11 Jul Majoring on the Minors
Majoring on the Minors
Obadiah: Family Feud
Romans 12:1-5 and Obadiah 11-15
July 7, 2019
M. Michelle Fincher
Calvary Presbyterian Church
One of the great ironies of human love and relationships is that we experience the greatest hurt from those who are closest to us. The deepest emotional wounds are rarely inflicted by strangers or casual acquaintances; they come from our families. It is the family that has the most formative influence and makes the deepest, longest-lasting impressions. And because of that, there is no greater relational pain than being betrayed by a relative or a friend who is like family to us. The prophet Obadiah knows all about sibling rivalry and family betrayal.
Obadiah is something of a forgotten prophet among the twelve Minor Prophets we’re studying this summer. The book that bears his name is the shortest book in the Old Testament, a mere 21 verses long. For churches that follow the lectionary, there is not a single time that Obadiah appears in the three-year preaching cycle, so he doesn’t get much airtime from the pulpit. And, Obadiah isn’t exactly a name that rolls off the tongue, either. Other than Obadiah Stane from the Marvel comic series Iron Man, I bet a lot of us don’t know many guys named Obadiah.
On the surface, Obadiah is a story about two rival nations, but if you rewind the story back to the beginning, you’ll discover that these two nations are related. They’re not just brother nations; they’re twins.
The story of the twin nations of Israel and Edom goes back to Genesis when twin sons were born to Abraham’s son Isaac, and his wife, Rebecca. The younger of the two was born grabbing the heel of his older brother Esau, so his parents called him Jacob, meaning “heel grabber.” Jacob stayed true to his name and was forever grabbing what belonged to his brother. First, Jacob hustled Esau’s birthright from him in exchange for a bowl of stew. Then he deceived their father, commandeering the blessing reserved for the eldest son.
Eventually God changed Jacob’s name to Israel, and it was to these people, the Israelites, that God’s promise to Abraham of blessing, land, and a mighty nation flowed. Esau’s side of the family tree produced the nation of Edom, and over the years, the sibling rivalry between Esau and Jacob continued not just between the twins but between the nations they spawned, as well. Their descendants feuded with each other generation after generation.
Eventually, the Israelites are overrun by the superpower of the day, Assyria, and taken into exile. Rather than defend or even sympathize with their brother nation, the Edomites rub their noses in it, heaping on their own neglect and abuse. Verses 11-15 read like a steady progression of missed opportunities. The Edomites stand aloof when Israel is dragged into exile. They don’t lift a finger to help. They gloat over Israel’s misfortune and finally, they take advantage of the situation by annexing some of Israel’s land as their own.
What is clearly assumed in the first 14 verses of Obadiah is that caring for our families, for those closest to us, is a primary responsibility. We have an obligation to protect our family, to “have each other’s backs.” When that doesn’t happen, there’s a sense of outrage caused by the breaching of such a fundamental loyalty.
So, if brother should help brother, not abandon him, why did Edom turn its back on Israel? Obadiah 3 lays out the problem plainly: “The pride of your heart has deceived you.” To use the language of Romans 12, Edom has thought more highly of itself than it ought to have thought, and in being overly impressed with themselves, the nation looks down on Israel. By comparing themselves to their now weakened brother, Edom is made to look comparatively stronger.
This is no way to treat a brother, says the prophet. “Because of the violence against your brother,” Obadiah warns, “you, Edom, will be defeated. You should not look down on your brother on the day of his misfortune.”
If you read the 21 verses of Obadiah, you’ll see the word “day” repeated often. That is intentional. Each day provides the Edomites with the opportunity to do right by their siblings. They continue to choose otherwise, however, which means that each day adds to the list of injustices for which God will hold them responsible. Everything will culminate in a day that is coming, the “Day of the Lord.” It will be a day of both judgment and blessing—judgment on the Edomites for refusing help when help was needed and blessing on the Israelites for being victimized. On this Day of the Lord, the saying, “As you have done, so it will be done to you,” will come to fruition. Both sides of the family will reap what they have sown.
Obadiah provides a cautionary tale about the effects and costs of pride. One of the great evils of the human heart is gloating over the misfortune of others. Jesus experienced it when his own people rejected him. The Apostle Paul experienced it, too, when fellow Christians took advantage of his imprisonment to preach out of their own envy and selfish ambition. When we put others down to feel better about ourselves; or get some sick sense of satisfaction when a Christian brother or sister encounters difficulty; when we add to the critical, demeaning rhetoric that pervades social media and our common discourse, remember, says Obadiah: God notices and is not happy when we secretly delight in another’s grief. As family, our desire should be to come to one another’s aid in times of trouble.
Obadiah also invites us to think deeply about how we define family. Yes, we are to look after our blood relations. Timothy makes that clear when he says, “If anyone does not provide for their relatives, and especially for members of their household, they have denied the faith and are worse than an unbeliever” (5:8). There’s nothing ambiguous about that. But beyond that, Jesus and Paul make it clear that for Christians, our concept of family becomes greatly enlarged. For starters, the church is our family, making us brothers and sisters united by faith in Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul is so critical of gossip and backbiting in the church, because of what it does to the family of God.
But Jesus also calls us to understand our place in the human family. Our shared humanity links us to every other person on the planet. Because God cares about each of those people, we are called to care about them as well, which means, as we saw last week, that we take seriously how our decisions affect others, even if we don’t know their name, speak their language, or understand their customs; whether they live down the street or half-way around the globe. We are our brothers and sisters’ keepers, as well as keepers of God’s earth. Our responsibility for family extends everywhere, to everyone.
Lastly, Obadiah encourages us to think deeply about the sovereignty of God. Jacob and Esau are not sovereign; Israel and Edom are not sovereign. Only God is sovereign.
If we’re honest, we really struggle with this, and we likely always will. It’s hard for us to trust in the hidden ways of God and in the timing of God which is motivated by God’s infinite love and patience. It’s hard to not know, to not understand, to feel like we’re in the dark. We don’t “get” why God chose Jacob over Esau in the first place, to be the people through whom God’s blessing would flow to the whole world. And after all, Israel royally botched their assignment, so why is a little payback from Edom such a bad thing, we wonder? Isn’t this coming day of judgment against Edom a bit of overkill?
Anglican bishop and theologian NT Wright has been one of my most valuable resources in better understanding and appreciating the sovereignty and the judgment of God. Bishop Wright, along with Obadiah, reminds us that God will set things right. So, when you are wronged by those closest to you, when you are harmed by your family’s feuding, you are released from the need to take revenge or to make sure everybody “gets what’s coming to them.” God claims that privilege for himself. “Vengeance is mine,” says the Lord. Which means for us: leave it to God because God’s justice is always perfect. It is higher than yours or mine. God will make things right in ways that won’t escalate the hurt and acrimony; that won’t demean and diminish the person; that will offer redemption, forgiveness and restoration. God’s justice is never meted out in anger but always in mercy and love, and the fact that we’re resistant to allowing God to take care of things exposes the same pride in us that Edom is being judged for.
How appropriate that we come to the table this morning which is a perfect place to lay down our anger and bitterness, our desire for vengeance, our certainty in how right we are and how wrong someone else is. When we hang on to the hurts we have endured from our families, and when we hang on to the guilt we feel over the hurts we have inflicted, then like Jacob and Esau, we are perpetuating the negativity and suffering. Family feuds have generational impact, so men and women, put it down. That burden is too heavy for you to carry anymore, and Jesus is more than able to take it from you. In exchange, he is offering you freedom and peace. Isn’t that better than what you’ve been clinging to? He invites you to the table for a new start. Thanks be to God. Amen.