Conflict and Persistence

Robert S. Turner
Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost
October 16, 2016
Genesis 32:22–31, Luke 18:1–8

Jacob came by his name honestly. When he emerged from his mother’s womb with his
tiny hand clutching his twin brother’s foot, his parents named him Jacob. The name
literally means “heel grabber,” but figuratively it means “deceiver” or “supplanter.”
Throughout his life Jacob did his best to live up (or down) to his name.
It started early on, when as a young man he managed to get his slow-witted brother
Esau to hand over his birthright for a bowl of stew, and continued a few years later
when, with the help of his mother Rebekah, he tricked his father Isaac into giving him
the blessing that the blind old man meant to pronounce upon Esau. When Esau found
out he had been swindled yet again by the heel-grabber, he was more than a little
peeved, and vowed to kill his twin just as soon as their father shed this mortal coil.
Jacob responded in a way that would become a pattern in his life: he ran away.
Per his mother’s instructions, Jacob journeyed to the household of his uncle Laban. In
Laban Jacob met his match in the trickster game. On his wedding night, Jacob thought
he was marrying Laban’s younger daughter Rachel, for whom he had labored seven
years as one of his uncle’s hired hands. But Laban had other ideas, and pulled a classic
bait-and-switch, getting Jacob drunk and then putting his older daughter Leah in bed
with him so that he consummated the marriage with the wrong woman. He then agreed
to give Rachel as well, in exchange for seven more years of work. Then he did his best
to trick Jacob out of the flocks of sheep and goats he had coming to him, and over
twenty years he changed Jacob’s wages again and again, and never, you would rightly
guess, in his nephew’s favor, but only in his own. When this treatment finally became
intolerable, Jacob screwed up his courage to the sticking point and … ran away again.
Jacob claimed that God had told him to return to Canaan, so he packed up his wives,
concubines, and litter of kids, and lit out for the territories while Laban was out of town
on business. When Laban caught up to them, Jacob finally found the nerve to stand up
to him (sort of), and the two men parted company after forging an uneasy truce.
By this time Jacob had reached the boundaries of Edom, where Esau had settled, and
was alarmed when his servants reported that big brother was on his way to meet him,
with four hundred men along as a welcome party. Jacob naturally figured that his
chickens had finally come home to roost, and that Esau was planning to carry out his
promised vengeance, so he sent a lavish gift of livestock to Esau as a peace offering.
The evening before the expected arrival of his brother’s men, Jacob sent his wives and
children across the ford of the river Jabbok while he stayed behind in the camp, alone.
This is only the second time in the narrative of Genesis that we have seen Jacob alone.
Both scenes happen at night, and after each one he concludes that he has had an
encounter with God. The first time was when he was running away from Esau a couple
of decades earlier. He stopped for the night at a place called Luz and made a simple
camp with nothing but a rock for a pillow. Apparently sleeping with a rock under your
head is conducive to strange dreams, because Jacob dreamed of a ladder that
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stretched between heaven and earth, with angels going up and down on it. In the dream
he heard a voice he assumed to be God’s with a special message for him.
If one didn’t know any better, one might assume that God’s message to Jacob would be
one of rebuke or judgment. Remember, he had just cheated his brother for the second
time, deceived his father, and run away from home. All his life he had been a swindler, a
mama’s boy, and a sneak. Now he had bedded down for the night, not knowing if his
brother was hot on his trail or not, and had a dream where God said to him … what?
One might guess the message was, “You'd better get used to sleeping on rocks, boy.”
But what he actually heard was this:
I am the LORD, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on
which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like
the dust of the earth … and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in
your offspring. Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will
bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have
promised you (Gen 28:13–15).
We get into trouble when we read the Bible as a book of moral lessons. There are some
of those in there, to be sure, but you also get stuff like this dream of Jacob’s, or God’s
covenant with David. These are two of the slimiest characters in all of the Scriptures, yet
they both receive divine favor in lavish abundance. God is funny that way, and it’s a real
problem for the moralists among us. It would be hard to find two worse examples of
ethical behavior or “family values,” and yet God blesses them beyond all reasonable
measure. It doesn’t seem quite fair, but then again, it gives me hope that there may be a
blessing for me in all my sliminess as well.
Jacob responds to this unexpected and undeserved outpouring of grace in a manner
consistent with his character: he looks to strike a bargain. He says, “If God will be with
me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to
wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the LORD shall be my
God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that
you give me I will surely give one tenth to you” (Gen 28:20–22). An untrustworthy
person finds it hard to trust others. A liar always suspects everybody else of lying too.
So Jacob continues on his way, and God holds up God’s side of the bargain. Now,
twenty years later, Jacob finds himself once again alone at night, having sent on ahead
all the flocks, herds, servants, wives, and children God has blessed him with, and he is
about to return to the land of Canaan so that God can fulfill that part of the promise as
well. If he ever makes it there alive, that is. The brother he swindled, the brother who
vowed to kill him so many years ago, stands between him and the promise, and he
realizes that his shady behavior as a young man has the capacity to bring everything
crashing to the ground now. As he sits brooding by the campfire this evening, he finds
himself wrestling with his conscience.
Before long, however, he finds himself in a literal wrestling match with a mysterious
stranger. And here we have one of the most enigmatic passages in all of Genesis, a
book known for its enigmatic passages. The story smacks of folklore, not only in the
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way it explains the origins of both a place name and a dietary custom, but also because
of its sparseness of language and the fluidity of the characters involved. Is it a man who
wrestles with Jacob, or an angel, or God? Where does this mysterious antagonist come
from? What does it mean to say that the man could not defeat Jacob, especially if the
man is understood to be a divine being? These and other questions complicate our
understanding of the passage.
