Sibling Rivalry

A sermon for Pentecost 6, Proper 10, Year A  from     The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs                Genesis 25:19-34 &  Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.

Jacob roughly measures a handful of cumin seed and toasts it until fragrant. Then he grinds the seeds while garlic and onion turn golden in a little oil. As he adds and stirs in the orange-red lentils he is reminded of the color of his twin’s unruly hair. Last, he adds water and sets it all to simmer. I wonder what he was thinking about as he worked. I wonder if he was plotting against his brother as he made sure the seasonings were just as Esau liked them—enough to make him drool in anticipation. Oh Esau—what an easy mark.: See food, want food, get food. A man driven by his appetites more than by his brain. Unlike Jacob. His appetites are a little more, well, sophisticated. His sights are higher than the next meal.

The storyteller has left fertile space between the lines of this tale. It is as rich and flavorful as Jacob’s stew—each bite revealing different nuances and textures. This is another chapter in the saga of the Patriarchs–and Matriarchs–of the faith, and it incorporates a familiar archetype—the Trickster, known throughout cultures to sow mischief and create conflict. Though in Jacob’s case his role as Trickster actually eventually serves to cement his role as Patriarch of the People of God. Leaving us, not for the first or the last time, to question God’s choices in patriarchs.

This story also serves as etiology. It’s related to Myth—it’s a way of speculating as to why things happen in a certain way. For example, the writers of Genesis knew that there was longstanding enmity between the peoples of Edom and Israel. What might the source of that conflict be? Well, it’s because of God’s prophecy to Rebekah that two nations were at war in her womb and the elder would serve the younger. Jacob was later known as Israel, and Esau as Edom, which is Hebrew for red, hence the repeated reference to that color as connected to Esau.

Etiology is a major function of Hebrew Scriptures. It often engages the big existential questions of who we are as people of God and why we are the way we are—why we do some of the things we do as human beings. That’s not to say that the explanations provided are definitive, but they can at least shed light on the attitudes and perceptions of the people who wrote these stories. The storytellers of Genesis don’t shy away from the hard truths of human nature—the tribalism, the violence– not only are these things revealed in the actions of the people, but also in images of God that often tell us a great deal more about the nature of the writers—and us–than they do about the nature of God.

But the true beauty of these stories is how they resonate—how they find us wondering about Jacob and Esau, in spite of what we may know (or not) about myth and etiology. We wonder about them as individuals, not as archetypes. We find ourselves identifying, to some extent or another, with these brothers who evidently had, well, issues.

Each was favored of a different parent. Isaac especially loved the hairy older twin—a man’s man, a hunter. Jacob, born literally on the heel of Esau, was favored by his mother Rebekah. Like her mother-in-law Sarah before her, Rebekah will help God’s plans along by concocting a plot for Jacob to receive Isaac’s blessing. But that’s another story. (See Chapter 27.) At this point, we don’t know if Rebekah has encouraged Jacob to bilk Esau out of his birthright, or if Jacob just wants to goof on his brother for the heck of it.

It is no small thing, a birthright—to inherit the greatest share of the father’s flocks, herds and land. For Esau to ‘despise’ it as he does, for the sake of a bowl of stew (as tasty as it might be,) is an indicator that he isn’t too bright.

Listen to some of the language about Esau: The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle… and later, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!…I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” 

The storyteller invites us to see Esau in a particular way: Unconventional in his appearance; as driven by basic appetites, and as a result prone to making life-altering decisions without considering consequences. He is an object of pity, at best.

He is, in the eyes of the storyteller, of Jacob, and of us, The Other in this tale.

Yet somehow he resonates, at least a little. We wonder about him, how he doesn’t fit the family mold. Perhaps our thoughts are drawn to those we know who are likewise unconventional, impulsive, possibly snakebit by their own questionable decisions. How often do we see Esau around us, or within us?

Esau is a man of appetites. How can we not see ourselves in this man who sees, wants and gets? We are a culture who has raised “see, want, get” to an art form. Did you catch the buzz about Amazon Prime Day? Last Tuesday, 30 hours of great deals for all Prime members—irresistible items that we can’t do without—I’ll bet you didn’t even know you needed an extra air compressor in your garage, did you? See, want, get: Esau is a man for our time.

And Jacob. His appetite was ambition, nurtured and encouraged by Rebekah as he sat at her knee day after day in the tent. Did she groom him to feel privileged, entitled to a birthright that didn’t actually belong to him, if only because he was born a few minutes too late? Was his appetite to fulfill God’s dream for him and for God’s people, or to be Number One for Jacob? See, want, get: another man for our time.

Jacob’s fate at this point in the saga remains to be seen. It will remain for us to read on.

Because Esau and Jacob’s story is just beginning with this passage. Jacob’s trickster ways will continue, but not without consequence. He will come face to face with his own deceptions, and even face to face (in a matter of speaking) with God. Esau, too, will find transformation, just as many of us do, by way of a bumpy road.

The saga of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs is disturbing because we keep coming face to face with our own flawed selves through the mirror of people, like Jacob, who we’ve been taught to admire, but on closer examination they fall way short. And the ones we pity—the Others, the Esaus—they may yet surprise us. But we continue to discover God’s grace through it all– that God chooses whom God chooses; the weak, the flawed, the unwise, the ambitious and the messed-up. And thanks be to God for that! Because none of us is the person we idealize ourselves to be. We’re all more Jacob and Esau than Jesus.

Jesus today draws our attention to soil, and it’s a helpful image here because the Hebrew Scriptures often help us, to examine our own interior landscape. It includes the rocky shallow ground of appetites and whims—see, want, get. There is thorny ground of willfulness and ambition, maybe even cruelty. But if we keep digging and tilling there is also the fertile soil of generosity, compassion, and holy listening. And God never stops sowing it with the seeds of forgiveness, challenge, vocation, and grace. With God’s help may it yield a hundredfold.

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