Learning to Forgive Like Joseph
RUMC September 3, 2017
Pastor Paul R. O’Neil
Simeon Wiesenthal, a Jewish prisoner in a World War II German Concentration camp, had lost 89 relatives due to Nazi atrocities. One day he had been taken out of a work detail and brought to the prison hospital to see an injured German soldier named Karl. As Karl lay in a bed with his face covered in bandages, he made this confession to Simeon: “All the Jews in a certain town were herded in a wooden building and I helped set it on fire.” When Simon heard this, he wanted to get up and leave, but Karl begged him to stay. Then he said, “I am left here with my guilt. I know you are a Jew and what I am asking is almost too much. I need your forgiveness, but without your answer, I cannot die in peace.” Simon sat in silence for some time and without saying a word, he stood up and left the room.
In contrast there was another person, Corrie Ten Boom, who was a devout member of the Dutch Reformed Church. She too had also been imprisoned and lost 10 relatives in concentration camps. At a church service Corrie met a former Nazi prison guard who extended his hand and said, “Fraulein, isn’t it wonderful that God forgives.” For what seemed like an eternity Corrie stared at him and finally extended her hand in a sign of reconciliation.
Simon Wiesenthal and Corrie Ten boom demonstrated two different reactions when it came to the matter of forgiveness.
In my scripture text, Joseph had been clearly wronged by his brothers. In the 13 years he had spent in captivity, the first 9-10 years was first as a slave in Potiphar’s house and then in prison. But the good news was that he was released and was elevated to the very high position as governor of the land. Joseph was a very skilled administrator as governor; he provided well for the people he served. One day his 10 brothers showed up in search of food. The dilemma Joseph now faced: Should he seek revenge or forgive? We pick up the story in Genesis 45:1-15.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. 3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. 5 And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. 6 For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. 7 God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. 8 So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. 9 Hurry and go up to my father and say to him, ‘Thus says your son Joseph, God has made me lord of all Egypt; come down to me, do not delay. 10You shall settle in the land of Goshen, and you shall be near me, you and your children and your children’s children, as well as your flocks, your herds, and all that you have. 11I will provide for you there—since there are five more years of famine to come—so that you and your household, and all that you have, will not come to poverty.’ 12And now your eyes and the eyes of my brother Benjamin see that it is my own mouth that speaks to you. 13You must tell my father how greatly I am honored in Egypt, and all that you have seen. Hurry and bring my father down here.” 14Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, while Benjamin wept upon his neck. 15And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
This is the Word of God.
The Egyptian famine that Joseph predicted was so widespread that it spread into parts of Israel. It was so harsh and debilitating that it forced Jacob to send his sons some 250 miles through the desert to buy grain. When Joseph first saw them, he immediately recognized his brothers, but they didn’t recognize him. However after a series of interesting events, it was now time for reconciliation.
When Joseph made himself known, there was no revenge or hostility, just simple forgiveness. I think all would agree this is a great story, but if we have been wronged, would we be able to push the “on” switch to forgiveness.
Here are a couple of quotes you may enjoy.
- “Everyone says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.”
- “When you bury the hatchet, don’t bury it in your neighbor’s back.”
- “It takes a strong person to forgive and even a stronger person to forget.”
- “Forgiving is not forgetting, it is letting go of the hurt.”
John Wesley, the founder of our Methodist Church, had traveled to Georgia by ship as a young missionary when he heard a commotion in the cabin of General Oglethorpe, the newly appointed governor of Georgia. Wesley went to the cabin to find out the problem and learned that the Governor’s servant had drunk his boss’s favorite wine and hid the evidence. The governor in turn had his servant bound like a criminal and carried away for punishment, possibly prison.
The Governor turned to the young missionary and said, “For you know, Mr. Wesley, I will never forgive.” And without hesitation, Wesley said, “Well in that case sir, I hope you never sin.” There was a pause and the governor had his servant released with the warning not to do that again.
Here are some scriptures to help us learn to forgive.
- “Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that someone has something against you; leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to that person and come offer your gift.” Mt. 5:23-24
- “For if you forgive people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive those their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” Mt 6:14-15
- And of course the Lord’s Prayer, a good reminder that if God is to forgive us, we need to forgive others: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Whenever I hear someone say they cannot or will not forgive, it makes me cringe because an individual’s unforgiveness will become a prison of bitterness and all the negative emotions that will accompany that.
You see, we are flesh and blood with complex emotions. And with our humanness, whether it be in our family, at church, in the work place, our neighborhoods, schools, and other type of organizations, there will be misunderstandings and hurt feelings.
With my family, there seems to be a long history of holding grudges and not speaking to one another. Because the Lord came into my heart and my Bible readings, I do my best to try to resolve them. If I don’t, it will sap a lot of emotional energy. It is difficult to worship God when there is a troubled relationship that needs fixing.
Most of us get our news from the Internet, television, and print media and a lot of what we see or read has to do with conflict. If you think about it, there are people, organizations, government who are hurt, upset, outraged, and want justice. It seems like the majority of the resolutions are police arrests, jail time, lawsuits, investigations, and military action. Though they may be legally adjudicated, anger and hard feelings can last a lifetime.
Hopefully none of us will ever be in the news for the wrong reasons, but if we could take a lesson from Joseph: forgive, make reconciliation and move on. If we let anger and bitterness take root, no matter how badly we have been injured, it will poison us the rest of our lives. It is important to invite Jesus to come into our lives and receive the forgiveness of our sins that we extend to others.
Let me close with this story. Once there was a man and his friends who walked along a trail in East Africa when he became aware of a sweet odor that filled the air. He was told it came from a small purplish flower, nicknamed the Forgiveness Flower. He was told when someone crushes the tiny blossoms under his feet, the sweet perfume is released into the air. Now when you think about it, this forgiveness flower does not wait until we ask forgiveness. It does not ask for an apology; it merely lives up to its name and forgives, freely, fully, and richly when it releases its sweet fragrance.
And that is what Joseph did. The miracle of forgiveness is the start of a new beginning. It does not always take away the past hurt. It does not deny the past injury, but it does allow the person to move on. It is a good feeling when we can reconcile and renew friendships.