Good guys and bad guys

Proper 16              July 23, 2017

Genesis 28:10-22                Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Jacob and Esau.  For me, these are names that echo with the nostalgia of childhood.  I remember them so well from Sunday School.  I don’t really remember much about the Sunday School itself, I don’t remember actually being taught about them; but I remember these stories so well.  Apparently the stories spoke to me more clearly than the people who taught them to me.

What I remember is the story of two brothers fraught with moral judgement.  Jacob the good twin, chosen and loved by God for being so good; Esau the wild and unruly twin, who would never be part of God’s plan.  Basically an echo of those other two brothers we talked about a couple of weeks back, Isaac and Ishmael.

That’s what Sunday School so often did, wasn’t it: moralized these strange old tales to try to turn them into a useful lesson for child-raising.  It sure doesn’t fit well with today’s story. Because if we read these stories with any kind of attention, we soon discover that Jacob is anything but the good little model child they tried to make him be in Sunday School.  He comes off as nothing so much as a pushy, self-centred little dealer.

Take the story we heard last week, about his brother Esau returning famished and weak from a hunt, and Jacob giving him something to eat only when Esau agrees to sell him his birthright as the firstborn son.  The Bible text seems to join in the moral condemnation of Esau: “so Esau despised his birthright.”  Well, I’m not sure it was his birthright he despised, so much as his brother.  Because here is Jacob, in complete violation of the code of hospitality that was so important in the ancient world, trying to cut a deal with his starving brother: “what’s in it for me if I give you something to eat?”  He is not acting like a brother – and who could blame Esau for not taking the little twerp seriously?

Jacob goes on, in a bizarre story, to steal his brother’s blessing from their aged father.  He conspires with his mother, dresses up as Esau to deceive his blind and senile father in this most sacred moment, and steals the blessing which was meant for his brother.  Not exactly the behaviour of the good boy he was supposed to be.

Which is why we find him in today’s reading alone and on the road.  He is on the run, afraid of his brother’s revenge.  He has slipped away from home without a friend in the world, except his scheming mother. And it is at this moment, alone, afraid, and yes, guilty, that God appears to him.  God appears to him in a vision, as he appeared to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. He sees a vision of the ladder linking heaven and earth, and hears the promise of God: God will be his God, will grant him this land as his heritage, will give him countless offspring, and his descendants will be a blessing for the whole earth.

Here’s the thing: this blessing does not come to Jacob because he is the good brother, because he deserved it, because he had the kind of upstanding moral character that God was looking for in his chosen ones.  It comes to him when he is a friendless, scheming cheat, only looking out for himself.  God’s blessing comes not because of his moral character, but in spite of it.  
And don’t think God is blessing him because he has repented from his ways; he hasn’t changed a bit.  Look at the last lines of the passage: God has just appeared to him promising him blessing and prosperity, and Jacob’s response is to try to swing a deal.  “If you protect me and bless me and give me food and clothing, then I will serve you as my God, and give you a ten percent cut.”  There is no “if” in God’s blessing; it is pure, unconditional grace.  But Jacob can’t just receive it – he has to turn it around to a deal where he is in control.  So true to character: Jacob is, to quote Father Ken from Tuesday’s discussion, the sleaziest used-camel salesman in the East.

Isn’t it interesting, the way I was taught about this in Sunday School, the need to make Jacob out to be the good guy, because, after all, God blessed him.  There are considerable mental contortions necessary to turn Jacob into an upright model character who deserved God’s blessing – but I suppose that is what we feel we have to do, when we teach the story to children. The God of Sunday School needs to be a moral God, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked; it’s what we feel we need to teach our children.  They need to understand that there are good guys and bad guys in the world, and God loves the good guys. Unfortunately, the God of the Bible so very often doesn’t work that way.  In the Bible, God again and again blesses the unworthy, chooses those who don’t deserve it; loves even us not because we are good people, but simply because he loves us, even when we mess up and behave badly.  That is the gospel in this story: if God loves and blesses Jacob, selfish, manipulative, cheating Jacob, then God can love and bless us as well.

This does not mean that God rewards Jacob’s bad behaviour.  The story is not over yet, and there is a wonderful karma at work in Jacob’s life.  He is about to meet his match, his future father-in-law Laban, who will work him like a slave and cheat him at every opportunity.  Later on, it will be his sons who treat him the way he treated his father, deceiving him, so that he believes his favourite son Joseph has been killed, and is heart-broken.  There is a strong moral sense running through these stories, don’t worry; there is good behaviour and bad behaviour, and bad behaviour will bring suffering after it. But there are not good guys and bad guys in these stories. 

That is the illusion the Bible will not allow us: that we can divide the world into good guys and bad guys.  There are only people, broken, faulted, loved by God.  That is what the gospel tells us. And yet our Sunday School morality demands good guys and bad guys.  And so there is a conflict that runs right through our religion: the church’s temptation to moralize about good guys and bad guys, and the Bible’s radical message about God’s inclusive grace.

