“Maybe there is someone who was born into a family in which the parents and the children have never had any problems at all: no friction, no tension, no arguments, no disappointments, no thoughts that the other person should do or say anything different, ever. I read recently that people who speak in front of groups shouldn’t say things like, “we’ve all felt X” or “we’ve all had the experience of Y” because people’s experience varies, and the speaker can’t know what every listener has or has not experienced. So maybe it’s possible that a family exists somewhere that is one unbroken stream of 100% perfection. But I kind of doubt it.
Difficulties in relationships between parents and children is as close as I’ve ever seen to a universal in human experience. Every child wants unconditional love. The trouble is that human beings aren’t perfect, even when we desperately want them to be. They don’t love perfectly, even when we desperately want them to.
We’ve been talking about Jacob and Esau primarily in terms of the relationships between siblings, and that’s significant. But what is probably even more significant is the relationship we are focusing on today, which is the father-son relationship. Again, we are going to look at today’s passage not in isolation, but in relation to the whole story.
Someone was telling me recently that he was really disappointed to see the way that siblings could fight with each other over money after a parent’s death. He wondered why, at a time like that, they paid so much attention to money. The reason is that what they’re fighting over isn’t really about the money. It’s about the relationships: the desire to be valued, to be included, to be affirmed, to be cared for, to be loved.
We remember that the two things Jacob wanted to get away from Esau both had to do with his father. Jacob wanted the birthright passed down from his father: a double share of the inheritance from his father, and the position of leadership in the family passed down from the father to the eldest son. Jacob also wanted his father’s blessing.
But scripture tells us directly, “Rachel loved Jacob, but Isaac loved Esau, because he used to eat of his game.” Jacob wants the birthright, he wants his father’s blessing. And is it is not hard to imagine that Jacob wants his father’s love. What was it like for Jacob to want his father’s love, and to see his father give his love to his brother and not to him?
An appetite for game seems like such an arbitrary reason for one son to be loved and the other not, and I expect that was not lost on Jacob. Ironically, Jacob uses Esau’s own appetite to tempt him into selling his birthright for a bowl of soup. Then he pretends to be Esau to get his father’s blessing. We can judge him harshly for that if we want to. But we can also remember how common it is for children to want their parents’ love, how common it is for children to want to live up to their parents’ expectations, how common it is for children to try to be the person their parent will love, even if it means pretending to be someone they’re not.
Maybe we, in our own ways, have had some experience of trying to live up to a parent’s expectations, even if it meant pretending to be someone we’re not.
Jacob’s pretending gets him the blessing from his father. But afterward, a blessing that you got by swindling your father, who thought he was blessing someone else, is a blessing that it’s hard to feel good about. And isn’t that the trouble anytime we try to live up to a parent’s expectations by pretending to be someone we’re not? We still have the nagging awareness that the person our parent loves isn’t truly who we are.
It is easy to say, of course, that our parents ought to accept and value us for who we are, ought to be less critical or less biased or more affectionate. It is easy to say that our parents ought to be better about giving unconditional love. In my own case, what changed my attitude about that approach was becoming a parent myself. Before, I could see the gap between the ideal parents I wanted and the actual parents I had. After I had kids, I could also see the gap between the ideal parent my kids wanted and the actual parent I was. And despite the fact that I wished I could be the ideal parent, without any of my annoying flaws, despite the fact that I could see the ways my kids would benefit from having an ideal parent, the fact remained that the parent they had was the actual one, flaws and all.
We’ve all got our flaws, our biases, our expectations. I can’t provide truly unconditional love. I can’t meet my kids’ needs. There have been times when I did not even meet the needs of my houseplants. It was fatal for a poor innocent geranium. If we humans can’t be relied on to meet the needs of a houseplant, how could we possibly be relied on to meet the complex needs of a child? If we look to other people, even our parents, to meet our needs, we will inevitably be disappointed.
Jacob got the blessing from his father. He thought that was what he wanted. But we can see why that would not be truly satisfying. We can see why it would not be ultimately what he wanted.
Jacob is fleeing from Laban after that relationship has gone down in flames. He is terrified of the fury of the brother he betrayed in order to swindle a blessing from their father. He has sent ahead his children and their mothers, in two groups, hoping that only half of his children will be killed in retaliation for his swindling the blessing. He has felt what it’s like to be on the receiving end of deceit and betrayal. He has seen the darkness of his soul. Night falls. He is alone. A man wrestles with him until daybreak. The man wounds him. The man says, “”Let me go, for the day is breaking.”” Then Jacob asks for what he has truly wanted his whole life. Jacob says, “”I will not let you go, unless you bless me.””
Jacob got his father’s blessing, at an enormously high cost to himself and an enormously high cost to his brother. But what he ultimately wants is not the blessing of his father, it is the blessing of God.
Our blessedness does not come from meeting the expectations of some flawed, biased human being. Our blessedness does not come from pretending to be someone we are not.
The man asks him what his name is. This time Jacob does not lie and say he is someone else. This time Jacob tells the truth about who he is. He says, “Jacob.” The man gives him a new name, because he has striven with God and prevailed. And the person he truly is, with all his faults, with all his wounds, is the one that receives the blessing of God.
The person you truly are, with all your faults, with all your wounds, is the one that receives the blessing of God.”