October 16, 2016
In this morning’s Old Testament lesson we meet Jacob on a dark night, alone and afraid. Summoned by God from his mother’s homeland back to his own native territory, Jacob learns as he moves closer that Esau, his twin whom he’d tricked and wronged years before, is coming to meet him with four hundred men. Growing up, Jacob had lived up, or down, to his name, grabbing what was not his. Out of the womb he came clutching his brother’s heel. That earned him his name, which meant “heel grabber” or “supplanter.” Next, in their youth, Jacob had cornered hungry Esau into trading for bread and a bowl of lentils his birthright—his right as the firstborn to double the inheritance. Finally, with the help of their mother, Rebekah, Jacob had hoodwinked their father, Isaac, into giving his paternal blessing not to his oldest son, Esau, as expected, but to Jacob.
When Esau finds out he’s been tricked out of both his blessing and his birthright, he pledges to kill his brother. Rebekah urges Jacob to flee Canaan for Mesopotamia and her family, where he can find a wife and settle down awhile. That journey and more than fourteen years have led to this: a black and solitary night when Jacob knows he has it coming.
Despite advantages of birthright, blessing, and status over his brother, before we meet Jacob this morning, he’s already acted toward Esau less like a lord and more like a subordinate. Jacob has sent him animal flocks and herds—as tributes or gifts—to diffuse Esau’s anger. Next Jacob offered God both thanksgiving for blessing and protection as well as pleas for deliverance from Esau’s vengeance. And as a last resort, Jacob has divided his family in half (in case one group is captured or ambushed) and has sent them all across a stream. Now he waits to face his brother and his brother’s men.
But rather than Esau and a small army, Jacob meets a lone man: indeed, before we know it, with a single short clause, we find ourselves in the middle—even near the end—of a long, intense encounter: “a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak.” We don’t expect a wrestling match. Yet we shouldn’t be surprised either that one breaks out for Jacob, given all the wrestling in his past—for the birthright and blessing, against his brother and father, growing up in Canaan; and for his wives and wages, against his father-in-law, Laban, in Mesopotamia.
The single clause that drops us into the middle of this match—“a man wrestled with [Jacob] until daybreak”—opens our imaginations. In the sweat-drenched dark we hear the men scuffling and stomping, grunting and groaning. Words, maybe only whispers, come with the sunrise:
“Let me go!”
“No, bless me first!”
“What’s your name?”
“Not anymore. It’s Israel now, because you’ve strived with God and won out.”
“What’s your name?”
After this dialog ends, we are told that Jacob’s opponent blesses him.
A mystery of our lesson, an enduring question, is, who is Jacob’s opponent? Suggestions are many. From what I can gather, our lesson suggests that Jacob’s opponent is an agent of blessing; otherwise why would Jacob ask to be blessed? Also, our lesson ends with Jacob’s admission that, as one translation puts it, “I have seen God face to face and have come out alive.” Finally, our passage calls Jacob’s opponent a “man.” So even as the question endures, I’m content to hazard for now that Jacob’s opponent, in a humanlike form, represents God in some way. In some sense Jacob’s wrestling partner represents the God who creates, the God who blesses and saves creation, and the God who calls and blesses a people—Israel—for Godself.
That Jacob’s opponent represents God in a human
What attracts me to this passage as a person with disabilities is the following verse: “5When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.” In this instance Jacob can feel God’s mark in his body, has a memory of God’s encounter in his body.
In this story God takes a human form and Jacob will not let go until he receives a blessing. God touches or strikes Jacob’s hip in order to be set free. It’s similar to circumcision, a mark in the body. But this is a mark from a specific encounter. I find this passage challenging because it challenges me to think about the ways my disabilities and difficulties signal that God is intimately at work in my life. It’s not that God is trying to teach us a lesson through our aches, pains, and illnesses, but how can our marks of mortality become a blessing to ourselves and to others?
In both our Old Testament and Gospel readings, the issue is holding on, reaching out to, a God who may be present but may be absent. The notion of persistence in seeking after God. How can the marks on our bodies aid us in our search for God?
One of my favorite parts of the Eucharistic liturgy is the concluding exhortation, “Feed on him in your hearts, by faith, with thanksgiving.” So there is part of us that feeds on the bread in real time, but at the same time we feed on Christ in our hearts.
It’s the notion that pain reminds us that we are alive in a different kind of way.
Jacob has seen God and has come out alive. He has a new appreciation for life after encountering God, even though he must live now in this body that is fundamentally changed (b/c of the limp).
Jesus’s resurrection brings about for him a qualitatively new life, but the scars of crucifixion remain as a reminder that . . .
Also there is an element that although Jacob meets Esau the next day and though Jacob tells him that seeing him is like seeing the face of God.
What kind of blessings come about because of bodily change, disability, or illness?
We struggle with God perhaps as we experience changes ourselves.