Sermon: Esau's Gift
Genesis 32:4-22; 33:1-9
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 8-6-2017)
Esau was the first-born child, a son of privilege, but privilege he would never enjoy. For beginning in the birth canal, younger brother Jacob would twist and grab and steal every last ounce of Esau’s privilege, robbing him of everything from Esau’s firstborn birthright to Father Issac’s family blessing. To younger twin, Jacob, Esau was one big, hairy step to climb over on his way to get whatever he wanted. Young Jacob laughed his way to Uncle Laban’s house, leaving his fleeced brother behind.
Many years would pass and finally the reunion Jacob had always dreaded would arrive. That is where the story begins today.
(A reading from Genesis 32:)
7 The messengers returned to Jacob and told him, “We went to your brother Esau, and he is already on his way to meet you; there are four hundred men with him.” 8 Jacob was greatly afraid and distressed. He divided the people with him, and the flocks and cattle, into two camps, 9 thinking, “If Esau comes to one of the camps and attacks it, the remaining camp may be able to escape.” 10 Jacob prayed, “God of my father Abraham, and God of my father Isaac, [you] who told me, `Go back to your native land and I will be good to you`, . . . save me from my brother Esau's clutches, for I am afraid that he may come and attack me, mothers and children alike. 13 Yet it was you who said, `I shall be very good to you, and make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which is too numerous to count`." Then Jacob passed that night there. From what he had with him he chose a gift for his brother Esau: 15 two hundred she-goats and twenty he-goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 16 thirty camels in milk with their calves, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male. . . 18 He gave the leading man this order: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, `Whose man are you? . . . Whose are those animals that you are driving?’19 you will answer, "Your servant Jacob's. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau. And Jacob himself is just behind us." 20 He gave the same order to the second and the third, and to all who were following the droves. . . . The gift went ahead of him, but he himself spent that night in the camp.
As the story opens, Esau awaits the arrival of Jacob after long years apart. We do not need to read on. We know how the story ends. The pages of literature are littered with stories of mistreated kin lying in wait to get even. Shylock, in the Merchant of Venice, will not rest until he has his “pound of flesh.” The body count of revenge rarely gets higher than in Hamlet. Early in the play, Gertrude encourages Hamlet to “cast thy nighted color off,” but it is the ghost of Hamlet’s father who urges revenge, “If thou didst ever thy father love, revenge his foul and most unnatural murder” (I, v, 24-24). The classics are fueled with stories of revenge. So, when Esau finally encounters Jacob, we are ready for the older brother to get his pound of flesh.
As a second born son myself, I get Jacob. He has avoided Esau as long as possible and now that a meeting is inevitable, Jacob’s prayer life suddenly improves. He does not ask God for guidance or forgiveness. Jacob does not pray “thy will be done,” no the crafty one reminds God that it just would not do for God to forget a promise. “Look God,” says Jacob, “I’m about to meet up with Esau who could well put an end to me, that is, if you allow it, if you ignore the promise you made to my granddaddy Abraham and my dad, Isaac, and through Isaac’s blessing – and my brother’s stupidity – to me.”
I get Jacob and not just because I am a second-born son. Jacob is someone who likes to think ahead and so am I. It is fine to trust that God will work the way we think God is supposed to work, but just in case God does not follow plans, it is best to have a solid Plan B. Jacob never does anything without a solid Plan B. So, in the face of a meeting he dreads, this scheming younger brother decides to be the Santa Claus that Esau never knew.
By this point in his life, Jacob had acquired a considerable fortune, so he divides his fortune into two companies to meet Esau. Whichever company Esau meets first, the head of the gift-giving party is to say, “Esau, all these gifts are for you from your loving brother Jacob who has been temporarily delayed.” The strategy is simple. If Esau’s forces level one of Jacob’s companies, at least he can escape with much of his fortune and with his life. Jacob knows exactly what he would do if he were in Esau’s shoes, so he plans accordingly.
