[Jesus said:] 27“But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, 28bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. 30Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. 31Do to others as you would have them do to you.
32“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. 35But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked. 36Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
37“Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven; 38give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back.”
Joseph’s brothers did him wrong, no question. The choice they made, out of jealousy, resentment, annoyance, vengeance, has no excuse, no matter how arrogant and presumptuous Joseph was as a young man, no matter how unfair Jacob’s favoritism of his young son. And the damage they did was significant. For years, Joseph lived in slavery. He endured physical hardship and even abuse, false accusations by Potifar’s wife, ridicule for the gift of dream interpretation that God had given him. And Jacob lived all those years thinking that his beloved son was dead.
Ultimately, Joseph’s fortune turns around. Potifar comes to believe him, and not only releases him from prison, and sets him free from slavery, but puts him in charge of guiding the whole country through the famine that had come over the land. We aren’t told how it happens for Joseph. Maybe it was the time that had passed since his brothers sold him. Maybe it was because the physical slavery and hardship that resulted from his brothers’ betrayal had ended. Maybe it the great position of power and privilege that he found himself in. One way or another, by the time Joseph’s brothers come to him desperately seeking the food they will need to survive the famine, Joseph has forgiven them for what they did. He has been set free not only from his physical prison, but from the emotional prison of resentment and anger. Truly, a miracle had happened.
When North Minneapolis resident Mary Johnson’s son Laramiun was shot by Oshea Israel, another teenager in the neighborhood, in 1993, forgiveness and love was the last thing on their mind. In an interview with People magazine in 2011, Mary and Oshea shared their experience. Mary said, “At the trial I hated Oshea. I thought he was an animal and deserved to be caged. I was so angry when the judge charged him with second degree murder, instead of first degree.”
For his part, Oshea felt that Laramiun was to blame for the shooting, and that if Mary had raised him better the conflict that led to Laramiun’s death and Oshea’s imprisonment would not have happened. As time went on, Mary’s anger and depression and grief led her to become a recluse, and ultimately she knew she needed God’s help to forgive the man who had killed her son. After 12 long years, and countless hours of tears and prayer, Mary visited Oshea in prison, and as they shared their pain with each other, God transformed them, and love and forgiveness became possible in the midst of anger and grief.
Mary founded From Death to Life, a program that offers hope and reconciliation to others who have lost children to violence through support groups, prayer walks, and community gatherings that celebrate life and forgiveness. Oshea was paroled in 2010, and today, Mary and Oshea live next door to each other, and share their story of healing from podiums and pulpits around the world, offering hope to many who have experienced the same grief. Oshea, having recognized his own guilt and responsibility for Laramiun’s death, said, “I caused her pain, but we are loving our way through it.”[i] Their journey was far from over. There was much healing yet to take place. But, a miracle had happened.
This is a dramatic example that may seem out of reach, and when left to our own resources, it is. Fortunately, it is precisely where we fall short that God steps in. For us as humans, on our own, forgiveness is not possible, but with God, miracles of love and healing are possible, and they happen every day.
Forgiveness is not an easy thing. If it were, the Bible would not need to include so many stories about it, such as Joseph’s story today, and Jesus would not have continually taught his listeners, and us, to forgive. If forgiveness was something we could just choose once and for all, and be done, there would be no need to talk about it, right? But it is hard. And there is much to learn from what scriptures share about how we respond when we are wounded. There is much we can learn from the courageous vulnerability of those like Mary and Oshea who share their pain and anger, and the miracle of their healing.
There are several things about forgiveness revealed in the stories we have heard today. First of all, forgiveness takes time, and sometimes distance. For Mary, it was years of living in deep bitterness before she could even think of talking to Oshea, and Joseph lived in Egypt apart from his family for years before facing the brothers who had betrayed him. Mary tried to force forgiveness, but it took time and the healing of the Spirit for it to truly begin to happen.
Secondly, when forgiveness happens, it is not because the person who did harm demands it. When we have harmed another, our job is not to require them to forgive us, but to own up to what we have done, and commit to being different, no matter how that person feels about us. When we have been harmed, our job is to bring our woundedness to God for healing, and ask for help in being freed from our own prison of pain, anger, and resentment. Joseph, with God’s grace, extended mercy to his brothers. Mary, with God’s help, came to forgive Oshea. Oshea, with God’s help, came to understand how much harm he had done, and commit to living a different life.
Finally, this process of forgiving is certainly a gift of grace from the person who was harmed to the person who did the harm. But first and foremost, when we have been harmed, forgiveness sets us free from our own pain, making space for healing to continue. Jesus calls us to forgiveness because he wants us to be whole. Jesus calls us to forgiveness because God’s greatest desire is for us to live in love.
Forgiveness is not easy, and there are times when the harm done has been so great that boundaries and distance and even separation are necessary for healing and wholeness to take place. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not the same thing. Whether together or separately, miracles of forgiveness and healing happen, every day. It takes time, and patience, and is only possible with God’s help.
We are, in our humanity, people who mess up often, who hurt one another, and fail to live in the love of the God who made us for love. And we are, in our humanity, beloved children of God who continue to grow and experience the miracles of community and forgiveness and healing that God has for us. And we can walk this journey together, trusting the God of Jacob, and Joseph, and Mary and Oshea, to guide us on the way. Thanks be to God!
[i] Margaret Nelson Brinkhaus and Lorenzo Benet. “How I Forgave My Son’s Murderer.” People Magazine, September 12, 2011, 84-86.