I read in this morning’s Guardian that John McDonnell, the new shadow chancellor, has apologised from the “bottom of my heart” for suggesting in 2003 that the IRA should be honoured for their bombs and bullets.
“If I gave offence – and I clearly have – from the bottom of my heart I apologise. I apologise.”
We are left wondering – is this a man who now realises that what he said was wrong or is this simply a case of political expediency? Is his apology genuine?
In fact, only time will tell. We can try and gauge his emotions, evaluate his empathy. He may even bring home some flowers. But that only goes so far – some people are just good actors.
In my daily Bible readings this week I have been going through the story of Joseph. Each morning another long chapter, sometimes two, starting from Genesis 37. And as usual when reading a familiar passage from scripture I see new aspects, helped as always by my BRF Guidelines.
At the moment I am where the brothers in seeking much-needed food during a regional famine travel to a prosperous country prepared to offer them help. There in Egypt they have no idea that the powerful governor before whom they plead is Joseph, their brother whom they sold into slavery some 23 years previously.
But Joseph knows who they are, only too well. Clearly the hurt and injustice of their actions is still with him. There are times he needs to withdraw in order to weep.
However, it takes some four long chapters before Joseph finally reveals himself for who he is. But over those few months he is not playing with them, putting them through the mill for the sake of it. He has a purpose – to know whether they are truly sorry for what they have done to him.
What he doesn’t do is simply at the very outset ask his brothers: “Are you sorry?” After all what would they say, given that they are relying on him to give them food for their families.
At first the brothers simply articulate their guilt. “Surely we are being punished because of our brother.” They reflect on their past actions all those years ago: “We saw how distressed Joseph was when he pleaded with us for his life, but we would not listen; that’s why this distress has come on us.’
But just feeling guilt is not enough, Joseph knows that. He is looking for a change of heart. No one wants an apology wrung out by events.
He is wanting his brothers to be genuinely sorry, to be contrite for the terrible wrong they have done him – even if he was a prig. Only then can there be full reconciliation.
The breakthrough comes when Judah, son #4, offers to sell himself as a slave in place of Benjamin. As one commentator observes: “Judah so feels for his father that he begs to sacrifice himself for a brother more loved than himself.” (They are a dysfunctional family, by the way)
But he does so after one of the longest and most beautiful speeches in the Old Testament (Genesis 44:18-34). In this Judah articulates the whole sorry situation. He faces up to reality as it is, always a key step.
For love of his father he is prepared to pay the consequences of his own misdeeds. As he with his brothers sold Joseph into slavery in Egypt, he now all those years later is prepared to take the same path and like Joseph become a slave in Egypt.
And Joseph finally breaks down. He is now reunited with his brothers, with his family. Those four chapters were worth it.
Being sorry is more than saying sorry. It is an ongoing response rather than a single event.
Anyone can say sorry. What counts is whether we mean what we say – and sometimes even we are not sure unless tested by our actions. We need to understand and articulate what we have done, how we have caused hurt. Above all it means being prepared to take the consequences of our own actions.
As it happens Judah wasn’t required to become a slave in Egypt – Joseph saw to that.
As radio host Bernard Meltzer observes: “When you forgive, you in no way change the past – but you sure do change the future.”
And what Joseph and his brothers could never have envisaged, their reconciliation was one step in God’s peace process for our world, the coming of the Messiah centuries later. In whom we find our full reconciliation with God.