Forgiving the Unforgivable
Not all funerals are sad, not all weddings are glad, and not all family parties are welcoming affairs – but on the other hand, funerals, weddings and family get-togethers can sometimes tell far more about family relationships most families would prefer the outsider to know. And let’s face it sometimes there is plenty of reason for tension.
Second marriages with all the attendant comparisons with the first partner, children exchanging the certainty of family affection with a birth parent for the uncertainty of step son or step daughter relationship, difficulties with new sets of competitors for family assets as wills get redrafted, children partially or completely dispossessed – I guess most of us are familiar with the real life potential script.
Sometimes too the bitterness that erupts at the family get together is totally understandable. The parents of the bride may have been deeply hurt by the haste of marriage of their daughter to someone they genuinely believed would not offer their daughter the love and security they believed she needed. The family can be devastated by the nature and consequences of a death. If it was death by accident, there may be someone considered to blame – a driver, a family member, even a doctor or nurse.
I have been to funerals where tensions have boiled over. At one the teenage driver of the stolen car which had killed the teenage passenger arrived at his friend’s funeral on crutches. An uncle took the microphone and castigated the hapless youth, until too upset to stay, he limped out in tears to stunned silence. At another funeral, some angry members of the family disgusted with the now bereaved second husband, actually heckled and swore at the distraught man from the back of the Church as he tried to say some kind words about his much loved and deeply missed wife. I have also been to weddings and funerals where furious relatives have boycotted the proceedings. Forgiveness is not an automatic response.
Yet forgiveness is important because anger can fester and boil over in socially unacceptable ways destroying lives of perpetrators as well as victims. For my country, New Zealand every year there are several thousand reported serious assaults on children. And because typically only 500 or so result in prosecution there are presumably more assaults in many of those families just waiting to happen. In some ways crimes against family members don’t generate public horror in the same way as public reaction to attack by a national enemy. Some commentators for example have noted that the 2000 or so deaths at Pearl Harbour launched the US into war with the Japanese while the 12,000 or so gun deaths each year in the US pass with weary and barely perceptible public reaction.
For the families affected by the violence there is still a price to pay. Unresolved anger will bring damage. . Specialists in stress related illnesses claim that many common illnesses including, higher blood pressure or simply catching the common cold – right through to angina and stroke can be laid at the feet of unresolved anger.
For those caught up in such situations, whether it be as the instigators, or the victim of the hurt, it can be immensely damaging to the ability to maintain friendships and circle of support.
To return to the funeral setting again, I have attended one funeral of an aunt who had frequently feuded with family and friends and who was known in the family as a hard and unforgiving woman. Although she was well known – and possibly for the wrong reasons – eight people attended her funeral and that included the minister and the organist.
This then raises the question of what to do about it. The story of Joseph and his brothers suggests some useful hints. And yes I am aware that many scholars claim this is not so much a true story as a story with a deliberate theological message to help the Jews see that God’s hand was part of their story. If you like an arranged story not so much about an event which just happened to take place, but rather a God ordained event. But for now we can put this aside. Like most of the stories in the Bible this set of circumstances being portrayed can be understood at many levels and this time I want us to look at the part of the story that portrays the characters as very real and very human, facing a dilemma.
Certainly both Joseph and his brothers come across as flawed characters. Remember there was a sense in which Joseph brought his initial problems on himself. He tormented his brothers with his show-off behaviour. He boasted and told them in no uncertain ways how much more important he was than them. He was not a good person in his boastful self promotion.
The brothers were not only resentful – they too were absolutely morally wrong when they had plotted to kill their brother. That they had sold him to the Egyptians instead hardly justifies their actions. These days we would call such an action human trafficking. The years of slavery and prison they left Joseph facing as a consequence would have been enough to fuel Joseph’s resentment and impotent rage to the limit.
