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A WORD FOR TODAY, September 13, 2023
Lectionary Scriptures for September 17, 2023: Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost: Genesis 50:15-21; Psalm 103:1-12; Romans 14:1-12; Matthew 18:21-35
“Shouldn’t you also have had mercy on your fellow servant, even as I had mercy on you?” Matthew 18:33, WEB
The passage from Genesis is one of my favorites. I love Joseph’s attitude: God-centered and faithful. He is the image of what Christ is calling us to be. As a matter of fact, he is a foreshadowing of Jesus. Joseph is a type of Christ, exhibiting two qualities that we will see in Jesus nearly two thousand years later. Joseph trusted God and he forgave those who tried to destroy him.
We know the story of Joseph. He was the favored son of Jacob, the firstborn of Jacob’s beloved wife Rachel. He was loved because she was loved, and his siblings saw the favoritism. Joseph wasn’t perfect; the hatred of his brothers was not completely unfounded. He accepted the favors from his father and even showed them off to his brothers. Whether done mischievously, malevolently, or unknowingly, his attitude helped build the wall of anger and hatred that separated him from his brothers. Besides his attitude, he had an incredible gift; the brothers thought he was using his gift and their father’s love for him over them, as if he was better than they. He might have felt that way; Joseph was certainly human and very young. He may not have even realized how much he was hurting his brothers; we can’t really tell from the scriptures. The brothers, however, saw him as arrogant and that it was unfair how he was treated. They were jealous and first thought to kill him, but Judah convinced them to sell him to the Ishmaelite caravan because Joseph was more valuable alive than dead.
Joseph ended up in Egypt. There he worked and prospered in the house of Potiphar, one of the Pharaoh’s officials. The house was greatly blessed by Joseph’s presence. One day Potiphar’s wife, who found Joseph to be quite attractive, seduced him. Joseph refused. She accused him of rape, and he was put into prison. Despite the circumstances, Joseph continued to prosper. Joseph had a special gift which was proven when two prisoners had dreams. Joseph interpreted those dreams: one foretold of impending death and the other of prosperity. Both interpretations were true. One prisoner was hanged and the other set free to serve as a servant in Pharaoh’s house as cupbearer. The one who was set free promised to speak to the officials about Joseph. He forgot his promise.
Two years later, Pharaoh had a dream. None of the priests or wise men in the kingdom were able to interpret this dream. The cupbearer remembered Joseph and told Pharaoh about him. Joseph heard the dream and by God’s grace saw that it foretold a period of prosperity and then drought. Joseph recommended storing up food while the crop was good, then they would have enough to survive the drought. Pharaoh appointed Joseph as the official to prepare. He was one of the most important officials in the kingdom. The dreams proved to be true and in the midst of the drought, thanks to Joseph’s rule, Egypt prospered while the other nations struggled. People from all over the world came to Egypt to buy food so that they would not die.
It was during that drought that Joseph was reunited with his brothers. Jacob’s people were suffering, so he sent his sons to Egypt to buy food. They appeared before Joseph to ask for aid but did not recognize him. Joseph not only supplied their needs; he gave them back their money. They were afraid when they discovered Joseph was alive and in such a high position. Joseph loved them and he made sure that they were well fed. He was gracious, despite the trouble he had experienced at their hands. He eventually brought them into Egypt to live and prosper. Israel was warmly welcomed into this foreign land, and Jacob’s house flourished. At the end of his life, Jacob blessed his sons, but they were even more afraid when Jacob died because they thought Joseph was only being kind because of their father. Instead of being humble, they lied so that Joseph would have mercy for their father’s sake. Joseph still loved them and assured them that they had nothing to fear.
Despite the unfortunate circumstances of his life, Joseph’s gift became the salvation of the people of Egypt and the world. God blessed Joseph; we can see this even when he was a slave, a servant, and a prisoner. Joseph recognized all along that his gifts were not his but were from God. He is not subtle, and often appears arrogant especially when dealing with his brothers at home, but he had a heart for God. Despite his imperfections, God was with him. Joseph recognized God’s presence even in the midst of his troubles. When his brothers sold him into slavery, they sold him into a life of suffering. However, that life led him into the powerful role that was the salvation of many. Joseph knew he could not act as a god and punish his brothers for an act that the one true and living God used to save the world.
