Proper 10 OT year A
As it turns out, names matter. Marion Morrison wanted to grow up to be a cowboy-movie star; Marion wasn’t quite macho enough so he changed his name to the “John Wayne.” Who is more interesting, Stanfani Germanotta or Lady Gaga? She’s the same person, but the name Lady Gaga is more descriptive of the kind of person we are talking about: Lady Gaga is . . . well, Lady Gaga, and what Lady Gaga is, is certainly not a Stephani. Names matter. There is a scene in the movie Pulp Fiction where Butch the boxer is talking to the cab driver whose name is Esmerelda Villalobos. Esmerelda asks Butch what his name means, he answers, “I’m American, our names don’t mean anything”. But they do, names matter! What sounds more dangerous, Randy Poffo, or Randy Savage? Who’s funnier, Caryn Johnson, or Whoopi Goldberg? Malcolm Little changed his name to Malcolm X to make a point about the heritage of slavery in America. A classmate of mine from college was born on July 4th, 1976. Her first and middle names are Sunday America. Names matter.
In the Old Testament, names were usually a pun that described the person or the place, often with crushing wit. Jacob and Esau for example. Esau was evidently born with a reddish hue to him, and was covered in hair. Esau then is a play of a play of a play on two different words that means red and hairy. We hear “Esau,” and think, “OK, so he’s called Esau, this is America, our names don’t mean anything.” But the ancient Hebrews hearing this story heard much more, they heard an ethnic joke, a little bit of history, and something about who they are as a people. Jacob, Esau’s twin brother, wasn’t named Jacob because it sounded nice either, Jacob means “he who grasps the heel,” or “he who supplants”: this is not complimentary. Instead, Jacob’s name is highly descriptive of the kind of person that he was: a person who takes advantage, takes what is not his. Imagine that, going through life as “Cheater,” your parents calling you home, “Oh, He-that-takes-that-which-is-not-his, time to come home!” At the end of today’s reading, Jacob removes all doubt about his designation as the one who supplants, the one who replaces and supersedes: he cons his brother out of his birthright.
And what is a birthright? Most people think of a birthright as some kind of cultural given, “It is my birthright that I cook good Italian food.” But back in the Old Testament times, a birthright was so much more. As the eldest son, Esau, was entitled by law. And in that time it was considered a natural law, something self-evident, that the eldest son was entitled to a double share of the inheritance from the father as well as taking upon himself the leadership of the family, the clan, and the tribe. Having claim to the birthright was a big deal, it made you generationally wealthy, a real leader. And Jacob cheats Esau out of it. Now granted, Esau likely wasn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, I’m sure he could have scrounged together something else to eat without giving away the store. All that said, as far as Jacob is concerned if you dupe a stupid person, it’s still wrong.
This is our patriarch. Jacob the cheat.
This is Jacob, Jacob as in: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Jacob as in the one whose name is changed to Israel. Israel as in Israel: the people of God.
Jacob who argues with his brother in utero! Our patriarch the con artist; who cheats his brother and lies to his father.
But there is this other part of Jacob. Jacob, son of Isaac, grandson to Abraham. Jacob, heir of God’s promise to be a great and called-apart people. All the while that Jacob is conning and lying his way through life, God visits him and renews the promise and blessing that was given to Abraham. Jacob is a mixed bag, he is an absolutely flawed, dangerous person, yet God blesses him, his family, and those around him.
During these escapades, God visits Jacob many times. At one point Jacob wrestles with someone, we don’t know who it is, in fact Jacob asks his name, but the stranger doesn’t give it. He does, however, grant Jacob a new name, a new name that signifies who the stranger really is: Israel, which means the one who contends with God. Jacob loses that wresting match, yet the stranger says that Jacob has wrestled with the divine and has prevailed. It is interesting that he is the one who struggles with God and loses, but he is also the one who prevails.
So we have Jacob, the one who supplants, usurps, Jacob the con man, Jacob the bad news. Then there is Israel, who wrestles with God, Israel the blessed, Israel the patriarch. Jacob/Israel, Marion Morrison/John Wayne, Stephani Germanta/Lady Gaga. In each case they are the same person but with a different persona and promise. Israel and Jacob are the same, nothing really has changed, except God’s promise, which makes all the difference. The funny thing is that when God talks to Israel, when God talks to him and renews his blessing over and over again, God calls him Jacob. Here we see that God knows who he is dealing with. God knows that Jacob is a jerk (has faults). God knows that Jacob will mess up and take advantage of people. God calls Jacob Jacob and not Israel, because he knows who he is talking to.
I wonder if God knows who he is talking to when dealing with us. Do you think God trusts himself to bless you in all your foibles? When you are Jacob, trying to supplant yourself, exerting power over another, when you are Jacob, God will still bless you as Israel. But the thing about this blessing is that it involves some wrestling with God, and some renaming, some identity changing.
I noticed, at the baptisms here, Father Paul says to the parents of the children “Name this child.” When we get named, we get our identity. Our names are who we are, in just a few syllables, we get our identity. The Bible is full of name changes, and when the name changes a new life is initiated: Abram became Abraham, Sarai became Sarah, Jacob became Israel. Jesus continued the practice calling Cephas, Peter, the rock, the petras, upon which his church would be built. Saul, that vigorous persecutor of the church, becomes Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. This new name is a designation that says, what comes next is new.
But God knows, God knows, that the process of living into a new identity, a life of the blessed and beloved by God is never that cut and dry. Abraham still argued with God, Jacob cheated his brother and father, Peter denied Jesus, three times!
We might always be Jacob, we might always be that self-seeking one. But God blesses us anyway. The fact that Jacob acts the way he does, and is still blessed is a remarkable testimony to the faithfulness of God. Does Jacob behave as one who is blessed? No, he acts as if he had to grasp and grab for his future, almost in ignorance of his blessings. Sound familiar? Isn’t this what we all do, we are all so blessed, but we think that we did it. So here we are, most of the time we are a bunch of Jacobs running around conning our brothers. Every once in a while we recognize that we indeed are blessed by God and act like it. We respond to our blessedness with humility and thankfulness. Our faith ought to be a response to His faith. “Oh how I love Jesus, because he first loved me.” Remember that one? Who knew that such a simple little song held such deep theology? Saint Paul says this too in his letter to the Romans, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So God is the initiator, God comes to us first. Thus, our faith is always a response to God’s faith, in us. We are his people, through the waters of baptism, given new names, a new life and identity. God knows who he is dealing with in John Wayne or Lady Gaga, Marion Morrison or Stephanie Germanotta, Jacob or Israel. We are blessed, by any name, we are blessed by God, may we all respond accordingly.