The Rev. Imogen Rhodenhiser
Matthew 18:21-35


I used to work with a guy called Dennis, and he had a rather impressive physical presence. He had, in his earlier years, been on the test team in San Francisco that the international rugby teams would play before their international match that they were coming for. And so, he could fill a door frame. And when we were together we made quite a tableaux, you might say. And he was few of words, disarmingly so – and one of his frequent refrains in a very deep intense and yet soft-spoken voice would be More. Open-ended. Questions.

And he said this because, whether you’re a teacher or a doctor or simply a curious person, half of the time it’s not so much important as to whether you ask a question, as it is how you ask it. And you can ask an open-ended question that might go something like, “How are you enjoying this delightful Michigan summer that seems to be lasting into September?” And the person you’re talking to could at length, if they chose, share with you all their feelings and thoughts about how that’s working out for them.

Or you could ask a closed-ended question which might be, “Do you know the capital of Switzerland?” And you would either say, “Why yes, it’s Bern.” Or you would say, “No, I’m afraid I don’t.” But the chances of that conversation continuing very far, unless someone else takes up the helm, are pretty unlikely.

I think we instinctively know this. When we’re looking for specific information we tend to be more focused in the way we ask for it, and when we’re open to hearing more than just what we intend to find we can use our words accordingly. And I recall a significant moment of that in my own young life when I was still in high school. And one evening on a school night I said to my mother, “Mum, is it all right with you if I go to the cinema?”

And clearly, I wasn’t looking for a large discussion about the merits of cinema going, or what she thought about it, or the film I was going to see. I really wanted a yes. And because I really wanted a yes, I’d deliberately decided not to include the fact that, as I didn’t drive, the way that I was going to get to the cinema was that a friend of my brother’s, Jonathan, was going to give me a lift.

And he was going to stay and watch the film too, and then he was going to bring me back, so you could say that we were going to go on something like a date. But I didn’t really think that that would lend itself to my getting the yes that I was looking for, so I left that out. And Jonathan showed up, because my mother said, “Sure, you can go to the cinema.” Jonathan showed up and my mother said to me, “Imogen, you didn’t tell me that Jonathan was going to be going to the cinema with you.” And I said, “Oh, does that matter?”

And so after a rather embarrassing talking-to which my mother gave to Jonathan in our living room, we did in fact go to the cinema. It was a short-lived romance of about that evening’s length, because at one point I leaned on him during the film and he asked if I would move because it hurt. And I felt, well, this isn’t really going to go anywhere.

But, when we have a very clear idea in mind of the outcome that we want, the answer that we’re hoping for, we tend to narrow the scope of our inquiry accordingly.

And as such, it can be rather tempting to think of and deal with this question of forgiveness as a closed-ended question – one that we can address and then put away and move on from. Because if we’re going to befriend this question of forgiveness, we’d have to spend some time sitting, not only with the things about ourselves we don’t much like – but also the things that other people have done to us that we don’t much like either.

And who wants to spend more time than they have to thinking about either of those things? Including, as it turns out, our friend Peter who goes to Jesus with a question – and it seems open-ended, but really he’s got a very specific answer in mind, and it’s a number. He says to him, “Lord, how often is it necessary that someone should sin against me and I should forgive them?” And he throws out what he imagines to be a reasonable figure, which is seven times.

And on the face of it, it seems that Jesus responds as Peter has wished. Jesus does provide a number, He says, “Well, not seven, but seven times seven or 77 times” depending on how you take it. And yet, what Jesus goes on to say seems to suggest that Jesus has seen a deeper question beneath the surface of Peter’s request, which is to say, “Is there a time – is there ever a time when it’s okay for me not to forgive my brother or sister?”

And Jesus says, “No.” Because when you don’t forgive your brother or sister, you end up being a little like a totally powerless servant who’s just had an absolutely astronomical debt – the debt of lifetimes’ accrual – canceled out by his despotic master who has absolutely no motivation whatsoever to forgive him this. When you don’t forgive your brother or sister, it’s basically like that has happened to you and then you’ve gone and you’ve encountered somebody who owes you a fraction of what you’ve just been forgiven, and you say to them, “No.”

And when we look at this parable that Jesus tells, we can be left with a very substantive and perhaps sufficient conclusion for this day, this morning, which is that God, far more lovingly than a despotic master, has forgiven us and thus it behooves us and we are obliged to forgive others. But is that all that this question of forgiveness entails then, this transaction where God does something and, in return, we do something back?

