Treat Sin Like Water Under a Bridge

Seminary Student Chester Reinemann

Matthew 18:21-35 (NIV) 21 Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?” 22 Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times. 23 “Therefore, the kingdom of heaven is like a king who wanted to settle accounts with his servants. 24 As he began the settlement, a man who owed him ten thousand bags of gold was brought to him. 25 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. 26 “At this the servant fell on his knees before him. ‘Be patient with me,’ he begged, ‘and I will pay back everything.’ 27 The servant’s master took pity on him, canceled the debt and let him go. 28 “But when that servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred silver coins. He grabbed him and began to choke him. ‘Pay back what you owe me!’ he demanded. 29 “His fellow servant fell to his knees and begged him, ‘Be patient with me, and I will pay it back.’ 30 “But he refused. Instead, he went off and had the man thrown into prison until he could pay the debt. 31 When the other servants saw what had happened, they were outraged and went and told their master everything that had happened. 32 “Then the master called the servant in. ‘You wicked servant,’ he said, ‘I canceled all that debt of yours because you begged me to. 33 Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?’ 34 In anger his master handed him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed. 35 “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”

Repeat offenders. Prisons are full of ‘em. Our lives are full of ‘em. They break the law. They break our hearts. Face it, repeat offenders make it hard to forgive them.

Who are the repeat offenders in your life? They’re often those closest to you. Friends. Coworkers. Even family. A close relationship doesn’t make it easier to forgive, does it? No—their sins often cut the deepest.

We know it: it’s hard to forgive repeat offenders.

This difficulty begs the question: When is it the last straw? We heard Peter ask Jesus this question in the Gospel for today. “How many times shall I forgive my brother when he sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Joseph also knew how hard forgiveness is. His brothers didn’t make it easy for him. You can hardly believe it—his own brothers sold him as a slave. Yet, he forgave them. But he did the harder thing too. He forgave them again, when they became repeat offenders. It’s a great example of how to put Jesus’ answer to Peter’s question into action, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.” What enabled Joseph to do that? How can we learn from this to forgive the repeat offenders of 2017 and earlier? Well...

Treat Sin Like Water under a Bridge
Forgive what is past
Be confident of what is ahead

If there were ever a rollercoaster of a life, it’d be Joseph’s. Love and hatred. Pride and jealousy. Betrayal and forgiveness. Mountains and valleys. Remember where his story started? As a son of the nomad Jacob, in the wilderness of modern-day Israel. This wasn’t your perfect little middle-class family with a house and white picket fence. His father Jacob had 11 sons from 4 women. As you could imagine—DRAMA. Joseph was the favorite son of the favorite wife. And his brothers hated him for it.

His brothers’ hatred and jealousy simmered until it boiled. It overflowed when they betrayed and kidnapped him. They threw him into a pit, where they debated whether to murder him. In a moment of “mercy” *wink* they sold him to some slave traders who were on their way to Egypt.

The sin of Joseph’s brothers wasn’t easy to forget. Their sin put Joseph through multiple undeserved tribulations. He worked hard as a slave. So hard, an Egyptian captain promoted him to master of the house. This didn’t last long. His master’s wife falsely accused him of trying to seduce her. This landed Joseph in prison! Yet he did his time in obedience. He did more than be obedient, in fact, he interpreted other inmates’ dreams! They could have released him for his services! Instead, he was forgotten. Left to rot.

Imagine that! Years of life wasted, all because of his brothers’ betrayal and a crime he didn’t commit. Finally, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. The leader of Egypt, called Pharaoh, sought out Joseph. What for? Dream interpretation. And by revelation from God, Joseph interpreted. Get this, the dream was a divine prediction of the next 14 years (the first 7 of prosperity, the second 7 of devastating famine). As a thank you, Pharaoh released Joseph from prison and made him second in command of all Egypt.

Years passed and whadaya know. Along came Joseph’s brothers to Egypt to buy food during the famine. To their surprise, or more likely horror, there was Joseph. The one selling them food. What an awkward meeting! At least you’d think so, right? But to Joseph, their sin against him was water the bridge. He forgave his brothers and gave them gifts instead of grief. He was happy to be together again with family. So he invited them and his father to live with him in Egypt. They all lived happily ever after. Well... not quite.

Vs 15 “When Joseph’s brothers saw that their father was dead, they said, “What if Joseph holds a grudge against us and pays us back for all the wrongs we did to him?”

Talk about a trigger. Their intense feelings of guilt warped their perception of Joseph, who had shown them forgiveness. “We’re gonna get it now,” they thought. “What if Joseph was just holding out until our father died to take revenge??”

Vs 16-17a “So they sent word to Joseph, saying, “your father left these instructions before he died: ‘This is what you are to say to Joseph: I ask you to forgive your brothers the sins and the wrongs they committed in treating you so badly.’ Now please forgive the sins of the servants of the God of your father.’’

This apology was flawed. It wasn’t in person. It wasn’t complete. It wasn’t out of genuine regret, but rather fear of retribution.

Was this message from their father a lie or not? We can’t be sure. Either way, they knew Joseph was still grieving Jacob’s death. What an opportune time to play on Joseph’s feelings so he might grudgingly spare them for their father’s sake.

Vs 17b “When their message came to him, Joseph wept.”

