There have been at least eight times when the Ten Commandments have been at the center of debates about the separation of church and state. Most of these controversies have been over monuments in public spaces and judges have rightly ordered them to be removed. I don’t have anything against the Ten Commandments, but it seems like those who want to erect these monuments are more interested in telling others how to believe and behave than in examining how they themselves are doing in keeping the commandments.
When I read the gospel passage for today, another section from the ‘Sermon on the Plain,’ I wondered what they would think about a monument listing these commandments that Jesus lays on us:
*love your enemies
*do good to those who hate you
*bless those who curse you
*pray for those who abuse you
*turn the other cheek
*if someone asks for your coat, give them your shirt, as well
*give to everyone who begs from you
*if someone takes your property, don’t ask for it back it
You know the game show, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? I would call this passage Who Wants to Be a Disciple? And I wouldn’t be surprised if not many people would come forward to be contestants. This stuff is hard! And I would add that it can also be harmful. One reason it makes me uneasy is that these commandments have often been weaponized, especially by the church. Too often Christians have told people to be silent about their pain, swallow their suffering, using the Bible as justification. It’s have been used to silence the victimized, so others won’t be disturbed or inconvenienced by their stories. It was preached to slaves to keep them in their place. It’s been used to send victims of domestic violence back to their abusers. “If you are silent about your pain,” said writer Zora Neale Hurston, “they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”
Another reason for my uneasiness is that, in the wisdom of those who put together the lectionary – the cycle of readings for each Sunday – this passage has been paired with the story of Joseph and his brothers. Today we read just a short piece of the story, Joseph’s emotional reunion with his family. But that happy ending comes after a long story of the brothers’ hatred of their younger brother, their intention to kill him, their decision to instead to sell him into slavery and fake his death to their father.
Joseph ends up in Egypt and manages to go from slavery to relative privilege in the house of a captain of Pharaoh’s army but is sent to prison after being falsely accused of rape. He was there for years until Pharaoh needed help interpreting a dream and someone remembered that Joseph had interpreted dreams for his fellow prisoners. He ends up becoming second in command to Pharaoh, a position of power and privilege. When his brothers come to Egypt desperately searching for food, he interprets it as divine providence. He reunites with his father and brothers, saves them all from starvation, and brings them all to Goshen to live in security. All’s well that ends well, right? Jesus appears to think so. Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; don’t condemn; be forgiving. In other words, be like Joseph.
So I’m uneasy with both of these stories because what they ask of us is so darn hard, if not impossible. I guess we can be thankful these texts come around in our lectionary only once every three years and only when Lent starts late and we get a seventh Sunday after Epiphany. But this year, Lent does begin late and we do get a seventh Sunday after Epiphany. So here we are.
We’re almost to the end of Epiphany – the season of revelation of who Jesus is. No longer the babe of Bethlehem, but the teacher of wisdom and of the ethics of the realm of God. In just two weeks, we’ll be in Lent – and we know where that leads. The way of discipleship leads to a cross. And Jesus lays it out plainly in this sermon, that his way will be counter-intuitive, counter-cultural, and for all the benefits of being in relationship with him – a big challenge. If this is the job description who would want to be a disciple? Well, evidently, we do, because here we are. And if we’re honest with ourselves, we must confess that the challenge is often too much.
In our individual lives, in our families, even in our churches, there are conflicts, often long-standing, unresolved rifts. Siblings who don’t speak to one another, children estranged from parents. Forgiveness and reconciliation is always hard to achieve, but especially when someone has taken away something that can never be given back. The life of a young person with a promising future snuffed out by a drunk driver or a random act of violence. Children whose innocence is forever taken away by abuse. Churches split apart by grievances they can’t seem to get beyond. I was just reading about the Lutheran church in Columbine, Colorado which found itself unable to minister both to the victims of the Columbine High School massacre and to the parents of one of the attackers. Real life on the ground is a lot messier than the resolution of Joseph’s story might have us believe – even for those of us who do try our best to be faithful disciples.
So, as one who struggles with these texts, I have two insights that might be helpful for us today. First, I’m reminded of our Confirmation class when we were looking at the Ten Commandments. We read through each one and talked about what each one meant. We also read Martin Luther’s explanations of each commandment and saw that for each of the “thou shalt nots,” he adds a “thou shalt” (although we use more contemporary language), for example #8: “You shall not give false testimony against your neighbor.” Sounds simple, don’t lie. But Luther asks: “What does this mean?” And answers: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray, slander, or hurt their reputations – but defend them, speak well of them, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
And #5: “You shall not murder.” Again, simple; don’t kill anyone. But Luther takes it further: “We should fear and love God so that we do not hurt or harm our neighbors – but help and support them in every physical need.” And so on through #10.
