Unfortunately I can’t read this passage without thinking of Alan Bennett’s spoof sermon from Beyond the Fringe. We listened to it at theology college as an example of how not to preach… Honest. It’s an object lesson in stringing together a few random thoughts linked by irrelevant links to Bible texts. It’s also very funny. Especially if you’ve ever heard a ‘real’ sermon a bit like it. Perhaps not if you’re worried that you might have preached a sermon a bit like it.
More relevant than you might think!
But the story of Esau and Jacob is a powerful one for making us think about our own approach to life. To be honest, neither of them comes across well. Jacob is a thinker and planner – but he uses his intellect and shrewdness for his own gain, even at the cost of deceiving his father and brother, and without apparent care for other people, at least at this stage in his life. Intelligence is God’s gift to him; and his challenge to us is to use our intelligence to bless others, not to serve ourselves at their expense.
Esau is the hearty outdoorsman who makes his dad proud – but thinking isn’t his strong point. And he’s a man of huge energy, instinct and drive. So when he comes back from hunting and smells his brother’s cooking, he’s not about to think of the distant consequences of his actions. He makes the kind of rash bargain that we come across again and again in the Bible, and is bound by his recklessness many years later.
At that moment, he’s hungry. Really hungry. And that needs to be taken care of now. His birthright, though, his inheritance as his father’s elder son – that’s about the unknown future. So he signs it over in exchange for a bowl of stew he’s probably forgotten about by the next morning. But we can be sure that Jacob won’t forget.
It’s extreme, even ridiculous. Esau trades his birthright, his status, his future wealth, for a bowl of stew. But on a lower level we do it all the time. Every time we choose the immediate satisfaction of our bodily wants at the expense of our future self, we follow Esau’s way. Whether it’s the spiritual level of taking momentary pleasure that distorts out long-term relationship with God and other people, the practical level of watching one more episode of a series on Netflix rather than tackling a daunting job or the physical level of eating burgers and battered chips three times a week rather than keeping to a decent diet, the point’s the same. We let short-term relief of a natural bodily drive cost us the lasting satisfaction of the right way.
Walking the tightrope of righteousness
Between these two brothers there’s got to be another way. A way which doesn’t scheme and plot every detail for our own advantage years down the line. Yet also a way which doesn’t let our decisions be driven by hormones, comfort and circumstances.
Perhaps it can start with just seeking God’s help to ask ourselves how we’ll feel next week about the decisions we make today. If we can get into that habit, I suspect that we may find it a lot easier to avoid the Esau trap.