Proper 13, Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time – August 3, 2014

Reading 1: Reading 2: Reading 3: Reading 4: 
Genesis 32:22-31Psalm 17:1-7, 15 Romans 9:1-5Matthew 14:13-21

By Russell Pregeant

The Genesis reading is one of the most process-friendly texts in the Bible. To begin with, it presents God as interacting with humanity in a way that actually suggests divine vulnerability. For the wrestling match is no mere charade in which God intentionally withholds power in order to guide Jacob through a process of transformation. When “the man” (=God) pleads for Jacob to let him go in v. 27, we must take the request at face value—that is, as an indication that the divine combatant cannot break Jacob’s grip. The beginning of v. 25 makes this perfectly clear: “When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob….” In other words, Jacob, at this moment, in this set of circumstances, has in some degree the power to thwart God’s intention. To deny this conclusion is to ignore the plain sense of the text.

The qualifications are important, however. As Terence Fretheim observes, “this text does not speak of God in all of God’s glory; God has taken on human form and stooped to encounter Jacob at his own level.”1And, from a broader perspective, God has cards to play, to which Jacob has no access: “God alone has the power to grant a blessing.”2 But if we try to derive systematic-theological conclusions from these observations, we will quickly find ourselves far afield from the text. We might ask, for example, whether God, after having “stooped” to Jacob’s level by taking human form, could suddenly disengage from the fleshly cloak, assert controlling power, and put Jacob in his place. Any answer we might venture, however, would have to come from our own preconceived theological perspective rather than from the text itself. For questions like these do not really come into play here. We are of course entitled to ask them as we work out our own theological perspectives, and we have every right to bring them into consideration as we ponder the text for preaching values; but we should be careful not to read either the questions or our answers back into the text.

What we can see in the text is important, however. In this set of circumstances, as God has chosen to be manifest to Jacob, the human partner in the encounter has a degree of power to assert against God, which is to say that God’s power is not absolute. And so it is from the perspective of process-relational theology: God, although the most powerful being that is coherently conceivable, does not have all the power in the universe. For other beings would thus have none—which would really mean that they could not exist at all, for to exist is to have some degree of power. An important corollary of God’s vulnerability in this set of circumstances, moreover, is God’s genuine interaction with human beings—that is, God’s responsiveness to human actions. Jacob’s degree of power over against God results in God’s acceding to Jacob’s demandfor a blessing. God thus undergoes a change of intentions, as God in fact does in other circumstances in the Hebrew Bible. In Genesis 18:22-33, for example, Abraham successfully argues God down in a bargaining session over how many righteous persons in Sodom would be necessary for God to rescind the decision to destroy it. As it turns out in this latter story, the bargaining was to little avail, since Sodom could not meet even the lowest quota. But in Genesis 32, Jacob’s persistence has concrete consequences, although we do not know the exact content of the blessing he wrests from God.

The struggle also has another consequence, which presents an intriguing opportunity for reflection. Although Jacob in a sense prevails, he emerges from the match not unscathed but with a limp. Thus, if we treat the story as a metaphor for all the divine-human encounters in which human beings “wrestle” with God in one way or another, we should make room for the possibility that even when such encounters ultimately result in a blessing, they can in some sense be costly! That is to say, to “contend” with God—that is, to engage in fully honest struggles in which we try to deceive neither ourselves nor God—is also to take a risk. Put another way, to be honest with God (and ourselves) is to become vulnerable; it is to expose our inmost thoughts to daylight, which can of course be ultimately healing. And yet, even when healing comes, we may be left with scars. The New Testament, in fact, makes this perfectly clear. “For I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body,” Paul says in Galatians 6:17. And in his encounter with the risen Jesus on the Damascus road he is struck with temporary blindness (Acts 9:1-19).

The theme of the dangerous aspects of divine-human encounter is prominent in the Hebrew Bible, and in the present case it combines with another motif to enhance the sense of mystery surrounding the deity: God’s refusal to answer Jacob’s request to know God’s name. In this ancient culture, to know someone’s name is to have power over that person. Here, then, is another sense in which God retains power over against Jacob, and it is an important sense indeed. Jacob, in contrast to God, reveals his own name, and God exercises divine sovereignty in granting him a new one. And all of this contributes to a sense of the otherness of God, as does the fact that the encounter occurs at night. In fact, the appearance of God in vulnerable, fleshly form, while it might seem to reduce the sense of mystery, could actually be seen as enhancing it: God cannot be fully categorized, not even as “the wholly other”! In that sense, God’s vulnerability, too, becomes part of the mystery. A god who can take on alternative forms is in some ways more mysterious than one who remains a distant spiritual entity. The revelation of God is always the unveiling of what remains in some sense unknowable.

The changing of Jacob’s name to Israel, in honor of his indomitable striving (both with God and the human opponents he has faced), allows the reader a glimpse of the larger plot of the Pentateuch, beyond the smaller dramas of human relationships that the stories of the patriarchs and matriarchs involve. When the ancient readers or hearers hear the name Israel, they will of course think of the people, God’s chosen people, of which they are a part. They are thus reminded of God’s promise to Abraham and will anticipate not only Jacob’s coming encounter with Esau but the role he will eventually play as father of the twelve tribes.

