Bible Snapshots of Forgiveness
Broken, forgiven, reconciled. This is the recurring theme throughout the stories of the Scriptures. What were once whole relationships become broken because of conflict. Relationships are broken but ultimately reconciled and restored. Isn’t this the ultimate story of God’s love for humanity—a broken relationship, then a need for forgiveness and reconciliation with the Creator? The Bible contains the story of the amazing things we can do with God’s help, including being able to forgive. We are told that forgiveness is possible.
Joseph and His Brothers (Genesis 37-45)
One of the greatest examples of forgiveness and reconciliation is the story of Joseph and his brothers. Joseph is the favorite son of Jacob (and his brothers may say that he milks this for all it’s worth). Joseph sees, and shares with others, his visions of his glorious future. Understandably, his brothers think he is full of himself, and they resent his egotism. In today’s world it is hard to imagine a group of brothers arranging to have their brother sold into slavery simply because they are jealous, but Joseph’s brothers couldn’t take his bragging anymore. They were so full of hatred and resentment that they conspired against him and sold him into slavery, telling their father that Joseph had been mauled by an animal and killed.
His brothers didn’t know it, but God was working in Joseph’s life to save theirs. Even after being sold into slavery and wrongly imprisoned for an alleged affair with his boss’s wife, he finds himself (by proving himself invaluable as an interpreter of dreams) at the height of leadership in the Pharaoh’s court. After everything his brothers did to him, Joseph would be justified in forgetting all about them or using his new position to seek revenge. Surely he would be right to punish them at least a little for the havoc they caused in his life.
But Joseph takes a different road. He knows that he belongs to God and operates from that assurance instead of his own feelings. He knows that God has called him to a greater purpose and that grudges won’t get him very far on the path to peace.
Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all those who stood by him, and he cried out, “Send everyone away from me.” So no one stayed with him when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard it, and the household of Pharaoh heard it. Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph. Is my father still alive?” But his brothers could not answer him, so dismayed were they at his presence. Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come closer to me.” And they came closer. He said, “I am your brother Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life. For the famine has been in the land these two years; and there are five more years in which there will be neither plowing nor harvest. God sent me before you to preserve for you a remnant on earth, and to keep alive for you many survivors. So it was not you who sent me here, but God; he has made me a father to Pharaoh and lord of all his house and ruler over all the land of Egypt. (Genesis 45:1-8)
Jacob and Esau (Genesis 33:1–15)
When you read about Jacob and Esau, you’ll see that for Joseph and his brothers the apples don’t fall far from the tree. As a young man, Jacob, Joseph’s father, had schemed and manipulated in order to steal his father’s blessing and his brother’s birthright. He tricked his father into giving him the blessing that should have been his brother Esau’s. After this, the relationship between the brothers seemed beyond repair. Esau plotted to kill Jacob, and Jacob, while in possession of his father’s blessing, ran for his life. However, after some time, their hearts softened. Jacob prayed that God would save him from Esau’s hands, and apparently it worked. Esau had been ready to kill Jacob but instead he chose to forgive. When it was time for the reckoning, what a surprise when, instead of charging to kill Jacob, Esau approached him with a hug and a kiss.
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept. (Genesis 33:1-4)
Abigail (1 Samuel 25:2-38)
Abigail rocks. She is a shining example of a strong woman in a patriarchal time. Nabal, her husband, had thrown himself, his family and his staff under the bus by mocking King David and teasing David’s servants. David was so mad that he gathered his crew and set out to confront Nabal. Thankfully, Nabal’s servants had the wherewithal to run to Abigail and tell her what had happened—that Nabal blew his top and was about to get them all killed. Abigail didn’t miss a beat. She gathered food and wine as gifts and peeled out on her donkey to meet David before he arrived. When she came upon him, she begged him to excuse her hotheaded hubby and not do anything that would offend God (like murdering her husband). She got through to David, and he decided to forgive the incident and go home.
David said to Abigail, “Blessed be to the Lord, the God of Israel, who sent you to meet me today! Blessed be your good sense, and blessed be you, who have kept me today from bloodguilt and from avenging myself by my own hand! For as surely as the Lord the God of Israel lives, who has restrained me from hurting you, unless you had hurried and come to meet me, truly by morning there would not have been left to Nabal so much as one male.” Then David received from her hand what she had brought him; he said to her, “Go up to your house in peace; see I have heeded your voice, and I have granted your petition.” (1 Samuel 25:32-35)
Zacchaeus (Luke 19:1-10)
You may know the story about the “wee little man” Zacchaeus, who climbed a sycamore tree in order to better see Jesus. He was not exactly the most honest person. In fact, he was a tax collector who ripped people off and kept the extras for himself. He didn’t have crowds of friends and probably didn’t feel part of the community. He likely burned plenty of bridges with his neighbors. He was not one with whom
people thought Jesus would choose to eat dinner. But in true Jesus form, he summoned Zacchaeus down from his tree and invited himself to supper. The crowds around Jesus were not thrilled at Jesus’ choice in dinner companions. How could Jesus eat at the same table with such a sinner?
But it only took Jesus calling to Zacchaeus for Zacchaeus to come to his senses. The text says that Jesus called his name and he got down from the tree, invited Jesus in and vowed to give half of his possessions to the poor and give back what he had stolen fourfold. We don’t see anywhere that Jesus put Zacchaeus in his place. We don’t see any judgment from Jesus. We don’t see shame. What we read in the story is Jesus calling his name and Zacchaeus seeking reconciliation. The story closes with Jesus declaring the salvation of Zacchaeus.
All who saw it began to grumble and said, “He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.” Zacchaeus stood there and said to the Lord, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much.” Then Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.” (Luke 19:7-10)
The Prodigal (Luke 15:11-32)
The parable of the Prodigal and his brother is probably one of the most well-known stories of the Bible. You can look at the story from a variety of angles and learn different things about what Jesus was teaching.
Looking at the younger son, you see a young man who wants now what is coming to him later. He demands his inheritance so that he can go out and see the world. He gets his money and lives a great (by worldly standards) life for a short while. When the money runs out, he realizes that his friends weren’t really friends, and he is left eating with pigs. His only option is to beg his father to let him become a servant in the house where he once was lord.
Looking at the father, you may see a man who doesn’t want to but let’s his son go out on his own, his heart breaking as his son leaves. He may worry and pray and plead with God to protect his son. You imagine that he looks out every day hoping it is the day he will see his son walking toward him. When this day comes, his heart is overjoyed, and he throws a party.
Then you have the perspective of the older brother. He never did anything wrong. He worked hard all day, every day, for his father. He remained loyal and true to the family. He may have noticed, though, that his father was constantly looking down the road hoping the younger brother was coming home. The elder son may have felt a tinge of jealousy. When his younger brother did come home, he resented the way his father threw a party and celebrated the younger son’s debauchery and disloyalty. No one ever threw a party for the older, loyal brother or praised him for anything.
Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32)
These stories—representing only a few of the Scripture narratives—all point to a major theme: broken relationships, repentance and forgiveness, and a reconciled road ahead. The stories don’t always have happy endings or follow the same pattern. Some of them get stuck at a point along the way and leave us wondering how they concluded. But all point to the thing God wants us to know: God is in the business of reconciling, and as followers of Jesus, reconciling is our business. God calls believers to a place of forgiveness and remembering that we have been forgiven. We need to be reconciled to God, and now, with the power of the Holy Spirit, we are called to be reconcilers and peacemakers in the world.