Surprised by Grace

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Surprised by Grace

Genesis 33:1–17

Jacob and Esau Meet

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.

Then Esau said, “Let us journey on our way, and I will go alongside you.” But Jacob said to him, “My lord knows that the children are frail and that the flocks and herds, which are nursing, are a care to me; and if they are overdriven for one day, all the flocks will die. Let my lord pass on ahead of his servant, and I will lead on slowly, according to the pace of the cattle that are before me and according to the pace of the children, until I come to my lord in Seir.”

So Esau said, “Let me leave with you some of the people who are with me.” But he said, “Why should my lord be so kind to me?” So Esau returned that day on his way to Seir. But Jacob journeyed to Succoth, and built himself a house, and made booths for his cattle; therefore the place is called Succoth.

Galatians 4:21–5:1

The Allegory of Hagar and Sarah1

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother. For it is written,

“Rejoice, you childless one, you who bear no children,

burst into song and shout, you who endure no birth pangs;

for the children of the desolate woman are more numerous

than the children of the one who is married.”

Now you, my friends, are children of the promise, like Isaac. But just as at that time the child who was born according to the flesh persecuted the child who was born according to the Spirit, so it is now also. But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.” So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman. 5 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

The moment arrives. Esau comes down to meet Jacob. Palms are sweating. Anything could happen. We expect a showdown. Few words shouted sharply back and forth, then followed by fists and firearms. Well perhaps not back in those days, but we have similar moments all the time in our world. Most of our biggest conflicts are not spur of the moment quandaries we fall into. They are sharp stones we keep in our shoes for years, feeling with every step we take.

The last thing we expect to see is our nemesis wearing new shoes and a smile… and carrying a pair of new shoes for us as well. That is what Jacob found when he met his brother. Grace. How would this look if we applied it to international relations? It would mean meeting our enemies with help instead of threats, despite past transgressions. I suppose it depends upon which side we stand on in the conflict. It is an unexpected surprise to receive grace. Can we give grace back in return?

The Galatians, like most of us, assumed that once we became Christians we were supposed to follow a higher moral code than everyone else and that this obedience would confirm our faith. Their eyes and their aims were on obedience, which is not bad, until we set that aim to others as well… expecting obedience from those who have not first received grace. That puts Christians at a permanent disadvantage in their dealings with others because we are indeed expected to follow a higher law than them, and instead of reciprocating wrongdoing for wrongdoing. Paul wrote to them that this surprising grace looks unfair and sometimes wrong. Paul says, it is like when the unmarried woman is able to have more children than the married one, and he points back to Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar as the founding example.

We skip over that example (it’s just an illustration anyway isn’t it?) and push on to the more ambiguous ideas of grace and law. But these ideas were never meant to be ambiguous, any more than God was just an idea. God became flesh to show us that grace to, must become flesh in us.

Where have you been surprised by Grace?

Where is God calling you to surprise someone else with Grace today?


  1. (Gen 21:8–21; Isa 54:1)

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