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.’
- from Genesis 50:16-17
Today’s passage shows Joseph’s brothers wrangling for mercy. Scholars debate whether Joseph’s father actually said these words or whether Joseph’s brothers bent the truth for the sake of peace.
Joseph’s brothers pull on every lever they can to save their skin. Can you blame them?
Yesterday we saw how remarkably difficult it can be to receive forgiveness, today we see one of the tactics we resort to in our attempts to earn it: the appeal to an outside authority. Joseph’s brothers appeal to their father: “Forgive us for his sake.” People still make that appeal today: “Dad wouldn’t want us to fight” or “God would want you to forgive me.”
What challenges happen when someone makes an appeal to an outside authority to force forgiveness? We may go along, but we feel manipulated. The peace that’s won with this tactic can all too often become a cold peace, a false peace.
The irony in today’s passage is that Joseph has already told his brothers why he forgave them. And Joseph did point to God in his reasons for his forgiveness. But it wasn’t to God’s authority that Joseph pointed, but to God’s presence and activity. The Lord was with Joseph and was at work for good for Joseph and Joseph’s family in everything. God’s presence and activity created emotional space for Joseph to forgive.
The same applies to us. Jesus tells us to forgive, that’s true. It’s some of his strongest and most challenging teaching. But our movements to forgive aren’t the first spiritual movements in our walk with God. We meet God and grow to know him and see him at work in and through us. We worship God and celebrate his goodness. We ask him for help for our daily needs. Forgiveness lives in a larger ecosystem. It has to. Many of us couldn’t forgive others from our hearts except that God is at work in and around us.
Where have you felt manipulated into offering forgiveness? What effect did that have on your relationship with the person you forgave? What would a true and better forgiveness look like?