A Sermon by Rev. Kurt Horigan AsplundhPreached in Bryn Athyn October 23, 1994
The subject of this sermon is the Divine example of forgiveness. The text is the Lord’s well known statement:
“Father, forgive them for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34).
These were the Lord’s words as they crucified Him. They are an expression of the Divine love for the human race a love so deep that it never faltered, even in the moment of its supreme rejection. It did not ask, “How often? Seven times?” But forgave “until seventy times seven,” and even to the end.
This moving incident of forgiveness does not stand alone in Scripture. It is prefigured by an incident that took place in the days of Jacob and his sons. We refer to Joseph’s reconciliation with his brothers. In their jealousy, the older sons of Jacob had plotted against Joseph and sold him into slavery in Egypt. Staining his garment with the blood of a goat, the brothers brought it to Jacob as evidence of the fate of Joseph, and Jacob concluded that he was dead.
But Joseph was not dead. By a kind of figurative resurrection he rose to supreme power in the land of Egypt, and when famine struck, Joseph stood as a savior to the people. The brothers by whose hand he was betrayed come to beg bread, and Joseph forgave them.
Two incidents of forgiveness one in the book of Genesis, another in the Gospels both expressing the same eternal truth about the Divine love. The Writings declare that the Lord came to fulfill the Law. This means not only that the prophecies about the Messiah to come were fulfilled by His birth, but more than that, in every respect the Lord lived up to the eternal truths expressed in the Word. So, in the instance of His crucifixion and the Lord’s words of forgiveness which he said then, we have the Lord’s expression of Divine forgiveness prefigured in the Joseph story. The entire Old Testament is a veiled preview of the Lord’s life on earth. The Heavenly Doctrine for the New Church specifically teaches that “how the Lord was received when He came into the world, and how He was tempted and then became Lord of heaven and earth … is described by the story of Joseph” (AE 448:16).
There are parallels even in the literal accounts. Joseph’s coat of many colors which his brothers stripped from him reminds us of the Lord’s garments divided among those that crucified Him. Garments are said to signify the appearances of truth in the Word, or truth in the natural degree (see AC 4733). As such they can be twisted to confirm any belief. Without the light of the internal sense, natural truths can be used to confirm any idea. So the blood on Joseph’s coat was used to convince his father that Joseph was dead. Again, in Egypt, Joseph had escaped the seductive grasp of the wife of Potiphar only by slipping from his garment the garment later brought as evidence against him. The human heredity the Lord took on from Mary was the outer garment of His life which He had to lay aside to become Divinely Human. Joseph was lowered into a pit to be left for dead. The Lord was put in a tomb. Joseph rose from obscurity in an Egyptian prison to become a ruler in Egypt. The Lord rose from the tomb to become ruler of heaven and earth.
It is by a revelation of the spiritual sense of the Word, however, that the full harmony of the Scriptures may be seen. In the account of Joseph’s reconciliation the full implication of the Lord’s words of forgiveness on the cross may be known. Here we learn that the Divine love is the essential and unchanging essence of God. This unfailingly extends forgiveness to all. More clearly expressed in the Joseph story, however, is the requirement of the Divine wisdom. Embodied in this account is the truth about repentance on our part if we are to be forgiven.
“Heaven is not granted from mercy apart from means,” we are taught, “but in accordance with the life” (HH 54, footnote 1). “Sins are not forgiven through repentance of the mouth, but through repentance of the life … Sins adhere to the man however much he may suppose that they have been forgiven,” the doctrine states, “nor are they removed from him except through a life according to the commands of faith. So far as he lives according to these commands, so far his sins are removed; and so far as they are removed, so far they have been forgiven” (AC 8393).
So it was that before Joseph’s reconciliation with the brothers who high-handedly sold him into slavery, we read of their remorse and change of heart. When Joseph, still unknown to them, threatens to keep Benjamin in Egypt while sending the others back, Judah offers his life instead. The same Judah who suggested the selling of Joseph for gain is willing to guarantee Benjamin’s release. This is a remarkable life-change. Think of it. The man who put the blood-soaked coat of Joseph into his father’s hands, allowing him to think his son was dead, now says, “How shall I go up to my father if the lad is not with me, lest perhaps I see the evil that would come upon my father?” (Gen. 44:34) There is a new sensitivity and a deep concern for others that has been born in Judah and his brothers. This allows the reconciliation to take place. The love that Joseph has yearned to express now has a place to be received. So Joseph sent away all his Egyptian servants, revealed his identity to his astounded brothers, embraced Benjamin and wept for joy. “Likewise, I say to you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:10).
We find the true theme of forgiveness in many places in the Word, but a false conception of it pervades the minds of many in the Christian world. The doctrine for the New Church has been given to restore an understanding of the true nature of the Divine love.
