blog.07.27.08

Sex, Lies, and Standing Stones:  Year A Proper 12

Genesis 29:15-28; 1 Kings 3:5-12; Psalm 105:1-11, 45b; Psalm 128; Psalm 119:129-136; Romans 8:26-39; Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

The Elves’ focus on the patriarchs and the ancestral stories leading to Jesus misses the best parts of the Abraham saga.  But to be fair, the reconstruction by the biblical writers of these foundational myths only hits the highlights.  For a midrash between the lines of Genesis chapters 29-35, see the now classic novel by Anita Diamant: The Red Tent.

If we confine ourselves to the Elves’ selection, Jacob is a hopelessly romantic naif.  But if we read the whole story, Jacob begins to look more like the first practitioner of non-violent resistance.  After 20-plus years, two wives, two concubines, and 8 or 10 children, he finally has had enough.  He declares his intention to return to his own country.  Rachel grabs the family icons.  Jacob tells off evil uncle Laban for all his cheating shenanigans.  Laban capitulates (after being intimidated off his search of Jacob’s tents by Rachel’s claim that “the way of women is upon me”).  Together Jacob and Laban create a cairn of stones and a menhir to mark their agreement never to trespass on one another’s land again.

For those who want to cut to the chase without getting bogged down in all the sex, deception, and pagan magic between the portion of the story chosen for proper 12 and the portion chosen for proper 13, the Elves offer a snippet from 1st Kings.  After the death of the great King David, Solomon asks for wisdom rather than wealth, and of course as we all know, he gets both.  What a relief.  No need for magic spells in order to assure that God’s promise will be fulfilled.

But Jacob, Leah, and Rachel have a more basic connection with the realm of God.  They are people of the earth and practitioners of earth magic.  When Leah’s son Reuben brings mandrakes from the field, Rachel pleads with Leah to let her have them so she can use them herself and end the infertility she has suffered from.  Leah trades them for a night with Jacob, which of course produces yet another son.  But apparently the mandrakes work for Rachel, because at last she has a son, and that son is Joseph – the first savior of the Hebrew people.

Jacob does his own magic in order to assure the safety of his flocks of sheep and goats.  He agrees to prolong his stay with Laban if Laban will pay him with black, and speckled and spotted sheep and goats.  Laban promptly removes all of those from his herds and sends them off three days distance.  Jacob then retaliates.  He carefully takes branches from sacred trees:  poplar, almond, and plane, and carves the bark to make poles that are striped and spotted with white. He plants them in the ground beside the watering hole whenever Laban’s stronger flocks are there.  When Laban’s weaker sheep and goats are at the watering hole, Jacob takes the poles away.  He separates his own flocks from Laban’s.  When Laban’s stronger sheep and goats see the striped poles, they produce black and white offspring.  The storyteller is gleeful: “Thus [Jacob] grew exceedingly rich, and had large flocks, and male and female slaves, and camels and donkeys!”

Which is the greater wisdom?  Solomon’s wisdom, which is based on the written law, or the wisdom of Jacob and his people, which is based on their relationship with the natural world in which they live?  Solomon – in all his glory – is defined by his piety and his strict adherence to the law.  Jacob relies on his covenant relationship with God.  Solomon is also a King – subject to all the temptations of Empire and the normalcy of civilization, despite his great wisdom.  Neither Jacob nor Laban is interested in creating an imperial alliance.  Jacob’s honest cleverness has defeated Laban’s selfish deception.  The stone pillar marks their territorial boundary, and neither one will cross it.

Contrasting the imperial wisdom of Solomon’s settled civilization with the tribal wisdom of a primordial people can only serve briefly as metaphor.  The differences produced by the evolution of consciousness are too great.  By the time Jesus walked the earth, the forces of Empire had become firmly established, and the struggle between the distributive justice-compassion of Covenant with God and the injustice inherent in human law had been documented and debated  for thousands of years.  Still, Jesus’s parables call all who have ears to hear back into the covenant relationship with the wisdom and the realm of God.

The version of the mustard seed metaphor in Thomas 20:1-4 is thought to be closer to the original as told by Jesus because it has no interpretation attached to it: “[Heaven’s imperial rule is] like a mustard seed.  It’s the smallest of seeds, but when it falls on prepared soil, it produces a large plant and becomes a shelter for birds of the sky.”  The tiny secret to the Kingdom of God is hidden in plain sight.  God’s Realm is not the big imperial power.  As the Jesus Seminar scholars put it, “God’s domain . . . was pervasive [like the mustard weed] but unrecognized, rather than noisy and arresting.”

The parable of the leavening in the flour describing the nature of God’s rule is thought to have come directly from Jesus because whether it occurs in Matthew Luke or Thomas, there are no modifications or explanations.  When was the last time one little packet of yeast – even if it was Fleischman’s Rapid Rise – was enough to leaven 50 pounds of flour?  But 1st Century people – rich or poor – did not get their leavening from little foil packets.  Perhaps the“leaven” was a kind of sour dough starter.  To use sour dough starter, you take a small amount and mix it in with the other ingredients and allow it to “leaven” the whole batch.  The Jesus Seminar scholars point out that the leaven is “hidden,” not “mixed.”  “Hiding” a bit of starter in 50 pounds of flour is an apt metaphor for the power of justice-compassion.  Because it is not seen, acting with distributive justice-compassion – radically abandoning self-interest – as Jesus taught, at first seems ineffective and lost in the imperial injustice that holds sway among oppressed people.  But eventually the movement grows until the whole population is involved, and liberation is won.  As Victor Hugo said, “nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.”

As the man in charge of devious uncle Laban’s fields, Jacob could have done something similar to the one who found treasure.  A farmer, in danger of losing his own land to the tax collector is forced to farm land adjacent to his own that belongs to the occupier.  In the process of plowing the adjoining acreage, he discovers a buried treasure.  He does not tell the land owner about the treasure.  Instead, he covers it up, and sells his own land to buy that field.  How is this kind of cheating representative of God’s imperial rule?  It is a perfect example of subversion of empire in the name of the common man.

The pearl of great price is actually worthless to the one who sells everything to get it.  In order to live in the normalcy of civilization, he would need to sell it.  But nothing is needed for living in God’s Realm.

Jacob’s evil uncle Laban, like 21st century multi-national corporations, concedes defeat without admitting error, and invites a covenant with Jacob (Genesis 31:43-44).  “May the Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other,” he says.  It is not a blessing.  It is an invocation of God’s judgment, should either one break the covenant represented by the cairn and the standing stone.  But God’s realm is not about judgment, despite the threat from Matthew’s Jesus that “God’s messengers will go out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw the evil into the fiery furnace . . .”  Matthew is stuck on fiery furnaces and payback, completely missing his own point.

God’s Kingdom is not about Solomon’s piety, war, victory.  The way into the Realm of God is Covenant with God.  Rachel did not need to steal the household gods from Laban.  God’s part of the bargain with Jacob – marked with the cairn and the standing stone – is to be with him regardless of where he goes.

The Apostle Paul is talking about the same secret.  If God is for us, who can be against us?  Who can separate us from the love of Christ?  Indeed, Paul says, nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Nothing can keep us from God’s kingdom, realized in the life of Jesus, and in the lives of anyone who signs on to the Covenant.