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Bad Judgment, Odd Choices

July 17, 2017

“Bad Judgment, Odd Choices” Genesis 25:19-34; Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23 © 7.16.17 Ordinary 15A by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

They were a perfect family. Mom and Dad, now in their later years, still held hands in public, and everybody commented that they were such a sweet older couple. The two sons had put aside their childhood differences and combined their talents to open “Red,” an upscale bistro in the historic district. It featured fresh, locally sourced game and fish, creatively prepared, with organic vegetables and fruits from area farmers. On Sundays, when the restaurant was closed, they could always be counted on to be present in worship, often having invited a couple of guests. Even the young men listened intently to the sermon instead of secretly checking social media feeds on their phones, even though the message tended to be long, boring, and rambling, full of impenetrable logic and obscure words. When the service concluded, they pumped the preacher’s hand and exchanged pleasantries before heading home for a leisurely Sunday dinner.

Well, not so much. The real story has Isaac and Rebekah allied with their favored son against each other. Dad liked Esau, because he was a huge, hairy hulk of a man who loved to hunt and fish and bring Isaac some choice venison tenderloin to roast. Esau was happiest on his four-wheeler or working on the restoration of his vintage Chevy pickup while he listened to Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. On a Saturday night, he always had a pretty young woman on his arm. At other times, he would get his buddies together in his man cave to watch sports on his 80-inch TV while they enjoyed buckets of KFC wings and tenders and a case of PBR, iced down just right.

On the other hand, Jacob was a quiet boy who mostly stayed to himself. Rebekah favored him, because he was a homebody and loved to cook, experimenting with spices and herbs. He had just had his recipe for lentil stew published in Middle Eastern Living, as well as in this year’s Best of Canaan. The video of his latest psalm, on which he had accompanied himself on an exotic-sounding electric multioud, an instrument of eleven strings, had gone viral. Rebekah couldn’t understand Isaac’s love for Esau, whom she considered brutish and vulgar or why such a man should get the inheritance because of a few minutes’ difference in the time of their birth. Jacob was much more worthy, talented, handsome, and holy. And he was smart and patient. She was sure that at the right time he would cook up some way to claim what should be his.

We’ve heard the story of Jacob’s extortion this morning, and we may also recall the way he conned his father later into bestowing the blessing meant for Esau and still later put one over on his uncle Laban. What’s going on here? Why would a bottom-feeding scumbag like Jacob inherit the share of the firstborn and not Esau, as was his due under the laws and customs of the day?

The prophets Obadiah and Malachi say it was because Esau AKA Edom, “the Red Man,” was arrogant and wicked; he was hated by God, the object of his wrath forever. Or at least his descendants suffered such a fate according to the prophets. In the New Testament, the author of Hebrews calls him “immoral and godless.” Maybe that writer was thinking not just of Esau, but the cruel king Herod the Great. He was an Idumean, the Greek term for Edomite, a descendant of Esau.

The well-known writer Frederick Buechner has his own idea about the rejection of Edom: “It seems plain enough…that the reason God bypassed Esau and made Jacob heir to the great promise is that it is easier to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear than out of a dim bulb” (Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: 32). Where he got the idea that Esau was dull-witted, I don’t know. Unless selling one’s birthright for a bowl of stew is evidence of a general lack of intelligence and not merely a momentary lapse in judgment.

It would be so much more palatable and satisfying if indeed we could find some fault in Esau, while affirming Jacob’s superior character. But we can’t. Esau is in fact the victim of a skillful con artist. Jacob is a sleaze who should have been in jail, a despicable excuse for a human being who took advantage of his own brother. And Jacob is not more spiritual than Esau. Both are concerned with material things. Esau wants to fill his belly, yes, but Jacob is greedy. A birthright, an inheritance, is just as worldly as a bowl of stew. It’s all about land, livestock, and authority. Esau committed no crime. He merely preferred short-term gratification over long-term gain. None of us can pretend we haven’t done the same from time to time.

No, God simply overturns the law and custom of the day. Jacob and Rebekah were chafing under the law of primogeniture, which gave a double portion of the inheritance to the firstborn. But Yahweh sweeps that away with a declaration: “the older shall serve the younger.” We need to realize what a big deal that was. Primogeniture undergirded all of society. To suggest a different way was tantamount to fomenting revolution. “The older shall serve the younger?” Impossible! Or to quote the famous line from The Princess Bride: “Inconceivable!”

Here’s the part where we either squirm in our seats or want to jump up and cheer. This ancient declaration means that the world’s way of giving privilege to some merely on the basis of their birth or circumstances is directly challenged. The blessing of God is a gift and has no necessary connection with how we think life ought to be ordered or the way class, race, gender, money, and so on grant status in societies. The firstborn, that is, the privileged by birth, can’t automatically assume that all good things will come to him or her. Already in this tale is a foreshadowing of our Lord’s words: “The first shall be last; and the last, first.” The scandalous message here is that God takes the side of the younger one, worthy or not. In the Bible, the younger one is anybody who is despised, left out or without privilege. That means the widow, the orphan, the stranger, the tax-collector, the sinner. Anyone and everyone who is without power in this world, marginalized, put down, oppressed, friendless, those who have no advocate or guardian. And Jesus has become one with such folk. “Inasmuch as you’ve done it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.”

