Forgive

“Forgiveness”

My heart was heavy, for its trust had been
Abused, its kindness answered with foul wrong;
So, turning gloomily from my fellow-men,
One summer Sabbath day I strolled among
The green mounds of the village burial-place;
Where, pondering how all human love and hate
Find one sad level; and how, soon or late,
Wronged and wrongdoer, each with meekened face,
And cold hands folded over a still heart,
Pass the green threshold of our common grave,
Whither all footsteps tend, whence none depart,
Awed for myself, and pitying my race,
Our common sorrow, like a mighty wave,
Swept all my pride away, and trembling I forgave!

—John Greenleaf Whittier

As John Greenleaf Whittier reminds, in the end, our grievances will not keep us apart. Given the revelation of this inexorable conclusion, Whittier’s now vainly held resentment melts, thawing the ground of his bitterness.

For many of us, like Whittier, the temptation to remain angry is powerful (and often justified). Seemingly, the only force that might drive a wedge between our tightly held resentment and us is the severing reality that such resentment is at last temporary. The ultimate reality, as Whittier understands it, is that the commonality of our shared end speaks of a larger, singular, binding finality that is much more permanent and real whatever we do to separate us. Against the weight of this reality, Whittier relents and embraces the truth that wholeness and healing and leveling shall prevail . . . so why not being that reunion on this side of ground.

This week, our thoughts turn toward another patch of uniting earth. The decedents of Abraham and Sarah had been promised a place to live and multiply. That promise passed, first, from Abraham and Sarah to Isaac and Rebekah. Then, Isaac and Rebekah’s twin boys, Jacob and Esau, assumed the promise. Yet, because Jacob and Esau were twins and because they lived in a time when the first-born was the sole heir, an intense rivalry was born with them. This sibling enmity finally leads to Jacob’s deception of his brother and father, the stealing of the birthright, and Jacob’s fleeing to his mother’s homeland for fear of his twin’s retribution. In that foreign land of his mother’s birth, the trickster, Jacob, is tricked by his soon-to-be father-in-law, laboring 14 years to marry two sisters, Leah and Rachel.

After many more years pass, Jacob decides to return home, taking with him the accumulations of his life—wives and children, servants and livestock, goods and treasure. The only possession Jacob could not take with him as he returned to the land of his brother was the confidence that his brother’s anger had subsided and he would be greeted as a returning friend rather than a despised fiend.

Along the way, Jacob learns that Esau has heard that Jacob was returning home. And, rather than simply await his brother’s arrival, Jacob learns that his brother is coming to meet him. Given the less than pleasant circumstances that led to Jacob’s leaving his brother behind in the first place, Jacob cannot discern if the news of his brother’s efforts to meet him in the desert are meant to be welcoming or more a sign of war. (After all, we hear that Esau is traveling with 400 men, i.e., soldiers—not exactly the kind of welcoming party Jacob might want but one he might certainly believe he deserves and expects.)

In an effort to mitigate his brother’s anticipated anger, Jacob does what he does best; he schemes. Sending wave upon wave of gifts ahead of his caravan to meet Esau, Jacob hopes to soften his brother’s heart or at least purchase his undeserved freedom from retribution. Hedging his bets, he sends his family and remaining possessions across the river in another direction while he waits in solitude for his brother’s arrival the next morning. That night alone, Jacob has his famous dream about the ladder and wrestles with God, seemingly both figurative and literal. And, in the morning, Esau (and his army) arrive.

Seeing Esau in the distance, Jacob organizes his family and possessions and places himself at the front of the procession, anticipating the worst. As Jacob approaches his estranged and rightfully angry brother whom he has not seen for years, Jacob falls to the ground seven times, bowing before his brother. Yet, despite his genuflecting histrionics, Esau is a man on a mission and makes his move.

Seeing his brother, we read some of the most powerful and evocative words in scripture. Esau “ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.”

Like Whittier, Esau’s resentment had melted. Did his heart melt because of the fading warmth of passing years or because of the warming waves of gifts offered by his brother or because of the lingering glow of love he held in the recesses of his heart for his own brother? Ultimately, we do not know the answer to these questions.

What we do know is that Esau seems to have favored the warmth of forgiveness to the cold bitterness of resentment.

And, for Esau, his forgiving love is embodied in a tearful embrace.

Despite the powerful and regenerative image of two estranged brothers embracing, I have no sentimental delusions that forgiveness is easy or simple or without risk. The narrative, here, confirms this stark reality. For Jacob and Esau, it took years and many miles traveled (and possibly many gifts) for forgiveness to begin. Regardless of the varying combinations of years to miles to gifts, the catalyst is the same. Esau favored reconciliation to separation. Like Jacob, Esau, too, had to give something up. Jacob was willing to give up his possessions and freedom and, maybe, his life. Esau was willing to give up his right to reparations, to be right. This willingness is an act of grace.

From the Jacob and Esau story, we learn that often forgiveness requires both parties to move, for the hard ground between them to thaw. To share in forgiveness, we too must be willing to give up something and move toward each other, not waiting for the perfect occasion. Such occasions are rare, if existent.

So, move well and move with grace. That is good news.

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