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- Creative Transformation
July 28, 2002
Matthew 13:31-33, 45-52
The Jacob cycle is truly one of the more colorful contributions to the world of sacred texts. It is reminiscent of the great hero narratives of Hinduism and quest stories of Buddhism.
The story portrays bigger than life personalities caught up in a kind of gamesmanship that is both compelling and instructive. For the most part the story is told from the perspective of the Yahwist. As always, "J" is persistent in telling the story from outside the story to make the point that human beings always think they have more control over their affairs than they actually do.
The story is layered, multi-purposed, and punctuated with irony. In our story for today we have the cunning and self-serving Jacob out-witted and out-maneuvered by his sly and devious uncle, Laban. Jacob is smitten by Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel. He negotiates with his uncle for permission to marry her by offering to work for him for seven years in exchange for her hand. Laban agrees.
What is so intriguing here is the fact that earlier in the narrative Laban had declared concern that Jacob should not be working for him for free just because he is family. In accepting Jacob’s offer, he effectively voids the familial relationship, reducing Jacob to servant status with Laban becoming the master.
After successfully completing his seven years of work he asks Laban to fulfill his end of the contract, and once again, Laban agrees. During the wedding festivities, however, Laban substitutes his older daughter, Leah, for Rachel, and Jacob does not discover the deception until after the marriage has been consummated. When Jacob confronts Laban, his uncle explains rather matter-of-factly that it is not seemly for a younger daughter to be married before the older daughter. Jacob demands that Laban make good on their agreement. Laban tells Jacob he will if Jacob will simply honor the wedding week and works for him another seven years. Jacob truly is no longer family, but a slave.
Our recent involvements in the mid-east make this story much more accessible than it once was. Time was when interpretations waxed incredulous that Jacob would not have known another woman was being passed off on him. Awareness of near east practices re: women and marriage customs, however, render the story highly believable. We know, for instance, traditional households insist that single women be heavily veiled. The wedding festivities themselves probably dulled Jacob’s senses. And most importantly, at that time, only after the wedding ceremony and after night had fallen, did the family of the bride take her and deposit her in her new husband’s tent.
In the absence of getting hung up on whether or not the story is believable, we can focus on what the original authors intended us to focus on. The deceitful Jacob who has manipulated his brother out of his birthright and colluded with his mother to dupe his blind father into bestowing the blessing of heritage due his brother, Esau, on himself, is now the victim of deceit and manipulation. In terms of results, Jacob is as blind as his father, but without reason, which makes him seem truly foolish. And consider the irony of Laban’s explanation for the ruse: younger versus older as explanation for the marriage switch to the man who abused his brother’s status as first-born because he could not accept being the "younger" brother.
Finally, just as Jacob used his father’s love for Esau against both of them, so Laban uses Jacob’s love for Rachel against Jacob and both his daughters. So who’s in charge here?
Jacob’s dark side (the night, the veil, the darkness itself), Laban, the fates, some outside Force, Yahweh—God,…? Or is the story about something else? God’s purposes will not be defeated? Or, no matter the complicity and complexity of our lives, God does not discard us but rather seeks ways to reconfigure our character defects into creative material for the benefit of the world? Or…no matter what,--God?
Psalm 128 seems to suggest that to live inside the understanding of no matter what, God, is to become a blessing to all of the people (Israel).
The altogether familiar passages in the eighth chapter of Romans give a new spin to the notion of no matter what, God. For Paul the no matter what, God truth is mediated through the resurrected Jesus. The resurrected Jesus attests to the continuing work of the Spirit. The Spirit calls our attention to God’s unrelenting desire to have us share in the divine life. That call is issued not to individuals but to communities. Through the work of the Spirit in communities of believers we come to know the resurrected Jesus as the Christ of God. That knowledge does not lead to doctrinal statements but a new way of experiencing reality. In that new reality we understand that nothing, absolutely nothing will ever separate us from the love of God.
The parable of the Mustard Seed is found in the three Synoptic Gospels and Thomas. The Jesus Seminar thinks Thomas is the earliest version but Bernard Brandon Scott thinks Q is embodied in the Lukan version and is, therefore, the earliest. The import of that conclusion comes from the world of literary criticism and the assertion that stories are elaborated over time. Since the power of the parable comes from the storyteller rather than from the meaning of the story, it is important to get as close to Jesus as we can.
Remembering the world in which Jesus lived and the religious culture he embodied, to speak of the realm of the Divine or God’s Imperial Reign or the Kingdom of God was to imagine something large, grand—big and powerful—and imposing. So for Jesus to invoke an image of something really small as descriptive of God’s Space would have been shocking, if not blasphemous. It certainly would have gotten his listener’s attention.
Referring to Scott again and his book Re-Imagine the World, he suggests that we see in the background of Jesus’ thought, Ezekiel and Daniel and their references to the mighty cedar of Lebanon. (p.38) In other words, as Jesus starts to respond to the question, "what is the kingdom of God like and to what shall I compare it?" he knows that most of his listeners know their history and heroes and are probably already expecting a particular answer.
So, in typical Jesus fashion, he dumbfounds them—a response largely lost today through hackneyed interpretations and unimaginative applications. Jesus’ image and comparison is amazing not for the small to large equation but for the pervasiveness of the mustard bush. It was, after all, a weed. Not only was it commonplace and a weed, but also it was odoriferous. So the Realm of God is commonplace? Weed-like? And it smells? And it’s a nesting place for birds— the most fragile of all the creatures?
WOW! What an insult to the righteous who imagined God’s Place to be more splendid than Solomon’s Temple and better equipped than the Roman army. What a dis-appointment for the dispossessed who hoped for a trip to Rodeo Drive in a BMW.
What a shock to the purveyors of religious rules and ordinances who just knew the correct rites and rituals to perform to get to that far away place where God is. This ordinary, oh so prevalent, smelly, out of control weed, that harbors birds, that we try to get rid of—this is what the Kingdom of God is like? You mean it’s right here and not so attractive and only useful? You mean it’s not a beautiful reward for being a member of the in-group?
No wonder Jesus got in so much trouble so often with so many. Oh to be in trouble again! What a great idea for the church.
The Rev. Dr. Tari Lennon is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ and holds degrees in theology, ministry and psychology. She retired from parish ministry after 43 years and now convenes Open Gatherings which draws people together from all faiths and nonfaiths to explore topics of spirituality, relationships, and personal ethics.