Joseph did suffer, but he said, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to save many people alive, as is happening today.” His journey was difficult, but step by step it led Joseph to a place where he could not only help the world, but more importantly, he could help his family. He did not care only for his father, he cared for them all. He loved them, despite their evil against him. He accepted the hardship in his life as a way God works for good, not only for the world but for those closest to him. How could Joseph act as God to treat them with any less mercy in the misery of their fear? He may have wanted revenge, but he allowed God to be God. He trusted God’s will and lived in the promise that God is present with His people in the good times and the bad.
Do you see how Joseph was a foreshadowing of Jesus? Joseph trusted God and he forgave those who tried to destroy him. These are both difficult aspects of the life we are meant to live as Christians. We know we are to trust God, but we’d rather be in control of our lives. Imagine this story if Joseph had chosen to get revenge on his brothers? Imagine what would have happened to Israel if they had not moved to Egypt? Even worse than trusting in God, however, is the question of forgiveness.
In last week’s gospel lesson, we heard about how to deal with sin in the community of believers. When someone sins against us, we are called to deal with it with mercy, while also helping our brothers and sisters see their sin and be transformed by God’s grace. At the end of the passage, Matthew told us that if our brother or sister continues to ignore our admonishment, then we are to treat them like sinners and tax collectors. But even then, we are reminded how Jesus treated sinners and tax collectors - as people who need God’s grace. They need to know the power of forgiveness.
This week Peter asks a very difficult question: how often should we forgive? We know that even when sin has been dealt with that people still fail. It takes time after time of practicing good discipline with a child before that child will truly learn the lessons we are trying to teach. A child might touch that shiny, breakable bobble on the coffee table a dozen times before they truly understand what we mean by “NO.” Each time takes forgiveness, but our hurt and anger over the actions of others who harm us is magnified with every offense. It becomes harder and harder to forgive.
Most of us would rather not face the conflict. We want to find a way to separate ourselves by moving away and cutting off communication. It seems impossible for anyone to have the kind of patience to forgive every infraction. Yet, this is exactly what Jesus tells us to do. We are to forgive not once, twice, or even seven times. We are to forgive seven times seventy. Even four hundred and ninety is not even enough, as the number itself represents a willingness to continue to forgive over and over again without end.
Many people say that those willing to continue to forgive without limitation are naïve. People don’t change, we don’t learn the lessons we should learn. We forget. We are led by our flesh. We fail over and over again. So, we wonder if it is really smart to keep forgiving. Perhaps it is better to separate ourselves from those who cause harm over and over again. But forgiveness is not naïve. Repentance and absolution are about restoring relationships and transforming people. We have to deal with sin from both sides: that of the victim and that of the sinner, which means recognizing our own debts and forgiving the debts of those against us.
I’d like to think that I could be as gracious as Joseph, but I have to admit that I’m not always so merciful. I can hold onto hurt and anger for a very long time. Would I feast with my brothers who sold me into slavery? Would I share the food I’d worked hard to save with those who despised me? Even if I did have mercy, I can imagine myself throwing an “I told you so” or two at them along the way. I may find a place in my head to forgive them, but I’m not so sure I could find it in my heart. Remembering Joseph’s attitude about God helps us to accept Jesus’ command for forgiveness. If we give it to God, then we don’t have to hurt from the hurts, even the repeated hurts, of our brothers and sisters.
To make his point about forgiveness, Jesus told them a parable. A king was having a court of judgment with his servants. One man owed him an outrageous sum, unpayable and yet the king forgave the debt. This would be an easy story to preach if it ended there, because we could limit our message to the mercy of God. Jesus takes it a step further, teaching us that we are not only to live in God’s forgiveness, but also to share forgiveness with others. When the servant left the king’s presence, he found another servant who owed him a debt. Though the debt was small compared to the debt he owed, the forgiven servant did not have the same mercy on his debtor, throwing him in jail until he could pay.
