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On Giving Birth to What Is Right
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Old Testament: Genesis 25:19-34
Psalter: Psalm 119:105-112
Epistle: Romans 8:1-11
Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
Old Testament: Isaiah 55:10-13
Psalter: Psalm 65:(1-8), 9-13
Epistle: Romans 8:1-11
Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
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;
the 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. Afterward 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.) 31 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 (Genesis 25:19-34).
It was Abraham Lincoln who said, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
The story of Jacob and Esau is a test of character for both men who have power in different ways—Jacob who has momentary power over Esau’s well-being with a pot of soup, and Esau who has fraternal power over Jacob in being the firstborn. The character of both men is tested, and both fail.
In order to understand our lesson from Genesis, it is important to note two things. First, Jacob and Esau were fraternal twins raised by their parents to be competitive. In most English translations of this passage we are told that Isaac loved Esau but Rebekah loved Jacob. The Hebrew word translated “love” is better interpreted as “favored.” Surely Isaac and Rebekah loved both of their children, but each parent did play favorites, and sought out any possible way for their preferred child to gain favor over the other son. Jacob and Esau were raised in a home where they were taught not to be trusting and true brothers, but cunning and conniving competitors.
Jacob and Esau could not have been more different. They did not look alike and they did not share the same interests. Jacob was a homebody; Esau was adventurous. Jacob helped out with the chores at home; Esau was out hunting game and providing food for the family. Jacob was more like his mother; Esau was more like his father. Isaac and Rebekah each had their favorite son and they did not attempt to hide their preferences.
Second, in the ancient Near Eastern world in which our story is based, the birthright was given to every firstborn son. According to custom, all male children inherited an equal portion of their father’s estate upon his death, except that the oldest son received a double-portion. So, after his earthly days, Isaac's wealth and property would be divided into thirds with Esau receiving two-thirds to Jacob’s one-third. It must have angered Jacob, (who was encouraged to be so by his mother) that he would not inherit an equal portion of his father's estate, even though he shared his mother’s womb with Esau, and simply had the misfortune of being born just seconds after his brother. This sets the context of our story.
Apparently Esau has been on an extended hunting trip without any luck. Jacob appears to be away from home as well, likely with one of his father’s shepherding camps where the livestock grazed in fields that were rather far away from home. This explains why Jacob is doing the cooking. With Isaac's wealth servants they would prepare the meals at home. So, when Esau says he is famished, he probably is. It may be that he has not had anything substantial to eat in several days, and the only food in the vicinity is what is available in the shepherding camp.
Jacob turns Esau’s hunger to his advantage. He will indeed feed his twin brother in exchange for his birthright. Reasoning (without much thought) that his inheritance will do him no good if he is dead, Esau trades it in exchange for lentil soup, no doubt not satisfying to a “meat and potatoes” man like Esau. In his behavior, Esau gives the double-portion of his inheritance to his younger brother who will now receive two thirds of Isaac's wealth.
There is no doubt that both Jacob and Esau are deeply flawed characters; Jacob in utilizing his brother’s hungry condition in order to receive something that was not rightfully his, and Esau in his inability to appreciate and therefore squander what he had received by grace—his birthright. And while we could devote much discussion to Jacob's appalling behavior, we need to focus instead on Esau’s terrible decision to trade and therefore despise his birthright.
Two important things need to be said about a birthright. First, one received a birthright, not on merit, but on grace. It was by virtue of the birth order that Esau was to receive a double-portion and nothing else. At the end of the day Esau could not state that he deserved it, nor could he claim it as an accomplishment.
Second, Esau’s birthright was a reminder that he was not a lone individual whose destiny was to be determined only by him, but that he was born into something larger than himself—a family that contributed to his identity, that helped form his character, and that had expectations of him that he was obligated, by virtue of nothing other than his birth to fulfill.
Esau had not taken sufficient stock of the fact that his status as first-born was to have been received as a very special gift, and that it was to be cherished in gratitude revealed in the way he lived, and in fulfilling the obligations that he had. In not doing so, he literally despised his birthright. His status as first-born meant nothing to him because he lacked a heart of thanksgiving.
In our culture we no longer give such official and special status to the first-born son, which is a good thing, but all of us have received a birthright in the form of blessings. We are privileged to have received the birthright of living in a free society and in one of the most prosperous countries in human history. We have received the birthright of family and friends, and we have received the all-important birthright of our faith and our community of faith. Have we received our birthright in gratitude? There is only one way to know. What are we doing with the blessings we have received? In graciously receiving the grace found in our blessings are we blessing others? Or have we despised our birthright with ingratitude and the selfish pursuit of the trivial.
One of the great and early Christian preachers and theologians, John Chrysostom, writes of what we can learn from Esau,
Let us learn the lesson never to neglect the gifts of God or forfeit important things for worthless trifles.
People who are grateful for the blessings they have received are people who understand what is important. I have come to believe that gratitude is the result of a centered and grounded life consisting of well-ordered priorities, and ingratitude is the consequence of a wayward life that emphasizes the inconsequential.
As a pastor, I officiated at many funerals over thirty-eight years during my active years. When grown children would stand up to pay tribute to their deceased parents, not one has ever said, “I sure wish my Dad had made more money.” Or, “It would have been nice if Mom had spent less time with us.” And when they eulogize the qualities of their now gone parent, they don’t talk about the stock portfolio or the fact that the cars got washed weekly, or that the grass was always cut so nicely, or that the carpet was always vacuumed. Instead they highlight character—they speak of love and commitment, they talk of faith and faithfulness, they reflect upon values and the instructions they received for living. In other words, they speak of their birthright. They talk about what they have received in order to live a faithful life; they reflect upon what they now owe to others as a grateful response to what they have graciously received.
Esau received trouble and years of estrangement from his only brother for despising his birthright. John Walton, an Old Testament scholar asks in reference to this story: “What can we expect from God when we show ourselves unworthy of his blessings by despising the values that comprise our spiritual heritage?”
We Christians, however, are not left only with the bad examples of Jacob and Esau. We have the perfect example of our Lord and Savior, who lived his life in gratitude to his Heavenly Father by reaching out to touch and change the lives of those around him, and who, in his greatest hour of need thanked his Father for his continued presence and prayed, not for himself but for his disciples.
It all comes down to this: If we are grateful for the blessings we have received, it will be revealed in our attitudes and actions. If we are not grateful for the blessings we have received, it will be revealed in our attitudes and actions.
We have a birthright. It is a blessing that God wants to use that he might bless others. Let us not despise what we have received, but use it in our church, our community, and in our world to give birth to what is right.
PRAYER: Ancient Gardener, your holy word is planted in our hearts as good seed in fertile soil. So nurture us that we may bear fruit abundantly. Amen.
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