Genesis 32:22-31 – Jacob wrestles with God/the angel
Ho, everyone who thirsts,
come to the waters;
and you that have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without price.
Psalm 145:8-9, 14-21 (16) – The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.
Romans 9:1-5 – They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
Matthew 14:13-21 – Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples, and the disciples gave them to the crowds.
Prayer of the Day
Glorious God, your generosity waters the world with goodness, and you cover creation with abundance. Awaken in us a hunger for the food that satisfies both body and spirit, and with this food fill all the starving world; through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Alleluia. One does not live by | bread alone,
but by every word that comes from the | mouth of God. Alleluia. (Matt. 4:4)
Before I begin, I want to offer a word of thanks to Andrea Martinez on our staff, and John Turnquist, who read and proof these posts each week. Andrea also edits and posts the weekly podcast. Thanks also to Don Carlson who researched these posts.
Genesis 32 – Jacob wrestles with the angel
Two weeks ago, July 23, 2017, we had Jacob’s ladder, his dream of being in liminal space, in reality, fleeing to the border for his life, and in his dream, being in the space between heaven and earth. In that dream he received grace, the patriarchal promise of progeny, in spite of his many deceptions and betrayals.
This week’s story is four chapters and twenty years later (Gen. 31:41). You know the background story: Jacob married the two sisters, Leah, the elder daughter of Laban, with the tender eyes, and Rachel, the younger, who is pleasing to the eyes. He worked seven years for Rachel, but Laban switched out Rachel for Leah on the wedding day, tricking Jacob. Served him right. So then he worked another seven years for Rachel, who he “loved more.”
Leah gave birth to Simeon, Reuben, Levi, and Judah. Rachel was having trouble getting pregnant, and getting desperate, so she gave her servant Bilhah to Jacob. Bilhah gave birth to Dan and Naphtali. Leah got jealous, so she gave her servant Zilpah to Jacob. Zilpah gave birth to Gad and Asher. Then Leah gave birth to Issachar, Zebulun and Dinah. (For a midrash on Dinah’s rape, read “The Red Tent” by Anita Diamant). Finally, Rachel gave birth to Joseph and died giving birth to Benjamin.
So, now Jacob has two wives, two concubines, and at least fourteen children. This is why I always chuckle when I hear the phrase, “We believe in biblical marriage.”
Jacob is doing well. His flocks are increasing. He is, however, having trouble with his father-in-law Laban and Laban’s sons. His flocks have done better than theirs, so they are jealous. The tension builds. His life is in danger, so God tells Jacob to return to his homeland.
Afraid of what Laban would say, Jacob sneaks out with his wives, concubines, kids, and all the cattle, which he considers his (but which Laban considers his). Three days later, Laban discovers they are gone and furiously sets out in hot pursuit. Ten days later, Laban catches up. It is only a dream from God that prevents Laban from killing Jacob, who always seems to be in hot water with someone. Laban is angry, at the loss of his daughters, grandchildren and flock, but strikes an agreement. Once again Jacob erects a standing stone, and they part company.
Safe finally? Except this: a scout tells him his betrayed brother Esau is approaching with 400 men. Uh oh. Jacob divides the entourage into camps. This gives him a 50/50 chance of surviving. Always the trickster. Then he sends gifts to Esau. A peace offering? 200 female goats, 20 male, 200 ewes, 20 rams, 40 cows, 20 female donkeys, 10 male donkeys, 10 bulls, 30 female camels, and so on. This is the point that our reading begins.
In the night, Jacob packs up and sends ahead his wives, slaves, and children. Esau wouldn’t kill them would he? Jacob himself stays on the far side of the river to see what will happen, ever the coward. I also love the phrase “Heroes of the Bible” – not so much. These are stories of deeply flawed people in highly dysfunctional families, whom God uses for God’s purposes anyway. This should give us all hope.
In the middle of the night, Jacob tossing and turning, has a dream – a bad dream. He wrestles with a man, and when it was over, although he prevails, he is left with a broken hip. Did Jacob wrestle with an angel or with God? Hosea 12:4 seems to indicate both.
