What is it that happens to us to make us want to be our very best selves and not merely average or, worse, our lowest, most destructive selves? We know better these days than to say that everyone is born with the will to become her or his highest, most noble self. We understand that too many children who have that drive get it knocked out of them by put downs or abuse, emotional and/or physical. We also know, though, that children with every advantage and a home in which unconditional love undergirds them at every turn can rush to embrace evil and become loathsome, destructive beasts, behaving more like rabid animals than human beings. So, there isn’t always a connection between excellent parenting and a child who reaches to be her or his best self just as there isn’t always a connection between poor parenting and a child who becomes a menace to society as an adult.
Jane Austen said, “We have all a better guide in ourselves, if we would attend to it, than any other person can be.” And existentialist Kierkegaard upset the apple cart, as usual, with his observation that there “is nothing with which every person is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much she or he is capable of doing and becoming.” I’m pretty sure he meant, exclusively, in a good sense.
The Apostle Paul who gets plenty of bad marks for being braggadocios gets a few balancing, positive points for this gut-wrenching confession:
I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.
Paul lived in a world that blamed acts of evil on evil forces–a devil, demons, unseen and indescribable malevolent beings scattered throughout the cosmos. There was a degree to which he knew he had to accept responsbility for the decisions he made and the actions he took based on those decisions, but there was also a sense in which he blamed evil forces for putting wrong ideas in his mind to begin with, ideas that would lead him to temptations over which he believed himself to be powerless.
I had a parishioner once who in so many ways was a delightful person; sadly, however, she was a schizophrenic, and her mental health deteriorated as she aged. Finally, she was in psychiatric institutions more than she was out. She believed that the voices she heard had control over her behavior and that she had no choice but to obey what these voices demanded of her. Fortunately, the voices she heard were relatively benign though they robbed her of her sanity. They might tell her to steal a bag of potato chips, to phone someone who’d demanded that she not call her or him, or to chew someone out, maybe not the best of choices of people to chew out; it didn’t matter though. If the voices commanded it, she believed she had to do it. When I left the city where she was institutionalized, my heart was torn. She was begging for a change of rooms at her treatment facility because she was absolutely convinced that she had been able to pinpoint the locale of the voices she heard; they were in the radiator and the radiator pipes where she had to face them every time she tried to take a nap or get a decent night’s sleep. The staff was not very sympathetic to her request, which I found ludicrous, and when I spoke to her charge nurse on her behalf, the nurse seemed to be thinking about me, “Crazy preacher,” and pondering restraints so I left quickly and decided that I’d make my concerns known through a telephone henceforth.
Some mental health professionals have read Paul’s words here with intense interest, and some have concluded that Paul was himself schizophrenic. He did have at least one major personality shift about which we know, but it was a change from being a zealously destructive person to those who questioned his religious views to becoming a person who left the bad behind and to the best of his ability invested the remainder of his life doing good as he understood it for as many people as he could. Something happened to cause the abrupt aboutface, and though it didn’t free him totally from temptations to do his worst he fairly consistently stuck to the good. Could it have been an encounter with the divine?
One of my several favorite stories from Hebrew scripture is the tale that is before us today, Jacob’s infamous wrestling match. No matter what we or the finest of scholars do with this account, it remains shrouded, to some degree, in mystery. That is part of what gives it a sense of authenticity; when details get too specific in the realm of spirituality something, somewhere is inauthentic. As is true of Jesus’ parables, we may learn something solid and still be left with questions about the full ramifications of what he intended to get across. So also, with ancient Hebrew lore that tells us a story with numerous details we can understand but that leaves us still asking questions as we, scratching our heads, try to walk away from the narrative.
Jacob, by the way, isn’t just any old ancient Hebrew. He has a serious pedigree. His grandfather was Abraham, the founder, for lack of a better word, of Hebrew monotheism. Impressive huh? His father was Abraham’s beloved son, Isaac, conceived by his wife, Sarah, when they were old and beyond the help of fertility physicians–or so they thought. Jacob’s uncle, then, was Ishmael, and Jacob’s brother was Esau. Jacob and Esau were twins, though they weren’t a thing in the world alike. Esau had been born first, making him heir to the greatest portion of his father’s, Isaac’s, holdings at the time of Isaac’s death. Jacob would get a stash too, but not as much as Esau would inherit by right of birth.
He was sneaky, and he was a survivor. The midwives who delivered him noticed that as the boys exited their mother’s womb, Jacob was holding onto one of Esau’s feet–obviously, to make sure he wouldn’t be left behind in the womb. As you know, names in that culture typically described a dominant trait a child was thought to possess; in other instances, a parent might give a child a name that proclaimed a message such as “Emmanuel,” which means God is with us. As I’ve often said, parents didn’t rush to name their children; they wanted a sense of who the child was before they did. In Jacob’s case, though, there was little waiting. In the birth process, he somehow sensed, so the story went, that he should grab his brother’s foot to ensure that he got out of where he was. His parents, Isaac and Rebecca, named him Jacob, Yacob, meaning “you cute little user or trickster you.” These traits weren’t nearly so cute when Jacob became an adult.
