NINTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
(17th July) 2005
Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43
A week ago we heard the story of Esau, the hairy man, being cheated of his birthright by the wily younger brother Jacob. Esau, you may recall, was famished, and surrenders his right to inheritance for the immediate gratification of a plate of pottage.
There are a number of ways we might water down that story, one that has always struck me as a study in the ways in which slimy cunning over common sense. There is a sense in which Esau deserved to lose that which was his by right – he was hardly likely to have been at death’s door if he was able to hold a conversation with his wily brother, and so it seems he was is a sense simply irresponsible in giving away that which should by rights have been his.
Perhaps indeed he was no more than a paradigm of the twenty first century – for surely more than any other at least in the last twenty ours is the era of instant gratification. “Hello, I love you won’t you tell me your name” wrote tragic icon Jim Morrison in the era of hippiedom. In his day the words were shocking and provocative, risqué and daring. Today they are passé. Almost any movie or tv programme works from the common assumption that if you find someone cute you sleep with tem and then find out later if you have anything remotely in common: “will you still love me tomorrow?” was Carole King’s more honest and timeless cry from the heart. Esau was interested in the tonight – Jacob, however slimy he was, was interested in tomorrow.
In that alone there is a message for us as the people of God. We are called not to live as a people with no tomorrow but as a people who believe that tomorrow is God’s tomorrow. W are called to live as a people who believe in the judgement of God. Many of the parables of Jesus are parables of judgement- and this is especially and disproportionately the case in the Matthew account of the Jesus story. Will you still love me tomorrow? The gospel, particularly in Paul’s hands, is clear that we cannot earn the love of God, yet there are strong hints that we should at the very least live and act as though we had to. Therein lies a paradox at the heart of Christianity: we cannot earn our ouvre to God, yet we should live as though we are desperate to please our God and our judge, for he sees us as if though the eyes of our neighbour.
Jacob though stands for something else. What Jacob does in tricking the not-very-bright Esau is far from a model of how we are to behave in the service of God. Yet God has revealed the divine name as not being a name, controlled and neatly tucked into a box by the speaker, but an action. “What is your name?” asks Moses, and God, who will not be backed into a corner replies with the indefinable sentence “I am who I am” or “I will be what I will be.”
God demonstrated this in the lives of the Fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, long before Moses encounters the divine presence at the burning bush. Esau may be not very bright, and Jacob may be a slime-ball, but God turns their rivalry into one of the great tales of faith. For Jacob, over the next several weeks of our readings, grows into the great father of faith that he tricks Esau into letting him become.
God’s will is done, and is done despite our human foibles. This willing of God is in our story today ratified by a promise: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” As was the case with the promise given to Jacob’s grandparents, Abraham and Sarah, God is faithful to his word. God’s word is action. As we shall see in weeks to come, the people of God are born of this determination of God. This is the promise in which we too stand: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…”