Isn’t this a mess! The people with whom God has to work! You would think that God’s people would look like the Marines who guard the White House—straight, tall, fit, polished shoes.
But God had promised Abraham that he would make of him a great nation. Isaac, Abraham’s son, had only two sons—each of them a loser in his own way. God had to choose one. He chose Jacob.
Most of us would have chosen Esau! He was strong! He was virile. His father turned to him instinctively when he wanted something done, because Esau could do it!
And Esau was warmhearted. He loved his father! Isaac was old and blind, and Esau took care of him.
Later, Esau would demonstrate a generosity that would elude most of us. When Jacob cheated him, Esau flared in such anger that Jacob fled for his life. But when Jacob returned years later, trying to placate Esau with gifts sent, Esau ran to meet him, threw his arms around him, embraced him and kissed him.
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Jacob, on the other hand, was not so attractive. He was a Mamma’s boy; he stayed close to home. He wasn’t physically robust, like Esau. He wasn’t warmhearted, like Esau. He was a schemer and a cheat. But God chose Jacob. Why? Walter Russell Bowie asks:
“What was the matter with Esau?
He was a man who lived
only in the immediate moment….
He was heir to the birthright,
and the birthright meant a great deal
if you looked far enough.…
Esau had showed that he did not care enough
for life’s great possibilities
to pay the price of present discipline.
He must have what he wanted when he wanted it,
and consequences could go hang.…
He lost tomorrow
because he snatched so greedily at today.”
Esau had come in from the field famished. Jacob had been cooking stew, and Esau was bowled over by the smell of it. “Hey, give me a bowl of that! I am starving!” he said. Jacob responded with the heart of a schemer. “First, sell me your birthright!” (25:31).
Esau responded with the voice of a man who wanted what he wanted when he wanted it.
“Behold, I am about to die.
What good is the birthright to me?” (25:32).
“What good is the birthright to me?” What value did a birthright have? First, the birthright was worth money. It conveyed a double portion of the inheritance. Esau was poised to inherit twice as much as Isaac. But that was less important to him at this moment than the fact that he was hungry.
Even more important, the birthright conveyed leadership of the family. The person who held the birthright could control the fate of the entire family. He could lead according to his vision. But that was less important to Esau than the hunger pangs in his stomach.
“Behold, I am about to die.
What good is the birthright to me?”
Of what use indeed?
But the next question is, “What has this story to do with us?” We don’t have birthrights. We try to give each child the same portion. Each child is free to go his or her own way upon reaching adulthood. There is no extended family to lead. So what does this story have to do with us?
This story is every person’s story. It is our story. There is a sense in which each of us has a birthright, and we are always tempted to sell it for a bowl of soup.
The classic story of a despised birthright stars Edward VIII, the British King who abdicated the throne to marry an American divorcée, Wallis Simpson. He said that he could not carry the burdens of state without the woman he loved.
The more contemporary story stars Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Married in fairy-tale fashion in 1981, they seemed to have it all. Watching them travel to the cathedral in their carriage, we could not help but think of Cinderella. The prince was handsome; the princess was beautiful. They were in love with each other, and we were in love with them.
But not all was as it seemed. A few days before the wedding, Diana told her sisters her fear that Charles loved Camilla Bowles Parker. They laughed, “Bad luck, Duch—your face is on the tea towels; it’s too late to chicken out.”
At a pre-wedding ball in Buckingham Palace, Charles danced once with Diana and often with Camilla. After Diana retired for the evening, Charles disappeared with Camilla. Within three years, Charles and Diana were irrevocably estranged, and he was back in Camilla’s arms. A palace aide says, Diana “worshipped him…, and he kicked her in the gutter.”
Of course, we know now that Diana was less-than-innocent herself. Neither Charles nor Diana has emerged as an attractive person. But Charles bears more than his share of guilt for their tragedy. The Queen says, “I can’t understand my children.”
We do not know how Charles’ story will end. The British people spend eighty-million pounds a year to support the royalty. They are beginning to ask if it is worth it. Charles could easily bring to an end the monarchy with his stupid, selfish behavior.
But that doesn’t have much to do with us either, does it! We aren’t princes and princesses. We don’t have as much to lose. But we do have what we have, and are always tempted to despise it.
I read recently about Christina and Allan of Sanford, Maine. On February 2, 1995, Christina, age 14, and Allen, age 16, became parents.
Neither Christina nor Allen have a job. They don’t have a car. They have little schooling. Allan tried to return to school but couldn’t stay awake after being up all night with the baby.
Christina’s mother was a teenage mom. She had a tough life. She says:
“Christina and Allan don’t know
what they got themselves into.
They thought it was fun and games,
but she lost her childhood.
It’s all gone.”
Christina finds her life “boring, boring, boring.…” A big day for Allan and Christina is to go to the mall to ride the escalators and to go to the arcade. On one visit, the arcade management wouldn’t let Christina in. Allan says: The sign said “Sixteen or parent’s permission.”
So I pointed to her belly and said, “I’m the parent.”
In June, Christina and Allan turned 15 and 17. There was no cake. There were no presents. “No nothing,” says Christina.
Recently Christina was worried that she was pregnant again. She had quit taking her pills. She admits that not taking the pills was stupid, but she pointed to the baby and said, “I wanted another one of those.”
You see, we don’t have to be Prince Charles to have a birthright or to sell it too cheaply. Our birthright might be a little or a lot, but it is ours—and we despise it at our peril.
How are we tempted to sell our birthrights?
• We are tempted to make a living instead of making a life. We are tempted to neglect our children so that we can give them all the things we never had.
• We are tempted to believe that sex without commitment is the same as sex without consequences.
• We are tempted to run away from our problems rather than confronting them and resolving them.
• We are tempted to look to find answers in a bottle or a needle. We don’t know whether we want to feel better or to feel numb. But we don’t want to feel what we feel.
• Created as God’s children, in God’s image, we are tempted to live our lives on the street without ever visiting the palace. We are tempted to spend our lives in fast-food joints rather than sitting at the table that God has prepared for us. We are tempted to do it our way instead of his way. We are tempted to say, “Of what use is a birthright to me?”
But God always calls us to something better. He calls us to lives of blessings. Let us count our blessings—our birthright—and let us treat with respect that which God has given us in love.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible.