Probably every family has its stories.
The ones we tell around the Thanksgiving dinner table or the summer time picnic table, the ones that start, “Hey, remember that time when …”
And then comes a story that’s usually kind of funny, although it might not have been all that funny at the time.
So, when I get together with my cousins from California, someone will usually tell the one that starts “Hey, remember when you cut Pam’s hair? … and Mom sent your mom a letter that said ‘Pam’s hair has almost grown out’ … and your mom didn’t know what that meant …”
These old stories in the book of Genesis, these Bible stories – they’re those kind of stories, family stories of the very first people of God. This one is about Abraham’s grandsons, Jacob and Esau. We remember Abraham, who was a friend of God, who walked with God, to whom God made lots of promises. And his son Isaac … and now, here are Isaac’s own children, and one of them, Jacob, will be renamed Israel, and his descendants will become the nation of Israel that eventually receives God’s Torah and builds the Temple in Jerusalem and give birth to Jesus … but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
And I guess we can almost imagine this story being one of those stories: “Hey, Jacob, remember that time when … you tried to buy my birthright from me for a bowl of soup?” Ha ha ha …
But this one might not be SUCH a funny story.
And I don’t think it’s ONLY because it has something to do with property, with inheritance, either …
Although we know property can cause some hard feelings in families, so I am sorry if I am stirring up painful memories for anyone by bringing that up.
Because property IS what this “birthright” is about, in the first place. It’s about the eldest son’s double portion of the property, when it comes time to divine up the estate. That belongs to Esau, because he beat his brother into the world by a minute or so.
There was evidently some prestige associated with this special “eldest son” role, too, like the prestige of getting to sit at the “best” seat around the table, and getting to boss your younger brothers and sisters around, maybe.
But that birthright wasn’t just money in the bank, that birthright also involved some family responsibilities, obligations. The firstborn would have been required to make some sacrifices – literal ones, animal sacrifices – on behalf of the ancestor who had died, for one thing. These days, there is a trace of that practice in the way a Jewish person’s son will say mourner’s kaddish for them for 11 months after they die.
And the firstborn would be expected to become the head of the household, too, stepping into the shoes of the deceased patriarch. That would include whatever stresses and responsibilities came with that role, such as supporting his mother, and any of his sisters (until they came of marriageable age and became someone else’s responsibility).
So, that birthright involved property and prestige and maybe some power in the family, but also responsibility, obligation.
Anyway, this is what Jacob asks Esau to sell him, before he hands over a bowl of that stew that’s bubbling away in the pot, when Esau shows up … literally almost fainting with hunger.
It’s an amazingly audacious request.
It’s as if we had dinner all ready, and before we set it on the table, we looked around at our family and said, “OK, you, gimme the deed to the house … gimme your car keys … and let me have your room.” Not very … brotherly, at all. Cold & calculating, even.
But in Jacob’s case, I suspect, what he really means is something like “Sell me that thing about you that makes Dad love you instead of me.” Whatever that thing is that makes it so that nothing you do ever gets you in trouble, and that nothing I do is ever good enough no matter how hard I try, that thing, that birthright …
It’s a heartbreaking request, when we hear it that way, and a futile one.
Because love, acceptance – that isn’t something that can be bought, or sold. That’s supposed to be ours as a birthright, according to the psychologists: that sense that we’re loved, that we belong, that we’re enough … that’s every child’s birthright.
Though we know, in a broken world, it doesn’t always work that way.
Before this was a theological story, a spiritual story, it was a family story, and not a very happy family story, either. Instead it’s a story about broken human relationships and broken, wounded people, and about what happens when there just never seems to be enough love to go around.
Because what do they say on Facebook or the internet? “Hurt people hurt people.” And I think we can hear that hurt, that feeling of never being enough, in Jacob’s … cold, calculating business proposal … unless I’m just imagining it.
And honestly, I think we can hear it in Esau’s answer, too. The Bible says he despised his birthright, and maybe that was because he didn’t like the idea of having to make sacrifices, or maybe because he couldn’t even take this whole transaction seriously.
