Sunday, February 04, 2024
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“Bless Me Also, Father!”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, February 4, 2024
Reading: Genesis 27:1-41

There are two stories in Genesis of Jacob robbing his twin brother. The other one is shorter, easier to digest (sorry readers, sorry listeners), and the other one makes more sense. In that one that we didn’t read this morning, Esau is hungry. Jacob says sure you can have some soup in exchange for your birthright. That is, the extra that comes with being firstborn—more land, more inheritance. Esau is oafish, not too bright, and says what good is the right of an elder son if I starve to death? In that story, Jacob tricks his slightly dim elder twin. That story is easier to moralize. Don’t give up your birthright for a bowl of soup, or in the older King James language, for a mess of pottage. The brothers’ parents aren’t involved. Just the clever brother outwitting the one who’s a slave to his stomach.

Today’s story is longer, more elaborate, harder to moralize, and harder to understand. In this story the parents are very much involved. Rebekah is the key player. She overhears her husband’s request to their firstborn, Esau—go out and hunt game and make food the way I like so I can bless you before I die. She connives to get Jacob, her favourite, to take lambs from the flock instead. She prepares the food for Isaac and comes up with this scheme to cover Jacob’s arms and neck with the animal skins so Isaac will believe he’s really hairy Esau. Jacob goes along. So, by my count, Rebekah and Jacob are breaking at least three of the future ten commandments. Lying. Stealing. And Jacob is dishonoring his father. It’s not a good look.

This story is the origin of our series on sibling rivalry. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks sees this as the key insight of the Bible, and of human nature too. The struggle between sisters, brothers, for parents’ love, for provision, for life. It explains the violence in Russia and Ukraine between fellow Orthodox. In the Middle East between Isaac’s sons and Ishmael’s—Jews and Muslims. It explains the agony in your family and mine. Our siblings make us us. And then unmake us. Christ comes as a sibling to heal. But he’s not done yet, so we still suffer. Rabbi Sacks says election—God’s choice of Israel--works this way. God has a chosen people: Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and all their descendants. It is through them that God will repair the world. But Genesis’ sympathy is with the not-chosen. And you can see that here in our story. Rebekah behaves miserably, fooling her dying husband, favouring their second son. Jacob behaves even worse, going along with the lie, stealing his brother’s blessing, pocketing that with his birthright.

And then! Esau walks in. He’s got a pot of good gamey stew, just like his father likes. Just like we’ll eat after church. He’s been out on the hunt, found favour, prepared the animal. Now he prances in with a hard-won stew that will go forever uneaten. Isaac is volcanically angry. Our translation says that Isaac “trembled violently” (v. 33). And Esau explodes into tears. “He cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry and said to his father, ‘Bless me also, father!’” (v. 34). If your heart doesn’t break for Esau, you better check if you have one. Do you see what scripture is saying? Jacob is chosen, not Esau. But as a reader you have no sympathy whatsoever for Jacob. Esau is not chosen, unlike Jacob. But as a reader you have every sympathy for Esau. Your heart cracks in two for him. Chosen-ness doesn’t mean preferred-ness or better-ness. Chosen means God works through you. Not because you’re good. But because God is. Jacob is awful. Esau is genuinely good. Not-chosen doesn’t mean not-loved or even not-blessed.

It’s Jacob who is our ancestor in faith. The scoundrel. Don’t leave your wallet with Jacob, let alone your child. He’ll steal anything not bolted down.

I wonder if you’ve had this experience in your family tree: embarrassment. An ancestor of mine signed the Declaration of Independence. I thought that was cool ‘til my family said yeah, he didn’t want to, he only signed it because he would have been the lone abstainer. They’d already written the word “unanimous.” Not so glorious. I guess he could’ve moved to Canada like the other loyalists, we’d have gotten here earlier. But you get the point: nothing to brag about there, in this gnarled family tree. I saw a family picture once and asked, “who’s that?” Oh, this is awkward. That guy faked his own death, his family collected life insurance, they all reunited in Mexico and lived like kings. Nothing to be proud of. An older parishioner of mine once warned against doing family tree research. “If you go back far enough, you’ll run into a monkey!” I don’t know if she meant Darwinism, or if she meant what I found. It doesn’t take many generations to hit a humiliating scoundrel. Every family has em. Because we all have that in us.

Dig into Israel’s story and you find Jacob. A terrible human being. No way you want to be like him or for your children to be like him. Yeah, he’s chosen but not because he’s morally superior. He’s morally far inferior to Esau by a lot. Yet he’s the one God will work through, to heal the world.

