by Ellen Sims
texts: Genesis 28: 10-22; Matthew 13:24-30
The Bible speaks powerfully through parables and dreams. Many want to use the Bible as a spiritual GPS device for navigating life or as an answer book for all questions. But today’s story about a ladder to heaven and our parable about the wheat and the weeds disrupt easy categories and push us into a field of ambiguity and toward a deeper faith.
The Bible describes more than prescribes. It was not written as a morality tale that concludes with “And the moral of the story is . . . .” Nor does it feature an obvious hero in each story. The Bible is, like life, populated with people who are both deeply flawed and heroic at the same time; it’s filled with situations where there’s no perfect solution or simple answer.
That doesn’t mean we can make the Bible say anything we want it to say. Nor does it mean we should over-correct biblical literalism by squeezing the mystery of God out of Holy Writ.
Instead, we approach a story like Jacob’s fantastic dream of a “stairway to heaven” with awareness that either exegetical extreme can violate the text. We might try to literalize the story to the point of insisting that God speaks to us in an audible voice, or that God made special promises to the descendants of Jacob over and above all other people. But we move beyond the Bible’s purpose when, for instance, some Christians in recent years misapply the story of Jacob’s blessing to turn the Jewish people into their lucky rabbit’s foot. These Christians believe that because the Bible says God promised special things to Abraham’s descendants, then God will bless them, too, if they side with Israel in terms of global politics–even though these same Christians think the Jews will eventually go to hell unless they claim Jesus as Lord.
On the other hand, we might err by over-intellectualizing Jacob’s story of an encounter with the Sacred. For instance, it’s tempting for liberals simply to psychologize the dream of Jacob for insights into human behavior. Or to approach this Jacob story only as ancient mythology to examine for its artistry and archetypal themes, thus missing the power it has to reach us at a soul-deep level.
But what if we read this story in a way that engages head and heart and spirit? What if we listen for God in these texts with commitment to use good scholarship, yes, but with humility about our ability to understand it fully and with an expectation that we just might, like many before us, encounter something of the divine in the process? After we emerge from the experience of this biblical story, we progressive Christians might even be able to speak words attributed to Jacob: “Surely the LORD is in this place/story—and I did not know it!”
Jacob’s story about a sacred place is itself a sacred place. The destabilizing nature of narratives gets us off kilter, taking us to a place where some new truth sneaks up on us when our guard is down. We have within the pages of scripture the kind of stories that we THINK we understand but can’t really pin down.
For instance, Jacob’s story, like that ladder it describes, can’t be classified as either earthly or heavenly. It defies the binaries, which is something queer theology is teaching us to do. LGBTQ theologians are challenging all of us to question the simplistic either/or categories we’d assumed were givens: male/female; straight/gay. Maybe we can read the story about Jacob’s dreamed-up ladder to defy both conservative and liberal interpretations, to engage both head and heart, to care about what it meant to its first hearers and what it might mean to those living in a very different time–all the while expecting that the God who inhabits this text is working in our lives even today.
The story of Jacob’s dream is set in what Celtic Christians call a liminal space and time, a “thin place” where the line between sacred and ordinary, the now and the eternal, is permeable. The story begins just as the sun sets, as the line between day and night is crossed. Then Jacob dreams and we wonder: is this reality or not? Into Jacob’s dream the Lord appears. Jacob hears God affirming how special he is and making unconditional promises. “Jacob,” says the Lord, “I’m giving you this land. I’m promising you countless descendants to cover the earth. I’ll protect you always.”
Wow, God must think Jacob is trustworthy and good, we might assume at this point. But we’ve earlier seen Jacob lie and cheat. Remember? Jacob, the younger twin of Isaac and Rebecca, stole his brother Esau’s birthright, as we read last Sunday, and is now on the run lest Esau kill him. Jacob left with nothing. And he has nowhere to go. And he can’t return home. So he finds himself in a liminal, dangerous space, neither residing in his former place nor entering yet into a new space. Of course he would dream of a ladder between heaven and earth where angels, the denizens of dreams, keep moving up and down but are neither here nor there.
Inside that dream of restlessness and ambiguity Jacob hears God’s gracious promise of blessing. And what does Jacob the desperate reply to God’s saving words? “Hmm. We’ll, Lord, if you really do end up delivering on the promises you just made, then I’ll take you as my god, and from the assets you promised, hey, I’ll give . . . 10% back to you.”
It’s hard to get a moral foothold in this story. Jacob is a slippery character. He’s is a dirty deal maker. He tricked his brother into giving up his birthright. And now Jacob has made a deal with God in which it seems Jacob has gotten the upper hand.
