The Rev. Melanie L. McCarley
Today’s sermon begins with a Disclaimer: The following joke is in no way intended to represent the viewpoint of current management (me) or upper management (God) as relates to the eternal destination of any of the persons mentioned herein (male or female). It is told solely as a means to advance the cause of Holy Writ.
“Richard Nixon dies and goes to hell. A voice tells him to walk down the corridor to meet his fate. So, nervously, he proceeds down the corridor. He comes to the first door and, with trepidation, opens it to find former Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, whom Nixon had defeated for Senate in 1950 by painting her as a closet communist—“pink right down to her underwear” was his signature quip. Nixon nervously asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” replies the voice. So he continues down the hall, stopping at the next door. Peering inside he finds his nemesis, former NY Congresswoman Bella Abzug, the first member of Congress to call for his impeachment. Quavering, Nixon asks, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. Relieved, Nixon presses forward down the corridor. Stopping at the third door, he can scarcely bring himself to open it. When finally he does, to his surprise and relief, there sits the pop star Madonna, lying languorously on a sofa. Nixon chuckles, “Is she my punishment?” “No,” the voice replies. ‘You’re hers.” (1980’s joke Timothy Simpson “The Politics of Choosing a Mate”)
The humor of the joke “works” because it subverts the expectation that the perspective of the man is what’s most important. This is my way of telling you that today’s sermon is not about Jacob—and his shock in discovering that he has married Leah—this, instead, is a sermon about Leah. Because, really—if anyone seems to get the short end of the bargain in today’s story, it is her. Today, I would like to give Leah, her due.
However, in order to get to Leah, we need to begin with Jacob. As you know from previous weeks’ readings, Jacob is not the most upstanding citizen. To date, his story has been steeped in greed, self-interest, scheming and cheating. When we encounter him this morning, he is on the run after cheating his brother out of his birthright as well as the blessing of his father Isaac. In fear for his life, Jacob flees to his kinsman, Laban, in whom he discovers that he has met his scheming match. Laban, you see, has two daughters, Leah, whom the Bible tells us has “lovely eyes” and the incomparable Rachel, with whom Jacob has fallen deeply and irrevocably in love.
Sensing an opportunity for manipulation (remember Laban and Jacob are related; they are two men cut from the same cloth), Laban uses Jacob’s love for Rachel to turn him into an indentured servant. On Jacob’s wedding night his father-in-law swaps out Jacob’s beloved Rachel for her older and less lovely sister, Leah, and then uses Jacob’s undying love to trap his nephew into serving him for an additional seven years.
Yet, perhaps Laban isn’t quite as bad as we might make him out to be. This, after all, is a father with two daughters—and I believe, that as much as he is scheming to get a bounty of free labor from Jacob, the odds are good that Laban is also (in his own way) trying to do right by both Rachel and Leah.
In ancient middle-eastern culture these are the facts of life—if you are a woman: Marriage equals social standing. And, in a polygamous culture, the first wife is the one with the privilege. Leah may lack Rachel’s beauty as well as Jacob’s undying love—but what she receives is a position of respect and honor within her culture. What she lacks, of course, is the opportunity to be the beloved as well as the one with whom our sympathies most naturally lie. That is Rachel’s right. It’s Rachel, with whom it is easy to sympathize—because we’re all on the side of true love—right? Instead, Leah looks like an interloper, hiding behind the veil. In today’s story she’s an unhappy joke played on a hapless lover.
Here’s the reality. Despite sounding much like a soap opera that should come with a “mature audience” rating, God is working through the details—even if the said details do happen to be tawdry and reflective of some of the least commendable qualities in human nature.
How does God do this? Consider what Leah receives. She may be unloved, but she is married. She holds a position of respect in Jacob’s household, and she is the fertile one—the mother of six sons—and a daughter, Dinah. Rachel, to her advantage is the beloved. But she has difficulty conceiving. She has only two sons (Joseph—of the coat of many colors) and Benjamin. As for Jacob—well, he might have had to endure Laban for a father-in-law; yet on the plus side, his life is spared, and, in those 14 years in which he worked for Laban, he became wealthy and respected. With the assistance of his slaves Bilhah and Zilpah Jacob becomes the father of twelve sons who, in turn, are the twelve tribes of Israel.
Now, back to Leah, whose eyes may be lovely, but doesn’t seem to possess the inherent sparkle of Rachel. Leah, whose name in Hebrew means “weary”. Here’s to all those who aren’t chosen first—those who sit in the last chair in the school orchestra or find themselves warming the bench on Junior Varsity soccer. Here’s to those who aren’t asked out every weekend, and those who are the last ones picked for dodge ball.
Here’s to the Leah’s of the world—those who are the second choice of their parents, siblings, supervisors and co-workers. The unattractive, and the unloved. Those who might be part of this group because of their looks or intelligence—and others, who find themselves relegated here as a result of the color of their skin, their sexual orientation, the country of their birth or other factors beyond their control.
Today’s story reminds us that those who might be the second choices of the world are oftentimes the first choice of God. Why? Well, consider this twist to today’s story. The mother of Judah (one of those twelve sons of Jacob)—and therefore the great (many times over) grandmother of Jesus isn’t Rachel, the beautiful and the beloved, but Leah—the weary and the unloved. This story of the Bible reminds us that it isn’t simply individuals of questionable morals such as Jacob and Laban, that God chooses to use for good. God also chooses those who are in second place in the world as God’s first choice to use to bless the world and everything in it. And that is Good News. It’s good news not only for Leah—it’s good news for all of us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.