Monthly Archives: February 2012

Rabbi, Teach Us How to Pray

The Master of peace and unity would not have each of us pray singly and severally, since when we pray we are not to pray only for ourselves.  For we neither say: “My Father, who art in heaven” nor “Give me this day my bread”; nor does each of one of individually pray for our own debt to be forgiven, nor do we ask that we alone should not be led into temptation, nor that we only should be delivered from evil.

Our prayer is general and for all; and when we pray, we pray not for one person but for us all, because we are all one.  God, the Master of peace and concord, so willed that one should pray for all, even as he himself bore us all.  St. Cyprian, Treatise on the Lord’s Prayer.

I found this commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in a wonderful book, Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church.  St. Cyprian lived in the third century in and around Carthage, in northern Africa.  He lived during a time of great trials for the Church, a time of plague, famine, schism and persecution.  He died for the faith in 258 A.D.

I recently wrote about the nature of evil, which always works to separate us: from God, from our brothers and sisters and from our true selves.  Unlike sin, which separates, prayer works to unify.  Cyprian rightly reminds us that God has woven our lives together.  Jesus called upon us to recognize that bond in the Lord’s Prayer.  If we take a look at the very first two words of the prayer (“Our Father”) we recognize our common origin.  We aren’t like a family; we are a family.

When I was a boy at Burnet Elementary School, one of my classmates accosted me on the playground and asked me if I had accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior.  This question took place in a fairly big crowd of kids, and that event may be my first memory of genuine peer pressure.  I answered, “Well, yes, and no….I think He came to save the whole world.”

I’m not sure how well I understood the theology behind what I said.  (I’m pretty sure it was not a popular answer.)  On the other hand, I think this statement recognized an important concept:  I cannot really separate God’s love for me from my love for His children.  The Lord’s Prayer, and St. Cyprian, call us into that recognition.  I cannot pray for my daily bread alone; my brother’s bread must be just as important.

This notion underlies a good deal of Christian theology.  All were made in the image of God.  The forgiveness of us all must be my concern and my prayer.  One of my favorite writers on prayer, Rabbi Heschel, noted:  “The purpose of prayer is not the same as the purpose of speech.  The purpose of speech is to inform; the purpose of prayer is to partake.”

When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we partake in the hopes and the troubles and the gratitude of our brothers and sisters.  We also share in God’s hopes and concerns for all His children.  We thus knit our lives together with God’s dreams for the kingdom: the kingdom which has not yet come and the kingdom which is already here and present.  During this holy season, let’s pray for each other and for God’s presence to fall down upon all our lives like a steady rain.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Out Into the Wilderness

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him.  Mark 1:9-13.

This portion of the reading from this week’s Lectionary  illustrates two important ideas relevant to our Lenten discussions.  The first is the principle of resistance.  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus emerges from the water, a voice from heaven announces that he is the beloved son of God.  There’s a Greek phrase that Mark uses throughout his Gospel, kai euthos.  It’s most often translated as “immediately” or “just then.”  Mark reports that immediately after this wonderful moment, right after this transcendent announcement, the Spirit drove Jesus into the wilderness.

It seems an odd thing:  Jesus has just been consecrated to his vocation as the Messiah, the savior, and immediately He’s sent to the desert to face temptation.  We get a sense of the loneliness of Jesus’ situation, an isolation illustrated by the notion of “the wilderness.”  (In this sense, Jesus will share the Genesis experience of being “cast out” with us, will share in the Exodus experience of wandering in the wilderness.)  The phrase “the wilderness” connotes chaos, fear and a landscape where death and sin become a real possibility.

I think many of us have shared that experience:  just when we think things are going well, when we’ve decided to turn a corner on our relationship with God, we are thrust into that wilderness.  As Michael Corleone famously observed, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

As we work through our Lenten disciplines, attempting to find our way through the wilderness, we shouldn’t be surprised when we encounter this “resistance” to change.  Sometimes, we may find that our Ancient Enemy views this as an opportune time drag us down again.  Sometimes, we may provide our own resistance, or even find resistance from our friends or our families.  And then, we may confront one of the greatest lies Satan tells us:  “Things are never going to change.  This is just too hard.  Life wasn’t so bad before.”

