Saturday Night Theologian
10 July 2005

Genesis 25:19-34

Sibling rivalry is a complex, psychological game that children play, usually beginning shortly after the birth of the second and subsequent children. In the case of two children, one will often try to curry favor with the parents by presenting herself as smarter or prettier. The other might respond by trying to appear funnier or better behaved. Most cases of sibling rivalry are more or less resolved by the time the children reach adulthood, though the emotional (or sometimes physical) scars and personality developments resulting from the rivalry may remain. However, it is not uncommon for adult children to continue to try to win their parents' approval by subtly presenting themselves as better examples of the idea of "offspring" (in a Platonic sense), and the rivalry goes on. It can even extend beyond the parents' deaths, as the siblings target other people in their appeals for approval and recognition. Jacob and Esau are the biblical poster children for sibling rivalry. Today's reading from Genesis portrays their struggle with one another for supremacy as beginning in the womb, continuing at the very moment of birth, and peaking--for the moment--in the act of Jacob taking Esau's birthright. Jews and Christians tend to identify with Jacob. We praise his cleverness in tricking Esau out of his birthright, and we applaud the fact that Jacob took the initiative to improve his lot in life. At the same time, we deplore Esau's lack of concern about so important a matter as his birthright, and we see him as lazy and indifferent about the future. Many scholars see behind Jacob and Esau's sibling rivalry a reprise of the theme of conflict between hunter-gatherers (nomads) and pastoralists (semi-nomads), reflected elsewhere in the Bible as well. That may be, but I want to suggest another conflict, one that modern people might be better able to relate to. We can see Esau as the representative of people who are impulsive and Jacob as the hero of those who are planners. Esau was an existentialist, living for the moment, enjoying life to the fullest. Jacob was a schemer, putting off immediate pleasure for the sake of long-term gain. Esau was too antsy to sit with the flock; he had to be out hunting for game. Jacob was too calculating to wander about hunting; he preferred the sure thing: a goat in a pen. There are lessons we can learn from both Esau and Jacob, both positive and negative. From Esau we can learn to savor life, to enjoy it to the fullest every moment. From Esau we can also learn the dangers of blowing a minor problem (hunger) into a major catastrophe, with the subsequent fallout. From Jacob we can learn to think long-term, to look at the big picture. Life is (usually) about more than just your next meal, and postponing pleasure can lead to greater rewards in the future. From Jacob we can also learn the dangers of treating achievements as more important than people, for what good is a birthright without a family in which to claim it? Children struggle with one another to gain their parents' approval, but we as parents need to let them know that they already have our approval, regardless of their temporal accomplishments. Christians struggle with one another, and with believers of other faiths, in an ostensible effort to win God's favor, but God has already told us that such struggle is both unnecessary and counterproductive, for "God so loved the world."

Psalm 119:105-112

In 1876 Felix Adler founded the Ethical Culture Movement in Britain. Although a religious man himself, Adler was concerned by the failure of many adherents of religion to support what he saw as obvious ethical principles, such as respect for all human life, responsibility for improving the lives of other people, and recognition of the sacred interconnectedness of life. In the U.S., Ralph Waldo Emerson echoed Adler's call, and he was one of the founders of the Ethical Society, whose chapters sprang up in a number of major cities around the country. The Ethical Society's motto, "Deed Before Creed," suggests that how we treat others is more important in life than the specific doctrines we hold dear. That some nonreligious people are attracted to the ideals of the Ethical Society, and similar organizations and movements, is not surprising. The surprising, even shocking, fact is that so many people who see themselves as adherents of traditional religions are unconcerned about the issues that are core principles of the Ethical Society, especially the ethical treatment of and concern for other people. Psalm 119 is a long acrostic poem that sings the praises of the law, another word for doctrine. "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path," the psalmist says. However, the law is not just something to which one assents mentally; it is a set of principles that should transform one's life: "I incline my heart to perform your statutes forever, to the end." Many people of faith today argue over matters of interpretation, or sources of authority, or proper techniques of worship. While healthy debate about such issues can have positive effects, bitter arguments and polemical attacks are only negative. More important than either, though, is the question of how to put faith-based doctrine into practice. Radical terrorists claiming to be adherents of Islam bombed trains and buses this week in London, killing 50 or more people. The people who perpetrate such acts no more represent the teachings of Islam than Timothy McVeigh was a prime representative of Christianity. In fact, the unity in opposition to such horrific crimes demonstrates how close people of different faiths stand to one another in regard to proper behavior. Every Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, Taoist, Zoroastrian, or follower of almost any other religion, along with atheists and agnostics, can agree that such acts are wrong. It is time for all people of faith to join together with people of no faith and act according to principles that we can all agree on: all human life is important, it is our duty as human beings to help those in need, and we all need to learn to live together in the modern world.

