The story of Jacob and Esau is both strange and familiar to us. Strange because it is set in the time of hunter-gatherer as opposed to businessman-artist, but familiar because it is rife with what we call ‘family dysfunction.’ Competition between brothers, encouraged by parents, makes for a good story but a really bad home. There are too many of these ‘good stories’ around. The Jacob-Esau narrative is the prime example of what René Girard called “mimetic desire” – the desire not only to have what your brother has, but ultimately, to be what your brother is. Mimetic simply means “imitative.” Jacob pretends to be his brother – going so far as to put animal hair on his arms to deceive his aged and blind father, and ends up stealing his brother Esau’s blessing. This ultimately sends Jacob running for his life and he ends up spending decades apart from Esau living in fugitive like fear until the day of their confrontation.
Awhile back, when I was studying this passage for a sermon, I was struck by something that Esau asked Jacob when they saw each other for the first time in decades. Jacob, “in great fear and distress” (Gen. 32:7), had decided to send a gift to his brother. It was rather extravagant: 200 female goats and 20 male goats, 200 ewes and 20 rams, 30 female camels, 40 cows, 10 bulls, 20 female donkeys and 10 males donkeys (Gen. 32:14,15). Why did he send these gifts? Because “he thought, ‘I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me’” (Gen 32:20). Gifts are funny things, aren’t they? They can come from great people with great motives. For example, I once received a mind-boggling gift from a friend that both he and I knew I could never repay. Before giving me the gift he said, “the only stipulation with this gift is that it must in no way change our friendship.” He wanted to make sure that I knew there were no strings attached. Of course, the reason he said this is because gifts can have all sorts of strings attached to them. So Esau, upon finally seeing Jacob face-to-face after the years had passed and the gifts had arrived, asked his brother: “What do you mean by all these flocks and herds I met?” (33:8). Fascinating. Much of the post-biblical literature presented Esau as the idiot-brother because he foolishly sold his birthright when he was young. He was stupid, rash, and the ultimate anti-role model. But, there is another side to Esau here. Esau – before Jacques Derrida ever did – asked about the philosophy of the gift. “What do you mean by all these…?” This is a question worth pondering.
Philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff in his book “Journey Toward Justice,” writes of a conference he was attending in South Africa in 1975. The conference itself was about higher education, but “apartheid was the dominant topic of conversation during coffee breaks and meals, and constantly threatened to intrude into the conference itself. Eventually it did, first into a scheduled session of the conference, and then into a hastily called unscheduled session.” An interesting thing happened during these sessions. Wolterstorff watched a strange and disturbing scene play out: the Afrikaners* didn’t necessarily deny injustice, but neither did they say that something should be done to right the injustice. Instead, they changed the category of discussion from justice/injustice to order/dis-order. Justice, for the Afrikaners, was not the issue at hand. It rarely is for those who don’t suffer because of it. But disorder! Now that was something that needed to be talked about. And talk they did. Wolterstorff noticed that the Afrikaners spoke a lot about benevolence. As they spoke,
“some added stories about their own individual acts of charity: clothes they gave to the ‘black’ family living in the backyard that their own children had outgrown, trinkets that they gave to the family at Christmas, and so forth…In short, they, the Afrikaners, presented themselves as a benevolent people. They complained that so often their benevolence went unacknowledged; no gratitude was forth coming. Why can’t we just love each other, one of them asked plaintively of the ‘blacks’ and the ‘coloreds’; why do you only criticize us?”
Wolterstorff couldn’t believe what he was witnessing: “What I saw before my eyes, as I had never seen before, was benevolence being used as an instrument of oppression – self-perceived benevolence, of course.”
“What do you mean by all of these flocks and herds I met?”
I’ve watched it; people aghast when they look at the wish list that some kid from the other side of the tracks scribbled out at Christmas time (because she was asked to). “My kids would never have the audacity to ask for something like this!” I’ve heard conversations where people couldn’t believe how ungrateful those kids were at the gifts received, and proceeded to question their worthiness of receiving because of it. I’ve also watched people – over and over again – change the category from injustice to disorder. It happens all the time.
Enter Jesus. Jesus is the very center of love. But, precisely because he is love, there are some things that Jesus won’t put up with. This is one of them. It’s important for Christians to remember the parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18. We read of a man who has an incredible and un-payable debt to his king. The servant, not knowing what else to do, falls on his knees and begs for forgiveness…and gets it. No more debt. What’s the first thing he does? Immediately, the former-servant goes and finds a guy who owes him a couple of bucks. Rather than forgiving him the two dollars he lent him for a grandé dark roast, he chokes the guy and threatens him. The man being choked begs the former-servant for mercy but gets none. Eventually the king catches wind of this and throws the servant in jail to be tortured until he could pay back all he owed (which was never). And then Jesus tells us, “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive a brother or sister from your heart.” (Matt. 18:35).
At first this seems irrelevant. We’re talking about gifts, not loans, right? I’m not so sure. After hearing certain conversations I am inclined, like Esau, to ask “What did you mean by all of these [gifts]…”. A gift with a string is no gift, it is a burden. It can even be an instrument to further oppression. And here is where the rubber hits the road: Jesus tells us that the Father gives us the incredible gift of a debt-free, sin free life – no strings attached. Sheer grace. Sheer gift. But, should we chose to keep others in our debt (even through our ‘gifts’) God will throw more strings at us than we know what to do with. Not, of course, because God isn’t gracious, but because we insist on living life by strings instead of grace**. Live by the string, die by the string.
Here’s the point – Isaiah told us that God insists on the following: “loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke” (Is. 58:6). I’m not sure there is a neutral ground here. We’re either spinning webs or untying them. We’re either giving real gifts or weighing the oppressed down with real burdens. Which will it be? Attaching strings or cutting them? One way leads to life (for us and them), the other leads to hell (for them now, for us later). Which will it be?
*Wolterstorff, for the record, does go to lengths in the book to point out that the following scenario didn’t represent all Afrikaners.
**A tip of the hat to Robert Farrar Capon