In the wonderful little tale by fantasy writer, Ursula Le Guin, a bright but undisciplined and self-centred young boy called Sparrowhawk is sent by his poor family to become an apprentice wizard. Sparrowhawk, who possesses a wild magical ability far in excess of his teachers, and an impatient arrogance that prevents him from accepting their discipline, is given the secret wizard-name Ged. In this world knowledge of the true name of a creature or a person gives power, so a magician’s true name is never used. On an impulse, one day Sparrowhawk steals an ancient book from his master and reads out a powerful spell that – even though, or perhaps because he doesn’t perform the magic correctly, releases a destructive shadowy force into the world. The remainder of the story, as Sparrowhawk slowly and painfully learns to accept the discipline and acquire the humility that comes with responsibility and maturity, he is haunted by the memory and the destructive side effects of his youthful folly. The good that the young man tries to do as a trained magician and protector of his village goes awry. Wherever he goes and whatever he tries to accomplish Sparrowhawk is pursued by his nemesis who wreaks terrible destruction. Eventually the young magician realises he must devote the rest of his life to hunting down and destroying the evil he let loose in the world. He pursues the creature over land and sea, always one step behind, obsessed with his goal – battling the creature and suffering dreadful injuries while the evil he unleashed seems only to grow in strength. Until one day, sailing across the endless ocean, Sparrowhawk encounters the shadowy demon alone. Walking on the water, the magician approaches the evil he created, and – suddenly knowing the one word that will give him the power over his creation he speaks his own name: ‘Ged’. The two incomplete halves then become one, a complete person.
It’s a powerful story, because in a sense it is the story of every one of us. We are divided, the conscious, disciplined side against the unruly side, the rational, reasonable side against the creative, passionate side. We divide our own nature by what we don’t want to recognise in ourselves, and we project – that is to say, we see in other people what we don’t want to own up to in ourselves. And we can spend most of our lives refusing to accept our own unconscious self, what psychologist Karl Jung called the ‘shadow side’ of our own self. Which makes us incomplete, we miss out on half our God-given identity, we come to believe that some aspects of our own selves are unacceptable, uncontrollable, even unspiritual, and we become critical of others who seem to embody the aspects of ourselves we are unable to acknowledge.
In the Gospel story this morning, Jesus tells us about the light and the shadow of our own selves. The weeds are not someone else – the weeds and the wheat are all tangled together, entwined at the very roots inside us, the not-so-neatly categorisable profusion that we call our inner selves, and let’s face it, only God can sort us out. Seems to me sometimes we can’t even tell which parts of ourselves are the good bits. We get it so wrong, sometimes. But the parable tells us that God works with us as we are, weeds and all, God tends and nurtures and loves us as flawed and divided as we are. And the story tells us that God can do we can’t – that in God’s own time the life-giving, healthy and good parts of us will be remembered and gathered into the heart of God, while what is selfish or immature or destructive is forgotten. We can leave that up to God.
Our Old Testament reading from Genesis continues the story of the patriarchs – those deeply human, imperfect men and women through whom we see God’s promises being woven into history. We haven’t read all of the Jacob story so far, which I think is a pity, because the most interesting thing about Jacob – is that Jacob is a ratbag.
Last week we began reading about Jacob and Esau who is his twin brother, everything Jacob isn’t. Think of Jacob as the quiet boy, good at school, always got his head in a book, polite to his mum. Esau would be the footy player, hangs around with the rough kids, always got dirty knees, outside playing with the dog when he should be tidying his room. Something like that. Jacob’s mum dotes on him, sure he’s going to grow up to be a doctor. Esau, she thinks, will probably end up on the dole. Their dad isn’t so sure, he likes Esau’s energy, he loves his wild son who goes out hunting and comes back smelling like the bush. Just don’t make the mistake of thinking that Jacob is the good little boy and that Esau is the one who goes off the rails. Sure, Jacob is more than a bit scared of Esau, who in the way of footy players mutters oafishly about what he’s going to do to Jacob when he catches him. Because Jacob is a manipulative, selfish, nasty piece of work. His name itself means ‘supplanter’ – someone who takes what rightfully belongs to somebody else – and I’d like to say he quickly learns his lesson, but in fact for years yet Jacob is going to be a conniver, getting ahead through sharp practices and making enemies along the way. Esau is the shadow side of Jacob, his twin, everything Jacob isn’t, and much of what he should be, as we’ll find out in due course. Jacob has got a long way to go before he can be reconciled with his own best self.
