August 2, 2020
Today we go to Genesis to hear an episode from Jacob’s faith story. To catch you up on where we are in the story, Jacob has fled from his brother Esau’s anger… Esau wanted to kill Jacob because Jacob had just stolen their father Isaac’s blessing. While he was running away from the consequences of his actions, Jacob had his first encounter with God in a dream… dreaming of a ladder with angels ascending and descending. In that dream, God told Jacob of the covenant God had made with Abraham… a covenant promise that was now being passed on to Jacob. Jacob, in response, tried to bind God to a conditional promise… that if kept… Jacob would then claim God to be his god.
Jacob has schemed and tricked his way through life… an approach to life that has kept him separated from the people around him. So after he flees from home, Jacob ends up at his uncle Laban’s place. His uncle then manages to out trick the trickster and Jacob ends up working many years and marrying Leah in order to marry Rachel, the woman he loves. So as we encounter Jacob today, he is older and has… not surprisingly… fallen out of favor with his uncle. He has amassed property and children and now Jacob travels back home to face the mess he left behind so many years ago… especially the anger of his brother, Esau. Jacob is not sure how the reunion will go. Expecting the worst, he is filled with fear and anxiety… unsure of how he is going to scheme and trick his way out of this mess.
So I invite you to listen for the Word of God as it continues to speak to you.
READ Genesis 32:22-31
Sorry about the long introduction. But without knowing Jacob’s story to this point, it’s hard to see how this wrestling with God becomes an important turning point in Jacob’s life. Up to this point, Jacob has been the ultimate individualist. Even from before he came out of the womb, he was struggling with the people around him. He is born grasping onto the heel of his twin brother Esau. That’s what the name Jacob means… “He takes by the heel” or “He supplants”. And that’s what he’s been doing his whole life to get what he wants. In his younger years, he tricks his brother and takes everything from him. Then later he tries to do the same thing with his uncle… although his uncle bests him at it.
Even with that though… if you were to ask Jacob about his life he would tell you that he has earned everything in it. It has been his doing. He might even own up to his trickery and conniving with some pride. How he worked hard and out thought… out played his rivals in this game of life to get where he is today. Jacob is the poster boy of the philosophy of the meritocracy… this idea that people get what they deserve based on their abilities… that their place in life comes from their achievements… that they’ve earned their place in the world by themselves alone through the success of their hard work. You know the mottos. No one gave me anything. I scratched and clawed my way to where I am today and I’m proud of it. Ask anyone who lives by the idea of a meritocracy and they will tell you how the playing field of life is neutral… anyone can gain and achieve if they are willing to work hard enough… if they are willing to do what it takes.
Of course, the problem is many of the ideas of the meritocracy are simply not true. Hard work is valuable. It can give a sense of purpose to life. But, hard work needs to be balanced with the achievements of character and community. So much of what we are dealing with right now is the re-exposing of the truth of how the playing field is not neutral. There are built in advantages and disadvantages that undercut the gospel of self-realization. Success isn’t always achieved through hard work and personal grit alone. Success as a human being isn’t all about work success. Human beings aren’t meant to wholly self-sufficient.
Jacob, when he first encounters God in a dream, is told how he is the inheritor of a covenant… a covenant God made with Abraham… and that was passed down to Isaac… and that now belongs to Jacob. God tells Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” This covenant flies in the face of Jacob’s striving and this understanding of being truly self-sufficient. Neither his character… which is questionable… nor his achievements… which are really few if truth be told… have earned him a place in this covenant. This is an action by God and God alone. God has made this promise. So what is Jacob’s response to learning about this covenant? He gives it a meritocratic spin. “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God…” You gotta love the contrast between the two promises. God’s promise is unconditional toward Jacob. I made this promise to Abraham and now I vow to keep this promise with you. Jacob’s promise is nothing but conditional. As long as I get what I want from you, then I’ll let you be my God.
That is the faith of the meritocracy. That is the faith that is reflected through so much of American Christianity because the ideas of the meritocracy are… if we’re honest… the unspoken philosophy of our nation. And it flies in the face of our grace-centered Christian theology. If God… if God you will do this, then I will do that. How often in my time in ministry have I met the person who has lost their meritocratic faith because God did not keep God’s part of the bargain? God had not earned God’s place in their lives. If my life is full of the blessings I desire, then the Lord shall be my God. If I can keep a certain level of religious convenience and faith that will not impugn too much on my own conscience or question the other parts of my life that bring me the success I’ve earned all by myself, then the Lord shall be my God. If faith will stay tame and controlled by me… shaped by the tastes of my consumerism, then the Lord shall be my God.
