Every week a large portion of churches in the world organize their worship of God around the same couple of Bible passages, picked by some learned folks to cover most of the Bible over a three-year cycle called the Revised Common Lectionary. Since I often preach them and always read ’em, I’m going to blog on the weekly passages regularly. If you have any questions about the RCL, this is a helpful resource.
At first glance, this week’s Genesis story of Jacob’s wrestling with God and the Matthew tale of Jesus’s miraculous feeding of five thousand from a handful of bread and fish have little to say to each other. At worst, they confirm the stale and shallow stereotypes of a Hebrew Bible God of struggle and New Testament God of gentle compassion.
But in a Christian confession, the God of Israel and Jesus Christ are one. And to any reader of the Bible, there has always been more miraculous mercy in the God of Israel, and more confusion and anger in the incarnated God, than the easy (and often anti-Semitic) stereotype gives credit for.
For one thing, when Jesus feeds five thousand people from just a handful of bread and fish it is in part because of their persistent pestering. Matthew tells us that just before this event Jesus had gone to “a lonely place” after hearing of the murder of his cousin, fellow faith leader, and childhood friend John the Baptist by King Herod. He wanted to be alone to grieve, or talk to his Father, or whatever it is you do when you’re the savior living on Earth and you still keep losing people you love.
But five thousand people, also reeling from the news, had followed him in his escape attempt. They needed comfort. They need an explanation. They were filled with grief and confusion. And so, like wrestling Jacob, they just wouldn’t leave God alone. And at the end of the day he responds to their persistence with a meal, simple but completely filling, showing the persistent crowd that God’s love and miracles would continue even in the face of terrible events.
From the other direction, God’s very willingness to appear to Jacob and be wrestled with is an act of extraordinary grace and compassion.
In this story Jacob too is “alone.” He is trying to return home after an almost fifteen-year exile for stealing and tricking blessings from his brother and father. He hears that brother Esau, his long ago victim, is coming to meet him with an army. So he sends his family ahead and waits by the river to try and think of some way, any way, to get out of this terrible situation.
In his well-earned desperation, as seeds he planted long ago are ready to be reaped in misery, God appears to Jacob in the form of a man. In one of Jacob’s worst moments, God comes to him. God knows Jacob so well that God doesn’t come in the form of a gentle hand on his hair, but a challenger to be fought, the only situation in which Jacob has ever felt comfortable.
Sure enough, by morning when Jacob seeks a blessing, as the people sought a meal, God offers it to him. God lets Jacob know that his blessings don’t come from his tricks and strivings, but from the grace of a God who doesn’t care who we are or what we’ve done but loves and gives to us anyway.
There is enough food for all of us. There is enough blessing for all of us. There is enough time, and attention, and love, and purpose. It has always been so, and so it will always be. We just have to be like the five thousand, to be like Jacob, and not leave God be when God is right there to show us abundance.
We have to be pester-ers, and keep on seeking the glorious more-than-enough even when we find the world a frightening place of scarcity. Because God will always be providing it.