Season of Lent: Forgiveness
February 25, 2018 Forgiving family and friends
Last week we heard the story of reunion between Joseph and his brothers. But that wasn't the first sibling in reunion in that family. This week we hear the story from a generation earlier. This is the story of Jacob and Esau. You may know that though Esau was the eldest, Jacob bought his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew, and later, disguised as his brother, got the blessing Isaac had intended for Esau. Jacob had to leave home before Esau could seek revenge. Now, some fourteen years later, we hear the story of their reunion.
Genesis 33:1-17, CEB
33 Jacob looked up and saw Esau approaching with four hundred men. Jacob divided the children among Leah, Rachel, and the two women servants. 2 He put the servants and their children first, Leah and her children after them, and Rachel and Joseph last. 3 He himself went in front of them and bowed to the ground seven times as he was approaching his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around his neck, kissed him, and they wept. 5 Esau looked up and saw the women and children and said, “Who are these with you?”
Jacob said, “The children that God generously gave your servant.” 6 The women servants and their children came forward and bowed down. 7 Then Leah and her servants also came forward and bowed, and afterward Joseph and Rachel came forward and bowed.
8 Esau said, “What’s the meaning of this entire group of animals that I met?”
Jacob said, “To ask for my master’s kindness.”
9 Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what’s yours.”
10 Jacob said, “No, please, do me the kindness of accepting my gift. Seeing your face is like seeing God’s face, since you’ve accepted me so warmly. 11 Take this present that I’ve brought because God has been generous to me, and I have everything I need.” So Jacob persuaded him, and he took it.
12 Esau said, “Let’s break camp and set out, and I’ll go with you.”
13 But Jacob said to him, “My master knows that the children aren’t strong and that I am responsible for the nursing flocks and cattle. If I push them hard for even one day, all of the flocks will die. 14 My master, go on ahead of your servant, but I’ve got to take it easy, going only as fast as the animals in front of me and the children are able to go, until I meet you in Seir.”
15 Esau said, “Let me leave some of my people with you.”
But Jacob said, “Why should you do this since my master has already been so kind to me?” 16 That day Esau returned on the road to Seir, 17 but Jacob traveled to Succoth. He built a house for himself but made temporary shelters for his animals; therefore, he named the place Succoth.
Luke 15:11-32, CEB
11 Jesus said, “A certain man had two sons. 12 The younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the inheritance.’ Then the father divided his estate between them. 13 Soon afterward, the younger son gathered everything together and took a trip to a land far away. There, he wasted his wealth through extravagant living.
14 “When he had used up his resources, a severe food shortage arose in that country and he began to be in need. 15 He hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. 16 He longed to eat his fill from what the pigs ate, but no one gave him anything. 17 When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have more than enough food, but I’m starving to death! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19 I no longer deserve to be called your son. Take me on as one of your hired hands.” ’ 20 So he got up and went to his father.
“While he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was moved with compassion. His father ran to him, hugged him, and kissed him. 21 Then his son said, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his servants, ‘Quickly, bring out the best robe and put it on him! Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet! 23 Fetch the fattened calf and slaughter it. We must celebrate with feasting 24 because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life! He was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field. Coming in from the field, he approached the house and heard music and dancing. 26 He called one of the servants and asked what was going on. 27 The servant replied, ‘Your brother has arrived, and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf because he received his son back safe and sound.’ 28 Then the older son was furious and didn’t want to enter in, but his father came out and begged him. 29 He answered his father, ‘Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. 30 But when this son of yours returned, after gobbling up your estate on prostitutes, you slaughtered the fattened calf for him.’ 31 Then his father said, ‘Son, you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32 But we had to celebrate and be glad because this brother of yours was dead and is alive. He was lost and is found.’”
Colossians 3:12-17, NCV
12 God has chosen you and made you his holy people. He loves you. So you should always clothe yourselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Bear with each other, and forgive each other. If someone does wrong to you, forgive that person because the Lord forgave you. 14 Even more than all this, clothe yourself in love. Love is what holds you all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace that Christ gives control your thinking, because you were all called together in one body to have peace. Always be thankful. 16 Let the teaching of Christ live in you richly. Use all wisdom to teach and instruct each other by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 Everything you do or say should be done to obey Jesus your Lord. And in all you do, give thanks to God the Father through Jesus.
The Word of the Lord Thanks be to God!
MESSAGE Forgiving Family & Friends
Last week we read the story of Joseph forgiving and reconciling with his brothers, in spite of what they had done to him. One Bible study labeled what the brothers did as abuse and pointed out that the brothers also hurt their father by lying to him. David Augsburger reminds us that the rivalry between Leah (the substitute first wife) and Rachel (the beloved second wife) also contributed to the strife between their sons. Ultimately, Joseph choses healing over revenge and worked compassionately toward reuniting the family. Augsburger compliments Joseph in this way:
"profound forgiveness, acceptance of the injury, rescue of their families, care and support during a famine, special status and privilege in the land for seventeen years have all demonstrated Joseph's forgiveness...Grief, sadness, and the mature ability to mourn and work at reconstructing relationships are signs of authentic maturity." (p. 52-53)
Joseph acknowledged the reality and pain of what happened. He genuninly grieved over the loss of family. He offered help demanding only to be reunited with his younger brother and aging father.