The great good news of this text, as with so many others, is that God is a God of free and sovereign grace. He chooses whomever he will to carry out his purposes, and he doesn’t clear it with us first. We would expect God to choose men and women the same way we do: gather a pool of recruits, look at their vitas and resumes, weigh accomplishments and experience, talk to references, conduct interviews, check their profiles on LinkedIn, review their emails, look at what kinds of pictures of what sorts of activities they posted on Facebook, and critique their posts on Twitter.

That typical way of finding suitable people is summed up in a commercial I hear on the radio sometimes. An online business recruiter promises to put their clients’ jobs in “just the right places” to get the best candidates so HR departments won’t be wasting time with applicants who don’t have the right experience. But what does God do? If we understand the sower in Jesus’ story to be a divine figure, whether God or the Messiah, he scatters the seed of his Word indiscriminately, without thought for efficiency or frugality or results. He could be throwing it on the Walmart parking lot or I-22 for all the good it does with some folks. Or on a little patch of dirt that the wind soon blows away. He’s not at all careful to make sure that the precious Word isn’t wasted. He doesn’t vet his choices to make sure they won’t mess up or embarrass him. Instead, he insists on sharing with everybody a kind of crazy, haphazard, profligate grace. He sends his rain on the just and the unjust.

Our Lord’s use of parables is an example of just that kind of nutty approach. “Parable” means “something thrown out, cast beside.” So Jesus puts the story out there, for whoever will hear, “whoever has ears,” he says. Then he lets that person interpret it as he or she will, whether the understanding of one agrees with another or whether anybody gets it at all. If you were trying to bring in the kingdom of God, wouldn’t you want to make everything clear and ensure everyone was on the same page? But that’s not what Jesus does. He tells stories, and like other tales, poems, and music, his parables carry what scholars call a “surplus of meaning.” In other words, they are meant to stimulate questions and reflection, to shake people up a little, to move them out of their settled world. A parable then is an act of grace. Jesus trusted his listeners and invited them to find meaning, a fresh vision, from his stories in their own lives.

That’s what we find in the interpretation Matthew records in the second part of the text, which grew out of the situation in his church. The message they proclaimed sometimes met with great success, but at other times was greeted with indifference or hostility. Why was it, these Christians wondered, that some believed while others didn’t? Their answer was to see the parables as secrets for insiders, just as Mark first did, and also Luke. The stories did not include everyone but were intended to exclude. We can appreciate their struggle while interpreting the parables differently for our day.

Whatever the intent of Jesus’ stories, it’s clear that our Lord and the God he embodied simply didn’t do things the way we would. I was reminded of that a number of years ago when someone shared with me an article from a church newsletter in which the writer imagined what would have happened if Jesus has hired a corporate headhunter firm to get him twelve good followers. He opens his email one day and finds this:

“Dear Sir: Thank you for submitting the resumes of the 12 men you have picked for management positions in your new organization. All of them have now taken our battery of tests; and we have not only run the results through our computer, but also arranged personal interviews for each of them with our psychologist and vocational aptitude consultant.

“The profiles of all tests are included, and you will want to study each of them carefully….

“It is the staff opinion that most of your nominees are lacking in background, education, and vocational aptitude for the type of enterprise you are undertaking. They do not have the team concept. We would recommend that you continue your search for persons of… managerial ability and proven capability.

“Simon Peter is emotionally unstable and given to fits of temper. Andrew has absolutely no qualities of leadership. The two brothers, James and John…place personal interest above company morale. We feel it is our duty to tell you that Matthew has been blacklisted by the Greater Jerusalem Better Business Bureau. James, the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus definitely have radical leanings, and they both registered a high score on the manic-depression scale.

“One of the candidates, however, shows great potential. He is a man of ability and resourcefulness, meets people well, has a keen business mind and has contacts in high places. He is highly motivated, ambitious and responsible. We recommend Judas Iscariot as your comptroller and right-hand man. All of the other profiles are self-explanatory” (from Lucy Campbell Rowland, 1996).

Apparently God would make a lousy personnel manager and Jesus a terrible placement consultant. In the Old Testament story, Yahweh picks an extortionist and cheat like Jacob who tricked his own brother and later his father and uncle. And throughout history down to the present day, God keeps on calling folks who are either of questionable character or bumbling fools or both, people who are totally unqualified to be the representatives of God, the ones who carry on his mission.

And isn’t that amazing, good news? Forgive me for saying so, but we know it’s true: none of us is a perfect specimen of spirituality or morality. Sometimes we rise to great heights, but there are other occasions when the sense of our own sinfulness overwhelms us. Jacob was a swindler and a bottom-feeder, and maybe we’re not as bad as that. But who of us of us can say she or he is never arrogant or self-seeking or critical or mean-spirited or materialistic or hateful or unjust? I certainly can’t. And raise your hand if you have never failed at anything or embarrassed yourself.

Yet again comes the word of God’s odd choices. Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob, you and I and myriads of others through the ages and in the present day—called and commissioned, empowered and equipped, destined and delivered, in the midst of and in spite of our foibles, fears, and failings, our scandals and schemes, our claims of righteousness that ring hollow, our smug self-assurance. God passes on the blessing in, with, by, and under who and what we are. He continues to incarnate his Word in us, of all people. Yes, we’ve got tarnished halos. I am by turns arrogant and incompetent, distracted and confused. I’ve made many mistakes of varying gravity and consequence. You have your own litany of personal faults. But this God with his bad judgment and odd choices just won’t give up on us. He wants us anyway.

Who can respond to such grace with anything but praise and thanksgiving and wonder? As the old gospel song put it: “I don’t know why Jesus loved me, but I’m glad, so glad he did.”

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