Genesis 28-30, Psalm 10, Matthew 10
It’s in the family DNA
Genesis 28 – 30
Who wears the pants in the family? We left Rebekah lamenting her weariness with 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,” she wonders. (Gen. 27:46)
Chapter 28 opens with Isaac fulfilling Rebekah’s wishes by commanding Jacob not to marry one of the Canaanite women, but to go instead to his uncle Laban’s home, and there among the daughters of his mother’s brother to find himself a wife.
As he readies to part, Isaac gives his younger son yet another blessing, “May God Almighty, bless you and make you fruitful and numerous, that you may become a company of peoples. May he give to you the blessing of Abraham, to you and to your offspring with you, so that you may take possession of the land where you now live as an alien – land that God gave to Abraham.” (Gen. 28:3-4) In reaction to this, Esau takes another wife, Mahalath, daughter of Abraham’s son Ishmael. One has to wonder about the inbreeding that occurs in these ancient stories.
What follows is one of the great stories of the Bible and one of the most significant stories of a human encounter with God. Jacob follows his father’s directive and travels toward Haran, where his uncle lives. He camps at night under the stars and uses a stone for a pillow, then falls asleep. In a dream Jacob envisions a ladder set upon earth and reaching toward heaven. Angels are ascending and descending on the ladder. This will become a frequent image used by Christian mystics over the centuries to come.
Then the Lord stood beside Jacob and said, “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth, and you shall spread abroad to the west and to the east and to the north and to the south; and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” (Gen. 28:13-14)
God assures Jacob that he will protect him and bring his offspring safely back to this land, “…for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Gen. 28:15) As deceitful and untrustworthy as Jacob is, we see that God remains constantly faithful and trustworthy. Despite human failure and sin, God stands by and fulfills his covenant. God’s promise is good.
Then Jacob utters one of the great lines of the Bible, “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! …How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” (Gen. 28:16-17) What is important here is that Jacob has found God in a very ordinary place, where there is no religious building, no monument or holy site. God was there in the ordinary, and the ordinary has been found to be extraordinary.
During my sabbatical in Spain, the holiest place that I visited had a church on the site, but the church was locked, and I could not enter it. It stood on the northwest coast of Spain in Muxia, on a spit of land a half mile from town watching as the waves crashed against the rocks and the sun set and the light of a lighthouse began to illuminate the darkening sky.
I was alone in a holy place, where legend has it that the Virgin Mary appeared on a boat made of stone to encourage the apostle St. James the Greater or Santiago as he is called in Spain. Yes, this was a holy site, but outwardly it looked merely like a picturesque portion of the Spanish coastline. I felt connected to God in way that I never felt while visiting any church, cathedral or monastery in Spain. God spoke most powerfully to me not as I stood before jewel-encrusted reliquaries bearing the bones of famous saints in a gothic cathedral, although I was deeply touched to visit such places, but in this very ordinary setting.
We read that Jacob “was afraid.” (Gen. 28:17) Throughout the Bible we shall see that one of the most frequent reactions to a direct encounter with God is fear. People who encounter God are awestruck, and why would they not be. God is all-powerful, all-knowing and infinite, and we are weak, finite, sinful and lacking in knowledge.
In a famous book The Idea of the Holy, the German Lutheran theologian of comparative religions Rudolph Otto describes a direct encounter with God as encountering “the mysterium tremendum ad fascinans” or the tremendous mystery that surpasses all understanding. This indeed is what occurs when finite human beings encounter the infinite reality that we call God. This is what Jacob experiences in our reading.
So, Jacob erects a pillar commemorating his encounter with God. Throughout history, humans will erect monuments, stone crosses, synagogues, churches, mosques, monasteries, convents and cathedrals in places where the infinite and finite have intersected. What is common to all of these locations is that they were ordinary places where extraordinary encounters occurred. One of the invitations that God extends to us each day is to see the holy in what others deem ordinary, to discover that God is with us at all times and in all situations.
Jacob then continued his journey and meets shepherds watering their flocks by a well. He inquires about Laban, and they point out Laban’s daughter, Rachel, to Jacob. It is love at first sight. Jacob and Rachel embrace. She is a shepherdess and he will sooner become a great herdsman.
Shepherds, however, were considered the lowest rung of society in the ancient Near East. They were poor, dirty and thought to be untrustworthy. While walking the Camino in Spain, I encountered several shepherds. One literally looked like a man who slept among the animals. When I tried to take his photograph, he cursed at me and tried to pelt me with stones. I outran him with my backpack.
