— A Sermon by Robert W. Prim —
~~~ 9th Sunday after Pentecost ~~~
You need to know that my way of looking at the story of Jacob is a minority view. I don’t find him inspirational. Not like the inspiration, for example that I experienced listening to speakers at John Lewis’ memorial. I was particularly interested in the words of James Lawson, an activists in Nashville who had been thrown out of my Alma Mater, Vanderbilt Divinity School, for his protesting. Lawson was a teacher of non-violence and standing always for truth. He paid tribute to John Lewis and he began by quoting a Polish Catholic poet Czeslaw Milosz, poem called “Meaning” —
When I die, I will see the lining of the world.
The other side, beyond bird, mountain, sunset.
The true meaning, ready to be decoded.
What never added up will add Up,
What was incomprehensible will be comprehended.
– And if there is no lining to the world?
If a thrush on a branch is not a sign,
But just a thrush on the branch? If night and day
Make no sense following each other?
And on this earth there is nothing except this earth?
– Even if that is so, there will remain
A word wakened by lips that perish,
A tireless messenger who runs and runs
Through interstellar fields, through the revolving galaxies,
And calls out, protests, screams.
Lawson spoke of Lewis being like the one who calls out, protests, screams… and even now, says Lawson, Lewis is the tireless messenger who runs and runs.
I don’t find this kind of inspiration in the story of Jacob.
The only way for me to make the points I want to make about Jacob is to give you an overview of the entire narrative of his life. The story that is assigned for this day is the wrestling match Jacob had on the night before he was to meet his estranged, twin brother Esau. Much is made of this night-time struggle. My own sense of it is that Jacob was simply wrestling with his guilty conscience. In and of itself this type of self-examination is a good thing. Such introspection can lead to a new way of living in the world. Every night we could all benefit from thinking back on our day and asking ourselves whether of not we put more love into the world or more division and enmity. I think Jacob was wrestling with the fact that his life to date was full of deceit and selfishness, but I’m getting ahead of myself…
Jacob chronicles so far… Jacob, the twin son of Isaac and Rebecca, tricked (literally “yakov’ed”– outwitted) his brother out of birthright (by offering the famished brother stew in return for the privileges of being the first born son) and his father’s blessing (by dressing up like Esau and fooling blind Isaac into giving his deathbed blessing to the wrong son).
Jacob, at his mother’s insistence, fled to Haran where he met up with his uncle, Laban. While running away from the murderous rage of his brother he had a dream with angels ascending and descending from heaven and he heard a word of comfort, presence, protection, and progeny from God.
While in Haran Jacob fell instantly in love with Rachel. He worked for seven years to earn her in marriage from Laban. Laban, however, “jacob-ed” Jacob by sending his other daughter, the oldest, Leah into Jacob’s tent after a night of celebration. Jacob worked another seven years – though he only had to wait a week – to marry Rachel.
Jacob ended up in a dispute with his father-in-law. For twenty-plus years he lived in Haran and Jacob and Leah had many sons and a daughter. Rachel late in life had a son, Joseph. The dispute came over livestock. Jacob was a masterful breeder. His father-in-law knew he would miss Jacob’s gifts in the livestock trade and tried to outwit Jacob – it did not work. Jacob left Haran a very wealthy man with a very large family and many servants.
The Bible says the Lord told Jacob to go home. The problem for Jacob in going home was Esau. Though it had been more than two decades, Jacob was not at all sure his brother would not murder him on sight. Jacob decided to soften his brother up with gifts; so, when he came near to his brother’s home he sent waves of gifts – goats, camels, cows and bulls, donkeys….
So his gifts went before him while he settled down for the night in the camp. But during the night he got up and took his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He got them safely across the brook along with all his possessions.
But Jacob stayed behind by himself, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he couldn’t get the best of Jacob as they wrestled, he deliberately threw Jacob’s hip out of joint.
The man said, “Let me go; it’s daybreak.”
Jacob said, “I’m not letting you go ‘til you bless me.”
The man said, “What’s your name?”He answered, “Jacob.” The man said, “But no longer. Your name is no longer Jacob. From now on it’s Israel (God-Wrestler); you’ve wrestled with God and you’ve come through.”
Jacob asked, “And what’s your name?”
The man said, “Why do you want to know my name?” And then, right then and there, he blessed him.
Jacob named the place Peniel (God’s Face) because, he said, “I saw God face-to-face and lived to tell the story!”
The sun came up as he left Peniel, limping because of his hip. (This is why Israelites to this day don’t eat the hip muscle; because Jacob’s hip was thrown out of joint.)
I would have rather preached on Esau than Jacob. This story is confounding but the story of Esau is rather straight forward. Esau was filled with murderous rage toward his brother, but, as we shall see shortly, Esau was transformed. His anger melted into forgiveness. I would have rather preached on Esau but the Scripture and our Lectionary of readings have a decided bias in the direction of Jacob.
The Rabbinical tradition about Esau is mostly negative. While one source speaks of Esau’s filial piety, most want to make it clear that Esau had bad character. One report holds that Esau sought to harm Jacob even in their mother’s womb (Gen. R. 63). Another tradition … describes him as a misshapen dwarf from birth (Gen. R. 65). It is said his “hairy” appearance marked him a sinner, and his “red” color indicated his bloodthirsty character (Gen. R. 63) (newworldencyclopedia.org).
