Readings: Genesis 32:3-21, 33:1-5, 8-11, Secrets of Heaven #4347:2 (see below)
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Photo credit: Aman Shrivastava
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…