Even while he was in the wilderness with the “wild beasts”, Mark reports that the angels waited on Jesus.  Now, the angels acted as the messengers of God.  I think Mark is trying to tell us that even in that wilderness of spiritual desolation, God will not leave us alone.  Somehow, someway, God will speak words of comfort, courage and peace.  Learning to listen for them when we are ravaged by our terrors, that’s the tricky part.

Mark’s Gospel describes Jesus as having been “tempted by Satan”.  As usual, Mark doesn’t provide many of the particulars here.  Both Matthew and Luke offer more detail about the specific temptations Christ suffered.  We do know one thing about Satan, however.  Jesus said that Satan “does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”  John 8:44.  In this teaching, Jesus illustrates for us something important about the very nature of sin.

I believe that most sin, if not all sin, originates with a lie.  The German people could not have burned 6 million Jews without first deceiving themselves into the belief that the Jews were less than human.  We Americans could not have participated in the brutality of slave labor and the  slave trade without first believing that the Africans were “chattel”, that they were animals.  Or maybe we persuade ourselves that we haven’t had that much to drink, and we’ll have just one more glass of wine before driving home.  Sin generally originates in a lie, because deception is the currency of sin.

In my law practice, I’ve handled a number of cases of embezzlement.  In almost every case, the employee has convinced themselves that their employer has taken advantage of them somehow, and they’re merely recovering what the employer should have given them. I think I understand these folks because if I have a superpower, it’s my ability to deceive myself and rationalize.  And when I stray “out into the wilderness”, I find that deception is the native language of sin.

If we begin to view sin as separation from God, rather than simply doing something naughty, we start to see the subtle danger here.  Jesus described himself as the way, the truth and the life.  Of course, the Father of Lies must separate us from the Truth. Using this Lent as an opportunity for genuine reconciliation, therefore, requires that our self-examination must be firmly rooted in the unyielding truth.  As we approach Jesus, the closer we come, the further we move away from Our Ancient Enemy.

C.S. Lewis once observed “There is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second, is claimed by God and counter-claimed by Satan.” God always seeks our union with Him; Satan always seeks to divide us from God and his children.  I pray we use this season of Lent to reflect on those things which operate to come between us from the Almighty, and to take a few steps back towards our real home.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Be Merciful to Me, a Sinner

He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’ Luke 18:  9-14.

Sometime today, a priest will mark my forehead with ashes and remind me that I came from the dust, and that I’ll return there.  Those ashes mark the beginning of the Holy Season of Lent.  I hope to use this time to reflect on the complex nature of sin, the Lenten practices which might heal us, and the holy custom of reconciliation  with God.

If we view Lent as simply an occaision on which we give up something we enjoy (sweets, red wine, or our double mocha macchiato), I think we have barely scratched the surface.  Lent serves as a time for putting down our arms and making peace with the God who calls us back to Him.  During this season, we drink the bitter medicine that will hopefully heal our wounds and lead us closer to the Lord of Heaven.

In today’s Gospel reading, we find two men praying in the temple: a Pharisee and a tax collector (who you’ll sometimes see called a publican).  In first century Palestine, good Jews despised the tax collectors or at least saw them as deeply flawed and unclean.  In the first place, tax collectors collaborated with the pagan Roman empire occupying their holy homeland.  Further, most of them could not survive on their income as collectors, and had to cheat people in order to make their living.

On the other hand, the Pharisees were devout, prayerful men who tried to live according to the law of Moses.  The Pharisee in this parable has even gone beyond the Mosaic law, fasting twice a week rather than once. His prayer, however, reveals that he has become mired in the spiritual quicksand of self-admiration.  He believes he can rely on his own righteous behavior to justify himself before God.

Jesus contrasts this sense of spiritual self-sufficiency with the humility of the tax collector, who knows that he is a sinner and asks for God’s mercy.  He can rely on nothing other than God’s grace.  In one of Jesus’ classic inversions, the tax collector is sanctified.  The Pharisee has fastidiously done all the right things (fasting and tithing), but has somehow missed the point.  Like many of us, the Pharisee believes he has actually done God a favor by being so moral.  The tax collector approaches God with a contrite heart, knowing that he’s let God down once again.

