St. John's, Centreville
July 30, 2017
Proper 12 A
God of new beginnings, meet us where we are on our journey, imperfect as we are, and then use us, we pray, in ways we cannot imagine to make a difference in the world for you, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
This morning, we will continue our journey through the great stories in the Book of Genesis. We have heard about Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, and Jacob and Esau. Today we continue the story of Jacob, as he is on the run from his angry twin brother.
As you may remember, Jacob has stolen the birthright of Esau, the first born. Being the first born male in this society was really important, as he got double the inheritance of his other brothers. You may recall that Esau came in after a hard day of hunting and, being hungry, he demanded a bowl of stew that his brother had prepared. Jacob gave it to him in return for Esau's birthright. In a later story, Jacob's mother helps him dress like Esau in order to receive Isaac's blessing as he lies dying, a blessing that should have gone to Esau as the first born.
In the verses just prior to this story, Jacob has journeyed to Haran, where his mother's brother Laban lives. He goes to the well, the gathering place of the community, and asks if anyone knows Laban. Yes, they reply, and here comes his daughter Rachel, bringing her father's sheep to the watering hole. After she finds out that Jacob is her father's nephew, her cousin, she runs back to her house to tell her father.
Laban is equally excited to greet his sister's son and Jacob stays with him for a month. That is the lead in to our reading this morning. Whether or not Jacob has been helping around the house or caring for the animals is not known. But either way, Laban asks Jacob what his wages are, as he does not want to take advantage of Jacob and have him work for free, just because he is his nephew. Or maybe it is a nice way to get him up off the couch and doing something by asking him what his wages are.
By now, Jacob has gotten to know Rachel, the younger daughter, and Leah, the older daughter. He has fallen in love with the beautiful Rachel and he says he will work seven years to have her as his wife. Now seven years is a very long time, even in the days of Laban and Jacob. But Jacob's love for Rachel is so strong, he is willing to do this. And Laban agrees.
At the end of his seven years of serving Laban, Jacob asks for Rachel to be given to him. Again, Laban agrees and he throws a big party. We can imagine there was probably a lot of drinking at this party, and afterwards, Jacob returns to his tent. He expects Rachel will come to his tent, as Laban has agreed to. So when a heavily veiled woman is brought to his tent, he assumes it is Rachel. It is not until the morning when he realizes he has been tricked and it is not Rachel but Leah.
Now we could name this story, "what goes around comes around." Here we have Jacob, who tricked his brother Esau to get what he wanted, now being tricked by Laban to get what he wanted - his older daughter who was not especially pretty and had weak eyes, married off. In anger, Jacob confronts Laban. "Why have you deceived me?" Those very words might have been said by Esau to Jacob.
Laban replies that in their country, the younger daughter cannot be married before the older daughter is married. Funny, Laban didn't seem to mention this when Jacob said he would work seven years for Rachel. So now Laban tells Jacob he needs to work another seven years in order to marry Rachel. So Laban gets 14 years of free labor and a good man to marry both of his daughters. A pretty good deal for Laban.
It is somewhat of a sad story in that the women do not seem to have much say in their destinies. They don't seem to be given any choices, to have any say in the matter. It is a patriarchal society and women were seen as property. It must have been hard for Rachel to see Leah married to the man promised to her, and perhaps even harder for Leah to be forced to marry a man who does not love her.
In our day and time, we see these kinds of arrangements as totally unacceptable. Women should have as much power and say over their lives as men, and we would all agree with that.
But notice that God does not interfere with the unfair power structures of the day. Not only does God not interfere with the fate of Leah and Rachel, in the verses following this story, we hear that each of them has a maid, Bilhah and Zilpah, and when Leah and Rachel have a hard time conceiving offspring, they force their maids to conceive some of Jacob's children so he will have heirs. Eventually, these four women bear 12 children, who become the 12 tribes of Israel. God uses them to fulfill God's promises.
God does not come into the lives of these women and introduce democracy or equal rights. God does not destroy the social customs of the day, no matter how unfair they were. But God does look out for the outcasts. God saves Hagar who was cast out by Sarah into the desert. God saw that unloved Leah had children and an opportunity for social standing in the household. We may want God's justice to be big and powerful, but some of these stories show God often works through those who are the least and the lost. Those on the margins are always in God's heart. It's the unloved and downtrodden who will be central in the prophetic voices that will come from the future nation of which Rachel, Leah, Bilhah and Zilpah are a part.
Based on these stories, we shouldn't expect God to make big interventions in the halls of power today, forcing people to treat everyone with equality and respect. Perhaps we should look instead to see what God is doing with those in our society who are cast aside - the poor, the hungry, the homeless, the lonely, the depressed, the sick, the imprisoned. It is in the spaces surrounding them that we can often see God at work. It is through relationships and compassion that we can participate in God's actions, as we pass on the love God has for us to one another.
We are the ones God calls to speak up for those who are cast aside. It is up to us as followers of Jesus Christ to seek justice and equality for those who are less fortunate, for those who cannot speak for themselves.
Just because we don't see God acting in dramatic ways to right the wrongs of society does not mean God is satisfied with the status quo. God depends on us to do what we can to fight injustice, discrimination and hatred in our world. God sends the Holy Spirit to give us the vision and strength we need to do what we can, in large ways and in small ways, with large groups of people or just one person. May we remember the least and the lost, the poor and the destitute as we work for justice and equality for all. Amen.