I suspect that many of the shepherds that we read about in the Bible had more in common with this dirty and unfriendly character than with the gentle farmhands that we place figures in our Nativity Scenes at Christmas.
Jacob then arranges to marry Rachel after serving seven years as a farmhand for Laban, who will become his father-in-law. The seven years pass quickly, as Jacob is smitten by Rachel. On his wedding night, however, Laban arranges for his elder daughter Leah, not Rachel, to enter Jacob’s tent and sleep with him. In the morning, Jacob realizes that he has been duped.
The deceiver has been deceived by one with equal or greater cunning. We see that duplicity passes down through the generations of our founding spiritual fathers – Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and now Laban. We all come from a mixed spiritual family tree.
So, Jacob arranges to work another seven years in order to obtain Rachel as his wife. After spending a week with Leah as his wife, Rachel becomes Jacob’s second wife and the woman of his heart, but Jacob must remain serving Laban for seven additional years.
God comforts Leah, who is clearly not Jacob’s favorite, by opening her womb and allowing her to produce six sons for her husband. Rachel permits Jacob to father a child through her maid Bilhah. Leah in turn allows Jacob to father children through her maid Zilpah.
Like his mother and grandmother, Rachel is afflicted with difficulty in getting pregnant. Finally, she gives birth to a boy named Joseph, who will become Isaac’s favored son. From each of Jacob’s children come 12 tribes of Israel – Judah, Dan, Levi, etc., and all but Benjamin, Jacob’s youngest son, are born before they leave Haran.
Finally, Jacob seeks to depart with his family and some of their animals from Haran and find a land of his own. Laban has prospered greatly due to Jacob’s wise and hard work. Once again, Laban manages to deceive his son-in-law, after they strike a deal. The author of this portion of Genesis then takes poetic license and tells us that Jacob uses fresh robs of poplar, almond and plane peeled with white streaks in them and set these before the flocks as they bred to alter the coloring of their offspring.
This insured that the offspring where spotted, striped and black, which would allow Jacob to lay claim to them and keep them out of Laban’s hands. In the end, wise planning overcomes deception, and Jacob becomes a wealthy man in his own right.
If the psalmist is anything, he is honest, and his honesty is refreshing and sometimes shocking. He puts in words what we often experience. In Psalm 10, he laments, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1) How often have we felt this way?
Sometimes, when we pray it feels as though we are placing a long-distance phone call and no one is on the other end of the line. There are times in the midst of our greatest afflictions when we feel alone and abandoned by others and God.
The psalmist is troubled by things that trouble most of us. The wicked do not seem to be punished by God and those who lead good lives are afflicted by illness, tragedy and death. The world seems unfair.
For the wicked boast of the desires of their heart,
those greedy for gain curse and renounce the Lord,
In the pride of their countenance the wicked say,
“God will not seek it out;”
all their thoughts are, “There is no God.” (Ps. 10:3-4)
The actions of the unjust are all too clear to the psalmist. If he could order the universe, wrongdoers would be punished, the just would be rewarded and the poor would be comforted and made to prosper.
In the end, the psalmist acknowledges that God is not blind to evil, wrongdoing, suffering and sin.
But you do see! Indeed you note trouble and grief,
that you may take it into your hands;
the helpless commit themselves to you;
you have been the helper of the orphan. (Ps. 10:14)
Eventually, as we work prayerfully through each psalm, we discover that the Church and each Christian is called to offer up the needs of the poor, the suffering and the afflicted to God and to do something significant ourselves to alleviate their suffering.
Matthew 10 is about delegating and power sharing. While the Church is said to be born on the Day of Pentecost, in some ways the Church is born in this chapter when Jesus summons his disciples and gives them power and authority to cast out evil spirits and to cure every disease. (Matt. 10:1) In doing so, his spiritual power is shared, which allows for the birth of the Church and her mission.