In the dream, Jacob asked for a blessing – classic Jacob. Give me something. The man asked Jacob’s name, and renamed him Israel (which means “who prevails with God”). Jacob believed he wrestled with God. “Certainly I have seen God face-to-face and prevailed.” Jacob sought to make himself a hero.
This is where our story ends, but it’s good to know the rest. Esau approached with over 400 men. Jacob limping, put the slaves and their children out front, then Leah and her children, and finally Rachel and her children. Priorities, right?
When finally arrived, Jacob went out front to face the music. He bowed his head to the ground seven times. Esau ran to him, embraced him, and kissed him.
This story is grace upon grace upon grace. All of Jacob’s life is grace, inspire of himself.
Some have called this a pre-incarnation appearance of Christ. That may be a bit much.
Homiletical possibilities abound. Every interesting person I have known has wrestled with God. Speak of your own wrestling with God. Help people know that their wrestling with God isn’t unfaithfulness, but rather a normal experience, one that even Jesus had. “Let this cup pass from me.” “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…”
In this story, God appears as a dark, disguised threat, not as a protector. Sometimes our experiences of the divine are like that. You will wrestle with God, but it’s an uphill battle. You never come out the same. Just ask Jonah. Jacob’s dreams and experiences of God come when he is exposed and vulnerable. How about you? Fears, darkness, loneliness, vulnerabilities, empty feelings of powerlessness, exhaustion, and relentless pain. Ever been there? Jacob is forced to confront his fears, weakness, sins, failings, and ruthlessness. Luther calls this tentatio in Latin, anfechtung in German. In a theology of the cross, this is the path to God. There is no revelation without agitation. There is no art without struggle, without confronting our brokenness, our restlessness, our pain, and our weakness. Think about Paul’s thorn in the flesh.
When have you wrestled with God. Why? When have you experienced the dark night of the soul? What tends to keep you up at night? When have you experienced undeserved grace and blessing? You will receive blessings, in your divine encounters, but you may come away with a limp.
If you choose to preach the Feeding of the 5,000, Isaiah 55 may be the better choice for the first reading.
Isaiah 55 is the last chapter in Deutero-Isaiah. Proto-Isaiah, chapters 1-39, being pre-exilic; Deutero-Isaiah, chapters 40-55, exilic; and Trito-Isaiah, chapters 56-66, post exilic.
The most profound and troubling words come in the second verse of the pericope, “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?” Walter Brueggemann’s article, “Counterscript,” speaks to these words in 19 theses. Three of the more pointedly germane theses talk about a common script that empire’s hold, especially today:
- The dominant script of both selves and communities in our society, for both liberals and conservatives, is the script of therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism that permeates every dimension of our common life.
* I use the term therapeutic to refer to the assumption that there is a product or a treatment or a process to counteract every ache and pain and discomfort and trouble, so that life may be lived without inconvenience.
* I use the term technological, following Jacques Ellul, to refer to the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot he solved.
* I say consumerist, because we live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us without regard to the neighbor, that assumes more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.” Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” The militarism that pervades our society exists to protect and maintain the system and to deliver and guarantee all that is needed for therapeutic technological consumerism. This militarism occupies much of the church, much of the national budget and much of the research program of universities.
It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of this script; it is everywhere reiterated and legitimated.
- This script — enacted through advertising, propaganda and ideology, especially in the several liturgies of television — promises to make us safe and happy.Therapeutic, technological, consumerist militarism pervades our public life and promises us security and immunity from every threat. And if we shall be safe, then we shall be happy, for who could watch the ads for cars and beers and deodorants and give thought to such matters as the trade deficit or homelessness or the residue of anger and insanity left by the war or by destruction of the environment? This script, with its illusion of safety and happiness, invites life in a bubble that is absent of critical reflection.
