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Readings: Genesis 32:3-21, 33:1-5,8-11, Secrets of Heaven #4247:2 (see below)
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A lot has happened in our story since we left off. At Rebekah’s suggestion, after stealing his brother’s blessing, Jacob flees to his uncle’s house in Haran. On the way, he has his famous dream of a stairway with angels ascending and descending, which is where we get the phrase “Jacob’s Ladder”. When he arrives in Haran, he immediately falls in love with his cousin, Rachel. He works, tending Laban’s flocks, for seven years in order to marry her, but on the wedding night, Laban switches Rachel for her older sister Leah. Jacob is, of course, livid. But he dutifully works for another seven years in order to finally marry Rachel. Over the course of time, he works hard and intelligently and builds up his own flocks. His wives bear him twelve sons and a daughter.
Eventually, the Lord speaks to Jacob and tells him to go home. Jacob has done a lot of living since he was last there. As we hear in our reading, Jacob makes elaborate preparations, terrified about how Esau will receive him after all this time. He sends on ahead of himself magnificent gifts, and in the final moments, bows down excessively as his brother approaches. And then, in one of the most poignant verses in the bible, Esau simply runs to his brother and embraces him. We read: “He threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept.” What an extravagance of love! No stand-offishness, no demanding Jacob apologize (though thankfully Jacob seems to insist upon still doing so), just a welcome full of grace and forgiveness.
This is a beautiful picture of the restoration of a family, and of a relationship. And it is a picture of the ultimate goal of our spiritual journey. Swedenborg writes:
As regards the actual joining together [of Jacob and Esau], it is that which brings about a person's regeneration, for they are regenerated through the joining of the truths they know (represented by Jacob) to the good they cherish (represented by Esau), that is, through the joining of matters of faith to the deeds of [kindness].(1)
The journey of Jacob and Esau is a picture of how we each change into more spiritually mature, loving, and wise people, people who live out what they believe. We all start out in one place, wherever or whenever we are, with our menagerie of thoughts, feelings, and perspectives….groomed from the culture in which we were raised, the environment to which we were exposed, the people we come in contact with, our education, and our natural temperament. Many times, in this headspace, we are comfortable with what we know and feel.
But, the beginning of spiritual development is the precious acknowledgement that we might not know it all, so we pause, and into that pause leaps Jacob. In listening, in learning, in discerning, we are separated from our instinctive Esau-mind, from the ways we have settled into what we think we know, the ways we are comfortable feeling what we feel. Jacob stretches us, and we are not always glad for it. Sometimes we might even rage, or sulk or resist.
But God’s covenant with us will persist, and it depends upon our willingness to trust the separation into which the Jacob-mind has brought to us, to recognize, as Swedenborg wrote:
“Wisdom is perceiving that the things in which you are wise are scarcely anything compared with the things in which you are not.” (2)
For a time, perhaps over and over again for most of our life, we will need to consciously lift up the Jacob-mind, to remind ourselves to remain teachable, especially when we don’t think we need to. But the learning phase is not the endgame. Jacob cannot stay away forever. Transformed ways of thinking, in and of themselves are not enough.The primary thing that truth teaches is that we must ACT in love. Swedenborg writes: the “truths of faith regarded without love are mere sounds devoid of any life…"(3)
Our minds may have been open to learning new things but now we need to commit to transforming our will according to that new understanding. This doesn’t always feel easy. We will need to overcome whatever barriers we hold toward action. Our various fears, our real or supposed lack of competence, our selfishness or distractedness. Sometimes, many times, when we do start to act, it will feel hollow, performative, awkward, we might want to abandon the whole thing. This is pictured in what Jacob goes through returning to Esau: his fear of Esau’s four hundred men, his obsessive re-ordering of the arrangement of this traveling party, his wrestling with the angel the night before, which we will hear about on some other day.(4)
But eventually, our bumbling works of love become habits of being. Eventually, the truest kindest way to be is not something we think about, not something we know in our minds, but something that we know in our bones, in our gut, in our heart. This is Jacob and Esau joined together, embracing. A new way of being that has become a part of us. As we heard from our Swedenborg reading:
When a person is being regenerated however, which takes place…when we possess cognitions, good reveals itself, for we are then moved not so much by the affection for knowing truth as for doing it. For previously truth had been in our understanding, but now it is in our will, and when in our will it is in our true self, since the will constitutes a person's true self.
You see, love was always supposed to be the firstborn. Love *is* the firstborn, that which motivates us, that which moves us. And love is always that to which we will need to return.
But figuring out how to love well, in this broken world, that’s the trick, isn’t it? There are lots of ways that we think are loving that are really just loving ourselves, loving the way others make us feel, loving being right, loving to control, or loving the status quo. The story of Jacob and Esau is the story of how we can learn to love in a way that is self-sacrificial, that is brave, that is wider and fuller and mostly importantly, concretely useful.
Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
We are shown that eventually even the greatest things in our lives—even our loves—must be released and allowed to become something new. Otherwise we are trapped. Love has not yet made us free….When we love exclusively from our small selves, we operate in a way that is mechanical and instrumental, which we now sometimes call codependent. We return again and again to the patterns of interaction we know. This is not always bad, but it is surely limited. Great love—loving from our Whole Selves connected to the Source of all love—offers us so much more.(5)
To get to this heavenly “more” we take the road of Jacob and Esau. We are changed from small self loving to Whole Self Loving. We let God’s Divine love move us and stretch us and change us, in a multitude of ways, through letting go, listening, learning and then acting, until we find ourselves transformed. And this transformation might not wholly be a surprise, since we have taken a long road to get there, but it will be poignant and satisfying and feel something like destiny, like two long lost brothers weeping in each others’ arms. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4353:1
(2) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Apocalypse Explained #828
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4352:2
(4) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #4248
(5) Richard Rohr, Richard Rohr’s Daily Meditation from the Center for Action and Contemplation, Great Love, July 23, 2020.
3 Jacob sent messengers ahead of him to his brother Esau in the land of Seir, the country of Edom. 4 He instructed them: “This is what you are to say to my lord Esau: ‘Your servant Jacob says, I have been staying with Laban and have remained there till now. 5 I have cattle and donkeys, sheep and goats, male and female servants. Now I am sending this message to my lord, that I may find favor in your eyes.’ ” 6 When the messengers returned to Jacob, they said, “We went to your brother Esau, and now he is coming to meet you, and four hundred men are with him.” 7 In great fear and distress Jacob divided the people who were with him into two groups, and the flocks and herds and camels as well. 8 He thought, “If Esau comes and attacks one group, the group that is left may escape.” 9 Then Jacob prayed, “O God of my father Abraham, God of my father Isaac, LORD, you who said to me, ‘Go back to your country and your relatives, and I will make you prosper,’ 10 I am unworthy of all the kindness and faithfulness you have shown your servant. I had only my staff when I crossed this Jordan, but now I have become two camps. 11 Save me, I pray, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am afraid he will come and attack me, and also the mothers with their children. 12 But you have said, ‘I will surely make you prosper and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted.’ ” 13 He spent the night there, and from what he had with him he selected a gift for his brother Esau: 14 two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, 15 thirty female camels with their young, forty cows and ten bulls, and twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. 16 He put them in the care of his servants, each herd by itself, and said to his servants, “Go ahead of me, and keep some space between the herds.” 17 He instructed the one in the lead: “When my brother Esau meets you and asks, ‘Who do you belong to, and where are you going, and who owns all these animals in front of you?’ 18 then you are to say, ‘They belong to your servant Jacob. They are a gift sent to my lord Esau, and he is coming behind us.’ ” 19 He also instructed the second, the third and all the others who followed the herds: “You are to say the same thing to Esau when you meet him. 20 And be sure to say, ‘Your servant Jacob is coming behind us.’ ” For he thought, “I will pacify him with these gifts I am sending on ahead; later, when I see him, perhaps he will receive me.” 21 So Jacob’s gifts went on ahead of him, but he himself spent the night in the camp.
Genesis 33:1-5, 8-11
1 Jacob looked up and there was Esau, coming with his four hundred men; so he divided the children among Leah, Rachel and the two female servants. 2 He put the female servants and their children in front, Leah and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph in the rear. 3 He himself went on ahead and bowed down to the ground seven times as he approached his brother. 4 But Esau ran to meet Jacob and embraced him; he threw his arms around his neck and kissed him. And they wept. 5 Then Esau looked up and saw the women and children. “Who are these with you?” he asked. Jacob answered, “They are the children God has graciously given your servant.”…8 Esau asked, “What’s the meaning of all these flocks and herds I met?” “To find favor in your eyes, my lord,” he said. 9 But Esau said, “I already have plenty, my brother. Keep what you have for yourself.” 10 “No, please!” said Jacob. “If I have found favor in your eyes, accept this gift from me. For to see your face is like seeing the face of God, now that you have received me favorably. 11 Please accept the present that was brought to you, for God has been gracious to me and I have all I need.” And because Jacob insisted, Esau accepted it.
