Genesis 29: 15 – 28
Jacob Marries Laban’s Daughters
15 Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’ 16Now Laban had two daughters; the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. 17Leah’s eyes were lovely, and Rachel was graceful and beautiful. 18Jacob loved Rachel; so he said, ‘I will serve you seven years for your younger daughter Rachel.’ 19Laban said, ‘It is better that I give her to you than that I should give her to any other man; stay with me.’ 20So Jacob served seven years for Rachel, and they seemed to him but a few days because of the love he had for her.
21 Then Jacob said to Laban, ‘Give me my wife that I may go in to her, for my time is completed.’ 22So Laban gathered together all the people of the place, and made a feast. 23But in the evening he took his daughter Leah and brought her to Jacob; and he went in to her. 24(Laban gave his maid Zilpah to his daughter Leah to be her maid.) 25When morning came, it was Leah! And Jacob said to Laban, ‘What is this you have done to me? Did I not serve with you for Rachel? Why then have you deceived me?’ 26Laban said, ‘This is not done in our country—giving the younger before the firstborn. 27Complete the week of this one, and we will give you the other also in return for serving me for another seven years.’ 28Jacob did so, and completed her week; then Laban gave him his daughter Rachel as a wife.
Matthew 13: 31 – 33, 44 – 52
The Parable of the Mustard Seed
31 He put before them another parable: ‘The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; 32it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.’
The Parable of the Yeast
33 He told them another parable: ‘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.’
44 ‘The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.
45 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; 46on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.
47 ‘Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was thrown into the sea and caught fish of every kind; 48when it was full, they drew it ashore, sat down, and put the good into baskets but threw out the bad. 49So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous 50and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Treasures New and Old
51 ‘Have you understood all this?’ They answered, ‘Yes.’ 52And he said to them, ‘Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like the master of a household who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.’ 53When Jesus had finished these parables, he left that place.
One of the things I enjoy about getting out into the secular world is chatting to people who have no idea I’m a priest. Why’s that? They don’t filter their conversation and you get the unmitigated version of what’s going on in their lives.
Perhaps it’s because it’s the end of the financial year for some businesses right now but there are a lot of people under pressure out there. You might be one of them.
Frequently I listen to people describing the pressure they are under in terms of technicalities: looming deadlines, inefficient systems, poor supply chain issues, unexpected cost overruns, unforeseen changes in the state of the market etc.
However, one also picks up (and I well remember this from my years in development banking) that good management practices go a very long way to sorting these problems out.
That’s because at the heart of nearly every apparently technical problem, is a people problem. When people are under pressure they tend to lash out at other people without realising the damage they are causing.
But there is another kind of people problem in human relationships that is illustrated all too well in the person of Jacob’s uncle Laban from the account in Genesis 29 and that still bedevils humankind.
Just before our reading which began at verse 15, we read in verse 13: When Laban heard the news about his sister’s son Jacob, he ran to meet him; he embraced him and kissed him, and brought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, 14and Laban said to him, ‘Surely you are my bone and my flesh!’
What a welcome! And how flattering! Jacob’s uncle has claimed identity with him. It wouldn’t surprise me if at this point Jacob was beginning to think, ‘This man treats me as an equal. My parents never did that. In fact my father prefers my brother Esau to me. What a great guy my uncle is!’
Then in verse 15: Then Laban said to Jacob, ‘Because you are my kinsman, should you therefore serve me for nothing? Tell me, what shall your wages be?’
‘You’re my kinsman, no ordinary refugee. You shouldn’t work for nothing. Name your wages!’
‘My goodness me! I can decide what he’ll pay me?’
Poor naïve Jacob. He has no idea he is being groomed. He’s manipulated his brother Esau his whole life but he’s more than met his match here. He’s met the stage manager, the control freak, the arch deceiver and he’s being drawn within range of the spider little by little.
‘Name my wages?’ and Jacob goes all the way. He’s not shy. ‘May I have your daughter, Rachel?’ You see, the moment he says this he feels beholden, he feels like he owes Laban big time and he blurts out, ‘I’ll serve you for seven years for her!’
He’s playing right into the taker’s hands. Laban knows exactly what he’s doing and suddenly his tone changes. ‘Yeah. Okay. Rather you than some other man. Stay with me.’ End of conversation.
‘Boy. I have you right where I want you, and wait until the seven years is over. Have I got a surprise for you then!’ He’s got what he wants and it’s like taking candy from a kid, as they say.
Well, we know what happens. When the seven years is up Laban under cover of darkness, marries Jacob to Leah, not Rachel. When Jacob complains, the stage manager emerges and interprets reality for him. ‘This is how it’s done in this country. The younger can’t marry before the older. Work for me for another seven years and you can have Rachel.’
Have you met people like this? The circumstances of the relationship are introduced in glowing terms. There are hints of great promise. This buys your co-operation. But all the time you pay dearly for any benefits. You are made to feel as though you owe the person something and this is used, often in tandem with a withdrawal of approval, to keep you giving and giving.
