Jacob and his twin brother Esau have been separated for years. As a young man Jacob fled from home because he had stolen Esau’s birthright – his promise of inheritance – through trickery. Esau vowed to kill him. So Jacob fled.
Now years later ( long story short) Jacob has a family and finally some modest wealth for himself. And he takes a big risk.
He sends out a messenger to find his brother and make him a peace offering.
The messenger comes back to Jacob and says, “Well, your brother is coming to you, but he’s bringing 400 men.”
This looks like it could end really badly for Jacob and his family, who’s with him. Unlike his Esau, he has not become some kind of warlord. He can’t defend against an attack from 400 soldiers.
But Jacob prays.
And that night he has a strange, sacred experience, which we explored last Sunday. A mysterious person tackles him and they grapple until dawn. Jacob leaves with a limp, a blessing, and a new name, which will become the name of a nation: Israel “One Who Wrestles with God.”
The next day Jacob, now Israel moves forward into the risk of facing his twin again…
this twin with whom he has been wrestling since they were in the womb together.
Their mother, Rebekah, when she was pregnant with Jacob and Esau, and she had to withstand and contain all their fighting, she received a message from an angel saying she carried inside her two nations striving against each other.
Twins, two nations, within one nation one lineage, wrestling.
The risk here is tremendous.
The worst wars are civil wars. By far. Just like the worst violence and abuse happens in families, not against strangers. Civil war and domestic violence cause the most casualties and do the most enduring damage.
Now, of course, it’s really important, critical, urgent that folks are called to be blessed peacemakers by building bridges between very different cultures, different languages, different religions. You know, work helping different kinds of folks meet and talk and learn with each other – honor “the Other” while discovering our shared humanity.
But the fact is that the worst conflict happens between people who are not so different, not so “Other”, who know each other pretty well, who have been living side by side, intermingled, separate and fighting, for generations.
Fraternal twins wrestling in the same womb.
Hutu and Tutsi. Sunna and Shia. Protestant and Catholic. Yankee and Confederate. And all the streams of race and nationality that have come together to form our country, that have been loving and fighting for generations.
Most violence happens neighbor against neighbor, sibling against sibling, parent against child, husband against wife. So if we are to follow the Prince of Peace, who blessed the peacemakers, this is the realm of violence that we should pay close attention to.
So it is very significant that in the holy and messy story from Genesis, the book about the origins of the people called Israel and their wrestling with God and wrestling with sin and pain and joy and grace and transformation, is a story involving twin brothers, who were wrestling from the womb.
An important thing to notice here is how the story of Jacob and Esau is a story of entitlement and resentment.
One son – Esau – is entitled, because he happens to have been born first. The other – Jacob -was born right on his heels, but that doesn’t matter. The social system is unfair. Entitlement passes from father to oldest son. From Isaac to Esau.
Everyone else who’s left out of this can be resigned to it, or they can be resentful about it, and also they can strive against it or within it to get whatever advantage they can. And maybe with enough of the right kind of struggle, they can change the whole thing.
In this family, the one’s who were left out teamed up.
Rebekah, the matriarch, loved Jacob best.
So she set about tricking her husband into giving his birthright to her favorite, not to the firstborn.
The underdogs always have to be smarter than those born with the advantage.
But look at what happens when the underdogs win through their craftiness. The Entitlement and Resentment can flip.
Esau now feels resentful. Violently resentful. Vengeful. Jacob took from him something he felt he was entitled to.
And Jacob could then feel entitled, because he had won the birthright through his own wits and chutzpah. (But that, of course, would be forgetting that it was his mother’s wits and chutzpah).
How often this happens, in families and communities and nations. Entitlement and resentment fuel conflict.
Who is the favorite? Who is born with the advantage? Who takes the advantage? Who flaunts their entitlement? Who resents whom? Who has a grievance against whom? Who has earned what? Who has gotten what they haven’t earned? Who gets to decide that? Tensions and explosions around privilege and advantage, around fairness and injustice, around questions of what is earned and what is unearned, about who is deserving of what and why, about what has been won fair and square, about what strife and anger is just and legitimate and what isn’t.
We are forced this weekend to confront the enduring roots of white supremacy in our society, it has reproduced for another generation, gained traction, and is bearing deadly fruit.
Here is a demonic force that feeds off entitlement and resentment. The view is that the white race is entitled to full spectrum domination. Everyone else should be annihilated, deported, imprisoned, sealed up in ghettos, kept from any public role or advantage. This kind of idolatry worships a god of war, it’s built on the idea that there is not enough to go around, might makes right, will to power justified snuffing out the humanity of others. They then resent any assertion of humanity and power and public life from those people they think they’re entitled to dominate.
This can lash out in vicious, venomous, violence, as it did yesterday. But it can also lurk, and do its work insidiously. It can take root quietly. It can feed off of more quiet forms of entitlement and resentment. We need to know that this can be appealing to some. These days there are many young white men in particular, who are drawn to what these hate mongers preach.
As Christians, part of our work in following Jesus is healing soul sickness, which sometimes requires casting out demons. Now Jesus does not do that with violence, but he did act with authority and force – soul force. Knowing that within this troubled soul there lies a dear beloved child of God, who needs to know that God loves them, and God loves everyone else too.
This takes great faith.
We have every reason to claim that faith.
This story of Jacob and Esau is one of our testimonies of this faith.
The promise of this story is that when we allow God to be involved, the whole situation can be transformed.
Both Jacob and Esau let go of their entitlement and resentment, because they realize that everything they have is a gift from God. But they also claim before God their dignity.
Both parties must be humbled. Both parties must also know their own strength. They must also know how much they each suffer from the strife. Then reconciliation is possible.
And more than that, what is possible is nothing short than seeing the face of God in the twin whom you embrace.
Thanks be to God
Genesis 33:1, 3-11
Gospel of Thomas 48
(Delivered August 13, 2017 at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)
Image: “The Wrestlers” Herni Gaudier-Brezeska