What a bizarre world we live in. We have collectively lost our minds. In pursuit of an illusory freedom we have cut ourselves off from the experience of our ancestors (racist, rigid, old, dead, etc.) and don’t even seem to have noticed that at the same time we have cut ourselves off from reality. We seem to think that we can literally invent ourselves ex nihilo, even to the extent of choosing our own gender, and that reality will follow our dictates. We are living in the Age of Esau.
In recent years I find myself reflecting more and more often on the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis (chapter 27). As a little boy I was fascinated by Jacob’s trick (well, his mother Rebecca’s trick) of using goat skins on his hands to fool his blind old father Isaac into believing him to be his hairy brother Esau, and so obtain the father’s blessing. Later, when I was a father myself, I was also impressed by the obvious importance of the paternal blessing, which I have made a point of bestowing on all my children. But I was always troubled by the fact of Jacob’s dishonesty in obtaining the blessing. The Bible wasn’t condoning lying, was it?
Of course, it’s not condoning lying; but how to explain the apparent contradiction? There are many cases in Scripture in which apparently shocking details serve to grab our attention and direct it to a main point. We see Jesus do this in the Gospels. In Luke, for instance, when he says: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” (Luke 16: 9) We know that Jesus can’t really mean that we should use “unrighteous mammon [wealth]” to make friends, or that such friends could possibly offer us “eternal habitations”. We need to read on to see where he’s leading us:
He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another’s, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon. (Luke 16: 10-13)
We are drawn into thinking about his point more deeply (which is that only God, not mammon, can save us), because we want to resolve the apparent contradiction. We see something similar in the parable of the wedding guest who is “bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness” simply because he’s wearing the wrong clothes (Matthew 22:13) and in many other places as well.
In the story of Jacob and Esau we need to look two chapters earlier to get the context for Esau’s loss of his father’s blessing:
Once when Jacob was boiling pottage, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!” (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Gen. 25:29-34)
Having read the earlier passage, we know that Esau doesn’t deserve his father’s blessing, because he “despised his birthright”; he willingly gave it away even before Jacob and Rebecca’s trickery. He loses both birthright and blessing because he has his priorities reversed: he has given immediate material things priority over those things that are truly important.
“Thus Esau despised his birthright.” (Gen. 25:34)
“The Lentil Dish” or “Esau Sells his Birthright to Jacob” by Mathias Stom, 17th Century
We see this same basic message many times in Scripture, as when St. Paul says:
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven . . . (Phil 3:18-20a)
Esau and the people St. Paul speaks of are extreme examples; it is possible to fall into lesser degrees of the same problem, as we see in the case of the sisters Martha and Mary:
. . . And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving; and she went to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Martha is too distracted by the various details of hospitality to pay much real attention to the Divine Guest in her house, while Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus and devotes all her attention to him, “has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her”.
We know that in spite of what happens in this passage, Martha loves Jesus very much, and of course it is right for her to be concerned for the comfort of her guest. The problem is that she becomes so tangled up in means that she forgets about the end to which they are directed. Her example should be a warning to us: we don’t have to go full Esau to get our priorities reversed. We all have causes that are important to us, but we can’t let them become our guiding principles: our actions in these causes should be an expression of our faith (see James 2:18), not the focus of it. While this failing may be endemic to the “social justice” wing of Catholicism (the CDF document Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, here, explains beautifully; thank you yet again, Cardinal Ratzinger), the rest of us are susceptible, too: it’s a rare Catholic indeed who has not been a Martha, or worse, on more than one occasion (mea culpa!). We need to be on guard all the more because we live in an Age of Esau that exalts Action and the Here and Now, and denies the Transcendent.
So, what to do? How to avoid falling into the trap? Someone with much more experience in such things once directed me to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
And one of them a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the law? And he said to him. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)
We must always remember that the “great and first commandment” is to love God; that takes priority. If we put even as worthy a thing as loving our neighbor before, or instead of, loving God, then our actions will be disordered and won’t bear the intended fruit.
Martha herself learned that lesson, incidentally, for which reason we celebrate her feast day today (July 29th). We see a wiser Martha in John’s Gospel, when Jesus has come at the death of her brother Lazarus:
When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary sat in the house. Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. And even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.” Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, . . (John 11:20-25)
Martha understands that it’s not all up to her, and that she needs to rely on Jesus even when she doesn’t fully understand what’s happening.
It’s not all up to us. We can’t invent ourselves, we can’t, as U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy notoriously opined, “define [our] own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” A proper appreciation of what we have been given by our predecessors helps us understand our reliance on what has been given to us by God as well (which is one of the main ideas behind this blog). If, like Esau, we listen to our appetites of the moment and disregard everything else, we will lose our own birthright . . . forever.
Featured image top of page: “Isaac Rejecting Esau” by the Master of the Isaac Stories, 1290s