One Old Testament passage that has stayed with me for a long time is the story of Jacob and Esau from Genesis (chapter 27). As a little boy I was fascinated by Jacob’s trick (well, his mother Rebecca’s trick) of using goat skins on his hands to fool his blind old father Isaac into believing him to be his hairy brother Esau, and so obtain the father’s blessing. Later, when I was a father myself, I was also impressed by the obvious importance of the paternal blessing (which I have generously bestowed on all my children). But I was always troubled by the fact of Jacob’s dishonesty in obtaining it. The Bible wasn’t condoning lying, was it?
Of course, it’s not; but how to explain the apparent contradiction? There are many cases in Scripture in which apparently shocking details serve to grab our attention and direct it to a main point. We see Jesus do this in the Gospels. In Luke, for instance, when he says: “And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of unrighteous mammon, so that when it fails they may receive you into the eternal habitations.” (Luke 16: 9) We know that Jesus can’t really mean that we should use “unrighteous mammon [wealth]” to make friends, or that such friends could possibly offer us “eternal habitations”. We need to read on to see where he’s leading us:
"He who is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous mammon, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own? No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon." (Luke 16: 10-13)
We are drawn into thinking about his point more deeply (which is that only God, not mammon, can save us), because we want to resolve the apparent contradiction. We see something similar in the parable of the wedding guest who is “bound hand and foot and cast into the outer darkness” simply because he’s wearing the wrong clothes (Matthew 22:13) and in many other places as well.
In the story of Jacob and Esau we need to look two chapters earlier to get the context for Esau’s loss of his father’s blessing:
Once when Jacob was boiling pottage, Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, "Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!" (Therefore his name was called Edom.) Jacob said, "First sell me your birthright." Esau said, "I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?" Jacob said, "Swear to me first." So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way. Thus Esau despised his birthright. (Gen. 25:29-34)
Having read the earlier passage, we know that Esau doesn’t deserve his father’s blessing, because he “despised his birthright”; he willingly gave it away even before Jacob and Rebecca’s trickery. He loses both birthright and blessing because he has his priorities reversed: he has given immediate material things priority over those things that are truly important.
We see this same basic message many times in Scripture, as when St. Paul says:
For many, of whom I have often told you and now tell you even with tears, live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their end is destruction, their god is the belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things. But our commonwealth is in heaven . . . (Phil 3:18-20a)
Esau and the people St. Paul speaks of are extreme examples; it is possible to fall into lesser degrees of the same problem, as we see in the case of the sisters Martha and Mary (Luke 10:38-42). Martha is too distracted by the various details of hospitality to pay much attention to the Divine Guest in her house, while Mary, who sits at the feet of Jesus, “has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken away from her”.
We know that in spite of what happens in this passage, Martha loves Jesus very much, and of course it is right for her to be concerned for the comfort of her guest. The problem is that she becomes so tangled up in means that she forgets about the end to which they are directed. Her example should be a warning to us: we don’t have to be an Esau to get our priorities reversed. We all have causes that are important to us, but we can’t let them become our guiding principles: our actions in these causes should be an expression of our faith (see James 2:18), not the focus of it. While this failing may be endemic to the “social justice” wing of Catholicism (the CDF document Instruction on Certain Aspects of the “Theology of Liberation”, here, explains beautifully; thank you yet again, Cardinal Ratzinger), the rest of us are susceptible, too: it’s a rare Catholic indeed who has not been a Martha, or worse, on more than one occasion (mea culpa!). We need to be on guard all the more because we live in an Age of Esau that exalts Action and the Here and Now, and denies the Transcendent.
So, what to do? How to avoid falling into the trap? Someone with much more experience in such things once directed me to this passage from the Gospel of Matthew:
And one of them a lawyer, asked him a question, to test him. “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment of the law? And he said to him. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matthew 22:37-39)
We must always remember that the “great and first commandment” is to love God; that takes priority. If we put loving our neighbor before, or instead of, loving God, then our actions will be disordered and won’t bear the intended fruit. Therefore, we need to pray first, make sure our course of action is guided by the teaching of Christ through his Church and the Scriptures, and remember that "here we have no lasting city, but we seek the City which is to come" (Hebrews 13:14) if we wish to avoid being a Martha or, even worse, an Esau.