Sermon on Genesis 50:15-21 and Matthew 18:21-35 for September 17, 2017, Pentecost +15A
Realizing that their father was dead, Joseph’s brothers said, “What if Joseph still bears a grudge against us and pays us back in full for all the wrong that we did to him?” So they approached Joseph, saying, “Your father gave this instruction before he died, ‘Say to Joseph: I beg you, forgive the crime of your brothers and the wrong they did in harming you.’ Now therefore please forgive the crime of the servants of the God of your father.” Joseph wept when they spoke to him. Then his brothers also wept, fell down before him, and said, “We are here as your slaves.” But Joseph said to them, “Do not be afraid! Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today. So have no fear; I myself will provide for you and your little ones.” In this way he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow-slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow-slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow-slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow-slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he should pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
They say that the kind of music you love the most is the kind you listened to in adolescence. Well, that is true for me. So sometimes, even in these days, a Joni Mitchell song will play in my head. She wrote the song “Woodstock” that was covered and made a hit by Crosby Stills & Nash. I was thinking of the line in that song that says, “life is for learning.” That has been so true for me, and I do not want to ever stop learning.
Neuroplasticity: Brains Can Change
There are a number of crucially important things I have learned in my life. I would like to share some important learnings I have discovered, and then look at our biblical texts, and see how together, they can be life-transforming.
So, first, I learned something a couple of years ago that has huge implications for life. It makes me both hopeful and alarmed. It is that our brains are constantly changing. Every experience we have, every conversation, everything we do, affects how our brains’ wiring will work in the future. This is called neuroplasticity.
This is an enormous source of hope. We can change. We do change. We can become more peaceful, more content, more patient, more generous, more loving and forgiving than we are today. The experiences we have, like regular spiritual practices, such as a gratitude and a meditation practice, can make that outcome more likely.
But the flip side of neuroplasticity is alarming. We can become worse. We can be more angry, more resentful, more vengeful, and more self-serving, by letting ourselves dwell in negativity and self-pity.
So, the concept of neuroplasticity, that our brains change, all throughout our lifespan, is a powerful concept. I am thankful to have learned about it.
True and False Self
I have also learned in the past several years, the concept of the true and false self. This I learned from Richard Rohr, and have come to discover that he learned it from others before him, like Thomas Merton. It turns out to be an ancient concept that people who have devoted themselves to developing their spiritual lives, in other words, mystics, have written about, over the centuries, using a wide variety of terms and phrases.
The concept is simple: I have, and we all have, a sense of who we are: an identity. To be a healthy person, you learn to value who you are as a person – you are a boy or a girl, a man or a woman, you are a son or a daughter, perhaps a sibling. You are an American, you are an English speaker, you can read and write. And as we mature, we identify with many groups, religious, political, social, even entertainment can be an identity factor – ask anyone who likes college football – they identify with Alabama or Auburn or LSU or FSU.
But these ways by which we form and describe our identity only go so far, and actually are not the truest thing about us. These parts of our identity will not matter much on our death beds. Rather, who we were at a deeper level will matter then. And at the deepest, truest level, our identity is that we are children of God, made in God’s image. That we are loved beyond our wildest dreams, and nothing will ever, or could ever change that.
Richard Rohr has also taught me that when I get offended or threatened, when someone makes me mad, it is almost always because they have stepped on that false self. The false self is also threatened by change. The false self is also called the ego, that part of me that thinks I need to be important or listened to or congratulated, and if not, this is the source of resentment, anger, bitterness and vengeance.
So in my life of learning, I have learned that we keep learning and changing all our lives, and that I can, if I practice the right behaviors, help my true self to grow and to pay less attention to the false self, the ego. Those are powerful truths to learn.
Justice vs. Vengeance
A third insight I have learned is that there is a difference between justice and vengeance, which is not at all self-evident or obvious at first. When someone does something wrong, there are consequences that should follow, if life and society are properly ordered. It should be the case that people should not get away with doing wrong.
But there is a difference between enforcing consequences and wishing that someone else suffer. To wish for someone else’s suffering is vengeance. It comes from that dark side of ourselves – that we all have! – but is the source of evil. When we suffer at the hands of someone else, it is natural and almost automatic to wish for and fantasize about their suffering, and maybe to do things or to say things to them, to make them suffer.
But increased suffering only increases suffering, and never heals our suffering. And, just like our taste buds do not have a self-limiting off switch for fatty foods, as we do for other tastes, neither is there an off switch for vengeance. Once we go down that path, we can become murderous, at least in our fantasies. And this dark desire for vengeance has nothing to do with justice. It is just about revenge. The false self wants revenge.