What we realized was that Luther made the commandments even harder, impossible really. If just the bare commandments serve to hold up a mirror to let us see our failings, his additional explanations bring the mirror in even closer, exposing every wrinkle, pore, and blemish – every sin, both individual and corporate. For surely we are part of a system in which some of our neighbors are betrayed and slandered and some of our neighbors do not have all their physical needs met, like food, clean water, and shelter.
The good news in all this is that, even as we take sin seriously, we take confession and forgiveness just as seriously. We look in the mirror. We see the truth of our failures and own them – no denial, no sugar coating. And we accept the graciousness of God who also sees us in the mirror but can see past the sin into the beloved hearts within us. God forgives and God gives the encouragement, the heart to go back and continue to live into the vision God has for all of us. This is grace.
I don’t think those Ten Commandments monuments they want to put in front of courthouses can adequately convey the depth of meaning inherent in these so-called laws. These laws are about relationships – with God and with one another. They are not a black and white moral code. We are meant to wrestle with them, and continually examine ourselves, confess our failings, and receive God’s grace.
And speaking of wrestling, we have to talk about forgiveness, that is how we forgive others. Jesus says, “Be like Joseph.” But we know that oftentimes, forgiveness can be very, very difficult. As author Sue Monk Kidd wrote: “People, in general, would rather die than forgive. It’s that hard.”
And in our Covid-weary culture and our divisiveness amidst rage and meanness, it’s gotten even harder. The New York Times ran an essay with the title: “Rudeness Is on the Rise. You Got a Problem with That?” The author asked, “how do we respond to a world under stress, a culture in which the guardrails of so-called civility are gone? The evidence of that stress is everywhere. In airports and in the skies, airline passengers are angry about wearing masks, angry about inspection of firearms in their carry-ons, seemingly angry about, well, everything. Close to home, things aren’t much better, and it comes from both sides of our ideologically divided society.”
In the midst of all this, how do we live into God’s vision and Jesus’ call to discipleship? We have to begin by stating what forgiveness is not (with thanks to Debi Thomas in Journey with Jesus). First, forgiveness is not denial. It isn’t pretending that an offense doesn’t matter, or that a wound doesn’t hurt. Forgiveness isn’t acting as if things don’t have to change. It isn’t allowing ourselves to be abused and mistreated, or assuming that God has no interest in justice. And forgiveness isn’t synonymous with healing or reconciliation. Healing has its own timetable, and sometimes reconciliation isn’t possible. In fact, sometimes our lives depend on us severing ties with our offenders, even if we’ve forgiven them. In other words, forgiveness is not cheap.
Secondly, forgiveness isn’t a detour or a shortcut. Yes, we’re commanded to forgive. But the process of forgiveness calls us first to mourn, to lament, to feel anger, to hunger and thirst for justice. Forgiveness isn’t a palliative to simply numb the pain; it goes hand-in-hand with the work of repentance and transformation.
Thirdly, forgiveness is not instantaneous. It is a messy, non-linear process that might leave us feeling healed and liberated one minute and bleeding out of every pore the next. Forgiveness isn’t an escalator; it’s a spiral staircase. We circle, circle, and circle again, trying to create distance between the pain we’ve suffered and the new life we seek. Sometimes we can’t tell if we’ve ascended at all; we keep seeing the same, broken landscape below us. But ever so slowly, our perspective changes. Ever so slowly, the ground of our pain falls away.
I always wonder about the process that Joseph must have gone through in order to be able to forgive his brothers. What went on between the lines of the story? He was 17 when he was sold into slavery and 30 when he became prime minister to Pharaoh. We know that forgiveness is often, maybe usually, a process. Even those who immediately grant forgiveness have to still do the hard work that will come.
Consider that before Joseph forgives his brothers, he wrestles with a strong desire to scare and shame them. In fact, he does scare and shame them. Forgiveness is something Joseph has to arrive at, slowly and painfully.
I may have used this example before but it’s an excellent example of this painful process. In 2006, a gunman stormed into a one-room schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, PA and shot ten young Amish girls, killing five and then killing himself. People around the world were astonished that the Amish immediately expressed forgiveness toward the killer and his family. There was also the perception (totally mistaken) that granting forgiveness meant they were then able to quickly get over the tragedy.