Secrets of Heaven #4247:2
…one may see that good flows constantly into truth, and truth receives good, since truths are the vessels for good. The only vessels into which Divine Good can be placed are genuine truths, for good and truth match each other. When a person is moved by the affection for truth, as everyone is at first prior to being regenerated, good is constantly flowing in even then, but as yet it has no vessels, that is, no truths in which to place itself or make its own; for nobody at the outset of regeneration possesses any cognitions as yet. But because good at that time is flowing in constantly it produces the affection for truth, for there is no origin to the affection for truth other than the constant endeavor of Divine good to flow in. This shows that even at that time good occupies the first position and plays the leading role, although it seems as though truth did so. When a person is being regenerated however, which takes place in adult years when they possess cognitions, good reveals itself, for they are then moved not so much by the affection for knowing truth as for doing it. For previously truth had been in the understanding, but now it is in their will, and when in their will it is in the person's true self, since the will constitutes the person's true self…
Readings: Genesis 27:1-35, 41-45, Divine Provident #147 (see below)
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Here we are at the second stage of Jacob and Esau’s story. It does sound like a little bit of a replay, but Jacob seems to have upped his game. If he was simply being shrewd in convincing Esau to part with his birthright last week, he is downright deceitful in the way he cheats Esau out of his blessing this week. While the scheme was Rebekah’s idea, Jacob’s only real objection was procedural, and once the goat skins were on, he was all good. If anyone is the victim in this story it is poor Isaac, who as diligently as he could, tried to ascertain his son’s identity but was thwarted by the deception. Both Isaac’s and Esau’s desperate and heartbroken reaction to what Jacob did is incredibly sad to read.
Now we might find ourselves a little bit confused about the difference between the birthright and the blessing. The former relates to issues of inheritance, basically a private family matter, but the blessing was more ritualistic, a public declaration. What looks to us like an everyday affair of bringing Isaac some dinner actually represented a specific blessing ritual, with various elements agreed upon by social construct. Isaac could no more revoke the blessing and place it on Esau in the same way that a minister cannot just say a marriage they have officiated doesn’t count because they changed their mind.
So we understand why Esau was so very enraged. If Esau didn’t value the birthright and gave it away too easily, he certainly valued Isaac’s blessing, and it is clear that their bond was real and deep. Jacob had taken something that Esau could never regain. But also, that doesn’t mean that Esau had the right try to kill Jacob for what he did. Again, a messy human situation, with people acting badly all over the place.
If we return to our Swedenborgian interpretation we see more fully explored what was hinted at last week. Esau represents our natural will: what we want and how we feel. Jacob represents our natural understanding: how we think about things and what we understand to be true.
Part of learning how to be wise, of learning how to love effectively, is learning that our feelings, and our way of seeing things through the lens of how we feel, might be limited, might not represent objective truth. For this recognition to occur, we need to let go of the way that we feel, and let our understanding take the lead for a while.
Because there is a reason we have the phrase “look before you leap.” Many times it is really important for human beings to learn how to create a space between impulse and action, between feeling and thinking. When we are ensconced in our emotions, we don’t put much stock in waiting, in thinking things through; we don’t want to. Our emotions don’t necessarily care very much about ultimate truth, they are only concerned with what is true for us. And there are times when we do need to stand for what is true for us. But there are also times when we need to put aside our feelings so that we can be led by ideas that will expand us and bring us into spiritual growth. Life based only on how we feel, what is good for us, often ends up hurting other people.
One example might be from our recent common experience with white privilege and anti-racism. There are certain ways we might *feel* about racism in this country, and those feelings will lead our thinking and our conclusions. Our sense of personal grievance might lead us to think that white privilege can’t be real because we personally have suffered in various ways. Our sense of hopefulness, or let’s be real, our attachment to the status quo, might lead to us to conclude that we are now in a post-racial period because we elected a black president. Our feelings of defensiveness might cause us to reject the idea that we have participated in a systemically racist society, because how can we be a good person if we have done so, even unwittingly? But when our feelings are leading our thinking, we don’t always get to the truth.
This process of making space for new ideas, being willing to look outside of our own ego for truth, is not so much about second-guessing ourselves all the time, or ignoring our own intuition, but rather having the humility to recognize that our own feelings are not necessarily the final arbiter of truth and rightness, that we can learn something by listening to other people and other ideas, and especially that we can learn something from engaging with God’s word. Sometimes Jacob needs to take the lead.
And that is going to feel a bit like “stealing” what rightly belongs to our will. Think about how much “truer” our own thoughts feel to us than objective facts, or other people’s experience. The intensity, the closeness, of our own feelings give them a lot of power, and that is not easy to give up. When we go looking for another kind of truth, that might even feel like being cheated somehow. Many times our emotions are not ready to be called forth into a new way of being, into transformation. This call to newness might feel a lot like “taking away” something that belongs to us, like our peace of mind, or of usurping our right to feel the way we want, and we certainly might feel anger if we have been happy with the way things were.
But letting Jacob lead is integral to the path of regeneration, the path of spiritual progress. All of us are born into the primacy of the Esau-mind, and this sense of selfhood, about ability to feel things as a singular person, is a good and righteous gift. But it also can tend towards selfishness if we never learn to look outside of our own experience. God has made each one of us for a heaven of mutual love. We have a selfhood, we have feelings, so that we can experience the beauty and joy of heaven by being both recipients and participants in its mutuality. But if we never learn to look beyond our own feelings, we will never get to the mutual part of it. So God calls us to mutual love over and over and over again, as training for the joy that awaits us.
