Wrestling With God

Genesis 32:22-31; 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18:1-8

Sooner or later you have to face the music.  If you don’t, it just gets louder.  

After stealing his brother Esau’s birthright, Jacob ran away to Paddam-Aram in Mesopotamia because Esau had threatened to kill him.  In Paddam-Aram, Jacob went to work for his Uncle Laban, his mother’s brother, and married Laban’s two daughters, Rachel and Leah, his cousins.  Which was a thing people did in those days… and still do in some places.  I’m looking at you, Alabama.

Jacob worked for Laban for twenty years, but Laban had this nasty habit of cheating him.  For instance, Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, the cousin who, according to Genesis, was graceful and beautiful, the one he had fallen in love with.  Uncle Laban said, well, you can marry Rachel after you’ve worked for me for seven years.  So Jacob worked for Laban the required seven years and Laban gave him a big, traditional wedding.  But when he removed the veil from his blushing bride on his wedding night, Jacob discovered that Laban had tricked him.   Instead of being married to Rachel, he was now married to Leah, his other cousin, the one who, according to the text, had lovely eyes.  So there was that.

Jacob was not at all happy about the switch and let Laban know it.  “Not a problem,” said Laban.  Just work for me for another seven years and then you can marry Rachel, too.  So Jacob worked for Laban another seven years and this time really did get to marry Rachel.   

Jacob ended up staying with Laban for twenty years, but after twenty years they had had enough of each other.  Whatever trust Jacob and Laban had had for each other had eroded, and Laban’s sons felt like Jacob was somehow cheating them out of their inheritance because he had developed a tricky little breeding program that resulted in him owning more livestock than their father owned. 

So Jacob decided that it was time to go back home.  He packed up his wives, his children and his livestock and headed for Canaan, hoping that his brother, Esau, might have forgotten about the stolen birthright, or at least maybe cooled off a bit in the twenty years he had been gone.

As Jacob, with all his family and servants and flocks and baggage drew near to Edom where Esau was living, he sent messengers ahead to tell Esau that he was coming.  The message he sent was a kind of humble brag with an implication that he could make it worth Esau’s while if Esau could bring himself to forgive and forget the whole birthright business.  “Thus you shall say to my lord, Esau,” Jacob told the messengers.  “Thus says your servant Jacob, ‘I have lived with Laban as an alien, and stayed until now; and I have oxen, donkeys, flocks, male and female slaves; and have sent to tell my lord, in order that I may find favor in your sight.’”

Esau sent the messengers back with a simple message of his own:  I’m coming to meet you.  Actually, what the messengers said to Jacob was, “Esau is coming to meet you… and he has four hundred men with him.”  

By now Jacob and his retinue had come to the ford of the Jabbok river, a kind of point of no return. He knew that he either had to face his brother now or turn around and keep running forever.  He sent his wives and children across the river, then stayed on the other side to pray.  And this is where Jacob’s story gets abruptly strange.

The text simply says, “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”  Who was this man?  Where did he come from?  Who started the fight?  Genesis doesn’t tell us, but Jacob figured it out.  When the night of wrestling was over, when the stranger had let him go and blessed him, as Jacob was limping away he named the place Peniel, saying, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Jacob wrestled with his conscience.  Jacob wrestled with his history.  Jacob wrestled with his guilt and shame.  Jacob wrestled with his fear.  

And Jacob wrestled with God.  Jacob wrestled with God then limped away with a new name:  Israel. Wrestles with God.  Jacob limped away with a new identity, a new understanding of himself…and of God.

Have you ever wrestled with God?  Have you ever sat up late into the night trying to come to terms with your own life?  Have you ever lost sleep because your mind won’t let go of questions about evil and injustice?  Have you ever lain awake with your own grief wondering where God is or how God could have allowed such pain?  Have you ever tried to distance yourself from the consequences of your own actions but God keeps putting them in front of you?  Have you ever felt like God has just been giving you a smackdown that’s making you limp through life?

I’ve wrestled with God in all these ways at one time or another.  I think most of us wrestle with God or at one time or another… one way or another.   I think that’s part of being human.  And I think it’s how God helps us get rid of the false gods we carry in our heads—the Santa Clause god, the Zeus god, the Rambo god, the God-is-All-About-Me god.  

These days I tend to wrestle with God through the scriptures.  This wrestling has both deepened my faith and challenged it.  I’ll give you an example, but you may not like it.  You may even think I’m a heretic.

Our second reading for this 19th Sunday after Pentecost in Cycle C of the Revised Common Lectionary comes from 2nd Timothy.  I will confess to you right here and now that I don’t particularly like the Pastoral Epistles.  I don’t like it that they are pseudepigrapha—works written under the signature of the Apostle Paul but really authored by someone else.  It doesn’t help that they were written well after the apostolic era, very late in the first century or early in the second, but if that objection was going to cause me to completely ignore them then I would also have to ignore the Gospel of John for the same reason, and I’m not going to do that because I love the Gospel of John.  

The thing that I dislike the most is that the letters to Timothy reassert Patriarchy with a capital P and relegate women to silence.  This is completely contrary to St. Paul who lifted up the ministries of women like Junia, Priscilla, Lydia, Chloe, Euodia, and Syntychae and considered them his partners in the Gospel, even calling Junia an apostle.  

I dislike the tone of these epistles.  I dislike it that they spill all kinds of words about behavior and rules and say precious little about faith.  I don’t care for the subtext of us versus them, which hints at a binary, rigid, closed, and legalistic community rather than the grace of the open arms and heart of Jesus.  

