We may with good scholarly reason question Jacob’s motives. Remember that Jacob was born a twin with his brother Esau, that he was so desperate even then to claim the blessings of the firstborn that he was reported to have been grabbing Esau’s ankle on the way out of the womb. The name “Jacob” translates as “ankle-grabber.”
And Jacob got launched on the path to the wealth and security he wanted when he leveraged his brother Esau’s desperation and Esau sold his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew.
And that even as he was leaving his uncle Laban’s employ, on his way out the door he engaged in a little genetic manipulation so that he could claim more head of sheep in his own flock. Our Jacob seems to be one of those fellows who isn’t happy unless he’s cheating someone out of something. “Nothing gets you nothing; everything has got a little price” could be his motto. His life statement.
Jacob even has the audacity to bargain with God. As he camps along the Jabbok river, he finds himself in a wrestling match that goes on through the night, and even as Jacob appears to be claiming victory, the other guy saying, “Let me go,” Jacob insists on getting something out of the agreement. “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”
And once again, Jacob gets what he wants. But I suspect that even Jacob – the ankle-grabber, the sheep-stealer, the con artist – even Jacob has no idea how much his life is about to be transformed.
Limping now from the blow to his hip, Jacob looks up the next morning to see his brother, Esau, approaching him – with four hundred men. And Esau is the one person in Jacob’s life whom Jacob cannot cheat. Not again. Not anymore. Everything that Jacob had – by rights should have belonged to Esau.
No doubt Jacob is thinking: If I were Esau, I’d kill me.
And so he approaches Esau expecting the worst, expecting to get exactly what he deserves for having, in effect, stolen Esau’s life.
Jacob does not get what he deserves.
Jacob gets forgiven. Completely, whole-heartedly, as though nothing had ever happened. Esau ran to meet him and embraced him and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
I’m willing to bet that as churchgoers, we’ve heard our share of sermons about why we forgive, and the freedom and liberation that comes when we forgive. We understand how necessary it is for our walk with God to be like Esau. To choose to forgive.
But Esau is not the star of this narrative. Today we are being invited into Jacob’s head – and his heart and his soul.
To hear the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel is to know that Jacob is a lifelong, habitual, instinctive cheat. And he is now facing the one person whom he has wronged most deeply. His own brother. If this were a soap opera, this is where the music would sound discordant and edgy, shaping the tension that Jacob must feel, the fear, the expectation of bracing for the worst: If I were Esau, I’d kill me.
But that’s not what happens.
And maybe in that moment, even more than in the all-night wrestling match, maybe that cracks open the hard shell of cynicism around Jacob’s heart, Maybe the unbearably profound act of receiving utterly unmerited mercy and grace, of receiving not what he deserved but what his victim chose to give … maybe that was the moment of transformation for Jacob. In that moment, Jacob opened his hands and his heart, in that moment he was free to receive, and in that moment God poured down upon these brothers the love and liberation and new life that only forgiveness can bring.
The Scriptures tell us that Jacob’s life from that moment forward was a life of joy and fulfillment. What the Scriptures don’t tell us is what the sibling relationship was like for Jacob and Esau in the years to come. But I like to think that even as traces of the old tensions might have hummed under their encounters and conversations, I suspect that they both were glad to engage in the hard and holy work of rebuilding relationship.
Forgiveness does not mean that the relationship will automatically be restored. Maybe Esau made a point of counting the heads of his livestock every time Jacob and his family came over for an evening together, to make sure the old ankle-grabber hadn’t sneaked off with a few. Maybe Jacob had to wrestle again, this time with his feelings of guilt and resentment that he had messed up and that Esau got to be magnanimous. It would not have been an easy road. We can’t picture those day-to-day encounters very clearly. But what we can see, what we can feel, is the warmth and breathtaking awareness of the Holy Spirit pouring through Jacob at the moment of Esau’s embrace.
Corrie ten Boom was a lifelong Christian and Holocaust survivor whose father helped shelter his Jewish neighbors in Holland during the war. She writes of an encounter that took place in 1947 when she was speaking at a church about forgiveness. Afterward, shaking hands, she saw a man in an overcoat and brown hat. She recognized the face of one of the cruelest guards in Ravensbruck. He had come to hear her talk – why? What would he do to her here and now?
“I was a guard there,” he said, “but since that time I have become a Christian. I know that God has forgiven me… but I would like to hear it from you. Fraulein – will you forgive me?”
She relates that as much as she did not want to, the Holy Spirit poured through her in that handshake and allowed her to forgive. But what courage – what heart – it must have taken that Ravensbruck guard to approach her. Perhaps in that moment, he felt like Jacob must have felt. Perhaps in that moment, life could begin again.
We have all had to do the hard and holy work of forgiving. We have all had to act as Esau did on that morning by the river. And it is unquestionably by the grace of God that we have what it takes to forgive.
And so today I invite us all to stand on the other side of that equation. To reflect with Jacob what it feels like to deserve the worst … and instead to receive grace. Mercy, forgiveness, unstinted love, poured out even before we have to ask.