Wrestling Match, by Pastor Kinsey
In high school I had the wrestling coach for my Phy Ed teacher one semester, and he taught the whole class the fundamentals of wrestling. It was the first time I had ever seen the wrestling room, a claustrophobic space covered with mats, in the basement of our old high school. And the walls were plastered with pithy slogans about striving to win and not to “lose heart,” like: “Sometimes it’s not how good you are, but how bad you want it”; and, “Live fast, fight hard”; and, “Make your competitive juices, overcome your excuses”. But my all-time favorite is the one written on the ceiling, which said – If you can read this, you’re already beaten!
I surprised myself, in my wrestling ability, however, going undefeated in my weight class. And apparently, I surprised the wrestling coach too. When the class was over, he approached me to ask me, to seriously think about joining the Junior Varsity wrestling team he coached. He thought that, with a bit more instruction and training, I might have a career in conference wrestling. I’d never thought of myself as a wrestler. I was aiming to make it on the basketball team, which was also a winter sport. But when I look back, I’m pretty sure where my wrestling ability came from – my brother Dave! Growing up, we never lost heart for wrestling each other, as brothers of the same size are want to do. We wrestled on our beds, on the floor in every room, until my mom couldn’t take it anymore and sent us outside, where we wrestled in the yard. And we went at it with our whole hearts, until we pretty much came to a draw, because we were so evenly matched.
Well, I never joined the wrestling team, and maybe that was unfortunate, because I never became much more than a bench warmer, on the JV basketball team either!
Wrestling is a prime theme in our readings today. Jacob – of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob fame, who with his mother’s help, stole his birthright from his twin brother Esau – literally wrestles with “a man until daybreak.” The “man” – who is also referred to as God, later on, or as an angel, in some traditions – is the one who approaches and initiates the encounter with Jacob.
It’s fascinating that the divine-being-in-human-form is not able to “prevail against Jacob.” He is not a giant or a supernatural man, but a human-form-of-God, in some way. This God-in-human, is not omnipotent, but limited in his incarnation, and is unable to win outright. God and Jacob come to some kind of a draw. Even the act of striking him, and putting Jacob’s hip out of joint, doesn’t free-up this divine Angel wrestler. So he asks Jacob to let him go, because it’s almost daybreak, to prevent Jacob from seeing God face to face, which no one can endure in this world. And still Jacob bargains for more, locked in battle beside the Jabbok river, saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And so God gives Jacob a new name, Israel, meaning “you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” This is God’s blessing – and a new understanding for Jacob, of himself.
Does this mean, that all of us need to schedule a wrestle match with God in order to receive a blessing? I suspect we all have our times of wrestling with God, even if we don’t always come out with a blessing, quite so clear, if at all. But just as God first comes to Jacob, God comes to us and initiates contact with us, striking us with a blessing. Bu Grace, God sends faith to us, which we receive and develop through baptism, in our own faith journey’s, as we “ask God to help and guide us.” God blesses us with a new name, in baptism, Christian! Engaged by God, our journey is a kind of wrestling, in a good way!
The other wrestler in our readings is the unnamed woman who persistently petitions a local judge for justice. Her tenacity is so great, she merits a story to be told about her! Widows, we know, were often talked about in the same breath with orphans and foreigners, that is, as having no standing in the community. Widows were needy and powerless, in Jewish and Christian circles. No widow was supposed to be in court asking for anything. That’s a non-starter! Her only hope was charity and the good graces of others. There was no law, no case, for the judge to rule on! And yet, after her continual pleading for justice, the “judge said to himself, though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming!” This is a widow who knows her wrestling slogan: “Make your competitive juices overcome your excuses!”
But does this mean that God is like an indifferent and uncaring Judge? And should we expect we have to nag God, to be about doing justice in the world? What is helpful for me, is remembering that this is a parable of comparison. In other words: If even the unjust Judge will give in to the ceaseless petitions of the widow, how much more will God, who is just, grant our prayers and petitions!
In the end, I have to wonder if the main take-away of this parable, is primarily about God? Or, is it more about us, and who we are, as a people of faith? If we look at the introduction and conclusion to the parable, isn’t that more the picture we get? “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart,” is Jesus’ introduction. And then unpacking it at the end he says, and “…when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
When we see it in this way, about us, as much, or more, than about God, we see how it is about our faith journey, in relationship to God. Losing heart, is challenged by our praying always, and often. Losing heart, happens when we have no support from our community of faith, when we feel alone and unsupported. But faithful living is staying in touch with God, and our baptismal sisters and brothers. Being persistent in faith and prayer is just who we are. Praying always and having faith, are two sides of the same coin.
“…the widow in Jesus’ parable is the very picture of purposefulness and precision,” says Debie Thomas. “She knows her need, she knows its urgency, and she knows exactly where to go and whom to ask in order to get her need met. If anything, the daily business of getting up, getting dressed, heading over to the judge’s house or workplace, banging on his door, and talking his ear off until he listens, clarifies her own sense of who she is and what she’s about.” As the wrestlers say, Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard!
In our wrestling with God, we find out, more and more, who we are. In our faith journey, when we don’t let go, when we pursue a blessing with all we have, we discover how close God is -sweating with us- as we wrestle through the proverbial night, and until we see, the light of day!
In Jacob’s story, we learn that wrestling is not only important, but is possible at all, because our God, is close to us, and cares deeply about us. Our God is vulnerable, takes the form of fellow human beings, to knowingly risk everything, in order to be by our side – teach us, touch us, wrestle with us, strengthen us, challenge us, engage us mind and body, so that we are opened in a new way to the will of God, changed, that God’s world would be seen for what it is, a beautiful gift that is ours in all its fragility, so that we might know, we are its care takers, as we are, of one another.
God does not prevail against Jacob, in the all-night wrestling match, and is willing to concede that as the divine One, in order to leave before daylight and preserve Jacob’s life. God is vulnerable in God’s incarnation, and cares for Jacob’s future.
This is the God we also know in Christ Jesus, whose incarnation – as God in human form – left him vulnerable to the machinations of a world, aching from brokenness, and exploited by the mighty ones he came to bring low – sacrificing everything for us. Jesus’ journey of faith and wrestling match – as he came to know, and understand, more and more, on his walk to Jerusalem – meant he would allow himself not to prevail against his enemies, but love them, making it appear to the world, as if all had been lost, hanging on the tree of the cross. Yet, this gift, sealed a message very different and contrary to the world’s – that God lifts up the lowly righteous ones, and that his crucifixion, it turns out, was not a death that could hold him, but is our Tree of Life – and our promise of victory.