What we can say is this: whether the story was meant to do so or not, it offers a
powerful analogy for prayer. It’s pretty clear that Jacob is going through a serious inner
struggle as he prepares for his reunion with Esau. Whether or not he feels any regret for
the choices he has made in his life we cannot say, but he is obviously fearful about what
tomorrow will hold. It may very well have been a real person who found him in the dark
and wrestled with him until dawn, but the story works just as well if we understand
Jacob’s wrestling with the man as merely an outward expression of his inner turmoil.
If we look at it that way, as a representation of Jacob’s night of anguished prayer, we
can tease out some insights we may find helpful when we find ourselves in similar
circumstances. First of all, prayer can be a kind of combat. It’s not always that way, but
from time to time we may find ourselves in conflict with God. Those of us who have
been taught that our only role in prayer is to submit our wills to the will of God may be
uncomfortable with this, but for the people who wrote the Scriptures, there was no
impiety in conceiving of prayer as conflict or protest. Many of the psalms reflect this kind
of combative relationship between the psalmist and God. Job harangues God over the
course of thirty chapters, basically declaring his own righteousness and complaining
that God has treated him unjustly. Jeremiah flat out accuses God of deceiving him. In
Gethsemane, Jesus himself resists for a long time before finally agreeing to align his will
with God’s. And Jacob here finds himself in what feels like literal combat with God.
Second, persistence is a vital part of prayer. We see this here, where Jacob wrestles his
opponent to a draw the whole night long. We see it in today’s gospel lesson, where the
widow keeps pestering the judge until he finally agrees to hear her case. Jacob refuses
to let go until he receives a blessing; the widow perseveres until she attains justice.
Third, it is only through the protracted struggle, our persistent wrestling with the elusive
mystery of God, that we are able to discern God’s true presence and character. At the
outset of Jacob’s story, we are told only that “a man wrestled with him until daybreak” (v.
24). It is only after the night-long struggle and, in fact, only in retrospect, that Jacob
realizes who his opponent really was. Only at the end of the wrestling match does the
penny drop. Verse 30 reads, “So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen
God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’” The same holds true for us. If we are
unwilling to put in the time, to invest ourselves in the struggle, we will never have more
than a superficial understanding of who God is. In faithful conflict we achieve knowing.
Fourth, this story teaches us that true prayer can leave us wounded. In the course of the
wrestling match, the mysterious figure strikes Jacob on the hip socket, and his hip is put
out of joint. Still he does not give in, and continues striving until he finally receives the
blessing. The story ends with Jacob walking away from the camp and toward his
appointment with Esau as the sun rises, “limping because of his hip” (v. 31).
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Jacob found that wrestling with God is dangerous business, and we will too. We cannot
enter into the faithful combat of prayer expecting to emerge unscathed. After Jesus’s
time of prayer ended with his commitment to following through on his mission, so that
God’s will and not his own would be done, he limped away from the garden and toward
Golgotha. When we put ourselves on the line, when we say, “Thy will be done,” and
mean it, God may take us at our word, and we may find ourselves limping away from
our time of prayer, a terrible blessing in hand.
There is another element to prayer—an element that God invites us to receive as good
news—that we find in the reading from Luke. Jesus tells of a widow who continually
brings her suit to a judge who “neither [fears] God nor [has] respect for people” (v. 2).
Even though the judge doesn’t give a rip about the widow’s welfare, he eventually
grants her justice because her persistent demands wear him down.
The most common interpretation of this parable is that the judge stands for God and the
widow represents all who bring their petitions to God in prayer. But one whom Jesus
describes as having no fear of God or respect for people makes a curious choice for a
God-figure. What if, instead, we saw the widow as the one who represents God? In her
persistence in calling for justice, she is like God, who continually sends preachers and
prophets and gadflies to peck away at the powers of the world in an effort to get them to
do the right thing.
Some people will not find this picture of God satisfactory, and I understand that. We
want an omnipotent, irresistible God who can implement God’s will with a snap of the
divine fingers. But we have to ask ourselves, if that’s the nature of God, why does sin
and evil seem so entrenched in the world? Where is all that finger-snapping when we
need it in Syria? When we needed it in Rwanda, or Darfur, or Bergen-Belsen? What we
see instead is a world in which evildoers prosper and the righteous suffer, where
injustice is pervasive and violence reigns.
But as I have argued before, God’s power is of a different kind than that of the despots
and tyrants of the world. God does not rule by force; God governs by persuasion. And
we have the power to resist. Remember that in the wrestling match, God was unable to
overpower Jacob, and the new name Jacob received, Israel, meant one who had
“striven with God and with humans, and [had] prevailed” (v. 28).
Like us, the unjust judges of the world are resistant to God’s pleas and persuasions, but
God, like the persistent widow, never gives up. The promise of the parable is that in the
end, the cause of justice will prevail. God’s reign will be realized on earth. God’s vision
for the world will become a reality. These things will happen because God will continue
to send those prophets and gadflies to demand that the powers act with justice and
conform themselves to God’s will, and their persistence will win out.
The good news is that we get to be those prophets. We get to play the role of the widow
who demands justice until the unjust judge gets worn down and gives in. We get to play
the role of Jacob, stubbornly hanging on to our adversary until we get the blessing we
have been looking for—a blessing that is not just for us but for the whole world.