Jacob’s a jerk, Esau’s an idiot, and God is brilliant. If it were up to me, neither of these brothers would receive any kind of birthright. Jacob deceives and manipulates people to get what he wants. Esau foolishly sells his birthright for some bread and lentil stew. Who would do that? Clearly, God has a plan here. Perhaps the plan is to demonstrate a few things necessary for getting through life.
Esau had the privilege of birth on his side. As the eldest his position of power was secure. He’d inherit double that of his brother and assume his father’s role in the community when the time came. Perhaps he was overconfident. Did he not notice how feisty his twin was and had been even before birth? Did he realize that Rebekah favored Jacob and taught him some useful skills like making bread and lentil stew? Did he not see that his father was growing older and wouldn’t always be there to be his advocate? Did he think he was untouchable because he was the privileged firstborn?
Are we not Esau, those of us who sit in church and feel good about ourselves? We have clung to our privileged position for so long that we hold little more than dust. We have been so sure that church would continue forever that we have neglected to pay attention to those around us. We judge those who walk different paths and pride ourselves on having the best path, perhaps, according to some, the only blessed path. We haven’t heard the clamoring of those whose birth left them grasping at the heels of justice. Our birthright is an illusion. Our privilege means nothing when there are those who would give anything for a bit of bread and lentil stew. Privilege of birth does not mean that we are better than anyone else. If anything, it means we have an obligation to pay attention and care for those around us who are more vulnerable. Imagine how different things might have gone between Esau and Jacob if Esau had been paying attention.
On the other hand, Jacob let nothing slip by him. He was painfully aware that he had no claim on Esau’s birthright. He would not be walking in his father’s sandals any time soon. He would be living a quieter life as the second son. Jacob was having none of this, though. He waited for the perfect moment and then stole the birthright from his brother. Esau was fool enough to exchange his birthright for a simple meal. While Jacob wasn’t exactly a nice guy or playing by the rules, I have a hard time saying that he should have just accepted his place as second son. By breaking the social rules, Jacob changed the course of history. He went on to become something that his birth order would have prevented him from doing. Imagine our history without Jacob. Esau might have been able to father the Twelve Tribes of Israel, but he did not have the drive, the fierceness, of Jacob.
When we insist on following traditions and social rules, who are we denying? In fact, we may be actively going against what God has planned. If we continue to think about church as something that never changes and social norms as something to be maintained, what revolutionary leader or movement are we supressing? If Esau represents the old, steadfast ways of being and Jacob the unpredictable, unknown ways of the future, shouldn’t we be baking bread and stirring the lentils? Esau needs nourishment and Jacob has it. Yes, it means that Esau will have to give up what he thought was his and his alone, but isn’t that better than dying?
Now we come to God’s brilliance. God chose Jacob, not Esau the predictable choice. God chose to disrupt the order of things to create something entirely new. God chose fierce and feisty Jacob who would not willingly submit to God or anyone else. Jacob who had a tendency to think of himself first and worry about others later. This conniving man is the one whom God chose to father the nation promised to Abraham. How cool is that? Seriously! If God could choose Jacob, whose life was constantly filled with struggle and imperfection, to become Israel, then there is hope for all the rest of us. There is no promise of perfection and an idyllic life here. Follow God and you will still be you and God will transform you into something you could never have imagined. Passive perfection and docile obedience are not required. This is good news for the rebelious among us.
There’s a lot in this familiar story. Much could be made of the sibling rivalry, the strife between nations, and the human tendency to be self-focused. At this moment in history, I find it much more interesting to look at this passage in terms of tradition and privilege and God’s capacity to do the unexpected. It’s likely that church will go on being like Esau for quite some time as we are reluctant to let go of what we think is ours and ours alone. However, we ought not be surprised to find that Jacob has grabbed hold of our heels and will not let us go until he can look into our eyes and be acknowledged as an equal. God is not done with us yet. God will continue to use the fierce and feisty to challenge our thinking and prod us into embracing an uncontrollable, unknowable future. God’s got this. We just need to set the bread to rise and start soaking the lentils.
RCL – Year A – Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 25:19-34 with Psalm 119:105-112 or
Isaiah 55:10-13 with Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23