There was a book that came out almost twenty years ago by an author known most commonly as don Miguel Ruiz titled “The Four Agreements.” It was a book of practical wisdom, aimed at helping people to order their thinking and behavior in ways that lead to greater happiness, peace and love. The goal was to keep it simple. Four agreements we can each make with ourselves to reduce conflict and increase contentment in our lives. The first one was: Be impeccable with your word.
To be impeccable with your word means to be exceedingly conscious of the power of your words to shape reality, both your own and the reality of those around you. It is the decision to use your word to create and strengthen honest and loving relationships. This is the principle that lies behind such familiar proverbs as “say what you mean and mean what you say” or “let your yes be yes and your no be no” (Matt. 5:37). It is an acknowledgement that, contrary to the childhood rhyme “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me” that names, in fact, can hurt us. That words create worlds.
It seems like a simple thing at first, to be impeccable with your word, but it’s not. Once you make this agreement with yourself and begin to practice it, you quickly realize just how often you are less than impeccable with your word. How often you use words to blur the truth, to conceal your thoughts and feelings, to gain influence and favor. Once you set this limit upon yourself, you begin to see how those who do not limit themselves in such a way get ahead in this world. How a silver-tongued fast talker can seem like the one to follow, to model yourself upon.
Scripture gives us just such a character in Jacob, whose story we’ve been reading for the last few weeks as we work through the book of Genesis this summer. The first story in the cycle gave us a portrait of Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, whose birthright Jacob coveted. That jealousy grows over time so that, as their father Isaac is laying on his deathbed, Jacob and his mother Rebekah conspire to rob Esau of his birthright by tricking Isaac into giving his blessing to Jacob. They dress Jacob in furry clothes to emulate his hairy brother and cook father Isaac his favorite meal. Then Jacob brings the food in and presents himself to his father who asks, “Who are you, my son?” (Gen. 27:18). Jacob replies, “I am Esau your firstborn. I have done as you told me; now sit up and eat of my game, that your soul may bless me” (Gen. 27:19). The charade goes on for a while and each time Isaac asks a question, Jacob responds with another lie, until finally Isaac gives to Jacob the blessing intended for Esau.
René Girard, an American academic whose work has influenced the fields of literary criticism, theology, psychology and philosophy, posits that all desire is mimetic, or mimicked — meaning that all desire is learned. Beyond our basic needs for food, water and shelter, we learn what we want by observing what others want. Joseph seeks his father’s blessing because Esau values it. The fact that they are twins, but that one is valued above the other, only strengthens the rivalry. Girard suggests that all conflict originates in mimetic desire. We see it at the earliest ages when children compete over toys. Kerry and I have watched our goddaughter Kai playing happily on her own, only to become frustrated and upset as soon as another child begins playing with a different toy. “Mine!” she says, driven not by her desire for the toy, but by her rivalry with the other child whose desire for the toy suddenly makes it precious to her as well.
But it’s not just children that engage in mimetic rivalry, and it’s not just toys that get competed for. As we grow older we struggle with our friends and classmates over who will date the most attractive or the most accomplished boy or girl. In fact, their value as a partner seems to grow in direction proportion to the number of people who vie for their attention. Throughout our lives, we learn which jobs to compete for, which neighborhoods to live in, by watching — by mimicking — the desires of other desirable people. These cycles of desire create value, so that a neighborhood like Logan Square which people once apologized for living in can become the hottest neighborhood in Chicago.
Our mimicry of one another creates not only value, but conflict, as we compete over goods, social and material, so that we can be more like someone else. Isaac asks, “who are you, my son?” and Jacob replies, “I am Esau.”
In his studies of mimetic rivalry, René Girard has also suggested that religion was necessary to human evolution as a way of controlling the violence that results from our covetous nature. He uses Jewish and Christian texts as examples of how our religious traditions work to disrupt the ongoing and escalating cycles of conflict, as in today’s scene from the Jacob cycle.