Now, a person was not stuck for life with her or his birth name. If some momentous event took place, say a powerful experience of spiritual renewal, a person might change the birth name to reflect more accurately who she or he would be moving forward, based on the life-altering experience. Jacob’s name would be changed to Israel, and in a sense–to get back to the pedigree thing–he would be the father of the nation as he would be the father of the leader of each of the twelve tribes of Israel. The name “Israel” means, so you can keep it in mind is, God rules or God shines. This is not a confession of faith that Jacob could have made for himself before the story that teases and teaches us today.
Jacob had tricked–remember his name–his brother into granting his little brother, Jacob, his birthright. Then Jacob tricked their blind old father into thinking he, Jacob, was Esau, and not being able to see to confirm otherwise, father Isaac spoke the words of blessing to Jacob, words supposedly reserved only for a first-born son. Words were believed to have more power than most of us accord them today; thus, when he discovered the truth, heart-sick Isaac could not take back what he had spoken. Words, once released, could never be recalled. Esau, big-strong Esau, was irate, and that put Jacob on the run for years.
There was absolutely no contact between the two brothers because Jacob feared that if Esau ever found him, he’d kill him on the spot; Jacob knew that no one would blame Esau. I can’t imagine being estranged from my brother, even if he stole, which he would not from anyone, but Esau and Jacob didn’t even exchange Happy Circumcision stones, remembering that joyous day for their parents when not one, but two foreskins were chopped off with a make-shift ax. No matter how far apart they grew emotionally or moved geographically, their birth and their Grandfather Abraham’s magnificent circumcision ritual now required for all Hebrew males they’d always share in common.
At least in part because he feared his brother’s, Esau’s, retributive wrath, Jacob was rarely if ever alone. He had the funds to keep a few servants around who were, in effect, body guards. The story on which we focus today, though, finds Jacob not just alone, but alone in the wilderness. He’d been accused of being willing to keep his own family between himself and Esau if Esau showed up on the attack. Now the family was elsewhere, and Jacob was truly alone.
A desert sky with no moon, Jacob was in the deepest darkness he could possibly have been in, and in that darkness–or was he just dreaming–someone who could see him came up and grabbed him in an antagonistic way, as if to do harm to him. What ensued was a wrestling match.
One of the gifted communal storytellers told the story over and over again, and her or his way of telling the tale is how it came to be written. Listen again to the core of the powerful narrative:
…a man wrestled with Jacob until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then the man said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But the man said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.
The storyteller tells us clearly that Jacob’s opponent was “a man.” For reasons to which we are not privy, Jacob came to believe as they wrestled through the night–and physical exertion definitely was not Jacob’s thing–that he was wrestling with God Godself. Presumably, this is why he asked for a blessing–not that humans were believed incapable of blessing. Jacob asked for the man’s name; the man refused to give a name, which is what God did. God did not give out God’s name. The man knew his wrestling moves, and before he gave the requested blessing, he did something to create a painful injury to Jacob’s hip. That was the thing. Jacob could have written the whole incident up to a dream, a very powerful and meaningful dream, except that when he got up at dawn to get out of there, his hip was hurting for real. He limped the rest of the day and maybe for the rest of his life.
The widely held belief among Hebrews in Jacob’s day was that a human couldn’t see the face of God and live, but Jacob believed that he had wrestled with God, had spoken to God, had been injured by God, had been blessed and renamed by God, and that in the shadowy dawn had caught a glimpse of God’s face. He was alive to tell about it.
The ultimate interpretation of the story is up to you, but in which ever way you go with your interpretation the story, completely by accident, is tailor-made for New Year’s Day. Whatever else the story means to you, it’s about change. It’s about leaving the bad behind and embracing the good for the rest of your days on this earth.
Maybe the story wants us to think that Jacob had a wrestling match with a messenger from God, or maybe Jacob–and this is how I interpret the story–was wrestling with himself and found the capacity to embrace evil or the divine within himself. I don’t believe the storyteller or many of those to whom Jacob related his experience believed that Jacob had actually fought with God or, for that matter, that God wrestles with anyone. It could have been a dream, and that would make a lot of sense; the painful hip could have had something to do with the position in which he slept in the desert. If any of you have any experience with aging, you know readily that such a pain is not beyond the realm of possible. Whatever it was, it reminded him of that painful confrontation, and the irrefutable reality that no person can serve evil and good at the same time, and we can’t be on the side of good today and the side of bad tomorrow. We choose not a grouping of individual acts–some of this, a little of that; but a way of life.
In any case, sometimes some of us become so deeply entrenched in living in ways that harm ourselves and others that it takes something painful to pry us away from that life and open ourselves to live for the good from here on out. No, I don’t think God gives us horrible diseases or even ingrown toenails to warn us to leave our lower selves behind. No, I don’t think God kills off our loved ones to wake us up though numerous times I’ve heard that stated at funerals. “God took my daddy so I’d get off drugs.” No, God did not snuff out a life to make you give up your self-destructive ways or seek treatment for your addiction illness.
You have wrestled or you will. You may never be sure of who your adversary was. The point will not be who wins or who loses the match. The point will be the focus toward goodness, toward your best, that you’ll never again be able to limp away from.