We have been given spiritual gifts to carry out Jesus’ work. It is up to us to serve as the Body of Christ in this world which knows so much brokenness and affliction. Furthermore, our deep joy is to be found in meeting the deep needs of the world. This is the essence of our vocation. Author Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC wrote something incredibly helpful regarding understanding our vocation in life that I shall never forget. Vocation, writes Buechner,
…comes from the Latin vocare, to call, and means the work a man is called to by God. There are all different kinds of voices calling you to all different kinds of work, and the problem is to find out which is the voice of God rather than of Society, say, or the Superego, or Self-Interest. By and large a good rule for finding out is this. The kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you most need to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done. If you really get a kick out of your work, you’ve presumably met requirement (a), but if your work is writing TV deodorant commercials, the chances are that you’ve missed requirement (b). On the other hand, if your work is being a doctor in a leper colony, you have probably met requirement (b), but if most of the time you’re bored and depressed by it, the chances are you have not only bypassed (a) but probably aren’t helping your patients much either. Neither the hair shirt nor the soft berth will do. The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. (p. 95)
Jesus warns his followers that they are to “go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no towns among the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” (Matt. 10:5-6) Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience. As a consequence, he portrays Jesus’ ministry as one focused on reaching out to the Jews rather than to Gentiles. Luke, by contrast, will address a Gentile audience and reveal how Jesus spent considerable time among the Gentiles and the Samaritans.
Jesus commands his followers to “proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons.” (Matt. 10:7-8) These are marching orders for the disciples and for us as well. This remains the Church’s mission today.
Scholars have noted that Matthew is addressing a wealthy audience. One clue is that he has Jesus say, “Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts…” (Matt. 10:9) In Mark and Luke’s accounts, Jesus warns them to take no provisions, but refers to lesser sums of money. Here, it is as though Jesus is warning his disciples not to take along their Gold VISA Card as opposed to cash or pocket change.
Jesus also warms them that they will suffer much persecution. By the time that Matthew wrote his gospel, the Church was already experiencing persecution at the hands of the Roman authorities. Christians were being covered with tar and burned as human torches on the terraces of Emperor Nero’s Palace to entertain his friends.
There is wisdom still in what Jesus says. More Christians were martyred in the 20th century than in all of the previous centuries added together. Today, Christians in many parts of the world are facing extreme forms of persecution, especially at the hands of Muslims.
Even in a largely Christian society, exercising ministry is not always easy. One of my mentors John Claypool once instructed me as I began a new ministry, “Some people will accept your ministry right away and you can work with them immediately. Others will take time before they accept you and will let you work with them. There will also be a portion of people who will only accept your ministry after you have left. Work with those who you can work with now, and do not worry about the rest.” Indeed, not everyone will accept our help. It is wise stewardship on our part to focus on those who will allow us to share our gifts and talents.
One of the most troubling teachings of Jesus is found in Matthew 10:34-38, where Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law; and one’s foes will be the members of one’s own household.” (Matt. 10:34-36) It is a fair question to ask whether Jesus actually said this.
It is likely that Jesus was speaking in hyperbole, which was characteristic of antiquity. He may also have been misquoted, but there is little doubt that following Jesus will cause us to choose alliances. Either we put God first in our lives or we put family, friends, success, dreams, pleasure or other things first.
If we put God and Jesus first in our lives, the Holy Spirit will insure that the rest of our relationships are well-ordered. Our family and friends will not be neglected, but will be given a healthy and fair priority. If we set something else first in our lives, chances are we will have disordered relationships and our service to God will greatly suffer as well.
Throughout the gospels, we shall encounter many difficult sayings that Jesus offered. For more insights into these passages, I recommend reading Hard Sayings of Jesus by New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce. It’s been said, however, that the true challenge of Christianity is not understanding what Jesus said, but rather putting his teaching into practice.
Jesus concludes this hard saying by noting, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39) This is a reminder that Christianity is a counter-intuitive life. While advertisers tell us to “go for all the gusto that you can,” the truth is that lasting fulfillment is never found simply by indulging ourselves in a life of pleasure. Hedonism is a shallow pool in which to swim. Deep joy, sustained meaning and true purpose derive from service to others. That is Christ’s essential message to us, and it is what he modeled for us on earth.
Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it! (Gen. 28:16)
Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. (Matt. 10:39)
If you read the Bible for 30 days in a row, studies show that there is an 80 percent chance that you will read the Bible for the rest of your life. Establishing a successful pattern of daily Bible reading in the first month of reading is vital.
In what ways do you struggle to put God first in your life? Do you feel as though our society promotes making our family into our God? In what ways do you feel that the people and things that you love in life need to be reordered in your life in terms of their priority?
Loving God, we know that through faithful reading of your Word that you will help us to become better a spouse, a more patience parent, a more compassionate friend, a wiser companion and finer listener to those who need us. Help your Word to reorder the loves in our life so that by loving you above all, other people and things may receive the love that they deserve from us. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen
© The Rev. Marek P. Zabriskie