Monday, July 25, 2011

Brawn and Brains

There seems to be hardly a story in the book of Genesis that does not involve some incident of deception, deceit or chicanery!

Consider this story about Jacob. The shepherds usually came to the well in groups because it took more than one of them to lift the huge stone cover off the well. The shepherds designed the cover so a group was necessary to remove it. That assures that the precious water resource would be shared more equally. So by intention, one man could not remove it. Certainly not a woman like Rachel. She must sit and wait with her sheep patiently for the men to arrive.

Then along comes Jacob, the near superhero exception, who displayed his special strength by removing the huge well cover single handedly. He sure caught the attention of the local folk, and especially Rachel. She took Jacob home to meet her father!

I'd guess that Jacob was quite the hunk. I saw a scene in a movie trailer Friday night which pretty well sums it up. I don't remember the movie being advertised, but in the trailer the girl demands the young man remove his shirt. He does and, astonished she exclaims, "My God, you look like you’re Photoshop-ed!"

That's Jacob a photoshop-ed man.

As the story progresses, however, we begin to wonder if Jacob might not be a man who is mostly brawn and little brain.

Jacob falls madly in love with Rachel. He’s on the road looking for a wife and now he has found her. So he approaches Laban, her father, and asks. "Can I marry your daughter?"

Laban replies, “Yes, but the price is seven years labor, hard labor."

Seven years, not a protest at all from Jacob." Seven years for one so beautiful and as Rachel? What a small price.” He says to himself.

After 7 years comes the wedding. What happens? Jacob takes the wrong woman to bed completing a marriage to Rachel's sister Leah instead!

Women folk often accuses of Men of being somewhat oblivious to social cues! But in not recognizing the object of your desire for the past seven years, Jacob earns a prize as great as for single-handedly removing the well cover!

One scriptural commentator tries to save Jacobs reputation with the observation, "Well the women of that day were veiled, so of course it could happen." I read that and remembered a song by James Taylor, "There’s something in the way she moves,

or looks my way

or calls my name, …"

Nah, I don’t think so.

Obviously Jacob was pretty deep in his cups by evening’s end for such a substitution to succeed. Or, maybe old Laban added something to Jacob’s cup to make sure his future son-in-law was pretty drugged up. Laban slipped a Mickey in Jacob’s cup for the Best Man’s toast.

Now granted, this story is pretty male oriented with the women not displaying much agency, but WE can imagine events and discussion in the women's part of the household. The teller of this tale might have convinced himself that the ladies just went along meekly to what the men suggested. But, is that ever really so?

Said politely it seems the eligible men of the neighborhood thought Leah rather plain. This older daughter was not a great beauty. To put it rather bluntly she seems to have been a loser when it came to having prospects to get a husband. It seems Rachel and Leah were close, so in that polygamous society was this the sisters' plan. Where would Leah get a family? Who'd support her in life? How would she face the shame of being the old maid?

Well maybe they thought this Jacob, a little slow on the uptake, but who could lift heavy things could support them both. I know it seems a little quirky to us, but those were different times.

Besides that sub plot is more believable to me than this alternative. Jacobs goes to the party to marry Rachel, instead he spends the night with Leah. The next morning, however he approaches Rachel to makeup, "Oops, I got you confused with your sister and slept with her. Will you forgive and still marry me?"

"Of course my dearest Jacob."

So was it Laban, the father or was it the sisters who hatched this plot?

Anyhow, lest you are feeling too sorry for Jacob, remember he is the Trickster on the Run. He's on the road to escape his brother. Recall, Jacob is the younger son, but when his father, Isaac, was very old, feeble, blind and a much affected by dementia, Jacob took advantage of him to trick his father into blessing him and thus stealing the eldest brother's birthright. Jacob plied his father with his favorite food and wine, put on a disguise so that he felt and smelled like his older brother and thus deceived his father into blessing him. Only one blessing per family so the eldest was out of luck and angry. Really angry! Jacob had to flee.

(By the way, just to give the women their due here, Jacobs mother, Sarah, to hatched the plan, presented it to Jacob and helped him pull it off!)

In short this was not an upstanding virtuous band of people bringing about the Lord's will through their exemplary actions.

Let's move to the Gospel. I bet these stories, the mustard seed, the woman making bread, the Pearl of Great Price are tattooed on the hearts of many people, probably some who have never read much of the Bible. We have great art inspired by this passage this morning. Go into a house and you might find a embroidered piece in a fancy little frame with words from this story. When I was in high school some of the girls wore jewelry, little spheres of glass with a tiny little mustard seed enclosed. For centuries Christians have been summoned to courage with the words, "if you had faith, even the size of a mustard seed ... "

Beware, however, there's much more involved with these comforting little nostrums of our Christian faith.

No farmer in his right mind would plant mustard seed in his garden. Mustard, the quack grass of the middle east, the bind weed of Palestine. You didn't want it. You considered yourself cursed if you got it. It greatly added to your work, this horticultural undesirable.

Rising dough, and fresh baked yeast bread smell wonderful to us. But consider the process of making bread with yeast is just the first step along the road to putrification.

Jesus' folk considered yeast leaven unclean and impure. For this reason we don't use bread leavened with yeast as our Holy Communion bread. Yeast and the bread in produces is unclean not fit for godliness.

Say what you will don't the business practices mentioned seem just a bit shady, unfair and conniving? They remind me more of our big city investment or mortgage bankers of a few years past than an arrow-straight, honest business man of woman.

Since I have been referencing women from time to time in this homily, consider the scandal of using a woman- using a woman - and woman's work as an example, symbol, teaching about such a holy thing as God's reign and heaven!!

Much of the religious establishment in Jesus time would recoil at the thought of representing something sacred or something holy as a woman or women's work!

So what’s the lesson of all this?

I think Jesus chose quite carefully and deliberately these flawed, imperfect, unclean, corrupting, beyond the pale people and examples to give the most of us hope.

I can't speak for you and yours but I know me and mine have lives with weakness, problems, moral failure, kinks and warts of their own doing. The gardens of our lives aren't weed free, producing only unbruised produce of uniform texture, color and size. Me and mine need forgiveness, shoring up and patience more often than not. So like mustard seed, leaven, women, shady businessmen and Jacob’s in-laws, me and mine can be the stiff of God. Now, that's Good News!

I don't know about your garden, but in mine noxious weeds like mustard, bind weed and crap grass are perennials requiring constant vigilance and labor to up root them, while the good things like broccoli, romaine and tomatoes require careful preparation, planting, care, and cultivation. Thank goodness, God sends rain and sunshine for their thriving even though it also causes the weeds to grow.

And Laban, that father of the bride. What a powerful image of God, a father who wants to assure that both his daughters have the best he could manage to give them even if it involved making a fool out of his son-in-law! Now that is a Father!

However, before you rush to sign the adoption papers and become this father's child, I believe Sister Sarah, and the two Laban girls, Rachel and Leah also represent part of God's parenting style. They hesitated little in allowing considerable grief and heartache into a man's life.

Still ....

Actually, I must admit Laban was doubly generous to Jacob. By giving Jacob two wives he compliments Jacob’s brawn with the social savvy of his two daughters and their brains!!!


With help from:

Barbara Brown Taylor's: The Seeds of Heaven

Bernard Brandon Scott: Re-Imagine the World: An Introduction to the Parables of Jesus

Song James Taylor: there's something about the way she moves