Genesis 33:1-11 — Forgiveness

Reading: Genesis 33:1-11

Last week, the lesson was about Esau and Jacob. If you recall, they were twin brothers, but Esau was the older, and thus would become the family Patriarch when their father died — and along with that position he would gain the bulk of the inheritance. Rebekah, their mother, favored Jacob and encouraged him to try to cheat his brother out of his position. Esau, who despised his birthright sold it for a meal; and Jacob tricked his father Isaac into blessing him with becoming the authority in the family, to the point that Issac said that Jacob’s brother would be his servant.

Now, the first thing that I’ll observe is that I would also despise my inheritance. Let us ignore that my family does not have land, or livestock, or huge piles of money to inherit; When I got a lawyer letter asking if I would contest my grandfather’s will, I, of course, signed that I wouldn’t — and I wondered why anybody would do that. My cousins and I would have much rather play chess with our grandfather at the next Christmas gathering than receive what was left after his final medical bills. I’d like to think this would still be true if there were billions to inherit. You can’t look forward to inheriting without looking forward to a family member’s death — I’d despise my inheritance too.

The thing is, you might not care to fight over your family’s wealth while they are alive — but, when you have got a greedy family member who tries to grab everything, that causes more than a little resentment. When Isaac sent Jacob to his father in law so he could marry one of his cousins, there is a reason that Jacob didn’t return home as soon as he paid the bride price; he knew that he earned quite a bit of resentment — when he left his brother was angry enough to kill him, so Jacob stayed where it was safe for decades.

The thing is that Laban cheated Jacob in the same sort of way that Jacob cheated his brother. When Jacob went to Laban, he had no bride price. For those who don’t know, a bride price is kind of like life insurance, but it is held by the bride’s family. If something happens to the husband, the bride price belongs to the bride. Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, and they negotiated a bride price of 7 years of labor.

Jacob somehow went through the wedding without noticing that he was marrying Rachel’s sister Leah. Since this was not the girl that he had in mind, he agreed to work an additional 7 years, so that there would be a 7-year bride price for each one of them. Jacob thus worked for 14 years. After these 14 years were over, Jacob, not really wanting to face the deserved wrath of his brother, stayed and worked for wages. Laban offered to pay Jacob in livestock, so Jacob worked another 6 years and was paid in sheep and goats.

After 20 years had passed, a family situation formed that would make holidays quite uncomfortable. Laban’s son’s, or Jacob’s in-laws felt that Jacob was overpaid and that they were cheated out of what should be their inheritance. The daughters, Jacob’s wives, realize that when their brothers take their inheritance, the bride price will simply vanish; their father did nothing to protect their money so they are left unprotected if anything should happen to their husband. This fight between siblings and in-laws grows to the point where Jacob and his family are not safe, and Jacob has a dream where God apparently warns him to run away to somewhere safe, so Jacob gathers what he has and prepares to flee.

When he is explaining what he has to do to his wives, Rachel and Leah say, according to Genesis 31:14:

“Do we still have any portion or inheritance in our father’s house? 15 Hasn’t he treated us like foreigners? He not only sold us, but completely wasted the money paid for us!”

While Jacob and his family are preparing to take all they have and leave secretly, Rachel goes to her father’s house and steals her father’s idols. Now, there are several theories about why she does this, such as she stole the idols because she prays to them, or she stole the idols because the head of the family is the keeper of the idols, and this symbolically takes the patriarchy of the family away from the greedy and envious brothers. The theory I subscribe to is that Rachel is trying to take back what is stolen from Leah and her. Laban took the bride price in labor, but instead of setting apart the bride price, he cheated his daughters — when he died, his sons would inherit the money intended to support the women; the sons who are eager to steal Jacob’s wages are not likely to protect their sister’s property. My guess is that the idols were something that could easily be sold — and Rachel saw them as something she could hold on to, in place of the stolen bride price.

Laban, of course, notices that he was robbed and that Jacob, his daughters, and his grandchildren are gone — so Laban chases down Jacob to complain. Jacob has some complaints of his own, such as Laban changing his promised wages 10 times and trying to cheat him. Jacob further complains that whenever something happened to one of the animals, he had to eat the loss himself — even though the wages kept changing, Laban put the risk to Jacob while he reaped the reward.