But a year after the shootings, Jonas Beiler, of the Family Resource and Counseling Center, reported that members of the community suffered from nightmares, some were still startled by the sound of a helicopter overhead. Survivors, including some of the older boys who were let go by the killer, wondered if somehow they could have stopped the massacre. Some of the schoolchildren suffered from emotional instabilities, which therapists working in the community expected to go on for several years. But Beiler said, that because the Amish could express forgiveness, they were better able to concentrate on the work of their own healing.
And right there, I believe, is the key to these teachings. They’re not meant to be easy. We are meant to be challenged by them. We are meant to wrestle with them. Ten years after the Nickel Mines shootings, Aaron Esh Jr. reported that he still struggles with the memories. He says that despite the Amish’s legendary powers of forgiveness, it’s a struggle to stay constant. “You have to fight the bitter thoughts,” he said. Another mother of one of the girls killed that day said, “It’s not a once and done thing. It is a lifelong process.”
So, how do we work on our own processes, especially in those places where bitter thoughts reside? How does forgiveness happen? First of all, it’s not something that anyone else can make you do, either by quoting Jesus to you or trying to make you feel guilty. To be forgiven and to forgive are always gifts of grace that come from some place beyond ourselves. It’s your process. Nor can anyone else tell someone who has suffered evil at the hands of others that God is bringing something good out of it. No one else could say to Joseph, “God has brought you here.” He had to discover it for himself. If it is going to happen at all, victims have to discover for themselves that God has somehow created something new out of their suffering, that out of their survival God’s grace can even provide something that someone else will need.
We can learn from Joseph that his decision to not keep score against his brothers created the possibility of a new future for himself and his family. Otherwise, they would all still be controlled by and captive to the past. Can we begin to, at the very least, be open to the possibility of giving up the scorecard? Is there anything good that has come out of a situation of suffering at the hands of another?
I was asked once whether, if given the chance, I’d go back and change my life so that times of suffering did not occur. I thought really hard about it. What a blessing that would be. No painful memories, no residual fears or hang-ups. But I finally decided that, no, I wouldn’t change my past in any way. Distressful as it may have been, it’s part of who I am, has contributed to my resilience, and has enabled me to have more empathy for others going through similar situations. So I can agree with commentator Barbara Brown Taylor: “When Joseph looked at his life, he didn’t see himself as a victim. He did not see a series of senseless tragedies. He saw a lighted path.”
I doubt very much that Joseph saw that lighted path when his brothers threw him into a pit. Perhaps we can remember his outcome and hold out hope when our process is still in the pit, so to speak.
Perhaps we can hear these hard teachings of Jesus, not as imperatives, but as a promise that God will be with us in the process of forgiveness, all along the way – from a faint acknowledgement of a possibility that forgiveness could happen, to openness to the spirit of healing working within us, to the desire to let go of the person or persons who hurt us (for our sake, not theirs), and maybe (but not necessarily) to reconciliation.
This is what Jesus reveals to us, late in the season of Epiphany revelations and on the cusp of the Lenten journey: that all through our processes of forgiveness, healing, and reconciliation we can breathe in the “deep, joyous generosity of God,” and allow our lives be transformed – opening our hearts and minds and lives to the healing purposes at work in each beloved child of God.
Genesis 45:3-11, 15
Joseph said to his brothers, “It is I, Joseph. Is my father still alive?” The brothers couldn’t answer, so dumbfounded were they. Then Joseph said, “Come closer to me.” When they had come closer, he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. Now don’t be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me here ahead of you so that I could save your lives. There has been a famine in the land for two years, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and no harvesting. But God sent me ahead of you to guarantee that you will have descendants on earth and to keep you alive as a great body of survivors.
So it was not you who sent me here, but God! God has made me Pharaoh’s chief counselor, the head of his household and governor of all Egypt. Hurry back to our father and give him this message from Joseph: ‘God has made me governor of all of Egypt. Come to me here at once! Do not delay. ‘
You will live here near me in the territory of Goshen: you, your children, your grandchildren, your flocks, your herds, and all your possessions. I will provide for you here – for the next five years will be years of famine – so that you and your children and all you own will be spared from destitution.” And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them; and after that his brothers talked with him.
Luke 6: 27-38
Jesus said, “But I say to you that listen, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt. Give to everyone who begs from you; and if anyone takes away your goods, do not ask for them again. Do to others as you would have them do to you.
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, since God is good even to the ungrateful and the wicked. Be merciful, as your loving God is merciful.
“Don’t judge, and you won’t be judged; don’t condemn, and you won’t be condemned. Forgive, and you’ll be forgiven;give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the amount you measure out is the amount you’ll be given back.”