Forgiveness is a powerful thing. It’s at the heart of Christian life and can be one of our greatest gifts to the world. But it’s often misunderstood and cheapened. It doesn’t mean pretending that wrong hasn’t been done, or pretending that we’ve forgotten what is still raw. ‘Forgive and forget’ isn’t a phrase from the Bible. But forgiveness properly understood can be an open door to all kinds of blessing. That doesn’t mean it’s easy.
Years had passed, and maybe Joseph’s brothers had tried to forget what they’d done. But as with Jacob and Esau, it was about to catch up with them – then to be transformed through real forgiveness. Jacob sent them to Egypt for food. Some things haven’t changed – he still keeps Benjamin, now his favourite son, at home just in case it all goes wrong. And then there’s a series of meetings with Joseph, and what are really tests as Joseph tries to find out if his brothers have actually changed. It’s not that he doesn’t love them as brothers regardless – but before he makes himself known he wants to know whether they will indeed work as a family.
So he repeatedly tests their loyalty to one another, and finds that now they won’t abandon one of the family, even when that puts them in personal danger. They’ve learned. Maybe they’ve learned by living with the memory of how they treated Joseph long ago, all carried along by the madness of the crowd and the resentment of less-favoured sons with an unwise father. The story doesn’t tell us, but I can’t help wondering if the years of guilt had given them a new determination not to make the same mistakes again.
The power to forgive
At last Joseph can take it no longer, and reveals his identity to his brothers. Now they’re really scared – because they all remember just how he ended up in Egypt in the first place. But he reassures them – not saying that it doesn’t matter but recognising three things.
- First, that it is simply by all that has happened that they have ended up where they are. It’s all in the past now, part of what has made the present – but it need not dictate the future. And the past has changed the brothers, as well as Joseph.
- Second, that through all of this, God has put Joseph in a position where he has saved the lives of countless people, and where he can now save his own family too. That doesn’t mean that the brothers were right to do what they did, but rather that God can take even wrong decisions and actions, and work through their consequences in ways that make things better than before.
- Third, that the future doesn’t have to depend on the past. Joseph’s family can be together again, and build new, stronger relationships founded on the recognition of past wrong, but also on the refusal to let that past have the last word.