Justice: What Good is a Birthright?
Preached at First Congregational Church, Loveland UCC www.lovelanducc.org By Rev. Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson Scripture Passages: Genesis 25: 19-34 and Micah 6:8
Will you pray with me? Holy God, may the words of my mouth and the thoughts of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It’s not fair! That’s mine! How come you get that and I don’t? Mom, Esau’s not sharing! Dad, Jacob’s trying to take what’s mine! It’s just not fair!
How many of us have as children uttered these words or as adults thought them? How many of us have heard these words, or something like them, said by our students, children, nieces, nephews, or grandchildren?
Children have a keen sense of what is fair and not fair — who gets the biggest cookie or juiciest slice of watermelon. Whose birthday party was better last year. Whose events parents attend more consistently. Who is loved more.
For me, the story of Jacob and Esau has always been a story about fairness (or rather unfairness). One brother is born stronger than the other. One brother, adored by their father the other preferred by their mother. One a skilled hunter, the other quiet, sticking close to home and tending to household tasks. One is born with a birthright, the other with little more to hold onto than his brother’s heel. Two brothers struggling, competing, wrestling with one another even before they are born.
The whole set-up seems unfair. Unjust. And parental favoritism simply makes things worse. I can’t help but feel angry that Isaac and Rebeka put their sons in this position. That they add their love to the things these brothers cannot share. And yet there is so much the story doesn’t tell.
I wonder: does Esau torment his twin for being a homebody? His taunts echoed by their playmates? Does Esau consistently win the childhood competitions of speed, strength, agility and endurance?
I wonder: does Rebeka develop a soft spot for Jacob when she sees how Esau torments him? Or when she sees the preferential treatment Isaac gives to Esau? Does her affection for Jacob grow as this son consistently sees her needs? As this son makes a point of helping her with the cooking and cleaning, with the task of tending animals and gardens?
How early does Rebeka begin to favor Jacob? Perhaps she favors Jacob first and this causes Isaac to favor Esau. Maybe Isaac remembers his own mother’s animosity toward his half brother Ishmael, and so he loves Esau best as if this will somehow right his parents’ wrong. Maybe Esau, the hunter, reminds Isaac of the brother he lost — of Ishmael a skilled bowsman and hunter himself. Maybe Isaac lavishes upon this son the love his own father refused his elder brother. Maybe Isaac is, in some screwed up way, trying to make up for his parents’ mistakes….
We just do not know. The story does not tell us. We know only that Rebeka loved Jacob and Isaac loved Esau and this favoritism adds a layer to the competition and conflict between the brothers.
There is, of course, also the practice of birthright, which “has to do with both position and inheritance. By birthright, the firstborn son inherits the leadership of the family and the judicial authority of his father. [It may be that the birthright also entitles the eldest son] to a double portion of the paternal inheritance.” This is no small thing when land and property determine one’s lot in life.
Yet, when Esau comes in from the field famished, he almost unthinkingly gives up his birthright — “What good is my birthright if I’m going to die of hunger?” It seems a foolish thing to say.
What is the story not telling us? Is Esau simply being impulsive or is something else going on? Perhaps he really does feel like he may collapse of hunger. Maybe he is hypoglycemic in which case, needing something to eat really may literally prevent him from thinking straight. We just do not know….
And Jacob? A birthright seems a high price for a bowl of lentils, even if your older brother has long been your tormenter. Couldn’t they split the birthright? Couldn’t Jacob ask that their father honor them equally? But no, Jacob wants the whole thing. Or maybe a birthright cannot be shared. Regardless, it all seems sneaky and manipulative on Jacob’s part — taking advantage of his brother’s hunger this way.
Talk about dysfunction! Talk about unfairness! Injustice! There is no sign of honesty, integrity, compassion or love here. Just a whole lot of going around each other. A whole lot of taking what you can get. Who cares that this is family?
If we look back, we see that the dysfunction begins at least a generation earlier, with Isaac’s family of origin. Remember how Isaac’s father Abraham casts Ishmael and Hagar into the wilderness? Remember Abraham and Isaac’s journey up the mountain and the near sacrifice of Isaac? Talk about childhood trauma. Talk about dysfunction
And if we look ahead, the dysfunction continues into Jacob’s family. Jacob also has a favorite son. Remember Joseph? You know, the one with the rainbow coat? The one who dreams that his older brothers will bow down before him and then has the audacity to tell his brothers about his dream. So they decide to get rid of him. Initially, they plan on murder, but Joseph’s eldest brother Reuben intervenes at the last minute. Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery instead.
How, looking at these stories, can we talk about fairness? Where is the justice? Injustice seems to be a family trait passed from one generation to the next, like a mantle, a birthright. What hope does this family have of pulling out of this intergenerational dysfunction? What hope do they have of reconciliation? Healing? Much less justice? And I don’t mean the justice of punishment, the justice of an eye for an eye. I mean the justice of making right what once was wrong. I mean the justice that is love on a public platform. I mean the justice of loving our neighbor, or in this case, our sibling, as ourselves.
I dare say, when we look at injustice in our world, we can same questions. Systems of injustice carry from one generation to the next. We hand them off like a mantle, a birthright we pass on to our children intentionally or not. What hope do we have of pulling out of such dysfunction? What hope do we have of reconciliation? Healing? Justice?
But wait a minute. There is good news. With God, there is ALWAYS good news.
And the good news is that the story is not over yet. Neither our story nor the story of Jacob and Esau.
Yes, more pain will come — more deception, more estrangement — in Jacob and Esau’s story as in ours. But that is not the end of the story either. Years later, Jacob will return to the home of his birth. He will return to his brother seeking reconciliation. Seeking to make right what he once made so very wrong. Jacob and Esau’s story is not over yet. And neither is ours.
As Dr Martin King puts it: the arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice.
When it appears that injustice will continue, passed on from one generation to the next, we remember God’s promise that the story is not over yet.
The story of COVID and whether we choose our own comfort or the good of our neighbors is not over yet.
The story of white supremacy and the dismantling of racism is not over yet.
The story of whether and how to include and affirm LGBTQ+ people in this congregation is not over yet.
The story of how we care for the neighbors who sleep on our church’s doorstep is not over yet.
The story of how we as a congregation seek to make our communities more loving, more compassionate and more just is not over yet.
And neither is your story. With its grief and loss. Its resilience and strength. With its trauma: harm done and harm experienced. With its hope in the midst of hardship. Its resentments and broken relationships. With its resurrection and new life, its love and its joy.
This is good news! Our story is not over yet.
The arc of the universe is long and it bends toward justice.
Heather so beautifully invited us this morning to think about how we engage with fairness and justice. She invited us to venture beyond looking at what is unfair for us. Beyond seeing the way things are unfair for others. Beyond recognizing and acknowledging the injustice in our world. She invited us to venture into discernment — what is our role? How is God calling us to respond? Heather invited us to venture into action — what will we do to change the injustices we see? Because “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Because our liberation, our healing, our wholeness is tied up with the liberation, the healing, and the wholeness of all God’s beloved children.
And what does God require of us but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with our God. May it be so. Amen.
© 2020 Thandiwe Dale-Ferguson, all rights reserved. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
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