Sunday, July 30, 2017
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost Year A
Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Proper 12)
Seed-planting, fish-netting, bread-baking, pearl-hunting God, you shape us into living parables. Pray with your Spirit in us so that we may understand our experiences as healing metaphors, and become creative and abundant stewards of the environment you entrusted to our love. Amen.
Then Laban said to Jacob, "Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?" Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah's eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, "I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel." Laban said, "It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me." So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
Then Jacob said to Laban, "Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed." So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. (Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, "What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?" Laban said, "This is not done in our country--giving the younger before the firstborn. Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years." Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.
All readings for the Week
Genesis 29:15-28 with Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or
1 Kings 3:5-12 with Psalm 128 or Psalm 119:129-136
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
1. What do you think of the character of Jacob at this point in the story?
2. Why do you think this particular part of Jacob's story is important for us today?
3. How does our theme of "honor" arise in this text?
4. What do you think Leah and Rachel are thinking throughout this story?
5. When have you understood God's presence at different times in the story of your own life?
Reflection by Karen Georgia Thompson
The story of Jacob continues, as does the journey through the book of Genesis, and the saga of the development of the lineage of Abraham. This text rests in the center of the promise for Abraham to be a nation, and is difficult to discuss in isolation from the past to which it is connected and the future it represents.
These verses are one of the key elements to the weaving of the future for the nation that is to come from Abraham. The weaving of this story comes in two ways to us. We begin to see the connection of elements of stories of the past as we read the text for this week. There is also the weaving--the winding or zigzag course--that is evident throughout as obstacles are encountered and surmounted.
Jacob, on the run
Jacob is not the most upstanding citizen. His story to date has been steeped in greed, self-interest, scheming and cheating. Jacob is on the run after cheating his brother out of his birth right and the blessing of their father Isaac. Jacob's scheming ways are the focus for James Newsome, who begins his commentary with: "The trickster tricked! Such a heading might be placed over this bitter-(for Jacob) sweet (for the reader) narrative."
There is more to this story than reveling in Jacob receiving "pay back" for what he has done to his brother and his father, with the help of his mother. Newsome provides a reasonable summary of these events: "Öthe manner in which Jacob takes advantage of Esau's vulnerability to coax from him his birthright (Gen 25:29-34) and then takes advantage of their father's infirmity to steal the blessing that rightfully belonged to Esau (27:1-40)--these events have resulted in a deep rupture between the brothers. Because his life is in danger, Jacob flees from Esau and heads for the homeland of Uncle Laban and other relatives (27:41-45)."
Seeking a wife in Haran
Jacob's arrival in Haran is no coincidence. In Genesis 28:1-6, where he steals the blessings of his father from his brother Esau, he is told not to marry any of the Canaanite women but to go "to the house of Bethuel, your mother's father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your motherís brother" (v.2). Running from Esau, Jacob enters the land of Haran for the purpose of finding a wife.
Missing from the lectionary is Jacob's initial encounter with Rachel, the younger daughter, at the well where she arrives to water her father's flock (Gen 29:1-14). Jacob knows who she is and is then taken to the home of his uncle Laban, where he strikes a deal to work seven years for Laban to get Rachel's hand in marriage. To fulfill the promise, there have to be babies, and babies require women, so finding a wife is always of import.
The stories of women
Genesis 29:15-28 focuses our attention on Jacob finding a wife. There is concern here as elsewhere with having children and fulfilling the promise made to Abraham in Genesis 12. The men in the story are the fathers of the children--the women seem secondary, necessary only for bearing children, and they prove problematic as barrenness continues as a theme, a barrier to the fulfillment of God's promise. Somewhere in the midst, we encounter God's grace, mercy and forgiveness that continue to be present even with Jacob, who strives to be more than "the least of these" by cheating his way through life repeatedly.
"The story is similar to Genesis 24:1-67, in which Isaac's servant meets Rebekah at the well," W. Sibley Towner writes. He continues later: "Essentially, however, the event is the same, and, as in the case of the three wife/sister narratives, the possibility that one version is derived from the other has to be considered." The stories of the women, though ignored, are where many of the connecting elements that weave the story take place.
Do the women have a say?
The women have very little agency in their fate in this particular narrative. Jacob asks for Rachel, but he gets Leah. Leah is almost a non-entity, introduced as having "lovely eyes" in contrast to her sister Rachel who is "graceful and beautiful" and is loved by Jacob (v.17-18). When Laban fails to meet his end of the bargain with Jacob, Laban's response is that the firstborn daughter has to be married before the younger (v.26).
One has to wonder if Jacob is once again trying to cheat the system by marrying the younger instead of the older as was the custom. Is he really tricked? Or was Laban just a little wiser in not breaking with tradition to give Rachel in marriage before offering Leah?
