It seems today everyone has got something to sell.
Online auction and classified advertising sites such as eBay and Craigslist are full of items for sale—all done in order to snag a few extra bucks.
Add to that, the proliferation of ads offering people cash for their gold seems to indicate that people are selling off jewelry, maybe even heirlooms, in order to make it through another day.
Cars, bikes, vacation homes—you name it, and someone is selling it somewhere. Everything seems to have a price, as they say.
But is that really true? Are there some things you’d never sell, under any circumstances?
If your situation became so dire that you were between a rock and a hard place, what would you absolutely hold on to, regardless of how desperate the situation might be.
Of course, we aren’t just talking about material things here— precious family mementos, favorite possessions and the like. We’re not talking about material things because in a fallen world, where sin dehumanizes people into commodities, a lot more than Great-Grandma’s wedding ring is at stake.
For example, selling your children is reprehensible and yet that happens. In many places around the world, the sex trade sells people, many of them children, into slavery on a daily basis.
Selling one’s own body has historically been a response to bad economic conditions, which is why prostitution is known as the “oldest profession.”
Selling illegal drugs puts people at risk of the slavery of addiction.
All of this shows us that human life is now being judged by its dollar value, making it that virtually nothing is off the table.
But some things, we know, should just never be for sale.
Integrity, freedom or love should never have a price tag, and neither should one’s body.
Certainly we can think of more things that should never be on the market today, but in the ancient world, however, there was one item that would have topped the list, one item that actually incorporated not only material things but also a person’s identity as well as their entire future.
That one item was a person’s birthright—and a birthright had infinite value.
The birthright was the special privilege given to the firstborn male.
The birthright’s economic value was, depending on the father’s prosperity, often enough to set up the firstborn son for life because, at his father’s death, the eldest son received a “double portion” of the inheritance, or double what his brothers would get.
The inheritance however, wasn’t just economic. It wasn’t just about the currency in those days which consisted largely of flocks, herds and slaves. It was also about leadership.
Having the birthright meant exercising leadership over the family by replacing the father as the patriarch. The holder of the birthright made the decisions and ruled over the family and its ongoing heritage.
The birthright was designed to ensure the future of the family. Sell it, and you’ve sold away your family’s future.
Our text for today tells us how Isaac’s twin sons were already vying for power as soon as they exited the womb.
The older son, Esau, we learn, would seem to have been the prototypical leader, given the description of him as red and hairy, which can be read as “very manly”.
Jacob, who comes out of the womb holding onto Esau’s heel, was quiet, soft and interested in “living in tents”, which can be read as “in tents with the women.”
As a result, Esau was clearly the favorite of their father Isaac, while Jacob was clearly his mother’s favorite.
These sons of Isaac, Esau and Jacob, could not have been more different, and thus there was a lifelong struggle between them.
Rebekah, their mother, wrestled with the turmoil between them in her womb, so she “went to inquire of the Lord” about her pain of having twins. God told her that the two boys struggling within her would eventually come to embody the struggle between two nations, Israel and Edom, and that their roles would soon be reversed.
God said, “The one shall be stronger than the other, and the elder shall serve the younger.”
We’re not sure if that’s why Jacob, the younger, was her favorite, but later we’ll see that she is more than glad to help this oracle come true!
We also don’t know if Jacob knew about the oracle on that day when he was cooking up a stew, but it’s pretty clear that he was already working on a deal to take advantage of his strong but stupid and impulsive older brother.
The entire story gives the impression that Jacob wasn’t just making stew; he’s selling it!
Jacob knew from experience that his brother was the kind of kid who wouldn’t let his allowance even get warm in his pocket before spending it on the first shiny or sweet thing he saw in the store.
And because he knew this, all Jacob has to do is advertise, post a teaser classified, and Esau will be quick to make a deal.
But really, when it comes to advertising, there was no need for an EBay auction or a Craigslist posting because Esau was “famished” when he came in from the field.
He saw his circumstance as being absolutely desperate, thinking he was “about to die.”