When the promises are not forthcoming, the terms around which you engage are changed and gradually it dawns on you that you are doing all the giving and none of the getting. Eventually you find that in encounters with the person you come away drained and lacking peace.
As Rob Bell says, “Some people are toxic. They are energy-draining.” And he was speaking of Christians.
I hear modern versions of stories like this all the time.
This is sometimes known as the succubus stereotype. An encounter which should be positive and pleasurable is in fact negative and demeaning, ultimately draining.
Who knows what hurts Laban had experienced in his earlier life that he felt the need so thoroughly to control his environment, so completely to focus on his own narrow needs to the exclusion of others’ needs, so craftily to manipulate the people around him to get what he wanted.
One thing is for sure. If Jacob had had any dreamy optimism about the family into which he married, it was now gone. He was thoroughly used, and it was only God’s intervention that enabled him to escape with more than the clothes on his back and with his wives and children.
Perhaps you have had your hopes disappointed like this? Perhaps you have had your career aspirations violated like this. Perhaps you have had your dreams tainted like this.
It could be an unfaithful spouse, a subtly abusive employer or business partner, an exploitative relative, someone in authority you trusted. The Labans of this world do not advertise their machinations. Far from it. Like the trapdoor spider camouflage is important and people are taken in before they realise it.
Jacob eventually managed to run away. Fortunately he had God’s help and Esau’s forgiveness, and he was restored to his home, his country and God’s purposes for him.
Jacob took his chance when he could, but sometimes you can’t flee. What then? Proverbs 26: 11 says As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly. Manipulators are seldom cured. They are like a dog returning to its vomit. They keep repeating their behaviour. That means you need some strategies for dealing with people like this.
The very first response of a Christian is forgiveness. Yes, even if there is no repentance, no acknowledgement of culpability. You forgive. And you know why? Forgiveness is for your benefit, not theirs. They couldn’t give a monkey’s. Their consciences are seared. A lack of forgiveness will destroy you. Jesus in fact implies in the Lord’s Prayer that unless we forgive, we will not be forgiven. It’s a big deal.
Forgiveness needs to be specific and it needs to be thorough. It is a kind of death, but it leads to resurrection. It leads to freedom.
The second response is to realise that we have a right to put boundaries in place. God does not expect you to be abused by anybody for their own benefit, no matter who they are. It may be difficult, but we need to make clear that certain forms of behaviour are not acceptable.
Proverbs 4: 23 says Guard your heart for out of it are the issues of life. If you are to love your neighbour as you love yourself, you need at the very least to look after yourself.
Jacob and Laban erected a cairn and agreed: I stay this side of it and you so that side of it. Boundaries are important.
The third thing is you need to adjust your perspective. What do I mean by that? Well, when your dreams have been tainted, your career quashed, your aspirations frustrated, the natural thing is to push back – to fight.
How many people do you know who have had a set-back and have later said, ‘You know, it actually turned out for the best that that happened.’ We don’t fight as Christians. We take things to Jesus. We take them to the cross. They get crucified right there with us as we are busy forgiving and as we acknowledge that the way we wanted things to be, is no longer.
We may have wanted something instant and big, but God says ‘No. Start with a mustard seed. It will grow eventually into one of the largest of plants.’
We might want to implement great change, and we have a clear vision of what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it. But God says ‘Try starting with some yeast. Eventually the whole loaf will be leavened.’
We might know exactly how much we’re prepared to invest in order to realise our goal, but God says, ‘If you want that treasure it will cost you everything you have. How important is the Kingdom of God to you?’
You might want to expose the person who has made your life miserable, but God says, ‘That’s not your job. Every fish is in the net. The angels will do the sorting at the end of time.’
You see the Law of Moses gives us a clear indication that there is right and there is wrong, and it is wrong to manipulate people. The old law still holds in this regard.
But the new law says ’Love. Love your neighbours, love your enemies, love your friends and family.’
This is what the Kingdom of God is like, and with God’s help we will examine ourselves to make sure we do not manipulate other people, especially those we claim to love. We need to realise that our Western system is as faulty as any other system and built upon self-interest.
And with God’s help we will forgive those who have manipulated us for their own selfish ends. We will look after ourselves by maintaining appropriate boundaries with manipulative people and we will adjust our own driven ambitions, submit to God as we realise there is nothing more important than the Kingdom. It is worth giving everything to achieve it.
A final word. The thing that kept Jacob going was the call of God on his life. God had promised him the blessings of Abraham and they were substantial.
If you are a Christian, you are called by God. God has something for you to do.
Circumstances may have battered you around a bit. They certainly did Jacob, but when God grabbed hold of him in that famous wrestling match you’ve no doubt heard of before, he would not let go until God had blessed him.
Persevere in your calling, whatever it may be. God has an uncanny ability to turn suffering into blessing. Investing everything we are in the Kingdom of God is the most worthwhile thing we can do.
God bless you