And as we do let Jacob lead, and especially as we learn to *remember* to let Jacob lead when it is important, it won’t feel comfortable, just as the Jacob and Esau story is wrenching, and tense and chaotic. Both Esau and Jacob end up suffering. Jacob is sent far away to his uncle’s home. As we stretch our natural understanding, as we search for new ways of thinking about things, we might well feel discombobulated, or estranged, like we are living in a foreign land. We heard in our Swedenborg reading that when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted, when we give up the primacy of our feelings and open up to learning something new, something that will change us, we feel actual psychological pain. I think we can all relate to this through our experience, those times when some new information, or a new willingness to listen, starts turning us inside out, changing what we thought we knew, and consequently, how we feel and how we act. But this is a good thing, because God is reordering something that needs reordering within us. If we can bear it, then we will be building within us a greater capacity to see the truth with clarity, building within us a greater capacity to love others effectively, building within us a greater capacity to act with both wisdom and empathy.
Jacob and Esau remain separated for a really long time. And I don’t think that needs to be a picture of how we will always be suffering the psychological pain of letting our thinking be reordered, but do I think it is a picture of how the work of humility is ongoing. Swedenborg writes in relation to this story that: The arrival at intelligence and wisdom takes time. In the meantime [a person] is led on by means of those truths to good.(1) (AC 3330:2) And what he means here by good, is essentially kindness. The point of this separation of the Jacob-mind and the Esau-mind is not to demonstrate how bad and wrong we are, but to lead us to kindness, to teach us how to live with kindness. Jacob and Esau do a whole ton of living while they are apart, and eventually they reconcile. This is what we will hear about next week.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #3330:2
Genesis 27: 1-35, 41-45
1 When Isaac was old and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see, he called for Esau his older son and said to him, “My son.” “Here I am,” he answered. 2 Isaac said, “I am now an old man and don’t know the day of my death. 3 Now then, get your equipment—your quiver and bow—and go out to the open country to hunt some wild game for me. 4 Prepare me the kind of tasty food I like and bring it to me to eat, so that I may give you my blessing before I die.” 5 Now Rebekah was listening as Isaac spoke to his son Esau. When Esau left for the open country to hunt game and bring it back, 6 Rebekah said to her son Jacob…8 Now, my son, listen carefully and do what I tell you: 9 Go out to the flock and bring me two choice young goats, so I can prepare some tasty food for your father, just the way he likes it. 10 Then take it to your father to eat, so that he may give you his blessing before he dies.” 11 Jacob said to Rebekah his mother, “But my brother Esau is a hairy man while I have smooth skin. 12 What if my father touches me? I would appear to be tricking him and would bring down a curse on myself rather than a blessing.” 13 His mother said to him, “My son, let the curse fall on me. Just do what I say; go and get them for me.” 14 So he went and got them and brought them to his mother, and she prepared some tasty food, just the way his father liked it. 15 Then Rebekah took the best clothes of Esau her older son, which she had in the house, and put them on her younger son Jacob. 16 She also covered his hands and the smooth part of his neck with the goatskins. 17 Then she handed to her son Jacob the tasty food and the bread she had made. 18 He went to his father and said, “My father.” “Yes, my son,” he answered. “Who is it?” 19 Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me. Please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 20 Isaac asked his son, “How did you find it so quickly, my son?” “The LORD your God gave me success,” he replied. 21 Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Come near so I can touch you, my son, to know whether you really are my son Esau or not.” 22 Jacob went close to his father Isaac, who touched him and said, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” 23 He did not recognize him, for his hands were hairy like those of his brother Esau; so he proceeded to bless him. 24 “Are you really my son Esau?” he asked. “I am,” he replied. 25 Then he said, “My son, bring me some of your game to eat, so that I may give you my blessing.” Jacob brought it to him and he ate; and he brought some wine and he drank. 26 Then his father Isaac said to him, “Come here, my son, and kiss me.” 27 So he went to him and kissed him. When Isaac caught the smell of his clothes, he blessed him and said, “Ah, the smell of my son is like the smell of a field that the LORD has blessed. 28 May God give you heaven’s dew and earth’s richness— an abundance of grain and new wine. 29 May nations serve you and peoples bow down to you. Be lord over your brothers, and may the sons of your mother bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and those who bless you be blessed.” 30 After Isaac finished blessing him, and Jacob had scarcely left his father’s presence, his brother Esau came in from hunting. 31 He too prepared some tasty food and brought it to his father. Then he said to him, “My father, please sit up and eat some of my game, so that you may give me your blessing.” 32 His father Isaac asked him, “Who are you?” “I am your son,” he answered, “your firstborn, Esau.” 33 Isaac trembled violently and said, “Who was it, then, that hunted game and brought it to me? I ate it just before you came and I blessed him—and indeed he will be blessed!” 34 When Esau heard his father’s words, he burst out with a loud and bitter cry and said to his father, “Bless me—me too, my father!” 35 But he said, “Your brother came deceitfully and took your blessing.”
