We’re back in that time of year again… we’re entering Lent. There’s going to be lots of talking of forgiveness and reconciliation. Lots of focus on guilt, shame, and unearned mercy. A lot of time of talking about being… a Christian doormat.
Does anyone want to wipe their feet on a mat? Here I am! Choose me!
For literal centuries if not millennia Jesus’ phrases to “forgive seven times seventy times” and “pray for those who abuse you” have been used to keep the abused in prisons of faith. They’ve been used to keep victims silent, compliant, and going along with whatever horrible things their abuser does.
Don’t complain about the harm done to you. Grin and bear it. Pray for your abuser.
Forgive your abuser, or else God won’t forgive your own sins.
If you’re ever striked on the cheek, offer your other cheek.
And the one I hate the most? Be like a silent lamb led to slaughter, just as was Christ.
NO! No! Before we step into this Lenten season, let’s stop right now. Right now and put away this damaging language and theology. This kind of bad theology literally kills people. It kills women who stay with their abusers. It kills children who are scared to speak up. It kills men ashamed of what they’ve experienced.
If ever scripture is used as a weapon against victims… then someone is using scripture in a wrong way.
We must pause here and take the concept of forgiveness away from the toolbox of abusers… and place it back into context. Back into the toolbox of grace, and love, and healing where God intends it to be.
Jesus today speaks his words while still on the level place. While still standing right here, with us, in the middle of our messy lives. He uses hyperbole, extreme language, to point out truths of how we are to live in the way of blessings.
He says: pay attention. Most of your relationships are business transactions. You expect to be treated a certain way, and you react as how you are treated. This is just what every human does – sinners or not.
If your spouse is loving towards you, you are loving towards your spouse.
If your waiter is rude to you, you are rude to your waiter.
And you expect the same back. If you treat people poorly, expect them to treat you poorly back.
This is the Silver? Rule. We relate to one another based on how we assume the other will treat us, or is treating us.
It’s a logical, human, rule. A fair rule.
I hear it utilized most often with taxes. Consider… I pay taxes for my roads. Therefore, I expect my roads to be maintained. However, I don’t use the public school – so why should I pay taxes for it? I pay taxes for my government representatives. I expect them to represent me. When they don’t, why should I keep paying?
When we apply the Silver Rule to forgiveness, it sounds like this: I will forgive you when you apologize. If you don’t apologize, I won’t forgive you. I will forgive myself when I correct the wrong I did. If I can’t fix it, then I shouldn’t forgive myself. It is dangerous to forgive an abuser, because then you’ll become a victim all over again. And just be the door mat. So do not forgive those who will keep hurting you.
But reconciliation is not the same as forgiveness. These are two different things.
Forgiving someone is not the same as permitting them to be in your life.
Forgiveness doesn’t belong to the Silver Rule of reciprocal relationships.
Whether or not taxes belong to the Silver Rule tends to determine your political leanings and whether one likes big or small government. That’s out of my specialization.
Forgiveness, however? Don’t make it a business transaction.
When Jesus is speaking about “do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who abuse you” Jesus is speaking about the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule of “To Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You.” The Golden rule which is not about fairness, but about the virtue of compassion.
The Golden Rule supersedes the Silver Rule. The Golden Rule says I can forgive someone without reconciling, without entering a relationship again, with them.
To forgive is to stop expecting that person to get what they deserve. It is to let them off the hook and stop seeking repayment from them. It never means forgetting. It never means re-entering that relationship. It never means the person you forgive even needs to apologize.
All of these things CAN happen, but are not NECESSARY. All of these things CAN be steps towards reconciliation… but are not prerequisites for forgiveness.
Forgiveness is about giving up the desire for revenge.
God has forgiven us. Every single one of us. While we were still sinners. God chose to stop looking for a way for humanity to make up for all the wrongs we’ve done. God chose to stop seeking a way for us to pay. This is mercy. Unearned grace. This is forgiveness. We cannot do a thing about this because it is God’s choice.
We have the same power. We can forgive someone and they cannot do a thing about it.
God hopes to be reconciled with us. To re-enter relationship with us. But that means that we have to respond and want this. We have to seek out God as God seeks us out. We have to begin again anew.
We also have this power with one another. We can choose to seek out those who have forgiven us, or those we have forgiven and begin anew our relationship… or we can choose not to. We can choose who we are in relationship with.
For forgiveness and reconciliation are two different things.
In our first reading we heard a historic account of how these things are different. Remember Joseph is the youngest of the many, many sons of Jacob. When Joseph was little he was the baby and the favorite of his dad. His dad gave him a coat of many colors. Well, Joseph began to have dreams of the future. And in one of these dreams, he dreamed all his brothers AND his dad would bow down to him one day.
This went over pretty poorly with the whole family. They thought their little boy was getting very full of himself and spoiled. So the brothers schemed to kill Joseph. But one bargained to just throw him in a well. Meanwhile, another brother sold the kid into slavery.
So Joseph grew up a slave. And changed hands. Ended up in Egypt. And eventually became an adviser to the pharaoh himself because of Joseph’s prophetic dreams and dream interpretation skill.
