Old Testament Parable

A sermon for Proper 12: Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45b, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33,44-52 

This morning’s story is complex, and we only hear just a part of it; but, it is important to get the bigger picture, so here is Jacob and his Wives, the shorter story.

Jacob leaves Bethel heading to Laban. He comes to a well, and whenever we hear about a well we need to remember wedding bells. Remember Abraham’s servant finds Isaac’s wife at a well, it happens again and again (Gaventa and Petersen). And you are right, Jacob meets Laban’s youngest daughter at the well. He and Rachel fall in love. She takes him to meet her father, who takes a liking to Jacob. The next thing you know Jacob asks for Rachel.  We heard that story this morning. Jacob does not have a bride price, yes, in those ancient days men literally bought brides for a bride price; and it is not likely Isaac will give Jcob a bride price, given their recent history. So, Jacob suggests he works seven years for Rachel. It seems strange to our modern-day ears no matter what. And seven years sounds like a really long time; but, it does indicate the depths of Jacob’s love, and his valuation of a dowry for her (Fretheim). The deal is done. Seven years later, Jacob asks for his wife. Laban throws a big wedding feast. And in the morning, it was Leah! Jacob is stunned. He wants to know what happened. Laban tells him that here, the younger daughter is never given in marriage before the older daughter. However, Laban offers Jacob another deal, just seven more years for Rachel. Jacob accepts.

Some observations about this story. Jacob favoring Rachel over Leah is yet one more instance of the Genesis’ tradition of the younger over the older (Gaventa and Petersen). And at the same time Laban’s trickery results in a reversal of Jacob’s deceit of Esau, here the older replaces the younger (Harrelson). Even though he was clever and accomplished at deception it is not completely a surprise that Jacob is deceived, (Tanner). The ancient Near East custom was that the bride was brought veiled to the bridegroom. And it was a wedding with customary festival drinking (Ellingsen, Fretheim). There is an element of turn-about, Laban takes advantage of Jacob’s vulnerability just as Jacob took advantage of Esau. The cheater is cheated, the deceiver has been deceived (Fretheim). It may cause us to wonder if a birthright and a blessing are worth fourteen years of indentured servitude (Bratt). It may cause us to wonder if Jacob feels something of what Esau felt (Fretheim)? I also wonder how Rachel feels that her father replaces her with her older sister. It may be custom, nonetheless, as we shall hear, Rachel deeply loves Jacob. I also wonder how Leah feels that her father agrees to another marriage before her week of wedding celebration has barely started (Tanner).

 What follows is as disturbing a story as, well the whole story of Abraham’s family to this point. Jacob makes no effort to conceal his love for Rachel. However, Rachael, following the custom of wives in Abraham’s family is barren. But Leah, Leah is a bit of a baby factory, and has four sons (Bratt). Rachel not wanting to be out done and seeking the honor of bearing children and following Sarah’s example gives her maid Bilhah to Jacob to be a surrogate mother for her (Harrelson). She has two sons. Leah notices she is no longer producing children so she gives her maid Zilpha to Jacob to be a surrogate for her, and she has two sons. Rachel discovers that Leah has some mandrakes which are supposed to improve fertility (Harrelson). Leah isn’t likely to give those up so Rachel makes a deal with Leah and gives her access to Jacob, and Leah has two more sons! and a daughter. And then, finally, Rachel conceives and gives birth to Joseph, who we will hear much more about him. And some years later Rachel has a second son, Benjamin, who we also hear about.

This competition to produce the most child for Jacob, by any means sets up one more dysfunctional set of family relationships and conflicts (Gaventa and Petersen). The whole ugly story is deeply rooted in Abraham’s family history; and foreshadows the conflict between Joseph, a child of Rachel, and his ten brothers who are children of Leah and the surrogates (Fretheim). Maybe, the only redemptive aspect of this story is that, finally, we are introduced to Jacobs twelve sons who become, the heads of the twelve tribes of Israel.

It is tempting and rather easy to judge Leah and Rachel for their maternal competition. It may be easy to judge Jacob and Laban, for their deceitful manipulative ways. But we judge we miss the point of the story. Beth Tanner writes They are not “them.” They are us (Bratt). Which brings us to the question of how we glean real wisdom from this or any other of the many sordid, despicable stories in the Old Testament.