So where is Jacob when we encounter him today? What has his meritocratic covenant with God brought to him? Well, he does have lots of possessions. That is true. He is successful in that way. But he is also filled with the fear that his possessions are going to be taken away… and… perhaps more importantly… that they are not going to protect him from the consequences of his scheming actions. All the relationships in Jacob’s life are broken. The only reason he is going home now is because he can’t stay around his uncle any longer. He used up that relationship. Jacob is disconnected with his birth family. He used up those relationships. He still believes that Esau wants to kill him because of all that he stole from his brother through his clever tricks and schemes. Got him ahead in life… but the bill has come due. In his own home, Jacob has a wife he does not love, but only married to get to the sister he does love. So his relationships with his children are tainted by the relational rot of favoritism. You look at Jacob at this point in his story… and the man has nothing of any real value. There is that covenant with God… but he pushed that covenant and relationship aside in favor of a conditional covenant of his own making.
I watched a TED talk by David Brooks again this week called “The Lies Our Culture Tells Us About What Matters – And a Better Way to Live”. David Brooks would describe himself as a conservative commentator. This talk came from when he hit a moment in his life where he finally realized that everything the meritocracy was telling him was a lie. Like Jacob, he had success in his career. He had money and possessions. But his marriage fell apart. His children were grown and leaving home. He found himself alone and lonely without any relationships in his life outside of work. He had nothing of any real value... like Jacob. If I was better at my video editing skills, I could figure out how to splice in this part of his talk I want you to hear… but instead I’m just going to repeat what he says…
“The message of the meritocracy is that you are what you accomplish. The myth of the meritocracy is that you can earn dignity by attaching yourself to prestigious brands. The emotion of the meritocracy is conditional love… you can earn your way to love. The anthropology of the meritocracy is you’re not a soul to be purified… you’re a set of skills to be maximized. And the evil of the meritocracy is that people who have achieved a little more than others are actually worth a little more than others.”
David Brooks was a success at what the meritocracy described as success. But he was alienated from the people around him. He had not developed deep relationships in his life. He was empty and alone and the god of meritocracy was no comfort at this point in the story of his life. As he says later in the talk… what he realized was that “the unrooted man is the adrift man. The unrooted man is the unremembered man because he is uncommitted to things. Freedom is not an ocean you want to swim in, it is a river you want to get across so you can commit and plant yourself on the other side.” He lacked the attachments… the deep attachments to people and community that made life a success.
In the story, Jacob is on the shore of a river that he has to cross. He has to cross this river where he will be met by Esau and the consequences of his broken relationships… of his actions that furthered himself and himself alone. And he wrestles with the same God who he tried to bind with his own conditional covenant. He wrestles and from wrestling that he is given a new name. No longer will he be grasping at the heels of others… no longer will Jacob be all about supplanting another. He is given the name Israel, because he has striven with God and with humans, and has prevailed.
Except that he hasn’t… not as long as he stays on the bank of that side of the river. Not until Jacob crosses that river and commits and plants himself on the other side will his new name fit him. He will have to live away from the name Jacob… and live into the name Israel.
Jacob had planned to send all his possessions across ahead of him, hoping to… I guess… bribe his brother in some way. Hoping that Esau’s anger would be assuaged by taking what was Jacob’s the way Jacob took what was Esau’s. Spoiler alert… those schemes aren’t going to work. Jacob crosses the river and what does Esau do? Jacob sees Esau coming to him with four hundred men. Instead of sending his family first, Jacob now goes ahead of them to face his brother alone. To his utter surprise, Esau runs to meet him, embraces him and kisses him and together the two weep. Instead of murderous revenge, Jacob is met with gracious forgiveness by his brother. And Jacob… in his brother’s actions… sees the face of God again.
Once things settle down… Jacob… or I should say… Israel… sets up an alter and calls it El-Elohe-Israel, which means God, the God of Israel. All the time before this, Israel refers to God as the God of my father Abraham, and the God of my father Isaac. But now… now the relationship Israel has with God is different. Amen.