Texts: Genesis 27:1-40; Psalm 59:1-5, 16, 17; Psalm 60; Mark 6:1-6.
Is it possible to be a good thief?
In one sense, yes. Think of classic heist movies like the Italian Job or more recent films like the Oceans franchise. There’s something exhilarating about watching someone skilfully lowering themselves through a window into a jewellery store, weaving through a laser alarm system, or expertly piloting a mini through Italy. So: one can at least be skilled at stealing things. In this sense, you can be a good thief.
But in another sense, the answer is less clear. The purpose of theft is, almost by definition, bad. To take something that doesn’t belong to you, is to take from someone else. Now, we can imagine various situations in which we might think of theft as justified (Robin Hood comes to mind — and I’ve just been told about Twm Sion Cati), but it remains that in normal situations it is not. No matter how impressive the skills of someone stealing your TV are, these skills are part of a life oriented around a bad purpose. In this sense, you can’t be a good thief.
In other words, we can distinguish between appreciating skilful means for carrying out some end and appreciating the end itself. How well something is carried out, and whether it is done for a good reason or not are different questions.
Now, imagine the following, thankfully fictional, situation: Fr Mark approaches you and says to you “we’re in dire financial straits, but these lay members of the Holywell Community, they’re insured for £1,000,000 each. I’ve decided we’ll have to get rid of that pesky Br Josh. What do you think I should do?”
Now there are two different kids of answer you could give. You could pause for a moment and scratch your head, and say something like “well, he likes his coffee, you should add some rat poison to it”. Alternatively, you could say “yikes! what are you thinking! you need to see a therapist immediately!” That is, you could offer some action which you hope will stop Fr Mark from wanting to kill me.
The first answer says something like “If you want to kill Br Josh, then you should poison his coffee”, the second says “If you want to kill Br Josh, then you need psychiatric help.” The first leaves the purpose (“if you want to kill Br Josh”) standing, the second challenges Fr Mark’s stated purpose.
Again we see the distinction between evaluating whether an action is a good way of carrying out some purpose and whether a purpose is a good one to have.
Sometimes it’s hard to draw the distinction. It’s all well and good to imagine how you’d rob a bank, but we can easily be put off by people who spend their time imagining what the best way to murder someone (in the previous example, me!) or other even more serious crimes.
While we need not be comfortable pondering the finer points of the practice of extreme moral evils, it can be useful for us to try and do it in less extreme cases. And I want to suggest to you tonight, that it can be valuable for our reading of the Bible.
Our Old Testament text, tonight, provides a good example of this. In our reading from Genesis, we hear of the twins Jacob and Esau and how Jacob tricked their father Isaac into giving him the blessing intended for Esau.
Jacob is, in many ways, the hero of this part of the Bible. He follows on from Abraham and Isaac as, lets say, the main protagonist. Yet here he is, straightforwardly lying to his father in order to trick his brother out of something which was his. This seems hardly a way for God or God’s people to act. The very thought that our Bible encourages this sort of behaviour might make us balk and move on.
Let’s try to set aside our moral evaluation of the situation for a moment though, just as we would when watching a good heist film, and let ourselves inhabit and be entertained by the story for a bit. We can (and will) return to moral evaluation later.
First, lets consider the characters of the twins Jacob and Esau; the smooth man and the hairy man. Esau is hairy, incredibly hairy. He’s so hairy that his hands can be mimiced by the hair of a goat. Jacob couldn’t grow a beard to save his life. Esau is keen on hunting, while Jacob sticks to the fields.
While they were twins, Esau emerged just before Jacob, with Jacob coming out grasping Esau’s heel. Esau thus took the all-important status of first-born male. However, in a slightly earlier episode he gives up his birthright in exchange for a lentil stew. He’s hungry and wants to be fed now! Forget the future. (Here perhaps, supporters of agriculture are mocking the fusty and old-fashioned hunter-gatherers).
Biblical scholars will be quick to note that these two figures stand in for two different groups of people: the Edomites and the Jewish peoples. In the Hebrew, the description of Esau is full of references to Edom… and as we have just heard in the Psalm, the Israelites weren’t particularly keen on Edom (‘on Edom I hurl my shoe’). So Esau is, amongst other things, a bit of a caricature of local rivals.
We then come to their parents: Isaac and Rebekah. Rebekah prefers Jacob and Isaac prefers Esau. Isaac offers his blessing to his favoured child. Rebekah overhears and sends Jacob in instead.
One aspect of Isaac’s preference for Esau must be the fact that Esau is a hunter. Isaac claims to prefer game meat. Rebekah sees through this, of course. We can imagine her rolling her eyes as she sends Jacob out to get some kids from their herd to kill instead. The old man can’t tell the difference, can he!? You get the sense that Isaac was the kind of guy who would insist that he can. But Rebekah knows better. This kind of pretension is always (at least a bit) funny to see broken.
