“True Reconciliation” – Genesis 32 – 33
Pentecost 10 – August 13, 2017
Introduction: Family Discord
Because sin is so pervasive, it’s doubtful that even one family has avoided family discord. No matter how hard the parents have tried, no matter how loving they have been in raising their children, no matter how just and fair they have tried to be, there are things that put family members at odds with one another. Most of them involve money.
How many siblings who grew up as friends have become bitter enemies after the reading of mom’s will? How many siblings have felt that mom and dad favoured the youngest child, or maybe the oldest? How many adult children are frustrated that dad’s younger second wife got his whole house even though they were only married for 3 years? How many teenagers run away from home because of a broken relationship with mom and dad? How many parents don’t approve of their child’s choice of a spouse? How many cousins fight over grandma’s special heirloom? How many parents get shafted by a child that has no intention of paying back what was intended as a loan?
There are lots and lots of examples of things that lead to family discord. You could probably add your own. Today’s Bible story is on that very topic of family discord, and on the attempts, after a couple of decades, to bring about true reconciliation.
- The Biblical Background
Last Sunday we heard about the beginning of the story. It’s the first Biblical account of twins being born. Although identical twins may look alike, act like, speak alike and be best friends, these Biblical twins could not have been more different. God had told Rebekah that there were two nations in her womb, that one would be stronger than the other, and that the older would serve the younger. When they were born, Esau, the first-born, was hairy and had a reddish complexion. Jacob must have been olive skinned like his parents for no mention is made of his appearance. Esau was an adventurous hunter, wild, enjoying the open country and the outdoors. Jacob was a more quiet and reflective man, a home body, who looked after the flocks and enjoyed cooking. Although in that culture the first born was to receive a double portion of the family inheritance and a special blessing from dad, Jacob tricked Esau out of both his birthright and his blessing. That’s where the discord began. Esau held a grudge against Jacob about those things and had decided in his heart to kill his brother once dear old dad had died. Mother Rebekah must have been an ear for both sons, so she knew of Esau’s evil intentions. She consulted with Isaac and together they advised Jacob to “get out of town” and to find a wife from among Rebekah’s family in northwest Mesopotamia.
We pick up the story after Jacob had married both of uncle Laban’s daughters, and after he had had several sons with both of those women and with their servant girls, and after Jacob’s flocks had increased at the expense of Laban’s flocks, and after he and his family and his flocks left again without telling Laban. Now he had little choice but to go back home and face a potentially still angry brother. Here’s what happened…
a. The Gift
Jacob knew there may be an explosive situation when he met Esau again after some 25 years. Oh, and by the way, although Isaac had previously given his blessing to Jacob in anticipation of his own death, Isaac hadn’t died yet, so Esau’s grudge may still have been intact. So, as they were approaching familiar territory, Jacob prepared a “peace offering” of herds of his own goats and camels, cows and donkeys to appease, if possible, the anger of the brother he had cheated. Jacob’s mindset is captured in Genesis 32:20: “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” He sent these gifts with his servants. Next, he divided the rest of his flocks and herds, along with his own family, into two groups, thinking that if one group were killed the other group may escape.
Then he got down on his knees and prayed: “My God, You sent me back to my relatives with only my staff in my hand. You have shown me kindness and faithfulness and now I am returning as two large groups of family, servants and animals. Save and protect me from my brother, I pray, for You have promised to make my descendants countless.” He could only throw himself on the mercy and protection of God, and rest secure in that.
b. Life’s Struggle
The last thing that he did, under the cover of approaching darkness, was to take his wives and children and possessions and to cross the ford of the Jabbok stream. Jacob was left alone, with his thoughts, with his apprehension, with his fears about what tomorrow would bring. But God, in the form of a man, met Jacob there in his solitude and wrestled with him until daybreak. [OPTIONAL: In a little play on Hebrew words this God-man wrestled (ye’abeq) with Jacob (ya’aqob) by the Jabbok (yabboq) – ye’abeq… ya’aqob… yabboq.] Jacob’s hip was put out of joint but he wouldn’t let go unless the man blessed him. The blessing spoken was simply a change of Jacob’s name to Israel. The name Jacob refers to his character as a deceiver. The name Israel means “he struggles with God” – a reference to that wrestling match, and to Jacob’s acknowledgment that God was his source of blessing. As the sun rose that morning, Jacob/Israel realized that he had seen God face to face in the darkness, and his life had been spared. Now he would see his brother face to face, and there may be another wrestling match.
- Reconciliation: True or False?
In this story so far, it’s not hard to determine that Jacob’s efforts at reconciliation are motivated by guilt. After deceiving his brother and stealing his birthright and his blessing, Jacob was plagued by a guilty conscience. It’s funny how long guilt can stay with you after a wrong doing. This was some 25 years later, and still he hadn’t made things right with his brother, and it bothered him. But Jacob’s guilt eventually caused him to begin taking steps to patch things up with his brother. But was it really reconciliation that Jacob was after? Probably not. He was just hoping to save his own skin by flattering and paying off his brother. Even his prayer life had a guilty ring to it: “Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me.” Sending those gifts of flocks and herds was to either make Esau forget about the former offenses, or to make them small by comparison to what Jacob was now offering. As Jacob approached his brother, with his family and possessions behind him, he bowed down to the ground seven times and then explained that that entire gift had the purpose of finding favour in Esau’s eyes.
