Commentary for Pentecost IX, 2 August 2020
Texts for Pentecost IX are Genesis 32:22-31, Psalm 17:1-7, 15, Romans 9:1-5, and Matthew 14:13-21
By Father Doug Woods
Hi there! Glad you came. How've you been?
We're looking ahead toward Sunday, August 2.
Genesis 32:22-31. Well, here comes another story about Jacob. We’ve seen several in the past few weeks. We’ve said that Jacob is a trickster; he’s not beyond using “sketchy” means to get what he thinks he needs. He’s already made his relationship with his brother, Esau, so bad that he fears for his life. Then add to that the fact that he went to his mother’s brother, Laban, to find a wife for himself; the story is complicated, but both Jacob and Laban have been up to no good. Jacob takes his wives and flocks and tries to run away from Laban, but Laban catches up with him. To make a long story short, Jacob and Laban agree that Jacob will take proper care of Leah and Rachel and their children, and Laban will leave them alone.
Now Jacob turns around to go back to his own family home—and back to Esau. He sends a gift of livestock on ahead to Esau, hoping to appease him, and then he and his family follow behind. At nightfall, he sends his family on ahead a bit, and he remains behind in the wilderness. The beginning of the story is abrupt. It simply says “Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.” v. 24. Apparently, Jacob and the “man” were evenly matched; the night simply ended in a draw. As a parting gesture, the “man” hits Jacob’s hip and puts it out of joint, but Jacob still won’t let go; he demands that the “man” bless him. Curiously, the man asks Jacob what his name is. When Jacob tells him, he says, “No, from now on, you’ll be called Israel.” This name is a compound noun, based on the Semitic triconsonantal root ŠRH ‘strive’. The compound noun is iŠRaH + el ‘struggle + God’ = "Israel" ‘struggles with God’.
The name fits well. Jacob has been a struggler, a competitor, right from his time in the womb of Rebekah, his mother. Even at the time of his birth, he emerges holding the heel of his brother, Esau, as if engaged in a wrestling match. We’ve already seen the numerous times he’s struggled with Esau—and then Laban and now the “man”. He’s a fighter, a scrapper.
Now Jacob tries to turn the tables; he asks the man “What is _your_ name?” The man refuses to answer, and instead gives Jacob a blessing. So who is the “man”? Theories vary. Some say he was an angel. Some—perhaps thinking of the story of Moses and the Burning Bush, where Yahweh refuses to divulge his name—suggest that the “man” is God himself. Who else would have been so strong, struggling with Jacob, and who would have had such perfect insight into Jacob’s personality as to be able to give him such an appropriate name?
You’ll want to relieve some of the tension by reading the NEXT chapter (Gen. 33), in which (spoiler alert!) Jacob and Esau meet and are reconciled.
Psalm 17:1-7, 15. If you’ve ever had an argument with someone, you’ll know that you considered yourself to be right and the other person to be wrong. But did it ever happen to you that later you realized that you were wrong after all? And then you had to “eat crow”? Oh, that’s bitter!
I worry about the psalmist here. He clearly thinks he’s in the right. I hope he’s not in for a fall! In his estimation, he’s free of deceit, he has a pure heart, he’s never done any verbal violence, and he’s stayed on God’s way. Now he’s calling for God’s help against an adversary, and he figures he’s entitled by his good behaviour—even figures he’ll see God face to face.
So did JACOB see God face to face? Was he entitled by his good behaviour? Or is it something else? Is it God’s STEADFAST LOVE (Hebr. ḥesed)? Why would God be like that? It doesn’t seem fair sometimes. Or is the picture bigger than “fair”? Is it a matter of a parent whose love is rock solid, unmovable? A parent who refuses to stop giving her/his child yet another “second chance” in the hope that the child will yet get it right?
Romans 9:1-5. Here, Paul pours out his anguish over something which has both logical and theological consequences. Here he is, bringing the miraculous story of Jesus to the GENTILES, and large numbers of them are embracing it. But here’s what makes Paul sad: his OWN people reject it. Paul is a member of the children of Israel. He figures they, above all others, should be stepping forward to own Jesus as the Messiah. And yet they aren’t. They’re rejecting him. Here’s how he puts it:
They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah, who is over all, God blessed forever. Amen. (Rom. 9.4-5)
It’s another one of those things which doesn’t make sense. Jacob is one of GOD’S CHOSEN PEOPLE, so why is he such a shady character? The psalmist is one of God’s chosen people; why doesn’t he have more humility? What makes him think he’s EARNED God’s help? And now, here’s grief-stricken Paul; why won’t HIS OWN PEOPLE accept Jesus?
Matthew 14:13-21. This story takes place in the context of the death of Jesus’ relative, John the Baptizer (read the previous section, Mt. 14.1-12). So now Jesus decides to withdraw to a “deserted place”—to mourn, to pray, to get away from the authorities? Whatever the answer is, Jesus CAN’T go away and be by himself; people are drawn to him. When Jesus got to where he was going, he found a crowd already there, waiting for him. Was he angry? Frustrated? Disappointed? It says he had compassion for them and cured their sick.
Cured. I have problems with that translation. The original Greek word is "hetherapeusen" ‘serve, help, take care of; heal, cure’. We think of curing as something scientific/medical. I’d prefer to use ‘heal’, but ‘heal’ in the ancient Middle Eastern sense: ‘put someone back where they belong’. That opens it to psychological or emotional or spiritual ‘putting back where they belong’—something which is just as important as medical ‘putting back’. Clearly, it INCLUDES scientific/medical healing, but it’s far broader and more inclusive.
This is Matthew’s version of the Feeding of the Five Thousand (the other three gospels also have the story). So after a long day of healing, it’s become dusk, and the disciples are worried about the people. They’re in the middle of nowhere, and the people have no food. “This is a deserted place, and the hour is now late; send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves.” (Mt. 14.15b) Jesus responds in an astonishing way; he says, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” (v. 16) The disciples are astounded. In effect they say, “But how can we do that?” The exact quote is, “We have nothing here but five loaves and two fish.” That’s barely enough to feed Jesus and the disciples! Read the rest now. It’s astounding. So now you’re asking, “How can this be?!”
We can answer this in two different ways: 1) LITERALLY. I’m not even going to try to do this. If you want some discussion of it, have a look at Barclay, William. 1958. The Gospel of Matthew. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 109-115, esp. 113-115. Some of you will have great difficulty with this—with miracles in general. So let’s move on to the other approach. 2) METAPHORICALLY. The truth of the story need not necessarily sink or swim on the basis of LITERAL truth. Here’s the thing: Jesus’ ministry FED people. It supplied what was necessary for LIFE, life in a much wider scope than mere literal biological life; it HEALED people. And here we are again, back at "hetherapeusen" ‘serve, help, take care of; heal, cure’. Without this dimension, the truth of the story is sadly impoverished. With it, we can describe what’s going on in full and satisfying detail.
Could the story be literally true? I’ve experienced too much of the miraculous in my life to say No, though I know this will be a stumbling block to those who are locked in empirical verification. If you understand it, you do, if you don’t, you don’t.
This much we can say: the truth of the story is that we can do a lot with very little. This reflects back to the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and that brings up an interesting question: is the Feeding of the Five Thousand a parable? Would it matter any less if it were? It embodies an essential truth: we can feed and heal with very little in hand.