Esau and Jacob were twins, but they were nothing alike in appearance or temperament. Esau was an outdoorsman – a hunter – and since his father Isaac enjoyed eating the game Esau brought home, Esau was his father’s favorite son.
Jacob, on the other hand, was more of a homebody, preferring to hang around the tent and keep his mother Rebekkah company. And so, of course, Rebekkah favored Jacob. It is never good when parents play favorites, but the relationship between the twins seemed destined for trouble from the moment of their birth.
Since Esau was born first, he was entitled to the bulk of his father’s fortune and possessions. But when Jacob was born immediately after Esau, he was clutching the heel of his twin, which turned out to be predictive of his course in life because the name “Jacob” means not only He takes by the heel but also He supplants. And that is exactly what Jacob did – he supplanted his brother, beginning by taking advantage of Esau when he came in from hunting and was so hungry he was not thinking clearly.
We can just imagine the scene: Jacob has returned from being out in the field and he is hot, tired, and famished. Drawn to the aroma of cooking, he bursts into the tent and finds Jacob making lentil stew. “Oh man, that smells good. Give me some of that!” And Jacob says Esau can have some of the food if he will give up his birthright.
Now maybe Esau thought Jacob wasn’t being serious – after all, who would make such a ridiculous demand for just a bowl of lentils? But at the moment, all Esau can think is how hungry he is and how good that stew smells, so he agrees to the deal, saying “What good is my birthright if I’m going to die of starvation right now?” But Jacob was serious when he made Esau trade his birthright for lunch, and sometime later he sees his opportunity to cash in on the deal.
Isaac is ready to bestow the blessing that will legally recognize Esau as his heir, but first he asks Esau to go out and bring him back some fresh game for another meal before he blesses him. And that’s when Jacob makes his move. After his brother leaves to go hunting, Jacob disguises himself as his brother, and taking advantage of Isaac’s poor eyesight, he convinces his father that he is Esau. Isaac falls for the scam and unintentionally gives Jacob the birthright due his older brother.
When Esau discovers what Jacob has done, he is both bereft and furious. He plans to kill his brother, but Jacob flees before Esau can make good on his threat and for the next twenty years he lives apart from his twin. But now it is time to face the music because Jacob is traveling to meet his brother in the land where Esau has settled, and Jacob is very fearful of how their reunion will go.
In fact, in a part of the story that we did not read this morning, we learn that in an attempt to appease Esau, Jacob sent him in advance a lavish gift of hundreds of goats, sheep, camels, cattle, and donkeys. Yet he is still nervous enough to expect the worse as he approaches Esau’s home.
And what does Esau do? He runs out to greet Jacob, throws his arms around his neck, kisses him on the cheek and brings them both to tears. He even refuses to accept the livestock Jacob has sent him, and he does so not out of spite but because he says, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what’s yours.”
How in heaven’s name did Esau find the strength to respond as he did? How did he manage to overcome the betrayal of his brother and all it had cost him? They say that to err is human, to forgive is divine and apparently Jacob recognized this when he said to Esau, “Seeing your face is like seeing God’s face, since you’ve accepted me so warmly.” But while it is divine to forgive, that does not mean it is easy.
If someone hurts us and acknowledges the hurt by apologizing for what they did, it would take a hard-hearted person to refuse forgiveness. But what about the person who refuses to recognize the hurt they caused? What about situations where people intentionally inflict harm and feel no remorse at all? Do we always have to forgive? Is that when Jesus meant when he said that we should forgive seventy-seven (or seventy times seven) times?
As you know, this summer’s preaching has been part of a series called “A Good Word” based on words that you, the congregation, suggested would be good to explore in a sermon. Now, I don’t know who suggested the word “Forgiveness” – perhaps it came from several of you – but I do know it is a concept which became very real for me a few years ago when I was pastoring another church in this presbytery and we discovered our treasurer – a member of the congregation – had embezzled a considerable sum of money from the church.
What did it mean to forgive someone we had trusted and who had betrayed us? I struggled with that question while I worked with the congregation’s leaders to decide how we would handle the situation. Almost eight years later, I am still learning what it means to forgive, but I think I have a better idea now on what forgiveness is – and what it is not.
First of all, forgiving is not forgetting. If the wound is deep enough, it will leave a scar on the soul that may fade with time but will still be there. The late theologian Lewis Smedes wrote a fine book on forgiveness, but I think he goofed when he titled it Forgive and Forget – Healing the Hurts We Don’t Deserve because in the book he himself acknowledges that forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting. We don’t forgive and forget – we forgive even when we can’t forget.
And forgiveness is not saying “Oh, that’s okay” because some things are not okay and will never be okay, even if we choose to forgive them. If they are truly okay, they don’t need forgiveness – it is what is not okay that needs to be forgiven.
And finally, forgiveness does not mean there is no accountability. We may choose to forgive someone who hurt us, but still need to hold them accountable for what they did. This was the hardest part of my experience with our church treasurer.
I could see the personality flaws that had led her to believe it was okay to steal from her church, but her actions were not only a betrayal of her brothers and sisters in Christ, they also broke the laws of the Commonwealth – laws put into place to protect its citizens. And so even as we struggled to understand and forgive our sister, the Session decided we had to file criminal charges so that she could not repeat her actions in another setting.
So, if forgiving is not forgetting, excusing or ignoring accountability, what IS forgiveness? First of all, forgiveness is personal. When Peter asks Jesus his question about forgiveness, it is obvious he is thinking about personal relationships: How many times should I forgive my bother or sister who sins against me? Peter does not say Do we have to forgive the Roman Empire?
Now, an individual Jew in Jesus’ time could have chosen to forgive an individual Roman who harmed him, but we do not forgive systems – we forgive people and we only have the right to forgive those who have wounded us personally.
So, a hypothetical Capitol police officer might choose to forgive the rioter on January 6 who beat him with a flag pole, but only that officer has the right to forgive that rioter; and even if he chooses to forgive his attacker, that does not mean the FBI should not find and bring legal proceedings against those who carried out the attack on our Capitol, including perhaps the man the officer has forgiven. Forgiveness is personal and only the victim has the right to offer forgiveness – otherwise it is too easy to excuse all sorts of bad behavior and sweep it under the rug.
And not only is forgiveness personal, it is also a process. For Lewis Smedes, the process has four steps: We Hurt, We Hate, We Heal, and We Come Back Together. For South African Episcopal Bishop Desmond Tutu and his pastor daughter Mpho Tutu – authors of The Book of Forgiving – the process is also four-fold but follows a slightly different path: Telling the Story, Naming the Hurt, Granting Forgiveness, Renewing or Releasing the Relationship. But as both Smedes and the Tutus point out, forgiveness is something that has to unfold in its own time.
When Esau realized what Jacob had done, he was devastated. One of the most poignant lines in scripture comes when Esau learns his father has been tricked into bestowing his blessing on Jacob and he cries out, “Have you only one blessing, Father?” Esau was hurt and he was not shy about admitting it.
And because Esau was so badly hurt, he hated his brother – hated him enough to plot to kill him. Had Jacob not fled the scene, who knows where Esau’s anger and hatred would have led him. But Jacob did flee and Esau had a chance to calm down, and sometime over the next twenty years, Esau found it possible to forgive Jacob.
Esau apparently discovered that the main reason to forgive someone who has wounded you is that forgiveness is the only way to heal that wound. Had Esau spent those twenty years nursing his anger, picking at his wound, reminding himself again and again what a rotten kid Jacob was, it was only Esau who would have suffered. Esau never forgot what Jacob did, but neither did Esau allow that part of his past to taint his future.
He may not have forgotten, but he chose not to drag that memory into his current life. Esau was able to heal himself when he chose to forgive his brother even without Jacob acknowledging what he had done and how wrong it was. Jacob did not deserve Esau’s forgiveness, but Esau gave it anyway and in so doing, he healed himself. And finally, because of Esau’s gracious behavior, the two brothers are reunited in a way that Jacob could never have envisioned.
Of course, sometimes even after forgiveness it is not possible to renew the relationship with the one who hurt us. Sometimes we have to release that relationship – or accept that there will always be limits to what we can expect from that person.
