Jacob, Esau and a structure of oppression

ehimetalor-akhere-unuabona-KlHWPggJ0JQ-unsplash(2)Proper 10A

Genesis 25:19-34
Romans 8:1-11
Matthew 13:1-9,18-23

In the first reading, Isaac’s eldest son, Esau, sells his birthright to his younger brother because he is hungry and his younger brother, Jacob, has a bowl of stew.

Selling a lifetime of power and wealth for a single bowl of stew is a bad bargain. Oddly, Esau doesn’t hesitate or complain that the price is too high. Why? Perhaps because he has no intention of relinquishing his birthright. And perhaps because he knows that no one, including those who witness the “sale” of the birthright for stew, will expect him to.

Jacob and Esau’s bargain took place in the context of an established patriarchal system. Whether Esau sells his birthright or not, he will still be the eldest son in a patriarchal system which functions to privilege him and protect him and insure that his father’s power and wealth will pass to him as the eldest son. Always. No matter what. That is the way things are and the way things should be. Period.

The Jacob and Esau story is about brothers, but it is also about a structure of oppression called patriarchy.

In America, we live with a structure of oppression called racism and/or white supremacy. Like patriarchy, white supremacy is “a far-reaching system that functions independently from the intentions or self-images of individual actors… [It has] become the default of [our] society and is reproduced automatically.“ Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism,  at 20-21, Beacon Press, 2018.

We cannot undo the power and injustice of racism or white supremacy until we undertake the work of seeing and understanding how it works.  White people need to see that it is more than the intentional hateful acts of a few outliers. Racism/white supremacy is a social construct which has been woven into the fabric of our personal lives and our national history.  It operates without our awareness and is sustained without any effort on our part unless and until we do the hard work of seeing it and naming it for what it is.

It is a bold statement of faith to say and believe that we can dismantle this structure of oppression. It will not happen quickly or easily. Those who challenge it will need to be sure, using Jesus’ parable of the sower, that the words of God’s Realm are sown in very good soil. (Mtt.13:18-23)

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Photo by Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona on Unsplash.

Heavy lifting

Lots of things seem to call for expertise and advanced degrees right now. Masks, safe visiting, vaccines. White supremacy, income inequality,  voter suppression. These urgent issues call for complex responses. We want someone with the needed education and expertise on whom we can rely.

Perhaps Jesus’ words sound refreshing:

Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

You may remember a time when these were called “the comfortable words” – an antique term denoting words intended to encourage, strengthen and confirm us. But they can also be “comforting” in the modern sense because they assure us that Jesus not a teacher of difficult, complex or esoteric matters.  His teaching was simple and straightforward and assures us that we will not miss out on enlightenment or salvation because we don’t have an advanced degree or don’t know how to read all of the jots and tittles. The comfortable words assure us that what Jesus taught was easy to understand and completely accessible – even to children.

What teaching? If we look back a few chapters in Matthew (Mtt. 5-7) we hear familiar words.  Jesus says, “keep the commandments” with special attention to the poor, those who mourn and the meek. “Keep the commandments” and be merciful, and single-hearted. Be a peacemaker. “Keep the commandments” and manage your anger and your imagination. Learn to apologize and to forgive. Keep your word. Give alms. Pray in secret. Worry less about looking good; be good. Don’t judge others: do unto them as you would have them to do unto you.

No esoteric knowledge here. No trick questions. No advanced degree needed for understanding. Understanding Jesus’ teaching is not the hard part. The hard part is doing it.

It took me hours of reading and research with respect to this passage – all of 221 words of it – to figure out who was speaking, to whom and addressing what issue. There is a place for education and scholarship.  For what its worth, there is an argument to be made that Jesus never actually said “the comfortable words”. They do not appear in any other gospel. And on the other hand, all of the synoptic gospels agree that Jesus chose ordinary people – fishermen – as his students, and not educated religious scholars or students. So, even if Jesus did not actually say the comfortable words, I am confident that he could have.

We understand what Jesus is teaching here. We don’t need expertise or an advanced degree to understand it.  In fact, the advanced degree may distract us from the real challenge.  The heavy lifting is not in the understanding. It is in the doing.

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Image by Ichigo on Pixabay

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A little summer bible study? Try Genesis, Romans and/or Matthew.

In track 1 of the lectionary, the first reading will be one of the great stories in Genesis, through August 16. The second reading will be from Romans through September 13, and the third reading will be from Matthew’s gospel through November 22.