Psalm 103:8-13, Genesis 50:15-21, Saint Matthew 18:21-35
RCL Year A, Proper 19

Now forty years ago, a conservative rabbi wrote a remarkable book entitled When Bad Things Happen to Good People.[1] His answer to that problem is that God is finite: bad things happen to good people, because God is powerless to stop them.

Joseph in today’s First Lesson gives quite a different answer. You remember that Joseph’s brothers, jealous of their father’s love and preference for him, cast him into a pit and sell him into slavery and permit his father erroneously to believe that Joseph has been killed by a wild animal.

When Joseph saves his brothers and his father from the famine, his brothers fear his retribution. They put words in their dead father’s mouth that Joseph might forgive his brothers the bad things they did to him. But Joseph says to them: “Am I in the place of God? Even though you intended to do harm to me, God intended it for good, in order to preserve a numerous people, as he is doing today.”[2]

The brothers intend to harm Joseph, and they did. But God is a character in the story as well, as God is a character in our lives. God takes the evil of Joseph’s brothers and folds it into a providential plan to redeem Joseph’s entire family from the famine and finally to redeem all the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. Redeeming slaves and people who have suffered bad things is what God does. Redemption is God.

I believe redemption is the name of the story that is the Old Testament. Redemption is the name of the New Testament. Redemption is the name of our story as well. Not only our redemption, though our story is that, but also the redemption we effect when we forgive. The redemption we have been given, we have been given in order to give it to others.

I believe that Joseph’s answer to his brothers contains the seeds of how we can forgive anyone anything. What is finite is not God but our vision. We cannot see around the corners of time. We cannot apprehend the good that will come of a bad deed, but we have the evidence of the Scriptures that God is always good. The one thing that God cannot do is err against his own nature. We can trust in all things that God’s will will inevitably and eventually be done. When we forgive we lose only the suffering visited upon us. When we forgive we join God’s providence expectant of the good God will do now or in the future.

The rabbi wrote his book because his fourteen-year-old son died of an incurable genetic disease, and the rabbi sought to comfort grieving people with the idea that God does his best and is with people when they suffer. At some time, perhaps on another shore, the rabbi will see and know God’s love in its fullness. He will come to understand, and he will come to see that God is what the Psalmist described him to be: “As a father cares for his children, * so does the Lord care for those who fear him.”[3]

[1] Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. New York: Schocken Books, 1981.

[2] Genesis 50:19-20.

[3] Psalm 103:13.