Jacob was a great man, the patriarch of Israel and a father of faith. Jacob’s life was lived in service to his God. But Jacob’s life was not without fault—like all of us, Jacob was a sinner.
Jacob had a brother, a twin named Esau. Esau was born first and was therefore his father’s heir. When Jacob and Esau were young men, their father Isaac had gone blind and was dying. Knowing that his father would soon die, Jacob engaged in a complex deception—he tricked his brother and his father and obtained an inheritance and the blessing that would make him the leader of his family.
When the deception was uncovered, Esau was angry and Jacob fled for his life—going to work under the leadership of Laban, a distant relative in a faraway land. Years later, when both men had grown up, Jacob returned to his homeland. When his brother saw him, “Esau ran to meet him, embraced him, and flinging himself on his neck, kissed him as he wept.”
Jacob experienced forgiveness from Esau. And in Esau’s forgiveness, Jacob experienced the love of God.
Contemporary philosopher Charles Griswold said recently that “few of us are altogether innocent of the need for forgiveness.”
Professor Griswold is correct. We’re sinners—and though it pains us to admit it, we need God’s mercy and the forgiveness of one another. In forgiveness, we experience God’s love and the merciful love of our fellow men.
Contemporary philosophers like Griswold view forgiveness as the restoration of a disrupted social contract. If a person is wronged, they suggest, they ought to forgive when they have certitude that the offender will repair the damage they’ve caused and have taken steps to ensure not to repeat the wrong. The forgiveness itself entails foreswearing vengeance, or the imposition of unjust consequences for the offense. For contemporary philosophers, forgiveness allows us to return things to their normal order after an offense.
At a certain level, their description of forgiveness is correct. Yet to the Christian, forgiveness should be more than the restoration of a contract. To the Christian, forgiveness is an opportunity to give oneself entirely in love to a person who doesn’t deserve it. It’s the opportunity to love as God loves—to forgive as God forgives. For the Christian, the opportunity to forgive is the opportunity to share in the loving sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
God’s forgiveness is always more than we merit. When we’ve sinned and we come to God for forgiveness, he does far more than restore our relationship to its “normal order.” God takes our repentance as an opportunity to give himself to us in love—to fill us with grace and to draw us more deeply into his life. This is why the sacrament of penance, or confession, is sometimes called the “sacrament of conversion.” When we come to God for forgiveness, he invites us to enter into a deeper relationship with him.
Like Esau’s forgiveness of Jacob, God’s forgiveness comes with an embrace and the rejoicing of a reunited, strengthened family.
Next week, on Feb. 28, parishes across the archdiocese will offer confession from 4:30 p.m. to 7 p.m. in a program called The Light is on For You. If you haven’t been to confession in a while, I invite you to consider a return to the sacrament of conversion. God is waiting for you—not only to forgive your sins, but to give himself to you, to wrap his arms around you and to weep for joy in his love for you. As our Lord teaches in the Gospel: “There will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous people” (Luke 15:7).
All of us need forgiveness. And all of us need the love of God, poured out in an embrace of mercy. Next week, The Light is on For You. I pray you will encounter the rich mercy of Christ, our loving brother and savior.