Because we find that, when we place it against, when we hear along with it this passage from the end of Genesis, which is our Old Testament reading which forms, if you recognize it, a longer narrative about Joseph, when we see the words of Jesus alongside those of Joseph, we come to see that perhaps this question of forgiveness is not quite so close-ended as we might think, as we might wish

Because Joseph has come on the scene first in Chapter 37. We’re in Chapter 50 this morning, so that’s a long way afterwards.

And Joseph starts out as what me might call “a jerk”. He is preferred to the rest of his 11 brothers by their father. He gets this very nice coat. He keeps having these dreams where everybody, including his father, is going to bow down to him and no one really likes him because of these things. He doesn’t really make many friends. And his brothers, who are so resentful of this, initially resolve to kill him. And then as a sort of compromise they decide just to sell him to some slave traders who are going by. And thus he ends up in Egypt where he’s enslaved and then imprisoned, and manages somehow to wind up in a position of influence where it turns out his gift of dream interpretation will in fact head off a seven-year famine that Egypt is about to face.

And so there’s a moment, a dramatic moment of recognition, where these 11 brothers, they come to Egypt because they’ve been affected by this famine, too. There’s no food anywhere.

And Joseph plays this biblical cat and mouse game with them. He doesn’t tell them that he’s really Joseph. He puts them through a horrible time in different ways, and finally there’s this dramatic recognition where Joseph says to them, “’I am your brother, Joseph, whom 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.’ And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them. And after that, his brothers talked with him.’” So there is already this moment of reconciliation and forgiveness, and it occurs 17 years before the passage we hear today.

Seventeen years later Joseph says to his brothers, “What you intended to do me harm, God intended it for good to preserve the lives of many.”

And by that he is not meaning it as a trite aphorism that we might put on mugs and key chains – although it might work very well there – because he’s not talking about his own personal good. He’s not saying that through all this God has made him a better man. What, in fact, is indicated and what we see in this statement is not the declaration of forgiveness, but what the fruit of forgiveness looks like.

Because through the forgiveness that God has worked in Joseph towards his brothers, he is able to see differently. He is able to see them and his life and God’s hand in it differently than he would have done. And so, appears this question of forgiveness as far more maddeningly and marvelously open-ended than we may ever have imagined, because forgiveness is not only then this gift that we receive from God, which then through us God can work to be the gift for others. But it also becomes, by the grace of God, God’s own instrument of transforming us, our own forgiveness of others working in us to transform who we are, how we see ourselves, our souls, our hearts. And through them – this double portrait, the parable of Jesus, this moment of Joseph’s own self-articulation of what he’s been through and what God has done – we find that forgiveness is not in fact this exceptional interruption to the Christian life that is to be struggled with and then vanquished as quickly as possible.

But no, rather the question of forgiveness is the ongoing hallmark of our life as followers of Jesus. And one of the invitations that we have – to face and encounter this open-ended question of forgiveness – is in ourselves. The psalmist this morning sings that this God who made us in love, who made us in God’s own image, at the same time knows whereof we are made. That we are beloved but we are human. We are but dust, we are as the flowers of the field which one gust of wind goes over and they’re gone. And so, this question of forgiveness opens to us that we will need forgiveness from God, not as a one-time historical event, but as an ongoing lived reality with our creator, moment by moment, day by day.

And Paul, thankfully, reminds us in this letter to the Romans that we do not live to ourselves.

And so there is no way to speak of my forgiveness and yours. There is no way to separate those two apart, because our forgiveness is wrapped up with one another’s. And for that reason amongst many others, we do not pray “forgive me my trespasses as I forgive those who trespass against me.” And we do not pray “Most merciful God. I confess that I have sinned.” We confess. We ask forgiveness for our sins. We are praying for each other’s forgiveness and for the forgiveness of the world. And in that spirit of prayer, I invite you to pray with me now.

Gracious and loving God, we give you thanks for the gift of your forgiveness which, as your mercies, is new to us every morning. We thank you that you call to us again and again, though we go against your will, though we do the things we should not. Never stop calling us. And grant us the bravery and the foolishness and the courage to face with faith the open-ended, divinely ongoing, baffling, life-giving question of forgiveness that binds us to one another and to you. And we ask these things as humbly as we know how, through your son Jesus Christ who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God forever and ever.