August 10, 2014
William G. Carter
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
When Esau looked up and saw the women and children, he said, “Who are these with you?” Jacob said, “The children whom God has graciously given your servant.” Then the maids drew near, they and their children, and bowed down; Leah likewise and her children drew near and bowed down; and finally Joseph and Rachel drew near, and they bowed down. Esau said, “What do you mean by all this company that I met?” Jacob answered, “To find favor with my lord.” But Esau said, “I have enough, my brother; keep what you have for yourself.” Jacob said, “No, please; if I find favor with you, then accept my present from my hand; for truly to see your face is like seeing the face of God—since you have received me with such favor. Please accept my gift that is brought to you, because God has dealt graciously with me, and because I have everything I want.” So he urged him, and he took it.
Family reunions make a lot of people nervous. It’s not the travel that makes us uneasy, or the mutual menu planning, or the scheduling of activities. No, it’s the anticipation of being around those people. You are related to them by blood or adoption. Instinctively you know you are family. But the prospect of being in the same place at the same time makes us nervous.
Most family reunions are modest, of course, maybe a three hour picnic on a Saturday afternoon. The kids twitch about being around all those strangers, and grumble how they are not allowed to escape to their iPhones. The meal is potluck, somebody makes the meat, somebody else brings the watermelon. Sometimes they fuss about one daughter hasn’t spent as much as the other daughter, and that’s not fair; maybe next year she can bring the chicken. It’s hard work being a family, especially a family that has dispersed and spread out, and now convenes for a reunion.
As a young boy, I used to think, “I’m so different from these people.” They would bring six variations of red Jello and talk with their western Pennsylvania twangs. Our household would sit by itself at one picnic table, another household would sit over there. We’d glance at one another and try not to get caught. In such moments, I felt very close to my sister, thinking we had so much more in common than those odd strangers we were supposed to be related to.
And then my uncle would pull out his guitar and play “Winchester Cathedral,” and my aunt will start playing her accordion, and I was mortified. She would turn to me and say, “I think you got all your musical ability from our side of the family,” and I wanted to go hide in a tree.
Family reunions. They can make you nervous.
Our Bible story is a family reunion. Jacob had good reason to be nervous. It had been twenty years since he had laid eyes on his brother. When last they saw one another, Esau wanted to lay his hands on Jacob’s throat. If you know the story, you know why. Jacob was the family con man. He swindled his older brother out of the legal rights of being the first-born son. There are opinions about that, that Esau was just plain stupid and thinking with his stomach, but the truth is Jacob got them out of his brother for a bowl of soup.
And then their mother Rebekah, who always liked Jacob more, offered a plan for Jacob to get most of the family business. They would dress him up like his brother, go to his old blind father Isaac, and trick him into giving the family blessing that really belonged to Esau. It worked like a charm, and it set off Esau like a heat-seeking missile. He made it pretty clear he was on a search-and-destroy mission, looking for his brother.
That was a long time ago. Twenty years had gone by. If you know anything about families, you know that everybody still remembered what happened.
That’s what families do: they maintain the stories. They remember the old tales. One of the aunts pulls out an album of black and white photos, people gather around the picnic table, and the stories begin again. “This is Uncle Tommy who was shot down in the war. Here is Grandma who always wore black after that day. Aunt Eloise is holding a baby; I don’t know which one, she was always pregnant. This is your grandfather, who would only allow his picture to be taken if he stood in front of the blue Buick.”
The family story for Jacob and Esau went like this: they hated one another. They were fighting while they were still in the same womb. Of the twins, Esau came out first but Jacob was grabbing his brother’s heel. That’s who they were, until Jacob ran away. After all these years, how do you think it’s going to go?
It would be interesting to pause that story and chew on it for a while. We know the plot can spin any number of ways.
I think of that memorable episode from the Simpsons. Homer discovers he has a half-brother named Herb. Herb has made it big as a car manufacturer, and Homer gets in touch. Herb invites him and his family to his mansion in Detroit. There is some anxiety before the meeting, but it goes well. So well, in fact, that Herb invites Homer to design a new car for his company. Bad idea. Herb’s company falls apart, his mansion is sold off, and he regrets ever meeting his half-brother.