This parable offers us the first step in that process:  rigorous self-examination and coming to terms with our failures.  We need to resist our instinctive compulsion to see and present ourselves as righteous (or perhaps guilty of only minor infractions) while we view others as the real sinners, or perhaps see others as the real source of our sin.  As we take a hard look at our lives, some of what we see may make us wince; some of it may make us want to turn away.  That’s the very stuff we need to work on, because those are the weak spots where our separation from the Holy begins.

Often, when we look at what we’ve done and what we’ve failed to do, we may consider our situation rather hopeless.  Our sins constantly separate us from God, and despite our good efforts, we cannot avoid them.  Like the Pharisee, we’re lost in self-deception, self-aggrandisement and our myopic respect for our virtues.  I don’t think the Pharisee was a particularly evil man; rather, his pride blinded him to his own situation.  His self-absorption prevented any real self-understanding.

We pray a fairly desperate prayer in my church: “We have no power within ourselves to help ourselves.”  Our only refuge looks like the most dangerous place for us, standing naked before God who sees all, and who somehow finds a way in impossible situations.  This all begins with a good, hard look at our lives, the things we’ve done, and the ways we’ve distanced ourselves from God.  Jesus thought so, anyway.

I wish you a good and holy Lent,

James R. Dennis

© 2012 James R. Dennis

You Have Asked a Hard Thing

Now when the LORD was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Elijah said to Elisha, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me as far as Bethel.” But Elisha said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they went down to Bethel. The company of prophets who were in Bethel came out to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he said, “Yes, I know; keep silent.”

Elijah said to him, “Elisha, stay here; for the LORD has sent me to Jericho.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So they came to Jericho. The company of prophets who were at Jericho drew near to Elisha, and said to him, “Do you know that today the LORD will take your master away from you?” And he answered, “Yes, I know; be silent.”

Then Elijah said to him, “Stay here; for the LORD has sent me to the Jordan.” But he said, “As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave you.” So the two of them went on. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.  2 Kings 2: 1-12.

We are nearing the end of the season of Epiphany, a season when we mark the ways God reveals Himself in the world.  This season affords us a wonderful time to remember Elijah and his student Elisha.  As this passage begins, Elijah is nearing the end of his days.  At the Lord’s instruction, he has already placed his mantle (the symbol of his prophetic spirituality) on Elisha.  1 Kings 19: 19.

Elijah must travel to Bethel, and suggests that Elisha remain behind.  Some scholars have suggested that Elijah is testing Elisha’s loyalty.  I think something different is happening here.   Perhaps Elijah wants to spare Elisha the pain of this moment.  Perhaps he wants to spare himself the heartbreak of that last goodbye.  It’s no secret that Elijah’s death is near;  prophets along the way, at Bethel  and Jericho remind Elisha of this.  Elisha tells these voices to remain silent.   While Elisha remains committed to accompanying his friend and teacher towards his death, the tremendous sense of loss and mystery defy language.  Words simply fail at moments like these.

While on their journey, Elijah parts the river Jordan, revealing himself as the second Moses.  The progress of their journey–from Gilgal to Jericho to the Jordan–reminds us of the people’s journey as they enter into the promised land.

In the central passage of the story, Elijah asks what he can do for his student, his friend, before he dies.  Elisha asks for a “double share” of his spirit.  Under Deuteronomic law, the eldest son would receive a double portion of his father’s estate.  (Deut. 21:15-17).  Elijah responds that he has asked “a hard thing.”  Elijah knows that this spiritual inheritance is God’s to give, and not his own. More than just a student of the great prophet, it’s clear that Elisha considers himself the spiritual child of Elijah.  This meaning becomes clear when Elijah is taken up into the whirlwind and Elisha cries out, “Father!  Father!”

So, it seems to me that this passage, like today’s Gospel reading on the Transfiguration, centers on the notion of translation.  Jesus’ divinity is translated into a language the disciples can understand.  Elijah, the prophet who stood alone, is translated into a life with the Father.  And Elisha is translated into his new role as the spiritual heir of his teacher.  Coincidentally (and I really don’t believe in coincidences), these things all happen in the context of a journey.  I think Holy Scripture is making a very important point:  we cannot  be transfigured into God’s new creation by remaining in the same place.