- That script has failed.I know this is not the conclusion that all would draw. It is, however, a lesson that is learned by the nations over and over again. It is clear to all but the right-wing radio talk people and the sponsoring neoconservatives that the reach of the American military in global ambition has served only to destabilize and to produce new and deep threats to our society. The charade of a national security state has left us completely vulnerable to the whim of the very enemies that our security posture has itself evoked. A by-product of such attempts at security, moreover, has served in astonishing ways to evoke acrimony in the body politic that makes our democratic decision-making processes nearly unworkable. [Article written in 2005; increasingly true today!]
We are not safe, and we are not happy. The script is guaranteed to produce new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness. And in response to new depths of insecurity and new waves of unhappiness, a greater resolve arises to close the deal according to the script, which produces ever new waves and new depths.
Daniel Kirk points out that these first five verses of Romans 9 are an introduction to Paul’s argument in chapters 9-11. If salvation is now open to Gentiles, where does that leave the Jews? Kirk also points ok that this passage is quite self-referential. In the English translation, Paul uses “I” or “my” over a dozen times; this is personal for Paul.
In chapters 1-8, Paul wrestled rhetorically with the unity shared by Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews), a unity they shared in and through Christ. In chapters 9-11, Paul now addresses the unity shared by Jews and Christians (Chapters 12-16 will concern the unity of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians).
Paul makes it clear that the covenants and promises are in tact:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen.
One should read through chapters 9-11 in one fell swoop to get a sense of what Paul is after rhetorically. 11:25ff is one of the high points,
So that you may not claim to be wiser than you are, brothers and sisters, I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written,
‘Out of Zion will come the Deliverer;
he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.’
‘And this is my covenant with them,
when I take away their sins.’
In other words, don’t think that you are wise enough to determine who ought be “in” and who ought be “out.” God is in the business of inclusion, not exclusion, centripetal force, not centrifugal. Do you think that is “just” or “unjust”?
O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!
‘For who has known the mind of the Lord?
Or who has been his counselor?’
‘Or who has given a gift to him,
to receive a gift in return?’
For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever. Amen.
Matthew 14: A Tale of Two Banquets
The Feeding of the Five Thousand is an important text. It is one of the few stories that appears in all four gospels. The feeding in Matthew must be understood in light of the death of John the Baptist at Herod’s wedding banquet. Matthew is contrasting Herod’s banquet with Jesus’ banquet. Matthew retains the juxtaposition of Herod’s banquet and Jesus’ banquet in Mark, from which he gets the story.
This Herod is not Herod the Great from the infancy narrative, who, as we know, died, making possible the Holy Family’s return from Egypt. This is Herod’s son, less powerful as indicated by the fact that he is simply identified as Herod the Tetrarch. Herod the Great’s kingdom has been split into four territories. Nevertheless, Hauerwas (Brazos Theological Commentary on the Bible: Matthew) points out that this Herod seems to be also skilled in the politics of death.
Herod’s banquet is in a lavish place, while Jesus’ banquet is in a deserted place. In Herod’s place, there is plenty, excess even. It is a place of power. Call it a power lunch. There is plenty for a few, while the masses starve. Women are brought in to perform and pleasure the powerful men. A powerless prisoner is executed for entertainment. Herod seems reluctant to execute John, but he has promised the party; he would give Herodias what she wants. In order to maintain power, the powerful must maintain the myth of power. The leftovers are not twelve baskets of bread, but death and decay: John’s head delivered on plate, like a pig, like the final course. Important officials are invited. Herod’s wife is there, the one he stole from his brother, an act of power which John the Baptist denounced.
Is it possible to maintain an empire and feed people who are hungry? The leftovers of empire have almost always been destruction and death–even in the name of peace and security. There is always enough money for weapons, but never enough to feed those who are hungry. Into such a world, Jesus comes with an alternative vision.
We who live in the world’s most powerful empire must ask this question. When do the bloody sacrifices of being an empire compromise our ability to serve the world, to be a blessing?
In contrast to Herod’s banquet, Jesus’ feast is in a deserted place – a place to which he took his disciples for rest, but the crowds followed. It is not in a lavish place, like Herod’s banquet. Those invited to Jesus’ feast are not the few, the rich and powerful, they are the poor, the lame, and the blind, as in Isaiah’s prophecies. This is consistent with Jesus’ preaching (Luke 14:13).
