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Old Testament: Genesis 50, 15-21 
Matthew 18, 21-35

In this morning's gospel, Jesus stresses the need for forgiveness. To the question: "Lord, how often must I forgive my brother? Till seven times?" he answers "Till seventy times seven." The Old Testament lesson explains why he accorded it such importance. It is because it is one of the principal means by which the grip of the past on the future can be broken.

When the episode opens, the future of Joseph's brothers seems about to be shaped by their past. Years before they had deliberately abandoned their brother and, as a result, he had been sold into slavery. Now the time for retribution, postponed to spare the feelings of their innocent father, seems imminent. Conscious that their future is bound to their past, they plead for mercy.

In the event Joseph chooses to show more than mercy. He shows forgiveness:

"Do not be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You meant to do me harm; but God meant to bring good out of it by preserving the lives of so many people, as we see today. Do not be afraid. I will provide for you and your dependants."

In showing such forgiveness, Joseph breaks the power of the past to shape the future. A future that, moments before, was closed is now open.

The consequence of the breaking of the chain that linked the past to the future is immediately apparent. In place of enmity, there is reconciliation. The story ends by telling of the future life of the family with Joseph treating the sons and grandsons of his brothers as his own:

Joseph remained in Egypt, he and his father's household. He lived there to be a hundred and ten years old and saw Ephraim's children to the third generation; he also recognised as his the children of Manasseh's son, Machir.

His final act was to commit to his brothers and their children the task of eventually returning his bones to the promised land.

In God's eyes, Justice is not primarily about imprisoning people, but about setting them free. Forgiveness is one of the two great means by which such liberation is achieved. Next week, we will look at the other, when we turn our minds to the subject of generosity.

Roger Wood
25th September 2005

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