These readers will therefore think also of the continual striving with God that characterized the people as a whole. The Hebrew Bible is remarkably honest about the people’s periodic unfaithfulness, and we might be inclined to connect the Romans texts to this theme. It is a dangerous move, however, to view majority Israel’s non-recognition of Jesus as Messiah in this light; for it runs the risk of Christian chauvinism and anti-Judaism, of which we have seen far too much over the centuries. In Romans 9-11, Paul clearly sees this non-recognition in a negative light, but it is important to look past his negative point to the climax of his argument in 11:26: “all Israel will be saved.” If we use Romans 9:1-5 at all in a sermon, it should probably focus on vv. 4-5, which stress the essential role Israel plays in God’s history of salvation, and make clear that we need not accept the view that Jews who do not accept Jesus are somehow lost. Paul’s tortured logic in 9-11 can, as John Cobb and David Lull comment, “contribute only indirectly to” our own answers to the questions surrounding God’s dealings with Israel.3 Certainly the notion of God’s hardening of Israel’s heart (11:25) is not something that a process-relational theology, with its emphasis on freedom of the human will, could understand literally. What we can honor, without qualification, is his view that God intended to use Israel as a means for the salvation of all people, Jew and Gentile alike.

The gospel lesson has potential for interesting interaction with the Genesis story. In contrast to indications of God’s vulnerability, the Matthean account of the feeding of the five thousand presents Jesus, Son of God and Messiah, as exercising sovereignty over nature through the astonishing miracle of multiplying fish and loaves. There is, nevertheless, a hint at divine-human interdependence in 4:16, where Jesus—in response to the disciples’ concern about the hunger of the crowds—says, “You give them something to eat.” The pronoun “you” (humeis), unnecessary in the Greek because the subject of the sentence is already included in the verb, is emphatic, which suggests that the disciples’ role in the event is essential. The disciples, however, are initially not up to the challenge and can only point out the paucity of resources: “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” Jesus proceeds with the miracle, however, and the disciples participate by carrying out the distribution. The disciples thus do in fact feed the people, but not by their own powers. Their initial lack of faith prevented them from understanding that divine power, while not their own, was available to them in Jesus. Their lack of faith, related to their as yet inadequate understanding of Jesus’ identity, thus curtailed their own potential. Because they did not understand Jesus’ power, they were unable to recognize and use the power they actually had when they worked faithfully with him.

In Matthew 6:30 and 8:26, Jesus characterizes his disciples as persons of “little faith” (oligopistoi), and he repeats the term in the story that follows this one (14:31) and later in 16:8. “Little faith,” however, does not mean “no faith.” The disciples are works in progress, sometimes showing understanding (as in 13:51-53) and sometimes not (as in 14:1-21). One thing the present passage should convey to the reader is the vast potential for good that is available when followers of Jesus step out, in the faith that divine power is at their disposal, to perform deeds of justice and mercy in situations that seem impossible on the surface.

Realistically speaking, however, when we human beings do take up the mission to which God calls us, we inevitably find that attempts to do what is right, to do justice for the poor and the excluded, will buy us a great deal of trouble. For that reason, the reading from Psalm 17, as self-righteous as it can seem from one perspective, can be of some comfort as it airs a person’s agony in the face of injustice. For those of us in the affluent minority in this world, however, it is perhaps more helpful to hear this psalm as the prayer of others. As Marti Steussy writes, “Psalm 17 invites comfortable Christians to explore the desperation experienced by less fortunate children of God.”4 Thus, in a sermon focused on the gospel lesson, it might serve to underline the need for contemporary disciples to do something about seeing that the hungry are fed—not just feeding them ourselves but confronting the social and economic structures that create their hunger.

1 Terence Fretheim, “The Book of Genesis: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume I (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 568-69.

2 Ibid., 566.

3 John B. Cobb, Jr., and David J. Lull, Romans (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2005), 138.

4 Marti Steussy, Psalms (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 83.

Russell Pregeant is Professor of Religion and Philosophy and Chaplain, Emeritus, at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts and Visiting Professor in New Testament at Andover Newton Theological School in Newton, Massachusetts. As an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church, he has served as Associate Pastor at Rayne Memorial U.M.C. in New Orleans and as interim pastor in Carter Memorial U.M.C. in Needham, Massachusetts. He is the author of several books, including Knowing Truth, doing Good: Engaging New Testament Ethics, and Christology Beyond Dogma: Matthew’s Christ and Process Hermeneutic, and Mystery without Magic, which is a basic introduction to process thought. He is a graduate of Vanderbilt University Ph.D., 1971), Yale Divinity School, (S.T.M., 1963), Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University (B.D., 1962), and Southeastern Louisiana University (B.A., 1960).