Sermon: Deceived

July 30, 2017
Genesis 29:15-30

So… Let’s review the story so far. The story of Jacob, that is.

First, Jacob was born, an accomplishment which he shares with all of us in the room. He was the younger son of Isaac and Rebekah, and he had ambitions to gain the wealth and the divine promise which would be the customary inheritance of his brother Esau.

He got his brother’s share of the wealth by making him sign it over in return for a single meal. That might not be fraud, precisely, but it’s hardly an equitable deal. Jacob saved outright theft for later, when he disguised himself as Esau to get his father’s blessing. Isaac’s eyesight could no longer distinguish faces, so Jacob dressed in his brother’s clothes, he changed his voice, and he even put coverings on his arms so that he’d feel hairier to his father.

That’s fraud.

That left both Isaac and Esau angry with Jacob. Isaac sent him north to Abraham’s original homeland to find a bride in the family. He went. The fact that his brother Esau was threatening to kill him might have encouraged him some. If he had companions, the authors of Genesis don’t mention them, which they usually do. He didn’t seem to have much in the way of resources, because he when he wanted to marry Rachel, he didn’t have the required bride-price. Instead, he worked for Rachel’s father for seven years in order to meet that obligation.

That brings us to today’s reading, with Jacob ready to marry the woman he loves. For the moment, there’s an air of romance to Genesis, which was not written by people with great affection for love affairs. They had other fish to fry.

And when Jacob woke in the morning, morning sun shows him that he’s married the wrong woman.

Which pretty much ends the romance.

I imagine this must have been a pretty ugly scene. First, it’s laden with cultural customs and expectations we don’t share, most of which I’m very happy to have left behind. We don’t purchase women from their fathers, thank God, but that is what Jacob intended to do, so his anger is the anger of one who’s been defrauded. Like, oh, say, his own brother.

I’m pretty sure Jacob didn’t appreciate the irony.

In this part of the story, the women take very little initiative. They move about as the men direct them. And the men make them incredibly vulnerable. Laban strands his own daughter with a man who will wake up angry at a deception. He could not have known what Jacob might do to her before the came looking for him. Then Laban marries Rachel to her sister’s husband, and sets them all up for an inter-family competition in making babies, which will involve the two servant women named here as well: Zilpah and Bilhah.

Laban may have secured his older daughter’s economic future by marrying her to Jacob, but it doesn’t seem to me that he set her up for a happy home life. Well, those are some ancient priorities I’m also glad to leave behind.

There is something that we haven’t left behind from this story. The sexism remains, though we’ve improved markedly from the notion of women as property, with no particular role in choosing their futures. Sexism remains a powerful force, but it’s not the one I have in mind.

It’s deception. Deceit, it seems to me, has the same life and vigor in our day as it did in Jacob’s.

We are routinely deceived. Or at least, people attempt to deceive us. I did a search on for “best cleaning supplies.” I got 767 responses. 767 products that make at least some claim to be the “best.”

Even given that I’m dealing with a lot of categories of cleaning supplies here (things to clean glass, which are different from things to clean fabric, which are different from things to clean carpet, which are different from things to clean tile, and so forth), there can’t be 767 “best.”

That’s an attempt to deceive. As experienced shoppers we pretty much ignore that claim to be the “best.” In the grocery aisles, that’s not a meaningful word.

There are other words, though, that should be meaningful and sometimes they’re not. The other night my friends and I found ourselves discussing sunscreen, and the difference between those that contain substances that harm coral, and those that don’t. It’s chemical ingredients that you have to look out for: Oxybenzone, Butylparaben, Octinoxate, and 4-Methylbenzylidine Camphor.

Alison Buttrick Patton had purchased a sunscreen labeled “reef safe” for her family, and brought some of it with her to Hilo, so she fetched it out so we could see what the active ingredients were in that product. And we found that it contained oxybenzone, which is linked to coral bleaching.

It turns out that the company had tested the product on fish, not coral. And since “reef safe” has no specific legal meaning, they could put the words on the tube and put it on the shelf.

It’s a lie. But it’s a legal lie.

And it’s a lie.

There are plenty of potential responses to a deception.

Jacob, at least at this point, swallowed it and went on. He agreed to work another seven years so that he could marry Rachel – at least Laban didn’t make him wait until the next seven years were up before the wedding. They were married a week after Jacob married Leah.

But later, Jacob got even. In appreciation of his labors, Laban offered to give Jacob the goats in his herds that had spots on them. Jacob gathered them up, and wow, were there a lot of them!

It might have had something to do with the gap in the hedge he’d led them through. A gap whose branches he’d adorned with wet paint.

“Wow, look at all those spotted goats… Did you know you had so many spotted goats, Laban?”

Yes, Jacob got even.

We can accept it. Or we can get even.


We can name deceit for what it is, and insist on the truth.

That may be the hardest of them all.

I’m not talking about opinion here, or the results of living in a complex world. Opinions can be sincerely held, and they can be true, or they can be mistaken. Complexity means that sometimes when I say something, it’s not entirely true. Hopefully I appreciate the complexity and I’m doing the best I can with it. I have to admit that, in company with much of our human family, I’m not always as diligent in my research as I should be.

No, I’m talking about the presentation of “alternative facts” as if they are truth, and not an attempt to deceive. I’m talking about the emails that offer you thousands of dollars if you’ll just help move money out of a dictatorship overseas. “Don’t worry, just give us access to your bank account, it will be fine!” I’m talking about the claim that there is no climate change, or that it has nothing to do with human activity, or that, “It’s OK, we’ll be fine, no worries,” as sea levels rise with each king tide and some of New York’s subways flood with major storm. I’m talking about the idea that there’s nothing wrong with our justice system, “Don’t worry, everybody here deserves what has happened to them,” when minority populations, people of color, are so dramatically over-represented in our prisons, and when they serve longer sentences.

I’m talking about naming a bill that would have removed tens of millions of Americans from the rolls of those who have medical insurance, “Better Care.”

We may be deceived. People will try all the time. But we must insist on truth.

That’s our way. Insist on truth.

Don’t let the sunscreen manufacturer get away with putting coral-damaging chemicals in the product and calling it “reef safe.” Insist on truth.

Don’t let the EPA administrator tell you that we’ve added 50,000 coal industry jobs since last year, and that means that withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords makes sense, when there are only 50,000 jobs in the coal industry. Insist on truth.

Don’t let me tell you that we’re living out our Christian calling if I’m not also encouraging you to make a difference to real people in the real world. Don’t let me do that. Insist on truth.

Don’t let anyone tell you that they have a right to your body. Insist on truth.

There are an awful lot of people out there with an awful lot to gain if they can fool us. They’ll try and they’ll try and they’ll try. Sometimes they’ll succeed.

But you and I: Let’s insist on truth. And when we don’t get it, let’s raise our voices and our hands and raise our prayers and raise our demands.

Insist on truth. Insist on truth. Insist on truth.


The image is Michelangelo Buonarotti’s statue of Leah for the tomb of Pope Julius II at San Pietro, Vincoli. Photo by Luciano Tronati – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on July 30, 2017

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