Day 18: Bringing Good out of Evil
Illustration: Juliana Crownover
For the very sure and lively Christian faith is not only to believe all things of God which are contained in holy Scripture but also is an earnest trust and confidence in God that he regards us and has care for us as the father of the child whom he loves and that he will be merciful to us for his only Son’s sake and that we have our Savior Christ as our perpetual advocate and priest, in whose only merits, oblation and suffering we put our trust that our offences might be continually washed and purged whenever we, repenting truly, do return to him with our whole heart, steadfastly determining within ourselves through his grace to obey and serve him in keeping his commandments and never to turn back again to sin. Such is the true faith that Scripture commends. [i]
Thomas Cranmer (d. 1556), Archbishop of Canterbury
We pray, O God and Heavenly Father that you might look down upon the hearty desires of your humble servants. Stretch forth the right hand of your majesty to be our defense against all our enemies, both within and without, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, one God, forever and ever. Amen.
Old Testament Lesson
This is the story of how Jacob cheated Esau out of his rightful inheritance. Isaac is about to die, so he employs a kind of sacramental meal to pass along his blessing to his older son, Esau. However, when Jacob and Esau were born, a strange prophecy came along with their births that “the elder shall serve the younger” (Gen 25.23). Thus God is using the sinful actions of Jacob in this story to unfold his plan to bless the world. Rebekah rationalizes her treachery by reasoning that since Esau and Jacob were born as twins it is unfair that Jacob, her favorite son, should be cheated out of part of the inheritance.[ii] Early interpreters struggled mightily with this passage because of the clear treachery on Jacob and Rebekah’s part. How do we explain why God appoints Patriarchs with such lousy character to bring blessing to the world? Yet what is central is not the passing down of material goods through the blessing (most of which Jacob will lose when he flees), but the need to pass down a spiritual legacy as well. The sin which has come into the world complicates Isaac’s desire to pass along a spiritual inheritance to the next generation, something which will plague Jacob’s offspring as well. Although God uses it for good, sin has greatly complicated human relationships.
6Then Rebekah spoke to Jacob, her son, saying, “Look, I have overheard your father speaking with Esau, your brother. He said, 7‘Bring me some game and prepare some savory food for me that I might eat it and bless you in the presence of the LORD before I pass away!’ 8Now, my son, listen to my voice and do just what I command you. 9Go to the sheep flock and take from it two of the choicest female goats that I might prepare some savory food for your father like he loves. 10Then you’ll go to your father and he will eat it in order that he might bless you before he dies.”
11Then Jacob said to Rebekah, his mother, “Well, Esau my brother is a hairy man but I am a smooth-skinned man. 12Perhaps my father will feel me and it will be like I am mocking him.” 13So his mother said to him, “My son, your curse will fall on me. Come on, listen to my voice and go get them for me.” 14So he went and got them and brought them back to his mother. And she prepared a savory meal, just the way his father loved it. 15And Rebekah got Esau’s best finery which was with her in the house and she put it on Jacob, her youngest son. 16She covered his hands and the smooth surface of his neck with the skins of the young female goats. 17She also placed the savory meal and the skins which she had prepared into the hand of Jacob, her son.
18Then he brought it to his father and said, “My father.” And he said, “Over here, who are you my son?” 19And Jacob said to his father, “I am Esau, your firstborn. I’ve done just as you told me. Now sit up and eat some of the game that I prepared for you so you can bless me.” 20Then Isaac said to his son, “How on earth did you find it so fast, my son?” And he said “Because the LORD your God brought me good fortune.” 21Then Isaac said to Jacob, “Please come closer that I might feel you, my son. I want to know, is this one Esau, my son, or another?” 22So Jacob drew near to Isaac his father and he felt him and said to himself, “The voice is the voice of Jacob, but the hands are the hands of Esau.” But he did not recognize him because his hands were hairy like Esau, his brother. Then Isaac blessed him.
24Then he said, “Is this really my son Esau?” “I am.” 25And Isaac said, “Draw near to me so that I might eat from the game of my son. Then I’ll bless you.” So Jacob came near to him and he ate, and Jacob brought him wine and he drank. 26And Isaac said, “Come near me and kiss me, my son.” 27So he drew near and he kissed him and Isaac smelled the odor of his garments. Then he blessed him and said, “See, my son smells like the smell of the field which the LORD has blessed. 28And may God give you from the dew of the skies, and from the fat of the earth an abundance of grain and new wine. 29May people serve you and bow down to you. Be mightier than your brothers that the sons of your mother may bow down to you. May those who curse you be cursed and may those who bless you be blessed.”