We tend to, and we have been taught to read it as history, and there is value here. But there is also other deep source wisdom to recognize. It might be interesting to read the Old Testament stories as parables. There is an old saying that the key to success was to care enough about your objective not to care (Epperly). If we can resist seeking historical accuracies or explanations or definitions then perhaps we can allow these stories to tease us into a different kind of active thought wherein we may just catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of God, we would otherwise miss. Even in Jacob messes, the ones he is in, and the ones he created, we can see the Spirit, we can see God’s purpose moving forward, overcoming obstacles one by one. We can see God’s abundance strewn, seemingly recklessly, everywhere (Epperly). After all, with twelve sons the promise finally seems to be on track (Bratt). Throughout Abraham’s family’s story we have seen and we will see how God’s presence continues to quietly sneak in unannounced influencing the movement of the story of God’s Kingdom on earth.

Have you seen God’s quiet presence sneaking around St. Stephens? I have. In a time when large congregations, in much larger cities struggle to find an organist, in one week two parishioners find two separate organists; and now St. Stephen’s two organist to succeed Ruth; or to follow Ruth, I don’t know if anyone can succeed her. I’ll be honest this is not the outcome I expected. Not only could I not find a pianist, I couldn’t find the little MIDI musical boxes that have these things pre-recorded, I’m relieved.

Another trait of reading the Old Testament as history is that we know all the decisions the characters have made; we know where all the characters have gone, we know the path they have trod. So, imagine for a moment any given Old Testament story is a context, a setting for decisions we face, for paths we have yet to trod, for ventures we are in the midst of, or perhaps have yet to begin (Skinner). They can be the source of imagination that allows us to catch a glimpse of God’s grace, of God’s abundance, of God’s remarkably continual presence, especially when we can’t feel it.

There is one more gleaning truth in the story of Jacob’s children’s birth. Beginning with Abraham and Sarah and through to Jacob, Rachael, and Leah there has been confusion about the story, confusion about who the story is really about. Abraham and Sarah thought it was about them, they thought that they were first. Hagar and Ishmael thought it was about them that they were first. Rebekah and Jacob thought it was about them that they were first. Isaac and Esau thought it was about them that they were first. Rachel thought it was about her and her kids, that they were first. Leah though it was about her and her kids, that they were first. We think it is about us, that we are first, we are being told, again and again “America first.” Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Rachel, and Leah are all wrong. The Kingdom of God is first. We are wrong, the Kingdom of God is first. Only when we begin with the Kingdom, first and foremost, that we can see how a tiny seed will grow, how leaven can work its way through the entire mass, how a hidden treasure is truly present, how everything will be sorted out (Skinner). Only when the Kingdom is first can we live believing that nothing has been, is, or ever can be, between us and the love of God in Jesus Christ that is right here, right now.


References

Bratt, Doug. Proper 12A Genesis 29: 15-28. 30 7 2017. <cep.calvinseminary.edu>.

Clavier, Tony. “Training for the Kingdom of Heaven.” 30 7 2017. Sermons that Work.

Ellingsen, Mark. Lectionary Scripture Notes. 30 7 2017. <http://www.lectionaryscripturenotes.com/&gt;.

Epperly, Bruce. The Adventurous Lectionary. 30 7 2017. <http://www.patheos.com/blogs/livingaholyadventure/author/bruceepperly&gt;.

Fretheim, Terence E. New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary; The Book of Genesis. Ed. I. Vol. XII. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015. App Olivetree.

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Lose, David. Pentecost 7 A: On the Question of Evil. 30 7 2017.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Skinner, Matt. Hide Away. 30 7 2017. <workingpreacher.org>.

Tanner, Beth L. “Commentary on Lamentations 1:16.” 30 7 2017. Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3020&gt;.

 

 

From invasive dirty rotten scoundrels the Kingdom comes.

A sermon for Proper 12

Genesis 29:15-28, Psalm 105:1-11, 45b, Romans 8:26-39, Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

 

Ever feel like you missed something? I mean last week Jacob was pouring oil on a rock pillar naming the place Bethel / House of God, and this morning he gets married  ~ twice! What happened? Well not much and everything. Jacob continues his journey and comes across some shepherds, who tell him he is in Haran, and introduces him to his cousin Rachel, Laban’s daughter. Jacob falls ~ hard.