Herod takes a lot, leaves behind only death. Herod consumes. Jesus multiplies. Jesus takes a little and makes a lot of it. He spreads things out so that everyone has enough.
The feeding is an apt parable for a hungry world. “That’s communism!” someone said to me once. “No, it’s enough-ism.” It’s not about everyone getting exactly the same. That might not be fair. It’s about making sure everyone has enough; that’s all. This is not so radical a concept. People aspire to more than just “enough.” But clearly, there are many in our world who do not have enough. Half the world lives on $2/day; one quarter live on $1/day. The thing that drives me nuts is that we have the wealth and now the technology to feed everyone. We seem to lack the will. This is my sin too. Me having more is more important than everyone having enough. I reaffirm this self-centered reality with nearly every nonessential purchase.
“You give them something to eat,” is Jesus’ strong call, right up there with, “When I was hungry you gave me food,” and “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”
Lundblad echoes the prophetic voice:
Jesus knows we are perplexed, but my excuses are no better than those of the disciples! Jesus knew long ago what economists and hunger activists tell us now: we have everything we need to end world hunger. It would take $13 billion a year. That’s not even 3% of our defense budget.
Don Carlson suggests an article by Walter Brueggemann, “Myth of Scarcity,” as a helpful read prior to preaching. Brueggemann refers to Mark’s account, but it works for Matthew’s as well.
The feeding of the multitudes, recorded in Mark’s Gospel, is an example of the new world coming into being through God. When the disciples, charged with feeding the hungry crowd, found a child with five loaves and two fishes, Jesus took, blessed, broke, and gave the bread. These are the four decisive verbs of our sacramental existence. Jesus conducted a Eucharist, a gratitude. He demonstrated that the world is filled with abundance and freighted with generosity. If bread is broken and shared, there is enough for all. Jesus is engaged in the sacramental, subversive reordering of public reality.
The profane is the opposite of the sacramental. “Profane” means flat, empty, one-dimensional, exhausted. The market ideology wants us to believe that the world is profane – life consists of buying, selling, weighing, measuring, trading, and then finally sinking down into death and nothingness. But Jesus presents an entirely different kind of economy, one infused with the mystery of abundance and a cruciform kind of generosity.
Five thousand are fed and 12 baskets of food are left over – one for every tribe of Israel. Jesus transforms the economy by blessing it and breaking it beyond self-interest. From broken Friday bread comes Sunday abundance. In this and in the following account of a miraculous feeding, people do not grasp, hoard, resent, or act selfishly; they watch as the juices of heaven multiply the bread of earth. Jesus reaffirms Genesis 1.
The feeding of the 5000 – or some version of a feeding miracle, 5000 or 4000 – shows up six times in the gospels. John Dominic Crossan points out that loaves and fish are an allusion to Sepphoris and Tiberias in Galilee. Sepphoris, a very Romanized city, was the center for grain, the breadbasket of Galilee. Tiberias, built in honor of Tiberius Caesar, was a very Romanized city that was the center of the fishing trade. Both were built to feed and sustain the empire.
[Herod] Antipas had multiplied the loaves in the valleys around Sepphoris, and he now intended to multiply the fishes in the waters around Tiberias, for the kingdom of Rome. But a magnificently parabolic counterstory tells us how Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes, for the kingdom of God (Crossan, The Greatest Prayer, p. 126).
As we have had parable about the kingdom of heaven for the past few weeks, this story then is also about the kingdom of heaven vis-à-vis the kingdom of Caesar. Where is nourishment to be found? Where is abundance to be found? To go back to Isaiah, where and what are the things that truly satisfy?
A final Brueggemann article, “Enough is Enough,” elaborates on a theology of scarcity versus a theology of abundance, starting with Genesis. How can you make these very different ways of thinking and being in the world come alive for your people, for their own sake and for the sake of the world?