Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 10, July 13, 2014
So [Esau] swore an oath to [Jacob], selling his birthright to Jacob. (Genesis 25:33)
C.J. Green is a fourth-year student at the University of Virginia and also contributes to the Mockingbird blog. I’m a big fan of Mockingbird, and Green’s most recent post there is entitled “A Place on the Ladder: Notes from Sibling Rivalry.” It opens with a memory that’s uncomfortably familiar to a lot of us here this morning either as siblings or as the parents of siblings. He writes:
It was a Ken Griffey, Jr. baseball card, blue and shiny and highly-coveted by Little Leaguers everywhere. Packed in with four other no-names, it was a diamond in the rough. And it was mine. My brother, a year older, couldn’t believe I was so lucky — I mean, Ken Griffey, Jr. — so he proceeded to, quite sneakily, remove it from my collection and place it in his own. I can’t remember exactly what happened next but, after many tears and a flurry of hand-to-hand combat, the card lay discarded on the ground with river-like creases running over Ken’s regal face. My Ken Griffey card. But wasn’t it just a bit of paper with some stats on the back? Yes, it was, but that’s not the point. This wasn’t just a fight over some baseball card. This was indirect fire from a much greater conflict: years of brother-against-brother war.
Green later admits that he didn’t really care about baseball cards. But his brother did. It was, he confessed, “a rare, shining opportunity” to wield power against him.
Today’s reading from the Book of Genesis also describes a clever young man who took advantage of “a rare, shining opportunity” to wield that kind of power against his older brother. In the world of Jacob and Esau, the firstborn son was favored tremendously in the same way that men always had cultural privileges that women didn’t and couldn’t share. So the fact that Rebekah loved her younger son Jacob more than his brother mattered little in the real world of the Ancient Near East. Esau remained the firstborn.
Favoritism from a parent, slights from a sibling, and gaps in ability are intensely felt in our closest relationships, even if they are only the products of our imagination. In our world, we often try to overcome these things, whether real or merely perceived, by outperforming our brothers and sisters in sports competitions, in academic degrees, in business ventures, in outward displays of wealth, or in some other way that can be measured, something that we can point to — or, better yet — something that others can point to. It’s how we climb over them on the ladder to get closer to our parents or to anyone else, including God, who will love and embrace us.
But that’s not how things worked in the ancient world. The firstborn always received the greatest blessing. It was like a divine message chiseled into stone — an eternal decree. There’s only one problem with that simplistic, black and white view of things: Never in the Book of Genesis does the firstborn receive that blessing.
Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael, doesn’t get it. His second son, Isaac, does. Isaac’s firstborn, Esau, doesn’t get it. His second son, Jacob, does. While Jacob, whose name eventually becomes Israel, blesses all of his sons, the primary blessing comes through the second-youngest one named Joseph. In other words, where least expected, God seems to be hardest at work.
It would appear, then, that God’s ways aren’t even God’s ways, at least as they’re often imagined to be in metaphorical emails that get forwarded from one generation to another. Sometimes God himself stops that insanity like he stopped the knife of Jacob’s grandfather Abraham from plunging into the chest of Jacob’s father Isaac.
So Isaac lives, becoming an adult and learning from Abraham the way of faith, just as Isaac’s twin sons live and learn from him the way of faith. At their birth, Esau comes first, but Jacob, in a preview of things to come, refuses to let go of his brother’s heel.
Jacob stubbornly persists in his pursuit of God’s blessing to the point of taking advantage of his brother with a pot of red beans and, later, deceiving his blind and dying father to receive what his father had received from Abraham. He’s often described as a con artist, so perhaps most of us would agree with Mark Twain in questioning the good sense of parents who allow their children to hear stories, like these about Jacob, from the Bible. It’s a dangerous book that describes a dangerous God — a God who colors outside the lines over and over and over again.
Next week, we’ll dare to read yet another story about Jacob in this church and, ignoring Mark Twain’s counsel, in the presence of children, including my own two sons. That will get to the heart of the matter, perhaps helping us to see that if Jacob can be a part of the story of God’s people, then surely we can be written into that story too. I like how author Frederick Buechner describes what happened to Jacob after his deception and getaway:
When sunset came and nobody seemed to be after him, he decided that it was safe to camp out for the night and, having left in too much of a hurry to take his bedroll with him, tucked a stone under his head for a pillow and prepared to go to sleep. You might think that what happened next was that he lay there all night bug-eyed as a result of his guilty conscience or, if he did finally manage to drop off, that he was tormented by conscience-stricken dreams, but neither of these was the case. Instead, he dropped off like a baby in a cradle and dreamed the kind of dreams you would have thought were reserved for the high saints.
As we will hear next Sunday, Jacob dreams of a ladder that reaches up to heaven from the ground under his feet. He sees, too, angels moving up and down it. Then God came and stood beside Jacob. God came not to weigh his crookedness on the scales of divine justice and to punish him but to assure him that God would never leave him and that, perhaps to his astonishment and our own, all the families of the earth would be blessed through him and his descendants. As Frederick Buechner, connecting Jacob to one of those descendants named Jesus, puts it so beautifully:
It wasn’t holy hell that God gave him . . . but holy heaven, not to mention the marvelous lesson thrown in for good measure. The lesson was, needless to say, that even for a dyed-in-the-wool, double-barreled con artist like Jacob there are a few things in this world you can’t get but can only be given, and one of these things is love in general, and another is the love of God in particular.
Jacob didn’t have to climb his ladder to bilk heaven of the moon and the stars, even if that had been possible, because the moon and the stars looked like peanuts compared to what God and the angels were using the ladder to hand down to him for free.
Another part of the lesson was that, luckily for Jacob, God doesn’t love people because of who they are, but because of who God is. “It’s on the house” is one way of saying it and “It’s by grace” is another, just as it was by grace that it was Jacob of all people who became not only the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, but the many-times great-grandfather of Jesus of Nazareth, and just as it was by grace that Jesus of Nazareth was born into this world at all.
I love that wisdom from Buechner. The real story about Jacob isn’t the fact that his life began while holding tightly the heel of his brother but that he was held throughout his life in the grip of God’s grace. God loved Jacob in spite of his rivalrous heart. Our hope, as Christians, is that God loves us in exactly the same way.
Rather than stepping on the hands of our brothers and sisters, clamoring to ascend the ladder of God’s love, we look to the cross. There, in Jesus of Nazareth, God reaches down from heaven to earth, descending to us, forgiving us and loving us, even when — especially when — we were not only most unloved but also most unlovable. Those hands that bear the mark of crucifixion will never, never, never, never, never let us go.
1 BACK TO POST C.J. Green, “A Place on the Ladder: Notes from Sibling Rivalry,” Mockingbird, May 28, 2014.
2 BACK TO POST Green.
3 BACK TO POST This is referenced in Dale Brown’s The Book of Buechner: A Journey Through His Writings (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006) 282.
4 BACK TO POST Frederick Buechner, “Jacob” in Peculiar Treasures, reprinted (San Francisco, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993).
5 BACK TO POST Buechner.