How are we supposed to feel toward Jacob? We might celebrate him as the younger brother who rises above his station in life. We can admire the way he outwits others. The original tellers of this story who were on the low rung of life’s ladder surely cheered him on as the underdog. You and I at least have to recognize God seems to be on his side.
Except it’s Jacob the deceiver who dreams up the dream where God promises to bless him and his future children. Do you see how the story can fall in on itself? The story invites us to not quite trust the story. And within Jacob’s dream is that liminal ladder touching both earth and heaven where the angels never settle into a particular place and position. That ladder is neither of this world nor entirely of another realm. It’s that line both demarcating and connecting the sacred and the ordinary. The angels moving up and down, up and down, might signal how our perspectives shift, how our feelings vacillate, and how our understandings of this story can’t be permanently pinned down. Which is why we keep returning to it to see something new each time. It keeps working on us.
Not much in life is purely right or entirely wrong. Certainly we need to take moral positions. But life has to be interpreted. Like a dream. And we might get it wrong. Certitude that the world offers black and white choices is for children. Awareness of our fallibility can tempt us to paralysis. Somehow we have to navigate between those extremes to live in a world where we meet people like Jacob, where we might be Jacob.
But this story is ultimately not about how we judge Jacob or ourselves or our beautiful and dangerous world. Ultimately this is a story about God. Independent of what deal Jacob thinks he’s brokering, God will be God. And the appearance God makes to a scoundrel on the run reveals a God who encompasses both heaven and earth and appears to the desperate and undeserving to assure Jacob he’s not alone. Throughout the biblical story this God will say, “I am with you.” The Psalmist will say back to this same God, “I will not fear, for thou art with me.” This God we meet in Jesus is, according to Matthew, named Emmanuel, “God with us.” In Paul’s letter to the Romans we continue to recognize this God about whom Paul says, “For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, or principalities, nor things present nor things to come nor powers not height nor depth nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:38-39). (1) God claims us. God is with us. Which is as simple as it is incomprehensible.
Like the parables of Jesus. A parable is NOT an allegory where everything in the story represents something else to make a moral point. People have tried to the read Jesus’s parables like that—or like a fable that ends with a stated moral. They don’t work that way. Many now believe Jesus used parables more like “discussion-starters” (2). Only a few did Jesus explain—last Sunday’s story of the seed that fell on different soils being one rare example. Today’s Gospel text is another parable about seeds—some becoming weeds, other wheat. It’s a cryptic story that seems to confirms how hard it is to tease out the good from the bad–in a political party, a person, a parable. You and I are an admixture of weed and wheat that have grown up together in us. How do we separate the two? How do we remove the bad without eliminating the good in the process? For every strength we have, theirs is a shadow side to that very strength. Confidence can become cockiness, for example. Jesus’s parable might be recognizing those character traits exist together on a spectrum. The bad sometimes can’t be eliminated entirely without sacrificing the other. Not while they are still growing. But at harvest time – with an ultimate perspective you and I don’t have—the good can be prized and the bad extinguished. Ultimately, what is good will be what lasts.
In the meantime, our spiritual journey is marked by messiness. But we at least can grow more comfortable with discomfort. Early in our faith journey we want to ignore experiences that don’t fit neatly into our binary categories. But as we mature spiritually, we break open the categories and embrace paradox.
In 1981 James Fowler attempted to describe six stages of faith development adapted from Piaget’s research on human cognitive development and Eric Erickson’s model of human psychological development. Fowler believed a growing acceptance of ambiguity was a marker of maturing faith.
The last faith stage is quite rare. Some religions call this final stage “enlightenment.” Those who attain this kind of faith have outgrown the categories of religion and believe that the Ultimate includes all beings. Because people at this stage are often seen as subversive, these rare individuals often die at the hands of those threatened by their efforts for justice and compassion. For them life is both loved fervently and held loosely, and their compelling vision of this world is contagious.
Jesus held such a vision. Sometimes we get a glimpse of it, too. When we do, we can say, with Jacob, “Surely the Lord has been in this place.”
O God, your son Jesus lived a liminal life and died at the hands of those who could not understand his outside-the-box thinking. May we journey with you in the ups and downs, from certainty to uncertainty, with appreciation for ambiguity, and into a fuller faith. We pray in the name of Jesus the Christ. Amen
(1) Brueggemann, Walter. Genesis, Interpretation: A Bible-Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1982) 244-248.
(2) Herzog, William R. Parables as Subversive Speech: Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed. ( Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994) 261.
(3) Fowler, James. Stages of Faith Development. http://www.psychologycharts.com/james-fowler-stages-of-faith.html