July 13, 2014
- Fifth Sunday After Pentecost
- Mary Holmen
Genesis 25:19-34; Psalm 119:105-112; Romans 8:1-11; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Back in the 1990’s, when parish ministry was my primary vocation, I began to run into a problem. Whenever someone came to see my about a challenge in their life, looking for some counsel, I thought I did pretty well on a 1:1 basis. But get two or more people in the room, each with their own take on what was happening, and I was left more or less to throw up my hands and say, “Let me refer you to this really great place downtown”, by which I meant the outfit that was known at the time as the Interfaith Marriage and Family Institute and is now called the Aurora Family Therapy Centre. It’s still a really great place, and it’s still downtown on the campus of the University of Winnipeg. I just didn’t feel confident or skilled enough to know what to do in marital or family situations, which led me to enroll in the institute’s program. I obtained the certificate in Marriage and Family Theory, which basically means I’ve taken a bunch of courses but haven’t actually attempted therapy with anyone. But it filled a hole in my training and education and taught me to look at problems from the wider or systemic point of view.
With that in mind, I’d like to borrow an idea from a good friend and colleague in another diocese, and imagine bringing Abraham and his descendents into family therapy. Because this family, like just about all others, definitely had some issues. It all begins with Abraham – except that it really doesn’t. It begins with Abraham’s father Terah. At the end of Genesis 11 we read, “Terah took his son Abram and his grandson Lot, son of Haran (who had already died) and his daughter-in-law Sarai, his son Abram’s wife, and they went out together from Ur of the Chaldeans to go into the land of Canaan, but when they came to Haran, they settled there. And Terah died in Haran.” Way back in my Grade 7 history of civilization, I learned about the Fertile Crescent that stretches from Mesopotamia in an arc all the way to Palestine. It was the highway and trade route of early times, because to go straight across the desert of the Arabian peninsula was to court death. Ur is at the eastern end of the crescent, and Haran is at the top. So Terah got about half-way to his destination, but for some unknown reason stopped. Then, at the beginning of chapter 12, we read, “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you...So Abram went, as the Lord had commanded him; and Lot went with him...Abram took his wife Sarai and his brother’s son Lot, and they set forth to go to the land of Canaan.” So it seems that Abram was the heir of some kind of family quest begun by his father that he completed after his father’s death.
God promised Abram two things: land and descendents. The land part of the promise was taken care of pretty smoothly once they had reached Canaan, although Abram did live as a resident alien in the land for some time before acquiring land of his own. But descendents – well, that was something else. Sarai was unable to bear children. So, living in a society where polygamy was the norm, Abraham (to give him his new name) fathered a son, Ishmael, by Sarah’s maid Hagar. And that’s where the family dynamics kind of begin to go off the rails. It’s a problem when the number two wife, Hagar, bears the number one son, Ishmael. Especially when Sarah, the number one wife, becomes pregnant against all odds and gives birth to Isaac, the number two son. Why does this matter? Because in that culture, the first-born son had a special status, as is still the case in many cultures today. He would receive a double share of his father’s property as his inheritance, alongside other rights. Jealousy and insecurity kick in, and Hagar and Ishmael are expelled from the family unit at Sarah’s insistence. Sarah doesn’t come off looking very good at this point.
Fast forward to the next generation. Isaac has married Rebekah, the granddaughter of Abraham’s brother Nahor – I think that makes them second cousins or something – also a common custom in that culture. It’s called keeping your wealth within the family. Wouldn’t you know it, Rebekah is also infertile. Finally, she becomes pregnant at an advanced age, and as is often the case with late pregnancies, she conceives twins. She has a difficult pregnancy and wonders how she will survive. When the children are born, they are polar opposites of each other. Esau, the elder, is a rugged outdoorsman and hunter, beloved by his game-loving father. Jacob, the younger, is a homebody, the favourite of his mother. Here’s a hint – it’s not a good idea for a parent to favour one child over another! Much has been made in commentaries of Jacob grasping the heel of his brother at birth, but suffice it to say he lived up to his name of “Supplanter”. He tricks his brother into giving up his place as the firstborn. Esau sells his birthright for a quick meal, a reckless decision he will regret deeply.
Actually, Jacob also came to regret his actions. He was forced to flee for his life from Esau’s wrath; he lived as an exile for many years, was cheated numerous times by his uncle Laban, terrified of meeting Esau again, widowed by his beloved Rachel, bereft of Joseph, and anxious about losing Benjamin too. He ended his days in a foreign land, a helpless dependent living on the grace and favour of his son. No wonder he described his years as “few and hard”, even though he lived for 130 of them.
Many centuries later, the apostle Paul wrote his letter to the Christians in Rome. Following the rabbinical thought of his time, he set up a contrast between two impulses in human nature. One impulse tended toward self-interest and self-assertion. The other impulse was assumed by people when they reached adulthood under the covenant. It was the impulse to obey the law of God, which kept the first impulse under control. Paul, writing for Greek-speaking people, substituted the word “flesh” for the first impulse. For the second, he hit on a phrase “the Spirit of Christ”. So he says, “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God and does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot.” Paul is not saying that our fleshly bodies are evil and that there is some inner “spiritual”, or non-physical, reality which is good. He is not talking about a tension between the body on one hand and the mind or soul on the other. Rather, he is talking about a tension between the tendency to exploit and control others out of self-interest, and the way of Christ that frees people to become their true selves. Basically he is saying to the Romans, “Do not live as your selfish impulse tells you to live; instead live as the Spirit tells you to live.” In the end, it is not about parts of human nature which we may accept or reject. Both impulses are part of who we are as human beings, and to reject either one is to reject part of ourselves and sentence ourselves to only half a life. Paul is talking about a way of life; he is talking about living toward freedom and wholeness and glory. When he says “God’s Spirit dwells in you”, he means that when we turn towards that way of living for life and justice and peace, we are already living in the Spirit.
What Paul did in theological terms, Jesus did in story. The parable of the sower, the seeds, and the soil can be understood in many ways. One of them surely is that those who allow themselves to be governed by fears and worries for self-preservation, or by the cares of life and the desire for wealth, will not bear fruit in the realm of God’s planting. In other words, those who live by the flesh, the selfish, self-assertive impulse, have chosen not to live by the spirit, the impulse to follow the way of God, and so cannot bear the harvest of peace, justice, and love that God the sower seeks.
Well, if there was anyone who lived by the flesh, it was surely Esau – not only his physical appetite for food, but his rash and impetuous discarding of his birthright, his place in the story of the unfolding of God’s promises. It is important for us to hear the human reality of this story, because our faith is not about ideal, stained-glass, perfect people. Our faith is about broken families and people who lie and people who cheat, but who still search for and seek to know that life-giving centre we call God. The stories of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, of Esau and Jacob, of Jacob, Joseph, and his brothers, give us an early hint of what will become a central theme of the bible. That is, the creative and redemptive purposes of God are not to be understood among those who are powerful and successful, or even among those who are righteous and good. The creative and redemptive purposes of God are best understood in the lives of the disadvantaged, the broken, the rejected, and the sinful. Jacob, the scheming second-born, sets the stage for the divine drama which will eventually unfold and reach its climax in Jesus, descended from Abraham, our father in faith, in whose family each of us may claim our birthright as beloved children of God. Amen.