A professor teaching a class on Wills and Trusts asked his students, “Why do people choose to have their children, rather than their siblings, inherit their estate?” After a few various responses, a young man in the back of the classroom raised his hand and said, “This might be a bit off topic, but when I was little, when my brother finished playing with me, he would always put me in a dresser drawer.” The story of divided brothers is a tale as old as time. Edward the 8th became estranged from his brother George the 6th when he abdicated the throne and left George with the great responsibility of kingship so he could marry a divorced American-born woman. The owners of two of the most well known tennis shoe companies in the world, Adidas and Puma, are estranged brothers who used to be in the shoe business together until they had a family feud over a small misunderstanding that led to the creation of two separate companies. They are both now buried at opposite ends of the same cemetery; they never reconciled. The two most popular manufacturers of drum cymbals are two brothers. Zildjian is an almost 400 year-old family business; these creators of cymbals traditionally passed the business from the father onto the eldest son of the family. When Avedis Zildjian died, he left the business to both his sons, Bob and Armand. As eldest son, Armand inherited the controlling share. The two brothers quarreled and filed lawsuits against one another; they eventually split the business, leaving Armand with the Zildjian company name and Bob with a subsidiary; Bob eventually founded Sabian. Zildjian and Sabian remain rival companies in the music industry. Disagreements about inheritances top the list of reasons for fighting among siblings.
Stories of sibling rivalry, particularly division among brothers, also run deep in the biblical narrative. The very first brothers in the Bible, Cain and Abel, become famous for their division, as Cain attacks Abel while they are in the field together and kills him. Isaac and Ishmael are seen as competing for Abraham’s inheritance. Isaac’s sons, Jacob and Esau have one of the most well-known brotherly conflicts in the Bible. Our text for today tells the story of how the Jacob and Esau rivalry all began. Isaac and his wife Rebekah find themselves to be barren, just as Abraham and Sarah had. Isaac prayed to the Lord because of Rebekah’s barrenness; God granted his prayer and Sarah conceived. She felt the children struggling together within her womb. In great exasperation, after waiting for twenty long years to get pregnant, she cried out, “If it is to be this way, why do I live?” She brought her troubles to God, and God said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” Before the brothers even left their mother’s womb, it was clear that their relationship was to be an inverted one, one that defied societal norms, one in which the eldest son would serve the youngest son. As Rebekah gave birth to her twins, Esau came out first, and Jacob came out after him, with his hand gripping Esau’s heel, a sign of what was to come. From the very beginning, Jacob had his hand on Esau. On the very day of their birth, Jacob was already trying to displace Esau.
Esau and Jacob became two very different men, as brothers often do. Even the ways of life that they took to stood in tension. Esau was a skillful hunter, a man at home in the wild, chasing after animals. Jacob was more settled, living a pastoral way of life, keeping livestock as a means of survival. Jacob was quiet; he clearly liked to cook and probably helped his mother in the kitchen. Their parents played favorites. Isaac loved Esau, and Rebekah loved Jacob. Their parents making their favoritism known probably fueled the brother’s rivalry. Esau, the first born, was the one set to receive the greatest portion of the inheritance; he was the one who held the most value in their society. But, the birthright in this chosen family meant more than assets; being the one to receive the birthright from Isaac would also mean inheriting the covenant and the promise from God.
One afternoon their rivalry came to a head and changed the course of their future. Jacob was in the kitchen cooking a stew. Esau came in from the field after a long hunt, and he was famished. Esau said to his brother, “Let me eat some of that red stuff, for I am famished!” Jacob heard the desperation in his voice and saw an opportunity. Jacob struck a deal with him. If Esau would sell him his birthright, he would give him some stew. Esau could only feel his hunger; maybe he truly was on the brink of starvation! But Jacob was a hard bargainer. He made Esau swear an oath to him, making the sell of his birthright legally binding. After the oath, Jacob gave Esau bread and lentil stew, and after he ate it, Esau went on his way. While Jacob had the upper hand in this situation and used his advantage to manipulate his brother, the text also says that Esau despised his birthright. He did not see his birthright as worthy, and he gave it up for the immediate gain of stew. In this bargain with his brother, he not only gave up material security, he also gave up his right to be the son of Isaac who inherited the covenant.
In most societies of the world, natural rights are seen as just the way things are, and this way of the world is often conflated with the way of God. The older brother receiving the inheritance is his social right. It is the way order is maintained. We get upset when we realize the way the world is organized is being inverted, particularly when the one who is weaker and younger uses manipulation to invert the order. But this stealing of inheritance is ultimately blessed by God. The promise of Abraham gets transferred to this youngest son of Isaac, who happens to be the youngest son himself. In a dream, God appears to Jacob and says, “‘I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring…all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.” God chooses to work through the youngest son of Isaac, not Esau, the one whom society says has all the rights and privileges. It’s a scandal from the very beginning. God doesn’t choose Jacob because he is good or morally superior or honest or respectable. It’s clear Jacob uses his cleverness to get something he wants. It’s clear that he is manipulative, but this doesn’t stop God from choosing him to be the one to whom the promise will be passed.