A famine comes to the land and everyone is desperate for food. Joseph had assisted pharaoh with dream interpretation for this, and Egypt was fine. But Joseph’s brothers outside of Egypt are not. They appear in Egypt to beg for food.
It’s been… decades. But Joseph hasn’t forgiven his brothers who tried to kill him and sold him into slavery. Before today’s reading, he does deeds to make them pay. He makes insane demands. He sends them on errands. He keeps their littlest brother a hostage. He is making them pay.
Joseph is following the Silver Rule. His brothers hurt him, so he’s going to hurt them back.
But Joseph’s heart changes. He ends up forgiving them. They are hungry. They are scared. They cannot do anything to ever make right what they did all those years ago. Joseph forgives his brothers.
They never even know it is him. They never apologize. He gives up his need for revenge and takes on the need for compassion. He feels compassion for the brothers. This is the Golden Rule. They have given him harm, but he chooses to stop the cycle of violence. He gives compassion where he was given hate.
And then Joseph chooses to move from forgiveness – move from trying to make them pay for their sins – to reconciliation. He reveals himself to them as Joseph.
“Come closer to me. I am your brother, Joseph, who you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here, for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Come closer to me. Come, rejoin a relationship with me. Let us be brothers again… not lord and servants. Not enemies.
Yes, you sold me into Egypt. It is important in any reconciliation to not ignore the past. To not sweep it under the rug. Otherwise, it will become a cyst. A sore that remains toxic and lying there, waiting for someone to touch it and make it weep again.
“Do not be distressed or angry with yourself because you sold me.” I have forgiven you. I’m not going to seek to make you pay. I’m not going to throw you in the dungeon or kill you. It is okay for you to forgive yourselves, too. We can’t change what happened. We can seek to move forward.
“God sent me before you to preserve life.” Joseph interprets his time in Egypt as God’s plan to save the family. Joseph recognizes he has the power here of life or death over his brothers …. Much as they had the power of life and death over him. And he chooses to preserve life. He chooses to stand with God. He chooses to forgive, and then, if his brothers are willing, to reconcile with him.
We read that Joseph kissed his brothers, wept upon them, and after that – his brothers talked with him.
They chose to re-enter the relationship with their brother Joseph, too.
The group moved from enmity, anger and shame, to forgiveness… to Joseph giving up the desire to harm his brothers. To reconciliation. The brothers all choosing together to begin anew their life together.
In my own life I am struggling with my old obstetrician. After my daughter died, I desperately wanted justice. I wanted her to pay for the death of my daughter. I wanted her license stripped. I wanted her to know my own pain. I wanted everyone to know what a horrid doctor she is to ignore me and my concerns and how I would be dead had not my husband intervened and saved me after our daughter died. I could not do good to her. I hated her. Maybe I still hate her.
I hired lawyers and I had violent dreams and I said many horrible things.
And I feel justice was denied to me.
She will never apologize to me. It would cost her her license and livelihood. She will never admit she did wrong. No lawyer could guarantee a jury would side with me over a licensed doctor, so although they said there was wrong… the laws are not in my favor.
The OB’s life goes on. Unchanged. My life stopped. Hung up. Forever radically changed.
I don’t even cross her mind. She is on mine almost daily.
I continue to suffer. How long?
Jesus’ words on the level plain today are for people like me. People who will never get the justice they believe they deserve, and the person who wronged them will never pay, and who know we are never able to turn back time and fix things we, or another, did. People who cannot ever change the fact they metaphorically were sold into slavery… or sold a brother into slavery.
That doesn’t mean we have to keep the burdens on our shoulders. We can choose to lay them down. Choose to give up our right to revenge … and choose not fair, unearned, mercy. Unearned grace. We can be merciful just as God is merciful.
Through a process of acknowledging the hurt, acknowledging the pain, and taking all of this to God… we can begin to awaken compassion again. Awaken forgiveness. Awaken ourselves to the life going on now… and have new growth out of the ashes of our woes.
Jesus’ sermon on the level is about taking the power back from those who hurt us. It is about how forgiveness is our own to give, or not give. But giving it – choosing to wish good on others, even those that hurt us – is good for our own souls. Grudges are heavy. They harm our current relationships. They assist in keeping us in depression.
It is like… when the harm first happens, we invest 100% of our energy into revenge. Over time, that drops to 80%, to 60%, to 40 to 20 to 0…
Forgiveness is like grieving. It takes time. It takes work. It isn’t clear cut. I might feel very forgiving today, and much less next week.
But forgiveness IS freeing. It releases us from the burden of seeking recompense. Payment. It gives us that energy back to invest into other relationships.
Now, as I’ve said, I must reiterate… Forgiveness is not reconciliation. I will not go back to that OB. I don’t want that relationship. I don’t want her in my life. I do want to forgive her… but God knows I’m not there yet.
So as we go into Lent, know we’re on a journey together. A journey where we are in the process of forgiving ourselves and each other. A journey where there is opportunity for reconciliation, but it is not a commandment. And this journey doesn’t begin and end over 40 days. It is our entire lives. Perhaps into the next life. But it is a journey we each are on together.