Forgiveness and justice

Sermon given by Revd Sue McCoan 20th Feb 2022 at St. Andrew’s Ealing 

Genesis 45:3-11, 15

Luke 6:27-38

Jesus tells us to love our enemies; not to judge, but to forgive. We all know this is easier said than done; but forgiveness is difficult in two ways. It is difficult to do, personally, because it means dealing with hurt and anger that are often very persistent. It’s also difficult ethically – what does forgiveness mean? And how does it relate to justice? Sometimes when people call for ‘Christian forgiveness’, they are hoping to be let off from any consequences of their actions. Is that what Jesus meant? Two stories on the same page of the newspaper this week – a doctor who was stabbed in an unprovoked attack, and the scandal of the post office workers whose lives were ruined by false accusations – raise lots of questions about justice and forgiveness.

I want to think about these questions by looking at the story of Joseph.

We might look, first, at his immediate reaction, when he finds himself in this nightmare situation of being a prisoner in Egypt. What’s he going to do? He’s going to live. He hasn’t time for bitterness or self-pity; he needs to put all his energy into survival: adapting, learning, seizing opportunities. His faith helps him to look forward, and with God’s help he builds a life for himself in this foreign land.

He has gone from the security of his parents’ home, where he is the favourite son, through the total insecurity of being trafficked, to arrive at a point where his security comes from within: from God and from his willingness to share his gifts and energy with others. Joseph rises to power not by playing politics or being cunning, but simply by being wise and responsible. He’s not scoring points off other people, so he’s not thrown off course when other people try to score points off him, or otherwise manipulate him. By the time his brothers turn up, Joseph has complete confidence in who he is and what he can do. They are no longer any threat to him. That means he has the capacity to be compassionate, because he has found healing within himself.

It matters to find our own security in God, if we are to deal well with others.

Now let’s look at what has been going on with the brothers. Nowhere in this story does it say that they are sorry, but they too have been undergoing a transformation.

Having done their dreadful business of selling Joseph to strangers, the brothers went back home and lied to their father, telling him that Joseph had been killed by a wild animal. Not only did they cover up their crime, they took on the role of bereaved family, joining their father in his grief and mourning, pretending to care while knowing they were responsible. This is appalling behaviour in almost every way. No wonder they are horrified when they realise the person they have come to for help is Joseph himself. Here is their whole shameful past catching up with them. Now surely all their guilt will be uncovered, their father will hate them, and Joseph will extract a justified revenge.

But somehow, during this time while Joseph was busy in Egypt, the brothers have changed. The bible doesn’t tell us what they were doing, but their attitude is very different now.

In today’s reading, this is the second visit the brothers have made to Egypt. When they went the first time, not long before this, they didn’t take Benjamin, the youngest, with them. On this second visit, they explain why. Joseph, you remember, was the first-born son of Rachel, the wife that Jacob really loved. Benjamin was Rachel’s second son, and Rachel died giving birth to him. It’s because Jacob loved Rachel so much that these 2 sons, Joseph and Benjamin, are so special to him. He’s already lost Rachel; he’s already, as he thinks, lost Joseph; Benjamin is all he has left of the love of his life. The boys left Benjamin at home with their father on the first trip because they couldn’t bear to risk breaking their father’s heart again.

Joseph didn’t reveal himself to them on that occasion. But he could see that they were now putting their father’s feelings ahead of their own. And when he insisted that they go back and fetch Benjamin, he heard them saying, this is our punishment, or being so cruel to Joseph all those years ago. So he knew they were facing up to their shameful past.

On this second visit, with Benjamin, Joseph sets them a test: he plants a silver cup in Benjamin’s sack of grain, and accuses him of stealing. The punishment, he says, for this theft, is becoming a slave – which means Benjamin staying in Egypt for ever. This is not a test for Benjamin, but for the brothers – if Benjamin stays, they are free to go home. But they can’t bring themselves to do it. Not now. Judah, says no, we can’t go home without Benjamin, it would break our father’s heart. Let me take the punishment instead.

What a change. It’s at this point that Joseph decides the time has come to tell his brothers who he really is.

This could be the moment to really lay into them. Instead, he does an amazing thing. He says, don’t be distressed or angry – God is in this. It wasn’t you who sent me to Egypt – God sent me, to save the lives of all these people who would otherwise have died in the famine. To save your lives too. So now, go and bring our father too; bring your families, and your flocks. There’s room for you all. It is time for the whole family to be reunited.

Neither Joseph nor his brothers mention what happened all those years ago. There is no need. They have all moved on, and they are able to pick up the relationship in a different place from where they left off.

But does that mean that the crime didn’t matter? That it’s fine to sell your brother into slavery, because God will bring some good out of it? I don’t think so.

I think the brothers did pay for their crime. Having gone through the period of false mourning, they then had to live with their father’s real grief at the loss of Joseph. They will have seen his pain, etched into his face; they will have known that they caused this pain. They don’t need to make any sort of amends to Joseph, and he doesn’t need to exact any revenge on them. Their punishment, and their redemption, is in their relationship with their father.

(Just to finish the story, Jacob and all the sons’ families do come to Egypt to live, and Jacob lives out his days in peace.)

I have never been as badly wronged as Joseph was. I am fortunate in that I’ve not been a victim of serious crime or fraud. Probably just as well, as I’m perfectly capable of getting angry at things that are much more trivial. I have learned to wait before I respond, to think, ‘why am I so upset by this?’ More often than I like to admit, it’s because I wanted to be right, or to look good, and it hasn’t happened. I’ve learnt to think, ‘maybe there’s a good reason for them being so snappy, or pushy – I don’t know what else is going on in their day, in their life’. I have learnt the value of the ‘Save as draft’ function when writing an email – and the value o sometimes pressing ‘Delete’ instead of ‘Send’.

It doesn’t mean I will just say I’m wrong for the sake of an easy life. It does mean, if there is an issue to be addressed, that I can address it calmly and hopefully in a constructive way. (I don’t always get it right.)

If there is a more serious harm, like the doctor I mentioned earlier, then it is my sincere hope that the person who caused the harm faces up to the consequences. But it may not be me, or the person who was wronged, who has to make them do that. One of the cornerstones of our criminal justice system is that it is impartial – the victim is a witness, not the prosecutor or judge. It removes the element of revenge; it removes justice from the hurt and anger.  In the case of Dr Adam Towler, who was stabbed, the attacker was jailed for life, but Dr Towler, giving his victim impact statement, said he was not angry with him. He counted himself lucky to have survived and to have his life ahead of him; the attacker too had a life, and he hoped he would make something of it.

I wish there were something more positive to say about the post office workers, who are still having to fight to clear their names. A message of love to them comes not in preaching forgiveness but in standing beside them in their fight for justice. Only then can they really move on.

When you take the heat out of a situation, whether by giving justice to wronged people, or through the criminal justice system, or in calming down my crabby reactions, you allow for the rebuilding of relationships. Joseph rebuilt his relationship with his brothers, and all of them rebuilt their relationship with their father, perhaps on a healthier and more honest basis than before. This is what Jesus is calling for in this passage.

Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; forgive and you will be forgiven; judge not. It’s all here, in Joseph’s story. Let’s pray that this will be in our stories too.