Lectionary Blog: Wrestling with God


Engraving of ‘Jacob Wrestling with the Angel’ from ‘The Bible Story from Genesis to Revelation’, published by Charles Foster in 1883.

Lectionary of October 16, 2022
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 121;
2 Timothy 3:14–4:5; Luke 18:1-8

To say the least, the life of faith is not easy.

Sophie Scholl was arrested and executed for obeying God’s call to resist fascism in the 1940s by joining the White Rose movement and emphasizing a better way of life. Katharina Von Bora was smuggled out of her convent among barrels of herring, then endured a difficult life as the wife of an outlaw. She provided meals (and beer!) to hundreds of guests at the Black Cloister, and almost single-handedly managed and improved the estate as a base for the Reformation movement – despite wars, plagues and bad harvests. Mary Magdalene traveled with Jesus, supported him financially, watched his murder at the hands of the Romans, and witnessed his resurrection. She was one of the first apostles to speak of the risen Lord (John 20:11-18), but she was ignored by Jesus’ own disciples (Luke 24:9-11).

No, the life of faith is not easy. Instead, it is a long struggle with faithfulness with God and with humans. In this week’s lectionary we have two stories of faithful wrestling with God.

In a much interpreted section of Genesis, Jacob struggles with a strange being who is both a man (32:24) and recognized as God (32:28, 30). But what was the context of this scene? Jacob had fled the murderous rage of his brother 20 years earlier and his evil stepfather and trickster a few days earlier (31:1-16). He was on the run and scared. Jacob knew he was about to meet his brother, but he didn’t know if Esau still wanted to kill him. Yet Jacob obeyed God’s command to return to the land (31:3), just as he had obeyed his mother’s command to obtain her blessing decades earlier (27:5-10). If he was true to what he was told, it often put him at odds with the men in his family. Fearing Esau, Jacob sent his herds, flocks, family of 15, and many servants ahead of him so that no one else would be harmed.

Jacob’s life was long and difficult, but he continued in his long struggle with God and with humans.

As Jacob slept alone on the other side of the Jabbok, he must have wondered what all this faithfulness had brought him. And just then, a man[ish person] attacked and wrestled with him. This dust (the Hebrew word which we translate here as “struggle” could more accurately be rendered as “to smear” or “to crush in the dust”) lasted all night. As Jacob was repeatedly pushed into the ground, he refused to give up, even after his “soft parts” (the word we translate as “hip” could mean anything in the region of the pelvis and upper thigh) were dislocated. He had a very uncomfortable night, of course, but Jacob clung to his mysterious adversary until he received a blessing. His name was changed to Israel, because he fought/wrestled with God and with humans and won (32:31)! Jacob’s life was long and difficult, but he continued in his long struggle with God and with humans.

Years later, Jesus told a parable to encourage his followers to be as persistent as Jacob in their prayerful struggle with God. He spoke of a widow who wanted justice (Luke 18:3) and the bad judge who intentionally refused her request (5). Nevertheless, the widow did not stop demanding justice from the wicked judge, who eventually relented and stopped supporting wickedness. The widow fought against a corrupt justice system and a judge determined to block her rights against anyone who opposed her. She continued to struggle with humans, even from a position of low social autonomy and with no one to defend her in her widowhood. Eventually, she won.

If bad judges can be convinced to do justice by constant pressure, how much more easily will God grant justice to those who ask (7)? Indeed, the problem, says Jesus, is not that God does not want to immediately grant justice on earth, but whether there are faithful people on earth who really want justice (8). Jesus wants people to wrestle with God and with humans. Not in a martial way, I believe, but to pursue and demand justice and never give up.

The life of faith is certainly not easy. Instead, it’s a long and uncomfortable wrestling match. The good news is that God is our support. When we strive faithfully for justice, God wants us to win.

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