“The Lord forgives everyone his sins, because He is mercy itself,” the doctrine teaches. “Nevertheless they are not thereby forgiven unless the man performs serious repentance, and desists from evils, and afterward lives a life of faith and charity, and this even to the end of his life. When this is done, the man receives from the Lord spiritual life, which is called new life. When from this new life the man views the evils of his former life and turns away from them and regards them with horror, then for the first time are the evils forgiven, for then the man is held in truths and goods by the Lord, and is withheld from evils. From this it is plain what is the forgiveness of sins, and that it cannot be granted within an hour, nor within a year” (AC 9014:3).
The brothers of Joseph who came to Egypt received harsh treatment at first. They attributed this to their crime against Joseph. “We are truly guilty concerning our brother, for we saw the anguish of his soul when he pleaded with us, and we would not hear; therefore this distress has come upon us” (Gen. 42:21, emphasis added). They were convinced that their distresses were a direct consequence of their sin. This is typical. How often do we feel we are reaping the harvest of our wrongs? A child may believe that his parents do not love him any more because of his mistakes and bad behavior. Their punishments seem to come from anger.
Sometimes it appears to us that the Lord punishes us or causes us to suffer for wrongdoing. In fact, in the days of Israel, it was thought that every sickness, calamity or tragedy was God’s retribution for sin. So when a man born blind was brought to the Lord, the question of the people was about who committed the sin that caused his blindness.
A common belief in the Christian world is that God was angered by Adam’s original sin against Him at the time of the fall, and that as a result we all are condemned and suffer consequences. It is the Lord Jesus, seen as a separate Person, who is able to save us. He is forgiving and merciful, and pleads with the Father. He has given His life as a sacrifice for ours to satisfy His Father’s anger. Was not this the purpose in His words at the time of crucifixion: “Father, forgive them … “? So it would seem. Yet, if this be so, we must assume that there is a Divine being who must be persuaded to forgive humankind, and who remains angry and vengeful against fallen people unless He is satisfied in some way.
Nothing could be further from the Divine nature. God’s unchanging purpose in creation is to form a heaven from the human race, an eternal kingdom where He may draw all people to Himself to bless and favor them. The Divine love goes forth constantly, unchanging, always seeking to bring about human happiness. If people, in their freedom, fail to respond to the invitation to open the door and to invite Him in, it is surely a grief to the Lord, but no cause to rouse His anger or elicit punishment.
Evil bears the seeds of inevitable sadness, calamity and tragedy. Human evil is the cause of all suffering and unhappiness. God does not will or cause these results. They are not prescribed or meted out by Him, paying us back for disobedience. Rather, these results are a cause of His grief for us. Far from being a provocation, such circumstances are a stimulus to Him to seek new means for our salvation.
Analogy could be made with the human body and its soul. The soul is like the god of the body, always seeking to keep the body in its healthiest possible condition. If we abuse or strain the body, health problems may result. The problems are our own doing, for the soul’s constant effort is to return the body to a healthy state. Its effort is always positive. So is the Divine effort.
Returning to the account of Joseph in Egypt, we see how he treated his brothers. He “acted a stranger to them and spoke roughly to them” (Gen. 42:7). He called them spies, imprisoned them, kept a hostage; yet he gave them the food they needed, restored their money and sent them home. And when he heard them speaking of their guilt and perceived their repentance, he wept for joy. While there was outward rejection, an inward love longed for reconciliation. It was for the same reason the Lord wept for Jerusalem on the day of His triumphal entry (see Luke 19:41).
Why did Joseph treat the brothers harshly? Not to cause suffering. He wanted no revenge for what they had done to him. He sought only reconciliation. He had forgiven them already.
Joseph’s goal was to be reunited with his father. The separation had come about in the first place by the jealousy of the older brothers. Out of envy they had thought to dispose of him, to send him away never to be seen again. But could forgiveness be extended if their envy remained? If Joseph had tried to reunite with his brothers prematurely, they would have rejected him again. This was the reason he waited to see what was in their minds. He had to wait until they were ready for the reunion which he always had wanted. Therefore, when Judah showed evidence of his change of heart and of his repentance, Joseph could no longer refrain from making himself known and embracing them. What he had willed was, at last, a practical possibility. Without further hesitation or reserve, he frankly forgave them. “Do not therefore be grieved or angry with yourselves because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life” (Gen. 45:5). The evil had been turned to good. The circumstances which had arisen as a result of the evil of the brothers actually had become the means whereby that evil could be broken.
It would not be correct to say that the men had been punished enough and now could be restored to friendship. Rather, we would say that through free repentance and an opportunity to change their lives, they had come into a new and receptive state of mind. As soon as this condition existed, Joseph embraced them.
The same thing is true of our relationship with the Lord. We separate ourselves from Him by our own self-will. In the consequences that follow, brought about by our choices, the Lord works to restore conjunction with us. It may appear that these consequences are punishments by the angry God. They are not. And the most remarkable thing is that the Lord is able to turn them to good. While He does not will that we suffer the consequences of our own folly and indeed weeps for us, it is through these consequences that He provides opportunities for us to change the very state that precipitated them.
