Written by Karen Georgia Thompson
Sunday, July 16, 2017
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 10)
O God of mercy, in Jesus Christ you freed us from sin and death, and by your Holy Spirit you nourish our mortal bodies with life. Plant us now in good soil, that our lives may flower in righteousness and peace. Amen.
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham's son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, "If it is to be this way, why do I live?" So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her,
"Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger."
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterwards his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau's heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them.
When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob.
Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!" (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
All readings for the week:
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
1. How do you experience God at work in your life?
2. What is the role of prayer in your life?
3. Who are the exploited within your community who lose what they need in order to live?
4. What are the "divided houses" in which you live?
5. How can we bring unity into places where fault lines exist in relationship?
Reflection by Karen Georgia Thompson
The journey through the book of Genesis continues for the second of five weeks in July. Last week's text focused on the meeting of Isaac and Rebekah, as the story of these descendants of Abraham continues to unfold, and points the way to the promise that the descendants of Abraham would be "as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore" (Genesis 22:17).
These narratives in Genesis are no easy task, as threats to the promise arise early. The union of Isaac and Rebekah appears to be the avenue by which the next step to the promise will be fulfilled. Isaac himself was a miracle child, born to Sarah and Abraham in their old age (Genesis 21). Both had long surrendered any possibilities of fulfilling the promise of many descendants by the time that the promise was made to them that they would have a son (Genesis 18).
The promise is threatened again
Now the miracle child is married but the theme of barrenness reappears, an impediment to the fulfillment of the promise once again. "The earlier story of Sarah has prepared us to expect a positive resolution and we are not disappointed," Holly Hearon writes: "Isaac's prayer is answered."
God resolved this problem once before; it is therefore no surprise that the solution comes quickly for Isaac, with none of the drama surrounding his own conception and birth. "Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived" (25:21).
Prayer and promise
Isaac's response to the situation is different from that of his father. Frank Anthony Spina notes the connection between prayer and promise specifically in the way Isaac and Abraham handle the barrenness of their wives and the threat to the promise: "But unlike Abraham, Isaac prayed in his wife's behalf, a prayer which the Lord answeredÖ.Thus Rebekah's pregnancy was the result of divine intervention."
This theme of divine intervention runs the course of these Hebrew narratives surrounding promise. In last week's reflection, Kate Matthews explored the theme of God's providence: "Still, God is at work in this little story, and it invites us to reflect on a question with which many faithful folks often struggle: God's providence, and God's will, in our everyday lives, even though we don't hear God's voice addressing us directly. How, then, do we read the signs around us, and know what God wants us to do? How much of what happens is something God wills to happen, and what is our role in it all?"
The role of prayer
In addition to those questions, I would ask: What is the role of prayer in our lives? Will promises made be fulfilled quicker if we pray? How do we understand the role of God in how we pray and what we pray for?
Another barren woman, another threat to the promise, prayers, and the story continues, because in this instance the focal point of the text is not the parents, but their offspring and what is to come with these children. The story quickly changes to the two children in Rebekah's womb.
Questions for God
Rebekah's conception is not without challenges. Her barrenness gave way to her own discomfort, leading her to wonder at what is going on within her. She wonders if she is going to die of pain. Her inquiry of God provides her with the answer that she is having two children, out of which there will be two nations, but unfortunately these two nations and these two people will be divided (25:23). With that revelation, another prediction is made about the two children: "the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger" (25:23b).
Sibling rivalry is nothing new. For some, sibling rivalry can be a source of healthy competition which motivates achievement and success while nurturing healthy relationship among siblings. In other cases, we have siblings like Esau and Jacob, destructive, disparate and creating despair and distrust throughout the course of their relationship--even from their mother's womb. "How the occupants of Rebekah's womb can know the importance of being delivered first involves prolepsis: a situation in which characters can know something before it is logically possible," Frank Anthony Spina explains. "In any case, as we shall see, this same struggle continues till the day of birth." These two begin to create division before they are even born.
The birth of two nations
The relationship between Esau and Jacob, from the womb, attempts to explain the birth of two nations and their continued discontent with each other. Addressing this conflict between the brothers that is reflected in the familial, cultural and even in the tradition which favors shepherds, Gene Tucker explains: "Finally, it is present on the political, national, and international level, for the two brothers are ancestors of the states of Israel and Edom. Immediate neighbors, their rivalry persisted from earliest times until the end of the Old Testament era, and frequently broke into violence."