41 Esau held a grudge against Jacob because of the blessing his father had given him. He said to himself, “The days of mourning for my father are near; then I will kill my brother Jacob.” 42 When Rebekah was told what her older son Esau had said, she sent for her younger son Jacob and said to him, “Your brother Esau is planning to avenge himself by killing you. 43 Now then, my son, do what I say: Flee at once to my brother Laban in Harran. 44 Stay with him for a while until your brother’s fury subsides. 45 When your brother is no longer angry with you and forgets what you did to him, I’ll send word for you to come back from there. Why should I lose both of you in one day?”
Divine Providence 147
…we have an earthly mind, a spiritual mind, and a heavenly mind, and that we are wholly locked into our earthly mind as long as we are caught up in our compulsions to evil and their pleasures. During all this our spiritual mind is closed. However, as soon as we look into ourselves and realize that our evils are sins against God because they are against divine laws, and therefore try to refrain from them, the Lord opens our spiritual mind and comes into our earthly mind by way of its desires for what is true and good. He comes also into our rational processes and from there rearranges the things in our lower, earthly mind that have been in disorder. This is what feels to us like a battle, or like a temptation if we have indulged in these evil pleasures a great deal. There is actually a psychological pain when the pattern of our thoughts is being inverted.
Photo credit: Photo by Frédéric Dupont on Unsplash
Readings: Genesis 25:19-34, Secrets of Heaven #3330 (see below)
See also on Youtube at https://youtu.be/f0zspfw3_cE
Today we will begin a three part series on the story of Jacob and Esau. This first week we will explore Esau selling his birthright. The second week will focus on Jacob stealing Esau’s blessing. And the final week we will hear about their ultimate reconciliation.
Jacob and Esau, the disparate twins, are a well known story from the bible; it is detailed, suspenseful and deeply complicated in how it asks us to think about how God is present in the actions of the faithful. We know that Jacob will go on to father Joseph, who will eventually bring his whole family to Egypt, and bring us to the story of the Exodus. Jacob is an important, pivotal figure in the history of the people of Israel, and in the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham. Yet, he acts deceitfully in stepping into his role as patriarch. How are we to understand this? That the end justifies the means? That God’s chosen can act however they want? Certainly, it cannot be so.
So the first issue that we bump head first into is the fact that these characters are so very flawed. Jacob and Rebekah, and Esau as well, do not act morally or prudently, or in any way in which we would hope people who bear an important covenant with God would act. But this is part of what makes the bible ultimately so powerful. It is not a litany of perfect people enacting God’s word perfectly. It is made up of stories of imperfect people living into God’s promises imperfectly. And yet God remains steadfast in the face of that imperfection. This does not mean that God condones our mis-steps or our selfishness, but rather, that God believes in the possibility of our growth. We human beings are the ones who want to declare definitively who is good and evil, but God makes no such ultimate declaration.
Now it is reasonable that we might want the Bible to clearly tell us what to do and what not to do. Part of what I find to be so overwhelming about figuring out how to act for good in a broken world is that it is not always clear what is the right and good decision, because often there are many intersecting implications. So course, we want the bible to tell us how we should act and give us people to emulate. And we do definitely get some of that from it. But the bible is also the story of humanity, the story of us, not just of what we can be but of what we are. And this is strangely comforting, because in this we can know that God is not with us only when we get to a certain level of perfection, but also with us on the journey of figuring all that out.
So the upshot is: human beings are messy. But God remains. (Thank goodness). The story of Jacob and Esau is even messier than it might at first seem. First, we need to appreciate the nature of inheritance in those ancient times. The firstborn received everything; all the family’s land and riches. Which left subsequent sons at the mercy of their older brother, or on the hook to figure out their own livelihood. Tradition is often important for keeping order; we can understand the wisdom of such a system, even as we recognize the unfairness of the burden it placed on younger siblings. But in this case, Jacob was only the younger by a few minutes; thus the unfairness of this particular situation is heightened. This is not so far away as we might think; fans of the book Pride and Prejudice might recall Colonel Fitzwilliam with telling Lizzie that he cannot marry for love; as a second son he was going to have to marry for money. We can criticize such an unromantic understanding now from the comfort of modernity, but for many in the past, especially women, questions of livelihood were questions of life and death.