There are many layers of meaning in this story. When we take up today’s story we find Joseph has been promoted for giving wise advice to the Pharaoh based on what we would probably claim these days to be the strange and superstitious advice of someone claiming to be a medium who can interpret dreams. The writer implies the story is to be treated as literally true – actually saving the Pharaoh’s people and kingdom. The grateful Pharaoh has shown his gratitude and Joseph is unsurprisingly elevated to the position of trusted advisor. He is in effect now sitting pretty and no longer has any need of those family members who had turned against him. Nevertheless when his brothers unexpectedly turn up and he recognises them, regardless whether this was a coincidence because famine had struck their home – or whether God was considered to have arranged the whole thing – rightfully they should have expected no mercy.
That he did not immediately reveal himself to his brothers almost suggests he is initially playing with them as a cat might play with a mouse. The elaborate trick to plant valuables on one of the brothers – then let them go so that he can have them arrested is at best something of a mixed message – and when he eventually shows himself as their long lost brother, under those circumstances we can well imagine that the brothers, far from being delighted, they would have been horrified and extremely fearful. They had done the unforgivable – and now the tables were well and truly turned.
Then the true surprise. Not just forgiven they are rewarded. Joseph has taken his anger and transferred it to anger about their plight. We sometime pretend that anger has no place as a human emotion for those with a faith. Yet anger can be a great motivator. However the resolution of that anger often needs creative thought. Instead of being sent back to Canaan empty handed which would have been far more than they deserved, they find themselves being offered sanctuary land for pasture, a place for the Father as well as the brothers and the freedom to live relatively close to Joseph but sufficiently far from the Egyptian population, who as their natural enemies, might have made life difficult.
I guess in a way this discovery of the creative act is the real test of forgiveness. The words “I forgive you” are what most of us consider to equate to forgiveness, but they can still mask long term unease. When you have been genuinely wronged by another, shallow words may in fact not be enough to re-establish real relationships. On the other hand if the words are an integral part of action they might be seen as far more significant. But there is something else you may have noticed. When Joseph says “Now you must tell my father of all my splendour in Egypt, and all that you have seen; and you must hurry and bring my father down here.” There is still the basic weakness he had from the beginning. The pride and insistence if you like that the brothers should really notice he was someone of significance.
This is one of the things that many of the Old Testament characters display. They are in part flawed characters. Moses starts his leading the Israelites of Egypt with an act of murder. David rapes the wife of a friend then arranges to have her husband done away with, a number of the prophets show great signs of reluctance to do that which they know God calls them to do. They are real in the sense that like us they have flaws in their character. Their faith then has no prerequisite of perfection, nor the demand that their actions are only effective if they are perfect.
The New Testament characters are little better. Some of the disciples squabble about who is the greatest among them, Peter is boastful and weak, they desert Jesus in his hour of need, Paul’s followers fall out among themselves. It is almost as if we are getting the message that the actions we call God’s will have to be accomplished by people who have weaknesses in their character – perhaps even like you and me! That Joseph’s great act of forgiveness with his brothers is performed by a Joseph who is a flawed character in no way suggests he didn’t eventually do the right thing in his act of forgiveness. His actions were after all, right in line with Jesus teaching of “Forgive your enemy”, “turn the other cheek” and “You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbour, and hate your enemy”. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you; in order that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:43-45)”.
Nor if we are ruthlessly honest would we say it was a solution which was perfect. Nevertheless the forgiveness was real and recognisable. Tensions which had been building could so easily have been resolved with a violent act. Joseph could have finished off the family and in that context brought the story of the people who later became the nation of Israel to a premature end.
A common error is to believe that the sort of love mentioned in the Bible – that which the Greeks called Agape – is merely a feeling. I am sure that some who come to Church share that misconception in believing that somehow having good feelings about people and situations is a complete virtue in itself. Why else would we sometimes feel good that in our prayers we had listed all our concerns, for the sick, for the poor, and for the victims of disaster. One learning from the story of Joseph and his brothers is that there is also not only a time for action, there are occasions where action is actually essential if a situation is to get any closer to resolution.
There is a postscript to this story. The story doesn’t just end with Joseph and Benjamin embracing in an emotion scene of reconciliation. I don’t know if you noticed but the other brothers hadn’t said anything to that point. The story finishes by saying “and Joseph and his brothers talked”. An act of forgiveness and reconciliation is only ever one stage of a journey. The significant act had indeed happened, but now as for us, the implications and continuing story must be played out for the forgiveness to find meaning.