Old Testament: Genesis (25:19-34)
These are the descendants of Isaac, Abraham’s son: Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah, daughter of Bethuel the Aramean of Paddan-aram, sister of Laban the Aramean. Isaac prayed to the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord granted his prayer, and his wife Rebekah conceived. The children struggled together within her; and she said, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” So she went to inquire of the Lord. And the Lord said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.”
When her time to give birth was at hand, there were twins in her womb. The first came out red, all his body like a hairy mantle; so they named him Esau. Afterward his brother came out, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when she bore them. When the boys grew up, Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, living in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. Once when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” (Therefore he was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright.
The Response: Psalm (119:105-112)
105 Your word is a lantern to my feet *
and a light upon my path.
106 I have sworn and am determined *
to keep your righteous judgments.
107 I am deeply troubled; *
preserve my life, O Lord, according to your word.
108 Accept, O Lord, the willing tribute of my lips, *
and teach me your judgments.
109 My life is always in my hand, *
yet I do not forget your law.
110 The wicked have set a trap for me, *
but I have not strayed from your commandments.
111 Your decrees are my inheritance for ever; *
truly, they are the joy of my heart.
112 I have applied my heart to fulfill your statutes *
for ever and to the end.
The Epistle: Romans (8:1-11)
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
The Gospel: Matthew (13:1-9, 18-23)
Jesus went out and sat beside the sea. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: “Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen! “Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.”
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, some of the most popular series on TV were westerns. Among them were “The Lone Ranger,” “The Cisco Kid,” “Gene Autry,” and “The Roy Rogers Show.” Each episode related a story of a struggle between the good guys and the bad guys; the good guys, of course, always won. While some of the people portrayed in movie westerns were at least a little more complex, those on TV were either good or bad. Not only were the shows presented in black and white, so were the characters. In many of them, the good guys even wore white hats; and the bad guys, black hats. Everything was clear-cut and simple.
Obviously, real life is not like that. Its characters, including us, are much more complex.
So are some of the main characters in the book of Genesis. The most complicated and most interesting among them might well be Jacob, who enters the narrative in today’s first reading. Since Jacob, who later would be given the name “Israel,” supposedly became the ancestor of the Jewish people, and since his descendants wrote the book, his reputation was later embellished, while that of his brother, Esau, was unjustly assailed. But a closer reading of the Genesis stories presents us with a very different picture of each of them.
In the account we heard this morning, the final editor of Genesis, clearly favoring Jacob, declares: “Thus Esau despised his birthright.” The elder brother is portrayed as having no regard for his responsibility as Isaac and Rebecca’s first-born, willing to throw it away for a quick meal. But the narrative itself doesn’t justify that harsh judgment.
The story that precedes that statement shows us Esau coming in from the fields, literally facing the danger of starving to death. But his “dear brother,” Jacob, will not give him the food that can save his life: he refuses to give him anything to eat unless he swears to turn over to him his birthright. Jacob extorts his own twin brother and his desperate situation in order to obtain the dominance that he wants.
In a later story – but one that the Lectionary never includes in our Sunday readings – the twins’ father, the elderly, blind Isaac, supposedly lying on his death bed, prepares to give a special blessing to Esau. But Isaac’s wife, Rebekah, conspires with her favorite son, Jacob, to have him lie to his father and steal the blessing for himself. Esau once again becomes the innocent victim. And we are given a portrait of Jacob, betraying his brother once again, and lying and making a fool of his elderly, blind, dying father. What a great guy!
Through it all, Esau remains blameless. Later references tend to portray Jacob as the hero of the story and Esau as someone rejected by God. Yet that is simply not what the patriarchal narratives in Genesis show us. In fact, Esau is far more honest, far more decent, far more deserving of respect than his conniving and ruthless brother.
Like Abraham’s firstborn son, Ishmael, in the story that we heard just a couple of Sundays ago, Esau also is blessed by God, and blessed abundantly. God cares for him even though his brother, Jacob, has robbed him of what is rightfully his. As I pointed out in the sermon that day, just because God has chosen one person does not mean that God has rejected someone else.
The inclination to see ourselves and those associated with us as “the good guys” and to see those who differ from us or who disagree with us as “the bad guys” is just as prevalent today as it was millennia ago, when the stories in Genesis were first passed down from one generation to another. And, all too often, those judgments are just as incomplete and just as much total distortions as they were in the interpretations given to some of those ancient narratives.
It’s not hard to find examples of those completely unjustified judgments in our lives and in our culture today. Certain political figures seem to thrive on demonizing anyone who disagrees with them or criticizes them. They use broad generalizations to condemn or place restrictions on people of particular nationalities or cultures or religions; and they work to induce fear of them in the minds and hearts of ordinary citizens. Unfortunately, far too many people get suckered into believing their lies.
Much closer to home, right here in the wider community where we live, people sometimes tend to portray themselves as threatened by, or as potential victims of, those whom they do not know. Some who live in more affluent suburbs, for example, look on those in poorer neighborhoods as lazy, unwilling to help themselves, and potentially dangerous; while some living in those poorer neighborhood look on those in the suburbs as greedy and uncaring and unwilling to help those in need. One characteristic that both groups share in common is their ignorance of the other. No one neighborhood or race or economic class has an exclusive lock on ignorance: it is an equal opportunity affliction. Ignorance leads to prejudice. Prejudice leads to fear and resentment. And fear and resentment lead to division.
Neither group wears the white hats of the good guys in the old westerns. People in both groups are much more complex than that. So was Jacob. And so are we.
Martin Luther described a human being as “simul justus et peccator”: at the same time, both “just” (or “righteous”) and “a sinner.” That is who we are, and that is who the other people who share this greater-Dayton community with us are as well.
The only truly effective way to overcome that ignorance and its resulting prejudice is getting to know people personally, especially those who seem to be different from us. St. Mark’s has done that for many decades as we have welcomed into our buildings those who are struggling with alcohol or drug abuse; as parishioners who live in the suburbs have gone into food pantries and schools in the city to come to know and to serve those who come there looking for help; and as members of this parish have gone out to those living at Canterbury Court, sharing our time and resources with the elderly, low-income residents there.
There are two questions that face us at all times. First, who are the other people in our greater-Dayton community whom we do not know and against whom we might have some sort of prejudice, a prejudice that might well be born of ignorance? And second, what are we going to do to get to know them so that, unlike Jacob, we might recognize that we all are brothers and sisters and so that we might treat one another in accordance with our belief that we are all fellow children of the one God?