The longer I live, the more distrustful I have become about making
snap judgments of people. It is a gift to be intuitive about a person,
- to discern a person's personality on first appearances. But there's
a risk always of basing initial impressions on the superficial. Our
real selves are always contextual. What we do, what we say, how we react,
are all influenced and shaped by so many things, past, present, and
The central stage personalities that have been dominating the liturgy
these summer Sundays through the Old Testament readings are that trinity
of our forbearers in faith, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Abraham and Isaac
have had their day. Today is Jacob's turn. Based on that account of
him in today's Genesis reading, what kind of person do you think Jacob
was? The narrator offers no character description; just some actions
of Jacob's are recorded. The rest is left to us to make our own judgment.
But the actions of Jacob the narrator offers us to base our judgment
on are considerable. Jacob was a trickster and a cheat. He took his
brother Esau's birthright and accepted the blessing that was meant for
the oldest son. He was unquestionably a mamma's boy. But he was also
as simple soul, mild, quiet, retiring, even lonely. So, what's this
lonely, retiring, mamma's boy, trickster really like?
Let's review the story.
Jacob needs a wife! His father had his wife presented to him, but Jacob
must find his own. So he goes on a marital search. But he travels on
this search as a fugitive, for his raging brother Esau is out to murder
him for having robbed him of his birthright. One evening he stops at
what is described as a sacred place. He takes a stone and places it
at his head, and he falls asleep. In his dream he sees a ladder connecting
earth with heaven. And he dreams of God, presumably having come down
the ladder, making the same promises to hi as were made to Abraham and
Isaac, promises of marriage, of offspring, and of land. Jacob is so
awestruck; he marks the place as sacred. And then, when God meets him
face to face, he attempts to bargain with God. He says "If God
gets me to my destination; if God supplies me with wife, food and clothing,
if God gets me home safely, then I promise to maintain this awesome
place as a shrine and I'll give God back a tenth, a tithe, of what He
has given me."
Well, now what do you think of Jacob? This lonely, retiring, mamma's
boy, trickster, this fugitive, who dreams he has heard God's promise,
but whose immediate response to God is to bargain?
But really, the story isn't told to invite our response. What's more
important than what you or I think, or how we judge Jacob is how God
reacts to Jacob. In spite of his bargaining God still sticks with him.
In a strange way, and it is a strange story, all this is reassuring
to us, if we have the impulse to identify with Jacob. It's a very human
story, about very human experiences, indeed about very sad human experiences.
Some people like Jacob have never really been affirmed by their father.
That's a cause for sadness. Some have never got along with a brother
or a sister, perhaps like Jacob even despised him or her, and have lived
a long time with the pain of that sadness. Many of us have cut corners
to get ahead. Many people find themselves alone in their lives. And
lots of us, battered by the events of our lives, are moved to bargain
with God. We want God, and we want a clear indication of the way ahead.
We crave God, and we crave security. We seek God's help and we want
a happy ending.
I think the story of Jacob tells us that God understands our impulse
to bargain and is willing to stay with us; to be our God as He was the
God of Jacob, in spite of this impulse. Take this with you from today's
story about Jacob. God has high purposes for you, and after you've finished
trying to bargain with Him, God will have more lessons to teach you.