So who knows what is going to happen when Jacob and Esau meet? Jacob the Heel Grabber hedges his bets. As we heard last week, Jacob gets wind that Esau is nearby, and he has four hundred men with him. Oh no! He sends an enormous gift of livestock to Esau before can meet. After wrestling in the dark and considering what to do, he limps to meet his brother. Maybe his brother will go soft on him since he’s a cripple.
Again he hears Esau is close by, with four hundred of his favorite thugs. So Jacob decides to line up his family. He puts a couple of his kids with their mother, then a couple more of the kids with their mother, then the kids he has produced with Leah go next, followed by Leah. Finally, at the end of the line is his favorite wife Rachel with their son Joseph. He puts them all in a long line. And I’m guessing the reason he does this is that, if Esau is going to battle him, he has to plow through the women and children first.
But then Jacob moves to the front of the line. And he leads his family in a choreographed move, formally bowing seven times before his brother. He will show honor to Esau for the first time in his life. He will not run away; no, he’s a hobbling man sixty years of age. He moves formally toward Esau.
Do you remember what Esau does? He cuts through the formalities, runs toward his brother, raises his arms, embraces Jacob, kisses him, holds him close --- and the two of them descend into sobs of joy.
Does any of this sound familiar? Ken Bailey, the Bible scholar, says this story is so important it is spun again. Know what he is talking about? Jesus said, “There were these two brothers. One got his share of the inheritance and took off for the hills. He was gone for a good long while, doing God knows what. And when the time came for the two to reunite, the younger one came to his senses and traveled toward the other . . .” It’s the story of the Prodigal Son. It’s the family reunion story of Jacob and Esau.”
The difference in the story, as Jesus spins it, is that the father is the one who breaks Middle Eastern custom and runs toward the returning son. It’s the father who falls on him, embraces him, kisses him, and says, “Welcome back!” The older brother, the Esau character, stays away in the field, arms crossed, refusing to acknowledge he even has a brother. Sadly, that’s how the story often goes. Older brothers resent the younger brothers who return. They want to perpetuate the hurt and the division. They want to maintain the grudge at all costs.
But a miracle has happened in Esau. He has let go of the bitterness. He has cancelled the bad memory. He has forgiven the lingering hurt. “Look,” he says, “you don’t need to win my favor. You are my brother.” He calls him brother. And then he says, “I have everything that I need.” That is code language for grace: God has graciously provided for Esau. Jacob may have taken the family blessing, but both sons have the holy blessing. They are loved and provided for by heaven.
Do you know what that’s like? That’s like saying you don’t have to grab for what is not yours. You don’t have to resort to aggression. You don’t have to prove yourself over your brother or your sister. You don’t have to manipulate or pull the strings or maneuver behind the scenes. You don’t have to send a big gift to get somebody else to love you. You don’t have to grab anybody’s heel any more. Simply lean back into the arms of God and say thank you. “I have everything I need … because everything I need comes from God.”
Have you ever said that? It can change your life. Look at what it does to Jacob! He looks into the red hairy face of his brother, now turning gray, and says, “This is like looking into the face of God!” This is as generous, as patient, and as abounding in steadfast love as if I was looking directly into the eyes of our Creator.
It’s a hard-won victory for God, you understand. Sixty years after the brothers’ birth, twenty years after their parting. It has taken a few key moments – a midnight vision of angels going up and down the ladder, the voice of God promising a future beyond all dreams, to say nothing of a painful wrestling match just last night – but Jacob knows what kind of God we have – a God who creates us in abundance and calls us to live in peace.
Imagine if every family reunion was like looking into the face of God! Imagine if you would see the eyes of those people to whom you are related, and you could say:
- Reconciliation is the face of God.
- Forgiveness is the face of God.
- Unexpected mercy is the face of God.
- Undeserved grace is the face of God.
And dare we say it?
- Family peace is the face of God.
This is what God wants for us: for brothers to get along, for sisters to flourish side by side, for generations to care for one another, for no one to be cast off and forgotten.
“How good it is,” says the Psalmist. “How good it is when kindred live in unity!” (133:1) Unity doesn’t happen without a lot of work, a lot of patience, a lot of forgiveness, and sometimes a lot of time.
But it can happen, because this is the will of God for every family under heaven, beginning with yours and mine.
(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.