Saturday Night Theologian
14 September 2008

Genesis 50:15-21

"Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good." There are times in life when another person takes actions that harm you in one way or another, through no fault of your own. Maybe you're fired from your job for no good reason. Maybe someone with whom you're in a relationship decides to end it. Maybe someone who promised you something reneges on the promise. The person inflicting the harm may do so maliciously, but often he or she believes that the action being taken is either necessary or prudent. In a way, being harmed by someone who is not acting maliciously is harder to take, because you can't really be mad at someone who really means you no harm. Either way, though, when your world is in the process of being turned upside down, it's hard to see a good side to it. Yet that's exactly the lesson that this passage, and indeed the whole Joseph story, teaches. Joseph's brothers were jealous of him, so they sold him into slavery. It was a terrible fate for Joseph in the short term, but in the end Joseph rose above his circumstances, and God used him to deliver not only his own family but the entire Egyptian nation. I've been through situations in which the apparently ideal situation in which I found myself was destroyed. At the time, it was hard to see anything positive about the place I found myself. Yet God proved faithful, even when I had my doubts, and my new situation was even better than the previous one. An important lesson I learned through these experiences is that you can't focus on the past. "What if I'd done something different? What if this or that event hadn't transpired?" The fact of the matter is that I acted, and others acted, and events happened, and I was where I was, and nothing I could do could reverse the process. I had to have faith that God would provide, and even though my faith wasn't always as strong as I would have liked for it to have been, God did bring me through all those times, so that I could say to those responsible for my situation, "Maybe you meant it for evil, maybe you didn't, but your intentions aren't what really matter, because God has something in store for me beyond your wildest imagination, and I put my trust in God."

Psalm 103:(1-7), 8-13

What is the worst thing anyone has ever done to you? How long did it take you to get over it? Did you ever get over it? It would be nice if we could press a button and erase parts of our memories, but the human brain doesn't work that way. In our lives we will always run across people who wrong us, but if we harbor anger or hatred against them, we will find that we only hurt ourselves. The hatred that we bear against another person does nothing to that person, but it steals a portion of our soul. The psalmist tells us that God is able to forgive our transgressions, so that as far as the east is from the west, that's how far our sins have been removed from us. "Yes," you may say, "but that's God. I don't have the infinite capacity to forgive like God does." True, but you don't need it. No wrong done to you, no matter how egregious, is an infinitely great sin, so forgiving it doesn't require an infinite capacity to forgive. Some wrongs can never be forgotten, but they can be forgiven. It's not an easy process, but it's a necessary one, not just because people of faith are commanded to forgive others, but also because holding a grudge against someone only hurts ourselves. There's another reason why it's important for us to forgive others: we ourselves have done much for which we also need forgiveness, whether from God or from other people. We want others to forgive us for our transgressions against them, whether great or small, so how can we expect to be forgiven by others if we don't forgive first? As Jesus taught his disciples to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us."

Romans 14:1-12 (first published 11 September 2005)

I have heard it said that Christians comprise the only army in the world that shoots its own wounded. Having observed the infighting between adherents of other faiths I don't think that the Christian situation is unique, but it is certainly true that Christians spend an inordinate amount of time beating up on each other. At times, of course, it is necessary to distinguish one's position on an issue from that of someone else standing under the banner of Christianity. For example, when Pat Robertson called for the assassination of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, many Christians vociferously denounced him. There are other times, however--in fact, most of the time--when infighting among Christians serves not to distinguish one group of Christians from another but only to degrade Christianity in the eyes of others. In today's reading from Romans, Paul talks about the interaction between "strong" and "weak" Christians. Interestingly, Paul doesn't take sides in their controversies over food and holy days, though I strongly suspect that he had an opinion on both subjects. Instead, he counsels both sides to accept the other side in love. Paul understood that human opinions on such matters are just that: opinions. They can never be equated with God's command, so Christians need to learn to accept one another and work together for the common good, the proclamation and incarnation of the gospel message. Another interesting point in this passage is that it demonstrates that Christians have had differences of opinion on matters of faith and practice since the very beginning of the church. Rather than snipe at each other as we are often wont to do, Christians today need to find ways to work together toward common goals. The ecumenical movement, as manifested in the World Council of Churches, is an example of Christians working together in a positive way worldwide. Dialogs between the Roman Catholic church and various Protestant denominations are also positive. One of the most encouraging developments in recent decades is the emergence of interdenominational, and often interfaith, community groups that work together to address the needs of the community, such as poverty, medical care, tutoring for children, and day care. As Paul notes, we are all accountable to God for our action or inaction. When we stand before God, would we rather be able to point to ministry carried out in cooperation with other believers, or would we rather have to explain why we wasted so much time arguing with our neighbors?

Matthew 18:21-35 (first published 11 September 2005)

Imagine that you had accumulated a debt of $5 billion to a single creditor, and suddenly he was calling in the debt. Unless you're Bill Gates or one of the Waltons (the Wal-Mart heirs, not John-Boy's family), chances are that you can't write a check for that amount, at least one that won't bounce. Furthermore, unless you could come up with an idea for a book that was five times more popular than the Harry Potter series, you wouldn't have much chance of raising the money over the course of your lifetime. That is the situation in which the slave in Jesus' parable finds himself. He owes a $5 billion debt to his master, with no hope of repaying, when his master calls in the debt. Realizing that he has no chance of ever paying his master back, he throws himself on his master's mercy and begs for release from the debt. The master listens to him and forgives the debt, and the slave walks away with a new lease on life. Later he finds a fellow slave who owes him about $17,000. It's no chump change, but neither is it in the same league as a $5 billion debt. When the second slave falls on his knees and begs for forgiveness, however, the first refuses to release him from his debt, and he has him thrown in debtor's prison until he should repay his debt. When we read this story, our first reaction is probably to ask, how could someone who has been forgiven so much be unwilling to forgive someone who owes him so little? The sad truth is that it happens all the time. When we consider our own unworthiness in the sight of God and the forgiveness we have received, how is it that we still sometimes manage to be unforgiving to other people? There are certainly affronts that are difficult to forgive, but all too often we get hung up on petty grievances. "Lucy spread a nasty rumor about me!" "Sam sucked up to the boss and stole my promotion!" "That stranger cut me off in traffic!" The key to forgiving others is an increasing appreciation of God's forgiveness of our own sins. We can achieve this by coming to a fuller awareness of the holiness of God, perhaps through contemplation or meditation. 1 John 3:1 expresses well the sentiment that I'm talking about: "See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God!" As the wonder of our adoption into God's family grows, our ability to forgive others will increase accordingly.