Jacob, not knowing what Rachel did tells Laban to look for his property and put to death whoever stole it — Rachel sits on the gods and tells her father that she’s having her period, so she can’t stand; Laban, embarrassed apologizes and lets him go. They make a covenant with each other, Jacob agreeing to take care of his wives, and both of them agreeing not to harm the other as long as each stayed on their own side of a pile of rocks; needless to say, when Laban kissed his daughters and grandchildren goodbye, this was the last goodbye.

When Jacob returned, the first thing he did was sent messengers to his brother Esau, and he was quite scared when the response was that Esau and 400 of Esau’s men started moving to meet Jacob. Jacob was convinced, after the way he acted, that Esau nursed a grudge and was coming to take revenge. Jacob responded to this by splitting into two camps, so that half of his family, flocks, and servants could escape. Jacob ordered his servants to take a tribute of livestock to his brother, and offer them as a gift, suing for peace between them.

Esau went to Jacob’s camp, and Jacob bowed to Esau — and Esau responded by giving his brother a hug, and asking “Why did you send me livestock?”, Esau told his brother that he didn’t need anything more than he had, and then asked about Jacob’s family; so Jacob introduced his wives and his children to his brother.

When Esau returned home, he left some of his men with Jacob as a guard, letting Jacob travel at more comfortable pace for the children — so they both went to their homes, and Jacob settled and made a home for himself back in Canaan.

Sometimes family is a tricky thing. Jacob deserved his brother’s wrath — but, as soon as Esau learned Jacob was coming home, he went to greet his brother and meet his sisters in law and nephews. Jacob’s in-laws should have nothing but gratitude for him, as he worked with his father’s livestock — and if Jacob prospered, Laban prospered as well; but they became jealous that Jacob also prospered. Esau had much to forgive, but after 20 years it seems clear he didn’t hold a grudge. In spite all the drama that came over Isaac and Rebekah fighting over who’s favorite twin would become the head of the family, in the end, both sons were in Canaan when Isaac died; both were there to mourn and bury their father.

Jacob, played the trickster and cheated his brother making his brother into an enemy. Esau forgave his brother and brought him back into the family. Our sinful behavior breaks relationships. Forgiveness can go a long way to repair what was broken. If Esau kept that grudge going, the family would have never been reunited. Isaac would have never met his grandchildren, the two brothers would not be together to bury their father. It is hard, but family is family. When we are Jacob, and sin breaks our family, we have to repent and grow up. When we are Esau, sometimes we have to forgive and trust that repentance is sincere and that they can change. Forgiveness is a big part of the Gospel — and, not only are we shown God’s radical forgiveness, but we are to forgive as well. When I read the story of Esau and Jacob, I see the good news that repentance and forgiveness can repair what sin destroys.

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Economic Justice: James 5:1-6

Come now, you rich! Weep and cry aloud over the miseries that are coming on you. 2 Your riches have rotted and your clothing has become moth-eaten. 3 Your gold and silver have rusted and their rust will be a witness against you. It will consume your flesh like fire. It is in the last days that you have hoarded treasure! 4 Look, the pay you have held back from the workers who mowed your fields cries out against you, and the cries of the reapers have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. 5 You have lived indulgently and luxuriously on the earth. You have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. 6 You have condemned and murdered the righteous person, although he does not resist you.  James 5:1-6 (NET)

Just like in James’ day, we tend to honor those with wealth more than we honor the poor. It’s an age-old problem, and that is, I think, why James brings it up so frequently. He calls the wealthy to humility (James 1:9-11); tells the people at a meeting for worship that if they favor the wealthy worshiper over the poor worshiper, they discriminate and become judges with evil thoughts; and James points out that the poor do no harm, but it is the wealthy who use the law to oppress (James 2:1-7).

When we get to James 5, we read a direct condemnation of the rich: James says that the wages they didn’t pay are calling out against them. James says they have hoarded wealth. James says, “You have fattened yourselves in the day of slaughter” (5:5). These are strong words.

Some have read James as a revolutionary text, but I think James is trying to get people to recognize one fact that should be common sense: the powerless are not to blame for society’s problems; they cannot be because they have no power.

