We’ve heard two stories today, stories of two mothers looking out for their kids. Anxious moms — desperate housewives — wanting to give their children a leg up on the world. The story spans the ages: from Old Testament times to New Testament times, even to today.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus has an answer for the mother of James and John: You want your boys to have an advantage? I’ve come to show you another way. You want your sons to sit close to power, to enjoy the rewards of success? I’ve got a surprise for you. God’s appearance in the world turns human values upside down. Jesus announces an unexpected reversal: the greater will serve the lesser.
The theme has run through the Old Testament, and it will reach its climax in Jesus. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
The story of Jacob and Esau is also a story of reversal. In ancient culture, the firstborn son inherits the bulk of his parents’ estate, and the younger siblings are left to fend for themselves or rely on the goodwill of their older brother.
Even when there are twins, the firstborn owns the birthright, the right to inherit. In a surprising move before the boys are born, God announces to Rebekah that her firstborn son will serve the younger. It’s part of God’s good news, and yet it’s complicated.
This fall, we began a sermon series called, “A Year of Character Development” in which we are surveying some of the major characters in the Bible. Their stories have been around a long time and have stood the test of time. We keep telling them because they reveal a truth about us, and they tell us a truth about God.
Today’s character is Jacob and his brother Esau, along with their mother and father. Jacob’s story is an important one in the Bible. He is the carrier of the covenant promise, a special relationship God formed with his grandfather Abraham that was to be passed on to his descendants. The story of Jacob’s family of origin and the family he creates occupy half of the book of Genesis.
The twins came late in life to Isaac and Rebekah. Isaac was 40 when they married, and it took 20 long years for a child to be born. Twenty years of shame and frustration. Twenty years of waiting and eventually wondering how God’s covenant promise would be fulfilled. Just when it seemed there was no hope, twins were conceived.
Not surprisingly, the boys had different personalities, and each one clicked with a different parent. Esau became a skilled hunter and a man of the field. He was his dad’s favorite because Isaac was fond of game. Jacob was quiet and stayed near the tents so he was a companion to his mother.
Esau was perhaps not the brightest bulb on the tree, and Jacob was a trickster. One day when Esau was famished, Jacob tricked him into selling his entire inheritance for a bowl of soup.
“Fool me once,” they say, “shame on you. But fool me twice, shame on me.” I don’t know that anyone could have imagined what would happen next. Isaac had grown old, and his eyes were dim; he couldn’t see. He called his favorite son, Esau, to him and said, “Go and hunt game and prepare for me a savory meal. Then I will bless you before the Lord before I die.”
Rebekah was standing nearby and overheard the conversation. She concocted a plan and then conspired with Jacob to steal Esau’s blessing. Jacob hesitated at first, but then saw fit to let her prepare a meal for him to serve, cover him in goatskin to make his skin rough like his brother’s, and put Esau’s clothes on him so that he might smell like his brother. They worked quickly, and their plan succeeded, just in time. Esau was fooled, and he gave the blessing to Jacob.
As Jacob slipped out the door, Esau came in from the hunt and prepared game for his father. When he took it to his father, Isaac trembled violently, knowing that he had been tricked. “I’ve already given away your blessing!” he said.
Esau’s bitter cries echoed off the hills. “Bless me, too, father!” “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” Three times he begged to be blessed. We know the saying, the last will be first and the first will be last. But sometimes it feels two-dimensional. In Esau’s loss, we feel the complexity of God’s great reversal. Esau’s privilege is gone. Esau’s life will have a different trajectory. The honor and advantage that would have come to him have disappeared. Say what you will about the dysfunctional family dynamics that brought them to this place and the cultural norms that say he somehow deserved the birthright and blessing more than his brother who was younger by mere moments. When Esau cries out, “Is there not another blessing for me, father? Didn’t you save one for me?” we can’t help but empathize with him.
And what of Isaac, the father who was betrayed? What of Rebekah, the mother who mourns the loss of her sons? One will be physically absent and the other emotionally distant. And what about Jacob who must now run for his life, far from everything he’s ever known?
The poet Warson Shire says:
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark…
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.
no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet…
The family is broken. Jacob will be gone for a long time. Twenty years. If his mother ever sees him again, we don’t know; the story doesn’t say. She sends him off to make a new life.
Jacob encounters God along the way; three times God comes to him and says:
I will be with you through all of life. I will give you offspring and land to sustain you. You are part of something bigger than yourself: All the families of the world will be blessed through you. I even give you a new name: Israel because you have striven with God and people.
It will take a whole “lifetime before everything superfluous is stripped away” from Jacob and the promise of God can be fulfilled. Jacob will find a new life, but his refugee status won’t change his way in the world. He will continue with his tricks. But Jacob will be fooled by his future father-in-law, too, and then he will outfox him in return. His wives will outsmart each other, and their children, his sons, will finally tell him a lie that breaks his heart, as well. He will spend decades separated from the people he loves.
There will be a reunion of brothers. Jacob will return to Esau. He will understand the gravity of his crime and he’ll be afraid to go back, but he won’t feel remorseful. Yet, somehow, Esau will forgive him — not because Jacob deserves it, but because of grace extended. Forgiveness doesn’t excuse the wrong that’s done but giving grace saves. It frees the one who does the forgiving.
The brothers will learn to live peaceably. They will co-exist at a distance.
What does this story have to do with us anyway? Jacob’s family is not so different from our own families. I suspect that even our best family reunions hold stories and memories of sibling rivalry, jealousy, separation, and unspoken hurt. We bungle things up, too.
Relationships of all kinds are complicated. We are different from each other, and our differences divide us. We are plagued by jealousy. And because they can, the strong rule over the weak. But God shows us another way. It will take a whole lifetime for us, too, to strip away all that stands in the way of claiming the promises of God. But God is patient, extending mercy again and again.
Friends in Christ, remember who you are. You are children of God, heirs of the promise that God is with you through all that life brings and that you are part of something bigger, blessed to be a blessing. God is at work in you, bending your heart to be merciful, teaching you to forgive, helping you to love and honor the neighbor who is different from you. And the most counter-intuitive thing of all, Jesus said whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant. You’ll find a blessing there. You’ll find Jesus. Amen.