In his book Helping People Forgive, David Augsburger, Pastoral Care and Counseling professor, reviews a variety of theories in the field of psychology. Murray Bowen's work on family systems makes sense in this story. It includes elements of finding one's self separate from the rest of the family, bringing a third party into situations, family habits to cope with anxiety and stress, birth order issues, and transmission of family perceptions and patterns through multiple generations.
Our Old Testament reading takes Joseph's story back a generation to the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, Jacob, and his brother, Esau. These twins were rivals even at birth. Esau was first, but Jacob grabbed his heel and pushed his way out instead. Esau was a rugged outdoorsman and hunter favored by his father. Jacob was mama's favorite as he helped Rebekah closer to home. Eventually Isaac, old, blind and on his deathbed sent Esau to hunt and prepare a favorite meal. Rebekah interceeded coaching Isaac to prepare the dish with domestic stock and dressed him in scrubby animal skin, so that by lowering his voice, Jacob got away with pretending to be Esau. Jacob received the blessing intended for his brother, and Esau, in a rage, threatened to kill him. Rebekah rushed Jacob off to her brother, Laban. There he fell in love with Rachel, worked seven years to earn the right to marry her, and on the wedding night, discovered Uncle Laban had tricked him by slipping Leah under the wedding veil. Jacob worked another seven years to marry Rachel and in the ensuing years, Leah had six sons, Rachel begged God and gave birth to Joseph, the maids got involved, and finally Jacob headed home with four wives, twelve sons, one daughter named Dinah, and many flocks.
Jacob returned home to deal with his brother who had many years to either cool down or stew over the actions that caused them to part ways. They had continued to develop and mature separately, but Jacob was influenced by the same family dynamics in which his mother was raised. Esau was influenced by his father who grew up with the jealousy between Sarah and Hagar that separated him from his half brother. Augsburger says "No sypmtom is only one generation deep." The story of the patriarchs and matriarchs in Genesis illustrates his point. Envy is an ongoing pattern. Birth order rights were continually disrupted. Isaac was kept while Ishmael was sent away. Rachel was loved while Leah suffered. Jacob received the birthrite and the blessing, and Esau was left empty handed. Ties were severed. Anxiety was present. These disrupt the family system. Jacob and Esau approached each other with caution.
After wrestling all night with an angel, Jacob sent gifts ahead with servants. The maids and their children went forward next, followed by Leah and her children. In a protected space Rachel and her sons were just ahead of Jacob. Was Jacob showing off his wealth and his family? Jacob demonstrated humility bowing seven times and carefully choosing his words; like his mother and uncle his actions were strategic and calculated. Esau was a practical, what you see is what you get kind of guy. He simply said, "I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what’s yours." (v. 9) Esau extended an invitation for Jacob and his family to join him. Jacob begged off and chose to settle in his own territory. There was forgiveness, but not full reconciliation.
When families or friends have been distanced physically or emotionally for many years, forgiveness and reconciliation does not come easily. Honesty and sincerity are needed, so is acceptance of the other person's journey. There are no guarantees that both parties will be willing to forgive and reunite. The hurts may go too deep. Family patterns may be several generations old. Other family or friends and circumstances may affect dynamics.
Let me give you a couple personal examples:
The Prodigal Son is another classic bible story about forgiveness. MacArthur defines the Greek word for prodigal as dissolute with synonyms ranging from decadent to debauched and depraved. (MacArthur, p. 1309 and online synonyms) He wasted his inheritance on things the family would never have approved.
We speculated about that inheritance in the Adult Class last week. MacArthur's commentary clarifies a few points. First, to ask for his inheritance while his father was still living was an insult tantamount to saying, "Dad, I wish you were dead." Second, in that culture the firstborn received a double portion, so the younger son only received 1/3 of the estate. As we suspected, that must have been in liquid assets, so the older son remained at home managing the property and whatever else was his share. (MacArthur, p. 1310) When the money ran out, the prodigal sank even further by the standards of his faith culture hiring himself out to feed the pigs. Jews don't eat pork; it's not kosher. No Jew in good standing would have anything to do with pigs, but the prodigal ended up living with them even envying the carob pods humans can't eat.
Back home, the older brother remained loyal to the family and worked faithfully with his father. Over years of doing both his share and his brother's, resentment and bitterness have probably grown.
When the younger son returned home, his father was so excited he rushed out to meet him. He listened to the well rehearsed sincere apology, then dismissed it by wrapping his arms around his son, calling for symbols of welcome and reconciliation. MacArthur notes that the robe was reserved for an honored guest. The ring signified authority. Since slaves went barefoot, sandals would only be given to family. The father was eager to forgive and restore his son to full status. (p. 1310)
The older son wasn't part of the conversation. Had dad taken him for granted all these years? When he heard the celebration he refused to participate. He expressed the grudge he had held so long.