I learned this years ago from an unlikely source, the film Ordinary People, which came out in September of 1980 and to this day remains one of my favorite movies. Ordinary People tells the story of the Jarrett family, who live in one of the North Shore suburbs of Chicago.
As the movie opens, Conrad – the son of Calvin and Beth Jarrett – has recently returned home after an unsuccessful suicide attempt. And before long, we learn the reason Conrad tried to take his own life is that he is riddled with guilt for having survived a boating accident on Lake Michigan that took the life of his older brother, Buck.
Conrad can’t forgive himself for what happened on the lake. When a storm came up, the boat capsized and Conrad and Buck were hanging onto each other’s hands across the overturned hull of the boat, hoping to ride out the storm until someone would spot them and come to their rescue. But as the storm raged, eventually Conrad’s strength gave out and his brother slipped from his hands. For this, Conrad cannot forgive himself.
But Conrad is not the only one who can’t forgive Conrad for surviving when Buck did not – neither can his mother, Beth. While Beth would never be able to admit this to anyone – least of all herself – she is also angry at Conrad for coming back from the lake when Buck did not. Buck was the older brother, the athlete, the charmer, and clearly the apple of his mother’s eye.
Buck should not have drowned in an accident that his younger, smaller, quieter brother survived. Beth is hurting but she can’t allow herself to hurt, and when her husband suggests that she and he begin to visit the counselor Conrad is seeing, Beth adamantly refuses. In her pain and anger, Beth has become brittle and shuts out those who try to help her.
In the end, Conrad is healed when a wise and compassionate counselor helps him to see that he did not fail his brother. He got tired, just as his supposedly stronger brother got tired, and he simply couldn’t hang on any longer. Conrad is finally able to forgive himself for surviving the accident. But Conrad is also able to forgive his mother – he had thought she hated him, but now he is able to see that she does not hate him; she is just so caught in her grief and anger that she is incapable of loving him or anyone else.
She can’t release her anger and bitterness and is trapped in a prison of her own making. And so Conrad is able to accept his mother for who she is. While he may not have used the word, Conard forgives his mother even though their relationship will never be a close and loving one. Conrad has been healed through the act of forgiveness.
When someone hurts us, we feel a whole range of emotions: pain, anger, a sense of having been betrayed and possibly even a desire for revenge. But while those emotions are entirely normal, clinging to them does nothing to ease the hurt – indeed, refusing to let go of our anger simply amplifies all the other emotions and allows the hurt to continue long after the event that caused it. So while forgiving is not forgetting or excusing and at times it may be necessary to hold the offender accountable, accountability is not the same as revenge. It is possible to hold someone accountable while still letting go of anger and bitterness.
A few months after the discovery of the embezzlement, I was talking with a member of the congregation – I’ll call her “Nancy” – who had probably suffered more directly than most members of the church from our treasurer’s theft. Months before we discovered the theft, I had come down to the church kitchen to find Nancy and another member of the church busy baking pies for an upcoming fund-raiser.
It was a miserably hot day and the kitchen was uncomfortably warm, so I asked Nancy if she would like the AC turned on, and she answered that she didn’t mind working in the heat because she didn’t want to run up the church’s power bill. The moment I learned of the embezzlement, the first thing that came to mind was that memory of Nancy toiling away in a hot kitchen to help out her church while the treasurer was raiding the church’s fund.
If anyone had a right to be bitter and angry about what had happened, it was Nancy and she told me that she was having a hard time forgiving the treasurer. But then she went on to say, “I bear her no ill will” and I realized that Nancy had forgiven her errant sister but didn’t realize it. Of course Nancy couldn’t forget and of course there was no excuse for what the treasurer had done, but the fact that Nancy could say “I bear her no ill will” showed that she had already granted forgiveness to a woman who had hurt her so badly.
When we can be honest about how someone has hurt us and yet be able to say “I bear them no ill will” we are already well on the road to healing and to forgiveness. Forgiveness happens when we choose to release the anger, bitterness, hatred, and even desire for revenge so that those feelings no longer have power to inflict further damage on us. Forgiveness is not easy – but in the end, it is the only way to heal from the hurts we don’t deserve. Forgiveness is indeed divine.