It is a tension that appears in the gospel reading today, as well.  A parable of Jesus, one of his many parables where he uses growing seeds as a symbol of God’s kingdom.  In this case, it talks about good and bad seeds, wheat and weeds; how good and evil can exist together in the world.  If we are talking about the kingdom of God, about God’s power at work in this world, then how can God allow evil to exist? Why doesn’t he put an end to it, root out the wicked?  The answer, the parable suggests, is that good and evil are so intertwined, that one cannot root out one without destroying the other.

Now this parable comes with an explanation.  It is one of only two of Jesus’s dozens of parables that has this kind of an explanation; the famous parable of the sower is the other.  The explanation turns the parable into an allegory: that is, a coded story where each thing in the story stands for something else.  All we need to do is to put on our decoder ring and we can understand exactly what the parable is trying to say.  The gospels have helpfully given us the decoded version of these two parables.

Well, I have to say that I am deeply distrustful of these two explanations.  I am quite sure that Jesus’s parables do not work this way.  Yes, they are symbols and metaphors, little stories that help us imagine and understand how God is at work in the world. But these stories are rich and open-ended, they cannot be reduced to a single explanation and then discarded as stories; they tend to yield new meaning the longer we stay with them.  These pat explanations actually undermine the way Jesus’s parables generally work, and I can’t for a moment imagine that these explanations actually came from Jesus.

The devil, they say, is in the details, in the attempt to pin down the meaning of every detail.

The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil.

Here we have it again: good guys and bad guys.  The idea that there are good people in the world, and they come from God, and bad people who come from the devil. And of course, if bad people come from the devil, then the only solution is to destroy them.  Are we really supposed to believe that this is what Jesus taught? That doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know.  

The problem with this kind of interpretation is that it tells us too much.  In the parable, it is not completely clear what exactly good seed and bad seed is supposed to mean, except that they are talking about good and evil in the world.  The explanation that these are good guys and bad guys tells us too much, more than Jesus would say.

The great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn says it most clearly:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Now Solzhenitsyn knew something about evil.  Himself a survivor of Siberian labour camps, he wrote the definitive account of the Soviet gulag system that ground millions of men and women into slavery and often into death.  If anyone had cause to blame others for being evil, it was him: he had suffered so much cruelty.  But with a clarity born of his deep Christian faith, he recognized this kind of good guy/bad guy thinking for what it was: a dangerous and seductive fantasy.  The wheat and weeds are not two kinds of people; if that were the case it would be easy to root evil out.  Wheat and weeds grow much more closely intertwined than that; they grow tangled up within every human heart.  That is why the Lord of the harvest must wait for the harvest time: to step in now and crush evil would doom every one of us.

In fact, it was the good guy/bad guy thinking that caused the gulags to begin with: the idea, fatal to the Communist project, that the party members were ideologically pure and good, and those who resisted were the enemies of the people.  As soon as you start thinking like that, two things happen: your opponents become absolutely evil, worthy of being destroyed; and you become absolutely good, so the atrocities you commit no longer matter. When you start thinking like that, something like the gulags are inevitable.

It is the same thinking in the church that drove the Inquisition, the persecution of the Jews, the Crusades.  It has driven every fanatical and ideological war in human history: the conviction that the problem with the world is fundamentally evil people, and that you have suddenly glimpsed who those people are, and just have to destroy them.  It is the thinking that drives ISIS to horrendous crimes; and, unfortunately, it is the same thinking that drives much of our opposition to ISIS and terrorism.  Terrorism is evil; but the moment we start thinking that terrorism is caused by fundamentally evil people, by the bad guys and evildoers, then we have become like them, driven by the same moral certainty and the same illusion that violence is the answer.

We should know better.  As much as we have always been beset by that Sunday School morality, by the need to believe that God loves the righteous (people like us) and hates the evildoers, God has not abandoned us to this delusion.  Again and again God meets us in Scripture as the God who is surprisingly different than the God we would make for ourselves; as a God would loves and cares for good guys and bad guys, because we are all both.  The God who calls and blesses Jacob the cheat, Moses the murderer, Matthew the tax collector, Paul the fanatic, also calls and blesses us.  He calls us not because we are the good guys; he calls us to recognize and accept the evil in our own hearts, because only then can be begin to work to overcome it.  He calls us not because we are saints but in order to make us saints: not perfect, but transformed by his promise and blessing working within us.  This is the God of Jacob, who comes to us in the Word of God to brush aside the morality of the Sunday school and the warmongers alike, the seductive illusion that it is about good guys and bad guys.  There is only us – but by God’s grace that is enough, and by God’s blessing we will work it out.