We missed out the part where Jacob steals Esau’s blessing from his dying father, which is a shame because it’s a good yarn. We already read last week how Jacob tricks his not-so-bright brother out of his birthright. In chapter 28 of Genesis, just before we came in this morning, Jacob’s father Isaac is on his death-bed, old and blind, and in the way of ancient peoples knows he has to pass on his blessing to his eldest son. The understanding was that blessings were indivisible and powerful, dad had just one blessing to give, and it belonged to Esau. Except that Jacob, with mum’s help and connivance, dresses himself up in a hairy goat skin and brings the dying Isaac a meaty dish just like Esau would have done when he got back from hunting, and tricks the suspicious, dying old man into blessing him in the place of his brother. Which means Jacob inherits the lot, and Jacob has what is more important, the blessing of his old man. Esau gets nothing, and as his father tells him before he dies, will have to battle his way through a hostile world.
So today, Jacob the ratbag is on the run. His mum has got him out of town, telling the old man that, now he is the official heir, Jacob is going to have to get himself a suitable bride from back home, not one of these ragamuffin local girls. But this is where we come in. Jacob the liar, the cheat, the out for himself alone, selfish brainy idiot, is out in the middle of nowhere, far from home and far from his destination in the middle of the desert - because he is afraid of his brother. He’s not thinking about anybody else, not even his doting mum, he certainly isn’t thinking about what God wants – an un-person in a no-place, an immoral and irreligious scoundrel, Jacob settles down for the night in the empty, fearful, trackless desert.
Did I mention God loves ratbags?
Ancient people, it seems to me, were wiser than we are about dreams, those insights and hunches and guilty feelings we successfully hold at bay during the rush and bother of day to day that creep in irresistibly in the vulnerability of sleep. The ancients knew that dreams connect us with deeper truths about who we are, and they paid attention to them. Jacob dreams of what our translation of the Bible calls a ladder, more likely something like a ziggurat, one of those steps and stairs Mesopotamian pyramids, with God’s messengers ascending and descending on it. He dreams, in other words, that God’s life is connected to our life, that God is with us wherever we are, even when we are noplace at all, even when we are totally disconnected from everything else, when we have burned all our bridges and alienated everybody and are utterly on our own – God is with us. And he hears God’s promise – this is now the eight time God has repeated the promise of descendants and land and the becoming of a great people – ratbag Jacob in the middle of nowhere with nothing under his head for a pillow except for a rock is the recipient of a divine blessing so beautiful and so absolute that we still read it now and feel reassured. Jacob, the trickster who stole a blessing is told that through him all the nations of the world and all of time will be blessed. Jacob the runaway and refugee from his community’s retribution is told that he is going to be the link between his community’s past and its future.
Jacob responds, when he wakes, in typical fashion. Impressed, he decides this religion idea has got something going for it. The lectionary writers cut him off in mid-sentence, unfortunately, we don’t hear the bit where Jacob says, ‘alright, God, if you do all this for me and so long as you make sure I get rich and prosper, then I’m your man. I’ll even tithe’. The recipient of a blessing that reaches through the centuries and generations, that ripples outwards to embrace the whole family of humankind, Jacob is still out for the main chance, still out for number one, still a ratbag. Jacob has a long way to go yet.
Just as well – just as well for all of us, really – that God sees in us what we can’t see in ourselves. Just as well God loves ratbags.