How did we get here and where are we going? The prequel and the sequel are staples of modern film and literature but everything and everyone has a prequel and a sequel. Even each of us. Why am I like I am and am I intending to carry on the same way?
These snippets of the bible that we’ve just heard also have prequels and sequels and in the case of this morning’s readings we’ve got one of each and they’re both quite telling.
The story of Joseph forgiving his brothers looks for all the world like a family reunited and they all lived happily ever after. They’d been beastly to him, there’s a sort of death-bed intervention from their father and they’re all in tears and loving each other dearly again. At Joseph’s invitation they all settle down in Egypt and prosper and flourish and everything is hunky-dory. For a while at least. But there’s a chilling sequel, as they say in the movies.
A few years down the line Joseph has died and there’s a new administration in Egypt. A new pharaoh who with his government gets distinctly twitchy about the success of this growing Israelite ethnic group, and comes to regard them as a serious threat to the indigenous culture. So this new regime embarks on a ruthless programme of enslavement and exploitation which has some uncomfortable modern resonances. One way to look at it is as part of God’s plan for his chosen people but it also shows how an admirable act of forgiveness and generosity can be regarded very differently by another group at another time.
I’m sure you all remember how it turned out - after some pretty trying events, Pharaoh and his army finished up at the bottom of the Red Sea while Moses and co head off for the promised land. I’ll return to that cheerful thought in a few moments.
Our gospel reading had a prequel. Just before all that talk about forgiveness there’s some serious advice about conflict resolution with Jesus insisting that if you’ve got a beef with someone you should have it out with them one-to-one. And if that doesn’t work get a couple of pals along to help you put your case. And so on. Jesus was under no illusions that some things matter and need sorting, you can’t just forgive and forget and pretend that everything is beautiful when it isn’t.
But then he told this parable of the unforgiving servant, and what a fertile parable it is for promoting reflection and conjecture. I don’t want to focus much on the king this morning though it would certainly be useful sometime to think hard about his motivation. I can’t help but wonder in passing whether he wasn’t heaping up trouble for himself with other people who owed him - you let that one off, why not me?
What of the unforgiving one though, what was he thinking of? Couldn’t he make a simple connection here? How could he be so destructive? It’s incomprehensible isn’t it? Well no, not really. I find it fairly understandable. I only have to look inside myself a moment to realise that my initial internal reaction to various minor irritations can actually be quite embarrassing if only anyone knew. I don’t enjoy being corrected, I don’t like being thwarted, I don’t warm to contradiction. These things can niggle. Like most people of course, I’ve learnt to keep a lid on these initial internal feelings and put them behind me pretty efficiently in most circumstances but sometimes something will get to me that I have to work quite hard to dismiss if it’s not to spoil my whole day. And that’s despite the fact that I know, I really know, that I have a million things to be thankful for and almost nothing to complain about.
So maybe this servant saw his debtor, perhaps remembering some rough words they’d had before and felt the old anger. Not the end of the world if he could control it but he chose not to. Instead, he gave rein to his feelings and confronted the matter almost without thinking. Probably words were exchanged and soon it’s too late to back down, because backing down is even harder than keeping a lid on your feelings in the first place. It had become an act of self-destruction. Even if he couldn’t see it, it was clear to those around that he’d been treated wonderfully and was now behaving abominably. He brought the horrors that followed upon himself.
I wonder whether you’ve been to any of the h.art exhibitions this week. We’ve been to several - it’s amazing the variety and quality of arts and crafts throughout the county and the beautiful places you get to go to that I’d certainly never realised were there. We were at a farm near Canon Frome on Friday which had, among other things, some striking large scale ironwork sculptures. One of them featured a large suspended bird cage with a human figure all restricted and cramped up inside it. I mentioned that it looked quite disturbing but the sculptor said yes, superficially perhaps, but it wasn’t meant to be, pointing out that the cage had no base and the name of the sculpture was “It’s in your hands.” I think he was trying to say that the figure could have jumped out (or maybe dropped out?) and broken free from the imagined restraints that it had put on itself.
Well, maybe, and maybe this morning we’re being invited to see that to be unforgiving in God’s world of forgiveness is to cage ourselves into a self-destructive cycle when it doesn’t have to be that way. Individually and collectively, we can seek to live in the light of God’s life-enhancing forgiveness.
It isn’t straightforward though, is it? What could that pharaoh have done differently with the Israelites? The Bible says that God “hardened his heart” though we’d probably prefer to see his ruthlessness as a calculated political decision. Knowing the world as we do, there’s little doubt he had a local and vocal Egyptian constituency that was quite happy to see the outsiders forced to work for them for little reward and he would have struggled to adopt a more inclusive and reconciliatory line toward the foreigners. He was probably in quite a bind but it didn’t save him from the Red Sea, did it?
On any level forgiveness and reconciliation is a tough, tough business. In difficult situations we may have to cope honestly with the way we are and the way we feel before taking responsibility for the way we want to go forward. May God grant us the wisdom we need as and when we need it.