The Ninth Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 13, 2 August 2020
Let your continual mercy, O Lord, cleanse and defend your Church; and, because it cannot continue in safety without your help, protect and govern it always by your goodness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Background: Jacob wrestles – interpretations from Etz Hayim
First of all, let me share the translation of Genesis 32:22-31 from Etz Hayim, and then notes of interpretation.
“That same night he arose, and talking his two wives, his two maidservants, and his eleven children, he crossed the ford of the Jabbok, after taking them across the stream, he sent across all his possessions. Jacob was left alone. And a man wrestled with until the break of dawn. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he wrenched Jacob’s hip at its socket, so that the socket of his hip was strained as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for dawn is breaking.’ But he answered, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ Said the other, ‘What is your name?’ He replied, ‘Jacob.’ Said he, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with beings divine and human, and have prevailed.’ Jacob asked, ‘Pray tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘You must not ask my name!’ And he took leave of him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, meaning, ‘I have seen a divine being face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Peniel, limping on his hip.
The greater commentary in Etz Hayim has a different take on this popular tale from the life of Jacob in the Patriarchal History. For Christian interpretation see the commentary under the Track One First Reading, below. This commentary sees the mysterious man with whom Jacob wrestles as essentially evil, possibly the guardian angel of Esau, Jacob’s estranged brother to whom Jacob is travelling to meet. Other possibilities are that the entity is the guardian of the river. One possibility is that there is a psychological dimension to this event, Jacob wrestling with his conscience. The human aspect of his personality wishes to avoid the encounter, but the divine calls him to meet and reconcile with his brother.
A further note is one the renaming of Jacob to the name “Yisra-el”, namely “one who struggles with God”. The commentator sees the name as evocative of the struggle that humankind has in seeing the place of God in their lives. Abraham’s haggling with God over the fate of Sodom is a good example of this struggle in which a man can confront God and bargain with God.
First Reading: Genesis 32:22-31
The same night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When 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. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
Von Rad, in his commentary on Genesis, sees this reading as a many layered telling of an ancient tradition. Even as we look at it today we can see a multiplicity of interpretations to an unusual story. Perhaps we best see it is a story that stands alone, serving as an etiology of a place name (Peniel) or the story of how Jacob become Israel, but rather as a moment to consider Jacob as he prepares to meet his estranged brother Esau. As you meditate on this story, you might want to listen to Jacob’s prayer as he prepares for the meeting:
If there is a theme here it is one of wrestling, with conscience, with brother, with both man and God. We first get this notion in the story of Jacob’s birth where he grabs Esau’s heel as Esau is born before him. There is the struggling for the birthright and the contentions with Laban over Leah and Rachel. In this story he is literally touched by a man that Jacob does not know. It is not power that is persuasive hear but rather something spiritual or magic. We get a clue when the unknown man asks to be released because “day is breaking”. It may be that this entity is no night demon, but merely the dark turmoil of Jacob’s soul.
Then there is the name. Robert Alter makes an interesting point in his commentary on this pericope. “Thus, “Israel” does not really replace his name but becomes a synonym for it—a practice reflected in the parallelism of biblical poetry, where ‘Jacob’ is always used in the first half of the line and “Israel,” the poetic variation, in the second half.” This lends credence to Von Rad’s notion of layering in the Jacob story, especially our reading for today. “Striving with God,” is not only Jacob’s destiny but ours as well – it calls us to an active relationship with God full of all the stuff of our lives. This might be a good preaching point.
Breaking open Genesis:
1. When have you had a “dark night of the soul”?
2. What were the resources that you used in struggling with this?
3. How might you pray about your troubles?
Psalm 17:1-7,16 Exaudi, Domine
1 Hear my plea of innocence, O Lord;
give heed to my cry; *
listen to my prayer, which does not come from lying lips.
2 Let my vindication come forth from your presence; *
let your eyes be fixed on justice.
3 Weigh my heart, summon me by night, *
melt me down; you will find no impurity in me.
4 I give no offense with my mouth as others do; *
I have heeded the words of your lips.
5 My footsteps hold fast to the ways of your law; *
in your paths my feet shall not stumble.
6 I call upon you, O God, for you will answer me; *
incline your ear to me and hear my words.
7 Show me your marvelous loving-kindness, *
O Savior of those who take refuge at your right hand
from those who rise up against them.
16 But at my vindication I shall see your face; *
when I awake, I shall be satisfied, beholding
Artur Weiser, in his commentary on the Psalms entitles this psalm as “The Divine Verdict”, and it is a fine accompaniment to the First Reading for this morning. It is as if the words spoken by the psalmist are on the lips of Jacob. The elided verses make reference to enemies to enemies, but our verses focus on justice and righteousness requested of God, and the final verse indicates an intimate encounter with the Divine. Verse three seems especially appropriate, but it is a different perspective than that of Jacob. “Weigh my heart, summon me by night, melt me down; you will find no impurity in me.” The night reference is similar to the Jacob story, but the innocence of the author is not like the troubled soul of Jacob. The author longs for God’s involvement in life, “incline your ear to me and hear my words.” Perhaps this psalm is more representative of what the soul in Jacob’s position should be praying rather than merely asking for protection.
Breaking open Psalm 17:
1. When do you think you are a sinner?
2. When do you realize your innocence before God?
3. How do you reconcile these two concepts?
First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-5
Thus says the Lord:
"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.
Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread,
and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good,
and delight yourselves in rich food.
Incline your ear, and come to me;
listen, so that you may live.