When we lived in Vancouver our family had a favourite burger place. We got to know the owner, who knew our usual and chatted with us. One day he asked, “You two are ministers, right?” Uh, yeah, sorry. You guys must hate me. What do you mean? You seem nice enough. He said, I drink, and I cuss, and I gamble, why are you even in my place? Oh no, you’re exactly the sort of person Jesus loves. You know who Jesus has a problem with? Religious professionals. I don’t think he believed us. Where did Jesus learn his antipathy for professional religious types, his love for rogues, his preference for sinners? From stories like this. That he learned bouncing on Mary’s knee.

When I first taught a classroom of Jewish students, I remember telling them how wonderful it must be to be chosen by God. One of them asked, excuse me, what do you mean by chosen? Well, you know, elected, favoured, blessed, the ones through whom God repairs the world. And I could see and feel all their posture shrink. No, no, no, please. You’re being very nice, thank you. But when you gentiles talk like this, bad things happen to us. We’re just ordinary. Nothing special about us. Just treat us like normal neighbours, okay? You can see their point: don’t speak of us as preferred, because one second later you’ll lash out at us. Plus, look at Jacob, I mean, would you be proud to descend from this guy?

Why doesn’t Isaac just take his blessing back? He was tricked. Just bless the other kid instead! Blessing doesn’t work this way. You can’t take a blessing back any more than you can take a bullet back after it’s been fired. Any more than you can put toothpaste back into a tube. Once a blessing is loosed on the world, it has already changed reality, altered the way things are. Jacob is different now. So is everyone you bless. Or curse. Take care with words.

If you feel yourself grating against this story you’re not alone. This isn’t fair. Or just. Or even really good. God’s election is not a reward. Jacob is chosen despite his character. Not because of it. In the black church they say God doesn’t call the equipped. God equips the called. Almost everyone thinks faith is about behaving well and being rewarded. No. God chooses the wrong person. The conniver, the scoundrel. The one you can’t trust. God says that one: Jacob, he’s perfect. I’ll work through him to repair the world.

But linger with this for just a moment. Can God use a rogue’s roguery for good? Jesus commands us to be as wise as serpents, as innocent as doves. I love the story of Franz Jaggerstater, Austrian farmer who refused to swear an oath to Adolf Hitler and was executed for it. The Catholics say he’s a saint. There’s a gorgeous movie about him from Terrence Malick, A Hidden Life. But the film makes him out to be some sort of hero for religious conscience more than for Jesus. Jaggerstater doesn’t seem to have been all that pious. You know what he was? Allergic to authority. Any authority. He didn’t like to be told what to do. Not by his boss, his neighbours, his country, or Hitler. God can use that stubbornness! God can use anything. The same skills you might use for robbery or smuggling could be used to save somebody or smuggle Bibles or to sneak an endangered person past hostile authorities. A more secular example: when Jaylynn visited Rwanda, she trekked in the bush to see silverback gorillas. You know who they use as guides, to protect the gorillas? Former poachers. Same skills. You just gotta pay em more for tourism than others do for hunting the animals. So much religion is goody two shoed niceness. Sometimes God needs a trickster.

We Christians have long seen ourselves in Jacob. The second-born who gets blessing not-deserved, while the firstborn, Esau, we see as our Jewish elder siblings. But remember what blessing is in Israel: it’s a hot potato. You can’t keep it. You have to give it away. Sure, Jacob is blessed first. But Esau will be blessed eventually too, as God heals the nations. So will everyone else.

The next few chapters continue these brothers’ trajectories. Jacob flees because Esau (understandably) wants to kill him. He proceeds to bilk his uncle Laban out of his property too. Then when Jacob is set to meet Esau again, he sends gifts ahead, bribes. Then sends his children and wives ahead. See these beautiful children? You don’t want to kill their father, do you Esau? Finally, the two brothers meet. Esau falls on his brother’s neck not with vengeance. But with tenderness. Jacob has done nothing to deserve this kindness. But Esau shows mercy. Shows himself to be like God. Let’s be clear: we teach our children in Sunday School to be like Esau. Forgive. Heal. Restore. Not like this chosen one.

Faith is so much more interesting than you think. It’s not about being good or bad. It’s not about us at all. Faith is about God working through the wrong people to make the world right. There are moments of morality in the Bible. The ten commandments. Some of Jesus’ teaching. But not much of the Bible is about morality. It’s a story that goes like this. We human beings hurt one another terribly. And God enters the story to heal the undeserving. And if you’re not at least a little bit offended by this story, you’re not paying attention.

We’re about to turn to the Lord’s Supper. If harm was done by Jacob and Esau, and stew, healing is done at this table with bread and wine. Later today we’ll all eat stew together. Chili. There’s more in the pot, and on the table, than just a meal. Or maybe better said, no meal is just a meal. Christ is present. So is our sinfulness. But his healing is greater than our goodness or badness. I mean, God redeems not just this mess of a family. God redeems the whole world through this family. And if that’s true, what can God not redeem?