Forgive, Forget, and Bear Fruit
By the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 11, 1999
Genesis 41:45-52 Forgetfulness and
Pharaoh gave Joseph the name
Zaphenath-Paneah and gave him Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On, to be
his wife. And Joseph went throughout the land of Egypt.
Joseph was thirty years old when he
entered the service of Pharaoh king of Egypt. And Joseph went out from Pharaoh's
presence and traveled throughout Egypt. During the seven years of abundance the
land produced plentifully. Joseph collected all the food produced in those seven
years of abundance in Egypt and stored it in the cities. In each city he put the
food grown in the fields surrounding it. Joseph stored up huge quantities of
grain, like the sand of the sea; it was so much that he stopped keeping records
because it was beyond measure.
Before the years of famine came, two
sons were born to Joseph by Asenath daughter of Potiphera, priest of On. Joseph
named his firstborn Manasseh and said, "It is because God has made me
forget all my hardship and all my father's household." The second son he
named Ephraim and said, "It is because God has made me fruitful in the land
of my suffering."
Matthew 18:21-35 Forgiveness and
Then Peter came to Jesus and asked,
"Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me?
Up to seven times?"
Jesus answered, "I tell you, not
seven times, but seventy-seven times.
"Therefore, the kingdom of heaven
is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. As he began the
settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him. Since he
was not able to pay, the master ordered that he and his wife and his children
and all that he had be sold to repay the debt.
"The servant fell on his knees
before him. 'Be patient with me,' he begged, 'and I will pay back everything.'
The servant's master took pity on him, cancelled the debt, and let him go.
"But when that servant went out,
he found one of his fellow-servants who owed him a hundred denarii. He grabbed
him and began to choke him. 'Pay back what you owe me!' he demanded.
"His fellow-servant fell to his
knees and begged him, 'Be patient with me, and I will pay you back.'
"But he refused. Instead, he went
off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. When the
other servants saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed and went and
told their master everything that had happened.
"Then the master called the
servant in. 'You wicked servant,' he said, 'I cancelled all that debt of yours
because you begged me to. Shouldn't you have had mercy on your fellow-servant
just as I had on you?' In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be
tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.
"This is how my heavenly Father
will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart."
Arcana Coelestia #5352, 5353, 5355 Forgetfulness
"Forgetting" means moving
away from something, and "hardship" means the struggles of temptation.
So the words "God has made me forget all my hardship" means moving
away after temptations--in other words, moving away from the evil things that
had brought us pain. . . .
In the original language,
"Manasseh" means "forgetfulness." So in the inner sense it
means moving evil things away from ourselves--both those we do ourselves and
those that are passed down to us. When these are moved away, we gain a new
motivation through the goodness that flows in from the Lord. . . .
The words "God has made me
fruitful" refer to the resulting multiplication of good and true things. . . .
In the original language, "Ephraim" means "fruitfulness."
Joseph named his firstborn Manasseh
and said, "It is because God has made me forget all my trouble and all my
father's household." The second son he named Ephraim and said, "It is
because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering." (Genesis
In one of my favorite stories, set in
medieval times, two monks who are on a long journey are walking through a great
forest. One is middle-aged, and has been with their monastic order for years.
The other is a young novitiate. As they walk along the path, the hours go by,
sometimes in conversation, sometimes in silence.
At one point, they come upon a wide,
rapid stream. Sitting at the edge of the water is a young woman, who is
evidently in some distress. As soon as she sees the two monks, a look of relief
comes over her face, and she hurries up to them. "Father," she says,
addressing the older of the two, "you would be doing me the greatest favor
if you would carry me across. The water is swift, and I do not know how to swim.
If I should slip and fall . . . ."
"Of course, my child," the
monk replies, "I would be most willing to carry you across." The young
novitiate shoots his companion a surprised glance--for under the rules of their
order, they are strictly forbidden to touch women. Nevertheless, the older monk
takes the young woman up in his arms, carries her across the stream, and sets
her down safely on the other side. After thanking them graciously, she goes on
her way, and the two monks continue on their journey.
There is silence between them for an
hour, then two. Finally, the younger monk musters the courage to speak.
"Father," he says, "you know that we are not allowed to touch
"Yes, I know."
"How, then, could you carry that
woman across the stream?"
My son," he replied, "I put
the young woman down two hours ago. But you are still carrying her."
This little story is a gentle
variation on an ancient theme of sin and forgiveness--a theme that is put in
much starker terms in our reading from Matthew. In the Gospel story, the
experienced monk is represented by the king, and the novitiate by one of the
king's servants. The issue, instead of being illicit contact with a woman, has
to do with the forgiveness of monetary debt. The king evidently does have a soft
spot in his heart. When his servant, faced with ruin and slavery for his whole
family, begs the king for mercy, the king relents and forgives him the debt.
But like the young monk who could not
let go of the woman, the king's servant is still tightly gripping his own greed
to his chest. No sooner has his debt to the king been forgiven than he turns
around and throws one of his fellow servants into prison until he has repaid a
much smaller debt. We know the end of the story. That man's greed and lack of
forgiveness landed him in the torture chamber.
