Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Few biblical stories are as mystifying as that of Jacob’s wrestling match at the Jabbok. A nocturnal being unable to overcome Jacob’s superior strength is hard to reconcile with the God of Israel whose almighty power is set over all other forces of nature throughout the psalms. Resorting to “source criticism,” commentators point out that this passage comes to us from the “Yahwist,” the oldest of the four literary sources constituting the first five books of the Bible known as the “Pentateuch.” They further suggest that elements of this story are drawn from even more ancient Canaanite myths about human encounters with spirits inhabiting rivers and lakes. These spirits, though powerful and dangerous at night, are driven back into their watery abode by the light of day. That would explain Jacob’s victory over his supernatural opponent as well as the opponent’s request that Jacob release him as dawn drew near.
I am not sure what to do with all of these helpful little noetic perjinkerties. I suppose we could use them to dismiss this text as an unhelpful throwback to Israel’s more primitive and unenlightened past and turn our attention instead to the clear expressions of monotheism found in other parts of the Pentateuch. That would surely comport with our 19th Century progressivist prejudices. But our prejudices are just that. Unless one accepts uncritically the doubtful proposition that “later” equates with “more advanced” and that each successive generation is necessarily wiser than the last, there is no basis for supposing that an older and more “primitive” expression of faith is any less true, profound or insightful than later expressions. Indeed, judged from the standpoint of John’s gospel in which the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” this gripping tale of an intense, sweaty, bone crunching wrestling match between Jacob and his God comes closer than anything else in the Hebrew Scriptures to the miracle of Incarnation lying at the heart of our faith.
The difficulty surrounding the story has little to do with its composition and everything to do with the narrative itself which is complex and layered. At this point in his life, Jacob is between a rock and a hard place. He had to flee from his father Isaac’s home in Canaan because he earned the mortal wrath of his brother Esau whose birthright and blessing he stole by subterfuge and deceit. Then he alienated his uncle and father-in-law to whom he fled for refuge. Now Jacob has finally painted himself into a corner. He cannot go back to his father-in-law and he faces the wrath of Esau if he tries to go home. Jacob cannot move.
The circumstances that define us usually are not those of our choosing. While it might be said that Jacob’s dilemma is largely one of his own making, that might be said of any one of us. None of us imagined when we got married that what began with such high hopes for happiness could ever end in bitterness and estrangement. Nobody expects to be unemployed in her fifties. We don’t raise our children to hurt and disappoint us. Yet when these things occur, there frequently is no shortage of people around singing that old familiar chorus: “I told you so.” “I knew from the beginning you two weren’t right for each other;” “I could have told you that job was never going to lead anywhere;” “You always were too indulgent with that kid.” So let’s go easy on Jacob. Sure, he made some bad choices. Haven’t we all? All this advice about what you should have done is not all that helpful in dealing with the consequences flowing from what you did. You don’t need a consultant to tell you where you went wrong. What you need is a way forward. It is precisely at this point of no return on the way down a dead end street that God intervenes.
Biblical commentators are not alone in puzzling over the identity of the strange visitor to Jacob’s encampment on the Jabbok. Jacob himself seems unsure about what he is wrestling with. At first blush, it appears “a person” was wrestling with him. At dawn it becomes clear that Jacob’s opponent is something other than mere human-perhaps a demigod from whom blessings can be extracted. Not until the match is over and the strange visitor is gone does the terrifying truth dawn on Jacob: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” Genesis 32:30. From a purely human standpoint, nothing has changed. Jacob is still estranged from his father-in-law and Esau is still approaching with four hundred armed men. But Jacob is no longer Jacob. He is no longer the “con-man” his name suggests. Rather, he is “Israel.” Whatever the etiological origins of that name may actually be, the narrative gives us the meaning as far as this story is concerned. Jacob is the one who strives with God and with human beings and prevails.