It’s interesting that this is the second of the patriarchs to meet a wife at a well, and Moses will meet Zipporah at a well, which make Jesus meeting the woman at the well all the more interesting. Back to Jacob.

Rachel runs and tell her father about Jacob, he runs to meet his nephew greeting him bone of my bone and flash of my flesh an acknowledgement of their kinship.  (Menn) In a scene that seems out of synch, like we don’t know that Jacob has meet Rachel, and assumes we know of some agreement for Jacob to work for Laban we are suddenly at the end of a contract negotiation where Laban asks Jacob what should his wages be for 7 years labor, and Jacob asks for Rachel, and Laban, without hesitation or comment agrees.

In the space between sentences 7 years go by and Jacob asks for his wife. Laban gathers his family for the wedding feast. Only at the appointed time he sends Leah into Jacob’s tent. In the morning, when the great deceiver discovers he has been deceived, he confronts Laban, who simply says: This is not done in our country – giving the younger before the firstborn.

Jacob’s supplanting his older brother has been reversed. After a one sentence negotiation and the customary week long celebration, Laban gives Rachel to Jacob, for an additional seven years.

Some observations about marriages in this story. Having both daughters marry last year, I am glad the celebration time is two or three days, not a week. At this point in biblical time marriage is not a commitment between two consenting people; it is an alliance between two men involving the exchange of women. Also a man having more than one wife is acceptable; though in this case it’s a stretch skirting prohibitions about a man marrying sisters. (Menn)

Dana’e Ashley remarks:

that the mustard plant is a weed that grows like a bush and spreads. It’s a very invasive weed. (Ashley)

She further notes that:

[In that] time, leavening was something that people understood in scripture as unclean or evil. … leavening was done by letting some bread rot just enough in order to leaven a new batch of ingredients.  (Ashley)

As I read reach of these, both times I immediately thought of both Jacob and Laban. Both behave as invasive weeds you’d just as soon they go away, and no matter what you do they have a way of hanging around. Both have a rotten dimension to their persons, that effects the people around them.

The mustard seed’s tiny size suggests an unexpected hiddenness, (Hoezee) to the Kingdom’s presence.  The unexpected is also in the leaven parable, kneading dough is woman’s work and in 1st century, that’s not what one would expect God’s Kingdom to be compared to. (Hoezee) That Jacob is the progenitor of God’s chosen people is unexpected, and if we read the story, without knowing the end, divine intent is certainly obscure. And a dirty rotten scoundrel is not the one we’d expect to be the front line of revealing G0d’s presence and being a blessing to all the peoples of the world.

Beyond being a part of biblical history Jacob is a type of a parable about God how God goes about divine work, and what the Kingdom is really about. Remember to this point in the story Jacob has spoken to or about God once and then he hedges his bet. God calls people as they are, he walks with them, and in that journey people are transformed. Twice now Jacob’s plan has been disrupted: God comes to him in a dream, and he wakes up with Leah. The faithful response to both requires risk. (Carter)

This hodgepodge of story connection relates to us because: none of us saw this day, when Blytheville would be half the size it once was, and St Stephen’s less than that. Our plans have been disrupted. Is God in this? Yes! I don’t believe in a causal way, but God is present. Jacob’s story as parable, and this morning’s parables reveal truths about the way forward. Our future may well be hidden, and we will likely stumble across it. A faithful response will be risky. Those involved in revealing our role in bringing about God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven, may not, I’ll go so far as to say will not be from expected sources. As strange as it sounds “from invasive dirty rotten scoundrels the Kingdom comes” is a gleaning from today’s readings.

I’m not sure what to do with it except, as Ashley says that:

We must trust God.

The God that uses what others think is unusable.
The God that calls us to love others with reckless abandon.
The God that sees in us what others cannot see.
By living this way, we become of what the Kingdom of Heaven is made. (Ashley)

and ~ that nothing: invasive weeds, rotten bread, disruptions or surprises is ever between us and the love of God in Jesus Christ.

 


Works Cited

Ashley, Rev. Dana’e. Sermons that Work. 27 7 2014.

Carter, Warren. Commentary on Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52. 27 7 2014.

Hoezee, Scott. This Week at the Center for Excellence in Preaching. 27 7 2014.

Menn, Ester M. Commentary on Genesis 29:15-28. 27 7 2014.