19th Sunday After Pentecost
19th Pentecost 19.22 “Ever Greater Things” Gen. 32:22-30, Luke 18:1-18
Our Gospel today is a puzzling one. Jesus tells a parable “to the effect that [his disciples] ought always to pray and not lose heart”. But the story he tells to encourage such faithful prayer is of an unrighteous judge and a widow who keeps coming to him to get justice against “my adversary”. The Greek for “adversary” is a fairly uncommon word: ἀντιδίκου which literally means “anti-righteous”. Jesus will call the judge ἀδικίας or “unrighteous”. There’s irony here. The unrighteous judge will give justice against the anti-righteous enemy? It would seem they’re playing for the same team, both, alike, against the widow…
And indeed: Jesus says she has to keep imploring the judge over and over, “beating him down”, literally in Greek: “giving him a black eye” which metaphorically would be “making him look bad”. Why he cares about looking bad since he is [like Nietzsche’s Ubermensch]“beyond good and evil” is never answered…
But, shockingly, our Lord compares God to the unrighteous judge, giving justice to the elect who cry to him day and night or who bug him without ceasing!
Now, that’s not what we expected to hear about prayer and justice and God’s mercy! A bit… unsettling, even! But it does make a ton of sense of the Lord’s closing line, “Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Well… if it’s faith that we rely on God and pester him not because of his justice or mercy but because he doesn’t like to be bothered, then yes—I think such “faith” is exceedingly rare and it would not surprise me if the Lord at his glorious return fails to find any of that on earth… 😉
You see why Will Ferrell, in “Talladega Nights”, in the best movie prayer ever, addresses it to the “Dear 8 lb 6 oz baby Jesus”. Because he likes the baby Jesus better. So do most of us…;-)
In our Old Testament reading—perhaps my very favorite passage in the entire Hebrew Scriptures, seriously; that and Ps. 139 are a tossup—we see why Jacob (aka Israel) probably was with Will Ferrell in liking the baby Jesus better, too. Because the full grown God-man Jesus is a little… mean. He plays rough!
Context is crucial to this marvelous passage. Jacob and Esau were twins, Jacob the younger, you will recall, and his mother’s favorite; while Isaac always liked Esau better. Esau is a big, strong, hairy hunter; Jacob’s more smooth, more a clever manager and manipulator. Rebekah, their mother, tells Jacob (when Isaac is dying) to dress up with goatskins like Esau and take some veal parm (which tastes so good) to his father and get the blessing of the firstborn which God told them belongs to Jacob by divine right.
And, hey: this works! Jacob gets the blessing (which, actually, Esau had sold him years before for a pot of stew) but Esau decides to kill the mother…’s helper. Isaac sends Jacob to his mother’s brother Laban to find a wife and let Esau cool off (which he never quite seems to do).
Jacob meets Rachel (a real stunner) and marries her (and her older sister) when Uncle Laban tricks him. Jacob tricks Uncle Laban back and gets the vast majority of his flocks and herds and so has to flee for his life, one night, secretly…
Which is where we meet Jacob this morning in our OT reading—angry Uncle Laban behind, unpredictable Esau ahead. A couple angels meet Jacob who sends them to Esau to tell him “Jacob’s coming back with flocks and herds”. The angels return and say: “Esau says he can hardly wait to see you and he’s coming to meet you with 400 armed men”. Roh-oh Scoob!
And Jacob prays an interesting prayer: “O God of my father Abraham and God of my father Isaac: you told me: ‘return to your country and kindred, that ‘I may do you good’. I am not worthy of the least of your goodness, love, mercy. I crossed this river Jabbok with a staff, alone; and now, I’m two large companies! But deliver me from my brother Esau, because I fear him. And you said: ‘I will surely do you good and multiply your seed as the sand of sea’. For Christ’s sake! Amen.”
So, that night, Jacob camps alone by the Jabbok [after sending hundreds of flocks and herds as a present to Esau] followed by his two wives, two concubines (long story) and eleven children.
And Jacob was left alone. And a man [the Malach Yahweh, the Angel of the Lord, the incarnate God, the Christ] wrestles with him until the breaking of the day. It doesn’t say who started it. But the implication is that The Man, the Angel of the Lord, started it, without a word, without any apparent cause. “Are you ready to Ruuuuumble?” WWF OT style! Gotta like it!
Now, Jacob appreciates a good scrap as much as anyone; and turns out to be pretty tough, himself. There is an implication that Jesus cheated a little—after not getting a quick tap-out—just “touched” his hip socket (used some divine power?) to dislocate the hip. Match over. Tap out, man! But… no! Jacob refuses to tap-out. He grabs on all the harder, Full Nelson, and says: “I won’t let you go unless you bless me.” And the blessing is a new name: no longer Jacob “Trip, or Trickster” but now “Israel” “Prince with God” because he has striven with God and men and has prevailed…
If you call getting your hip put out of joint and beaten within an inch of your life “prevailing”? Rilke in his poem “The Man Watching” gets this better than anyone since Luther. And I quote:
“What we conquer are the small things/ and victory itself makes us small./ The Eternal and Un-common/ does not want to be shaped by us./ This is the Angel who to the wrestlers/ of the Old Testament appeared:/ when the sinews of his adversaries/ in the battle stretch metallically/ he feels them under his fingers/ like the strings of profound melodies.// Who was overcome by this Angel/ who has oft from battle abstained,/ he walks justified, upright/ and proud out of that hard hand,/ which, as if molding, gently encloses him./ Victories are not inviting to him./ His gain is to be profoundly vanquished/ by ever greater things.”
Two weeks ago, we heard Jesus say: if we had faith like a grain of mustard seed, we could command mulberry trees to be uprooted and fly into the distant sea and they would! Last week, we heard how a leper’s mustard seed sized faith looks to Jesus for every good thing and in finding the small good things, gets in line for the greater Good…
And today, we see (with Jacob and the widow) that latching onto the small good things, (our idea of the Good is always small) and limiting God to those small things we can fathom as good and right keeps us from the Greatest Good.
In the first part of his poem, Rilke laments that we try to master the storms of life instead of being battered like trees in a high wind, shaped by something unfathomably greater than ourselves. The faith Jesus is looking for is like that…
It knows only one thing: “Christ and him crucified”. In that magnificent defeat, death, hell, and sin are destroyed. When we let go of our ideas of what God should be doing, of what “justice” we deserve, and are blown and beat by his Holy Hurricane, we limp like Jacob—justified, upright, proud, out the hard hand which, as if molding, gently encloses us. Victories are not inviting to us. Our gain is to be profoundly vanquished by ever greater things. That’s the faith Jesus is looking for, and may he find it (finally) in us. For Christ’s sake. Amen.