But maybe Esau meant, “fine, you want the job of taking care of Mom … great, she’d rather have you do it anyway, ‘cause nothing I do is ever right with her.”
So this conversation about property, about rights and obligations, is really a conversation about love and wholeness, or the lack of it …
And this is even more true if we remind ourselves that this “birthright,” in a spiritual sense, is the special relationship the family of Abraham is supposed to have to give to the world! Spiritually, this birthright includes Abraham’s relationship of faith in God, trust in God’s friendship, and acceptance of God’s guidance, and God’s promises; this birthright is that relationship of love and mutual delight between God and humanity, is God’s covenant …
But that means that Jesus and the scribe in the gospel of Mark are also talking about this birthright – what is the essence of the commandments, what is the most important responsibility of the people who hold this birthright? And Jesus says, well, it’s love. It’s loving God, and it’s loving one’s neighbor.
And while on the surface that sounds like an obligation, it is more the exercise of a benefit – because accepting this birthright is accepting a place in a family that works, where we are loved, where we do belong, and the love we have from God is what enables us to love God back, and to love one another.
God’s love is what thaws our cold hearts and transforms us hurt people who hurt people into loved people who can love people, who can act like people who have received the love we so desperately need, because we actually have received the love we so desperately need.
So it might be a good idea to remember that when Jesus has this conversation with the scribe, he has just “cleared the Temple,” turning over the tables of the money-lenders, who were an indispensable fixture of the whole sacrificial system that was the business as usual of the Temple in Jerusalem in those days.
Because I’m afraid we sometimes despise or reduce this birthright, almost the same way Jacob and Esau did. We get separated from the love, and make it all about something else.
For instance, sometimes we get Esau’s attitude: it’s getting in the way of fulfilling my appetites right this minute, so who needs it?
Or we might get the idea of the Pharisees in Jesus’ time, or even the Pharisees of our own time, who see that birthright mostly as an obligation to be fulfilled, something we have to … pay off, in a way …
In Jesus’ time, the way people did that was by making the right sacrifices, at the right time, in the right place – these days, we would call that “ticking all the boxes.” Then, that would give them the assurance that they had done enough, been enough.
But Jesus was saying – at least, the early Christians remember Jesus saying – these sacrifices in the Temple, this ritual behavior, this focus on fixing or earning or buying your relationship with God, if it gets in the way, if it keeps people away from God, it’s got to Go.
Because God wants our love. So much, that God makes it possible for us to love, by sharing that love with us in Jesus Christ, and teaching us in Jesus Christ what loving our neighbor as ourselves really looks like. That’s what this covenant, that’s what this birthright, is all about.
It’s as simple, and as difficult, as that.
And when you get that the covenant is about love, says Jesus, whether you’re one of my disciples, or a scribe, or someone who’s just listening in, you’re not far from the Kingdom of God.
Which, as Jesus came to proclaim, is your birthright. Because the good news that Jesus came to proclaim, is that God’s steadfast love is humanity’s birthright.
Unlike Jacob and Esau, we don’t need to squabble over “the birthright.” The birthright that really matters, the good news of God’s grace and steadfast love, that is our birthright, because of Jesus Christ. We can embrace that with joy and appreciation, and we can share that good news with others.
Jesus invites us to sit down for a meal, and although that birthright is rightly his alone, he freely gives us a share in that. He doesn’t ask us to make sacrifices at the door of the Temple, that’s already taken care of. He invites us in. Jesus’ welcome is really the antidote to what doesn’t work in our world, to our hurt-ness, our sense of having missed out, our sense of not ever being enough. By the grace of Jesus Christ, we are enough, just the way we are. We are made whole by this love, so that we have love, God’s love, Christ’s love, to give, to God, and to our neighbors.
The good news is that the kingdom of God is at hand, really; is the kingdom of which we are already, truly, citizens by the grace of God our Redeemer in Christ. We simply need to know that, so we can learn to live like it.
And thank God for that.