The God we worship is always nearest to us when it appears there is no way forward and no going back: between the Red Sea and the Egyptian army; between crucifixion and death; in the flesh and blood of dying bodies. The Word became flesh and entered into the messiness of our disordered lives where we so often feel trapped and imprisoned. Where that happens, faith is born. Change and decay is still around in everything we see, but that is not all there is. The God who raised Jesus from death has also entered into the mix. So in our wrestling with life, we find ourselves wrestling with God as well. Like Jacob, we can expect to get a little bent out of shape in the conflict. But that is a small price to pay for the blessing of transformation taking place in our lives. Though wounded and limping, the new day into which we hobble after a good wrestling match with God holds new opportunities we never dreamed possible; new directions we were never able to see before.
In addition to my introductory observations, the following is noteworthy. The name “Jacob” means “supplanter.” It was appropriate given Jacob’s conduct toward his brother Esau whose blessing and birthright he stole. Genesis 25:27-34; Genesis 27:1-40. The meaning of “Israel” is a matter of some dispute. Most likely, the name means “God rules.” The basis of the interpretation “He who strives with God and humans and prevails” is etiologically uncertain but seems to have been a well established attribution for Jacob. See, e.g., Hosea 12:3.
Jacob asks his opponent to reveal his name. vs. 29. But the opponent (who Jacob will soon discover to be the Lord) will not give up his name. In the ancient Middle East, possessing the name of a deity gave the worshiper a degree of influence over it. The Lord will not give Jacob any such power. God’s blessing is a gift to be received; not a favor to be extorted. One can take hold of God, wrestle with God and prevail upon God; but God will never be subject to human control. Similarly, God would not give to Moses any such name as would yield control. Instead, God gives Moses a name that asserts God’s freedom to “be what I will be.” Exodus 3:13-14.
This psalm is part of a collection within the Psalter designated “Songs of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) While the precise meaning of this title is unknown, it is probable that these psalms were used on the occasion of pilgrimages to Jerusalem by Diaspora Jews visiting the second temple built following the return from Babylonian Exile. It is important to keep in mind, however, that although these psalms were compiled into this collection following the Babylonian Exile, the psalms themselves or portions of them might well belong to a much earlier period. Psalm 121 is second only to Psalm 23 in popular piety. Though originally an expression of faith in God’s protection for pilgrims making the long and sometimes dangerous journey to Jerusalem from Egypt, Persia and what is now Iraq, the psalm is also a fitting expression of faith for believers in almost any circumstance. Some scholars have suggested that the psalm was designed to be read antiphonally with verses 1 and 3 being questions addressed to the priest by worshipers at the holy place and verses 2 and 4 constituting the priest’s answers. This would necessitate translating verse 1 as a question: “If I lift up my eyes to the hills, from whence does my help come?” This is a possible translation, though not favored by most English versions of the Hebrew Scriptures.
“I lift up my eyes to the hills.” Vs. 1. This might be a reference to the “high places” where the “Ba’als” were worshiped. See, e.g., II Kings 23:5. It is also possible that the expression simply reflects the anxiety a traveler passing through a foreign land might feel looking up at the surrounding hills that could well be concealing gangs of bandits or hostile tribes. In either case, the point to be made is that Israel’s God is the source of all help and protection.
“He will not let your foot be moved.” Vs. 3. This might be a metaphorical way of saying that God will not allow the dangers of travel to deter the pilgrim on his or her journey. It may also be taken quite literally. A broken or sprained ankle could be a death sentence for a traveler far from any source of food, water and shelter.
“Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Vs. 4. Therefore, the pilgrim can sleep soundly and peacefully at the stops along the way of his or her journey. The Lord protects the pilgrim both from the blazing heat of the sun and also from whatever malevolent forces might flow from the moon. It should be noted that, like many other ancient cultures, the Israelites believed that over exposure to moonlight could bring about detrimental effects. In sum, the pilgrim can be assured that the God of Israel will “keep [his or her] going out and  coming in.” That is, God’s protection will attend the pilgrim’s journey to and from the holy city of Jerusalem.