God forgives the sins in our lives that are so much greater than the sins committed against us. When we refuse to forgive, we assume a role greater than the King, we put ourselves in the place of God. Joseph knew better. He knew that God is just and faithful, and that He will make everything right in the end. That’s why Joseph saw his life of suffering in such a positive way. He knew that God was able to do something extraordinary with his life. God can, and will, do something incredible with our lives, too. God does not hold our sins against us, and though we will never deserve it, He will bless our faith and trust.
There is a story about an inexperienced college professor who discovered that many students believed they were entitled to good grades, no matter what they did. At the end of the fall semester, the professor finished posting her students’ grades before heading home for the holiday. It took less than an hour for one of her students to challenge his grade.
The young man emailed her immediately to complain about a “B.” He did not understand how he could have gotten a “B.” “Please respond ASAP, as I have never received a B during my school career, and it will lower my GPA.” She didn’t understand the desperation of the student but went back to check his grade to see if she had made a mistake. As she looked over the records, she saw that the young man skipped class, missed quizzes, and got “B” grades on some of his assignments. He did not deserve an “A.” He got what he deserved. This inexperienced professor learned quickly that she would be pressured by her students, they would boldly demand the chance to retake tests and have papers rescored because they felt entitled to better grades.
When the new professor told her story to other professors, they shared their own stories. One told of an honors student whose actions earned her a very low grade on a mid-term exam, but she could not understand. How could the teacher have such little concern over her future? She would be kicked out of the honors program! The professor allowed her to retake the exam, but with conditions: she had to show more responsibility, not skip classes, and turn assignments in on time. The student did not keep her end of the bargain. She continued to skip classes and she even turned up late to the final exam. How can a professor be lenient, caring about the student’s future if the student does not even care?
These students did not deserve to have their grades changed, but there are circumstances that are not so easy to decide. There are times when mercy is the best choice. Students on scholarships are required to keep up a certain GPA or they lose their money. You might think that it shouldn’t matter, if they can’t keep up the grades, they don’t deserve the scholarship. But bad grades are not always from poor workmanship. A student on a music scholarship might be required to take classes with a final exam they can’t pass despite working hard, doing the homework, getting tutoring, attending every class. Does that student really deserve a failing grade, a grade that might destroy his life? The inexperienced college professor was right to keep the “B” grade for the student that didn’t do the work, but the math professor should have mercy on the hard-working music student.
God is not like human college professors. He doesn’t make decisions of mercy based on our actions. He doesn’t give us a “B” because we haven’t done the work. He doesn’t give us a better grade because our future depends on it. He has mercy because He is merciful. He forgives us because of Jesus.
In the psalm for today, the psalmist sings a song of praise for all that God has done for His people. He forgives, He heals, He redeems. The Almighty God crowns His people with love and mercy and grace. He provides for the needs of His people. He moves for righteousness and justice in the world.
The psalmist wrote, “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his loving kindness toward those who fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” He has removed our transgressions, set us free to live in His mercy and grace because He knew that there was no way for us to pay the debts we have accrued because of our sin. It is for this reason we are to be thankful.
The life lived in thankfulness will not bind the sins of another but will set him or her free to also live in God’s grace. It is not easy. We know God is just and sin deserves punishment. Yet, it is not our place as individuals in this world to mandate punishment. God will seek vengeance on those who have sinned against Him, but He desires all to be set free. He desires all to be saved. He desires all to be reconciled to Him and to each other for eternity, as He originally created us to live.
I like to watch some cooking and baking shows on television. Some shows have teams, while others are individual contestants competing for the prize. Even on the individual shows, however, they sometimes do team challenges. There was an episode on one show called “Tag Team Cakes.” Eight cake decorators were invited to participate in the challenge. They did not know their partners until moments before the competition began. The contestants were meant to be equal partners, but some of the decorators talked as if they were the lead while their partner was only a helper.
