Cutting ties and new beginnings

Proper 12A
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The story of Jacob and Rachel and Leah is another story of a meeting at a well that ends in marriage. In this story, Jacob gets his comupance. He had extorted Esau’s birthright from him, and then tricked Isaac out of the blessing meant for Esau. He has to flee his brother to avoid his anger. He goes back to Abraham’s homeland, and meets Rachel, his cousin. He continues his tricky ways. The cover on the well is meant to be heavy enough that only all the shepherds together can lift it off, thereby guaranteeing a fair sharing of water rights. Jacob, who is evidently very strong, lifts it off by himself so that Rachel can water her father’s sheep. Not a good idea to mess with local custom. Rachel takes him home to meet Laban, her father and Jacob’s uncle. Jacob agrees to work seven years to marry Rachel, and on the wedding night (was Jacob drunk?), Laban gives him Leah instead. He gets tricked in his own turn. He marries Rachel a week later, and agrees to work another seven years for her dowry. Notice that neither of these women have any say in the matter.

After twenty years, Jacob decides that Laban has not treated him fairly, and so takes his family and flocks and leaves. Laban pursues him and accuses him of stealing flocks. The reach an uneasy peace, and essentially agree never to see one another again. The women claim abuse by their father (he married them off without permission) and agree to go with Jacob. Jacob’s is the last trip to Abraham’s homeland. It’s also another sort of “twin” story. Rachel, the youngest, is Jacob’s favorite, and though she and her sister get into a contest over who can bear Jacob the most sons (from which the twelve tribes of Israel take their names), Rachel bears his two favorite, Joseph and Benjamin.

As so often in the epic of Israel, God chooses unlikely people to carry forward the divine plan: the deceiver and the deceived; the lovely and the unloved. It’s never the hero as we would see it. Israel recounts its own history through these very flawed human characters. What might God be doing through us?

In the Gospel passage, we have a number of images for the Kingdom, all of them surprising. Mustard is a noxious weed. With no encouragement at all, and in fact without a great deal of vigilance, it will take over whole fields. No one in his right mind sows a mustard seed in his field. Noxious as it is, it never becomes a tree. A scrubby shrub maybe, but not a tree. The parable, about birds making their nest in it, is comparing mustard to the cedars of Lebanon. This scrappy, scrubby weed will replace the great tree of the davidic kingdom. Yeast is unclean — during the high holy days, no yeast can be in the house at all. Here, the kingdom is compared to a woman (!) placing just a little bit of yeast in a great mass of dough, and the whole thing being leavened. The Kingdom is treasure worth everything one has, and a net which catches good and not-so-good fish.

The communities that recorded these stories though of themselves as scrappy, yeasty, on the fringes of things, and yet once given foothold, capable of replacing the cedar of Lebanon, capable of gathering in all sorts of fish. This would not be their doing, but God’s. God prefers to use (or is forced to use?) people like deceitful and deceived Jacob, and Rachel and Leah, pawns in a men’s game, and communities like mustard seeds and yeast for the divine purposes. Whenever we come to think of ourselves as divine agents, all righteous and right, we would do well to remember Jacob, and the mustard weed and the yeast. Making peace in Sudan, bringing all the outcast to the table, will be accomplished more by scappy little weeds and very human people like Jacob and Rachel and Leah than by all the grand rhetoric we so often use. The kingdom ain’t pretty, but once that seed has been sown, it’s inevitable, once that yeast has been added, it’s sure to arrive.

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