In our reading for today, Genesis 25-26, we encounter the story of Esau selling his birthright to his younger brother, Jacob, in a moment of hunger. Alexander MacLaren was a renowned preacher of the 19th and 20th century. Expositions of Holy Scripture brings together many of the sermons over his fifty years in ministry. Here is a part of one of his sermons at Christian Classics Ethereal Library
Many scoffs have been directed against this story, as if it were unworthy of credence that eating a dish of lentils should have shaped the life of a man and of his descendants. But is it not always the case that trifles turn out to be determining points? Hinges are very small, compared with the doors which move on them. Most lives are moulded by insignificant events. No temptation is small, for no sin is small; and if the occasion of yielding to sense and the present is insignificant, the yielding is not so.
But the main lesson is, as already noted, the madness of flinging away greater future good for present gratifications of sense. One cannot suppose that the spiritual side of ‘the birthright’ was in the thoughts of either brother. Esau and Jacob alike regarded it only as giving the headship of the family. It was merely the right of succession, with certain material accompanying advantages, which Jacob coveted and Esau parted with. But even in regard to merely worldly objects, the man who lives for only the present moment is distinctly beneath him who lives for a future good, however material it may be. Whoever subordinates the present, and is able steadily to set before himself a remote object, for which he is strong enough to subdue the desire of immediate gratifications of any sort, is, in so far, better than the man who, like a savage or an animal, lives only for the instant.
The highest form of that nobility is when time is clearly seen to be the ‘lackey to eternity,’ and life’s aims are determined with supreme reference to the future beyond the grave. But how many of us are every day doing exactly as Esau did—flinging away a great future for a small present! A man who lives only for such ends as may be attained on this side of the grave is as ‘profane’ a person as Esau, and despises his birthright as truly. He knew that he was hungry, and that lentil porridge was good, ‘What good shall the birthright do me?’ He failed to make the effort of mind and imagination needed in order to realise how much of the kind of ‘good’ that he could appreciate it would do to him. The smell of the smoking food was more to him than far greater good which he could only appreciate by an effort. A sixpence held close to the eye can shut out the sun. Resolute effort is needed to prevent the small, intrusive present from blotting out the transcendent greatness of the final future. And for lack of such effort men by the thousand fling themselves away.
To sell a birthright for a bowl of lentils was plain folly. But is it wiser to sell the blessedness and peace of communion with God here and of heaven hereafter for anything that earth can yield to sense or to soul? How many shrewd ‘men of the highest commercial standing’ are making as bad a bargain as Esau’ s! The ‘pottage’ is hot and comforting, but it is soon eaten; and when the bowl is empty, and the sense of hunger comes back in an hour or two, the transaction does not look quite as advantageous as it did. Esau had many a minute of rueful meditation on his bad bargain before he in vain besought his father’s blessing. And suspicions of the folly of their choice are apt to haunt men who prefer the present to the future, even before the future becomes the present, and the folly is manifest. ‘What doth it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and forfeit his life?’