Divine Blessings -- A Lectionary Meditation
The 18th century Baptist minister and hymn writer Robert Robinson opens his hymn by defining God as the “fount of every blessing,” a fount that tunes “my heart to sing thy grace; streams of mercy, never ceasing, call for songs of loudest praise.” God is our fount of every blessing, the one who showers down upon creation divine favor. There is in the biblical story a constant refrain of divine abundance, which creation is invited to share in. For some this idea of divine favor or blessing is taken to rather crass lengths, for it is defined in completely material terms (prosperity gospel). When we define divine favor in such ways, it is easy for us to begin to judge our neighbors on the basis of their material prosperity. If you are healthy and wealthy, then you must be wise. For how else would you be in such a good position? But, if you struggle with your health or with your finances, then something must be wrong with you. Surely you are not experiencing divine favor, but rather divine judgment. What you need to do is repent and/or have more faith. But, is this the way we should define the blessings of God? Is the idea of divine blessing rooted in some quid pro quo arrangement? Or is it rooted in divine grace? After all, doesn’t God pour out the rain upon the just and the unjust?
When we read these lectionary texts from Genesis, Romans, and Matthew at the surface level we find little similarity or connection. You have the story of Jacob’s wrestling match with the man that apparently is an incarnation of the divine presence, you have Paul speaking of the blessings that God has shared with the people of Israel (and his own despair that they are not responding to his message of Jesus, and finally in Matthew we find Jesus feeding the 5000. There is a lot of difference here, and yet each has within it a message of divine blessing.
As we read the stories of Jacob, we quickly discover that this is no ordinary man. He’s not a superman, but he is resourceful and persistent. It would seem that at every turn, the odds are stacked against him – even from his birth just seconds after Esau. Still, he knows what he wants and he is determined to get it, which leads him to seek every advantage he can over those who would hold him back, whether that is Esau’s birthright, Laban’s switching of his wife, or now a wrestling match with a strange man (divine being). Having spent fourteen years serving his father-in-law he is returning home, with wives, children, and half of his uncle’s flocks in tow. The point is reconciliation with his brother and making his claim on the land he should have inherited from Isaac (since he got the birthright). Before, he crosses the river to face his brother, he decides to spend some time alone, perhaps trying to work up the courage to face the brother he has obviously offended (why else the big offering of gifts?). As he’s sitting there on the far side of the river, having sent his family and his flocks across the river, a man jumps him and engages him in a wrestling match that will last through the night. Jacob is quite the wrestler, because despite the surprise of the attack, he holds his own. They wrestle till daybreak, and it’s not until the attacker knocks Jacob’s joint out of its socket that Jacob’s hold loosens. Even then he doesn’t let go, and he won’t let go until the man gives him a blessing.
The blessing that is given to Jacob involves a change of name – his new name, Israel, means, according to this passage, “you’ve striven with God and humans, and prevailed.” You took on God, engaged God in a wrestling match, and you have prevailed, therefore you are the beneficiary of divine favor. What does this mean for Jacob (now Israel)? You can get a sense of what he is feeling in the way he chooses to name this spot along the Jabbok River. He calls it Peniel, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” What is the nature of this blessing? It’s not material (he’s already got plenty of material blessings). Instead, it appears that in facing God and wrestling with God, he has gained is courage and confidence. If he can wrestle with God and prevail, then why fear his brother? He’s seen God face to face, and survived, so what can his brother do to him.
It is assumed by some that if one wishes to experience the fullness of God’s blessings, then one must never question God. That “truism” is disproved in this story, for instead of being rejected by God for laying down the challenge, Jacob is blessed. The story suggests that there is room for us to push the boundaries with God. Indeed, I believe that God welcomes this response. God is looking for partners not patsies! In this there is divine favor!
