What Forgiveness is Not by Pastor Leah Rosso

Genesis 33:1-11; Matthew 18:15-22

Hundreds of years before Jesus tells Peter that we are to forgive someone seven times seventy times, Esau has already managed to do just that.

You may have heard of Jacob before— the one who has twelve sons that become the twelve tribes of Israel, but have you ever heard of Esau, his brother? His twin brother? As the story goes, Esau was the first twin to be born, the first born son, but Jacob, in the womb, grabbed hold of Jacob’s ankle on his way out— and that was the beginning. We think of twins as being alike, as being connected, as being loyal to each other— but not these two. They are as different as can be. Esau grows up to be the big, burly, hairy man who hunts and smells like the outdoors, whose intelligence comes from experience. Jacob is more his Mother’s favorite, someone to hang around the tent.

This morning you picked out a rock to carry through this worship service. Have you already forgotten or gotten frustrated by trying to do something else with it in your hand and put it down? Often our resentments are not so easily put down. Imagine, for a moment that you are Esau. And from the moment you’re born, your twin is competing with you. This brother who could be your best friend, is instead always trying to get ahead of you. And the actions are small— a word here, an act there, but they build up like stones in a back pack. Small at first, but collectively very heavy. You may have small resentments like this in your life. The person who cut you off in traffic, a coworker who repeatedly says negative things about you, the insurance company that you were on the phone with for an hour only to tell you that they won’t cover the procedure your doctor is recommending. All of these little things that add up as your day and week and month goes on.

And then there are larger things: Jacob telling Esau repeatedly that their Mom loves him more. The day that Esau was so hungry coming in from the field, that Jacob taunted him with the soup he had made and told him to trade his birthright for a bowl of soup. You might have bigger resentments in your life. A parent you can’t forgive for wanting you to be something you’re not. A friend who wasn’t there when you needed them. These are the bigger rocks and they add up faster.

And then there comes the day when Jacob intentionally goes to his father, Isaac, dressed in animal skins, and pretends he is his brother so he can steal his father’s blessing— the one that is supposed to be given to the firstborn. And when Esau comes in from a long day’s work, he finds out that his father has given away his blessing— that his brother has betrayed him in the worst way possible— and what’s more, that it was his own mother’s idea. Being betrayed by two people in the world who are supposed to love you unconditionally— these are the large rocks. There’s only room for a couple and they are heavy from the get go. A spouse who betrays you. A boss who fires you without warning. A parent who abandoned you as a child or even as an adult.

And then we carry all of these things around— all of the pain, all of the resentment, all of the fear that comes with them as well. And without the tools of forgiveness, we are chained to our resentments, and then even the good things in our lives— even the blessings that are available to us, cannot be received because we are so weighed down.

This is what happens when we continue to turn from God, hurting ourselves and those around us and never repenting and asking forgiveness. And this is what happens when others turn from God, hurting themselves and us, and we are not able to forgive them. Sin— the pain that comes from the brokenness in our lives— weighs us down unless we are able to forgive those who hurt us, receive forgiveness from God, and forgive ourselves. Our baggage gets heavier and heavier and we do ourselves mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual harm by not learning to give it all to God.

Which is why Jesus tells Peter that we are to forgive others seven times seventy times. Because Jesus knows that these things accumulate. And that forgiveness is a tool God has given us as a gift— a gift that frees us up to be able to receive joy and love and goodness from God, a gift that frees us up to be fully reconciled with each other and with God and with ourselves. It allows us to set down our burden— to give it over to God— and to live the life God desires for us of love and joy and peace.

So it’s important to be clear about what forgiveness is— freedom to embrace life and serve God. And what it isn’t.

In his book, The Book of Forgiving, Desmond Tutu lays out clearly several things that forgiveness is not. The first one, is that forgiveness is not weakness.

When we think about forgiving someone, we often feel like to forgive someone else would be weakness on our part. But think for a moment about people you know who have forgiven huge things in their lives: spouses who have forgiven affairs; children who have forgiven parents for neglecting them; parents whose children have been shot in a school shooting like the one we saw this week in Florida, and are able to find in themselves the courage to forgive the shooter so that they can find healing. We may wonder how in the world they can do that, but never do we see it as weakness. It’s awe inspiring and amazing to see people who have no reason to forgive, choose to forgive and find through forgiveness, new life for themselves. Forgiveness is not weakness.

