Genesis 27:1-29 (NRSV)

This is a very curious story. It is one of the more ancient stories in our tradition, very likely told around campfires for many generations before it was ever committed to paper. Abraham, the first patriarch, traveled from Ur of the Chaldees at the commandment of God, to establish a great nation in the promised land. Abraham had a son Isaac with his wife Sarah, and Isaac in turn had twin boys with his wife Rebekah. The boys were named Esau and Jacob.

Now the twins were contentious from the beginning. We’re told that they struggled together even before they were born which, we have to assume would have been pretty uncomfortable for their mother. Eventually, Rebekah asked God what was going on. In reply, God gave her this prophecy: “Two nations are in your womb. Two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger.” Now, at that time, this was not the normal practice. Traditionally, the older son would have been first in line for whatever inheritance might be handed down from his father. But because of this prophesy, Rebekah gave her heart, and her support, to her younger son, Jacob.

The twins were born as God had foreseen, Easu first, but with Jacob right behind, actually clinging to Esau’s heel. This clinging became a metaphor for their whole lives; Jacob grasping at his brother to overcome the disadvantages of having been born second. When they were grown, and the time came near for their father’s passing, Rebekah, remembering the prophesy, pushed Jacob forward to win by deceit the blessing that was rightfully Esau’s. Because of this, Jacob became the father of the twelve tribes of Israel, while Esau had to content himself with being merely the father of the Edomites.

Pip just read to you the first part of this story. But there’s a bit more to it. The story goes on like this:

  • As soon as Isaac had finished blessing Jacob, when Jacob had scarcely gone out from the presence of his father Isaac, his brother Esau came in from his hunting. He also prepared savory food, and brought it to his father. And he said to his father, “Let my father sit up and eat of his son’s game, so that you may bless me.” His father Isaac said to him, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am your firstborn son, Esau.” Then Isaac trembled violently, and said, “Who was it then that hunted game and brought it to me, and I ate it all before you came, and I have blessed him? Yes, and blessed he shall be!” When Esau heard his father’s words, he cried out with an exceedingly great and bitter cry, and said to his father, “Bless me, me also, father!” … “Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” (Genesis 27:30-34 & 36b, NRSV)

Isaac does eventually bless Esau, but it’s cold comfort compared to the rich blessings showered upon Jacob. This whole story comes from a time when people believed very strongly in the power of words. Once a blessing was spoken aloud it could not be taken back, even if that blessing had been gotten by deceit. It ends up being kind of a sad and unjust story; Esau crying out for his father’s blessing. But this was the way the ancient Israelites explained the origin of the two nations of Israel and Edom. Much of biblical history is filled with the struggles between these two nations, just as today’s papers carry stories of the struggles between Israel and Palestine.

I find this story appealing though, not so much for its historical value as its humanity. For all of his deceit, we can hardly blame Jacob. What’s more important to a child than to receive a Father’s blessing? Maybe that sounds sexist and old-fashioned, but I believe there is a truth here that our politically correct culture would sometimes prefer to ignore. A child needs a father’s blessing.According to traditional stereotypes, the love we receive from mothers differs markedly from that of fathers. Our traditional notions of mother-love are warm and embracing, all-forgiving, all welcoming. Mothers have long been seen as the font of unconditional love and acceptance. No matter what you may have said or done, you would always be welcome in your mother’s arms. On the other hand, the love given by the father often came with very definite strings attached. The father’s love and approval depended more on accomplishments and successes. A father’s blessing wasn’t just given. It had to be earned.

Now obviously, real people don’t divide up neatly into these categories. Men and women, fathers and mothers, often don’t match traditional stereotypes. Mothers can be full of demanding expectations. Fathers can be warm and nurturing. That’s more the way it was in my own family. Isn’t it interesting though, that when this happens we sometimes call it a role reversal, as if that isn’t the way nature intended it to be. But regardless of how parents fulfill these roles, the point is that both conditional and unconditional love play very definite, very important, roles in the raising of healthy children.

Carl Jung, the great psychotherapist, understood these things in a way that has always made good sense to me. He spoke of a masculine principle or energy, which he called the “Animus,” and a feminine principle, the “Anima.” According to Jung, both men and women have both masculine and feminine energies as part of our essential nature. The animus, the masculine energy, is what Jung called the “outer face” for a man; the face we show to the world. The anima, the feminine energy, for men, is usually the inner face, or what he called the shadow; the side of themselves that men normally keep hidden. “Real men” that is! For a woman, conventionally, it would be just the opposite. The feminine is shown to the world and the masculine is more in the shadows.
Of course, these dualistic divisions all seem to be breaking down these days. We all know women who show more of their masculine side and men who have greater access to their feminine side. There was a time, not so long ago, when it was widely believed that as women moved more into politics and the professions, the world would gradually become more feminine, more nurturing, less aggressive. But that’s mostly not what has happened. As women have moved into business and politics, they often become more masculine; more tough, more assertive, more competitive. I know I’m walking on thin ice here, but Jung would have said this is simply an expression of their animus energy coming to the surface in order to succeed in a highly competitive environment. On the other hand, men who choose to stay at home and raise the children, men who choose to be care givers, or pastors, are often softer and more gentle, on the surface at least. The point is not that men and women are locked into particular roles. The point is that conditional love arises from masculine rather than feminine energy, and regardless of the stereotypes, both men and women have it. Men just tend, on average, to show it more.