Weaving the stories
After another seven years, Jacob is given Rachel as wife. This is not included in the lectionary text, but is further down in vv. 28-30. Each of the sisters is given a maid by her father. Laban gives Leah his maid Zilpah and gives to Rachel his maid Bilhah (v. 24, 29). Jacob's story is woven with the two women he marries as well as the two maids they bring with them as gifts from Laban. These four women become the mothers to the twelve sons and one daughter named as his children.
Is God present in the midst of all this trickery? Can the presence of God be owned in the company of these women who have no agency in the matter of their lives, and are themselves pawns in the deception and manipulation of the men? What happens to Leah who is given although she is not wanted and Rachel who is loved by her husband from the beginning and "bought" with twice the time he gives for her sister?
Finding God and grace in the story
Towner offers an option in finding grace in the narrative: "A theological dynamic is at work as well. God can bring good even out of betrayals, as God will do with Joseph and his brothers (see 50:20). From the unhappy but prolific union of Leah and Jacob, will come six of the twelve tribes of Israel, including the father of the royal line, Judah, and the father of the priestly line, Levi." I would also add that she bore the only daughter--Dinah (30:21).
There are challenges in finding God's presence and God's grace in the midst of a text where God is not explicitly named. Sidney Greidanus notes that while there are similarities in the well as a part of the Isaac and Jacob narratives, there are differences that are noted. Abraham's servant is sent to find a wife for Isaac, while Jacob goes on the quest for a wife by himself.
Greidanus writes: "The narrator's emphasis cannot be missed: in his providence, the Lord provides a wife for Isaac. But where is the Lord in the wedding narrative of Jacob? He is not mentioned, not even once. The Lord seems to be absent. Jacob, the deceiver, seeks to fulfill the Lord's promise of numerous offspring with his own ingenuity and scheming. When Jacob comes to the well, he does not pray to the Lord for guidance but right away takes matters into his own hands."
God with Jacob, always
While Greidanus makes an interesting point, what does it mean when the presence of God is not as obvious as angels going before? Do we have to offer fervent frequent prayers at all times to know that God is going to be with us in the choices we make? Jacob may not be the most upstanding citizen but that is not to say that the presence of God is not with him throughout and even in the midst of his sometimes malfunctioned approach to making decisions. There is room to explore what it means to weave a future where God does not seem present, but where God somehow is made manifest and the promises of God are fulfilled.
As Holly Hearon writes, "Although the promises of God will prevail in the end, Jacob is not spared from the vicissitudes of life, at least some of which are of his own making. When, ultimately, the promises of God are shown to be sure we understand that God has been with Jacob all along. Yet this text suggests that God is not standing by ready to rescue him from every twist of fate. It seems more a case for recognizing the presence of God in all our circumstances."
How do we sense God's presence?
This is perhaps one of the many challenges in the text. We can judge Jacob, but there is something to be said about the presence of God with him, and how the presence of God with him is revealed.
The threat of barrenness is present in the weaving of this tale as it is with Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and now with Jacob, Leah and Rachel. How is God's provision found and understood in the midst of these four women and thirteen children to come?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) and an additional reflection are both at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Reverend Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations in the Office of General Ministries of the United Church of Christ.
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
R.J. Palacio, Wonder, 21st century
"Courage. Kindness. Friendship. Character. These are the qualities that define us as human beings, and propel us, on occasion, to greatness."
Abraham Lincoln, 19th century
"I am not bound to win, but I am bound to be true. I am not bound to succeed, but I am bound to live up to what light I have."
C.S. Lewis, The Silver Chair, 20th century
"Crying is all right in its way while it lasts. But you have to stop sooner or later, and then you still have to decide what to do."
Socrates, 5th century b.c.e.
"The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be."
John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley: In Search of America, 20th century
"We value virtue but do not discuss it. The honest bookkeeper, the faithful wife, the earnest scholar get little of our attention compared to the embezzler, the tramp, the cheat."
Kate Chopin, The Awakening, 19th century
"It was not despair, but it seemed to her as if life were passing by, leaving its promises broken and unfulfilled. Yet there were other days when she listened, was led on and deceived by fresh promises which her youth had held out to her."
JosÈ N. Harris, 20th century
"Waiting hurts. Forgetting hurts. But not knowing which decision to take can sometimes be the most painful..."
Jennifer Donnelly, A Northern Light, 21st century
"I know it is a bad thing to break a promise, but I think now that it is a worse thing to let a promise break you."
Maria von Trapp, 20th century
"It will be very interesting one day to follow the pattern of our life as it is spread out like a beautiful tapestry. As long as we live here we see only the reverse side of the weaving, and very often the pattern, with its threads running wildly, doesn't seem to make sense. Some day, however, we shall understand. In looking back over the years we can discover how a red thread goes through the pattern of our life: the Will of God."
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