August 4, 2020

The Homily

blessing-isaac-jacob

When Isaac grew old, his eyes were so bad he could see only shadows. He called his eldest son, Esau, to his side.

Isaac: My son.

Esau: I’m here.

Isaac: 2 You see that I am growing old now. I may die any day. 3 Take your hunting weaponry—your quiver and your bow—and go out to the field and hunt game for me. 4 Then prepare for me some savory food, just the way I like it. Bring it to me to eat so that I may speak a blessing over you before I die.

5 Rebekah was listening at the doorway as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau went into the field to hunt for game to bring to his father, 6 Rebekah called her son Jacob.

Rebekah: I heard your father say to your brother Esau, 7 “Bring me game and prepare for me some savory food to eat, so I can bless you before the Eternal before I die.” 8 My son, listen and do what I tell you: 9 Go to the flock, and bring me two of the best young goats. I can prepare the savory food for your father from them. I know just how he likes it. 10 Then you take it to your father to eat so that he speaks a blessing over you before he dies.

Jacob (to Rebekah, his mother): 11 Look, my brother Esau is a hairy man, and I have smooth skin. 12 If father reaches out and touches me, he’ll figure it out and think I’m mocking him. Then I’ll bring a curse upon myself instead of a blessing!

Rebekah: 13 If that happens, then let the curse be on me and not you. Just listen to me. Go, and get them for me.

14 Jacob went and brought the young goats to his mother, who prepared a mouth-watering meal just as his father liked it. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of her older son Esau, which were with her in the house, and she put them on her younger son Jacob. 16 She affixed the skins of the young goats onto the back of his hands and on the smooth part of his neck.17 Then she handed him the delicious food and the fresh bread she had prepared. 18 Jacob went in to his father.

***

11 Once there was this man who had two sons. 12 One day the younger son came to his father and said, “Father, eventually I’m going to inherit my share of your estate. Rather than waiting until you die, I want you to give me my share now.” And so the father liquidated assets and divided them. 13 A few days passed and this younger son gathered all his wealth and set off on a journey to a distant land. Once there he wasted everything he owned on wild living. 14 He was broke, a terrible famine struck that land, and he felt desperately hungry and in need. 15 He got a job with one of the locals, who sent him into the fields to feed the pigs.16 The young man felt so miserably hungry that he wished he could eat the slop the pigs were eating. Nobody gave him anything.

17 So he had this moment of self-reflection: “What am I doing here? Back home, my father’s hired servants have plenty of food. Why am I here starving to death? 18 I’ll get up and return to my father, and I’ll say, ‘Father, I have done wrong—wrong against God and against you.19 I have forfeited any right to be treated like your son, but I’m wondering if you’d treat me as one of your hired servants?’” 20 So he got up and returned to his father. The father looked off in the distance and saw the young man returning. He felt compassion for his son and ran out to him, enfolded him in an embrace, and kissed him.

21 The son said, “Father, I have done a terrible wrong in God’s sight and in your sight too. I have forfeited any right to be treated as your son.”

22 But the father turned to his servants and said, “Quick! Bring the best robe we have and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and shoes on his feet. 23 Go get the fattest calf and butcher it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate 24 because my son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and has been found.” So they had this huge party.

(Genesis 27: 1-18; Luke 15: 11-24, both from The Voice)

Our New Testament reading this morning is a story we are very familiar with. We refer to it as the story of the Prodigal Son. A father has two sons, and the younger comes to him one day and says, “Dad, I wish you were dead. That way I could have my portion of the inheritance and be done with this lousy life I live here with you. I want to see the world. I want to make my own way. Gimme gimme gimme.” And his father does. He considers himself dead and divides his estate between his no-good, greedy son and the elder son who was doing all of the right things. The elder took his money and invested it in the running of the family farm, no doubt doing some improvements to the property (which was now his) and tightening payroll. He was, of course, glad to be rid of his slacker brother. There was no room for dead weight on his estate.

Meanwhile, the brother who fancied himself a player in every sense of the word had spent his way through his father’s money in no time, and was now reduced to being an apprentice pig farmer. Drowning in despair, the boy came up with a plan. He would go back home and use all the right words to try and convince his father to take him back. He would even take a servant’s job if it would help get him something better to eat than leftover hog feed.