Jesus taught us that the way we treat those who society casts away is the way we treat Jesus himself. “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in” (Matthew 25:35). This is why the New Testament again and again calls us to view each other with God’s eyes of love. We must allow the Holy Spirit to break down the barriers between us.

Hymn: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love

Prayer suggestion: Jesus, make my heart sensitive to the needs of people. Teach me to see people with your eyes of love.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Boasting about tomorrow: James 4:13-17

13 Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into this or that town and spend a year there and do business and make a profit.” 14 You do not know about tomorrow. What is your life like? For you are a puff of smoke that appears for a short time and then vanishes. 15 You ought to say instead, “If the Lord is willing, then we will live and do this or that.” 16 But as it is, you boast about your arrogant plans. All such boasting is evil. 17 So whoever knows what is good to do and does not do it is guilty of sin.  James 4:13-17 (NET)

Like many pastors, I have a day on my calendar marked, “Write sermon.” This appointment that I’ve made with myself is one that I too rarely keep. Something always comes up. I go to bed at night, thinking ahead to what I will accomplish the next day, but I often wake up to something that needs my attention instead: car trouble, leaking pipes, unexpected calls, and plain old writer’s block.

Isn’t this just how life is? We make plans, but we cannot control the future.

James warns us not to talk about our plans for the next year because we don’t even know if we will survive the night. James offers us a new way of speaking about our hopes and dreams: “If it is God’s will, we live and do this or that.” I know people who use just such language, but I also suspect that James may be utilizing hyperbole. So I’ll remember this: my plans are always tentative, and I have to trust in God because I don’t have as much control over the world or my life as I imagine I do.

Hymn: “I know who holds tomorrow

Prayer suggestion: Lord, tomorrow is yours; help me trust that you are in control.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Do not Slander: James 4:11-12

11 Do not speak against one another, brothers and sisters. He who speaks against a fellow believer or judges a fellow believer speaks against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but its judge. 12 But there is only one who is lawgiver and judge—the one who is able to save and destroy. On the other hand, who are you to judge your neighbor? James 4:11-12 (NET)

If we believe that people are created in God’s image, then we should not lie to make them look bad or to gain an advantage over them. It seems so obvious that I almost wonder why James has to say it. We cannot praise God, and yet slander those who are made in the very image of God (Genesis 1:16-17).

Unfortunately, new technological tools such as social media make it easier than ever to put people in a bad light. And it is especially disturbing to see Christians spreading messages suggesting that a group of people is either dangerous to our democracy or in some way less than human.

Jesus taught us that the Law and the prophets are summed up in two commands. Love the Lord your God. And love your neighbor as yourself. “Who is my neighbor?” an expert in the law asks Jesus (Luke 10:29). Jesus answers with a story—the story of a Samaritan who helped an injured man. Both a priest and a Levite had passed by the dying man. But it was the Samaritan who stopped. The hero of Jesus’ story is the stranger, the foreigner, the other. Jesus teaches that if we are to be righteous, we must follow the example of this stranger. Instead of slandering the other, we as Christ-followers are commanded to honor the other.

All human beings are created in God’s image, and the stories we tell about them matter. Is it possible for us as Christians to look at those who are different from us and see neighbors instead of enemies?

Hymn: “Cleanse me, search me, oh God

Prayer suggestion: God, help me to honor people with my speech. Let me be the kind of person who stops what I’m doing to help those in need.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

The Tongue: James 3:3-12

3 And if we put bits into the mouths of horses to get them to obey us, then we guide their entire bodies. 4 Look at ships too: Though they are so large and driven by harsh winds, they are steered by a tiny rudder wherever the pilot’s inclination directs. 5 So too the tongue is a small part of the body, yet it has great pretensions. Think how small a flame sets a huge forest ablaze. 6 And the tongue is a fire! The tongue represents the world of wrongdoing among the parts of our bodies. It pollutes the entire body and sets fire to the course of human existence—and is set on fire by hell.

7 For every kind of animal, bird, reptile, and sea creature is subdued and has been subdued by humankind. 8 But no human being can subdue the tongue; it is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. 9 With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse people made in God’s image. 10 From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. These things should not be so, my brothers and sisters. 11 A spring does not pour out fresh water and bitter water from the same opening, does it? 12 Can a fig tree produce olives, my brothers and sisters, or a vine produce figs? Neither can a salt water spring produce fresh water.  James 3:3-12 (NET)

James is a book filled with practical moral advice, and I believe that most of what the book teaches can be extrapolated from James 3:9, where James tells us that we use the same tongue to praise God and to curse those who are made in God’s image. Images are important; if anybody doubts the importance of images, then consider our flag, a powerful symbol of our nation.