Romans 8:1-11

A lot of jokes are told about which religious tradition is the best at instilling feelings of guilt in people. The tradition identified usually depends on the tradition followed by the person telling the joke, but the ones I've heard mentioned most frequently are Jews, Catholics, and Lutherans (yes, I listen to Garrison Keillor). In truth, of course, many other religious traditions could be the butt of those jokes. Religious traditions impute guilt for matters such as violation of some ethical standard or for failure to perform certain tasks. Freud said that guilt is due to conflict between the ego and the superego and is the expression of the condemnation of the ego. Guilt is not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if it leads to repentance and restitution. However, guilt can have an extraordinarily negative effect on people if they have no mechanism for dealing with it and eliminating it from their lives. One of the reasons that the message of Christianity is called the gospel, or good news, is that it offers freedom from lingering guilt. Paul says, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." He contrasts the law of the flesh, which is able to raise the awareness of sin and to instill guilt, with the law of the Spirit, which is able to remove both sin and guilt. We have all done stupid things in the past, things we're not proud of. We've lied, cheated, stolen, and worse. How can we stand in the presence of a holy God after having done what we've done? The good news that Paul proclaims is that God really does forgive. God doesn't hold a grudge, and God doesn't hold our sins over us for all eternity. As far as the east is from the west, so far has God removed our sins from us. We can live our lives in the knowledge that when we confess our sin and receive forgiveness, we can also lay down our guilt at the foot of the cross. There is no longer any condemnation. Hallelujah!

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

Several months ago we moved into a new house, and last weekend we planted grass in the back yard. Why we waited until last weekend to begin planting grass escapes me at the moment, but it was hard, hot work. Not only was planting the grass hard, but keeping it alive in the midst of several days of 100+ temperatures has proved to be a challenge. Will we win the battle? Who knows at this point? The soil on which we've planted our grass is really just a thin layer of dirt covering heaps of rocks that were trucked in to level out the yard a bit. In our favor we have our stubborn refusal to let the grass die, in part because we paid a lot of money for it, and also because we worked so hard to plant it. We water it obsessively, and it continues to show signs of life, despite its hardly hardy appearance. Opposed to us we have both the heat of a South Texas summer and the poor quality of the soil. It might not be exactly an epic struggle, but it is a struggle nonetheless. What would have made the job easier, apart from paying someone else to do it? First, cooler weather would have helped. Second, thick, rich topsoil would have been a boon as well. Jesus told a parable about a sower who sowed his seed in a field with various types of soil. Some seed fell on the hard path, and the birds ate it as soon as it fell. Other seed fell on rocky, shallow soil. These plants sprang up quickly but just as quickly withered. Other seed fell among thorns, and when the plants grew up, the thorns choked them out. If the story stopped here, the sower's efforts would seem to have been in vain. Sometimes that's the way we feel about our efforts at ministry. We do the best we can, we try to follow God, but we just don't see any results. Some people go for years, or maybe their entire careers, with few visible results. I think particularly of the prophet Jeremiah, who managed to win one convert, Baruch, and died in exile from his people and the land he loved. Nevertheless, who today would argue that Jeremiah's ministry was a failure? The seeds he planted grew, they just grew years or centuries after his death. If you feel like God isn't using you, don't lose heart. If you're following the path that you believe God has laid out to the best of your ability, rest assured that some of the seeds you're sowing will grow. And remember, the story isn't over. Some seed fell on good soil, and the plants that grew produced grain that was 30, 60, or even 100 times more than the original seed. We know that much of the seed that we sow will bear no fruit, at least while we're watching, but this parable teaches us that some of the seed we sow, or that God sows through us, will make up for all those seeds that never bore fruit. Maybe we'll see the results, and maybe we won't, but God will, and that's all that matters.