The Eighth Sunday after Trinity
30th July 2023
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
It’s hard to know where to start with today’s Old Testament reading. I suppose the first thing to say is that it illustrates once again why monogamy is a good thing! What isn’t obvious from today’s passage, but will become important as we move on through Genesis, is that the little family difficulties in the more well-known story of Joseph and his brothers have their origins in the Rachel and Leah story. And as many of us will no doubt recognise from our own families, the consequences of wrongdoing in a family context – in this case Laban’s tricking of Jacob – have a tendency to ripple through generations, often with results that are damaging and destructive.
The angle of family dynamics is an interesting one, but today I want to start by coming at this story from another angle. Because this story, and also in a different way the gospel reading, lead us to think about value.
There is the old quip, I think from Oscar Wilde, about a man who knows the price of everything and value of nothing. Perhaps I’m being unfair to Laban, but it’s hard to escape the impression that he values his daughters primarily as a means of extracting labour from Jacob. I imagine that most of us have rather more romantic ideas about marriage, and similarly for most of us the idea of a bride price is offensive, whether paid in money or in labour. And yet, even if we recoil from the transactional nature of the relationships described in today’s Old Testament reading, I suspect that all of us recognise that there is invariably at least a metaphorical price to be paid for love. Sometimes we will use the language of sacrifice. For example, we’ve heard in the news all-too-often recently stories of parents going without food to ensure that their children can eat. And we instinctively recognise that the love that has passed the test of making sacrifices in adversity is something different from the love of those who have only shared good times.
And so perhaps, if we want to be generous to Laban, we could suggest that he is trying to ensure that Jacob is serious enough about Rachel to make sacrifices her – and fourteen years of his life is no small sacrifice. And perhaps, too, Laban is simply anxious that Leah should also be provided for.
But coming back to the family dynamics angle, these thoughts only emphasize the tragedy of Leah’s position: she goes into married life from the start in the knowledge of Jacob’s disappointment, and the sense of being unwanted will haunt her. Rachel, for her part, is able to measure out the extent of Jacob’s love for her in those fourteen years of hard work.
In today’s gospel, Jesus tells several short parables. Two of them have a particular connection with today’s Old Testament reading: the closely-related parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price. In both stories, someone is described not merely working for fourteen years, but selling everything that they have, to secure the object of their desire. Jesus here is throwing down the gauntlet to His disciples, and of course to us too: do we recognise the value of what is offered to us? Are we willing to make sacrifices for His sake? Are we willing as it were to stake everything on this one card?
But like so many of Jesus’ parables, these Parables of the Kingdom can be read in more than one way. The more obvious reading is the one I just described: to understand them as an exhortation to recognise the unsurpassed value of what is offered to us in Jesus Christ, and to be willing to sacrifice everything for the sake of that offer. Another way of reading it – and these two ways are not mutually-exclusive – is to see the protagonists in these parables not as ourselves, but rather as God. God loves each one of us so much that in Jesus He gives everything for our sake: emptying Himself, He takes the form of a slave, becoming obedient to death, even death on a Cross. You are His treasure, you are His pearl of great price, you have been bought at the cost of everything He had to give.
I suppose most of us will find it easy to identify with Leah in one way or another. No doubt we’ve all experienced that sense of being unwanted, that sense of humiliation, of being second best, the one who as it were is just there to make up the numbers. It may have been in those painful rejections of the school playground; it may have been in the many and various humiliations that can come our way in adulthood.
The parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price help us in two ways. The first is to say to us that the rejections and humiliations we experience are because we invest our resources in the wrong things. Even the best that human love has to offer will at times let us down and hurt us. And how often we expend our energies in pursuit of less noble aims than human love. These parables tell us that we should invest our resources rather in God; that following the Lord Jesus places a call on our lives that surpasses every other claim, because the love of the Lord Jesus is a treasure beyond compare, a pearl of great price.
But turning the parables around the other way, there is another important lesson. At those times when with Leah we feel rejected and humiliated, when we feel ourselves to be a disappointment to those around us, when we feel we are only there to make up the numbers, we can remind ourselves that in the Lord’s eyes we are precious.
For Him you are the treasure, you are the pearl, you have been bought at an incalculable price, He has emptied Himself and become obedient to death on the Cross out of love for you.
Rachel could measure out Jacob’s love for her in those fourteen years of labour; you can measure out Jesus’ love for you in His broken body and His blood outpoured and offered once for all upon the Cross, to whom with +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and into ages of ages. Amen.