On one hand, the flag is just a bit of patterned cloth. Nothing that I do to the cloth has any impact on the nation it represents, but I could, by mistreating the flag, invoke the anger of my neighbors. We treat the flag with reverence. We have ceremonies for displaying it, for storing it, and for retiring it. The flag is the image of our nation. I cannot praise the nation and curse the flag. Whatever I say against the flag is understood as a statement against the nation. Images are powerful.

Consider all this in light of what James is saying. When we worship God while oppressing human beings created in the very image of God, it is no different. John also witnesses to this truth: “Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar” (1 John 4:20). Images are important, and how we treat God’s image is a direct reflection of our relationship with God.

Hymn: Love Divine All Loves Excelling

Prayer suggestion: God, please help me to see your image more clearly reflected in the face of my neighbor.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Faith and Deeds: James 2:14-19

14 What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but does not have works? Can this kind of faith save him? 15 If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacks daily food, 16 and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, keep warm and eat well,” but you do not give them what the body needs, what good is it? 17 So also faith, if it does not have works, is dead being by itself. 18 But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith without works and I will show you faith by my works. 19 You believe that God is one; well and good. Even the demons believe that—and tremble with fear.  James 2:14-19 (NET)

Have you ever heard someone say that “Christianity is a relationship, not a religion”? I have trouble with this expression. For example, I have many relationships that have very little to do with my day-to-day life. Relationships are important, but they have little authority over what I do or think or say. Religion is different. It influences every part of my life, including my relationships. More than that, though, religion shapes my identity. Religion is more than belief. Religion is what I do.

This is why it’s important to remember that faith leads to action. I used to think of my faith in terms of what I believed, or in terms of how Jesus saved me from the consequences of my sinfulness. Yes, Jesus saves me from hell, but I dare not forget that I need to be saved from sin in my daily life as well. James writes in 4:17: “If anyone, then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”

Christian faith is more than a belief, and it is more than a relationship; Christianity is something that changes what I do and how I speak. Christianity is not just something that I believe is true. It is part of who I am. James was right when he said that “faith without works is dead,” not because we are saved by our own works, but because Christ works in us and through us.

Hymn: Take my life and let it be

Prayer suggestion: Jesus, what would you have me do today?

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine

Hear and Obey: James 1:22-25

22 But be sure you live out the message and do not merely listen to it and so deceive yourselves. 23 For if someone merely listens to the message and does not live it out, he is like someone who gazes at his own face in a mirror. 24 For he gazes at himself and then goes out and immediately forgets what sort of person he was. 25 But the one who peers into the perfect law of liberty and fixes his attention there, and does not become a forgetful listener but one who lives it out—he will be blessed in what he does.  James 1:22-25 (NET)

I was raised in a community of Bible-believing Christians, and I was expected to be a Bible-believing Christian. I have a Biblical studies degree from Barclay College, just one example of how my whole life has been in the church and steeped in Scripture. One thing I’ve noticed is that people who view Scripture as authoritative are tempted to use Scripture to win arguments. There’s nothing wrong with reverence for the Bible. But weaponizing the Bible—that’s another story.

The problem with using Scripture to make an argument is that in doing so, we tend to look for proof texts to support our opinions about God and about what is or isn’t moral. That’s not what Scripture is for. Scripture challenges us, if we let it, when we engage it. Faith isn’t about winning arguments. Faith makes room for Jesus to work.

Consider this. Have you ever studied Scripture in order to find a way to condemn your neighbor? Turn that practice around. Read a little farther. Soften your heart, and let the Bible challenge your own thoughts, your own attitudes, your own behavior.

Respecting the authority of Scripture means respecting its ability to speak into our lives. Let the Bible challenge your ideas and your self-righteousness. Take time to listen.

Hymn: Trust and Obey

Prayer suggestion: God, help me to hear your message for me in Scripture, and help me to obey it.

Published in Fall 2018 edition of Fruit of the Vine