While being the firstborn certainly conveyed a serious advantage, it also carried with it a lot of responsibility. And in this case, it carried with it the responsibility of taking forth God’s promise to Abraham into the future and partnering with God to bring it into fulfillment. So Esau would not just charged with taking care of the family, but shepherding an important covenant with God. And what we learn from the text, is that Esau despised this birthright. We don’t know exactly why he despised it but it becomes clear later in the story that Esau was of a particularly contrarian nature. We all have had the experience of rebelling against the expectations that our parents or society have put upon us. And we don’t always value things that are passed down to us, as opposed to things that we have built or discovered ourselves.
So while Jacob absolutely took advantage of his brother, Esau contributed to the way things turned out as well. He acted impulsively, without care for the future, intent on immediate gratification. We don’t generally give up things that we value so easily. For whatever reason, Esau did not care all that much for the important role that he would be stepping into. The gravity of it, the weight of the covenant with God, that did not concern him, or occupy his mind. So he sold his birthright for a bowl of stew. And in the moment, he was satisfied.
But satisfaction is not the ultimate mission of a spiritual life. In Swedenborg’s worldview, this ancient story tells timeless truths about each of our inner natures. Esau represents our natural will and Jacob our natural understanding. Or in other words, in our daily lives, Esau represents the desires that we have, and the things that we want, and Jacob represents the way that we think and the things we understand to be true.
Esau was the firstborn, and we see this reflected in the fact that our desires are primary, that we usually feel things more acutely and immediately than we think about things. Motive comes before thought. We can see the truth of this in the physiology of our brains. Our limbic system, which governs emotion, is evolutionarily older than the frontal cortex, which governs thought, and so our brain processes feelings more quickly than higher order thinking. And from experience, we know that if we were always guided purely by our feelings, we wouldn’t always do the right thing. Many times our impulses *are* loving; to give a hug, to take care, to defend. But just as often they are selfish: to lash out, to shut out, to dismiss, to take, or to hurt.
And so there are lots of examples in the bible of the regular order of things being inverted, from Jacob and Esau all the way to the cross, and this is always has the same representation, always paints the same picture. The way of spirit is sacrifice. Not martyrdom necessarily, not subservience necessarily, but recognizing privilege, priority, and advantage, and interrogating it, using it for the benefit of all. And specifically, in the context of this story, it is recognizing that the closeness, the intensity, of our feelings about something will always make them *seem* like the most important and truest possible thing…but it might not be so. We need to be able recognize when the intensity or the priority of our feeling is simply covering over the fact that those feelings are selfish. Not all feelings are selfish, of course not. But emotion is a gift, just as being firstborn for Esau was a gift, and with a gift comes responsibility, the responsibility to take a step back and question our motives.
Esau had already sold his birthright long before Jacob made him say the words. He was stubborn, and repudiated what being firstborn was going to mean. And what does being firstborn ultimately mean? It means being willing to sacrifice: in our external story, a sacrifice taken in order to shepherd the covenant, and take care of the family; in ourselves, a sacrifice taken in order to be transformed away from self-centeredness wherever possible.
So, while narratively, it seems like selling the birthright was not a good thing for Esau to do, spiritually it *is* something we need to be willing to do. Perhaps selling it is the wrong word, but we need to value our birthright enough that we understand what it means, and that means being willing to give it up when it becomes clear we are clinging to it for the wrong reasons. We have to be willing to give up the primacy of emotion when necessary, when it is stopping us from being loving.
Sometimes, we need to learn something new that has the potential to change how we feel. And this means that Jacob will need to be ascendent. And this is what we will explore next week. May God’s word continue to open our understanding and our hearts. Amen.
19 This is the account of the family line of Abraham’s son Isaac. Abraham became the father of Isaac, 20 and Isaac was forty years old when he married Rebekah daughter of Bethuel the Aramean from Paddan Aram and sister of Laban the Aramean. 21 Isaac prayed to the LORD on behalf of his wife, because she was childless. The LORD answered his prayer, and his wife Rebekah became pregnant. 22 The babies jostled each other within her, and she said, “Why is this happening to me?” So she went to inquire of the LORD. 23 The LORD said to her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples from within you will be separated; one people will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger.” 24 When the time came for her to give birth, there were twin boys in her womb. 25 The first to come out was red, and his whole body was like a hairy garment; so they named him Esau. 26 After this, his brother came out, with his hand grasping Esau’s heel; so he was named Jacob. Isaac was sixty years old when Rebekah gave birth to them. 27 The boys grew up, and Esau became a skillful hunter, a man of the open country, while Jacob was content to stay at home among the tents. 28 Isaac, who had a taste for wild game, loved Esau, but Rebekah loved Jacob. 29 Once when Jacob was cooking some stew, Esau came in from the open country, famished. 30 He said to Jacob, “Quick, let me have some of that red stew! I’m famished!” (That is why he was also called Edom. ) 31 Jacob replied, “First sell me your birthright.” 32 “Look, I am about to die,” Esau said. “What good is the birthright to me?” 33 But Jacob said, “Swear to me first.” So he swore an oath to him, selling his birthright to Jacob. 34 Then Jacob gave Esau some bread and some lentil stew. He ate and drank, and then got up and left. So Esau despised his birthright.
