeking your forgiveness. Here is what I want to say: God’s immeasurable love, faithfulness, tender care and balm are there for you and always with you.

So we come now to Christ’s parable. There was a servant who owed his master a lot of money. The master wanted to collect, but the servant did not have the money to pay him back. So the servant fell at the feet of his master, throwing himself on the mercy of the court, so to speak, and begged for mercy from his master. His master was moved with compassion. He had mercy on this servant and completely forgave him. He remembered his debt no more.

Now the servant goes out in the freedom of his master’s forgiveness and finds his fellow servant who owes him a little money. He grabs his fellow servant by the neck and shakes him and begins to choke him: “Pay me what you owe,” he demands.

His fellow servant falls on his knees before him, throwing himself on the mercy of the court, begging him at the feet of his fellow servant: “Have mercy on me, and I will repay you.” This is the same plea the unforgiving servant made with his master.

“No, off to the debtor’s prison with you until you pay me everything,” says the unforgiving servant.

This unforgiving servant did not get the other big secret of forgiving others, and his not getting it cost him his soul. This big secret is this: God has forgiven us immensely. Therefore, when others come asking for forgiveness, like we do with God, forgiving them grows out of God forgiving us like an organic unity. This unity is broken, however, when we feel we have a right not to forgive, even though God Himself has already forgiven us completely. The unforgiving servant may have thought that he was operating on the basis of justice: pay me what you owe. But he was actually failing to see that he was being fundamentally unjust. Jesus said it on another occasion: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” We want God to forgive us. Let us forgive others. We want others to forgive us, let us forgive others.

Jesus tells us this parable because He knows that there is a hardness and stinginess in our fallen human hearts about forgiving others that needs to be addressed, from which we need to repent. And He means to impress upon us a different vision, a vision that can overcome and over power the small vision of our proud and selfish sinful nature. It is a vision you already have as a deposit in your heart by faith in Christ and the work of the Spirit, because you have faith in the Gospel: For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son (John 3:16). Jesus gave Himself into death as the ransom for many, as your ransom (Mark 10:45).

But now you have a struggle of visions. Christ’s vision grows out of the fact that Christ went to great lengths, to death on a cross, to accomplish nothing less than the complete forgiveness of you and me. Here is the power of opening our hearts in mercy and compassion to the one who seeks our forgiveness, placing themselves at our mercy. If, however, we refuse to open our hearts toward the other, while relying on the full and complete forgiveness Christ has won for us, we are living a contradiction.  

There are arguments, justifications, and rationalizations ready at hand that we use to withhold forgiveness, but Christ isn’t terribly impressed with them, not really. Jesus wants to lift up your faith, your heart, your will, and your reason to a higher vision than what our proud, selfish, and petty human nature sees. And He is working you in this direction through His word and Spirit, and will keep on working it that way. And then as He teaches our hearts to yield more and more to God’s grace through his cross and wonderful working on us, then who knows what we shall see in miracles of reconciliation that He would accomplish in our lives. May God be doing this work in our lives daily through His grace and mercy in Christ. Amen.    


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