Forgive, Forget, and Bear Fruit
 

By the Rev. Lee Woofenden

Bridgewater, Massachusetts, April 11, 1999

Readings

Genesis 41:45-52 Forgetfulness and Fruitfulness

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 unforgiveness

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 and fruitfulness

"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."

Sermon

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 41:51, 52)

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 women."

"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 have children.

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
Courtesy of