Imagine the whirlwind of emotions Joseph must have felt! “Not again!!!! First they sold me into slavery. Then, they don’t believe I’ve forgiven what is passed. And now, they ungratefully use my dead father as a tool.”

The brother’s actions were entirely unneeded! Their actions revealed a disbelief Joseph could still love them. How hurtful is that? When someone you love deeply doesn’t believe you do.

Vs 18-19a “His brothers then came and threw themselves down before him. “We are your slaves,” they said. But Joseph said to them, “Don’t be afraid.””

Last ditch effort. They offered themselves as slaves to make it up to him. But Joseph reassured them of his forgiveness. “Don’t worry. It’s water under the bridge. What’s passed is forgiven.”

Vs 19b “Am I in the place of God?”

This is where Joseph’s ability to forgive came from! He didn’t have the authority to be an avenger. He had God’s view of things. Joseph heard from the time he was little that God was a forgiving God. God forgave his great-grandfather Abraham, his grandfather Isaac, and his father Jacob. He knew God had forgiven him too, so he applied this to his brothers.

Jesus wants you to forgive repeat offenders, just like he explained to Peter. Just like Joseph had done. The opportunity to do so is great. The number of those who repeatedly sin against you is huge.

Some are distant from you. Like government officials—who sometimes abuse authority. Like online hackers who steal your ID info and repeatedly plague you with insecurity.

Some are closer to home. They’re your friends. Some stay for fun, but repeatedly run when you need them. They’re your family. Divorced parents and spouses who don’t often say, but often show their personal happiness is more important than their duty to each other and their children.

Yes, the pain they inflict on you hurts. But they need forgiveness. You know, you need forgiveness too. Are you any different than they in the eyes of God? You’ve repeatedly sinned too! You’re aware of your flaws, your sinful habits and repeated rebellions against God’s commandments.

When you don’t forgive as Jesus commands you sin against him. You often number and limit your forgiveness for repeat offenders! You know the unforgiving anger. The jealous pride. The hatred in your hearts against erring neighbors which often leads you to take revenge. This sin merits God’s righteous anger on you. Remember, he’s the only one with authority to avenge.

Yet God is also the only one with authority to forgive your sins against him. He forgives you through his son Jesus. Your confessions are often half-hearted and incomplete. But God forgives you anyway. He forgives you by looking to the death of his Son. The death which paid for all your debt against him. Look to Jesus’ death in your place! See the source of your desire to see your neighbors’ sins as water under a bridge. See what we mean when we pray, “Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” Let the grimy, greasy water of past sins roll by.

There’s another reason it’s so hard to forgive. It’s those effects of sin against you which just seem to linger. They often lead you to wonder if God will still be able to provide in the middle of sin’s messiness. Take for example a woman whose husband leaves her and seven kids in divorce. How hard it is to forgive her husband, when she has no clue how she’ll provide? She’s got seven mouths to feed!

Joseph teaches us to treat sin as water under a bridge, to forgive what is passed. But to help us deal with the uncertainty of the consequences of sin, he also teaches to be confident of what is ahead.

Joseph could treat his brothers’ sin as water under a bridge, because he saw God’s hand work blessings for all. Despite their sin! Remember how Joseph became second in command in all of Egypt? By the Pharaoh thanking him after he predicted 7 years each of abundance and famine! During those 7 good years Joseph helped Egypt store up enough food to provide for all the years of famine. What if Joseph’s brothers hadn’t sold him into slavery? What if Joseph hadn’t been sold as a slave in Egypt? What if he had never met Pharaoh to interpret his dream and warn him of the famine to come?

Joseph said to his brothers, (Vs 20-21) ““You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.” And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them.”

Joseph explained the situation to help his brothers know where his motivation to forgive came from. It came from knowledge of God’s providence. Knowledge God is in control and works even the worst of sins for the good of his people. Joseph and his stored-up food saved not only all of Egypt, but also his entire family. Yes, he had to deal with his brothers’ doubt, but Joseph was confident of more blessings ahead.

Don’t think God won’t take care of you, just because someone messed up your life. Don’t give up on forgiveness, because you’re not sure things will ever be the same. You’re right, it won’t be the same. But that doesn’t mean God won’t still bless you!

Like the brothers’ betrayal of Joseph, a man named Judas betrayed our Savior Jesus. This betrayal led to the ultimate blessing. It led to his imprisonment, trial, suffering under Pontius Pilate, and execution by crucifixion. Jesus’ crucifixion became your victory. His resurrection became your assurance. Assurance he forgives you.

God doesn’t let sin and its consequences ruin your lives. The Apostle Paul explained this to the Christians in Rome. “For we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” Whatever happens, God will bring you who believe in Jesus’ forgiveness to Heaven. Your future in Heaven with God brings you confidence. It’s your confidence to treat others’ sin as water under a bridge. Look ahead and see God’s crystal-clear water coming your way.

God tells you as far as the East is from the West, so far has he removed your sins from you. The Amazon river is the longest river in the world, it runs from West to East. Imagine a bridge near the source and your neighbor’s sin against you has just passed underneath. Treat that sin as if it were flowing to the Easternmost part of Brazil, all the way to the mouth of the Amazon. That’s how far your sins are from you. That’s how far your neighbor’s sins have passed. That’s how far God will go to give you confidence. Confidence in your future of Heaven, so you may forgive. Amen.