…35 But 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. 36 Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.
This was our Gospel text for February 20th. These commands seem impossible. They seem reckless. They seem like we’re opening up ourselves to being abused by others. Sometimes, it maybe exactly that simple choice, but it doesn’t seem like ‘being a doormat to someone else’ is the will of God for our life of following Jesus. What Jesus is not doing is promoting complete passivity in the face of oppression, but rather, tactics for creative nonviolent transformation. These were highlighted in the sermon.
The fact that this teaching was presented alongside the story of Joseph in the book of Genesis gives us another model to learn from. The story of Joseph is told in Genesis 37-50, a long, but riveting narrative. Joseph was beaten and sold into slavery by his brothers, who spread a lie that he had been eaten by a wild animal. While in Egypt, Joseph did well in a position, only to be thrown into prison by a false accusation and forgotten for a while. Then, through circumstances devised by God, Joseph became 2nd to Pharaoh over Egypt. In this position, he encounters his brothers again and extends forgiveness and generosity to them.
But it’s not that simple. Joseph had decades to process his pain and getting a God’s-eye-view of his life and how God was working through it. Also, Joseph was now in a position to not be brutalized by his brothers anymore. The remarkable thing is that he did not use his power to punish them, which he easily and justifiably could have done. He used his power to draw his brothers to a place of recognition.
Here are the stages of Joseph’s life after the cruelty of his brothers:
1) Forgetting. (Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh [which means ‘Forget’] and said, “It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household.” – Genesis 41.51) He took time to put the pain out of his mind for a bit. He focused on his life then and there away from his brothers, so that he could find some relief from his pain. Sometimes, this space is important.
2) Remembering. (Although Joseph recognized his brothers, they did not recognize him. Then he remembered his dreams about them. – Genesis 42.8-9) At the right time, the remembering will show up. It could show up in our bodies, in our emotions, in something not quite sitting right in ourselves in how we react to situations. It is then that we should talk about it with a therapist to process what we should do about it.
3) Crying. (And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it. – Genesis 45.2) Don’t ignore the pain or push through it! Feel so you can heal! As you process the pain, hold on to what hurts, because the feeling of wholeness will only be as big as the acknowledgement of the pain.
4) Confronting. (You intended to harm me. – Genesis 50.19) Any conversation that is intended to go deeper towards forgiveness and reconciliation needs to involve honesty and a shared understanding about the nature of the hurt. “You intended to harm me.” Or “What you did caused me harm” (even if unintentional). Say it within yourself at least, and if possible, and with help and counsel, tell the person who caused the harm.
5) Forgiving. (Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father. – Genesis 50.17) I often tell people that forgiveness is an installment plan. Pay what you can now, even if it’s not the full amount. As you’re able to pay later, do so. The important thing is that there is at least some acknowledgment of the pain on the part of Joseph’s brothers, even if the apology is very poor (this will often be the case in life.) But Joseph does not hold a grudge and extends forgiveness.
6) Showing kindness. (He reassured them and spoke kindly to them. – Genesis 50.21) We have a sense that forgiveness is authentically happening in us when we are able to do good to someone else, to smile, to welcome, to be a blessing to the other person, without being afraid that the generosity will come back to bite us. If there is difficulty in stepping out in blessing, then more work needs to be done – in us, in them, or both.
7) Seeing a God’s-Eye-View – (“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” – Romans 8.28). God doesn’t make bad things happen to us according to some scheme for the universe. When people sin against us, it is against God’s will and something they will be held accountable for. But whatever negative happens to us, we can be sure that God will work through it and make something beautiful. Joseph saw that God was able to take this horrible situation and preserve an entire family from dying out in a famine (Genesis 50).