S. Pentecost 22.16 “Limp Away” Luke 18:1-18
And this, this might just be the whole point: of Scriptures, of Christianity, of everything, right here. Jacob’s wrestling, all night, with the Angel at Peniel, beaten, battered, defeated; yet limping away with Divine Approval, new name, a new way of standing in the world. The widow in the Gospel, so very like Jacob; beaten, battered, defeated too, but, in her case, not by an Angel, but by the nameless, overwhelming forces of a Corrupt Bureaucracy constantly grinding down her dignity, her hopes, her health plan (sure glad stuff like that doesn’t happen today! Just imagine if your choice of leaders were only between different shades of shady, how depressing that would be! Oh, wait. Never mind. 🙂
Anyway, it’s the same Story, isn’t it, Old Testament and Gospel? Overwhelmed by a much more powerful foe, yet Jacob and the widow limp away, defeated, for sure, yet, in some mysterious, enchanting way, not diminished, not finished, but actually, somehow ennobled by defeat—almost, dare we say—better than if they’d won?
I will make no effort to conceal my preference for the Jacob version of the Story, my all-time favorite. I love it. Always have, since I was a little kid and heard mom read it to me from the Golden Children’s Bible. I was like: “Wow. Deep. Heavy. Cool! Are there more like that one in this Book?” Turns, out there are; well…, only one other episode later in the Book that tops and fulfills it, but it tends to repeat in fun variations—but I like the way it gets told here with Jacob, best of all.
All my life, I’ve been drawn to various retellings and take-offs on this story, whether it’s Camus’ Stranger getting crushed by his own poor choices and refusal to emote to the satisfaction of a sentimental bureaucracy but, not coming out of his cage, he’s doing just fine with the tender indifference of the universe, in a night alive with signs and stars, distant sirens promising a trip out of this world; or Paul Bowles’ heroes Port and Kit, getting shellacked by the desert’s vast emptiness, yet piercing the fine fabric of The Sheltering Sky and finding repose; or Murakami’s Everyman narrator in Wind-up Bird or Wild Sheep Chase, bowed, battered, beaten by the forces of Advanced Capitalism (and Magical Realism), and yet somehow, never selling out. Or Theo, in Donna Tartt’s Goldfinch, losing his mother, losing his father, losing his girl, losing his grip, losing his way, but finding all the bad choices and all the bad stuff working out for something kinda great in the end, some kind of connection to a loose, live wire that runs through all great pictures and stories, that shocks us silly, but shows us something Beautiful and Awesome, too.
But they all limp away, my heroes, in the Story. None are heroic in the conventional, Hollywood way most modern people demand. None of them win in any way Wall Street would count winning. But I am drawn to them anyway—as I am to Jacob and his Magnificent Defeat. I identify with these non-winners, because they seem to me more noble in defeat than all other (much more conventional) heroes are in victory.
Kind of kooky, huh? But isn’t that how it goes with Jesus? Have you ever read that one to the End?! Here He comes, all delightfully aloof, the surfer dude King without palace, or army, or scepter, but the Story He tells enchants. The mere touch of His hand heals. The mere sound of His voice stills storms. He can walk on water, for Christ’s sake! Can turn five loaves and two fish into a Feast for over Five Thousand! Can turn bread and wine into His body and blood for any who are foolhardy enough to eat and drink…
And they crushed Him for it. We crushed Him for it. We beat Him within an inch of His life, crowned Him with thorns, mocked Him, dressed Him in a purple robe, and made Him haul His own cross up Golgotha’s hill and then we killed Him with extreme prejudice. What a loser! What did He accomplish? He didn’t even write any books, or leave any video, or win the Nobel Prize like that “great” poet Bob Dylan (what a joke that is!). Sure, He forgives us, for everything with His last breath on the cross, promises Paradise to thieves like us. But what do you make of that? It was dark when He died, stormy. Tough to see or hear, with that storm coming, busting open graves, tearing the Temple apart. But He died and was buried and that was that…
Except… on Sunday morning, something happened. The stone was rolled away by two Angels from an empty tomb. A few women and his rag-tag Apostles saw Him alive, but they were never quite sure how to describe Him after. Initial impression was that He was the gardener. He was the same Jesus, but completely different. It was disturbing, really, talking with Him, eating with Him by the Sea of Galilee, or on the Mount of Olives. And after 40 cryptic days of odd encounters with the Risen, Crucified One (the nail holes and spear wound were all that made them really sure it was really Him) He ascended into Heaven in a cloud, disappeared with a Promise He’d be back to set things right and until then, well…, we who are drawn to Him can expect to be treated pretty much the same way as He was/is. And in that should be all our joy!?
As if losing our lives for Christ’s sake (and the Gospel’s!) will gain us something so much better. As if being defeated with Him, ourselves, will make us great. As if limping away, beaten, battered is better than standing in triumph over a prostrate foe. As if Heaven can only be accessed by limping through a hole in the wall, cutting through the graveyard, as if you could never go striding in all cocksure and heroic with banners and armies and trumpets, through the Front Gate…
This is the Gospel. This is that Angel. This is the Story of Israel, of all the Wrestlers of the Old and New Testaments. And it is a pretty far-fetched, fairly weird one, I would say. But there is something haunting and enchanting about it, is there not? There is a weird, other-worldly nobility to it all, is there not? Like grabbing a frayed electric cord: the shock hurts like hell, but gleams like Heaven too, connecting you with something Big. Jacob, limping, battered, beaten, alone, still scares the beejeebers out of his brother Esau and his army—like the Crucified King puts a scare into all others. What if He is coming back? What then?!?
Rainer Maria Rilke put it so well when he turned it to poetry in “The Man Watching”:
“What we choose to fight is so tiny!
What fights with us is so great.
If only we would let ourselves be dominated
as things do by some immense storm,
we would become strong too, and not need names.
When we win it’s with small things,
and the triumph itself makes us small.
What is extraordinary and eternal
does not want to be bent by us.
I mean the Angel who appeared
to the wrestlers of the Old Testament:
when the wrestlers’ sinews
grew long like metal strings,
he felt them under his fingers
like chords of deep music.
Whoever was beaten by this Angel
(who often simply declined the fight)
went away proud and strengthened
and great from that harsh hand,
that kneaded him as if to change his shape.
Winning does not tempt that man.
This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively,
by constantly greater beings.”
He’s hiding, waiting for you, at the Jabbok, under these words, that bread and wine. Beaten by this Angel, you’ll limp away with Jacob, into Peace surpassing understanding, guarding heart and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.