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Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
A couple drove several miles down a country road not saying a word. An earlier discussion had led to an argument and neither wanted to concede. As they passed a barnyard of mules and pigs, the wife asked sarcastically, “Relatives of yours?” The husband nodded, “Yep…. In-laws.” Although marriage is intended to be life-giving and affirming, some of the family members who go along with the marriage can be difficult to in manage. Two men were in a pub, when one said to his mate, “My mother-in law is an angel.” His friend replied, “You’re lucky. Mine is still alive.” Or there was the woman who wrote, “My dearest, Mother-in-law, I don’t need you to tell me how to handle my children. I’m living with one of yours, and he needs lots of improvement.” A son-in-law once questioned, “Which would you rather deal with a vicious dog or a father -in-law? Answer. A vicious dog of course, they eventually let go.” And sometimes, everyone in the family looks at each other with disdain. A few moments after a daughter proudly announced her engagement, her Father asked, “Does this young man have any money ?” The daughter shook her head comically. “Oh Daddy! You men are all alike. That’s exactly what he asked me about you.”
No man in the Bible seems to have had more challenges with his family than Jacob- especially with his father-in-law Laban. Poor Jacob! The relationship certainly was complicated. Laban was not only his father-in-law. He was his uncle and his boss as well- and an unfair boss at best. No doubt you have noticed that the characters in the Book of Genesis are anything but perfect. Surprisingly, Laban with all his faults, is affectionately remembered at every Jewish wedding for the words of blessing he offered his sister Rebekah as she departed their home to become Isaac’s wife. “Sister, may you grow into thousands of myriads; And may your descendants gain possession of the gates of their enemies!” He is also remembered at the Passover meal as a man more evil and wicked than Pharaoh. In the Hassidic Jewish tradition, Laban is, in effect, the first anti-Semite. “Go and learn what Laban the Aramean sought to do to our father Jacob. A Pharaoh made his decree only about the males, whereas Laban sought to destroy everything.” Generation after generation, the Jewish people sought refuge from those, like Esau, who sought to kill them. The nations who gave them refuge seemed at first to be friendly and accommodating, but then they demanded a price. It may be a bit of an exaggeration that Laban was worse than Pharaoh, but Laban serves as the perfect foil to teach the painful lessons of life, integrity and truthfulness that the equally deceitful Jacob needed to learn.
The story of Jacob’s struggle with his father-in-law stretches out over three chapters in the Book of Genesis and over 20 years. It all begins at the urging of his mother Rebekah, after Jacob had stolen the birthright and inheritance from his brother Esau, Jacob fled to his uncle Laban’s home in Paddan-Aram to find a wife. Jacob was immediately smitten with the beauty of Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, so the father offered Jacob the promise of his daughter in marriage in exchange for the seven years of work. It turned out that Laban’s behavior was less generous than self-interested and calculating. On the wedding night Laban, substituted Leah for Rachel, so that in order to marry Rachel, Jacob had to work yet another seven years. Jacob’s family had begun to grow, and he felt it was time to leave Paddan-Aram. Laban did not want his son-in-law to leave because he recognized that Jacob had made him very prosperous.
No one however in the family was happy. Laban’s own sons accused Jacob of getting rich at their father’s expenses, in spite of the fact that no son-in-law would ever inherit a father-in-law’s wealth. Jacob sensed that Laban himself was becoming hostile towards him, and Laban’s own daughters agreed. Rachel and Leah said, “He treats us like strangers! He has sold us and spent the money!”
After nearly 20 long years, Jacob proposed an arrangement. He would continue to herd and care for Laban’s sheep and goats, and as payment, he would take only the spotted, speckled and striped livestock. Laban was delighted and thought he had just won the Powerball because the spotted, speckled, and striped livestock were very uncommon. In Laban’s mind, Jacob had made a silly deal and he was going to come out richer than ever. But Jacob knew the art of animal husbandry. To Laban’s shock and frustration, Jacob’s flocks did multiply. Still Laban refused to let him go.
Finally, Jacob realized that there was nothing he could do or say that would persuade his father-in-law to let him leave, so he had no choice but to escape. Laban then pursued him, and were it not for God’s warning, there was no doubt that he would have forced Jacob to return and live out the rest of his life as his unpaid laborer. As he said to Jacob, “These daughters are my daughters! These sons are my sons! These flocks are my flocks! All that you see is mine!”
Laban treated Jacob as his property, his slave. He was not a person. Jacob had no rights. But what aroused Laban’s anger and rage was that Jacob maintained his dignity and independence. Faced with an impossible existence as his father-in-law’s slave, Jacob always found a way of carrying on. Yes, he had been cheated countless times, but he refused to be put down. That is the universal message of Jacob’s struggle with his father-in-law.
For the Jewish people at Passover that is why Laban is considered a greater threat than Pharaoh. The Pharaoh of Egypt was a one-time enemy of the Jews, but the Labans of the world continue to exist, in one form or another from age after age. They first appear as friends, but they are cunning adversaries. In spite of it all, Jacob refused to be defeated, or crushed and demoralized. He would be no man’s slave.
So what gave Jacob the perseverance and patience he needed to face the challenges of his father-in-law Laban? It a question worth contemplating in our own challenging times? For many of us, the year 2020 will be remembered as the year of the curse of the in-laws when the Labans of the world came to taunt us in new and unpredictable ways.
I rather suspect that for Jacob that new strength and perspective began that lonely night at Bethel with nothing more than a stone for his pillow, when he saw the angels ascending and descending the ladder to heaven. At that moment, Jacob’s personal awakening began. He realized that night that God had some divine plan and destiny for him, and that he could never be the same man he once had been. He needed to live a life that was worthy of that higher calling. My friends, that decision to change, demands a personal resolve. It is the first step. If you are dissatisfied or frustrated with your life, you cannot play the victim. Like Jacob, you have to choose to climb the rungs of the ladder and make a change in your life.
The second step, is that you have to develop empathy for those you have hurt. In another place and in another time, Jacob might had admired Laban’s cunning and deceit. But living in his father-in-law’s home, Jacob discovered that it wasn’t much fun when you are the person on the receiving end. For once he began to understand how his brother Esau felt.
Third, you have to cultivate patience. We live in an instant society. We get frustrated when it takes more than 3 seconds for a web page to load or there is more than one person in front of you at the grocery check-out. The pandemic has changed all of our lives. We all have places to go and things to do, and so did Jacob. He could have walked away at Laban’s deception with Leah, but he didn’t. Instead, he pledged another seven years to marry the woman he was already promised. Somehow he committed himself to the art and practice of patience.
Finally, Jacob realized that with God holding his destiny before him, it is never too late. My friends, I don’t know what plan God holds for you and your life, but I am convinced that we are always growing into the dreams God has set before us. And I can assure you that that dream is greater and more realistic than anything you could have imagined on your own. So let God take you by the hand and lead you to that place you need to go. Resolve to make a change, develop empathy for those around you, especially those you may have hurt, cultivate patience for the journey, however, long that may be, and remember, in God’s hands, it is never too late. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.