But was that true reconciliation? We do not hear one word from the lips of Jacob that refers back to his actions of the past, and that offers repentance and sorrow over what he had done to his brother.
“I am sorry…” – I guess those three words were as hard to say back then as they are now. But until or unless they are said, there is no true reconciliation.
Compare the poverty of Jacob’s attempts at reconciliation with Esau’s response. Jacob was expecting dormant pent-up retaliation. What he got was an unexpected welcome and homecoming. Genesis 33 records: “Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” He RAN to meet Jacob, out of joy rather than vengeance. He was happy to see his brother again after all those years.
Yes, it was Esau who exhibited true reconciliation and forgiveness. Years earlier, he was an urge-driven brute bent on getting even. But by the time they were reunited years later, he was a content man who held no grudges and was willing to genuinely embrace and forgive his nervous brother. In fact, his words and actions are eerily similar to a parable that Jesus told in the New Testament. It was the story of a younger brother – just like Jacob – who took his inheritance and went off to a country far away. Later, when he was returning home, he, too, was greeted by a family member who ran to meet him, who embraced him, and who kissed him. A couple of significant differences in these stories are…
first, that the returning prodigal son in Jesus’ story was completely repentant of having squandered his inheritance and even rehearsed his “I am sorry” speech, and
second, that the family member who greeted that prodigal son was the father, while the elder son continued to hold a grudge against his wild, recklessly-living brother.
In both stories, the reconciliation, the welcome was initiated more by the one who had been offended than by the one who had done the offending. Jacob’s three-fold refrain in Genesis 33 was to “find favour in your eyes.” Finally, because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted Jacob’s gift of flocks and herds, and they parted ways amicably, each settling in their own part of the land. The brothers were good with one another once again.
- True Reconciliation
This account of two real-life brothers points out some great principles when it comes to effecting true reconciliation even in our 21st century instances of family discord.
The first principle is that true reconciliation starts with true repentance. True repentance is a change of attitude, a change of heart. It’s recognizing that you have wronged someone else, and having the desire to make things right once again, rather than just masking the existing discord. In the story of Jacob, the repentance was non-existent or at best masked by the giving of those extravagant gifts of flocks and herds. Flattery or buying something for someone can never replace a true change of heart. Sometimes that change of heart can only happen when you, like the prodigal son in Jesus’ story, come to your senses, realize how good it was to be in your father’s home, and determine that it’s necessary to make things right. Sometimes that change of heart can only happen when you have a humble and prayerful wrestling match with God, pouring out your heart, allowing his truth to overpower and convict you, and realizing that genuine repentance comes with the blessing of a renewed relationship.
The second principle is that true reconciliation includes true confession. Again, this was something that was missing in the story of Jacob but was so evident in Jesus’ parable. Jacob never said “Esau, I am sorry for what I did. I am sorry for tricking you out of your birthright. I am sorry for deceiving dad into blessing me instead of you. I should not have done that, and I can’t change it, but it grieves my heart that I’m the kind of person who did that.” Repentance isn’t just a state of the heart. If it stays in the heart it does absolutely no good in terms of reconciling a relationship. That repentance must be spoken out loud to the person who was affected by the hurtful words and / or actions. That’s what the prodigal son did. When he came home, the first words out of his mouth were, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.” His inner repentance showed outwardly in his spoken confession.
The third principle is that true reconciliation implies true forgiveness and a change of action. Even with no obvious evidence of repentance and confession, Esau was more than ready to forgive his brother his sins of the past and to give the relationship a new start. The evidence of his willingness was running to meet his brother, embracing and kissing and weeping over him. A vengeful brother would not do those things. The forgiving father in Jesus’ parable did the same thing for his returning son. But then true reconciliation also implies that the relationship will be positively affected by a change of actions – abandoning hurtful words or deeds, communicating effectively, and loving unconditionally. Those things help prevent the need for such drastic measures toward reconciliation in the future.
- Reconciliation in Heaven
The forgiving father in Jesus’ parable is truly a picture of our heavenly Father. “While we were still sinners,” St. Paul wrote, “Christ died for us.” Seeing us in our sin, God ran to earth in the person of His Son, embraced us in love, and threw His nail-pierced hands and arms around us in deep forgiveness. Jesus said, “I am sorry” to God on our behalf, and His dying on the cross for us is true evidence of genuine and eternal reconciliation between God in heaven and us on earth. In God’s ledger book, our sins are not held against us. God does not hold a grudge. We do not need to fear that God will come and attack us. Jesus has wrestled with God’s justice, has offered the sacrifice of Himself, and has won for us God’s favour and mercy for all our sins. And God invites us to share His land with Him, His land of plenty and abundance, His land of hope and joy, seeing Him face to face and living… for all eternity.
- Reconciliation on Earth
What’s left? Perhaps just some discord in your family or in the church family. If there are difficult relationships and situations in your life right now, don’t ask God to change the circumstances. Ask Him what He is trying to teach you. Ask Him how He wants to use those circumstances to help you grow and to repair that discord and brokenness. If you’re the cause of the discord, look at your own heart and attitude, and ask God to lead you to true repentance, and to give you the courage to genuinely say those three difficult words, “I am sorry.” If you have been offended by someone else’s words or actions, be ready to run and embrace that person in signs of true forgiveness and restored relationship. And in any and all of those trying situations, seek the favour of God and of His Son, Jesus, through whom You have been reconciled. Amen.