Indeed, the whole plot, with Jacob donning his brother’s clothes to take on his smell, and putting on the skin of goats to mimic his hair, is Rebekah’s idea. She knows exactly how to trick the old man. She even offers to take the consequences if the plan does not succeed.
But the plan works perfectly, and Jacob steals Esau’s blessing. Esau is furious. He begs Isaac to take back his blessing — but what is done is done. Perhaps Isaac sees something in Jacob such that he now thinks his blessing is more appropriate. Esau then receives an inferior blessing: while it is promised to Jacob that he will rule over all his brothers, it is promised to Esau that he will live a life of violence and eventually break free of the rule of Jacob.
Having set moral evaluation aside for a moment, now is a good time to bring it back. Before turning to our readings, we thought a little about ends and means and how these factor into whether an action is right or wrong. That is, our purposes and the actions we engage in to achieve them. We know what Rebekah and Jacob did. But why did they do it?
To answer this question we have to flash back slightly to when Rebekah was pregnant with the twins. Their battles began in utero. What could this mean? Rebekah is told by God that she has two nations warring within her (remember: Edom and Israel). She is also told that the younger will rule over the older. This is, in effect, a promise from God that Jacob is to be the one through whom his family on Earth will be continued.
The blessing that Isaac gives Jacob, dressed as Esau, includes the claim that Jacob will rule over his brothers (and be blessed in his dealings with the land, etc). Rebekah, presumably knowing this, sends in Jacob in order to make sure he is the one to rule over his brothers. That is, she is attempting to ensure that what God has promised her will come to pass.
Now, in general, it’s not a bad idea to want God purposes to come about in the world. It’s not a bad idea to actively work for this. When we pray “thy kingdom come”, we ought not to think this is the work for someone else. It is God’s work that we are instruments in. We have a role to play.
The deception of Isaac was carried out for a good purpose. Indeed, you might say the best of purposes, to work towards the realisation of God’s purposes. This is different from the case we imagined before, where Fr Mark is plotting to kill me for insurance money. If we bracket out his desire to fund the Holywell Community, then the problem here is that he has a bad purpose. Any action carried out in order to achieve the bad purpose, would be inadmissible.
Rebekah, trying to satisfy a good purpose, encourages Jacob to deceive Isaac. This is, as it turns out, one way for the promise made to Rebekah by God to be fulfilled. But was it the only way? We can’t know what would have happened had Jacob not deceived his father. He did it. But as a general principle: we can say that God doesn’t require for us to ‘do evil that good may come’. We might think that skirting the rules of morality is acceptable if it leads to good consequences. But this isn’t the what the Christian tradition teaches (of course, it has been the Church’s way of acting in many cases…).
Simply put: the ends don’t justify the means.
Indeed, while the snippet of the text we have just heard might suggest that God is on the side of the bad person in the story, in its wider context we see that Jacob and Rebekah both suffer because of their deception. Jacob has to run away from the wrath of Esau and is himself deceived into marrying a woman he did not want to marry. Rebekah, for her part, does not see Jacob ever again. There are consequences for this deception.
God will not call us to evil actions. So, if we think we ought to do something evil (or merely bad) in order to get something done for God: God doesn’t need this kind of help from us!
Working for God’s purposes is hard. God can be a very frustrating partner in our actions and our ideas about how God’s purposes will be achieved can get in the way of our going along with God’s activity.
This is one of the things that is happening in our passage from Mark. Jesus, having performed all sorts of deeds of power on the other side of the lake (he’s raised someone from the dead! what more do you people want!?) is rejected by the people of his own town.
The words that the people in Nazareth use are quite instructive: isn’t this the handyman!? Don’t we know his family?! Who does he think he is!?
The people of Nazareth think they know what kind of thing God does, and the kind of people that God chooses. They reckon that God can’t possibly choose someone they’ve known… someone from their own place. Perhaps they’ve told themselves that they can’t do anything from their position: and here’s Jesus, from down the road, claiming that he is the means by which the kingdom of God has appeared on Earth.
They reject Jesus. They can’t go along with God’s activity because of their preconceived ideas about what that activity will look like.
Our two readings thus present to us two kinds of mistake that we can make. Rebekah and the people of Nazareth both have some sense of what God is up to in the world. Rebekah has been told directly that the younger of the twins will rule the older and the people of Nazareth are familiar with the promises of a coming Kingdom that have been made by God through the prophets.
Rebekah and Jacob hurry things along by choosing a bad way of bringing about what God has already promised will happen. They deceive Isaac and cheat Esau. No matter how amusing their ruse, (and we should allow ourselves to enjoy it at least a little) it’s still wrong. Good purpose, bad means.
The people of Nazareth presumably think the promise of a Messiah is a good thing, and that the appearance of a Messiah would be a good thing. They think that God’s purposes are good as well. But when they see how God is bringing them about, when they see God in front of them in human form, they think these can’t possibly be the means.
That is, Rebekah tries to bring about God’s work by bad means, while the people of Nazareth can’t even recognise God’s activity when it is right in front of them.
May God help us to avoid both of these mistakes. Amen.