And finally, I have a particular bone to pick with how 2 Timothy 3:16 gets mistranslated so often because that mistranslation reinforces the sin of bibliolatry—creating an idol of the Bible.  Here is what the Greek text of 2 Timothy 3:16 says in a simple word-for-word translation:  all writing God-breathed and beneficial for teaching, for correction, for discipline and with justice

Did you notice that the word “is” isn’t in there?  The New Revised Standard version says, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof… etc.”  The NIV says, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting… etc.”   But Richmond Lattimore, the late, great Greek scholar translated it this way: “All God-breathed writings are useful for teaching, correction, reproof… etc.”  

Remember, every translation is an interpretation.  It makes more sense to me to read this the way Lattimore translated it because his translation means that we have to sit down together with the words of the Bible and think about which parts are God breathed—divinely inspired—and which parts are perhaps not, and what does that mean for us as people of faith.  It makes more sense to me because when those words were written nobody had yet decided which writings would be considered as holy scripture and which would not.  The formation of the canon was still a few centuries in the future.  And even if the writer was referring to the writings of the Hebrew scriptures, which seems most likely, we should remember that the rabbis were constantly engaged in discussing which parts of the Tanakh were “God-breathed” and which were simply beneficial, useful writings, or even writings to be preserved because of their cultural importance, like Esther or Song of Solomon, neither of which even mentions God.

We wrestle with God when we wrestle with the scriptures.  And just as with Jacob at the Jabbok, it is always God who starts the wrestling match.  I told you all the reasons I don’t much care for the Pastoral Epistles.  But I keep wrestling with them.  I keep wrestling with them because in some way they convey the word of God—there is something in there that God wants me to learn or come to terms with.  These books of the Bible present an obstacle for me, but faith, as Richard Rohr says, is not for overcoming obstacles, it’s for experiencing them… all the way through.

The parable of the widow and the judge in today’s Gospel reading, Luke 18:1-8, is another piece of scripture I wrestle with.  When the writer of Luke sat down to write, scholars think he had a copy of Mark’s gospel, a document with assorted sayings of Jesus, and a collection of Jesus stories and parables that none of the other gospel writers had.  This story of the widow and the judge most likely comes from that unique Lukan material since it doesn’t appear in any of the other gospels. 

There are hints that Luke, himself, didn’t quite know what to do with this parable, but he felt it should be included.  He sandwiches it in between Jesus talking about the Parousia—the End Times and Second Coming—and the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  

The parable of the widow and the judge sounds authentic.  As Amy-Jill Levine says, it sounds like a Jesus story, but as she also notes, there is something about Luke’s introduction that doesn’t quite fit.  He seems to be domesticating a story that’s more than a little disturbing, especially if you take away Luke’s opening.  In other words, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” doesn’t really capture the punch of this story.  And once again, it doesn’t help that many of our translations soften the hard edge of the original language.

How does it sound to you when you hear it this way?  “In a certain city there was a judge who did not fear God and had no regard for other people.  There was a widow in that city and she kept coming to him and saying, ‘Avenge me against my adversary.’  He didn’t want to at the time, but later he said to himself, ‘Even though I do not fear God or respect other people, on account of the trouble this widow causes, I will avenge her so that in the end she won’t beat me up.”

“Avenge me against my adversary.”  That’s what it says in the Greek, and that has a lot more edge to it than, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”   “I will avenge her so that she doesn’t beat me up.”  That’s what the Greek says.  It uses a phrase borrowed from boxing and it has a lot more punch to it than “I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”

If we listen to the force of the original language, the widow is not seeking justice, she is seeking revenge.  The judge isn’t making an unbiased ruling in her favor in order to see justice done, he is being coerced with a threat of violence.  So… is this really a parable about our need to pray always and not lose heart?  Or is something else going on here?

In Luke 12:57-59, Jesus advised that one should try to settle things before going to court because the judge might rule against you and you could end up in prison.  The people who first heard Jesus tell this story knew that judges were not always fair, that courts could not always be relied on for justice.  In this parable, Jesus gives an example of what can happen if one fails to settle things out of court.

“The parable proper,” writes Amy-Jill Levine, “ends with the judge’s decision and so it ends as a story about corruption, violence, and vengefulness.  Stereotypes of judges and widows both fall.  Justice is not clearly rendered.  Has the widow made the judge ‘just’ by convincing him to rule in her favor, or has she corrupted him?  What would the widow’s opponent think?   What do we think?”[1]

Luke closes the frame around the parable in a way that reinforces his opening.  “And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?  Will he delay long in helping them?  I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.  And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” 

There was no punctuation in the original Greek texts, no quotation marks or commas or periods; those are all inserted by translators, so knowing where Jesus leaves off and Luke begins is a little ambiguous.  How do we hear the text if the last words that Jesus uses to close the story are, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”  Period.  The end.  How do we hear it if we take out Luke’s framing altogether?  Is it possible that this is really a cautionary tale about unvarnished human nature and unmitigated self-interest?

What if Jesus ended the story of the vengeful widow and the corrupt judge with, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

When we wrestle with God through the scriptures, we may not always end up in a comfortable place.  We may end up limping away…but we will be limping toward a new understanding of ourselves and of God.  


[1] Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine, p.235

Image Credit: Jacob Wrestling With God, Jack Baumgartner, giclée prints available at http://www.baumwerkshop.com