It is the story of a man caught in a web of his own making, a tangled web of love, betrayal, theft, and trickery. Is it coming this fall on HBO? No, it is Genesis chapters 25–33, the story of our spiritual ancestor, the patriarch Jacob who cheated his gullible brother Esau, tricked his ailing father Isaac with the help of his conniving mother Rebekah, swindled and was swindled by his Uncle Laban from whom he finally fled with stolen goods only to fall back into the clutches of his long abused brother where begins the strange story of wrestling with a mysterious stranger that was our first lesson for this morning.
Jacob was a shifty and unsavory character by almost any standard, yet of all the heroes, saints, and miracle workers in the Bible, the name given to Jacob that night down by Jabbok creek, the name Israel, is one we of the Judeo-Christian tradition carry to this day. Come with me for a few minutes and look at what connects good people like you and me to a rogue like Jacob, and what makes Jacob so special in the Kingdom of God.
Jacob was a con man, the patron saint of telemarketers and internet business scammers. Like any good scam artist he had a one-eyed ethic that allowed him to see only those facts that supported his interest and his causes. He could see that he was smarter than his brother; he could not see that this did not make him more deserving. One-eyed ethics is essential for con artists. It is also basic to all of us, which is why our ancestors saw themselves and us in Jacob’s story.
One-eyed ethics, seeing only what fits into foregone conclusions, is a staple of what is left of the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. Each sees how they have been hurt but neither sees clearly the hurt they cause. But we need not go so far to find one-eyed ethics. Consider our indignant outrage about all of those illegal immigrants who show up uninvited, expecting a piece of our prosperity. With one eye we see the imposition but we cover the eye that would see that Jamestown and Plymouth were settled by illegal immigrants. We see the poverty to our south but do not notice that we relocated factories there so that we could pay low wages. We deplore the lawlessness of cartels but miss that they buy guns from us with the money they make selling illegal drugs to us. One-eyed ethics clearly sees our rights but has trouble spotting our responsibilities.
Jacob and Esau, red states and blue states, tree huggers and profiteers, capitalists and populists, secularists and religionists, minorities and majorities all rely on one-eyed ethics. That is what we all have in common with rascally Jacob. But this man was special, a patriarch, the one whose experience at the Jabbok gave him the name we still carry. What makes him so exceptional?
Genesis tells us that Jacob continued his one-eyed scam until his servants came and told him that his brother Esau, whom he had cheated out of both birthright and blessing, was coming—with four hundred men! It was hard to see how that could be anything but disaster. What should he do? He was a lot smarter than Esau so maybe he could talk his way out of it. He might try hiding. That had worked before. Or he could try a whole new tactic: face the truth, the whole both-eyes-open truth, and take the consequences.
That unfamiliar path is what the first lesson describes—a night-long wrestling with the God of Truth down by the Jabbok. Jacob faced the truth about himself and his one-eyed ethic. He did not like it. Fought it. Got hurt by it, which left him limping for the rest of his life. But he did not turn away. And that is what makes him special.
How many of us have approached the Jabbok where hard truth was waiting and turned away? Like the first step of the 12: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol or something else, that our lives had become unmanageable.
How many times have we looked into the fierce face of truth and backed off? Like when it becomes clear that our system of checks and balances can only check and provides no balance but the prospect of change is frightening?
How hard is it to stay the course when we realize that truth waiting in the darkness could hurt us, leave us limping? Like when the basic greed of capitalism threatens to snuff out the essential cooperation of democracy and something we hold dear has to go.
I do not know what the answers are to the issues that beset us personally and politically. But I know where they are. They are at the Jabbok where God’s Truth is waiting to be faced. That is what shifty, one-eyed Jacob did when he went to his Jabbok, faced the hard truth and did not turn away. So when our ancestors began to sort through their story and pull out role models and names to guide them in the future they could have chosen Abraham who was obedient or Isaac who was submissive, David who was brave or Solomon who was wise, Elijah who was powerful or Nehemiah who was effective. But the one they took as the name for faithfulness was from the one who finally opened both eyes, faced the truth and did not turn away.
You may wonder what happened after Jacob wrestled with God’s Truth and still had to face Esau and his four hundred men. Unfortunately my time is up but you can find the answer in the thirty-third chapter of Genesis.