I hope to see you on the road.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

The Good Shepherd

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.   The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away-and the wolf snatches them and scatters them.  The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.  I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me,  just as the Father knows me and I know the Father.  And I lay down my life for the sheep.  I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.  For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again.  No one takes  it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.”  John 10:11-18.

This reading from John’s Gospel offers a rich passage, and those who know it well may have lost some appreciation for its texture.  First, when Jesus says “I am the good shepherd”, He presents us with one of the seven “I Am” statements.  These include “I am”: the bread of life;  the light of the world; the gate or door; the good shepherd; the resurrection and the life; the way, the truth and the life; and the vine.  Each of these statements resonates with God’s self description found in Exodus 3:14 (“I Am Who Am”).  In other words, John offers us a clear claim of the divinity of Jesus through these statements.

Jesus’ description of himself as a good shepherd also resonates with God’s announcement in the Old Testament:  “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.”  Ezek.  34: 11-12.    From his deathbed, Jacob declared that God had been the shepherd “all of my life to this day.”  Gen 48:24.  Jesus’ description of himself further calls to mind the 23rd Psalm.  Thus, Jesus locates himself firmly within the Davidic line:  a shepherd king.

We also need to grasp just how startling Jesus’ understanding of himself as a “good shepherd” would have been to a first century audience.  At that time, shepherds would have been considered am ha’aretz (people of the land or people of the dirt).  Shepherds were considered dirty, coarse, boorish, and uncivilized.  Rabbinic Judaism looked down on shepherds, who did not regularly keep the commandments.  Because of their work, they may not have even kept the Sabbath.

The shepherds of first century Palestine were also a rough lot, solitary men of tremendous courage.  They had to protect the flock from lions, bears, wolves and other predators.  Rather than the gentle, pastoral image we may have inherited from the Romantic poets, shepherds were fierce fighters who were prepared for dangerous combat when necessary to protect their sheep.  For example, David learned about battle by protecting his father’s sheep from predators.  1 Sam. 17:33-37.

So, there’s something in Jesus’ description of himself as “the good shepherd” that subverts our understanding and upends our expectations.  Jesus also contrasts himself with “the hired hands” who run away in the face of a wolf.  He thus begins to teach about his commitment to us, a commitment that disregards his own safety, that disregards his own life.  This commitment, this covenant, finds its root in love, and in the Father’s love for Jesus and in Jesus’ love for the Father.  Jesus teaches not only about the nature of His love for the disciples, but also about his love for every one of us.   In essence, Jesus tells us:  “I will not abandon you.”

Jesus then tells us that his sheep will listen to his voice.  I wonder how well we do that today.  Setting aside the question of listening, do we even recognize Jesus’ voice when he calls?  Christ then offers a remarkable insight that speaks to our fractured Church today.  He speaks of unity:  “So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”  When we encounter discord, schism, and fracture in the world, we can rest assured that at least one party (and perhaps all) are not listening to Jesus.

I believe this remarkable passage ultimately centers upon the overarching Christian commandment:  love God and love each other.  As Desmond Tutu once observed, “Nothing is too much trouble for love.”  Love binds the sheep to the shepherd, and binds the shepherd to his flock.  We understand the risks inherent in the practice of love, risks that will ultimately lead to Golgotha.  Despite these risks, in the final analysis, the Gospel teaches us that nothing else really matters.

God watch over thee and me,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

If You Choose, You Can Make Me Clean

A leper came to Jesus begging him, and kneeling he said to him, “If you choose, you can make me clean.” Moved with pity, Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, and said to him, “I do choose. Be made clean!” Immediately the leprosy left him, and he was made clean. After sternly warning him he sent him away at once, saying to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone; but go, show yourself to the priest, and offer for your cleansing what Moses commanded, as a testimony to them.” But he went out and began to proclaim it freely, and to spread the word, so that Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country; and people came to him from every quarter.  Mark 1:40-45.