30So it happened, just as Isaac finished blessing Jacob, that Jacob went out from the presence of Isaac as Esau his brother came in from his hunting. 31And he also prepared some savory food and brought it to his father and said to his father, “Sit up and eat from your oldest son’s game so that you might bless me.” 32And Isaac his father said, “Who are you?” And he said, “I am your oldest son, Esau.” 33Then Isaac began to tremble ferociously and said, “Then who else hunted game and brought it to me? I ate all of it before you came in and I also blessed him. He will also be blessed.”
34When Esau heard the words of his father, he cried out loudly with exceeding bitterness and said to his father, “Bless me also, my father!” 35 And Isaac said, “Your brother came in deceitfully and took your blessing.” 36And Esau said, “No wonder his name is Jacob. He’s made me stumble twice. He took away my birthright and now he’s taken away my blessing. Have you not laid aside a blessing for me?”
37Isaac answered and said, “Look, I have made him master over you and all your brothers. I have given him the servants. And I have supported him with grain and new wine. What else can I do, my son?” 38So Esau said to his father, “Is there only one blessing in you, my father? Father, bless me too!” And Esau lifted up his voice and wailed. 39Isaac his father answered and said to him, “Look, your abode will be outside the fatness of the earth and from the dew of the skies above.”
New Testament Lesson
The famous parable of the Prodigal Son comes immediately after two other parables discussing the joy that occurs when the lost are found. Thus this is a parable about the salvation available to those who are penitent. In the ancient Near East, a landowning Jewish male would never run to greet anyone. It was thought to be beneath his dignity. Yet, in an apparent break of protocol, the father runs to greet his son. Jesus wants us to have this picture of the Father, one with boundless love and compassion, as he runs to greet us if we’ll return to him. Much recent discussion has focused on the second son who reacts with dismay at the return of his brother, seeing the rejoicing as unseemly because of his brother’s unfaithfulness. Thus lurks within all of us the tendency toward selfishness and legalism that calls upon God to issue judgment against others but cares little about their redemption. Just like the father in the parable, God loves us even before we repent.[iii] In fact, it’s His Divine love that makes our repentance even possible.[iv]
11Then Jesus said, “There was a certain man who had two sons. 12And the younger son said to his father, ‘Father, give me my portion of the estate that is scheduled to belong to me.’ So he divided the assets among them. 13And after a few days, the younger son gathered together everything and left for a faraway land and there he blew his estate living wastefully. 14Now, when everything was spent, a terrible famine came upon that land and he began to be in need. 15So, going out, he attached himself to one of the leading citizens of that land and he sent him into his fields to feed the swine. 16And he was longing to eat from the pods that the swine ate, yet no one gave him any.
17But he came to himself and thought, how many of my father’s hired hands have an abundance of bread? But here I am starving to death. 18I’ll just get up and go to my father and I’ll tell him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you, 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Just treat me like one of your hired hands.’
20So he arose and went to his own father. But while he was still afar off, his father saw him and took pity. Running, he hugged him and kissed him. 21And his son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22And his father said to his servant, ‘Hurry, bring the best robe and put it on him. And put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23And bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s eat and be merry 24since my son who was dead has come to life, who was lost has been found.’
25Now the older son was in the field. And while he was coming, he drew near the house and heard the music and the singers. 26Calling one of the household slaves over, he asked what was going on. 27And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come and your father has killed the fattened calf since he has returned safe and sound.’ 28So he became angry and did not want to go in. And his father came out and entreated him. 29So he answered and said to his father, ‘Look, all these years I serve you and never once have I disobeyed an order. And you never gave me anything, even a young goat.’ 31And his father said, ‘Child, you are always with me and everything of mine is yours. 32It’s good to be glad and rejoice since your brother who was dead and lost has been found.’”
Questions for Reflection
- What was (is) your family like growing up? Was your human father distant, angry or abusive? Was he warm, loving and affectionate? How does your view of God correlate to your view of your own human father?
- Do you have siblings who “stole your blessing”? Are you close to your siblings? With which character in the story about Jacob and Esau do you most identify?