For my views on authorship of this and the other two pastoral epistles (I Timothy and Titus), see my post on the lessons from Sunday, September 15th.
Once again, the lectionary folks have stopped short-or picked up after-one of the most provocative verses in the New Testament where Paul warns Timothy that “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” II Timothy 3:12. I don’t know about you, but I have not been persecuted since middle school and I can assure you that my persecution then had little to do with any desire on my part to be godly. Furthermore, let me say for the record that being denied permission to put up a crèche on the town square at Christmas time does not constitute persecution. Nor do I think denying to employers the right to police their employees’ health care decisions on birth control amounts to a “war against Christianity.” Please! If you want to see what a war on Christianity looks like, take a trip to Egypt, Syria or Nigeria where churches are being burned and Christians are regularly victims of mob violence. Let us not insult these true martyrs with such silly, moronic blabber about our own imagined persecution. Instead, let’s focus on becoming faithful disciples and putting Jesus and his kingdom ahead of all else. Of course, in addition to the joy that comes with following Jesus, such faithfulness might actually give us a taste of what real persecution is like.
I think the backdrop of persecution is essential to understanding what Paul is saying to Timothy here. Timothy is urged to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season…” II Timothy 4:2. The assumption here is that such faithful preaching will meet with resistance and even incite persecution. It is futile to wait for an opportune time to proclaim the gospel because that time will never come. Repentance is never convenient; the call to discipleship is always an intrusion into our settled existence. The old order will never welcome the new creation. So the time to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ is always now. Although this advice is directed to a pastoral leader, it is generally applicable to all the baptized.
Verse 16 has been central to our discussions within the church over the nature, inspiration and authority of the Bible. “All Scripture is inspired by God,” or literally, “God breathed.” For many of my friends taking a literalist approach to the scriptures, this is a proof text demonstrating that God literally dictated each and every word of the Bible such that it must be deemed “inerrant and infallible.” The obvious corollary is that if any statement in the Bible is found to be less than absolutely accurate in every respect, God’s veracity and trustworthiness is called into question. Consequently, these folks find themselves in a running battle with the findings of astronomers, geologists and biologists concerning our origins which they feel cannot be reconciled with the creation accounts in Genesis. Their feverish efforts to discredit the theory of evolution have given birth to, among other things, the Creation and Earth History Museum in Santee, California. The museum is dedicated to the “biblical account of science and history.” The facilities include a 10,000 square foot showcase demonstrating a “literal six-day creation.” Though the supporters of the museum claim to be furthering the interests of science, it is clear that the true agenda is defense of the Bible’s integrity against the onslaught of mounting evidence supporting a four and one half billion year old earth, the origin of life from inorganic matter and the evolution of humans by natural selection through a shared ancestry with the great apes.
A careful reading of our lesson demonstrates just how far off the mark and how needless these efforts are. First, understand that when Paul speaks of the scriptures, he is referring only to the Hebrew Scriptures. If we assume that this letter was actually penned by Paul, then no other New Testament writings are yet in existence and it is highly doubtful that Paul would refer to his own letters as scripture. Assuming that II Timothy was written by a disciple of Paul after his death, the gospels could have been in existence for no more than a couple of decades and would not have established themselves as scripture by this time. Application of this text, strictly speaking, does not go to the New Testament.
Second, note well the purposes for which scripture is useful: “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.” Vss. 16-17. Nowhere does Paul suggest that scripture is useful for answering questions about history, geology, biology and astronomy, none of which anyone in his day was even asking. So it is not enough to say that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. One has to go a step further and ask for what purpose the Bible is inerrant and infallible. If the claim is that the Bible is an inerrant and infallible witness to Jesus, then I have no problem with this assertion (though I prefer the words “faithful and reliable” to “inerrant and infallible”). On the other hand, when it comes to determining the age of a rock or finding the nearest pizza place, there are obviously other texts that can speak more authoritatively to these issues than the Bible.
Of course, this does not mean that the Bible has nothing to say to the sciences and what they reveal. The pursuit of knowledge and understanding about our planet is implicitly blessed in the commission given to human beings in Genesis to “fill the earth and subdue it.” Genesis 1:28. As pointed out previously, this commission must be interpreted in light of the second creation account in Genesis 2:4-17 demonstrating that our dominion over the earth consists in serving as God’s gardeners. Because “the earth is the Lord’s,” we are not free to exploit it in ways that diminish its life forms and destroy its ecology. Psalm 24:1. Like all knowledge, scientific knowledge must be brought under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. In the service of sinful and self serving humanity, science can easily become a tool of greed, exploitation, war and tyranny. Knowledge must be tempered with wisdom and the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Psalm 111:10.
This parable of the poor widow and the unjust judge is unique to the Gospel of Luke. It follows immediately on the heels of Jesus’ teaching about the coming of the Son of man in Luke 17:22-37. “The days are coming,” says Jesus, “when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of man, and you will not see it.” Luke 17:22. Jesus goes on to warn the disciples that many will come seeking a following and declaring that the day of the Son of man is at hand. The disciples must not be carried away by any such claims. They must wait patiently for this day and the waiting will continue for an indefinite period of time. But when that day comes, it will arrive suddenly and without warning, just as the flood overtook the generation of Noah and destruction came suddenly upon Sodom. Luke 17:26-30. Moreover, when the Son of man returns, no one will have to wonder whether the time has actually arrived. For “as the lightning lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of man be in his day.” Luke 17:24.
This parable, then, is for the disciples as they live in the anxious time between Jesus’ resurrection and the “revealing of the Son of man.” During this time they are to pray. Prayer plays a significant role in Luke’s gospel. The Lord’s Prayer is introduced specifically in response to Jesus’ disciples’ request that he teach them to pray. Luke 11:1-4. In the Book of Acts, the disciples are gathered in prayer as the Holy Spirit descends upon them at Pentecost. Acts 1:12-14. The prayer Jesus speaks of is not a passive activity and it does not consist of asking God for personal favors. Prayer is a cry to God for the coming of the kingdom promised to us. The kingdom of God, not our own individual concerns, is to be the focus of our praying. For the coming of this Kingdom we are “to cry out day and night.” Luke 18:7. It is by such prayer that the kingdom comes: 1) through the transformation of our minds and hearts such that we will be able to live peaceably in this kingdom and, 2) through God’s agency in our lives made possible as we open ourselves to the influence of his Holy Spirit. The following observation by philosopher James K. A. Smith says it all:
“The “desiring” model of the human person begins from our nature as intentional beings who first and foremost (and ultimately) intend the world in the mode of love. We are primordially and essentially agents of love, which takes the structure of desire or longing. We are essentially and ultimately desiring animals, which is simply to say that we are essentially and ultimately lovers. To be human is to love, and it is what we love that defines who we are.” Smith, James K. A, Desiring the Kingdom, (c. 2009 James K.A. Smith, pub. Baker Academic) pp. 50-51 (emphasis supplied).
To desire the kingdom is to love the kingdom. To love the kingdom is to pray for the kingdom. To pray for the kingdom is to be transformed by the kingdom such that the anticipated reign of God becomes a present reality; a ray of sunlight breaking through the clouds; “a foretaste of the feast to come.”
Thus far, the issue has been addressed from the human side: when will the kingdom come? When will the Son of Man be revealed? When will we see God’s justice? In verse 8, Jesus turns the tables on us and asks us to consider whether we will be prepared when God does act. Will God’s mighty act of salvation be recognized as such by a faithful band of disciples who have been waiting for it? Or will salvation look like mere judgment to a people who have lost their desire for the kingdom?