At some point in our lives, most of us have experienced the pain, shame and loneliness of being an outsider.  In today’s Gospel reading, we find a man who knew that isolation intimately.  At that time, leprosy and most skin diseases were treated as a kind of plague.  Because of his illness, the community shunned him, and the Mosaic law justified and condoned their fears.  He had no right to approach Jesus, and Jesus had no business having anything to do with him, let alone touching him.

This man lived the life of walking ghost, or perhaps more accurately, a walking corpse. As a leper, this “unclean” man could not enter the Temple; he could not even enter any community other a community of other lepers.  Jesus enters into this ostracism by touching him and sharing in his uncleanness.

This man’s statement (“If you choose, you can make me clean”) carries a number of messages within it.  First, we can hear the pain in the voice of a man who simply doesn’t have the power to help himself.  We also hear a remarkable affirmation of faith in Jesus’ healing power.  And perhaps we also hear just a hint of a challenge to Jesus’ willingness to reach out to this man.

Jesus then tells the man something that God’s been trying to convey throughout the Old Testament:  I choose to heal you.  The text thus illustrates an important idea of divine freedom, reaching out to restore God’s creation.  As He did with Sarah and Abraham, as He did in the Exodus, and as he did on the Cross, God instinctively exercises His freedom to redeem our broken lives.  I think Jesus is telling us:  “This is what the kingdom looks like.”

Mark describes Jesus as “moved with pity”.  The phrase suggests a very deep emotional response, the sort of reaction that you feel deep within your gut.  It has also sometimes been translated as “moved with anger”.  I suspect that Jesus felt a certain anger at all those things which separate men from God, and perhaps at the lack of depth or vision in the priestly interpretation of the holiness code.  Perhaps Jesus was angry  with the very notion, embedded into this man by a life as a lonely outcast, that God would choose anything other than to heal him.

Regardless of whether Jesus was moved with pity or anger, we shouldn’t miss the important point:  His immediate response to this emotion was to reach out, to redeem and to restore.

Jesus then gives this man a strict warning not to tell anyone, but to simply present himself at the temple.  This instruction falls into what theologians call the “Messianic secret.”  In this passage and many others, Jesus often instructs those He heals (and even the demons he casts out) to keep quiet about what they’ve seen.  We get the impression that until the Resurrection (which would clearly reveal the meaning of Christ’s life) Jesus tried to avoid an incomplete understanding of his ministry.

Despite Jesus’ warning, the man begins to proclaim the news about Jesus.  This leads to a curious and ironic reversal.  While the man was originally kept from society, Jesus now finds himself an outsider because of his fame and the press of the crowds.  Cleansed of his disease, the man can now rejoin his town and family.  Having restored this man to his health and freedom,  Jesus could no longer travel freely and had to remain “out in the country” .  Jesus therefore becomes an outsider himself, no longer able to go to the towns and villages.  Even Jesus finds himself marginalized, and thus those who follow him should not be surprised when it happens to us, too.

In one sense, this passage is about risk.  Jesus took a tremendous risk in healing this man, risking contamination.  Jesus also took a risk in asking for this man’s assurance of secrecy, risking his own isolation.  By subjecting Himself to human history and sin, Jesus risked our judgment and condemnation.  In fact, the Gospels point to the final risk of the Incarnation, the Cross.

I think today’s Gospel reading teaches us another important lesson.  Mark illustrates one of the core tenets of the Christian faith:  ours is religion for the last kids picked for dodge ball, the kids no one wants to dance with, and those who always get their hearts broken.  We shouldn’t read this as a story about something that happened once, a long time ago; Jesus still choses to make us clean, to restore us and heal us.  Following Jesus is all about second chances.  It was for this man in today’s Gospel.  And it is for you and me, too.

Shabbat shalom,

James R. Dennis

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Who Are You, My Son?

So he went in to his father, and said, “My father”; and he said, “Here I am; who are you, my son?”  Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, so that you may bless me.”  But Isaac said to his son, “How is it that you have found it so quickly, my son?” He answered, “Because the LORD your God granted me success.”  Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near, that I may feel you, my son, to know whether you are really my son Esau or not.” So Jacob went up to his father Isaac, who felt him and said, “The voice is Jacob’s voice, but the hands are the hands of Esau.”  He did not recognize him, because his hands were hairy like his brother Esau’s hands; so he blessed him.  He said, “Are you really my son Esau?” He answered, “I am.”  Then he said, “Bring it to me, that I may eat of my son’s game and bless you.” So he brought it to him, and he ate; and he brought him wine, and he drank.  Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come near and kiss me, my son.”   So he came near and kissed him; and he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him . . . .  Gen. 27:18-27.