It would seem hard to believe that Esau was that bad off after hunting, but we know that when circumstances are uncomfortable humans have a tendency to exaggerate the effects of what’s causing pain, and they’ll do anything to alleviate that pain, be it real or imagined.
Those with high anxiety usually have poor impulse control and, thus, rely on instant gratification to take away their pain, if only for a moment. Such leads to an all-or-nothing way of thinking that amplifies even the smallest inconvenience into a life-or-death crisis.
Today’s effective marketing plays on that anxiety and can cause us to believe that our lives without this product or that service will be diminished at best and threatened at worst.
Impulsively reacting to all the way we are famished is the fastest route to bankruptcy of both wallet and spirit.
Jacob times his effective marketing plan perfectly.
You can almost see him pausing long enough to let the aroma of the stew make Esau just a little crazier.
Finally he says, “I’ll be glad to give you some of this ‘red stuff,’ but first you need to sell me your birthright.”
Jacob knows that the value of a bowl of soup and the value of one’s whole economic, social and familial future aren’t equal, but he also knows that Esau, blinded as he always is by anxiety, doesn’t see it that way.
Esau’s willing to mortgage everything he could possibly become simply to have a taste of stew that he had probably had many times before. His stomach rules over his brain, and he sells his future for nothing.
Jacob even gives him a minute to think about it, asking Esau to “swear” to the deal.
And of course, Esau signs on the dotted line and eats perhaps the most expensive bowl of soup in the history of humanity.
This isn’t the last time that Jacob will dupe his older brother.
Later, he will also cheat Esau out of their father Isaac’s “blessing,” which is essentially the patriarch’s last will and testament and charge to his successor.
Jacob, with their mother Rebekah’s help, deceptively, but in a legally binding way, seals the deal that was originally struck at the soup bowl.
Is Jacob culpable here for duping his lummox of an older brother?
The Bible doesn’t make a value judgment on Jacob’s actions at this point, but no doubt Jacob seems to have sold his integrity to gain wealth and power.
Both brothers are guilty of selling out in one way or another.
This story is a lesson to us that some things should just never be for sale and that one impulsive decision, made amid an anxious circumstance, can have devastating ramifications for the future.
We all have seen countless examples of how this story gets repeated throughout history and in our own communities:
The respected leader who sells away his or her career and family for the momentary pleasure of an illicit affair.
The businessperson who compromises his or her integrity by pocketing huge profits at the expense of fair wages and treatment of the company’s employees.
The teenager who wrecks his or her future by dabbling in drugs just because “everyone else is doing it.”
The driver who gets behind the wheel after an evening of drinking and takes a life in a crash.
These are just a few examples. We can surely think of more.
Why do we do this? Why do we sell out so much for so little?
Well, sometimes we just want the pain to stop. Sometimes we just want, or even need to feel good.
But our impulse in such moments, more often than not, leads to more pain, or the momentary goodness is quickly replaced with regret and shame.
But the source of this is the realism that too often we sell out because we sell ourselves short.
We have convinced ourselves that we can’t get any better so we might as well get what we can.
But the truth is we are valued by God and blessed by God, and because we are, we have inherent value regardless of what we own, what our circumstances might be—regardless of how we see ourselves.
And because we do, we need to ask ourselves, do we allow God to determine our value, or do we let circumstance, anxiety, being “famished” for whatever we desire determine who we are?
Have we fully given ourselves to our God who created us and cares for us, or are we still willing to sell ourselves so cheaply to things that don’t matter and things that may ultimately harm us?
Despite the deception and stupidity in this story, God is still able to work everything out.
God doesn’t abandon Jacob or Esau, and they eventually reconcile.
What this teaches us is that even when we have sold out to the world, God still values us as God’s children. But both Esau and Jacob had to endure much pain and anguish as a result of selling out.
The Apostle Paul tells us in I Corinthians that we were “bought with a price,” (1 Corinthians 6:20). Our lives were bought with the life of our Savior, Jesus, meaning that our birthright is that Jesus sees each one of us as being worth dying for. Jesus sees each one of us as having infinite value.
May we, in response, recognize our value and strive to never sell out our birthright. Amen.