Having cheated his brother, who now wants to kill him, Jacob must flee from his family and make a life for himself among his distant kin. He falls in love with Rachel, the daughter of his mother’s brother, Laban, and agrees to work for his uncle for seven years in return for the right to marry her. Jacob is true to his word, but on the night of the wedding, Laban tricks him by sending Rachel’s older sister, Leah, in to him. Jacob cries foul, “why then have you deceived me?” (Gen. 29:25), but it’s hard to feel too much sympathy for him at this point. Don’t hate the player, hate the game. If words create worlds, then this is Jacob’s world, Laban’s just living in it. In fact, as if to rub it in, Laban replies, “it is not so done in our country, to give the younger before the firstborn” (Gen. 29:26). He seems to be pointing directly at Jacob’s offense, stealing the birthright and the blessing from his older brother.
Having little leverage in this situation, Jacob agrees to give Laban another seven years of his labor in exchange for Rachel, whom he is allowed to wed a week later, but the damage is done. Jacob feels coerced. Leah, the older sister, feels despised and humiliated. As time goes on, all these relationships will be strained. Leah and Rachel’s sisterhood will be infected with mimetic rivalry as each compete for pride of place in Jacob’s eyes through their children. Jacob and Laban’s suspicion and mistrust will take them to the brink of violence. The entire cycle of stories is a parable about the destructive nature of jealousy and the power of our words to abuse and manipulate one another.
It’s painfully easy to see this ancient story being played out again and again in our time, all around us, in ways both great and small. What are national borders, if not our human attempt to build a wall around something God created in love for those God loves — all of us — and to call it ours, to hoard resources behind fences and checkpoints and then punish others for trying to stake a claim on what we have held back for ourselves. It’s happening in Israeli settlements and along our own southern border, the cycle of conflict and violence that comes from coveting and claiming for ourselves what others also want. We give our prizes mythic names that enshrine their value, “the American dream” or “the Holy Land.” Isn’t all land holy? Don’t we all have dreams?
I wonder how hard it would be to find this cycle of mimetic rivalry at work in your own conflicts. If you were to scan your memories from this past week and consider those you’ve resented, those you’ve debated in your head, those you’ve gossiped about, those you’ve torn down with your words — is there some element of rivalry there? Do they possess something you want — a job, a reputation, a degree of power and influence, a natural talent, a platform, a network, a family? Are you coveting in someone else the things that you yourself lack? Are you contributing to a cycle of conflict and violence in your workplace, in your own home, through the words that you say, or refuse to say?
I’d like to return for just a moment to the act of confession and forgiveness with which we began our our worship this morning, and I’d like to repeat it one more time for good measure. Please, turn once again to your neighbor and share these words of assurance: “In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.”
What a small thing they are, words. The pass the gates of our lips and are carried away on the air. They leave no record of themselves that we can see, but their impact is felt in our minds, in our hearts, on our lives.
Jesus shares a set of parables this morning about the power of small things to make a huge impact. A mustard seed. A bit of yeast. A hidden treasure. A single pearl. A net that snares us all together. But it is Jesus’ own life that is the greatest parable. A Word, incarnate, taking on flesh in the particularity of someone insignificant. A Jew. A Galilean. A working class boy. An immigrant and a refugee.
But this living Word lived impeccably. He did not try to be someone else. He did not base his actions or his decisions on the desires of others, he did not play their game by their rules, but instead told stories in which something small and weak and unnoticed could grow into something large enough to house the birds of the air, or leaven an entire loaf, or become more valuable then everything else we possess.
These are violent days my sisters and brothers. My heart breaks each time I read the news. The magnitude of creation’s sufferings is beyond my ability to imagine or understand, and they seem intractable, impossible to resolve. These fights are the same fights we’ve been watching for generations. What can we, who are so small, do in the face of these horrors, which are so large?
There is power in small things. Words create worlds, so be impeccable with your word. Do not use it to try and be someone else, to claim what is not yours. Instead, let your word, your own powerful word, give witness the power of God’s Word at work in the world, siding with the small, with the weak, with the despised, with the lost, with the rejected. Let your word be a part of God’s Word, which is truth and love and forgiveness, which is newness of life, and hope and a future for us all.