In the Old Testament reading in today’s Daily Office, we find the story of Isaac blessing Jacob.  I confess that I’ve always loved the story of Jacob, in part because he is one of those “holy rascals” we’ve talked about before.  In part, I’m attracted to the story because my own name is the Anglicized version of the name “Jacob”.  And in part, I’m drawn to this story because it’s the story of a dysfunctional family, fraught with deceit and discord, finding a kind of redemption.

 Jacob offers us an interesting character; he’s nobody’s idea of a saint.  He’s deceptive, self-centered, and covetous.  His very name, meaning the grasper, or the supplanter, implies this.  While not completely wicked, like a lot of us, Jacob has a little larceny in his heart.  Like most of us, God did not choose Jacob because he was so holy; rather, he was holy because God chose him.

Jacob displayed these character traits from the very beginning.  As you’ll remember, Jacob and Esau were twins.  They struggled within their mother’s womb.  At birth, Jacob held on to his brothers foot, grasping at his brother.   Through sharp dealing, he acquires his brother’s birthright from Esau in exchange for a bowl of stew.  That birthright included the right of a double share of the inheritance, but perhaps more importantly determined who would run the family.

We find further evidence of familial dysfunction.  Isaac favors his son Esau; Rebekah favors Jacob.  Knowing that he was just not quite good enough for his father almost certainly shaped some of Jacob’s behavior.    Although Esau had sold his birthright to Jacob, Jacob still needed to deal with Isaac, who controlled the blessing of the father.  In order to obtain this blessing, Jacob deceives his father.  We find Rebekah, Isaac’s wife, participating in this little illusion.

We should remember, however, that Rebekah carries out God’s plan in this regard.  As we recall, the Lord told Rebekah:

“Two nations are in your womb,
and two peoples born of you shall be divided;
the one shall be stronger than the other,
the elder shall serve the younger.”

Gen. 25: 23.  So, while Jacob has deceived his father and taken advantage of his brother, God will somehow redeem this shamefully poor behavior.  Jacob, and not Esau, will become the father of the nation of Israel.  But first, Jacob will run away from his family and his brother’s murderous intent, and only years later will God bring him safely back home to bear the covenant into the next generation.

But I think there’s still more at work in this passage.  Isaac asks, “Who are you, my son?”  While we recognize that Isaac’s sight has grown dim, and Jacob has disguised himself with skins to resemble his brother, reason teaches us that Isaac would still recognize his own son.  In fact, Isaac comes out and says that the voice was Jacob’s rather than Esau’s.  I wonder whether Genesis might be teaching us something else.

We’ve talked before about the contrast between physical blindness and spiritual insight.  I wonder whether, although he could not see physically, Isaac could spiritually see God’s hand in all this.  Perhaps Isaac knew that God was at work in all this artifice, and that God would do what he always did:  make something sacred and holy out of our mess.

Perhaps this story of the younger brother obtaining the birthright may also prefigure something we’ll hear Jesus teach about at great length.  In this story of the younger son receiving his father’s blessing we may see the beginning of the notion that “the first will be last and the last will be first.”  Maybe we’re seeing just the sort of inversion through grace that Jesus would preach about.  Perhaps we’re being inoculated to the notion that God’s justice works differently from ours, and God sees things we cannot yet see.

This story may have something else to teach us.  Jacob lies when Isaac asks him, “Who are you, my son?”  How many of us, when confronted by the Father, have similarly not been able to make an honest account of ourselves?  How many of us, standing naked before the Creator, can honestly answer for who we’ve become and what we’ve done?  And perhaps, like Isaac, our heavenly Father sees through our misrepresentation and self-deception, knowing that he can still work with these imperfect materials.

God’s great peace on you and your house,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

 © 2012 James R. Dennis