And now we see the father, the one the younger son left for dead, watching and waiting for his son to come home. When he sees him still a ways off, the father runs to his son. He has no interest in the prepared speech the son has to offer. Instead, he calls for a robe and the ring with the family crest to be brought to the boy, and then orders a fatted calf to be butchered so they can party.

I love this parable, for it is one where we see the Trinity at work. God the Father is the father in this story, patiently watching and waiting. The Holy Spirit is seen as the robe and the ring given as symbols that the Prodigal was very much in the family. And Jesus? Jesus, of course, is the fatted calf slain so the party can begin.

This is not the first story of a prodigal we encounter in Scripture. Jacob, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, could be consider the original prodigal. We find his story in our Old Testament reading, and again it is one you are no doubt familiar with. Isaac has grown old and while his eyesight is gone, his appetite is not. He asks his elder son, Esau, to go hunting and prepare him a certain game dish he likes so much. While Esau is out doing just as his father asked, Rebecca—mother of both boys, wife of Isaac—devises a plan to con Isaac into giving his blessing (an inheritance of sorts) to Jacob instead of Esau. Rebecca has Jacob slay two young goats so she can prepare the dish Isaac has requested. Then she uses the rough skin of the slain goats to disguise Jacob. Isaac falls for the ploy, thinks Jacob is Esau and gives his blessing to the younger son rather than the older.

The Trinity is at work here as well. Isaac is God the Father, albeit blind and apparently easily fooled. Rebecca is the Holy Spirit, propelling her son into this con game. And Jesus? He is the two young goats, slain so that Jacob can be disguised and seen as someone he was not.

Does this offend you, saying that the Father appeared as a blind man? That the Holy Spirit would guide someone to be deceitful? That Jesus was no more than a costume to be worn to fool the Father? I’m not surprised if you are offended. Most everything in the story of Jacob is offensive, starting when he as in the womb with his twin brother. Two brothers were never more different than Jacob and Esau. Esau did all that his father asked him to, and then some. He was strong and hard-working, a man’s man if there ever was one. Jacob was, to put it mildly, a sissy. A mama’s boy. After stealing his brother’s blessing, he takes off for his mother’s ancestral home to find a wife. As he is on his way, he has a dream where he sees angels coming and going on a stairway that leads to Heaven. God himself appears in this dream and makes a bold promise to Jacob.

Eternal One: I am the Eternal One, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac. The land on which you are now lying is the land I have promised to give to you and your descendants. 14 Your descendants will be as many as there are specks of dust on the earth. You will spread out to the west, east, north, and south. Through your descendants, all the families of the earth will find true blessing. 15 Know I am with you, and I will watch over you no matter where you go. One day I will bring you back to this land. I will not leave you until I have done all I have promised you. (Genesis 28: 13-15, The Voice)

There is no requirement made of Jacob. No drawing from him a promise to behave, to act decently and stop cheating people. God doesn’t tell Jacob to do anything in order to receive what he is promising. And as we see, Jacob continues being the weasel he has always been. He bargains with God. “Take care of me, God, and I’ll give you 10 percent of everything I make.” He becomes a form of an early genetic scientist and makes his sheep strong and his father-in-law’s weak. He sneaks off into the night with his family, and when he learns Esau is coming to meet him, he puts his wives and children in front to receive the blunt of whatever Esau is about to deliver. And when he encounters a mystery man—whom he later realizes was God himself—and engages in an all-night wrestling match, Jacob will not give in. This is not the tale of a man persisting in prayer with God. This is a man who will not give up control of his life. When we are told he prevailed, that is not a compliment. Jacob the deceiver, Jacob the grabber, Jacob the controller stayed just as he was.

And God didn’t seem to mind at all.

God changes Jacob’s name to Israel to signify he had wrestled with God and prevailed. God fulfills his promise to make of Jacob/Israel a great nation. The Original Prodigal receives his father’s blessing by disguise and God’s blessing in spite of all he was. Of course this offends you.

We want the elder brothers to come out ahead. They did all the right things. They did what their fathers expected of them. They worked hard and cleaned their plates and washed behind their ears. The two younger brothers were self-centered, selfish, greedy connivers. And yet they received blessings and robes and rings and parties. Of course this offends you. God’s grace is often offensive to those who insist on earning their place at the table.

What are these stories ultimately about? First of all, let’s look at what they are not about. They are not stories saying that yes, we might go astray when we are young, but once we hit bottom we will have no where to go but “up” and with time we will mature into the people God wants us to be. They are not stories to get us to behave. They are not stories about us at all.

