On Forgiveness, Again?

February 24, 2019 — Rev. Paula Norbert
Genesis 45:3-11, 15, Luke 6:27-28


Today, we hear the continuation in Luke of the Sermon on the Plain that we began last week, with these challenging words from Jesus, “I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.” These and several others messages are considered the hard sayings of Jesus, for obvious reasons. We share two challenging and yet beautiful passages today of how we might respond to life’s greatest challenges, the times of betrayal and hurt, pain and brokenness that we all share within families and communities…and certainly in nations. Let us pray, We ask your blessing upon us this day, O Holy One of Consolation and Healing. Help us to find ways to bring about healing, forgiveness and reconciliation and to stretch ourselves to imagine that we too may find forgiveness in our lives. Amen.

When our son was about 4 or 5, we were reading from the Bible one Sunday night during Lent together as part of our prayer before dinner, and I remember him asking, Did Jesus really say we should love our enemies? He found that nearly impossible to comprehend, but of course, we had to assure him that he had heard the words right. It’s always interesting to consider things from the viewpoint of a child, a simple, literal interpretation of the passage. It doesn’t matter how old we are, this is a passage that is hard for anyone at any age to grasp, love our enemies? It sounds so counter intuitive, doesn’t it? Forgive someone not just once but 7×7 times…

In 2008, a moving documentary was released called The Power of Forgiveness. It won the best documentary at the Sun Valley Spiritual Film Festival that year. The film includes interviews with some of our great spiritual leaders of this time and more importantly, it shares several powerful and incredible stories of efforts at forgiveness. They visit the Pennsylvania Amish community where the community was able to forgive after a man killed five little girls in their school. They speak with some of the families who lost loved ones on 9/11, who along with the Rev. Lyndon Harris from St. Paul’s Chapel which is located next to Ground Zero talks about the radical idea of a Garden of Forgiveness near that site where people can meditate. Elie Wiesel remembers how he invited the German government to apologize to the Jewish people in Israel for the holocaust. And perhaps most moving is the story of two men, Azim Khaisa and Ples Felix. Ples’s grandson murdered Azim’s son; after Azim reached out to forgive, the two men became friends. They now travel to schools to tell their story and encourage children to try this spiritual practice. These are all hard stories, challenging circumstances under which it may seem impossible to ever extend forgiveness…and yet.

They also speak to a number of spiritual leaders who reflect on the larger themes of forgiveness and reconciliation. Rev. James A. Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church in New York City says, “It is not possible to achieve by vigilance in anger and revenge what the soul is longing for. What the soul wishes is peace.” The Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh explains that “forgiveness will not be possible until compassion is born in your heart.” Thomas Moore, the bestselling author on the soul, says, “Forgiveness comes in its own time. . . . We can create the conditions under which forgiveness will appear, but it will appear in its own time and in its own way.”

Many Christians, many of us too, consider the New Testament to be markedly different from the Old Testament on account of Jesus’s message concerning forgiveness. But upon reflection, we see that certain persons from the Old Testament pre-figure Jesus with respect to the specific matter of forgiving one’s enemies. And one’s enemies in the Old Testament often turn out to be one’s own family since they are the ones to whom we are most vulnerable and from whom we sadly receive our deepest wounds. Familial love is most often our first experience of the incarnation of divine love. Loving family members reinforce the fact that we are loved simply for being who we are and who we are created to be. Unfortunately, this is also why the most damaging experience of sin many of us have comes at the hands of those who first loved us. The list of family dysfunctions is long and well-documented: addictions; physical, sexual and verbal abuse; neglect and abandonment; various unhealthy systems in which individuals are excessively burdened or else stripped of their dignity as family, as someone worthy of love. It’s enough to make us wonder if there really is a remedy for such a dispiriting encounter with Godforsakeness. For example, we see in Genesis that Jacob tricks his brother Esau into selling his birthright as the first-born son, and Rebecca herself, the twins’ mother, sides with Jacob and helps him receive Isaac’s blessing ahead of Esau. Jacob prospers, of course, but at the cost of having to leave his home since Esau has revealed his intention to kill his brother once their father Isaac dies (and so repeat the crime of Cain).