“Masculinity,” according to Jung, “means to know one’s goal and to do what is necessary to achieve it.” That is why we so desperately strive after a “father’s” blessing. It is the conditions placed on masculine love that drive so many of us to chase after our life’s goals. And, it is the desire to win love and approval from the “masculine” figures in our lives that can keep us from ever being completely satisfied with who we are or what we accomplish. As much as I understand Jacob’s desire to usurp his brother and take his father’s blessing, I find my heart is more greatly moved by Esau when he cries out, “Bless me, me also, father! Have you not reserved a blessing for me?” Is there anyone of us who hasn’t asked that question somewhere along the way? Father, have you not reserved a blessing for me?

I remember a time from my own childhood. My parents used to be involved in a community playhouse in the town where I grew up. My father did a lot of acting and my mother often helped out on the crew. Every year before the start of the season, they would have a clean-up day at the playhouse and our whole family would help out. One year I was left without anything to do, so I joined some kids who were sliding down a nearby hill on pieces of cardboard. This was the southern California equivalent of sledding.

When my father discovered what we were up to he came out and put a stop to our fun, in no uncertain terms. When I asked him why we couldn’t slide down the hill, he said he had a project for me at home that would answer my question. It turned out the project he had in mind was for me to drag out our big family encyclopedia and write a report for him on the subject of “erosion.” My dad was a teacher. He used to get a kick out of these creative punishments. I was mad about it. I didn’t feel I deserved to be punished since I didn’t know about erosion and nobody told me what we were doing was wrong. Eventually though, I settled down to do my report and actually learned something in the process. Afterwards, Dad talked with me about what I had learned. He told me I had done a great job, gave me a hug and sent me on my way. I knew, at the tender age of about 8, that, in a small way, I had earned his respect. I had won my father’s blessing that day, and it felt terrific.

That being said, I don’t think we really like the idea that there should ever be conditions on our love. Unconditional love sounds so much more graceful, accepting and, well, loving. We celebrate the all-encompassing love of God that seeks the lost, that heals, that forgives; the love that sent Jesus, not to condemn the world, but so that the world might be saved. And all of this offered to us without conditions.

David Yantis, a religious folk singer back in my youth, once wrote a song on the subject. He called Unconditional Love.

Unconditional Love. The love God gives to all.
Unconditional love is what the world needs now.
A love accepting others as they are.
Demanding nothing in return.

Now, I used to think that was a really great song. But I’ve come to be troubled by that line, “demanding nothing in return.” I think it’s misleading. Certainly, God’s love is offered to us without price, without preconditions. I believe that God will never withdraw the offering of that love from us. There are no conditions on the offering of God’s love. But we don’t have it simply because God offers it. In order for it to truly be ours, we have to participate in it. We have to live there. And living there means being loving ourselves. It means having the priorities that God has. It means speaking the language that God speaks. So, in fact, there are conditions, on the unconditional love of God. The conditions are that we have to choose it, and we have to practice it.

There’s a wonderful line from the first letter of John that I’m sure you’ve heard before: “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.” And then it says, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” This is a beautiful expression of the conditional and unconditional nature of love. Love is God’s essential state of being, and we are always welcome there. But we cannot live there … if we don’t live there. We can’t be in love, if we are not loving. It’s not that God’s going to take it away from us if we don’t behave. It is simply that we can’t be in love and not in love at the same time.

So, there are conditions. Something is demanded in return. We cannot have the love we long for if we choose to turn our back on the things that make that love possible: integrity, kindness, patience, honesty, self-sacrifice. We cannot have the love we long for if we choose to turn our back on the things that make that love possible. But … we have to learn these things. And in order to learn them, we have to be taught that there are boundaries, lines that we cannot cross, between behavior that is loving and behavior that is not loving, between what is acceptable and what is not. And that’s the job of that masculine energy, the job of the “father;” to teach the child that there are conditions. There are “Rules and Regs,” as my own parents used to say. But it’s a tricky business. Conditional love is a hard lesson to teach without communicating disapproval. Too often, the setting of boundaries can lead to anger and broken relationships.

There is a story told in Spain of a father and his teenage son. Their relationship had become strained and the son ran away from home. The father, however, began a journey in search of his rebellious son. Finally, in Madrid, in a last desperate effort to find him, the father put an ad in the newspaper. The ad read: “Dear Paco, meet me in front of the newspaper office at noon. All is forgiven. I love you. Your father.” The next day at noon, in front of the newspaper office, 800 boys and young men showed up, all named Paco. They were all seeking forgiveness and love from their fathers.

We all have great need for a blessing from the father figures in our lives. The teaching of boundaries is a tricky, sometimes painful, but necessary business. In order to do it well, all of us father types, both male and female, need to remember that we teach conditional love, always and only, for the sake of leading our children to unconditional love.

Happy Father’s Day.
Amen.

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