By Sr. Constance Joanna, SSJD
Genesis 25:19-34 Psalm 119.105-112 Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23
During the summer, every third year, we follow the narrative of three famous couples – Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, and Rachel and Jacob. We used to talk exclusively about the patriarchs, rather forgetting that while the men had some part in their conception, it was the women who gave birth – so of course we need to include the matriarchs along with the patriarchs. But that is kind of unsatisfying to me – I like to think that each couple was an item (to use today’s language) and our spiritual ancestry is really what you might consider couple-archs or maybe duo-archs. I haven’t come up with the perfect term yet, but you might be inspired to do so.
We’ve been hearing stories of these couple-archs for some time now. Together these three generations of couples were used by God to help bring the Hebrew people to a knowledge and understanding of who the One God is. They were unique among the peoples of both the near and far east at that time in worshipping one God, and God’s dealing with Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Sarah and Rachel form a wonderful group of stories of our spiritual ancestors.
At the same time, during the summer, the gospel readings from Matthew contain many of the parables that Jesus taught. The purpose of these parables, too, was to teach the people of Jesus’ time – a couple thousand years after the patriarchs and matriarchs – what God is like – and by extension to teach us. As we follow the stories from Genesis (which could also be understood as parables) and the parables from Matthew, we see reflected our own lives in all their joys and pain, confusion and clarity, searching and finding.
When I read today’s passage from Genesis, I’m aware that when it comes to families there is nothing new under the sun. Rivalries among siblings, parents who favour one child over another, deceit and jealousy, manipulation of birthright – the right to inherit – these are all part of that noble dynasty of the patriarchs and matriarchs. God used them to further the divine purpose throughout history, and surely God can use us as well.
To put the narrative in context – you remember that last week, Abraham sent his servant to find a wife for his son Isaac. Abraham and Sarah themselves had not had a child until their old age. And we hear that Rebekah has also turned out to be barren – but really, of course, it’s the couple who appear to be barren, not having produced a child – yet. Just as Isaac and Rebekah’s marriage was crucial to fulfilling God’s plan for creation, so was having a child – everyone would have been watching to see when Rebekah would get pregnant. This frequently happens when there is a marriage in a family. Everyone is excited to see when the first child will be born – for many reasons, but not the least because this is a sign that the family will not die with the current generation. If the family is particularly important for political or religious reasons, than waiting for a child is even more significant. Remember the excitement when William and Kate were expecting? So you can understand the anxiety around Isaac and Rebekah waiting for a child.
So when this story opens, Isaac prays to the Lord that Rebekah might conceive, and she does. Not only that, but she conceives twins, and the Biblical story tells us “the children struggled together within her.” It must have been a very painful pregnancy, but the real reason that the teller of the story mentions this is that he (or she) is reading back into history an understanding of how the various peoples who descended from the patriarchs and matriarchs came to be at enmity with each other, and sadly it continues to our own time.
The birth is told rather graphically – Esau came out first, “red, all his body like a hairy mantle” and Jacob followed him, holding on to Esau’s heal. In fact we’re told his name, Jacob, meant in the Hebrew of the day “one who holds the heal” or in other words “one who supplants” or even “one who deceives.” So it seems as if right from the womb, Jacob was destined to supplant his brother. Esau is the elder, and by the laws of inheritance of that time, he should receive a double portion of his father’s inheritance. However, we know there is going to be a reversal of fortunes, as happens in so many Biblical stories where God chooses certain people to help carry out the divine plan.
And so there is conflict between the twins right from the start which is reflected in the conflict between the parents. We’re told that Esau was a hunter, and Jacob was a quiet man. Isaac loved Esau best because Esau provided him with game. Rebekah loved Jacob best. And Rebekah ends up having the most influence (which is typical of Biblical history and the reason we should never forget to mention that there would be no patriarchs without matriarchs!)
As the story progresses, there is a major deception, one which seems almost impossible for us to believe. Rebekah is determined that Jacob, rather than Esau, is going to receive his father’s inheritance. One day when Jacob is cooking, Esau comes in so hungry that he is willing to sell his birthright for some meat, and in a later continuation of the story, that deal is sealed by the blind Isaac giving his blessing to Jacob thinking he is really Esau (aided by Rebekah).
Both Rebekah and Jacob deceive Isaac, but it’s hard to feel empathy for either Isaac or Esau (who loses his inheritance) because neither of them seems very perceptive or bright. This noble dynasty seems to be founded on deceit and stupidity.
But the story is not literal history. The stories passed on orally for generations would have been enhanced, and people would have read back into the story of the couple-archs an explanation for why there was so much enmity between the different tribes of the Hebrew people.
So this story can be seen as a kind of parable, much like the parables Jesus tells, meant to show us that God can accomplish the divine purpose through the most unlikely people, and that in this case, it is Jacob whom God chooses to be the ancestor of Jesus, not Esau – perhaps because Jacob had some strength of character Esau lacked. In fact God eventually gives Jacob a new name. The man whose name meant “supplanter” or “deceiver” now receives the name Israel, which meant in Hebrew “God Rules.” So in spite of his shady past and dysfunctional family life, he and Sarah become the head of the large family of God that stretches to Jesus and ultimately to us.
What does this have to do with the parable of the sower in this morning’s gospel? It has a lot to do with vocation, with what God calls us to do and be in our lives. Each of us is given various gifts to be used for the common good. Jacob’s gifts were not immediately apparent but he turns out later to be a significant leader of the Hebrew people, where Esau’s gifts lay elsewhere.
In the parable of the sower, Jesus uses the seed as a kind of metaphor for different kinds of people, and that reminds us that the stories of the couple-archs are also about seeds. The patriarch’s seeds have to be sown on fertile ground, and God’s choice of wives for each of the women ensures that despite all evidence to the contrary the patriarchs’ seeds need to be planted in receptive soil.
In Jesus’ parable, he says that the seed which falls on the path is like the person who hears the good news of Jesus but doesn’t understand it – or finds no one to help interpret it – and so the “evil one” can snatch it away and it never comes to maturity.
The seed that falls on rocky ground is a like person with no staying power. He or she “receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root,” Jesus says, and when trouble comes, or persecution, the person falls away, just like the tender shoots from the seed that get scorched and burn up in the sun because they have no roots from which to draw water and other nutrients in the soil.
The seed that falls among thorns is choked out by the cares of the world – wealth and other things that lure us into a false sense of security and thereby close off any openings there may be for God, any longings in our heart.
But the seed that is sown on good soil bears fruit lavishly – it has deep roots into God, the taproot of our life. This person bears fruit 100fold, 60fold, or thirtyfold. In other words, lavishly, abundantly. That is true of the couple-archs, of Mary who was likewise chosen to be holy fertile ground for the conception and nurturing growth of Jesus, and of faithful women everywhere, ever since.
What is the fruit that we bear when we let the Word of God take root in us? It is the fruit of the spirit that Paul talks of in one of his letters. The Christian who embraces the Word and lives life faithfully in relationship with God will bear the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-23).
Jacob’s marriage to Rachel bore fruit because in spite of all his faults he followed the vocation God called him to. We – as individuals and as a community – will also continue to bear fruit if we nurture the seed – the Word of God – and allow it to remain rooted in the good soil of our lives.