But then Genesis works its spiritual wonder years later by bringing Jacob and his entire family and household face-to-face with Esau at the head of four hundred men. Jacob is defenseless, utterly vulnerable to his brother’s attack, but he decides finally to go forward to meet Esau in the company of his wives, Leah and Rachel, and their children. And Jacob performs one last action: he bows on the ground to Esau seven times before they meet. Jacob is clearly submitting to his brother, the very thing he schemed to avoid doing when he claimed Esau’s birthright.

And it is equally clear that Esau, seeing his brother’s repentance while also taking in the wonder of Jacob’s extended family and their vulnerability, softens, and just like that the tangled matter is loosened and forgiveness reigns. Esau hugs his brother to him and the conflict is forever over. Hatred, fear and violence give way to love, gratitude and active support between the brothers. In bowing, Jacob acknowledges he wronged Esau; in clasping Jacob to him, Esau sets aside his need for vengeance because he wants love, he wants to be in relationship more. This is exactly how Jesus would arrange this story if he told it as a parable.

And just so we really take in this point, Genesis proceeds to narrate an even worse story of betrayal and forgiveness that takes place less than a generation after Jacob and Esau’s confrontation. The story of Joseph, from which we hear today, also provides one of the eloquent and heartfelt answers to the problem of family betrayal and sin. Himself a member of a blended family common in his era, Joseph trusted he could be himself with his extended family. But he loses his innocence when his brothers cruelly betray him, selling Joseph into slavery, and then lie to Jacob to cover up their sin. Joseph, victim and brother, is powerless to stop them.

Yet as the Genesis story moves toward its climactic moment of fraternal reunion in Egypt, where Joseph now serves as Pharoah’s right hand man, we immediately grasp how the tables have turned, that Joseph now has a near absolute power within the new family dynamic. And he can redress his previous losses, just as Esau wanted to do, by inflicting on his brothers the same cruelty he suffered, or worse. Indeed, how familiar it seems and how utterly dysfunctional.

Joseph proceeds as if he may yet act vengefully until he sees Benjamin, the one brother who is innocent of Joseph’s betrayal, and his heart softens. Joseph quickly leaves the gathering of brothers in order to find a private place to cry—at first, he hides his pain from them.

But then in a truly redemptive moment of intimacy, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers as he openly weeps before them and announces who he is. He has decided to remain vulnerable and open to them, even in his pain, the only choice that makes authentic reconciliation possible. This time grief is not converted to anger, as so often happens in dysfunctional family systems, which we know only leads to more grief and anger. Joseph’s response indicates a way out of recycling family pains in the only way we can put them to good use: by identifying ourselves as both aggrieved—and therefore unwilling to be hurt again—and yet still full of love for those who have injured us. This approach is not an easy one but proves transformative since it knits together Joseph’s deeply torn family.

New Testament writers like to emphasize how Jesus fulfills Old Testament prophecies concerning the coming of a savior, or messiah. But the inverse relationship is equally vivid. Key persons from the Old Testament ‘pre-figure’ God’s salvific movement in our behalf as an act of forgiveness and of letting go. Esau and Joseph reveal themselves as aggrieved and forgiving at the same time. We should consider that God too may be aggrieved over our sins but forgiving too since we are, after all, members of the same family and so always remain worthy of love.

The director of the documentary, The Power of Forgiveness, offered some thoughts on the film at the time it was released in 2008. They seem to be particularly fitting for our time as well, now a decade later. He said, “The word ‘forgiveness’ may be the most provocative word in our culture today. There is an underlying anger in our country that we see regularly in our movies, in the news, even on our highways. For some, that anger is acceptable, while others are calling for a new direction in our thinking and the way we interact with others. Forgiveness proves itself not only to be good for our health, but it offers a solid first step in that new direction.”

To forgive someone, to ask for forgiveness, to do the hard work of reconciliation of truly taking responsibility for one’s actions when one has harmed another or communities have harmed others, that may seem impossible, but history teaches us that ultimately, it is the only way forward ultimately…it is the only way to heal families and communities, to heal nations. The spiritual writer Marianne Williamson adds: “At a time when we see so much evil, we are called upon to have the moral grandeur and spiritual audacity to believe in good, to proclaim it, to stand in conviction, to take the people who truly do evil and, yes, hold them accountable. But to nevertheless stand for the possibility of human redemption that turns even the hardest hearts.”