I always felt for Leah in this Genesis text. It might be that I’ve always had a soft spot for people who are often the butt of a joke, or don’t get the kindness of others that they should, but it pains me every time I read this story to think of her.
See, Jacob loved Rachel. He was wild about her. And he worked a solid seven years to earn her. And on his wedding night, he goes to bed with who he assumes is Rachel, only to be awoken to find Leah there instead. Now, the Hebrew writers and storytellers make this a humorous situation. Jacob, trickster that he is, had the wool pulled over his eyes. He was getting what he dished out. Plenty of sermons focus on just that lesson to be taken from this story. And I can just imagine, before this was written down, men sitting around telling stories of their forefathers, and everyone pauses at the moment when the storyteller takes the turn from the night to the morning to deliver the punchline—“and it was Leah!”
Big laughs all around!
But it wasn’t very funny to Leah, the “get one” of a “buy one get one” deal.
Leah, the elder sister, had to have her father hoodwink Jacob into marrying her. She was part of a bargain she had no say in, to marry a husband who very clearly didn’t want her. But, like any woman in all of history, she did what she could with the circumstances.
She spent the early years of this dual marriage trying to get Jacob to lover her like he loved Rachel. In the ancient world, a woman’s worth was very often tied to whether she had children, and sons specifically. Now, we don’t get to that part here, but Leah is fruitful; she has four sons one after the other. She voices her hope that each son will change her husband’s heart, but each son doesn’t seem to change Jacob’s preference for Rachel.
But at her fourth son, Judah, she realizes whose love she can rely on. “This time I will praise the Lord,” she says. She doesn’t mention Jacob. She realizes after all that striving, after all that work to try to get Jacob’s love, that God was there for her the whole time, unconditionally.
How many of us have been in a situation where we’ve had to earn someone’s affection? Or, not even affection, but acceptance—into the family, into the friends group, into the social circle? When we have to work to be accepted, it makes it that much harder to feel like we belong. When we have to work to be accepted, it means that acceptance can be taken away too.
We don’t just have it happen to us. We do this to others, too. We put conditions on who we love and who we find acceptable all the time. And it’s not just who we accept in our social circles. We as a society put conditions on who is accepted and who’s not. You may be poor, but upon condition that you have never made a wrong decision that might have led you to poverty. You may be Muslim, but upon condition that you leave your faith at home. You may be gay, but upon condition that you never let anyone be aware of it.
And when we put these conditions on others (they’re put on us, so why not?) we have a maddening tendency to assume God holds the same conditions over us. “God loves you unconditionally, but conditions apply.” We easily assume that God will love me if I follow the commandments. God will love me if I go to church. God will love me if…
I have a friend who grew up in a little charismatic church in the mountains of North Carolina. It was the kind of church that reminded everyone that the fires of hell await anyone who doesn’t follow God’s law. It was the kind of church where you may be baptized, but that was no assurance of salvation. “Backsliding” was a mortal sin, and it terrorized my friend for years. It was full-on “God will love you if and only if.”
But what if there aren’t any checkboxes? What if there aren’t any conditions?
The same God who created you also redeemed you. The God who redeemed you is abundant, reckless even, with grace.
In the parable of the mustard seed, we see an unloved part of creation, growing wildly, serving God’s purpose of providing shelter for birds. We see a woman hiding leaven into flour to make it dough, enough dough to make bread for a hundred or more people. We see a merchant and a land speculator throw away their life’s earnings for a single thing they know is more precious than anything they had previously.
Selling everything for a pearl; recklessly throwing away everything to claim buried treasure—these aren’t the actions of a measured and reasonable person. They’re not the way we’re supposed to act. You don’t give up your livelihood, and you certainly don’t throw all your eggs in one basket. But God does. God gave up everything, becoming human, taking on the sins of all of humanity, because of the prize that would win—you. You are the treasure in a field. You are the pearl of great value. And God has thrown it all on the line for you.
So why would God, who became flesh to die on a cross for our sake, turn around and put conditions on that unhinged, reckless grace? God has no end of grace, no end of mercy, no end of love for you specifically, and for the whole world. God laughs at the hubris we have to think there is something we can do that will undo the mercy God has already shown us. As if our sin is somehow more capable of separating us from the love of God than God’s mercy is at bringing us into that love.
Your salvation is a done deal. God’s love for you is a fait accomplit. You are a precious pearl that has already been bought, a buried treasure that has already been claimed. God has taken you, as Leah, just as you are, not demanding you first become Rachel before you can be loved. God spoke through Isaiah on this: “You [as you are] are precious and holy in my sight, and I love you.” (Isaiah 43:4) And neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rules, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.
And this love, this mercy, this unconditional grace poured onto us by our irresponsibly, recklessly majestic and loving God, changes who we are. If God didn’t withhold the Son from the cross, what will keep us from loving others with the same reckless abandon? If God came to us while we were still in the depths of the quagmire of sin and death, what will keep us from diving into the brokenness of the world to find those lost and forsaken by the world? If God Almighty doesn’t put conditions on the love God showers on us, what boldness must we have to put conditions on our love for others?
Thanks be to God. Amen.