Dad forgave the younger son. Perhaps Dad had complied all those years ago to test him and give him freedom to make his own mistakes and learn from them. If that's the case Dad has long waited for his son to come to his senses and come home.
I believe that is what God does with us: gives us freedom of choice then watches with parental concern when we make poor choices and suffer consequences. God doesn't stop loving us and is waiting to offer us forgiveness and reconciliation just as the father in this story. But the lesson doesn't end there.
Other relationships in this story are yet to be resolved. The two brothers have some issues that will take time and depend on choices the younger brother makes and whether the elder brother is willing to let go of resentment. Will they learn to work side by side and share in family life? One can only hope. We don't know.
The father and elder brother also have work to do. Was dad aware of how the older son felt all these years? Dad expressed his appreciation at the end, but has he done that often enough in the past? Will the older son continue this dialog and learn to be honest with his parent rather than repressing feelings? Will they each forgive the other? Again, we hope so, but we don't know.
Perhaps Jesus left the story open ended enough to let us ponder such questions and invite us to find ourselves in their story. This is what a good parable can do.
On another level, Jesus told this story to the faith community wanting them to catch something significant in their own social/spiritual relationships. The older brother represents the self-righteous Pharisees who were more about the rules of God than their relationship with God. The younger brother represents the sinners they accused Jesus of hanging around forgiving them too easily.
As Christians, what is God asking of us when we hear these stories of families who don't get along? We all have situations that need healing and forgiveness, or we observe such scenes from the sidelines.
For some of us there are issues of abandonment. We feel loss and grief not only when a family member dies, but even as a child heads to kindergarten or as they later leave home. When someone goes through divorce the rest of the family and friends have to redefine their relationships with both parties. People are separated by moving away, serving in the military, by a disease that alters their lifestyle, their memory or even their personality. In any of these cases, as one works through frustration and anger, resentment may be directed toward the person who left whether or not there was any actual fault. A process of forgiveness is needed for healing to occur and the possibility of restoring either the relationship or at least its memory.
What about cases of abuse? Whether verbal, physical, or emotional, the damage goes deep and can last a lifetime. The injured party needs counseling, spiritual direction, and very patient people around them to find a safe space in which to overcome the pain and work toward health and wholeness. Part of that healing will include some level of forgiveness and letting go, but that doesn't mean they will be able to forget, and it doesn't mean the relationship will be restored. If the abuser at some point accepts responsibility and is sincerely willing to change, they may need to receive forgiveness. They will also need counseling and spiritual direction. Whether or not there will ever be reconciliation really depends on how both parties work through these things.
Any change in one person affects the whole system. A birth, a marriage, a new job or retirement, a new home, even a new friend can affect other relationships just as an illness or a death brings about changes for the whole system. If we are healthy we are able to make adjustments and find the new balance.
One measure of family health looks at levels of closeness and flexibility in couples and families of origin. (Augsburger, also Prepare/Enrich) Some families are independent while others are tightly connected, even enmeshed. Some families are rigidly inflexible, while others are quite flexible and adjust quickly. When a couple comes from drastically different values on these scales, it takes work to find balance and deal with the extended family.
The healthy balance is found in middle ground where there is flexibility within ground rules agreed on mutually, where there is comfortable camaraderie within appropriate mutually set boundaries. Outside that middle ground conflicts will occur, and there will be occasions when honest conversation, understanding, forgiveness and changes are needed to build healthy relationships.
So, what steps can we take toward healthy forgiveness in families and among friends?
I suggest we listen again to these words from Colossians 3:
So you should always clothe yourselves with mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Bear with each other, and forgive each other. If someone does wrong to you, forgive that person because the Lord forgave you. 14 Even more than all this, clothe yourself in love. Love is what holds you all together in perfect unity. 15 Let the peace that Christ gives control your thinking, because you were all called together in one body to have peace. Always be thankful.
1.First, take the relationship to God in prayer. Let Christ teach you the virtues mentioned here, so that you are able to be merciful, kind, humble, gentle and patient.
2.Second, ask God to help you understand and accept the other person's perspective. Even if you were born to the same family, you may have developed differently.
3.Third, forgive as sincerely as you are able. Release the other person from any desire you have to punish them; seek their well being instead.
4.To this end, fourth, ask God to help you love as genuinely as God loves you. Review the aspects of love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
5.Fifth, seek the peace of Christ that passes all human understanding, the peace that is not of this world, but of God.
6.Sixth, strive to live into the future out of gratitude rather than fear or anger or blame or regret.
I believe these biblical principles will make a difference in our own lives and in our relationships with others. As we go forward, let's remember that Jesus set the example of perfect love and total forgiveness. Continue to look to Jesus as you strive to forgive and live grateful for all that God in Christ has forgiven you.
(Many of today's ideas come from Total Forgiveness by R. T. Kendall. The Lakota story is in Bible Study for Lent titled Forgiveness by Marjorie Thompson.)
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