Till Worldly Passions Turn

Text: Genesis 50:15-21; Matthew 18:21-35
Date: Pentecost XIV Proper 19 + 9/14/14

The Hymn of the Day, written by a 13th century Italian mystic, Bianco da Siena, contemplates what is behind today’s scripture readings. It taps into the emotions surrounding Joseph’s forgiveness of his guilty and fearful brothers, St. Paul’s warning of the necessity to live in mutual forgiveness, and Jesus’ emphasis on forgiveness as a never-ending expression of His love redeeming and restoring our relationships in the family of God.

The hymn speaks of the Holy Spirit’s imparting of the first of His gifts, namely, love. It describes this godly love in physical terms as of fire, kindled in the believer’s heart, glowing through our thoughts, words, and deeds redeemed from the service to sin to the expression and appearance of nothing less than the love of God carried out through us!

We regularly confess before God and one another (as we did today) that we have committed sin through our thoughts, our words and our deeds, the evil we have done or the good that we have failed to do. The hymn has us pray of this holy flame of God’s love, “O let it freely burn, Till earthly passion turn To dust and ashes in its heat consuming.” This “turning” is nothing less or other than repentance; contrition and sorrow over sin and then seeking refuge in the infinite mercy of our God by faith in Christ. Such repentance seeks to be real. That is that it burns earthly passion, everything that is at enmity with and at war against God.

Thoughts, words and deeds. The devil constantly seeks to tempt us beginning with planting the idea in our thoughts. As St. James (James 1:13-15) has it, “each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire,” his thoughts, if you will, or as I have said before pushing the right buttons or lighting a fire. “Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin,” beginning with evil or destructive words and proceeding into actual hurtful actions or negligence of someone in need.

Our first lesson is the conclusion of the story of the patriarch Joseph told in almost surprisingly emotional terms. Joseph’s brothers were moved by jealousy to conspire to kill their youngest brother. Instead, of course, they sold him into captivity in Egypt only claiming that he had been killed by a fierce animal. After Joseph had been promoted to leadership in the house of Pharaoh and governor over the whole land, in a time of famine Joseph’s brothers came to Egypt for help but they did not recognize Joseph.

But Joseph recognized them and he “hurried out, for his compassion grew warm for his brothers, and he sought a place to weep. And he entered his chamber and wept there” (Gen 43:30). “Seek thou this soul of mine, And visit it with thine own ardour glowing.”

Joseph then set them up to appear as if they had stolen from him. When they had been brought back we read, “Then Joseph could not control himself before all those who stood by him. He cried, ‘Make everyone go out from me.’ So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept aloud…. Then he fell upon his brother Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept upon his neck. And he kissed all his brothers and wept upon them” (Gen 45:1-2a, 14-15). “Within my heart appear, And kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.”

At the appearance of his father in Goshen “he presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while” (Gen 46:29). That brings us to today’s reading where Joseph extended to his repentant brothers the forgiving love of God. “O let it freely burn, Till earthly passion turn.”

“Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” St. Paul asks us. “How often will my brother sin against me, and I [must] forgive him” asks Peter. Short of our judging others we seek to justify ourselves by setting limits. “No limits,” says our Lord. In fact, if you are unforgiving it reveals that you yourself may have not turned in repentance and therefore do not know what forgiveness is really all about!

The heart-felt love of God Jesus describes in the story of the master of a servant who could not repay his debt, falling on his knees asking for patience. “And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt.” The warning of the parable is when we do not reflect the very pity, grace and forgiveness spoken over us by God to those who sin again us. You pray, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” ‘You mean it? Jesus said, “For if you forgive others their trespasses your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses” (Mt 6:14-15). Then follows “hell, ‘where their worm does not die and the fire [the “other” kind of fire!] is not quenched’” (Mk 9:47-48).

The love of God and living in the forgiveness of our sins, our own and others, is to be as much a part of our new being in Christ as the clothing we wear. It is an interesting detail that our hymn writer reveals his monastic vocation—the outward robe and inner cassock we might say—when he speaks of the vesture of holy charity and the inner clothing of lowliness.

Now, one more thing. You may have thought it unusual and even misleading that I began by emphasizing the “most unLutheran” issue of the emotional aspects of our texts. Matthew 18 is the end of Jesus’ instruction on the importance of forgiveness of one another. Notice the last three words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.” That is, genuine, heart-felt forgiveness committed never again to allow that sin to come between you.

My good friend Jeff Gibbs points out in his Matthew Commentary how the emotions quite often follow slowly in agreement with the Spirit-led choice to forgive, “or,” he writes, “they may need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the new situation.” (Now this is a word that is especially appropriate to you and to me!) “In some situations,” he continues, “the distress that a Christian feels because of the experience of anger or hurt that lasts long after he or she had (thought that he or she had) forgiven another person is an unnecessary distress. The disciple may very well have chosen to release the other person from the debt; the emotions, however, can take a lot longer to get on board with that choice…. Emotions may cloud the mind and heart, but they cannot trump the promises of God,” that is the objective reality of God’s forgiveness [emphasis original]. “And so the yearning strong, With which the soul will long, Shall far outpass the power of human telling.”

The parable ends, however, where it ends, says Dr. Gibbs. “To steadfastly refuse to forgive is unjust and wicked. A life filled with such refusal is a life where faith in Jesus—if it exists—will die. Such a life will lead to damnation when God himself condemns such wickedness on the Last Day.”[1]

[Slight pause]

In the name of the Father and of the  Son and of the Holy Spirit.

[1] Jeff Gibbs, Matthew 11:2—10:34, ©CPH 2010, 940-941.