And the Lord said to her,
‘Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.’
So, here we go again with the story of Abraham, this time featuring his son and daughter-in-law Isaac and Rebekah and grandsons Jacob and Esau. The lineage of this story matters to us because the promise of “blessing” and “greatness” that Abraham receives from God is a one that is carried in the literal DNA of Jesus Christ and lived out in the movement upon which Jesus innovates. Jesus’ example of “unequivocal love and obedience” is a direct result of his saturation in Jewish faith and practice. As much as we might want to distance ourselves from the complicated, often deeply confusing, saga of Abraham, we simply cannot. Moreover, we cannot fully understand ourselves apart from the journey that he pioneered.
While it might appear foreign and deeply removed from our contemporary context, the Bible has a lot to say about living in the here and now. To be honest, beneath the complex layers of culture, geography, and time, our world is not all that much different from the world we see in Scripture. We still see the rise and fall of empires, though we currently just call them “nations” and “regimes”. We still witness plagues and wars, though we might just call them “epidemics” and “military interventions”. We still see the same gross incursions on human dignity decried by the prophets. We still struggle to hear the will of God with clarity and to act on it with courage. We still strive after an interior life of prayer to satisfy our souls’ deepest yearnings. We still wrestle with fundamental human ideals like compassion, justice, mercy, and what it means to be human in a highly complex world. We might want to resign the world of the Bible to some distant time “long ago, in a galaxy far, far away…” but in reality it is closer than we want to admit.
The story of Jacob and Esau that we hear about in today’s reading from Genesis is one that is rooted in struggles we can identify with in our contemporary context. It’s a power struggle that is rooted in the presumption of privilege and the perception of scarcity. Now, before we overlay our contemporary ethics onto this story, it might be helpful to know that, in the ancient world, the privilege of the first-born son, and the blessing that came with it, were means of survival. The birthright was the double portion of the father’s estate that would pass to the eldest son. Along with that birthright came a blessing from the father. Upon the death of the father, the eldest son who had both the birthright and the blessing took his place as the head of the family, but along with that privilege came an ethical responsibility to care for the family. Keeping a majority share of the wealth in the hands of one person ensured that it would provide for the family for many generations. The birthright and blessing weren’t to hoarded; rather, they were to be shared with the community. Remember God’s promise to Abraham “I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
In this struggle between these two brothers we can hear echoes of many of the struggles in our contemporary life. When the perception of scarcity and the presumption of privilege drive the massive acquisition of wealth and resources without the necessary ethical responsibilities that mandate care for the poor and vulnerable, we see a world running hot to acquire but running cold on compassion. When money matters more than people; when we live our lives with our own self-interest at the center; when we deny the connective tissue that binds us to one another across difference in joy and struggle, in prosperity and adversity, in good times and in bad we witness the wholesale disintegration of the beloved community of God.
Perhaps the solution to the dysfunction we see around us is found not in hoarding rooted in fear, but in giving grounded in compassion. Now, compassion is one of those words we love to throw around in Church. We know we should strive to be compassionate, but I am not quite sure we know what it means. Dr. Rowan Williams, 104th Archbishop of Canterbury and current Master of Magdalene College, University of Cambridge, has a wonderful illustration of what it means to be compassionate. He roots it in our baptism which he suggests is deeply connected to the Incarnation – the event of cosmic solidarity where God directly infiltrated the human struggle. He asks,