Genesis 25-27, Psalm 9, Matthew 9
Family matters: the challenges of daily living
Genesis 25 – 27
If you think that your family is dysfunctional, our readings today from Genesis will offer you hope in knowing that you are not alone. They remind us that family dysfunction is not new. It goes back to antiquity. Even ancient families suffered from challenges similar to what we experience today within our families. Hence, we can learn from how they dealt with difficult family situations.
Unlike the hagiographers who wrote the lives of the saints and often painted portraits of flawless men and women who led lives of purity and piety, the authors of Genesis present a series of deeply flawed individuals through whom God nonetheless managed to shine. The message for us is that if God can work through them, then God can work through us.
Despite the fact that his wife died at the age of 127, Abraham still felt virile enough to remarry and father six more children. He died at the age of 175, which now was deemed a lengthy life. Before dying, he dispatched “the sons of his concubines,” which suggests that he had more than one second wife.
Isaac and Ismael then buried their father in the cave in Hebron, where Abraham’s first wife, Sarah, was buried. Hebron lies 30 miles south of Jerusalem nestled among the Judaean Mountains and within the southern portion of the Palestinian lands. It has been the subject of conflict from time to time.
Today, it is the largest city on the West Bank and home to more than 250,000 Palestinians and over 500 Jewish settlers. As the burial site of the biblical Patriarchs, Hebron is considered the second-holiest city in Judaism after Jerusalem, and it is one of four chief holy cities for Islam.
After reading about Ishmael’s descendants, we turn our attention to the birth of Esau and Jacob, the twin sons of Isaac and Rebekah. Like her mother-in-law, Sarah, Rebekah struggled to get pregnant. Twenty years of marriage passed before Rebekah gave birth. She prayed to the Lord and conceived.
From the beginning, her sons struggled in her womb, causing her great pain. As she inquired of God through prayer, the Lord told 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.” (Gen. 25:23)
Like many stories in the Bible, these accounts are meant to be read as explanations for situations and locations at the time of their writing or tell, since many of them had a long oral history before they were finally written down. Poetic license was often taken. Most of these stories are therefore not factual, eye witness reporting. Nonetheless, they embody great truths, which can guide and shape our life today.
The twin sons were born, but were quite different. The firstborn was Esau, whose body was red and covered with hair. Esau means “hairy” in Hebrew. Jacob, the second born, was smooth-skinned and came forth clutching his brother’s ankle, for he would indeed supplant his own brother. Jacob means “may God protect” or “God has protected him” in Hebrew, and indeed, God did protect Jacob. Esau, the eldest, became a skilled hunter while Jacob, the youngest by a matter of seconds or minutes, stayed close to home and assisted his mother.
The story of Jacob conniving to obtain his Esau’s birthright is famous. It speaks volumes about the aggressive and duplicitous nature of the younger brother. We are told that Isaac inherited all of his father’s wealth. He was thus a rich man.
The Lord instructed him not to go to Egypt, despite a severe famine in the land where he was living. God instructed him, “Reside in this land as an alien, and I will be with you, and will bless you; for to you and to your descendants I will give all these lands, and I will fulfill the oath that I swore to your father Abraham.” (Gen. 26:3) Isaac remained, and God was indeed faithful.
Isaac mirrors his father in many ways, including the episode found in Gen. 26:6-11, where Isaac tells other men that Rebekah is his sister in order to preserve his life, just as his father had done with his mother, Sarah. Deception is often learned behavior – like father, like son. It is the same King Abimelech who discovers the lie and insures that no man would touch either Isaac or Rebekah.
Whatever wealth Isaac had to start with multiplies and his harvest is abundant. As his wealth grows, Isaac becomes a threat to King Abimelech, who forces him to depart. He moves to valley of Gerar, where King Abimelech eventually finds him and cuts a covenant insuring peace between all parties.
Unlike Abraham, who insured that his son Isaac married a woman of his own tribe, Isaac allowed Esau to marry a Hittite woman and paid a price for it. We are told that Esau and Judith, their daughter-in-law, “made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah.” (Gen. 26:35) Such are the challenges of family.
The key story of deception is found in chapter 27, when Jacob follows his mother’s instructions to deceive his father and steal his older brother’s blessing from their father Isaac. Isaac favored his elder son, Esau, who provided wild game for food, while Rebekah favored their younger son, Jacob, who assisted her at home.