While this womb-related conflict points us toward a greater conflict, Hearon provides her own words of caution: "These domestic events anticipate future events to be played out on the world stage. However, they should be viewed less as predictions than perhaps a playing out of human character in dialogue with the larger narrative of God."
Family dynamics in every age
As the brothers grow together, their differences become even more evident. They are twins who are completely dissimilar. Their personalities are not the same. They choose different occupations, and to exacerbate the situation, their parents each favor one over the other, Rebekah loving Jacob while Isaac favors Esau. Their family dynamics fuel the dysfunctional rivalry that begins with their struggle in the womb, jockeying for position to exit the womb first, and continues through their birth, when Esau arrives with Jacob holding on to his heel (v.26).
The division between them permeates every aspect of their lives created--a house divided--a family divided. What do we do with these familial dynamics? What, if any lesson(s) is there for us in this story?
Relationships and encounters
This on-going struggle between Esau and Jacob made me think about the many relationships we encounter regularly. Besides familial relationships, there are relationships with colleagues and friends, and relationships in our places of worship and spiritual contexts. There are also our general encounters with people each day. In each of those is the potential for relationship, or not.
In those places where we encounter others, we have a role in determining what that relationship will be. There is a place for healthy competition, yet there are some places where competition can be unhealthy, and relationships that are steeped in rivalry prove to be detrimental to community life.
Seeing ourselves in Esau and Jacob
Is there room for us to examine our own relationships in the context of these two brothers? And what of our relationships within the church: are there ways in which rivalries are creating breeches in relationships? Is there room for healing the brokenness in those relationships to prevent division in our houses of worship?
The relationship between the two brothers is at best--uncomfortable. The initial appearance of their personalities proves somewhat false. Things are not what they appear to be. "Esau, a skillful hunter, is unable to recognize when he is being made the prey; Jacob, a 'quiet man' (tam: morally innocent), is shown to be a ruthless schemer," Holly Hearon observes. "Both are driven by their wants."
The value of a birthright
Esau wants food to fulfill an immediate need, while Jacob is more interested in having what his brother has--and places very little value on--his birthright. As the younger brother, Jacob understands that he does not have the same rights to inheritance as his brother does. Rather than care for his brother who is hungry, Jacob exploits his brother's need by providing him with food only after he relinquishes his birthright.
Themes of greed and exploitation should cause us to take pause. This is by no means a happy story. It is the making of tragedy: loss of humanity robs one of his human dignity, and broken relationships within the family abound. Both brothers provide case studies for the human condition and beg reflection on the ways in which we live in relationship with one another.
Justice and care
Issues of justice and care for community are highlighted in this exchange. Are we willing to give to each other in times of need or do we find ways to promote personal gain? Who are the exploited within the community? Who are the people who lose what they have to eat and what they need to live?
This week's theme, "Divided" is evident in the text. In 1858, while running for the Senate, Abraham Lincoln drew on the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:25 when he wrote, "A house divided against itself cannot stand." Lincoln recognized the need for justice and change. He was willing to state what he believed regardless of the cost. He believed in unity that did not yet exist.
Pain and brokenness and division
Reading the pain and brokenness of these two brothers, fighting from the womb, leads us to look at the divisions in the church. The rivalry between these two brothers is about greed, envy and differences. As we look at places of division within the church, how can differences that divide be effectively addressed to create a healthy body--living into Jesus' prayer, "that they may all be one?"
Looking inward and then looking outward, individually and collectively, allows us to find our place in the midst of the good and the bad, of living in right relationship. We can be bridge builders or creators of the breech. How can we bring unity into places where fault lines exist in relationship?
"One thing that can always be learned from stories like this," Richard Pervo writes, "is the possibility of grace, that the real meaning of providence is not that God has a plan for your life, but that God has goals for the world, goals achieved by writing straight with crooked lines."
The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the Office of the General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ.
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
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For further reflection:
Winston Churchill, 20th century
"When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you."
Louisa May Alcott, Little Men, 19th century
"...we're twins, and so we love each other more than other people..."
Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone, 21st century
"The world turns on our every action, and our every omission, whether we know it or not."
J.K. Rowling, 21st century (Harry Potter)
"Wow, we're identical!"
Socrates, 5th century B.C.E.
"He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have."
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov, 19th century
"The world says: 'You have needs--satisfy them. You have as much right as the rich and the mighty. Don't hesitate to satisfy your needs; indeed, expand your needs and demand more.' This is the worldly doctrine of today. And they believe that this is freedom. The result for the rich is isolation and suicide, for the poor, envy and murder."
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