Jesus does not mince his words in
illustrating for us the great issues of moral and spiritual life. Though the
words of this parable may be hard for us to swallow, living as we do in a modern
country whose justice is not nearly so harsh, the story does put the issues of
forgiveness and unforgiveness in sharp relief.
For most of us, it is not our physical
life and limb that will be in jeopardy if we do not forgive our brothers and
sisters their offenses against us. Rather, it is our spiritual life that
is endangered by a harsh and unforgiving attitude.
Let's face it. Sometimes people do
things to us that they really shouldn't have done. In fact, sometimes people are
downright mean and nasty. And that hurts! Especially if the one who did that
mean and nasty thing was a family member, or someone we had thought of as a
friend or partner. We feel hurt and betrayed, and our natural first impulse is
to want to get back at them. Oh, we may be house-trained enough that we will not
take a swing at the person. But sometimes we think it would feel so good
to get in that perfect cutting remark that will put that person in his or her
place! Or sometimes we feel we just can't resist spreading some juicy
rumors and gossip about that person.
Of course, when we do these sorts of
things, we do hurt the other person. We also perpetuate a cycle of conflict,
hard feelings, and pain that is likely to boomerang back on ourselves, just as
the unmerciful servant's lack of compassion boomeranged back on him. But what we
should fear most is not the external consequences of the times when we
can't find it in our heart to forgive another person; what we should fear is the
internal consequences. It is the state of our spirit within us
that will determine what our life will be like ever after.
When we do not forgive others their
offenses against us, it creates a hardness within our minds and hearts. This
hardness not only prevents from reaching reconciliation with those that we feel
have harmed us, and keeps us from building a better relationship with them. It
also affects our relationships with others. We start expecting others to
hurt us and let us down just as that other person did. Soon this becomes a
self-fulfilling prophecy, as we find ourselves becoming offended with others and
breaking off our relationships with them.
Fortunately, the Bible also has
positive role models for us to follow--and Joseph is certainly one of them. Oh,
he's not perfect. But as we follow his story in the later chapters of the book
of Genesis, we find a person who gains peace in his soul because he is willing
to let past wrongs remain in the past.
Joseph could easily have become a
suspicious, embittered soul. His own brothers had caused him to be sold into
slavery in a foreign land. But he did not let that hold him back. He
concentrated on excelling at his tasks, and was soon put in charge of his
Egyptian master's household. Once again he was betrayed by his master's wife,
and landed in prison through no fault of his own. Still, he refused to become
embittered, but continued to live with integrity even in prison. Once again, he
was put in charge of the other prisoners.
It was Joseph's willingness to forgive
and live with integrity despite the wrongs done to him that enabled the Lord to
bless him over and over again, so that in the end, he became second only to
Pharaoh himself as ruler of the entire nation of Egypt. This is where we find
him as we pick up our Old Testament reading. He has reached the height of his
favor and power, and has now been given a wife with whom he may settle down and
The names that he gives to his two
sons are both touching and instructive. The name of his firstborn, Manasseh,
comes from a word that means "forgetfulness." This is not
forgetfulness of the type that we curse when we can't remember where we have put
our glasses! No, it is forgetfulness in the positive sense of being able to
forgive and forget past wrongs and hardships, and move on from them to new
richness and abundance of life.
This is the deeper meaning of
Manasseh's birth. The forgetfulness represented by Manasseh, Swedenborg tells
us, means moving away in our hearts from the hardships of our struggles,
conflicts, and temptations. It means moving away from the evil things in our
past that have brought us pain. And we can only do this when, like Joseph, we
are willing to forgive and forget the wrongs done to us by others. We can only
do this when we are willing to set that woman down when we reach the other side
of the stream, rather than carrying her accusingly in our minds for hours,
weeks, months, years, even decades after the original incident is over.
When we are able to open our hearts to
the good forgetfulness of letting bygones be bygones, of forgiving those
that have wronged us either in fact or in our imagination, then we can move on
to the birth of our spiritual Ephraim.
Ephraim's name comes from a Hebrew
word that means "twice fruitful." This name is a perfect image of the
fruitfulness that comes to our lives when we are willing to forgive and forget
past wrongs. Ephraim represents the multiplication of good and true things in
our lives when we are ready to leave behind the pain and struggle of our past
conflicts, and open ourselves up to the new joys and blessings that the Lord has
in store for us.
When, like Joseph, we do not dwell on
the past, but look to the future while doing our best in the present, we open
our minds to a new understanding of the people around us, and we open our hearts
to the goodness and love that can exist in our relationships with them. If we
have had particular conflicts with someone in our life, opening our minds and
hearts in this way may make it possible to build a bridge over those differences
and come to a new appreciation of one another.
Realistically speaking, though,
sometimes we won't be able to bridge the gap. Sometimes our relationship with
that person will remain broken, perhaps forever. Still, all is not lost. The
other person may refuse to accept our forgiveness, or to extend their
forgiveness to us. But our own willingness to forgive--and to apologize where we
have been wrong--will enable us to clear our own spirit of the heavy weight of
anger and bitterness that would otherwise continue to hold us down emotionally
and spiritually. By forgiving and forgetting, we throw off the baggage of our
past so that we can go with spiritual lightness into a fruitful future. Amen.
Music: In the Garden
© 1999 Bruce DeBoer
Floating Butterfly Scrip