Secrets of Heaven #3330
3330. 'And he sold his birthright to Jacob' means that in the meantime priority was conceded - to the doctrine of truth represented by Jacob…The chief reason why with the spiritual person truth has dominion first is that in their initial state delights that belong to self-love and love of the world are present. These they believe to be the goods which attach themselves to their truths and constitute the greater part of the affection for truth with them. Indeed at this time they suppose that truths are able to assist them in the acquisition of important positions, or of material gain, or of reputation in the world, or also of merit in the next life. All these arouse that affection for truth with him and also set it ablaze. These are not however good but bad.
Readings: Psalm 119:33-45, John 8:31-34, 36-43, Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3 and Divine Providence #145:3 (see below)
See also on YouTube at: https://youtu.be/Hq9dmSWor4M
Since we are just one day removed from July 4th, Independence Day, I thought that today would be a good time to think about the topic of freedom. This might be on our minds already due to the holiday, or it might be on our minds because around the nation, safety protocols due to the coronavirus pandemic have sparked debate around what personal freedom means, and what is reasonable to ask people to do for the common good. And of course, this grappling with the balance between respect for individual freedom on the one hand, and how we must all submit to some level of governance in order to create a civilized society on the other hand…well, this is a very old dilemma and we are seeing it take a new form within our specific context. So while July 4th might be prompting us to consider what freedom means in a political or even a sociological sense, I want to round that out today with a consideration of what freedom means in a theological sense.
The early Christian evangelist, Paul, would often describe the experience of faith as finding freedom in Christ. He understood sin as a cosmic power that could indeed tempt us, but that also more insidiously was capable of convincing us that our sinfulness was actually good, and blessed by God. By Paul’s own experience, he found himself enslaved by his unyielding and unsympathetic devotion to his own tradition, leading to his persecution of early Christians. The antidote to this, in Paul’s mind, was for people to give over their desire to judge what is righteous *to* God, by recognizing that what God wants is revealed in the boundary-busting upside-down event of the crucifixion of Christ. For Paul, it is our desire to judge what is righteous, to own the power of that discernment for ourselves, that keeps us in servitude to the power of sin. Conversely, belief in Christ, essentially a relinquishment of the notion that we can define, own, build, collect, or withhold righteousness, frees us from all the ways that sin would try to control us. By its nature, sin enslaves, while faith emancipates.
Swedenborg would agree with certain aspects of this formulation. But he would depart from Paul in defining spiritual freedom as not just a function of belief or faith, but also as a function of the choices that we make. Swedenborg speaks about freedom in two ways. The first way is in the more classically enlightenment sense: the state of being able to make various different unfettered choices by our own will. He understood the possibility of this state as integral to our spiritual life. God gives us the gift of free choice so that our choices can have meaning.
However, he also speaks of freedom as defined by what it is used for(1). When we use our freedom to think, will and do evil, then that is hellish freedom, and when we use our freedom to think, will and do good, then that is heavenly freedom. Whenever we use our freedom to actualize what we think and want, whatever that leads to, it will *feel* like freedom to us. But Swedenborg points out that “to be led by evil is enslavement…to be led by good is to be led by the Lord.” If our freedom ultimately leads us into ways of thinking and being that are defined by fear, self-aggrandizement, selfishness, etc we become beholden to those ways of thinking and being, and so it doesn’t actually end up looking much like freedom at all.
Which leads to his really interesting assertion, as we heard in our reading today, that when we compel ourselves to do something good for the sake of others, thinking of others and not just ourselves, we are actually in a state of greater freedom than when we choose otherwise. The more we voluntarily work to relinquish servitude to our selfhood, the free-er we will ultimately be. So again, we see spiritual truth manifesting itself in a kind of paradox - that a higher state of freedom actually comes from a thing that doesn’t seem like freedom at all: self-compulsion.
It certainly doesn’t feel that way, right? In moments of self-compulsion, we often feel really constrained. Think about how it feels to compel ourselves to choose healthy food instead of a treat, or to choose to calm ourselves instead of giving in to anger, or to have a conversation that we know we need to have but don’t really want to have. Those moments feel really hard. We might feel resentment, we might feel fear, we might feel embarrassment, and we certainly don’t feel free in the way that freedom is usually characterized, by a sense of being unburdened or unfettered by some expectation. In these moments we are burdened indeed, but by our conscience, by our sense of what is right, and our love for our neighbor. And Swedenborg is saying, that when we consciously choose to do the hard thing but the right thing, instead of the easy thing, we are more fully exercising our freedom than if we were to choose the easy thing. And in a strange way, this does make sense. Choosing the harder thing when we could have chosen the easier thing goes against our instincts, and to choose something that goes against whatever flow we are in demonstrates the true power of free choice. When we choose to stop being bound by our own fears, or selfishness, and make a decision not based in those things, we are stepping into a new realm of freedom, the realm of no longer being bound by that fear or selfishness.
