When we were growing up, if you had asked my mother if my sister and I would ever get along, she would have sighed and said, “Oh goodness, I hope so…but, that will be a miracle of God.” In many ways we were like day and night…and in other ways, we are annoyingly alike. But, oh we could argue for the sake of argument. I don’t think it really mattered what we argued about. We would just argue to disagreeing. It was our version of an Olympic sport. There were usually tears and my mother was often dragged into the middle of the arguments to serve as the referee.
During the summers, we would spend a month with my grandparents. Those were some of the best parts of summer. Grandparents are just good people. One afternoon, my grandfather took us to run errands and we stopped at King’s Ice Cream and Candy to get Root Beer Floats. This was a huge treat. No sooner had we sat down with our delicious floats then my grandfather spotted a friend. His friend came over to say hello. As they chatted we began to bicker… over important things like who was drinking their float faster. I’m not sure how long we bickered but when we got back into the car, my grandfather was very quiet for a long time, finally he said to us, “I have never been more embarrassed in my life.” We were both ashamed.
Sibling conflict is the theme of the relationship between Jacob and Esau. While Rebekah was still pregnant, her children struggled with in her. As the text tells us, She had a vision from the Lord which told her that her sons would be two divided peoples and the younger would be more powerful than his brother. When it came time for them to be born, Esau was born first but as he was pulled from her, Jacob, his brother, was grasping his heel. The brothers fought for the position of honor in the family even though by custom, the higher position belonged to Esau since he was eldest. The boys struggled and their parents chose sides. Isaac sided with Esau and Rebekah sided with Jacob. Their attempts to best the other seemed ceaseless. Esau was impetuous and bombastic, he was a skilled hunter and possessed impressive physical strength. Jacob was the quiet plotter. He could not compete with his brother through strength so he sharpened his wit and used trickery and deceit to best Esau.
As the story goes, Esau came in from a long hunting trip and was famished to the point of death. All the while, Jacob had been cooking a delicious Lentil Stew. When Esau smelled the stew, he asked Jacob for a bowl. Instead of giving his brother a bowl of stew, Jacob offered to sell his brother a bowl of stew. For the low, low price of his birthright. Basically, Esau gave Jacob the status and position of the eldest child in exchange for dinner. In turn, Jacob flees his home and family to escape the wrath of his brother.
We shake our head at this seemingly meaningless family conflict. It could be easy to wonder why they could not just get along, why their parents didn’t give them the talking to that they needed to straighten out their foolishness. Yet, it almost seems as if these types of conflicts are encoded in our DNA. Just as these brothers, and perhaps many of us, experience conflict on the micro level, We need not look far to see larger versions of these same conflicts.
On Shabbat in June of 1998 a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews attacked a group of American Conservative Jews at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. Both groups had gathered to pray. The first group objected to the fact that the second group was comprised of men and women who prayed together.
This June, our sister denomination, the Presbyterian Church USA met for their national meeting known as General Assembly. During this meeting they GA voted to allow pastors to perform and bless same sex unions at the discretion of the church leadership and congregations. As a result, churches inside the denomination who are unhappy with the decision are pursuing legal action to leave the denomination. The emotions and convictions of each side are so elevated that neither side is talking to the other.
These battles echo the struggle between Jacob and Esau within the womb…within life. Two factions who should be one are fighting one another for power and position. These people who are part of one another’s identity spend their time tearing one another down and seeking the destruction of the other in the name of faith, in the name of goodness, in the name of God and true belief. John Calvin reminds us, “No one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God himself.”
These battles choke the life out of our spirits leaving us bloodied, bruised and looking for favor with our God who has born in himself the depths of the wounds we have inflicted on one another.
It can seem as if there is no conflict as bitter, as painful, or wounding as a family feud. The sting from these battles lingers. The memories haunt us in our quiet moments. It is amazing how closely related the emotions love and hate can be to one another. In these situations, what are to do? Do we stay and fight, stand our ground and try to convince the other? Is the solution to cut off contact? Is reconciliation merely a pipe dream? Will we always be left, pointing our gun at the other refusing to lay ours down until they lay down theirs?
Norman J Cohen suggests that reconciliation between Jacob and Esau was possible precisely because they were part of each other’s identity. They were like two halves of a whole, and each needed what the other had. Esau needed the patience and forethought of Jacob, while Jacob needed the position and strength of Esau. Each was identified by his relationship with the other. They could never escape the bond that connected them.
In Romans 8, Paul reminds us that it is not a belief in reconciliation is not a hopeless, pipe dream. He explains that the Good News is found in the fact that these battles and wars of the flesh cannot and will not have the last word if we walk in the Spirit of Christ. In Paul’s metaphor, if we put these family feuds into the category of failings of the flesh, then it is not a failing to which we are hopelessly bound. It is a failing that we are set free from by the Spirit of Christ. Paul says it this way, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who is alive inside of you.” (Romans 8:11) When Paul talks about the failing of the flesh, he is referring that capacity inside all of us toward strife and fractured relationships. We see this tendency in the story of the Patriarchs and Matriarchs. We see it in the story of Jacob and Esau. We see it in our own lives and relationships. We even see it in our relationship with God. As our relationships fracture and as those fractures grow, we can feel helpless to repair them. As the gulf grows wider and the relationship grows messier, our hope for a different outcome, our hope for reconciliation grows dimmer and dimmer. St Paul reminds us that there is hope: these relationship conflicts, these family feuds that crush the Spirit and leave gaping wounds can be healed. “The rule of the Spirit of Life is in Christ.” And that Spirit, will set us free from all that kills and destroys.
As Cohen suggests, it may just be in the flesh itself, in the interweaving identity among siblings, among the children of God, that the potential for being instruments of God’s grace resides. It is in our very being, created in God’s own image, to reflect the divine grace of God in our relationships. Christ offers us this freedom so that old injuries may be healed. Christ offers us the freedom to embrace our profound connectedness through relationship.
If you are thinking to yourself that this is not an easy road, you are correct. The road to reconciliation is painful. It asks you to humbly open your life instead of protecting your old scars and wounded pride. It invites you to try again and again as you relentlessly believe that change can happen. The Good News is that you are not alone on this difficult path, in fact it is on this path that you find you walk the road of Christ.