Sermon for the Fifteenth Sunday after Pentecost, AD 2020

Matthew 18:21-35; Genesis 50:15-21

Joseph stood before his brothers as a man who had suffered many wrongs in his life. Everything that he had suffered could be traced back to them. Yet now the tables had turned. He was the second most powerful man in the most powerful nation on earth, and his family had to come to him for help. Now that his father had died of old age, there was no one to stop him from taking revenge on his brothers who had wronged him so long ago. The brothers knew this, and sent a message from a safe distance, asking Joseph to forgive them for their father’s sake, as his dying wish. Did Joseph have to think about it, to weigh the options in his mind?
His brothers, ten fully grown men, had been jealous of Joseph, a teenager, for being his father’s favorite. God had blessed Joseph with favor in the sight of his father, and given him dreams that his whole family would one day bow before him. This angered his brothers, who threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery.

Joseph was taken to Egypt as a slave and sold to an important man named Potiphar. God blessed Joseph by giving him wisdom and ability so that Potiphar liked him enough to put him in charge of his entire household. That is, until Potiphar’s wife tried to seduce Joseph, and Joseph rightly ran from the situation. Potiphar’s wife accused Joseph. Potiphar believed his wife, and Joseph was thrown into jail.

In jail, God blessed Joseph so that the jailer trusted and liked him enough to put him over all the other prisoners and to have him run things in the jail. There he met Pharoah’s baker and cupbearer, who were also jailed. These two had dreams while in jail, which Joseph interpreted, and while the baker was executed the cupbearer returned to his job. The cupbearer told Joseph he would mention Joseph to the Pharoah, to get him a pardon, but the cupbearer forgot about him for two years.

Finally, when Pharaoh had a troubling dream, the cupbearer remembered Joseph. Joseph was blessed by God in being able to interpret Pharoah’s dream and ended up saving the nation from a coming famine. Joseph was blessed again, being made number two over all of Egypt. He was blessed with a wife and two sons. Yet he was still in a foreign land, exiled from his family and people.

Then his brothers came to Egypt for food. They did not recognize him, and he had every opportunity to take revenge on them. He tested them, but did not punish them. He found that they were different men than before. Eventually he revealed who he was and welcomed them to live with him. His father and the rest of the family came to Egypt to stay.

Joseph’s life ended well, but he suffered much at the hands of others. He was almost murdered, sold into slavery, wrongly accused, imprisoned, and forgotten by those he helped – all while in a foreign land exiled from his family. Yet now he had power to do whatever he wished. What would you do in his position?

There has been a lot of talk politically about “justice” and “social justice.” That people have been wronged and now deserve retribution, retaliation, or whatever they recommend. It is true that justice is good. God is just. God takes no pleasure in sin. He desires the punishment of wicked.  The Psalmist says, “For the Lord loves justice; he will not forsake his saints. They are preserved forever, but the children of the wicked shall be cut off” (Psalm 37:28). Since God loves justice – should Joseph have taken things into his own hands? Should he have canceled Potiphar, sent him and his wicked wife into poverty for what they did to him? Should he have destroyed the life of the cupbearer for as long as that one let Joseph rot in prison? Should he retaliate against his brothers, with his father gone, finally paying back the ten men who threw a young boy into a pit and sold him into slavery? It would be a just reward for what they had done!

Jesus tells a parable of a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. This king was owed what would be a billion dollars by one servant – basically the debt of a small country, an unpayable amount for one person. The master ordered this servant to be sold with all he had – the just penalty for the great injury the servant had done to him with this debt. Yet the man fell to his knees and begged for patience, promising to pay it all back. The king had compassion on the servant and forgave the debt. The servant was free.

That servant went out and a fellow-servant who owed him about $10,000. Not a small sum, but nothing compared to the first servant’s debt. The first servant seized the second, choking him, demanding he pay back the debt. Like the first servant, the second servant asked for patience, but unlike the king, the first servant would have no compassion. He justly threw the second servant in prison until he paid the debt.

The last part almost writes itself – the king hears about the action of the first servant and calls him back to him, saying, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. 

The servant was forgiven a huge amount, but wouldn’t forgive a relatively small amount in comparison from his fellow-servant. He had been given a billion dollars out of nothing but the compassion of the king. Why would he need to worry about ten-thousand? Maybe he didn’t want to get in the same position again and wanted to shore up his accounts just in case. Being forgiven by no work on his account, he turns to trying to earn things for himself and loses any compassion for his fellow-servant. Thus when the king sees him the second time, he does not get compassion, but anger.

Such is forgiveness for us. We may see ourselves as the king, determining who deserves to be punished with justice, but we are the ones with the great debt. Like the servant who owed the debt, we owed an insurmountable debt to God. Our sin, our offense, was more than we could ever pay. Even if we tried to beg for patience to do good deeds to make up for it, we would never succeed. Yet Christ took the debt on himself. On the cross, he paid for it, just like the king in the parable who chose to forgive the debt. Forgiveness isn’t free. It was paid for by the very blood of Christ. He rose from the dead to show the payment was accepted. That payment was made only out of compassion for us lost sinners, not out of anything we have done.

So being forgiven our sins, our great debt, how can we hold things against others? See the cross of Christ, his suffering an agony, to see what your sins cost, which he gladly paid. Certainly, others’ sins against you are no joke. As Christian, they are your smaller crosses to bear. They are hurtful. They make life worse. Yet they are nothing in comparison to what you have been forgiven. Therefore, we forgive each other. We act like Jesus, our king, when someone has a debt of sin to us. We do not deal in justice, but we have compassion and forgive. We can do this because we have been forgiven so much. All justice has been served, everything has been paid by Christ on the cross. We have been baptized into Christ, just like Caius today, and made into servants who act like our master. We pray the prayer of all Christians, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

If we do not forgive, we are acting as the wicked servant and rejecting forgiveness for ourselves. Our emotions may take a while to catch up, but we must abandon retaliation and revenge.  Forgiveness breeds forgiveness, unforgiveness rejects what we have been given. As Jesus says, “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” We have received so many blessings from God, none more than the gift of eternal life through the death and resurrection of Christ. Let us forgive one another.

Joseph stood before his brothers as a man who had been given many blessings by God in his life. While he had suffered evil from many, beginning with his brothers, God used it for good and saved an entire nation and more. Joseph did not retaliate. He did not take the place of God as judge. Instead, he forgave and cared for his brothers and their families. In this way he was truly like God, forgiving and showing compassion on the undeserving, as he had been forgiven. Amen.

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