“Sibling rivalry”

A sermon given by the Rev. Clare L. Hickman on July 16, 2017

Texts: Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Clare L. Hickman

St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Ferndale

July 16, 2017—Proper 10A

Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23


          Jacob and Esau, striving in the womb: siblings fighting over the smallest backseat the world has ever seen. “Mooooom, he TOUCHED me!” Esau, the hairy one, an outdoorsman and a hunter; Jacob, the (not hairy?) one, quiet and living at home: each one growing to become a different parent’s favorite. But this is not just your average case of sibling rivalry. Rebekah had been informed by God that two nations were at war within her, and their conflict becomes iconic and seemingly everlasting.

          On the face of them, the events of their story do not seem so terribly dramatic (they are certainly no Cain and Abel: brother does not rise up to kill brother). But in Jewish thought and interpretation, Jacob and Esau are THE enemies. Isaac and Ishmael may have been the forefathers of the Jews and the Arabs, but it is Jacob and Esau who pattern the conflict between those groups. Jacob (later renamed Israel), the true symbol of the Jewish people, and Esau the forefather of the Edomites, the iconic enemy. Their respective tribes fought bitterly for many, many years, until the Edomites were finally wiped off the face of the earth.

          Two brothers, two tribes, eternal enemies fighting over the land, ever seeking that extra inch of space in the backseat. And, unsurprisingly, the historical imagination wrote character judgments onto that conflict, shaping it as a tale of good vs. evil, of righteousness vs. unrighteousness, of pagan vs. pious. In the Midrash (those wonderful imaginative stories that the rabbis write around and through the scripture), the babies would leap in Rebekah’s womb. Every time she passed a pagan holy place, Esau would jump and seek to be born. In contrast, Jacob leapt every time his mother passed a synagogue or religious school (never mind that Judaism doesn’t actually really exist at that time, so synagogues were pretty thin on the ground … the point still stands!)

          The point still stands. Jacob is the righteous one, the one who lives in tents and studies the Torah (well … what ELSE would he have been doing in the tents, just staying home with his mother?). Whereas Esau is the rough one, the hairy one, the pagan one who goes out and kills animals with his bare hands, offering them up (surely) to the pagan gods before eating them raw right out there in the fiel—okay … I exaggerate.

          They are good vs. evil. They are righteous vs. unrighteous. They are, at best, Jacob who naturally lives a pure and good life vs. Esau who struggles with his evil instincts before he can get to the good. Actually, let’s go with that last one. Since (did I mention?) Esau and Edom became symbolic of any enemy of Israel … and once the Edomites had actually been wiped out, the inheritor of the brand of “Edom” eventually became Rome. The Roman Empire. Who eventually became, well, US: the Christians.

          Suddenly, that good vs. evil, righteous vs. unrighteous typology doesn’t sit as easily, does it? Suddenly, I (at least) feel moved to point out some of Jacob’s less appealing qualities: Granted, he can’t really be blamed for Esau’s acceptance of the bad bargain with the soup for birthright thing, but he DOES trick his father into giving him his blessing by dressing up in animal skins and pretending to be hairy old Esau. And then he runs away for, oh, 20 years! That’s Jacob. Whereas, on the Esau front, it is HIS forgiveness of his brother which eventually mends the rift between these two.

          They are enemies in the story, rivals in the story, for sure. And Esau’s descendants went on to worship different gods from the Israelites. This is true. But the story itself does not compel me as a story of righteous Jacob vs. unrighteous Esau.

          I see many things in the story. I hear echoes of the ancient transition and conflict between nomadic hunter tribes and more settled farming culture. Some of this is just human history! I also see one more biblical story in which God turns the system of primogeniture on its head and gives the blessing to the youngest child rather than the oldest (the last shall be first in Judaism as well as Chrsitianity!). And … I see a story of two children, each fighting for his parents’ attention and love.

          Maybe you LIVED this story, of families in which each parent has a favorite child. And while it sounds almost equitable, it still has a yearning feel to me. I can taste the longing for that other parent, for the one whose love and attention seems denied to you.

          Which catches the thread of every hunger for love that we have … every time we feel unwanted, or unsure. It touches on our desire to feel rooted, to feel safe, to feel grounded and wanted and secure. It fuels our fear that if someone else is loved by someone, is accepted or favored in some way, it might somehow take away from our own love and favor. And so this story finds an echo in every fear we have that we can lose things. It lurks beneath every urge we might have to grab what we want and hoard it for all that we’re worth.

          What’s interesting, given the righteous vs. unrighteous paradigm, is that it is Esau who shows us a different way. Esau is the one who learns that there is in fact enough blessing to go around, and forgives his brother for stealing what seemed at the time to be everything. As a young man whose brother has just taken the patriarchal blessing, he asks his father plaintively, “Isn’t there any blessing left for me?” So Isaac blesses him. And what he gets seems small and weak, but Esau is the one who gets to stay near his parents while his brother flees to a distant land, and it is Esau’s life (in fact) that prospers greatly.

          The blessing was enough. It took root in him and grew abundantly.

          Which echoes our gospel story for today: that marvelous image of a God who strews blessing lavishly, without thought for waste or concern for a profitable yield. As I’ve said before, whatever it is that God is sowing—be it love, be it forgiveness, be it hope, be it God’s own self—God clearly has so much of it that she can throw it around with reckless, abundant generosity. So what if three quarters of it is wasted? God has more to spare! And miracle of miracles, the seed that does happen to find good soil bears fruit thirty, sixty, a hundred-fold!

          That seems crazy to us. In our families, in our personal life, in our nation and in our religious systems, we so often act as though love and blessing are in short supply and we’d better hold on to what we have. We want to be the favorite. We want sole claim on God’s favor. We seek to hoard our security and resources for fear of losing, of dwindling, of dying…

          But hear this: Esau got the leftover blessing, the dregs, and he prospered! Because we have the kind of God who strides into a world crippled by fear and scarcity, and starts tossing around abundance, and hope, and generosity, and joy. Knowing that it will not always bear fruit … but that when it does (when it finds the right person, or lands on the right day), the return will be lush, and bountiful, and miraculous.  Hear that, and know that it is your blessing; it is OUR blessing. And let it take root. May it be so, Amen.

Clare Hickman