A sower went out to seed … I love this Gospel passage, and all the other sayings of Jesus about seeds. Because you see, my husband Jim and my daughter Rachelle are both professional garden seed growers. But when I sat down to prepare today’s sermon, a small voice said, you’ve preached on seeds enough. It’s time to look at the Genesis account of Esau and Jacob … Hmm, that’s a bit more daunting. It’s daunting because it’s not a nice story like the seed-story. Or maybe it is … is it? In this season of not-nice pandemic stories, uncertainty and high anxiety, we desperately need stories as guideposts that inspire and sustain us. So let’s see …
The part we hear this morning is not nice, for sure. Twin brothers already fighting with each other in the womb, then Jacob cheating his elder red-haired brother Esau of his birthright. The notion of birthright is kind of foreign to us, but the notion of sibling rivalry is certainly familiar to us all. In fact, the Book of Genesis contains a number of juicy accounts of sibling rivalry – dirty tricks and betrayals and, in one case, even murder: Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Rachel and Leah, and Joseph and his brothers. We also read about the animosity between Sarah and Hagar, the two mothers of Abraham’s sons. What’s with all that? Why air all that dirty family laundry in a … Holy Book??!
I’ve been learning more about the meaning of these questionable accounts in Genesis from Jonathan Sacks’ book Not in God’s Name. Sacks is a renowned Jewish Rabbi from Britain, written several very worthwhile books. He points out that we do a disservice to the overall purpose of the Genesis stories when we read parts out of contexts without reading the entire story. So in our case today, with Esau and Jacob, we are left with the impression that they began their fighting before they were even born, that Jacob resented his brother all his life, that he wanted to be his brother and so cheated and stole from Esau.
If we leave the story here, what do we take from all that? Not a whole lot of inspiration and encouragement. We are left not knowing why God had it included in the Holy Book, but there it is. An endless string of sibling rivalries is certainly not all that God wants to communicate to us. In every story about siblings in Genesis, there is rivalry and jealousy and cheating, yes. But also in every story there are multiple layers of lessons that God is communicating, lessons which are almost hidden in a mere surface reading of the accounts.
Sibling rivalry exists in every family, unless you are an only child. God’s intent in Genesis is to shape the human family into one that learns to live in a covenant relationship, with one another and with their God. In and through their sins and shortcomings, God guides and molds them into this covenant relationship. God does this, not by choosing perfect human beings, but by teaching their hearts how to overcome the very sins that breed animosity, hatred and strife. Because through all the cheating and resenting and stealing God moves deep into the two brothers’ hearts to lead them to knowing who they are before God himself.
Sooner or later, we all have to face God and reckon with the truth of our being. Jacob eventually faces God honestly – but only 22 years later than today’s account. In Genesis 32, Jacob wrestles with the stranger at night, and emerges from that wrestling match a new creation. His heart finally learnt that God knows him and loves him for who he is. He doesn’t have to cheat, hate and steal to win favours and be the best. What’s more, Jacob realized that his brother Esau is also loved, known and blessed by God for who he is. And that God in fact had a blessing for each one of them, a different blessing, each according to their different characters and destinies. At such a moment, when we are faced with, named by and blessed by God for who we are, sibling rivalry loses its grip. Stopping at today’s account is totally inadequate to God’s message. Because finally in chapter 33, the two brothers are reconciled, embraced one another, and claim God’s love and mercy – together! (Gen. 33)
What the accounts of sibling rivalry in Genesis really teach us is this: Sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we discover that we are loved by God for what we are, not for being someone else. Sibling rivalry is defeated the moment we receive and embrace our own divine blessing. Brothers and sisters need not conflict or compete. Sibling rivalry is not inevitable or divine fate, but a tragic error and sin. As a young man, Jacob had tried to be what he was not. Alone at night, fearing the confrontation with Esau 22 years later, Jacob wrestled with the angel, and discovered a rivalry-dissolving truth: it is for what we uniquely are in and before God that we are loved.
To be secure in our relationship with God does not need to involve envying or despising someone else. In the case of Jacob and Esau, yes, Jacob stole his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing. But if we keep reading, we learn that Esau too receives his father’s blessing, and receives God’s promise to be the father of a great nation. Each of the boys simply receives a different type of blessing.
Now Jonathan Sacks draws important insights from all the Genesis accounts about sibling rivalry. He applies these insights to the three monotheistic religions, the three who claim one God, the ones who each claim Abraham as their father in faith, the three who hold the Hebrew Scriptures in high regard: Judaism, Christianity and Islam (yes, Islam too). Each of these religious traditions traces their origins back to Abraham. In fact, Sacks shows in great detail how Isaac’s half-brother Ishmael received God’s blessing for a great nation also, and sure enough, Islam derives its lineage back to Ishmael. We Christians claim God’s divine favour/blessing through Jesus Christ, our Lord and Saviour – Jesus the Jew had Abraham as ancestor.
But all three, including our own tradition with the Prince of Peace as our Lord, have engaged in sibling rivalry with one another. This has resulted in much hatred, jealousy, and bloodshed over the centuries. Each in turn – Jews, Christians and Muslims – we have been claiming to possess God’s blessing at the exclusion of the other two. Just read the history of bloodshed in Jerusalem alone. More than any other place on earth, that holy city has seen more blood flow on its cobblestone streets, inflicted at the hands of Jews, Christians and Muslims.
Jonathan Sacks sees the solution to religiously motivated violence in re-appropriating the lessons from Genesis about how to confront and heal sibling rivalry. And it is urgent that we heed those lessons both personally and globally. How would the religious siblings of Jews, Christians and Muslims relate if we each recognized the divine blessing in the other? How can we overcome the toxic religious sibling rivalry that has cost so many lives? Christians have only begun in the last century to formally recognize and appreciate God’s favour and blessing in Judaism. Before that we gleefully stoked anti-semitism. Now Islamist extremists are stoking sibling rivalry in deadly ways through suicide-bombers and terrorist attacks. Sacks argues that both personally and within our religious traditions, we each must wrestle with God (as Jacob did) to discover the face, the name and the divine blessing that is uniquely ours. It is only when we learn to rest secure in God’s love that we can be at peace with one another in the world.
The Covid pandemic is teaching us many lessons right now. Some of those lessons include the realization of our human vulnerability, and the clear notion that we are all connected, each of us responsible for another’s well-being by our very behaviour. Covid has laid bare all our strife and rivalry, all our injustices and inequalities. The invisible virus makes no distinctions, and plays no favourites. And what’s more, our gracious God makes no distinctions and plays no favourites.
Yes, our God is Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. But this same God is God for all, and accessible to all: the God who blessed Ishmael as well as Isaac, the God who tells the children of Jacob not to hate the descendants of Esau, the God who reached out to Hagar as well as Sarah, the god who listens to prayers of strangers, whose messengers sometimes even are foreigners! In various places, the Holy Scriptures even portray Gentiles as more religious than the chosen people of Israel. So be careful when encountering another faith. God’s image may well be present in the one whose faith is not ours, and whose relationship with God is lived differently from ours, just as Jacob and Esau each lived God’s blessing in different ways, in the end not as enemies but as reconciled brothers. The NT Letter to the Hebrews even claims: Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. (Heb. 13:2)
Homily preached on July 12, 2020 with the Anglican Lectionary Readings:
Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23