Genesis 25:19-34+Psalm 119:105-112+Romans 8:1-11+Matthew 13:1-9. 18-23
Families can be complicated. When last we were with Isaac, he saw his intended wife from afar, he loved her, and he took her to his mother’s tent. Fast forward to today when we learn that the two have been married for twenty years, and once again, the promise, God’s covenant that a nation would come from Abraham and his descendants, is in jeopardy. Rebekah is barren, unable to conceive.
Women unable to bear children is an ongoing theme in scripture. It is a mark of sorrow and shame. There is never any insinuation that the potential father might be the “barren” one. Yet the lengthy amounts of time that it takes for many significant women in scripture to conceive is a signal to us, from Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Hannah in the Hebrew scriptures to Elizabeth, the mother of John the Baptist, in the Christian scriptures. And what it signals is blessing. The child, or, in Rebekah’s case, twins, will be special and will have a role to play in God’s unfolding story.
We know from the way this narrative is set up that conflict lies ahead of these twins. They struggle in the womb. The second to be born was grasping the heel of the firstborn. He was trying to take over even from birth. The one was beloved of his father, the younger of his mother. Just as Abel the shepherd was favored by God and killed by his jealous brother, Cain the farmer, so are Esau and Jacob set up to be in envious competition for the affections of their parents. We can only imagine how difficult home life must have been as these boys grew up.
We often think of the great matriarchs and patriarchs in the bible as being paragons of virtue and wisdom. We have already seen that Abraham was far from that, passing off his wife as his sister not once but twice in order to save his neck. Later in the Hebrew bible, the great King David is revealed as a rapist, a murder, a racketeer, and an all-around jerk, at least at times. Yet he, like Abraham and all the others who are less-than-perfect, was beloved of God.
Similarly, Jacob is not exactly fine and upstanding. In the scene from this morning, he cheats his older brother out of his birthright for something to eat. Now, to us this might not sound like such a big deal, but in cultures where family and relationship govern inheritance and community structures, it means a lot. The first born was the heir, receiving a double portion of familial wealth and the father’s name. It was a very significant thing, and you might say that Esau deserved what he got for agreeing to sell that birthright for a pot of lentil stew, but why would Jacob even ask that of him?
Our lectionary readings do not cover the next major incident, but it is one in which Rebekah joins and even encourages Jacob to deceive not just Esau but also his dying father Isaac in order to receive the father’s final blessing. It is not pretty and sets off conflict that ultimately passes down from generation to generation.
These, friends, are our biblical heroes. The truth is that they are not all that different from us, which is why these stories are told, warts and all. They would not appear to be the fertile soil for the planter to scatter seed. In fact, they would seem to be shallow and rocky and changeable, yet God used these all-too-human characters to tell God’s story and the creation of the people of Israel. It’s astonishing.
Our parable this morning of the sower is often read in such a way that we make ourselves the hero, the fertile soil, and all those other people, whoever they might be, are the ones who were faithless and shallow and not worthy of the seed at all. I have often said to be sure to take our lectionary readings in the context of what surrounds them, and these parables found in Matthew’s 13th chapter are no different. At the end of chapter 12, his family has come to speak to him, waiting outside as he teaches a crowd. And his response? Y’all are my family, the ones who do God’s will. You will know the fertile soil when you see it; it’s the ground that produces good fruit, sharing Good News to the poor and lifting up the lowly, doing the work that seeks to bring in God’s reign here and now.
But I wonder if there is a different way of looking at this parable. Rather than looking at ourselves and wondering which kind of ground we are, maybe we should step back and look at all of the parables – this entire 13th chapter – as the seeds. A real farmer is not going to just scatter valuable seed and hope for the best. No, she will prepare the ground and get rid of the rocks and the weeds and till the soil until it is ready for planting. What if the parables are just that, scattered around to prepare us to receive the blessing God has for us? Maybe this one doesn’t land and break up the clods of dirt, but maybe the next one does. Or the one after that. Agriculture isn’t your thing? How about yeast? We’ve all been COVID-bread-baking, so maybe a parable about yeast will work. Or treasures buried in a field, or the search for the perfect pearl, or a great catch of fish. Throw all of these out there because, in modern terminology, we all have different learning styles. Which one of these brings home the message of God’s prodigious love for us, a love so abundant that it can be scattered in all the wrong places because God can make even those barren places a source of blessing?
In the absence of a common life, gathering each week for worship, many of you have told me of the things you miss the most: seeing your church family, listening to great music, receiving communion, sharing the Peace, hearing the Word of God in person. The parables are kind of like that: we all have the parts that resonate most strongly, that nurture our faith and make us feel connected with God and with our neighbor.
God is sneaky like that.
What so many of the matriarchs and patriarchs failed to understand is that God has enough blessing to go around. Conflict and competition lead to pain and sorrow and strife, and yet, even out of all of that, God creates a people, a nation whom he loved.
God still does this. Whatever the turmoil and strife we are in – and there is plenty of that these days – God has enough blessings to go around, scattering it around like a not-very-smart farmer and seeing where it bears fruit. Be on the lookout for these extravagant blessings. In the rockiest of times, in the frustration of isolation and uncertainty about the future, these blessings will show up where you least expect them. And that’s a promise.