The game began with one of the members of each team in the kitchen, beginning the task of making the cake. The theme was based on Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes. Each team chose a rhyme as the focus of their cake. After a period of time, the decorators changed places with their partners without communication. The second team members had to continue the work that was started, using their own abilities and vision for the project. As you might expect, this opened the way for confusion, dissention, and disaster. One team member spent almost the whole time redoing the work that had been done by her partner. Another team member spent time trying to figure out how to communicate, without communicating, to her partner so that they would continue on a similar path.
The team members each worked a second time period alone, then they had a final time period together. By that time, some of the cakes were so far behind because the team members had not found a way to cooperate. Even when they got together, they bickered about everything, including the vision of the cake, leaving some team members feeling disappointed because the other was unwilling to compromise or encourage their work on the project. Some team members wanted so much control that it was almost useless to have the other team members. The trouble is, they needed one another to finish the cake, and each member had such gifts that if they had been able to do what they could do, the cakes would have been awesome. There was a winner, but none of the teams did an exemplary job with their cakes.
The problems Paul and the other apostles addressed in their letters are as common for us today. As we’ve studied Paul’s letters in our adult class on Sunday mornings, I can see how those letters are meant for us today as much as they were for them two thousand years ago even though they don’t directly address our modern problems. Disagreement is a fact of human life. We are different people trying to work in the same world. Like those cake decorators, we have a common goal, but very different visions about how to get there. By the time we get around to working together, our differences are so vast that we can’t find a way to compromise. Compromise, all too often, means giving up something that means too much to us, which leads to hurt. The thing we have to remember is that our hurt gives us the opportunity to forgive, to be like Joseph. To be like Jesus.
Paul called the community to join together in the Christ they worshipped. Too many things that divide us are not salvific issues, but we reject and judge one another. We forget about the forgiveness which began with Christ and leads to reconciliation between brothers and sisters. Paul encourages us to see Christ in one another, to live together in a way that glorifies God. We all have gifts and purpose and if we do not reconcile with those who have sinned, then we cut off a part of Christ’s body that He has called together. We tend to think that others must conform to our vision, but God has a much greater vision in mind.
In the days of Jesus, the rabbis taught that you had to forgive a person three times. A similar idea can be seen in modern baseball and law. “Three strikes and you are out,” is the motto of the day and we hold to it even in our personal lives. We might be able to forgive someone once. We might even be able to forgive them twice. But we have a really hard time forgiving them the third time. Do they deserve our mercy if they keep doing the same thing over and over again?
I am sure that Peter thought that he was being very generous when he asked Jesus the question, after all, the rabbis said three times and he upped it to seven. We are all curious, like Peter, about how far that should go. We can do this once, perhaps twice. We might even be gracious enough to do it the third time as the rabbis encouraged, after all love means going the extra mile, right? Peter decided to go even further, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Until seven times?” That seems not only difficult but foolish. At what point do we become a doormat for someone who continues to do the same thing over and over again.
So, the next time our brother or sister sins against us, let’s remember that we are not God. Whether it is the first time or the four hundred and ninetieth time doesn’t matter. The Church is built on forgiveness, not just the words, but the intentional process from our hearts to find a way to reconcile with others so that we can worship God and do His work together. We are to be like Joseph, trusting God enough to know that He can use even the sins of others to do incredible things through our lives.
We are called to live a life of forgiveness. God sends us into the world forgiven so that we can forgive the others, even when sin seems to go on and on and on. We have been set free to set the world free. God loves us with compassion far greater than we deserve and He calls us to do the same for others. Even when we fail one another, we are not to keep a record of every sin, but instead forgive over and over again, wiping the slate clean each time and beginning anew, just as God has done for us.
The servant in today’s Gospel story was more than willing to accept the forgiveness of the king, yet he was unwilling to forgive a much smaller debt. The power of forgiveness opens our eyes to our own failings, giving us the freedom to be transformed and to take the transforming grace of God into the world. It does little good for us to say the words, “I forgive” over and over again if the absolution is not coming from God’s grace. Our word is useless, but God’s Word brings forgiveness and peace.
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