Heavenly freedom, then, is not defined by the simple fact of its own existence but rather by what it leads to. Heavenly freedom is not just having the choice, but using the choice to create more freedom, love, and belonging for others. It is essentially generative, connective and hopeful, not so much something we have, or something that happens to us, but something we practice. Which might not sound all that appealing to our lower selves. Because the notion of heavenly freedom gets weighty real quick. Self-compulsion isn’t fun. It’s kind of exhausting. Our lower selves want to do the easy thing, not the harder thing. Our lower selves want to exist in a realm where nothing difficult is asked of us, a realm where freedom just means getting to do what we want. Notice that at this point we are hearing echoes of Paul, seeing how the cosmic power of sin can even take an inherently good thing like freedom, and turn it into something that serves only the self. But this kind of freedom, one that only looks inward, ends up only being a shell, an impersonation, of the real thing, because it revolves around the self like a moon in orbit. It is necessarily limited, even if it doesn’t feel that way.
Our devotion to our own selfhood keeps us small, and I do believe that God wants to invite us into a kind of freedom that is more creative, expansive and inclusive. The trick though, is that we have to choose it by consciously submitting our will to God’s will, and that doesn’t feel like freedom to our selfhood. And so our selfhood won’t want to do it. So here is the crux of the paradox about freedom as I see it. We often equate freedom with feeling relief, or safety, or peace. And this is good, because ultimately freedom should create those things, for everyone. But heavenly freedom should also feel a little bit challenging, a little bit nerve-y. Father Richard Rohr puts it this way:
Let’s use the word emancipation to describe a deeper, bigger and scarier level of freedom: inner, outer, personal, economic, structural and spiritual. Surely this is the task of our entire lifetime.(2)
Freedom isn’t the same thing as comfort. In fact, heavenly freedom calls us away from the whatever our selfhood calls comfort, into a realm where love continually expands us beyond our small way of seeing things. This can feel scary but it is also beautiful. Swedenborg writes: “The more present the Lord is the more free we become…” (3) We are not doing this alone. God calls us into a deep freedom that recognizes our fundamental connection to each other, and our unbreakable connection to the divine. May we trust in this essential connective design, and may we celebrate the gift of spiritual freedom that allows us to choose to enter into it with our whole selves. Amen.
(1) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Divine Providence #43
(2) Richard Rohr, Daily Meditation from The Center for Action and Contemplation, Inner and Outer Freedom, June 17, 2020.
(3) Emmanuel Swedenborg, Secrets of Heaven #905
33 Teach me, LORD, the way of your decrees, that I may follow it to the end. 34 Give me understanding, so that I may keep your law and obey it with all my heart. 35 Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight. 36 Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain. 37 Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word. 38 Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. 39 Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. 40 How I long for your precepts! In your righteousness preserve my life. 41 May your unfailing love come to me, LORD, your salvation, according to your promise; 42 then I can answer anyone who taunts me, for I trust in your word. 43 Never take your word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. 44 I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. 45 I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
John 8:31-34, 36-43
31 To the Judeans who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” 33 They answered him, “We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone. How can you say that we shall be set free?” 34 Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin…36 So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed. 37 I know that you are Abraham’s descendants. Yet you are looking for a way to kill me, because you have no room for my word. 38 I am telling you what I have seen in the Father’s presence, and you are doing what you have heard from your father.” 39 “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” said Jesus, “then you would do what Abraham did. 40 As it is, you are looking for a way to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. 41 You are doing the works of your own father.” “We are not illegitimate children,” they protested. “The only Father we have is God himself.” 42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God. I have not come on my own; God sent me. 43 Why is my language not clear to you? Because you are unable to hear what I say.
Secrets of Heaven #1947:2-3
When a person is being regenerated they compel themselves from the freedom the Lord imparts to them, and humbles, and indeed afflicts, their rational, so that it may submit itself, and in consequence they receive a heavenly [selfhood]. This [selfhood] is then gradually perfected by the Lord and it becomes more and more free, so that as a result it becomes the affection for good and for truth deriving from that good, and possesses delight. And in that affection and delight there is happiness such as the angels experience.
 What this freedom is, is totally unknown to those who do not have conscience, for they identify freedom with feelings of being at liberty and without restraint to think and utter what is false, and to will and do what is evil, and not to control and humble, still less to afflict, those feelings. Yet this is the complete reverse of freedom.
Divine Providence #145:3
…We can see that this is not inconsistent but in accord with our rationality and freedom, since it is our rationality that starts this struggle and our freedom that pursues it. Our essential freedom, together with our rationality, dwells in our inner self, and comes into our outer self from there.