Forgiveness is also not forgetting. It is often extremely important to remember what has happened to us and to a community. The most prevalent example in the book, is of course the storytelling that was done during South Africa’s truth and reconciliation commission. At no time did anyone say that forgetting apartheid— the systematic oppression of black Africans— would be a good thing. In fact it is vitally important that they all remember. Remembering is part of forgiving. Without the remembering, there can be no forgiveness.

This also leads us to the next thing forgiveness is not, which is that it’s not a subversion of justice or a substitution for justice. Magdalene was kidnapped by a man she knew who stole everything she had and then left her in the trunk of her car. She was there for ten days before the police found her and there were many times she believed she was just going to die there. When she was found and fully recovered, she was so grateful that she was alive. She wanted to go to the man in prison and find out why he did this to her, but she was advised not to because he showed no remorse. She says forgiveness is different than trust. She can forgive him so that she can move on and live her life freely, but that doesn’t mean she trusts him. She prays that someone will be able to get through to him while he is in prison so that he can live a different life when he gets out. Her forgiveness was not a substitution for the justice that needed to happen. (3)

And the other two things Tutu says forgiveness is not, is quick or easy. Sometimes I think we kid ourselves when we say we forgive too quickly. We can think that forgiveness is a way for us to forget what happened or to ease the pain. But we need to understand that forgiveness is a choice we make daily, hourly, even minute by minute. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t come quickly. It’s a practice; and like every practice, it takes patience, time, and doing it again and again. It also can seem cheap if it comes too soon— there needs to be time to reflect, to ponder, to be angry, and to process all that is happened.

In Fred Luskin’s book, Forgive for Good, he adds a few more things to the list that I think are helpful to name. He says that forgiveness is not condoning unkindness; it is not denying or minimizing your hurt; it does not mean you give up having feelings; and it does not mean reconciling with the offender. (2)

In the next few weeks we are going to be exploring some of these including what do we do with our anger? How do we tell the story that needs to be told? What are the ways we can practice forgiveness? What do we do once we have forgiven?

I wish we knew more about Esau’s story. We saw all of the ways in which Esau could’ve carried around a whole lot of resentment his whole life. We know that Esau threatened to kill his brother Jacob because he was full of hate, which is why Jacob leaves in the first place. And yet in our story this morning, as Jacob has been anticipating a seething, angry brother full of the need for retribution, Jacob sends ahead servants carrying gifts; livestock; anything he can think of that will soften his brother’s resentment of his actions. But when Jacob finally gets up the courage to go meet his brother himself, what he finds is that Esau is kind; gentle; caring; asks how he is; doesn’t want to receive any of the gifts. Somewhere in that time between when Jacob stole his father’s blessing and left home and when he is now returning home, Esau has learned how to forgive him. Esau wants to be in relationship with Jacob. Even though forgiving Jacob hasn’t changed Jacob at all, as far as we can tell, Esau has been able to forgive and be the man he wants to be, regardless of who Jacob chooses to be.

There’s an ancient story about two monks who were traveling through a small village. They got to a crossroads, and there was a woman there throwing a fit because her servant could only carry her stuff or her, not both, and she didn’t want her silk shoes to get muddied from the rains that had come and washed away the road. Acknowledging the situation, one of the monks picked up the woman and carried her across the washed out road, setting her down gently on the other side where it was dry. The woman turned up her nose at him, and without even a head nod of thanks, went on complaining to her servant and continued on her way. As the two monks left the town, the younger monk found he couldn’t stop thinking about the woman and her rude behavior. For a few miles he fumed about how his friend had been treated. Finally, unable to keep silent any longer, he turned to his friend and said, “That woman treated you so rudely, not even recognizing that you helped her across the road when she was acting so ugly.” The older monk looked at the younger monk with compassion and replied, “I set her down hours ago. How is it that you are still carrying her?” (5)

Jesus wants us to give ourselves— our hurts, our pain, our suffering— over to him so that we can live lives full of life and love. God invites us over and over again to use the tool of forgiveness that we have been gifted so that we can lay our burdens down and be freed up to be people of love and light. And that’s what gives me hope. I know that I can’t forgive without the grace of God, and yet God promises that grace to be fully available to me— has given us the power to forgive— to loose ourselves from resentment in this life so that it will be loosed in the next one. What an amazing power, an amazing tool, for all of us to practice binding and loosing love into the world.

Resources Cited and Consulted:

1) The Book of Forgiving by Desmond Tutu 2) Forgive for Good by Fred Luskin 3) The Forgiveness Project by Marina Cantacuzino 4) Forgiveness: Finding Peace Through Letting Go by Adam Hamilton 5) Zen Shorts by John Muth