In Hebrews 12:12-17, Esau is held up as someone who did not believe the promise, someone who would compromise faith for the sake of more immediate satisfaction. It’s true that Esau despised his birthright, that he was willing to give it up. Jacob was steadfast in his focus on becoming the one to inherit from his father. Jacob holds onto God’s future, while Esau seems indifferent to it. Nevertheless, neither brother holds to a moral standard we can emulate. It’s not about right and wrong. It’s about God choosing the one that shouldn’t have been chosen. It’s about God working God’s purposes, even through the self-serving cleverness of human desire. It’s about God choosing the weaker, the younger, the one the world doesn’t value as much. This is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the one who chooses to be in relationship even when we aren’t worthy of it, the one who secures a future for people the world doesn’t want to provide for. This God is a God who does not align with the obviously valued ones, the first-born. This God shows us that the world doesn’t have to be organized the way we’ve organized it. This God inverts the way things are. This God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob chooses Israel to be the elect people of God, not because of anything they’ve done to be worthy, but just because God chose them to be the ones through whom all the world would be blessed, just because they were a tiny and unobvious people group willing to follow God.
God inverting the way things are by choosing the younger brother foreshadows the gospel message Jesus taught, the message that the last shall be first and the first shall be last. Jesus told the disciples in Matthew 20 that the kingdom of God is like a landowner who goes out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard, and pays them all – the ones who started working at nine o’clock, three o’clock, and five o’clock – the same wage at the end of the day. This parable ends with those famous words: “So, the last will be first, and the first will be last.” It’s the parable that makes us think the kingdom of God isn’t fair. We would have been the ones who started at nine o’clock in the morning. We would have known where to go, who was hiring; we would have been informed; we would have been prepared; we would have had transportation to the vineyard. It’s hard for those of us who’ve often been first to really open ourselves up to receive this passage. If God favors the younger, the weaker, the orphan, the widow, the poor, the vulnerable, the ones who’ve always been last, and we’ve typically been the ones who’ve been first, what does that mean about what role we have to play in the kingdom of God? Theologian Christena Cleveland says that what she loves about this parable is that Jesus is saying to the privileged people, “Friends, I’m inviting you into something that’s going to save your life. Your pathway to resurrection is in being last. Your redemption is in being last. Your connection to everyone around you is in being last. You have an irreplaceable, important role to play, and it is last. And I’m inviting you into it.”
Adam and I took Isaac to the movie theater for the first time last weekend. Isaac loves the first Cars movie. Lighting McQueen and Mater are fixtures in our household. We have the die cast cars, the legos, the coloring books. This year he insisted upon a Lighting McQueen and Mater cake for his third birthday. We had high hopes for Cars 3 since we knew it was to be more of a sequel to the first movie than the second one. It was not quite catchy enough to hold our three year-old’s attention, but I loved the storyline. Lighting McQueen is having a mid-life crisis as Jackson Storm, who is part of a new generation of cars with newer technology, rises to stardom and consistently beats Lighting McQueen at every race. Lighting is sent to work with a new trainer, a woman named Cruz Ramirez. Cruz calls Lighting her senior project! In a heart-wrenching scene, Cruz spills the dashed hopes of her life, after Lighting tells her that she can’t teach him anything because she is just a trainer, not a racer. She tells Lighting, “Do you think I got up every morning to race laps when I was in high school because I wanted to be a trainer? One day I had my chance, and I was so afraid I backed out. I used to watch you on TV every morning, flying through the air. You seemed so fearless. How did you know you could do it?” Lighting responds, “I don’t know. I never thought I couldn’t.” And before she speeds off, Cruz says to him, “I wish I knew what that felt like.”
In the last scene of the movie, during the final race – the race that could be Lighting’s last, he unexpectedly decides to exit the race and have Cruz enter the race under his racing number, though some tried to stop it from happening because it was going against the rules. Lighting said to Cruz, “I started this race. You’re going to finish it.” He decides to step aside, to give up his privilege, to lose his chance of being first so that Cruz can have the chance to do what she’s been born to do, the thing she’s been training for her whole life – race. As a woman who spends her life in a career typically dominated by men, I was almost brought to tears as I thought about the men who’ve stepped aside, who’ve given up their privilege, who’ve used their influence, who’ve moved off the race track, so that I could do what I’ve been born to do. It made me ask myself, “In what ways do I need to move over, so there’s room on the track for other people who’ve never gotten the privileges and opportunities that I have?”
As disciples who are to give the world a glimpse of the kingdom of God, we must ask ourselves: what role we are being asked to play right now? The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob favors the younger, the weaker, the one whom the world would never chose. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob chose Mary, the lowly servant, to be the mother of God’s son. This God scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. This God brings down the powerful from their thrones. This God fills the hungry with good things. This God sends the rich away empty. This God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob turns the world around. Will we favor the ones whom God favors? Will our hearts sing when we see the fires of God’s justice burn, when the halls of power are overturned, when the tyrants are torn from their thrones? If we can listen to the call of Jesus and follow where the Spirit is leading, we may just discover our role in God’s kingdom as the world is turned upside down.