- In what way have you departed from your heavenly Father to engage in riotous living? Are you at the point where you can see that the allures of culture and the world cannot bring you lasting happiness? If not, why not? How do you see it?
- With which character do you most identify in the story of the Prodigal Son? Are you the older brother, incensed that your screw-up younger sibling was being shown mercy? Are you the younger son who took off? Are you the father, full of forgiveness, mercy and compassion?
Reflection by Kevin Dodge (email)
The most powerful word in our lessons today is one we often hastily pass over – the word “afar.” The brothers plot Joseph’s demise while we was “still afar off.” By contrast, the father sees the Prodigal Son while he is far away and runs to greet him. “Afar off” is where we are. We are estranged from God because of our sin. Yet the great mystery of the Gospel is that God has brought us to himself through his redeeming work on the cross (Eph 2.17).
At the end of the story of Joseph and his brothers in Genesis, Joseph says the following to his brothers who had maliciously sold him into slavery: “As for you, you devised evil against me; but God reckoned it for good in order to give life to many” (Gen 50.20). As we have discussed in prior lessons, sin has ruptured God’s creation. It has destroyed relationships. It has also fundamentally injured the covenant relationship between God and his people. Our world, our communities, our churches and our families are all deeply impacted.
Yet the great mystery is that God is able to bring great good out of this rupture in his creation. God’s plans are not thwarted by our unfaithfulness. He uses evil acts, even injustice and deprivation, to bring about the outcomes he desires.
However, we have to be careful in asserting this. Just because God brings good from evil doesn’t give us an excuse to stop our efforts to work to improve ourselves and our societies. Homelessness, hunger and hopelessness are all things we should work to end or at least ameliorate. In fact, at the point when we are suffering from injustice or evil or pain, there doesn’t seem to be much good in it at all. When someone loses a child, it would be wholly inappropriate to comfort that person by reminding her that God brings good out of bad because there is nothing good about the death of a child.
There is also a danger in becoming complacent about sin, reasoning that God gets what he wants anyway. But this is faulty logic because what God really wants—what he asserts is his express will – is for “all human beings to be saved and to come to a thorough understanding of the truth” (1 Tim 2.4). The rupture sin has caused in our lives and in our society is not something to be complacent about at all.
The common element in both our lessons today is a younger person’s betrayal of his father. Jacob takes advantage of Isaac’s old age and poor eyesight to steal the blessing meant for Esau. The Prodigal Son runs off and blows his inheritance on wine, women and song. Both would experience terrible deprivation and pain in their lives because of their actions. They would also injure their families and their communities.
But, even worse, they pass along to the next generation the same rebellious traits. As the book of Genesis recounts, Jacob’s children would hardly turn out to be models of good behavior. The Prodigal Son causes division within his family. Is it any wonder that child abuse, alcoholism and anger run in families? It is very hard to break such cycles, and the depressing thing about the Church – supposedly the repository of God’s grace and mercy — is that it seems only marginally successful at shattering these chains of sin and addiction in people’s lives. Change is hard, so the cliché goes, but in dysfunctional families and churches change can become impossible.
But the great mystery is that God still loves us with an extraordinary, boundless love. If we come to the point where we’re able to get a sense of the depth of our offense against God because of our sin, it makes His love all the more sweet and surprising. Few of us allow ourselves to be put upon like God does. He loves us with an unfathomable depth of affection and tenderness despite our wickedness.
Thus it is very important not to picture God as some ogre sitting up in heaven tallying up our every fault, angrily waiting to condemn most of humanity to eternal punishment. The picture of the Father Jesus provides is more like the father of the Prodigal Son, waiting with open arms and a generous heart despite the great hurt inflicted by his son. God’s love is what turns our evil to good. God’s love welcomes us back home.
- Keep the Commandments
One of the Ten Commandments tell us to “honor your father and mother.” If your parents are still alive, call them up and ask them to recount their perspective on how difficult you were to raise. Thank them for their patience and seek their forgiveness for any injuries you have caused.
[i] Thomas Cranmer, “Homily on Faith,” in The Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox (Cambridge: Parker Society, 1846), 136.
[ii] Claus Westermann, Genesis 12-36, Continental Commentary (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1995), 438.
[iii] Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV:, Anchor Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale Press, 1985), 1086.