Texts: Genesis 29:15-28 and Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52
Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her. (Genesis 29:16-20)
The story of Jacob and Rachel is probably familiar to you. It is, after all, one of the great love stories told in the Bible.
Jacob’s mother Rebekah implored Jacob’s father Isaac to demand that Jacob not choose a wife from amongst their Canaanite neighbors, and the ever-eager-to-please Isaac did exactly that. To Jacob, he said: “You shall not marry one of the Canaanite women. Go at once to Paddan-aram to the house of Bethuel, your mother’s father; and take as wife from there one of the daughters of Laban, your mother’s brother” (Genesis 28:1-2).
So—obedient to his father’s wishes—Jacob sets out to visit his uncle. The Bible doesn’t tell us what young Jacob thought of the idea, but we can well imagine that a lot of things must have run through his mind on his journey to Paddan-aram.
Finally, Jacob reaches his destination and encounters some shepherds and their flocks gathered around a well. Local custom, it turns out, prevented use of the well until all rightful parties could be there to get their fair share. And so the mouth of the well was covered by a huge stone which was—supposedly—too heavy for any one person to lift.
As Jacob is speaking to the shepherds, he learns that they are from his uncle’s country and asks if they know him. They reply that they do, and that Laban is flourishing. Then one of them, pointing to a figure approaching from a distance, says, “Here is his daughter Rachel, coming with the sheep.” The Bible describes Jacob’s reaction in this way:
Now when Jacob saw Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother Laban, and the sheep of his mother’s brother Laban, Jacob went up and rolled the stone from the well’s mouth, and watered the flock of his mother’s brother Laban. Then Jacob kissed Rachel, and wept aloud. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s kinsman, and that he was Rebekah’s son: and she ran and told her father (Genesis 29:10-12).
Did you notice what happened? Upon seeing Rachel, Jacob strides forward, picks up this huge rock (which he isn’t supposed to be able to lift) and rolls it away so that the young woman may water her flock. I think we can say that Jacob was smitten!
Laban is happy to see his sister’s son, and brings him into his house. Jacob apparently ends up doing some work for his uncle—probably as a sort of unpaid farm hand. After a month, Laban feels his nephew should be receiving some wages, and that is where this morning’s lectionary reading picks up the story.
It is at this point, I think, that the story begins to have something in common with the parables that Jesus told in our Gospel reading. The parables, you will notice, are about the kingdom of heaven. They are about God’s realm, and yet they are about everyday things, too—which ought to encourage us to look for evidence of the divine in the midst of the ordinary.
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed,” Jesus said. It’s the smallest of seeds, but—if you have the patience to wait for it—it grows into a tree big enough for birds to nest in.
And again, he said, “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.” Not only patience, but also hard work, is spoken of here. The yeast’s potential is not realized until the baker’s toil releases it.
The final parables in our selection are about treasure—about what is valuable. Whether it is treasure hidden in a field, or a pearl of great value, or good fish which need to be separated out of the catch, that which is truly valuable is also truly demanding. That which we value highly, we will work hard for—like the fishermen hauling in their heavy nets, and taking the daily risk of putting out to sea. In fact, risk is something else that our desire for the valuable forces upon us. In the stories Jesus told, the man who found the treasure and the man who found the pearl both went and sold everything they had for the sake of winning their prize. That’s some risk!
Young Jacob, intoxicated with love for his beautiful cousin, strikes a bargain with his uncle: “I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.”
And here come the points of contact between this story and the parables from chapter 13 of Matthew: patience, hard work, and risk. Jacob knew he’d need patience while those seven years passed. And he knew he’d have to work hard.
But maybe he didn’t understand the risk.
The risk, of course, had to do with local customs about marriage, and with his uncle’s craftiness. After Jacob’s seven long years of labour, his uncle pulls a switcheroo! He gives Jacob not Rachel, but her older sister Leah. The deception was made possible because the bride was brought veiled to the bridegroom. And so poor Jacob must work for another seven years to win his beloved Rachel.
Why did I say this story was like a parable? Because I think it has some things to tell us about the nature of that which is valuable—and about hard work, and patience, and risk—and also about the way God deals with us.
Sometimes, in my experience, God has been like Laban. Oh, I don’t mean that God is a swindler or a cheat—but I do mean this: God is the One who makes up the rules. And because I’m not God, I quite often don’t fully understand the rules. I often think I do—but then I find myself surprised. I think I know what the deal is, but then I discover that God has some things in mind which I hadn’t bargained for.
Is it ever like that for you? Has life ever surprised you, and brought you before God to ask, “Why have you deceived me?”
Perhaps you began a marriage, only to watch it turn ugly. Perhaps you trained long and hard for a particular career, only to find yourself having to re-train in your middle age because your position has become redundant. Or maybe you turned to religion thinking it would solve all the problems in your life, only to find that religion gives you a whole set of new problems to work on.
Life surprises us. Life disappoints us. The One who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” leads us into pain and suffering, and finally into physical death.
But he leads us also into something else, if we accept the challenge of following him. He leads us into new life. He leads us to places where we can grow stronger. And more than that, he cares for us on the journey, soothing our pain and binding our wounds and pointing out to us the unexpected joy and beauty along the way.
The one whose heart seems as broken as her wedding vows finds to her amazement and joy that there is someone else for her, and her second marriage is everything her first was not. With God, there is always one more chance.
The middle-aged man who finds himself an at first unwilling student discovers that in the classroom he is exposed to ideas that excite him and challenge him in ways his previous career had never done. And so new life—and new enthusiasm for life—is birthed out of initially forced and unwelcome change.
Hard work, and patience, and risk. That which is most valuable requires all of these. From them, we grow stronger, we gain discipline, and we are gifted with faith.
This is how God deals with us. This is how God helps us to grow, to learn, to become the people we were meant to be: not by giving us everything we want, or by controlling our every move, but by holding before us that which is most valuable, and by encouraging all of our halting, tentative steps toward it.
“The kingdom of heaven,” one might say, “is like a young mother holding out her arms to a toddler who is learning to walk.” Shakily tottering from one foot to the other, the young child risks that long journey across the room. He might fall. He might get frustrated. He might even get hurt, despite his mother’s watchful eye. It would be so much easier if she would just pick him up and carry him wherever he wanted to go, for the rest of his life—but mothers aren’t that way, fortunately.
The kingdom of heaven isn’t that way, either—and thank God for that!
Hard work, and patience, and risk. These are the life-lessons which are part of our journey to the kingdom. These are the difficult components of the faithful life, and the reasons why religion seems to give us more problems than it solves.
But hard work, and patience, and risk bear fruit in our lives, because they make us look at things differently. Hard work, and patience, and risk open our eyes to the beauty which is all around us—in bad times and in good. And more than that, they teach us what faith and love are all about. They help us grasp what is really important, and embrace what is truly valuable.
Let us pray to God for that wonderful grace of divine encouragement which has borne us on the journey thus far. And let us remember that even if we should fail, God will not. What a glorious truth!