Genesis 31-33, Psalm 11, Matthew 11
The great reversal and reconciliation
Genesis 31 – 33
Chapters 31-33 form a coherent unit as the story of Jacob, one of the three Jewish Patriarchs, continues. It also shows us a much more positive side of him as a man. Aware that his brothers-in-law are becoming increasingly jealous of his success, Jacob listens carefully as God commands him to return to his ancestral home.”
How does God speak? Does God address us in the same way that humans speak to us? After college, I moved to Paris, France, where I lived for $3 a day and stayed for free in a chambre de bon or a maid’s room, in exchange for teaching an elderly man English. The room was like a garret chamber, located up six flights of stairs in a chic neighborhood in the City of Lights.
I had a small window that opened onto a Mansarde rooftop, which I could prop open and look out at night over the Eiffel Tower. The view of the Paris rooftops was lovely. Once a week, I splurged and bought a bottle of vin du table for four francs (about a $1) and savored it as I listened to Saint-Saens Symphony #3 with Organ, one of my favorite pieces of music.
I was struggling to discern what to do with my life. I was studying French intensively, hoping eventually to do graduate work and earn a doctorate in theology or philosophy. I was also considering returning to the United States to work as a journalist and wrestling with a call to enter the priesthood that seemed to haunt me and would not go away.
I had heard that priests received “a call” to the enter the priesthood, and I wondered what that would be like. Would someone knock on the door of my garret-like chambre de bon and extend a “call” to me, like the “grey messenger” who appeared at Mozart’s door, gave him 30 ducats and commissioned him to write his famous Requiem Mass?
In time, I discovered that God speaks in many different ways. God often speaks through those around us, who tell us things that we sometimes long to hear as well as things that we need to hear but prefer not to hear. God speaks to us through Scripture, as we prayerfully read the Bible. The Lord also speaks to us in nature, as we walk beside the ocean, witness a sunset or hike in the mountains. God speaks to us in dreams, as the Lord spoke to many persons in the Bible. God especially speaks to us in prayer, often placing a thought in our hearts and minds that inspire us to act or to be more at peace.
God clearly communicated to Jacob from time to time. Jacob was wise and obedient to listen to God and obey his commands. The Latin word obedire means both “to listen” and “to obey.” When we truly listen to God, we must be willing also to obey God. When we listen to God but do not obey God, we are not listening to God, but actually defying God.
Jacob listened to God and obeyed. He had little trouble convincing Rachel and Leah that it was time to leave their father and kin. Jacob and his family slipped away stealthily with saying good-bye, knowing that Laban, the great deceiver who had changed Jacob’s wages ten times, would probably prevent their departure.
When Laban discovered their departure, he tracked them down, the reader can easily imagine the encounter like a scene from a movie. Fortunately, Laban has been warned in a dream by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that he is to say “not a word to Jacob, either good or bad.” (Gen. 31:24) Laban could not help himself, and so he castigated Jacob, especially for the missing gods that were taken from his house by his daughter Rachel. Jacob answered with a splendid defense. Here the younger deceiver presents a different side of himself. He is now a seasoned man-of-commerce, who is hard-working and wise. The two men finally cut a covenant and agree never to trespass onto each other’s land.
It is now time for Jacob to encounter his brother Esau from whom he swindled his birthright and stole his blessing 20 years earlier. One can only imagine the fear that filled Jacob’s heart as he envisioned encountering his brother, who two decades earlier had plotted to kill him.
Being shrewd by instinct, Jacob sent envoys with plentiful offerings of animals ahead of him as gifts to his brother, hoping to warm his heart before they met. He wisely split his enormous herd in half, like a careful investor minimizing risks before making a speculative investment.
Before the two brothers met, Jacob sent his family to move ahead of him and spent the night alone at Peniel, where “a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” (Gen. 32:24) The rabbis have long believed that the “man” who wrestled with Jacob was none other than God. When God saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, God wounded Jacob in the hip, forcing him to limp.
Then God changed his worthy opponent’s name from Jacob, which means “may God protect” or “God has protected him” to Israel, which means “one who wrestles or struggles with God.” (Gen. 32:28) It is a fitting name not only for Jacob, but also for the country which bears his name, and for each person who follows in his footsteps. Those who follow God are genuinely people who “wrestle with” or “struggle with” God. Following God is not an easy experience, but it is the most meaningful of all existences.
In chapter 33, Esau and Jacob meet, reconcile, weep, kiss and eventually part ways. It is one of the most poignant stories in the Bible, and hopefully it has inspired many readers to reflect upon their own broken relationships in our own lives and seek reconciliation with those from whom they had been cut off for significant periods of time. The Bible is a collection not of perfect people, but of people similar to ourselves through whom God has worked, and whose actions and words inspire us to this day.
Psalm 11 informs us that “The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence.” (Ps. 11:5) Both thoughts are powerful and important. God does indeed test each of us from time to time to see what we are made of and whether we can be counted upon for serving God faithfully in important circumstances. When we are found wanting, God does not entrust greater responsibility to us.
When we are found worthy, God often increases our responsibilities for faithful service. What is important to remember, is that our Lord is not the God of Deists, a creative force whom they imagined created the universe like a giant watch, wound it and let it tick away, while God remained aloof and far away. God intervenes and is involved in our lives daily. Exactly how God is involved, however, often remains a mystery.
