Wrestling with Our Hunger

The Path of the Disciple: Searching for the Face of God

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A

Worship this week can be a reminder that we are seeking the face of God when we gather but also when we scatter. Our hunger for God is not only met when we gather for worship but also when we are at work, when we are in fellowship, when we engage in conversations and build relationships, when we serve and love as we are sent to do.

I’ve always found Jacob’s wrestling at Jabbok’s Ford a sad story, and not just because of the limping thing. We’ll get back to that in a moment. For now, we need to back up and remember what brought Jacob to this lonely riverbank wrestling match.

If you recall, Jacob ran away from home, urged on by his mother and encouraged by his father, because he had stolen the blessing that was rightly due to his brother, Esau. And Esau didn’t take it well. To say the least. So, Jacob high-tailed it out of town. He headed off to some cousins in the swinging town of Paddam-aram.

Jacob did well there and now he is heading back with wives and concubines and children galore, but also livestock and servants and more wealth than anyone could shake a stick at. And least that is what Jacob hopes, since the last time he saw his brother - in the rearview mirror - he was shaking big sticks. So, he’s come back to show that he is a bigger man than he was. He has done well, which must mean God is blessing him. And if God is blessing him, then surely Esau could too.

Our passage begins “The same night...” It was the same day as the setting aside of what is essentially a bribe for Esau. He is sending ahead a gift so overwhelming that no one could stay mad at the giver. Again - at least Jacob hopes.

So, he sends off the bribe - I mean the gift. And then he sends his wives and children on ahead so that he can sit and contemplate his fate all night long. And a man, says the story, a man wrestled with him all night long. Who is this man? It doesn’t really say – clearly anyway. Oh, we look at the words this mysterious man says when he renamed Jacob “You have striven with God...” And we say it must have been God; Jacob wrestled with God. Others say that it was a representative of God, an angel who wrestled Jacob there on Jabbok’s Ford.

The story says, “a man. And the naming says, “You have striven with God and humans and have prevailed.” And with humans. What if it wasn’t God after all? Or what if this representative was someone Jacob knew, which is why he needed to get away before the sun came up? What if it was Esau who had come to help Jacob work through things? What if God sent Esau to his brother and let him bring a blessing?

Crazy, I know. But if you read on, you see that Esau is in a much better place than Jacob is, at least in terms of spirit and inner peace. So, maybe. But I don’t really mean to contradict centuries of biblical interpretation.

I remember returning from serving as chaplain to a weeklong choir camp. I came back on a spiritual high but was physically worn out. I was blessed but exhausted. And my blessings came to me through the means of many brothers and sisters in the faith. But they cost something, time and energy and effort. No, I’m not talking about a transaction, about buying our blessings. I’m talking about the reality that blessings don’t usually come to us when we are reclining at our ease. Instead, we sense blessings when we expend ourselves, when we pour ourselves out in service, when we engage in some effort, and yeah, sometimes it feels like wrestling with the very ones we are trying to serve, the very ones who will bless us if we keep at it—if, like Jacob, we refuse to let go. Despite the pain, despite the struggle, despite the sapping of energy, we hold on for the blessing. And it will come. That’s part of the promise and the hope. That’s part of the joy and the peace.

Now, there doesn’t seem to be any wrestling in the story of the feeding of the five thousand in Matthew’s Gospel. And isn’t it odd that we call it the feeding of the five thousand when the text clearly says there were” five thousand men, besides women and children”? Besides? Of course, it would be hard to count the total; the math would be beyond us without more information. Did most of the men come alone and only some women and children? Or was the crowd actually mostly women and children, and the men were the minority? In which case, it could have been the feeding of the fifteen thousand! But that’s pure speculation, I suppose. At least we could have called it the feeding of the five thousand, plus. That way we could acknowledge that there were others there.

What we’re wrestling with here are our presuppositions or our prejudices. That’s never an easy exercise. Perhaps the more important wrestling happening in this story is the disciples wrestling with responsibility. Send them away so they can take care of their own hunger, they say (v.15). A proper response, it would seem to most of us. Give them space to deal with their own needs. In our individualistic culture, that is the way we have of honoring everyone’s freedom.

Jesus has a different response. You might even say that he tells the disciples to not let go of the hungry ones until they have blessed you. Is that assuming too much? Or should it be that the hungry ones won’t let go until they get the blessing that they want and need? Or a both/and kind of situation? Where is the blessing? How is the blessing shared? That’s one of those abiding questions before us as disciples of Jesus Christ.

Another question is, “Will this cost us?” We can clearly see that it will. That is the disciples’ fear. We don’t have enough; we couldn’t possibly meet this need. Jesus asks them and us to think again. We may limp before we have finished wrestling with this problem, but maybe the blessing is woven into the limping. Or maybe the limping becomes a sign of the blessing.

We can’t help but hear chapter 25 of Matthew as we read this story. Like Jacob who believed he saw the face of God in his struggle, we are reminded that in meeting the needs of the hungry before us, we are also seeing that face. As we do it to those who some consider the least of these, the ones who can’t pay you back, the ones who haven’t earned their bread and fish but just receive it and, surprisingly, share it, we do it to him. The one we follow is right there before us. Roll up your sleeves, wrestling is about to begin again.

In This Series...

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes


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In This Series...

Tenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost, Year A - Lectionary Planning Notes