All is not well in the household of the Patriarchs. Rebekah plays her sons off against one another. Having had his birthright and later his blessing taken by his younger brother, Esau plots revenge. Rebekah warns her younger son to flee and reside with his uncle Laban until Esau’s anger has dissipated. The chapter concludes with Rebekah lamenting, “I am weary of my life because of the Hittite women. If Jacob marries one of the Hittite women such as these, one of the women of the land, what good will my life be to me?” (Gen. 27:46) Being a mother-in-law is sometimes not an easy task.
Psalm 9 presents God as the slow but great leveler, who brings about equality and judges the righteous and the unrighteous in God’s own time. “When my enemies turned back, they stumbled and perished before you. For you have maintained my just cause; you have sat on the throne giving righteous judgment.” (Ps. 9:3-4) God is portrayed as rewarding good behavior and punishing those who are unjust. God is like a fair, cosmic judge, who “judges the people with equity.” (Ps. 9:8)
Nonetheless, God needs human help to alert him to the plight of the just, who can be oppressed. “Rise up, O Lord! Do not let mortals prevail; let the nations be judged before you,” cries the psalmist. (Ps. 9:19) Clearly, there are needy and poor people, who have led just lives and whose situation is unfair.
The psalmist sees it as his duty to champion their cause, lifting up hope that God will level what is often an un-level playing field. He calls upon God to correct situations of inequity. This is the role of the Church today and the role that each Christian is called to play as well.
Jesus continues to heal prolifically. Chapter 9 opens with Jesus healing a paralyzed man. The scribes take offense when they overhear Jesus saying, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” (Matt. 9:2) To heal is one thing, but to put one’s self in God’s place and offer forgiveness is another thing. The scribes quickly decide that Jesus has overstepped his bounds, noting, “This man is blaspheming.” (Matt. 9:3)
The forces of evil begin to oppose Jesus from here on, reminding us that goodness often encounters evil. Rabbi Ed Friedman, author of several books on leadership and family and organizational systems, notes, “The first thing that a leader can expect is sabotage.” It was not people outside of Judaism or outside of religious circles, who opposed Jesus most forcefully, but the Jews and religious leaders of his own faith, who found Jesus’ teaching and actions to be a threat.
Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man,” a title which scholars have debated at length. Some suggest that it is an ordinary address, but others maintain that it is a messianic title. In this case, it is more likely the latter and justifies Jesus’ miraculous activity, but it also further alienates the scribes from him.
Jesus soon after invites Matthew, a tax collector, to become one of his disciples. Tax collectors were despised by the Jews, because they collaborated with the Roman government in demanding exorbitant taxes from their own people. When Jesus dines with tax collectors and sinners, the law-abiding Pharisees see it as a huge red flag.
In the ancient Near East, if you ate with sinners, you became unclean by associating with them. Here Jesus turns the entire Jewish sacrificial system on its head when he overhears the Pharisees concerns and replies, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matt. 9:12-13)
All Christians would do well to ponder this saying carefully. So often our churches become inward-focused, devoting the vast amount of our energy and resources to maintaining their membership and serving those who already belong. The sign of a faithful church and a faithful Christian is the ability to focus outwardly on those who have been marginalized and hurt by life.
Before the chapter concludes, Jesus restores life to a girl who had died, stops the bleeding of a woman who suffered for 12 years from hemorrhages, restores sight to two blind men and casts out a demon from a man who had been mute. He orders those around him to “See that no one knows of this.”
Why does Jesus demand secrecy? Scholars refer to this as the Messianic Secret, noting that Jesus did not want to be known as a miracle worker. Jesus knew that he could not be fully understood until his followers had witnessed him suffering and dying upon the cross for their sake. Only then would they understand the secret of the Suffering Servant whom the prophet Isaiah had foretold and recognize Jesus for who he was – the Son of God, the Messiah.
When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore, ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. (Gen. 9:35-38)
As you read Scripture each day, strive to find one teaching or story that you can apply to your life today. Do not worry if there is much that you do not understand. Developing a full comprehension of the Bible is a slow process that requires patience. Indeed, it is the challenge of a lifetime to read, comprehend and apply what we have learned from the Bible.
How much time do you spend with those who are outside or on the margins of the Church and who might be labeled sinners? Do you make a regular effort to reach those who are most in need of love, healing, hope and forgiveness?
Gracious, Loving and Forgiving God, we are often tempted to play it safe and rest complacently like a ship in a harbor, not venturing forth or taking risks to associate with and help those who most need your hope, grace and love. Help us to leave our safe harbors and venture to the turbulent waters where sinners and troubled souls vitally need your loving embrace. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie