A sermon delivered by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo., on July 10, 2011.
This story of twins Jacob and Esau began as they waged their war from within where they “struggled together in the womb.” So violently did they struggle, the Bible tells us that, “they were crushing one another.” In Rebekah’s anguish over the struggling twins inside her womb, she cried out to God, “Why is this happening to me?” She felt, quite literally, like the battlefield on which two merciless foes had declared their war. God’s answer to her prayer was geopolitical in nature: “(There are) two nations in your womb!” That was not the first time, nor the last that a mother would ask such a vexing question.
Where does the lifelong struggle between siblings begin? Why is it the war between siblings starts so early in life? In the mystery of how families are formed, those wars often begin in our cribs and may never be outgrown. Some grudges continue to our dying words. Some fight from the womb to the tomb and never resolve their differences. Sibling rivalries may reach back to our earliest memories even before we had words to explain them.
This is an ancient story of deceit and trickery and to be honest, it’s not a complimentary picture. The problem is that Jacob comes across as something of a jerk as, “the book of Genesis makes no attempt to conceal the fact that Jacob was, among other things, a crook.”
In the prophecy of their birth we’re told “the older will serve the younger”; nevertheless we keep waiting for young Jacob to act honorably, to do the right thing and submit to his calling in life as the second-born, but he can’t seem to find the will to do what’s right. But he’s not alone because no one comes across too well in this story.
Father Isaac was a man of his time, understanding from the tradition of law of firstborns that Esau was the honored son and he planned to honor him with the birthright. But Isaac was so old as to be inept. He comes across like the old grandfather who can’t seem to remember your name, and confused calls you by the name of one of your siblings! Rebekah, the mother, connived with Jacob to steal the birthright. There’s a sense of ambition in their conspiracy and so she resembled the Texas super-mom who so wanted to help her daughter become the school cheerleader she took out a contract on her daughter’s competitor’s life. We know parents act foolishly when they try to live out some missing piece in them, some emptiness, through their child’s life. Jacob connived his way into both ends of the birthright by bartering with his older brother to get the blessing and again by pulling the wool over his father’s eyes. If we agree Jacob was shameless, then Esau doesn’t fare much better. He comes across as a dullard, careless with the family birthright. What should have been a source of deep joy turned into a grief that nearly turned him bitter at life.
I guess in one way, this story comes across as strangely humorous. Jacob came out of the womb hanging onto Esau’s heel as he entered the world. It’s a birth where both jockeyed for position in the birth canal. One of them had to be first to emerge, but the difference was crucial. With that kind of beginning, it’s not hard to understand that their whole lives would be played out with the battle lines clearly drawn.
The dilemma of this story raises a crucial question: If Jacob struggled with this issue and made his way through life through trickery and deceit, why did God choose and bless him as the human vessel through whom the whole world would receive God’s blessing? In other words, “Why did God choose and use such a sorry character?” But the question unleashes another deadly curiosity if you’re courageous enough to ask it: Why does God choose and use any of us?
The heartache of this story is because of the social arrangement that defined how first-born sons were given special preferences in families. It’s known as primogeniture, the law of the firstborns, whereby the first-born child or animal was considered to have the purest and strongest blood and it applied first to sons even over a daughter who was the first child born to the parents.
So when we hear about “the blessing,” we should realize this made Esau the second-in-command in the family, even to ruling over the younger brothers and sisters. The birthright gave great power to the one who held it along with all the accompanying benefits and duties of first-borns in the family. This story has great power because it’s about the conspiracy that mother and son carried out together to flip the order of the sons, giving the father’s blessing to Jacob by stealing it from Esau the rightful heir, the first-born son.
We can see that a blessing is a way of affirming us as we are, not as we would like to be, nor as we even hope to become. It is an “as is” proposition. It has no past or future tense. It only comes in the “now.” It does not wait upon some act of restitution nor a promise to do better. The gift of blessing is offered to us in the act of creation, not at the end of a life of good works. Parents can relay the blessing to their children and when they do they become creators who, like God, pass it along as a gift, never as a reward for doing or being good. It’s a reward upon one’s being, a reward that raises life to full power and freedom that comes from being.
Nevertheless, even if we have the blessing of a generous birthright, we’re still called to live righteously. In everything we do, we’re known by reputation for the truthfulness of who we are and in the way we live. It’s about character it seems to me, and the issues of character are very much a part of our public discourse these days. We need now more than ever to know whose we are and the notion that we are being shaped and formed in the image of Christ. At the heart of that formation is an issue more accurately known as, “moral development.” I believe this kind of truthfulness is an issue that crosses over into every arena of our lives and is deeply important for us as Christians.
In this highly charged political culture, where some piously pontificate about family values, it’s obvious some are painfully poor about keeping them. We move from one sex scandal to another, from politicians who come equally from the political left and right, and who have lived a lie by splitting off their moral public persona from their private lives. It’s easy to be tough on the politicians, but preachers have no high ground on which to stand. I read the news stories like the rest of you, and cannot for the life of me, offer an adequate explanation for how a minister could do some of the things they do. The most helpful explanation for all this comes from Carl Jung who claimed that the stronger the light, the darker the shadow. Thus he advised us to attend to our shadow selves in order that the moral split would not destroy us from within.
Trust me, it’s tough enough preaching without having to stand under the scrutiny of actually following our own advice! As pastors, preachers and teachers, we are forced to live to a higher standard although we are admittedly never able to fully live out that ideal. The Bible’s image of one’s vulnerability being understood as “feet of clay” comes to mind. The ever-practical James says it simply: “Not many of you should become teachers … for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1, NRSV). So if we’re honest, we must confess we’re all frauds in some way or another. Everyone, you, me, all of us, have something to hide. The human stain is the sin that drives us to fall short of being truly honest about the dishonesty that exists inside us.
In our path toward maturity, children go through a stage of moral development where they test out the value of the truth by lying and deceiving others in their attempt to rationalize what they’ve done. It’s a way of testing out how they will live as an adult. In that stage, they experiment by exploring whether it works or fails. They consider how they feel about their habits and whether they can live with themselves in the process. In this stage of experimentation, important adults model for them the life of integrity and provide the right encouragement for them to refuse to live manipulatively. Will they tell lies as a way of life or will they instead choose the harder moral path of the life of integrity?
This story causes us to confront a terrible dilemma that runs against the grain of everything we think and believe. We’re taught as children, “If you don’t have your reputation, you have anything.” Jacob had a terrible reputation and yet he had it all. Jacob the heel-grabber went through most of his life getting along by telling lies, deceiving others and manipulating even his closest family members. He’s aided and abetted by his mother in this early story but he’s a fast learner and continues this way of life through his adulthood.
Carlyle Marney was once spending a couple of days at a seminary in the South. He wondered into a room where some of the seminary students were having a discussion. They were arguing about where the Garden of Eden had been located. Some thought it had been in what is today Israel; others thought it had been located in Egypt.
One of the students asked Carlyle Marney where he thought the Garden of Eden had been located. He said: “I know exactly where it was. It was at 1611 Locust Street, Memphis, Tennessee.” The students looked at him as if he was crazy, so he continued.
“It was (there),” he said, “that my mother gave me some money when I was a small boy to go to the corner store to get milk. When I got there, instead of buying milk, I bought candy. I had eaten the candy by the time I got home. When I got there I hid in the hallway closet behind the coats. After awhile, my mother came and opened the closet door and pushed aside the coats and looked at me and said, ‘Carl, what have you done?’”
Want some good news? All of us are recovering “heel-grabbers” whether we’ve been in the church all our lives or whether we’re just getting started on the path of following Jesus. Need a support group for reformed heel-grabbers tired of living on trickery and deception? You’re in the right place … it’s called “the church!”
 Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures, New York: Harper and Row, pages 56-57
 Myron C. Madden, The Power to Bless, Revised Edition, New Orleans LA: Insight Press, 1999
After serving as bridge pastor at First Congregational Church of St. Louis, Missouri, during the past year, Herron moved recently to Lawrence, Kansas, where he will continue to minister in interim settings. He is author of Living a Narrative Life, Exploring the Power of Stories (Smyth & Helwys, 2019).