Readings for Proper 12 (17) Tenth Sunday after Pentecost 3 August 2008 Vanderbilt Divinity Library Lectionary

For the Lectionary and other reflections, check out Proper 12A/Ordinary 17A/Pentecost +12 August 3 2008 Textweek

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7, 15; Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

The psalm response for today invites contemplation; it also echoes or provides and echo for each of the three readings: ‘We shall be satisfied when we reflect the face of the Divine’. The first reading that we have from Genesis is an unusual narrative, it’s got a mystical quality and it seems as if it’s got something really important for us to understand, and yet that’s just beyond our grasp, our understanding, and I wonder if it is one of those readings in scripture that is not meant to be translated through the mind, but rather through a feeling for and a knowing that is deeper than just the head stuff. If we go through the reading it’s very careful in its setting of the scene and of the actions involved. Verses 22 and 23 suggest the individuation of Jacob, a growing up, a separation from family and possessions. It parallels the same space that Jesus created for himself. It is a place that is amazingly counter-cultural. It’s interesting because it suggests that growing up, individuating into the fullness of self, is counter-cultural.

In verse 24, Jacob finds himself alone – he is at one with all. And in this space he encounters and wrestles with a man, he wrestles with the Christ, for the man in this narrative is God. The encounter and the wrestling is at night, it’s alone and it’s in the dark. In verse 25 we learn that the man, God, ‘does not prevail’, so he wounds Jacob. And there is something in that movement that brings up the Easter story. It feels like it’s adding something to our understanding to Easter; it suggests that there’s something more to be found rather than the simplicity of the Atonement. This is not a message that Christ died for us and all is okay, this is an encounter and a wrestling with the Divine. And it says here that the man, the Divine, does not prevail. In verse 26, the man wants to leave before it gets light; the Divine wants to leave before it gets light. It brings back to mind the service of light on Easter morning. What is the space we find ourselves in before it gets light, before daybreak, before the rising sun? The man wants to leave, but Jacob requires a blessing. Jacob requires the same from the Divine that he sought from Isaac his father, and yet they are a world apart, there is a movement there – ‘I now seek from the Divine that which as a child I sought from my father’.

Verse 27 then blurs the whole idea of an all-knowing god, for the man, God asked Jacob his name. Traditionally this is the divine question that is asked by humanity of God, so we might wonder if this nameless encounter with the Divine is representative of an internal encounter between humanity and divinity. In verse 28 Jacob receives a new name, which is the very process of creation that we read about earlier in Genesis – God names into being the creation. Jacob’s power, his spirit is recognised and named by the Divine. Then in verse 29 Jacob asks the Moses question: this is our traditional understanding of the divine question, it’s a reversal of what occurs in verse 27: Jacob asks of God ‘please tell me your name’. When Moses asked the same question at the burning bush, he was satisfied by the answer, ‘I am who I am’. The answer that satisfies Jacob is "Why is it that you ask my name?" What is so satisfying in that answer? Is it that the divine name is revealed in humanity and so our name is the divine name. Or is it that the divine is known in action rather than by or in identity, and is this why we know God as the name above every other name. It’s a stunning narrative.

If we hold it still, with the images and the questions and the confusion it brings up for us and then look at the second reading, we get some understanding from Paul. Paul - still using Jacob as a reference to provide his teaching - Paul identifies that we’re not chosen by place or lineage but rather by promise. I wonder if that is one of the profoundest shifts that’s revealed in Christ? That’s the counter cultural move - we’re not chosen by place or lineage but by promise. The world would teach us something different, that’s why we have border security, we want to be known by place, it’s important. The world tells us that that’s our knowing – we’ve got a passport to prove it and if you come from outside and try and get a passport well, hard luck, because you don’t belong here, you are not of this place. Likewise, with families: families go to absolutely ridiculous lengths to accumulate possessions and pass them down the line. We’re not known, Jacob was not the inheritor, Esau was. Jacob had to do a shift, he had to break the mould in order to receive and he seeks that same breaking of the mould with the Divine.

We’re not known by place or lineage but by promise, and then in verse 8 Paul draws a distinction between ‘children of the flesh’ and ‘children of the promise’. Paul’s not dividing up into an 'us and them', he’s not talking about two different groups but rather two possibilities within each of us. Two possibilities: to be children of the flesh, to hold a pride in our place and our name within a family; or to be children of the promise – to move that, to separate from that and find ourselves children of the divine promise. I think to fully appreciate the reading from Paul in Romans we’ve also got to appreciate the subtlety of ‘chosen’. God does not choose as if he’s picking players for some divine football team in heaven, God doesn’t walk the streets of the earth choosing one and not the other. That’s not the choosing that Paul’s talking about. Chosen is what is realised in our response to our encounter with God. Chosen is what is realised in our response, being chosen isn’t an activity from outside, rather it’s a response. Perhaps the easiest way to appreciate that is to look at the Romeo and Juliet, look at relationships, look at you and the one you love. Two people do not choose each other, rather it is the response of their relationship to one another that realises them both as chosen. So being chosen, rather than being an activity of the Divine, is our response and a mark of our relationship with the Divine.

In the last verse today, verse 16, Paul gives us an affirming encouragement. ‘It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy’. And again we want to hold that in context with the understanding of chosen, because God’s mercy is again is not something God chooses to give to some and not others, so we don’t sit back and wait for God to pass by and say, ‘Here, have some mercy.’ It’s not dependent on human will or exertion, but on God who shows mercy. The mercy that’s being spoken of by Paul, the understanding that Paul has of God’s mercy is like our understanding of gravity, it is always and forever available and operative. Again it’s our response to God’s mercy.

The Gospel reading, which looks like a miracle to some people, is perfectly placed today to underline those other two readings. Children of the flesh cannot be satisfied, for their orientation is skewed by fear. They live in a reality of scarcity - nothing but five loaves and two fish. Children of the promise looked up to heaven and broke the loaves and gave. Children of the promise are satisfied in the divine promise of abundance.

They’re stunning readings.

The Lord be with you.
Peter Humphris