The second thought found in this verse is equally important. God is not a lover of violence. This is crucial to recall, as the Old Testament often depicts God as violent, vengeful and full of wrath. There is much human projection upon God placed in the Bible, where we discover many conflicting images of God. It is up to each of us as we faithfully read Scripture to sort through these images and discern the true nature of God, which is loving, forgiving, patient, kind and generous, but also a God of high expectations who challenges us to be far more than we would ever be without God’s grace and love.
There were many who were initially confused as to whether to follow John the Baptist or Jesus. Both cousins drew their supporters and followers. John intuitively sensed that his mission was to prepare the way for one who was far greater than himself, perhaps even for the Messiah himself.
Once imprisoned, John was anxious to know if Jesus was “the one who is to come, or are we to await for another.” (Matt. 11:3) Like a good rabbi, Jesus often answered a question with a question, but here he answered with an account of what he had done. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news preached to them.” (Matt. 11:4-5)
This is Jesus’ mission and the Church’s mission as well today. Most of the disagreements that Church leaders and members obsess over have nothing to do with this mission. This mission is the Church’s “knitting,” so to speak, and we, as Christians, need to stick to our knitting and not be misled into ridiculous arguments over ritual, hierarchy, human sexuality and all the things that have a way of dividing and weakening Christians and sidetracking us from our true mission.
The mission that we are called to, however, is hard and often not pretty. It demands that we roll up our sleeves, get dirty, acknowledge and do something about those who suffer and are afflicted. It is tempting for each one of us to play it safe in our secure settings and cast rocks or offer conceptual arguments with other Christians or with the culture around us. Jesus models something different.
He then praises John as the last of the great prophets. The era of prophetic ministry is now over. A new era has begun. John “is Elijah who is to come.” (Matt. 11:14) This powerful phrase suggests that John is the ancient prophet returned to life. For centuries, rabbis have believed that the prophet Elijah would return to earth before the Messiah’s arrival. To this day, Jews leave an empty chair at the table during the Passover Seder, awaiting the return of Elijah, whom they believe will prepare the Messiah’s way.
The stage is now set. Elijah has returned in the guise of John. Jesus is the one “who is to come.” Our Lord then reproaches Jewish cities that have witnessed great deeds of power, but did not repent. He notes that had these same deeds been performed in Gentile cities such as Tyre and Sidon, they would have long ago repented and changed their ways. What Jesus is saying here is inflammatory. He is like a truth-telling preacher, whose days in parish ministry are numbered, because people can only stand so much truth about themselves and those around them.
Jesus closes by thanking God for concealing much truth from the wise and intelligent of the world and revealing them to infants and those deemed young, inexperienced and unwise. He notes that “no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son choses to reveal him.” (Matt. 11:27) This does not necessarily imply church membership for as St. Augustine said, “There are those whom the Church has that God does not have, and those who God has that the Church does not have.”
The chapter concludes with one of the most powerful and helpful verses in all of Scripture. “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matt. 11:28-30)
For years this has been my favorite verse in the Bible. I grew up in a sort of workaholic environment, which was all about doing. I struggled to sit still and be. I felt as though I had to earn my keep on earth, accomplish great things and have a monument built in my honor in some park by the time that I had died in order to justify my existence.
I felt as though my self-worth was measured by solely by my productivity. As a result, I frequently took on more than I could manage, and I often felt like a serf carrying an enormous load upon my back. It was hardly an image or an experience of freedom or joy. I believe that countless others suffer today from serving as human doings rather than human beings.
This verse was like an antidote to the tape that ran through my head saying, “Do, do and do some more.” It reminded me that whenever I felt that that load that I was carrying was burdensome and overwhelming that I was carrying the Lord’s burden, but one that I had manufactured for myself. The Lord’s burden, we are told, is easy and light.
There is a legend that Jesus was a carpenter like his father, Joseph. Jesus manufactured yokes in his hometown of Nazareth. Instead of mass producing them, he custom-fit each yoke to suit the oxen to which it was harnessed. Outside his shop hung a sign hung that read, “My yokes are easy. They fit well.” God tailors the burdens that we carry to match our gifts, talents and energy. If we are feeling overwhelmed with the load that we carry, we would be wise to consider prayerfully whether we have mistakenly taken on responsibilities that God has not intended for us to do.
One of the Church Fathers or early theologians of the Church suggested that the Bible is like a medicine chest. As we read through it, we each find different verses that speak to us and relieve anxiety, stress and suffering and provide meaning, hope and light. What you discover as meaningful will be different from what I have uncovered. What is crucial is that each of us finds the spiritual medicine that we need to guide us to wholeness and holiness.
Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matt. 11:28-30)
Don’t obsess about how much you read of the Bible each day. As my spiritual mentor Fr. Basil Pennington used to say, “Never underestimate how much God can say in a few words to transform your life.” It is better to read a small portion of the Bible prayerfully, take it to heart and apply it to our life than to read large portions each day with no intention of applying the Words of Scripture to your life.
Have you found any words in Scripture that seem like medicine to your soul? What are the tapes that were created in your childhood that continue to play loudly in your heart and mind? Are there some tapes that need to be dismantled so that you may lead the life that God has prepared for your to lead?
Gracious and Healing God, you have set us in the context of imperfect families, which have struggled their best to help us become the persons that you have intended us to be. Often, however, we become prisoners to tapes and narratives that sound in our brains and hearts and restrain us from experiencing the freedom and joy that you desire for us. Help us as we read the Word to allow your sacred teaching to free us so that we might serve you faithfully and discover our your joy. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie