Image: Paul Gauguin, ‘Vision After the Sermon’, 1888.

In 1888, the year he made the painting, Gauguin wrote to his friend Vincent van Gogh that the scene depicted, Jacob wrestling with the angel, was a reality in the imaginations of the Breton women upon hearing the sermon on the text from Genesis 32. Perhaps he meant that in a pejorative sense, that the scene was real only in the imaginations of simple peasants.

Nothing about the painting, however, suggests a condescending attitude toward the women. They are painted with subtlety, and the mood is one of contemplation. It would be fairer to say that the artist is fascinated by their faith – moved, puzzled, curious, respectful.

We too are led, then, to contemplate the reality so vivid for these people of faith. In our own imaginations, in our hearts and minds, what do we see when we hear the story of Jacob wrestling with a mysterious stranger/angel (the Hebrew word is “mortal”, hence the rendering in our translation: “someone”)? What is our vision before, during, and after the sermon?

‘We meet our match’

Andrew Collis
Ordinary Sunday 29, Year C
Genesis 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8

Our reading from Genesis is something of a classic. It is part of the Jacob/Israel saga – the story of a trickster (“Heel Grabber”) who steals a blessing, who leaves home, wrestles with his conscience, his God and himself; a deceiver who is deceived, who loves, who returns home, is forgiven, undergoes conversion, walks thereafter with a limp.

Such a dense and richly woven text, it’s hard to know where to start reading.

Taking a cue from the gospel for today, which is about “praying always and not losing heart”, my eyes are drawn to the prayer of Jacob in the early part of chapter 32. A reunion with his wronged brother Esau is imminent, and Jacob is afraid.

Jacob then prayed, “O God of my ancestors Sarah and Abraham, the God of Rebecca my mother and Isaac my father, the God who reminded me, ‘Go back to your homeland and to your kin, and I will bless you’, I am unworthy of the smallest part of your constant love and the faithfulness you showed to me. When I originally crossed the Jordan, I had only my walking stick. Now I have grown to two caravans. Please deliver me from my brother, from the clutches of Esau. For I fear that Esau is coming to attack me … Yet you said, ‘I will make you prosper greatly, and will make your descendants like the sand of the sea …’”

I can relate to this prayerful Jacob. The one who knows keenly his dependence on others, the one who knows keenly his own failings. The one who knows failure and success, who fears failure – vulnerable to the light of justice yet not without hope of real mercy, real prosperity, real blessing.

Carl Frederick Buechner is a writer and theologian from New York. Buechner’s version of Genesis 32:22-31 is worth retelling – it picks up the wordplay in the Hebrew whereby Jacob wrestles with a “someone”, literally “a mortal” – a mysterious figure variously interpreted as his own mirror image, his twin Esau; as a stranger, an angel; as a god, as God.

Jacob is struck at the socket of the hip, literally the “hollow”, figuratively the power or essence, the seat of one’s being. His new name, Israel, may mean “God Wrestles”, “God Contends” or “Overcomer of God” …

Out of the dark someone leaped at me with such force that it knocked me onto my back … I could not see his face … His flesh was chill and wet as the river. He was the god of the river … He would not let me cross without a battle … He was pushing my face into the mud …

He was not the god of the river. He was Esau … He had forded the river to slay me … We struggled in each other’s arms … I knew that they were not Esau’s arms. It was not Esau. I did not know who it was. I did not know who I was …

For the rest of the night, we battled in the reeds … Each time I thought I was lost, I escaped somehow … I did not know why we were fighting. It was like fighting in a dream.

He did not overpower me until the moment came to overpower me … He had his knee under my hip. The rest of his weight was on top of my hip …

It was less a pain I felt than a pain I saw. I saw it as light. I saw the pain as a dazzling bird-shape of light … I clung for dear life … For the first time he spoke.

He said, “Let me go.”

The words were more breath than sound …

Only then did I see it, the first faint shudder of light behind the farthest hills.

I said, “I will not let you go.”

It was my life I clung to …

I said, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

He said, “Who are you?”

There was mud in my eyes, my ears and nostrils, my hair.

My name tasted of mud when I spoke it.

“Jacob,” I said. “My name is Jacob.”

“It is Jacob no longer,” he said. “Now you are Israel. You have wrestled with God and with mortals. You have prevailed.”

I was no longer Jacob … I tried to say the new name I was to the new self I was …

I said, “What is your name?” I could only whisper it.

“Why do you ask me my name?”

He did not wait for my answer. He blessed me as I had asked him. I do not remember the words of his blessing or even if there were words. I remember the blessing of his arms holding me and the blessing of his arms letting me go …

I remember as blessing the one glimpse I had of his face … It was the face of light. No words can tell of it. Silence cannot tell of it …

What has Jacob learned? What learning is offered to us?

We are invited to wrestle with the story, the text, the whole story. We wrestle with a Word made flesh. Faithful readers, we meet our match – an opponent as good as us or better.

What has Jacob learned? What learning is offered to us?

We are invited to wrestle with the story … as with our own conscience, history, great moral challenge, social or ecological predicament. Faithful readers, we meet our match – an opponent as good as us or better.

What has Jacob learned? What learning is offered to us?

We are invited to wrestle with the story … as for Justice, Friendship, Unconditional Love, Mercy, Prosperity/Flourishing, Blessing. Faithful readers, we meet our match – perhaps simply in a word, one word we dare not let go – an opponent as good as us or better.

What has Jacob learned? What learning is offered to us? Amen.