We have said that people in ancient times regarded every calamity as a Divine punishment for their sin. While we may now understand that this was superstition on their part, we ourselves are not far from falling into superstitions of a similar kind. Often we falsely blame ourselves for things that happen. But it is not because of our secret sins that tragedy strikes. While it is true that we can harm ourselves and others by failing to carry out our responsibilities or by allowing self-love to blaze out of control, most of the things that happen in our life have no direct relation to our behavior, evil or good. An accident or illness is not God’s punishment for our evil. Nor is an unexpected benefit God’s reward for our good deeds. The punishment for evils is the consequence of disorder, just as the reward for good is the consequence of being in order. The Lord never wills punishment. Yet if we put ourselves outside of the laws of order, we are open to unhappiness, frustration, and harm. When we have thrown aside the protection of Divine order, the hells can attack and afflict us.
Then the Lord seeks but one thing our return to order. That is when His mercy burns with a desire, appealing to us in our fallen state, hopeful that we may be raised up again. No state of our life is beyond the reach of the Divine forgiveness. Nothing we can do as a sin against God will turn Him against us. If we make our bed in hell, He is even there.
What worse injustice and repudiation could there be than the Lord’s crucifixion? Yet at that very moment the Lord reaffirmed His inmost love: “Forgive them, for they do not know what they do.” He did not strike them dead with fire or lightning. He did not cause them to suffer disease or to go childless. He did not curse them with eternal damnation. Instead, He held out a hope for them all. And by His resurrection from the tomb on the third day, He used the death by which He had died to turn the hearts of many through the centuries to acknowledge and worship Him, our savior, Jesus Christ.
This supreme example of forgiveness should be the model for our life. Our love for others should be constant. Love for the neighbor is not to be withheld when the neighbor sins against us. The Lord taught, “Love your enemies.” We should not bear grudges or subtly punish those who offend us. We may not harbor hatred or desire revenge against those who wrong us. Again, the Lord has taught to forgive not just seven times, but up to seventy times seven.
But our mercy and love is to be exercised with wisdom and prudence, not indiscriminately. The doctrine of the church teaches that ” … genuine charity consists in acting prudently, and to the end that good may come thereby” (NJHD 100).
The Lord has given the example that we should live according to the spirit of the Divine law.
The beauty of forgiveness is to be found in many accounts of Scripture. We remember the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15), the Lord’s forgiveness of the woman who washed His feet with her tears (Luke 7:44), and His admonition to forgive our brothers up to seventy times seven. This is the true spirit of the Divine love. It is the spirit of love we should seek to cultivate that we may become the image and likeness of our God. Amen.
Lessons: Gen. 45:1-8, 12-15; Luke 7:36-47, 50; AC 9443-9452
Arcana Coelestia 9443-9452
The forgiveness of sins shall now be spoken of. The sins done by a man are rooted in his very life, and make it; and therefore no one is liberated from them unless he receives new life from the Lord, which is effected by means of regeneration.
The Lord continually flows into man with the good of love and the truths of faith; but these are variously received, being received in one way by one person and in a different way by another; by those who have been regenerated they are received well, but by those who do not suffer themselves to be regenerated they are received ill.
Those who have been regenerated are continually kept by the Lord in the good of faith and of love, and are then withheld from evils and falsities. And those who do not suffer themselves to be regenerated by the Lord are also withheld from evil and kept in good, for good and truth continually flow in from the Lord with every man; but the infernal loves in which they are, namely, the loves of self and of the world, stand in the way, and turn the influx of good into evil, and that of truth into falsity.
From all this it is evident what the forgiveness of sins is. To be able to be kept by the Lord in the good of love and the truths of faith, and to be withheld from evils and falsities, is the forgiveness of sins. And to shun evil and falsity, and to feel aversion for them, is then repentance. But these are possible only with those who, through regeneration, have received new life from the Lord, because these things belong to the new life.
The signs that sins have been forgiven are the following: Delight is felt in worshiping God for the sake of God, in being of service to the neighbor for the sake of the neighbor, thus in doing good for the sake of good, and in believing truth for the sake of truth. There is an unwillingness to merit by anything that belongs to charity and faith. Evils, such as enmities, hatreds, revenges, unmercifulness, adulteries in a word, all things that are against God and against the neighbor are shunned and are held in aversion.
But the signs that sins have not been forgiven are the following: God is not worshiped for the sake of God, and the neighbor is not served for the sake of the neighbor; thus good is not done and truth is not spoken for the sake of good and truth, but for the sake of self and the world. There is a desire to merit by our deeds; others are despised in comparison with ourselves; delight is felt in evils, such as enmities, hatred, revenge, cruelty, adulteries; and the holy things of the church are held in contempt, and are at heart denied.
The Lord regenerates a man from Divine mercy. This is done from his infancy down to the last of his life in the world, and afterward to eternity. Thus it is from Divine mercy that the Lord withdraws a man from evils and falsities, and leads him to the truths of faith and goods of love, and afterward keeps him in these. And after this, in Divine mercy He raises him to Himself in heaven and makes him happy. All this is what is meant by the forgiveness of sins from mercy.