So, putting these learnings together, I have found that it is the case that people who let themselves dwell in the darkness of resentment and bitterness that comes out of their false self do change over time – it becomes worse. If you have ever been around people with a chip on their shoulder, who are angry with someone or with life in general, or with God for letting it happen, you know how it poisons their whole lives. The sunrise is not awesome and the birdsong is not amazing when the heart is angry.
So then what practices are necessary so that the changing brain and self can grow in a positive direction? It is the practice of forgiveness.
So, we will reflect on some stories about forgiveness, but first let us say what forgiveness is, and what it is not. Forgiveness is not about pretending that wrongs were not wrong, nor they were okay, or forgetting, or any other way of diminishing the bad that has happened.
Rather, forgiveness is wishing for the redemption instead of the suffering of the one or ones who caused us to suffer. Forgiveness is the opposite of wishing for vengeance. It is to refuse to wish for suffering in return for suffering.
Joseph and Forgiveness
So, we read two biblical texts on forgiveness. The first was the famous story of Joseph in Egypt. His brothers had sold him into slavery years before, and the slave traders had sold him to the Egyptians.
He has every reason to consider this unforgivable. He has been betrayed and abandoned by his own family, and then forgotten. He has been uprooted from his homeland. He has had to live as a foreigner, learn a new language, eat strange food, and on top of that, he is a slave – he is not free.
It would be natural and normal to expect that he would have grown resentful, bitter, angry and vengeful, over the years. But instead, he has found a way to forgive his brothers.
In the mean time, his talent for organizing has been noticed, and he has been promoted to a position of power. Specifically he has organized the country’s grain supplies to the point that they can both withstand years of famine, and also supply surrounding people with grain. When the famine drives Joseph’s family to come to Egypt to buy grain, there, his brothers meet Joseph, whom, by now, they do not even recognize, though he recognizes them.
When he reveals himself as their living brother, they fear that he will have his revenge. But Joseph chose to understand the suffering of his life as purposeful. He chose to re-frame the picture of his life and see that the good that he was now able to do for his family, by providing them with food, was only possible because of the suffering they inflicted on him.
So, he says that famous line:
“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”
I do not take this literally, that God was the cause of Joseph’s suffering. But I take it as true, at a deep level. Often, the good in our lives is made possible by the things we never would have wanted to go through.
It is not true that all suffering produces good. Some suffering cripples people and destroys them. But it is true, that when we are made to suffer, there really are only two choices available. We can become resentful, bitter, vengeful people, or we can forgive. And forgiveness allows us to find the good that is possible to come even from suffering. That is a life principle, and therefore, it is possible to say, in religious language:
“Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good”
Jesus on Forgiveness
The other story we read was a parable of Jesus. There is a book, written by New Testament scholars, which analyses sayings of Jesus to try to determine their historicity. It is common knowledge among scholars of the historical Jesus that some of the sayings attributed to him are genuine, while others are the creation of the early Christian communities, and both kinds are found in the gospels. In the book I have, the genuinely historical sayings of Jesus are in red. The most certain are in dark red (except the last line, which they believe is Matthew’s creation).
Most scholars make this parable red. I would make it dark red. If Jesus taught anything, he taught the necessity of forgiveness. Parables exaggerate and mess with conventional understandings. So, in this parable, a king has a slave who owes him ten million dollars. It is absurd, but there is a point being made. This slave knows he cannot repay, so he begs for mercy, and the king forgives the debt.
Then, that slave finds a fellow slave who owes him one hundred dollars. That slave begs for mercy, but he refuses to forgive the debt. He has him thrown into debtors prison.
The contrast between being owing ten million dollars and one hundred makes his un-forgiveness unimaginable. But this is the human tendency: we all think our mistakes and wrongs are infinitely forgivable, but we hold others responsible for the slightest infractions. We do it, but it is absurd. It is what our false self does.
We can grow; we can change; we can become better people; better followers of Jesus. Instead of wasting our lives in bitterness and resentment, instead of poisoning other peoples lives with vengeance, we can be people of forgiveness.
When our egos get bruised, when the team we play for is insulted, when we do not get the recognition we think we deserve, we can refuse revenge. We can wish for redemption, instead of hoping for suffering in kind. And each time we do, we will become different, better.
By regularly practicing the spiritual disciplines of gratitude and meditation, we can use the hope found in neuroplasticity to become more able to find the good than to dwell on the bad. Maybe some day we will even be able to say, as, according to the gospels, Jesus did, from the cross,
“Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing.”
It is true, I believe, that life is for learning: specifically, learning how to forgive.