Overlooking the pearl of great price

Genesis 29

The Jacob story continues with all sorts of customs that are strange to our 21st century, western minds.

You remember from the previous post that Jacob had to escape from home and journey to his foreign relatives.  Today we hear that Jacob reaches his destination.  According to the map, he has walked between 400 and 500 miles.  In terms of Appalachian Trail miles, which is what I am paying attention to lately, that is like walking from Harper’s Ferry WV, through Maryland, past Boiling Springs and the rest of Pennsylvania, and on to the Hudson River in New York.  That’s a long way to walk…the life of one pair of shoes.

Jacob hopes he’s reaching the end when he stops to ask directions of some shepherds at a well.  They point out his cousin Rachel coming to water her father’s sheep.  God has kept God’s promise to keep Jacob safe and all’s well that ends well.  Time to text mom: Arrived safe.  Don’t worry. Love, Jacob.

Or maybe not.  Suddenly the story is off and running again.   Jacob lays eyes on cousin Rachel, and it is love at first sight.  Rachel’s sheep need water.  In order to ensure that everyone in the community gets equal watering rights in a country that is parched, a very large stone is on top of the well’s opening. It takes the strength of several cooperative men to roll the stone off so the herds can be watered.  The shepherds who are present when Jacob arrives are lounging around, waiting for the other shepherds and flocks to get there before they will spare the energy to push the stone away.  Jacob wants to make an impression and be helpful to the lovely Rachel, so the macho showing off begins.  He ignores the shepherds’ custom of waiting, and with a great show of strength he pushes the stone out of the way by himself so Rachel can water her sheep.  Ah, what one will do to impress the beloved!

A month later Jacob has made a deal with Uncle Laban.  He’ll work for seven years without a pay just  so that he can marry Rachel. Time to text mom: In love.  Don’t wait up.  Back in 7 years. Jacob.  Then the narrator concludes this part of the story like a flowery valentine: And 7 years were like a few days, because Jacob loved Rachel so much.

The next part of the story could be titled, “What goes around, comes around.”  Remember how Jacob dressed up like his hairy twin brother Esau in order to trick his blind father into giving him the oldest son’s blessing?  Well now who’s tricking who?  Jacob thinks he is marrying the love of his life, but Uncle Laban has tricked him, helped (we suppose) by lots of feasting, too much wine, the custom of veiled women and no electric lights in the tents.  That’s pretty much the only way we can explain the fact that Jacob wakes up in the morning and finds out that his new wife he has just slept with is the older, less attractive sister Leah!  Jacob laments to Laban, “Why did you do this to me?  We made a deal. We agreed on Rachel!”  (Can you hear echoes of Esau lamenting to dad after Jacob made off with his blessing.  “Dad, don’t you have a little blessing left for me too?”)

Well, in arranging the marriage, sneaky Uncle Laban  conveniently neglected to tell love-struck, birth-right stealer Jacob about the oldest daughter’s birthright….that she must be married off before her younger sister.  Laban gambles that Jacob will stick around to pay off Rachel’s bride price too.  Our story has a twist of  poetic justice; perhaps Jacob gets what he earned.  Meanwhile imagine the text home: Rachel pearl of great price.  Be home in 7 more years.  Jacob. 

But, of course, there is heart-breaking, humiliating tragedy in this uncomfortably patriarchal story: Rachel may be Jacob’s pearl of great price, but Leah is not.  Oldest daughter Leah is only the pawn Laban uses to ensnare Jacob into another seven years free service.  After the bait and switch marriage and a week of Jacob’s obligatory attention, Leah is  promptly ignored by her new husband while he spends most of his time and all of his love on Rachel.  Leah laments.  Yet as our story ends today, the character who has the privilege of being at the heart of God’s concern is not Jacob, not Rachel, but the very one who is  unloved—Leah. God takes notice of Leah and does something about it.

Leah apparently sees enough of Jacob to become pregnant while Rachel remains childless. Leah is the character in the story that has a running conversation with God.  She both laments to God about her loneliness and expresses her hopes to be valued in her marriage every time she has a baby.  So she names her first boy “Reuben, which the bible says means: “The Lord has taken away my sorrow; now my husband will love me.”      When she gives birth to a second boy, she names him Simeon, which means “The Lord has heard that my husband doesn’t love me.”  She gives birth to a third son and names him Levi which means, “Now my husband will hold me close.”  And then she had a fourth son and named him Judah because she said, “I will praise the Lord.”

Rachel was certainly the pearl of great price for Jacob, but Leah was a pearl of great price to God.  God works so that Leah becomes the first matriarch of the sons of Jacob.  Not only that, even though Rachel will eventually give birth to Jacob’s two favorite sons, Leah is the one who is the great-grandmother matriarch of Jesus.  Once again, God treasures and values those who are often overlooked by others.

Move to the 21st century: I am reminded of a story I heard at synod assembly in June.  A village on the coast of south Asia was wiped out by the 2005 tsunami. When Lutheran World Relief got involved, no one in the village could smile and only the men of the village did the talking.  The women remained silent.  While relief aid came to help all get back on their feet, it was realized that the women were often overlooked.  So LWR went to work to help the women of the village start a new business.

Near where they lived was an area good for harvesting crabs. So the women were taught how to fish for the crabs, how to run and maintain the boats, how to do accounting, how to handle a business. They learned how to prepare and ship the crab meat to market.  Yes, the men at first laughed at them learning to handle boats and thought they would never be able to do it on their own.  But the group of women proved them wrong.  The crab business is booming and for the first time in their lives the women are valued in a new way. Now, the whole village, men and women and children have new energy..and the women talk out loud when the village gathers.
I am glad that a tiny portion of our congregation’s offerings goes to LWR and invested in these women, like investing in a pearl great price, giving hope and value to people, like the biblical Leah, who have not been valued before.

Jesus said: “The kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of find pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and  sold all that he had and bought it.”

God has so loved, so valued the world that God gave all…God’s only son…to gain the world.  God values what is lost and overlooked, and that’s what the kingdom of heaven is like.  Jesus’ pearl of great value metaphor keeps expanding.  As we are valued by God like a  pearl of great price, we too want to become part of the kingdom of heaven at work.  So, like the God we are learning to treasure, we begin looking around us too.

Who around us is being overlooked?  Who doesn’t have a voice?  Who is lamenting?  Who is unloved or ignored by the community or the powers that be?  Whoever they are, they are exactly the people that the kingdom of heaven is working to find and value with God’s love in Christ.  Will we search for them?