And yet the story takes a shocking and unexpected turn.
(A reading from Genesis 33:) Looking up, Jacob saw Esau coming and with him four hundred men. He . . . went ahead of them and bowed to the ground seven times, until he reached his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, took him in his arms, threw himself on his neck and wept as he kissed him. 5 Then looking up . . . Esau asked, “What was the purpose of that whole camp I just met?” “To win my lord's favor,” he replied. 9 “Brother, I have plenty,” Esau answered, “'keep what is yours.”
Jacob, I get, but not so much Esau. After all these years, after having his birthright and family blessing stolen by Jacob with the help of good, ole mom, Esau gives Jacob a gift that Jacob never anticipates and certainly does not request – the gift of forgiveness. Somehow time has not hardened Esau, making him hate his younger brother more each day, spending countless hours strategizing how best to get even.
We are never told how, but somehow Esau rises above understandable hatred and calculated vengefulness to forgive a brother who has done absolutely nothing to merit that forgiveness. While most of Genesis casts the spotlight on Jacob, especially on his Olympic style wrestling match with God set between the two readings today, for me, Esau is the most memorable brother in the story.
And you and I know that this is surely only a story; life simply does not work this way; it cannot. Esau’s benevolence would never work in the dog eat dog world market. It does not even work in our own families when we demand our fair share of the inheritance.
More than half a century ago, a young, African American preacher offered his own take on Esau’s gift, on the gift of a life lived in the rhythm of forgiveness. Martin Luther King, Jr, wrote, “We must in strength and humility meet hate with love. . . Maybe in some distant Utopia, you say, that idea will work, but not in the hard, cold world in which we live.
“My friends,” King goes on to say, “we have followed the so-called practical way for too long a time now . . . Time is cluttered with the wreckage of communities which surrendered to hatred and violence. This does not mean that we abandon our righteous efforts. . . .
“To our most bitter opponents we say: ‘We shall match your capacity to inflict suffering by our capacity to endure suffering. . . . Do to us what you will, and we shall continue to love you. . . . Throw us in jail, and we shall still love you. Send your hooded perpetrators of violence into our community at the midnight hour and beat us and leave us half dead, and we shall still love you. But be ye assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer. One day we shall win freedom, but not only for ourselves. We shall so appeal to your heart and conscience that we shall win you in the process, and our victory will be a double victory’” (Strength to Love, pp 54-55).
There is no question that Esau had every reason to hate his brother and to seek revenge. He had been victimized by his own family. Jacob may well have had a change of heart after his night long wrestling match with God, but Esau’s heart needed no change. What Esau cared about more than dealing with the wrongs done to him was seeking reconciliation with the one who had done him harm.
I remember thinking about Esau in the days following the release of Nelson Mandela from prison. At his inauguration as President of South Africa, his white jailer sat as a specially invited guest in a box seat. About this amazing act of forgiveness and reconciliation by Mandela, the Archbishop Desmund Tutu wrote, “Everything had been done to break his spirit and to make him hate-filled. In all this the system mercifully failed dismally” (No Future Without Forgiveness, p. 39).
I bet Nelson Mandala and Martin Luther King, Jr. understood old Esau. I know that they understood Jesus, because they drew on his suffering love to make sense of their own.
I wonder if Jacob did not finally start on the road to wholeness less when he was divinely wounded at the River Jabbok and more when he was humanly forgiven by Esau. Jacob was ready to fight, but Esau was ready to forgive.
Many years later, Peter was prepared to fight. He drew his sword, but Jesus would have nothing of it. Jesus told him to put his instrument of violence away. Instead, Jesus broke bread and poured wine and invited friend and foe to feast together. And, we do so again today, remembering Jesus, who found and finds a way to forgive us all, even scoundrels like Jacob and betrayers like Judas. But, at least, for this one day, we remember a distant ancestor of Jesus, elder brother Esau, and give thanks.