Paul speaks of divine blessings in a different but related manner from the way they are described in Genesis. Whereas Jacob receives a new name to mark his favored status in the eyes of God, Paul grieves that his own people, the children of Jacob (Israel), who are the are recipients of God’s many blessings, ranging from the covenants to the Law, from the Patriarchs to the divine worship, have not received his message that the Messiah has come into the world. He is so distraught that he’s willing to sacrifice his own life and future happiness if it would mean that his people might receive the message of Christ. This brief passage begins a rather lengthy and at times convoluted meditation on the fate of God’s covenant people. At one level, Paul insists that the covenant is a spiritual one and that birth is by itself no guarantee of inclusion in the people of God. Indeed, he’s hopeful that a remnant will remain faithful, and yet by the end of this meditation, he seems to resolve this wrestling match by concluding that the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable (11:24). So, what do we make of this brief statement of grief and thanksgiving? If, as Ron Allen and Clark Williamson suggest, this passage opens an extended meditation directed at Gentiles, reminding them that they have been invited into a covenant God made with Israel, and therefore, they shouldn’t hold themselves above Israel, then we must read and hear this passage with great care. It is a reminder to Gentiles that the covenant that the covenant that God is inviting them to share in, has already been set forth with Israel. Now, they too are children of Israel, and not replacements for Israel. The key to the promise here is that God is faithful to the covenants God makes with us, even if we’re not always faithful. God doesn’t cast us off, if we don’t “measure up.” This isn’t an endorsement of Christian Zionism, which supports the actions of the modern nation of Israel without question (and with ulterior motives), but rather a reminder that whether Jew or Gentile, we are servants of the same God, who remains faithful to promises. In this case, as Allen and Williamson note, while Paul has contended that Abraham is the ‘father’ of Gentiles but her reminds Gentiles that “Abraham is not their exclusive possession.” Paul may grieve that more of his own people haven’t responded positively to his proclamation of the gospel, but the Gentiles need to remember this:
Jesus took form in the history and Scriptures of Israel; he is a gift to Gentiles from the God of Israel and the Israel of God (Allen and Williamson, Preaching the Letters Without Dismissing the Law, pp. 78-79).
And for this faithfulness to the promise on the part of God, Paul can declare that God is blessed forever!
In this gospel reading we see the extension of God’s blessing to a people who are hungry. Jesus, though he is wearied by the news that John the Baptist has been executed, a weariness that has led him to leave the crowds behind and take a boat to a more secluded spot, he has compassion for those who follow him to this deserted place. It is interesting that while the crowd took a land route and he took a boat, a crowd is waiting for him when he comes ashore, and taking compassion on them, Jesus begins healing the sick. When evening came, the disciples got worried. Here they were in a deserted place, with little food, and a large crowd. As we know, hungry crowds can turn dangerous, and they weren’t comfortable with their situation, so they recommend that Jesus send the crowd away before it gets too late. In response, Jesus tells the disciples to feed the crowd themselves. Surely they heard this directive with disbelief, for between them, all they had were five loaves of bread and two fish. This meager amount of food wasn’t enough to serve such a great crowd, which Matthew says numbered 5,000 men, as well as women and children (are we open to 15,000 in attendance?). But Jesus wouldn’t be deterred and so they agreed to gather the crowd together, and handing the food to Jesus he blessed it and then had the food distributed. When all had been fed and were satisfied, the disciples gathered twelve baskets of bread crumbs. How did this happen? Well, there are those who invoke a supernaturalism, while others suggest that by offering what they had, Jesus modeled sharing for the crowd (who had their own hidden stashes). My sense is that both attempts at “explaining” the event miss the point. The point is that Jesus is bringing to the people the blessings of God and inviting them to share in this sign of life together. One can see in this event hints of the Eucharistic service, for Jesus breaks and blesses the bread before it is distributed, which in itself a reminder that our true blessings come in sharing the feast with God. But all of this is rooted not in Jesus’ need to do another big miracle to prove his messiahship, but is a sign of compassion, divine love, shared with the people of God.