Joe Evans: More Than a Moral Lesson


In this Scripture Lesson, as is the case with much of the book of Genesis, there is a moral lesson, but there's also more than a moral lesson.

We Christians know all about stories with morals - we strive to be moral people and to pass our morals down to our children - and in a sense, this Scripture Lesson serves a moral purpose for a moral lesson here is clear enough. On the surface, there's a good guy and a bad guy - and most children in Sunday School will be able to tell you that Jacob is the hero and so he must be the good guy, Esau is the bad guy, and you shouldn't do what Esau does. That's how moral lessons work.

What then does Esau do?

Esau is desperate, and desperate people are willing to take desperate measures, and desperate measures lead to all kind of desperate circumstances. He's famished he says - and maybe you know what it's like to be famished, if in only a temporary way.

There was a commercial on television not long ago featuring comedian Tina Fey. She's in the check-out line of the grocery store, a common enough place to be hungry, and as so many of us do she grabs a bag of what's available and without looking at its content she stuffs a handful into her mouth, only to find that it's potpourri.

So, don't go into the grocery store if you're famished. That's a good moral lesson - because Esau was famished he traded his birth right for a bowl of stew, and if you go to the grocery story famished, then you'll fill your shopping cart up, and those candy bars will look better than they would usually in that long check-out line, or worse, you'll wind up eating potpourri.

But more than that - you think about hunger in a more severe sense - being really famished is an obstacle to education. In Columbia, TN where I live and serve, our public schools provide breakfast, not just because hunger is an injustice that no school child should have to suffer, but because an empty belly will occupy your mind making learning impossible.

Esau, you see, is in a position where he can't make a wise decision. So, if we are to gain a lesson on morality from this Scripture Lesson, then a lesson is to avoid making decisions when you are desperate. Out of desperation, will a loving parent not steal for her child? Infant formula is now a product on the shelf that's under lock and key - you can't just put it in your cart, but you must call over a Kroger employee to unlock your baby's food - and for good reason.

Hunger overshadows good judgment. Morals crumble in desperate times. We can all be good and wise and kind - we can all give to the needy when we have enough, but what about when the baby's crying and the stomach is growling, or the bank account is empty? Interest rates don't matter to the famished Esau's of the world - they just want the cash in their hand and will pay the piper on another day because it's going to be hard enough just to get through this one.

A lesson then, a moral lesson - do not be like Esau.

The time of desperation is not the time to make a decision. Wait - think it through - walk away from the temptation for your distance from it will reduce its power. If you're famished don't stand over the soup while you make your decision, but walk away and really think this thing through. Now that's good advice, because you will burn through that money that you got from Quick Cash or any of the other fast cash, high interest rate establishment that are popping up all over our country, but those loan payments will keep on coming. Likewise, a Snickers bar will satisfy your hunger standing in the grocery store line, but you're stuck with that weight around your belly; and in the same way, don't you know that the lentil stew that old Jacob cooked up while he sat around the tent all afternoon was delicious to the famished Esau, but he would be hungry again and now he'd be hungry the next day without his birthright.

Don't be like Esau is a moral lesson presented by this Scripture Lesson from the book of Genesis. So, don't be like Esau.

But, should you really be like Jacob?

Such a question complicates the story I think, but while Esau is a bad example you have to stop and think about Jacob. Is it possible to live with yourself if you're Jacob? There's a story I've just read featuring Grover from Sesame Street, pretty high brow stuff, but your literary horizons expand in such a direction when you're a parent of young children. In this book, Grover goes to school and because he's just as nice as they come Grover trades his whole peanut butter and jelly sandwich for a couple carrots, then this other kid in his class asks Grover if he'd like to trade his brand-new box of crayons for a toy car, and Grover agrees, only the kid doesn't tell him that he's just traded for a toy car that only has two wheels.

A brand-new box of crayons for a broken-down toy car? Now can the teacher stand for that?

In the world of children's books such a trade is not so different than a bowl of stew for a birth-right, but here the teacher won't stand for it because taking advantage of desperate people isn't allowed on Sesame Street though it is on the main street of your city and mine, and good Christian people need to be asking why. Jacob gets that inheritance from his brother Esau and in so doing he takes advantage of a desperate man and not just a man - his brother.

The lesson then - a moral of our story - don't be like Jacob. Remember that Esau got hungry again after eating that lentil stew, but Jacob; did that lentil stew ever leave his mind?

As the narrative unfolds in the book of Genesis, we find that Jacob spends much of the rest of his life dealing with the regret and repercussions of this one bowl of soup, this lentil stew that he used to take advantage of his brother, and I can imagine that the smell of it lingered for so many years to come.

That's how it is. Some choices are hard to shake, whether you're the one who did the wrong, whether you're the victim, or whether you're something in-between. Like dust from the Twin Towers, like perfume from a one night stand, like blood on the hands of Lady Macbeth, the smell of the lentil stew pervades and persists.

A tragedy or a mistake will do that. The jump suit comes off as soon as you leave the prison but the label: "felon" sticks. I've known widows who have been widows longer than they were married, and why is that? How long must the man on the street be called "homeless"? For how many years must the addict be known by his tragic flaw? And will Jacob ever get the smell of lentil stew out of his nose? Will Esau?

Interestingly, there are two moral lessons here: don't be like Esau and don't be like Jacob, which, unfortunately, leaves us without a hero, and therefore a complicated story. But sometimes complication is just what's needed to really know the Good News - the Good News that Jacob still become a great nation, and, while Esau grew to despise his birthright, he did not grow to despise himself.

Therefore, while we may want there to be a clean moral lesson from Scripture, oftentimes what we really need is something more and the something more in this Scripture Lesson is that God doesn't always use heroes with spotless records, nor does God always cast off tragic villains.

The Apostle Paul said it well in the eighth chapter of Romans, "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" - and for those who set their mind on the Spirit rather than the deeds of the flesh there "is life and peace."

"You are not of the flesh," and so you, like Jacob and Esau, do not belong to your past, your great failures, your tragic disappointments, or your foolhardy choices. You do not belong to what you have done, for you belong to Christ. This is the real point of our scripture lesson from Genesis - so many of the great heroes of our faith are good, but only because God made them good, and so many of those we might reduce to villains are not nearly so one-dimensional.

There are moral lessons in Scripture, but at times, the real difference between those we read about in Genesis and you, the real difference between them and me so often is only this: we know that the Spirit set them free from the mistakes of their past, and we don't yet know the end of our story.

As I said before, in this Scripture lesson, as is the case with much of the book of Genesis, there is a moral lesson, but there's also more than a moral lesson. The moral lessons are clear - don't be like Esau, don't be like Jacob. And the more than a moral lesson: we all are one or the other, Jacob or Esau, always both sinner and saint, and the Lord will free us from our past to use us still.

You are not confined to your past, for you are a child of the promise.


Let us pray.

Almighty God, we thank you, for you take the broken, the cracked and call it promise. We thank you, almighty God, for the promise that is in us. Help us to see it, too. And help us to live into the new life that only you can give. We pray it in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.