These are stories to show us the offensive grace God gives. The focus of these stories are not the younger brother nor the older brothers. The focus is God. God the Father. God the Son. God the Holy Spirit. He comes in ways we don’t expect and thus in ways we don’t recognize. But he comes. He does not leave us in despair. He does not forsake us when we are crooks and liars, or when we are workaholics and control freaks. He comes. He gives. He is.

The stories are his. It doesn’t matter if you are Jacob or Esau, the Elder Brother or the Prodigal. His grace is sufficient. It always will be.

 

Comments

  1. I’m seldom offended by the grace given to the prodigal and to Jacob, mostly because Christian tradition treats both those guys as the heroes of their respective stories. What offends me is how, because these guys are the heroes, their brothers are automatically put in the position of villains.

    Esau was wronged. Yeah, he stupidly sold his birthright for soup, but his brother stole his father’s deathbed blessing (though it turned out not to be his deathbed) with a really transparent con. Yet decades later, when Jacob returned to Canaan, Esau greeted Jacob with forgiveness and love. And still he’s historically seen as a bad guy. Okay, he’s not the guy God chose to bless. Fine; that’s God’s prerogative. But neither does he deserve the lousy reputation most preachers unthinkingly ascribe to him. If he were really so evil, he wouldn’t have shown Jacob the grace he did.

    The prodigal’s brother wasn’t really wronged. Just graceless: He didn’t want to celebrate his brother’s return, ’cause he was too hung up on how it seemed his brother got off easy. (And as the birthright-holder and kinsman-redeemer in that culture, he’d still be responsible for his brother after his father’s death: If his now-penniless brother put himself in debt and slavery, he’d be obligated to bail him out.) His gracelessness deserves rebuke. But it’s also understandable. It shouldn’t make him the villain he’s usually depicted as.

    We need to show grace, as well, to the folks in the bible, real or fictional, when we retell their stories.

  2. Yes, we should treat them better. Since we are so often just like them, and they like us.

  3. For all the immense comfort I find in the New Testament Prodigal story, especially as I get older and see my many sins more clearly, I still struggle MIGHTILY with feeling ticked off and betrayed like the elder son. I am not actually the eldest in my family of origin, but I am the one who ALWAYS played by the rules…..and developed an unhealthy sense of entitlement for that hard work and obedience. I struggle daily with stupid little gripes….like people speeding through a school zone and getting away with it……and those with a full cart in the express lane.

    SO…..I know where my prayers will be this morning, in a continued quest to step down as judge, and a cranky one at that. Ironically, if I REALLY got what I deserved for my actions and choices in the past, I would be very sick or dead.

    I do not know how I can expect grace and mercy, but be so unwilling to see the same given to those I judge to be less worthy. JEFF…….thanks for sharing what this ole’ sinner needed to hear today!

  4. David Cornwell says

    Getting ready for church, so just a moment for comment. You’ve got it right, it’s totally about God’s grace. And, yes it almost always does bring offense with it. It hurts to see those who do not deserve brought into the banquet table of God and given a seat of honor.

    These stories are repeated in our own culture constantly. I could tell one so up-to-date that I might get sued if I open my mouth! However, the problem with these stories is that grace is almost always absent. The scoundrals get by with so much, and end up on top, and families start to hate and hate and the generations roll on and on. It’s not always an easy world for us who live by the rules. We need to look for God’s grace.

    Also, try living on a farm with neighbors with cattle and fence lines and trees and chain saws and drugs and jail and sex and start to tell stories! The county courts stay busy. Grace is in short supply.

  5. Well done! This is a thought-provoking article. This interpretation could also tie in yet another set of brothers – Cain and Abel, where, too, acceptance involved a sacrifice. Genesis is a lot deeper and complicated than the average literalism approach gives it. It is like a picture book for the law which follows.

    • Care is needed to avoid overly anthropomorphic allusions. God needs nothing from us and is self-sustaining. I think even Anselm’s doctrine of satisfaction has significant limitations. God is not like a man, needing to satisfy a vendetta.

  6. We read the bible and see ourselves. Preachers reinforce this view as they concentrate on our obligations to a holy life. But all of that is myopic meanderings, for the bible is GOD’S story. It is all about Him and His revelation to us. We have it all wrong. It’s not about US!