I will make with you an everlasting covenant,
my steadfast, sure love for David.
See, I made him a witness to the peoples,
a leader and commander for the peoples.
See, you shall call nations that you do not know,
and nations that do not know you shall run to you,
because of the LORD your God, the Holy One of Israel,
for he has glorified you."
Isaiah has left behind his calling Israel to understand its faithlessness over against God, and now to look at what it can do in that relationship. The images evoked are beautiful. We are invited to eat what is good. It is an invitation that takes into account the people’s hunger and thirst, and asks them to be discerning in their choices. The banquet that this Isaiah envisions, indeed, promises is one of good things. It is a banquet that is embodied in a new relationship and covenant with God. All that we are asked to do in this endeavor is to discern. “Eat what is good”, Isaiah asks of us, “despise what is worthless,” he continues. Israel has discovered that compromise with other peoples has risked their relationship with the Holy One. It is that relationship that will bring both wholeness and satisfaction. After the exile, comes the feast.
Breaking open Isaiah:
1. What are the good things in your life?
2. What compromises have you regretted?
3. Where is God leading you?
Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22 Exaltabo te, Deus
8 The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, *
slow to anger and of great kindness.
9 The Lord is loving to everyone *
and his compassion is over all his works.
15 The Lord upholds all those who fall; *
he lifts up those who are bowed down.
16 The eyes of all wait upon you, O Lord, *
and you give them their food in due season.
17 You open wide your hand *
and satisfy the needs of every living creature.
18 The Lord is righteous in all his ways *
and loving in all his works.
19 The Lord is near to those who call upon him, *
to all who call upon him faithfully.
20 He fulfills the desire of those who fear him; *
he hears their cry and helps them.
21 The Lord preserves all those who love him, *
but he destroys all the wicked.
22 My mouth shall speak the praise of the Lord; *
let all flesh bless his holy Name for ever and ever.
This psalm is familiar to us in its use as a table prayer. If anything it is a celebration of the providence of God, an understanding of all the blessings that God does give to us. The whole psalm is not only thankful for the groaning board, but also for God’s rule in the world and military victory (in the elided verses). It is almost a table grace that follows Isaiah’s banquet in the first reading.
Breaking open Psalm 145:
1. What is your prayer before or after a meal?
2. If you have given up this tradition, why?
3. How do you give thanks in other parts of your life?
Second Reading: Romans 9:1-5
I am speaking the truth in Christ-- I am not lying; my conscience confirms it by the Holy Spirit-- I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my own people, my kindred according to the flesh. 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.
The last verse of the previous chapter, gives us movement into Paul’s reverie on what he has in Christ. He sees that nothing in all creation “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” It is a heartfelt confession that he makes. He confesses Christ, and then he confesses all the gifts that God has given his kin – the Israelites. In usual fashion he lists them: adoption, glory, covenants, law, worship, promises, patriarchs (and matriarchs), and finally the Messiah. In the first chapter of Romans, Paul recognizes their prominence, the Gospel given for the “Jew first and also the Greek.” Paul is in anguish over the rejection of Jesus by some of the Jews. Has the Gospel failed? Are the Jews forgotten? This is an important question in these days when anti-Semitism is rearing an ugly head again. What is the church’s role here? What are we called to be and do in light of God’s gifts? What needs to be remembered is that it is God who choses, it is God who elects and lifts up. Unfortunately the examples of all this are usually people that we reject.
Breaking open Romans:
1. Who are rejected in your life?
2. When have you been surprised by God’s choice and election?
3. For whom do you pray, that God might chose them?
The Gospel: St. Matthew 14:13-21
Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns. When he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them and cured their sick. When it was evening, the disciples came to him and said, “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” Jesus said to them, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” They replied, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” And he said, “Bring them here to me.” Then he ordered the crowds to sit down on the grass. 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. And all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full. And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children.
Following all of the parables in Chapter 13 in Matthew we have a series of troubling events that precede this story. There is Jesus’ rejection at Nazareth, followed by John the Baptist’s death at the hands of Herod. Jesus’ reaction to this is to steal away to a deserted place, to meditate, to think on these things. Unlike the situation at Nazareth (his own country) the people here follow him into the wilderness, and Jesus is moved by that. What we have here is a lesson in recognizing abundance in spite of what we have first perceived. It is a sign of the Kingdom of God (see the Track Two First Reading). The disciples are unaware, and unprepared. Jesus is prepared by his compassion – he sees the need in people. The disciples see only their inabilities in the situation. It is the little gift that Jesus blesses in this situation. What might we think on or preach on when we consider the needs of our own time? What little gifts might we bring?
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. Whom does your compassion see these days?
2. What little gift might you bring?
3. Of whom are you especially aware during the Pandemic? What can you bring?
General Ideal: Moving beyond our limits
Scene 1: Recognizing our own dark night of the soul (Track One, First Reading)
Recognizing the feast given in spite of our faithlessness (Track Two, First Reading)
Scene 2: Seeing the gift and giving thanks (both Psalms)
Scene 3: Knowing the gifts of those whom we have rejected (Second Reading)
Scene 4: Blessing, Breaking, and Giving (Gospel)
All questions and commentary copyright © 2020, Michael T. Hiller
 Lieber, D. (2001), Etz Hayom, Torah and Commentary, The Jewish Publication Society, New York, pages 201ff.
 Genesis 32:10-13
 Alter, R. (2004), The Five Books of Moses, A Translation with Commentary, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, location 4255.
 Romans 8:39
 Romans 1:16