I have to say, I see Esau differently. Part of the story we have not reached yet is that when Esau saw Jacob coming he ran to meet him and embraced him, held Jacob tight and kissed him. Esau, as we have him in the biblical story, was a man who had grown. He had grown in wealth, but, more importantly, he had matured spiritually. When we last heard of Esau in the story he was filled with rage and ready to kill his brother for tricking him out of his birthright and his blessing. To be sure, Esau’s trade of his birthright for a bowl of soup represents a shallow character. But that shallowness changed. Esau let go of his anger toward Jacob. We might say he discovered the freedom of letting go of his animosity toward his brother. He went deeper in his spirit.
As I read what we have in the Bible about Esau, it would not be a hard to speak of his growth as a human being, his wisdom in letting go of animosity, his willingness to exchange hostility for hospitality. That is not a hard sermon to imagine.
Yet, what we have before us today is the Scripture’s clear preference for Jacob. The story today is Jacob wrestling with … what … Man? God? Angel? Himself? … and then receiving a new name: Israel (God-Wrestler). This story is filled with questions for me. Pun intended, but I wrestle with this story every time it appears in our Lectionary. The story of Jacob is ambiguous at best. Not only do we not know who it was that ambushed Jacob that night, we are also not given any indication that it really made much of a difference in Jacob’s life following the night time battle.
Here’s what I mean…following that fateful wrestling match Jacob was still worried that his brother would kill him; I guess even more worried now that he was injured. So, Jacob divided his family up into groups to go and meet Esau. At the front of the line he put his maidservants then Leah and her children (remember he did not love Leah as much as he loved Rachel) and then Rachel and Joseph last (his favorites). Jacob even said “If Esau comes on the first camp and attacks it, the other camp has a chance to get away!”
Jacob, like his mother and father before him, chose up sides in the family even to the point of being willing to sacrifice some to save others. Can you imagine how Leah and her sons must have felt? “You all go first and take the first wave of death so my favorites can escape?” they heard their husband and father say. It is horrifying to think of this kind of favoritism.
Jacob reproduced the sins of his mother and father… the wrestling match did not awaken him to the impact of his dividing up of his love. Not surprisingly, the sons would act it out all over again by throwing Joseph and his coat of many colors into a well and then selling him into slavery. Jacob’s favoritism toward Joseph brought out the worst in all his children, but Jacob was simply acting like his mother and father, Isaac and Rebecca. Isaac had a clear preference for Esau, though he was tricked into giving Joseph all the benefits of the first born. Rebecca had a clear preference for Jacob and helped secure his preferred place in the family legacy. So, Jacob, years later, was acting like his parents when he displayed and acted upon his clear preference for Joseph and Rachel over Leah and the other eleven sons.
The psychiatrist Nancy Chodorow calls this “the reproduction of mothering” – how, willy-nilly, we reproduce the sins of our parents (as quoted by Burt Visotzky in Genesis: A living Conversation, p.302).
Maybe you don’t need another example of Jacob’s lack of growth but here’s a more minor instance that reveals the continued pattern. Following the gracious welcome both brothers gave one another – Jacob with his gifts and Esau with his forgiveness – Esau invited Jacob to come home with him. Jacob gave a pretty flimsy excuse about his children and livestock being worn out. Jacob told Esau he would meet him later, but he left and there is no indication in the Bible that he ever went back to met Esau. They do not get together again until the death of their father decades later. The point is that Jacob, even after the dream of the ladder and after the wrestling match with the mysterious man who Jacob thought to be God, even after these very momentous spiritual events, Jacob just continues to be duplicitous. Unlike Esau, there seems to be no transformation in the way Jacob behaves toward others.
So, what to say in the way of exhortation from this passage? Three things, always three – one liners that capture what might be learned from the Jacob chronicles:
1) Be ready to forgive. Do not let anger and hostility define your character. Do not give those who have offended you the power to control how you experience life. Be ready to forgive. As God has forgiven us, let us forgive one another. I find this in Esau’s story not so much in Jacob’s behavior.
2) Do not repeat the sins of our parents. One practical piece of advice and I share it with every couple that comes to me before getting married, especially younger couples though older ones might benefit from the questions as well… I ask every couple to think about their parents and ask – what do I want to emulate from my parents and how they treated one another? And, what cycle, what behavior do I want to break about how they acted toward one another and their children? The point is that the default position in all of us is to repeat that which formed us. If mom and dad played favorites, then odds are good if we do not address the impact of that parenting in our own lives, it will rain down on the lives of our children and others around us. The Jacob chronicles invite us into such self-examination.
3) Duplicitous behavior will have consequences. We may in the final analysis be blessed. I believe we will be. I believe the grace and forgiveness of God will ultimately triumph for us all. Ultimately, I say, love wins and we will all be transformed. Yet, I also say, our misbehavior in this life will leave marks. We will be blessed but if we spend our lifetimes acting in ways that are unjust, untruthful, unloving, the blessing will be a lame blessing. What I think Jacob’s story is telling us is that God will find a way to work God’s purposes out, but our ways of being on this earth have consequences. Injustice, lying, stealing, dividing up people into categories of less or more loved, less or more favored… leads to wounds that will never fully heal. Jacob had tricked his way throughout life to his many successes, and even in the end he won a blessing, but, and I think this is important, he limped away.
To mix religions, I think our ways of being in relationships with one another and as a society has a type of karma.
For example, injustice toward a group for hundreds of years will lead to a society that can only hobble forward. We may, and I pray we will, ultimately be graced with a blessing, but it will leave us lame for a very long time. The injustices even as they are being overcome leave marks upon generation after generation after generation… How we live today is the beginning of what will be tomorrow.
So…to offer a summary:
let us all be ready to be transformed and to forgive.
Let us not repeat the sins of our parents.
Let us build a karma of goodness, kindness, truth, and justice
so we can create now and build a lasting foundation for
the future God dreams for us all.