Two Stories

I focus a lot in my book, The Love That Matters: Meeting Jesus in the Midst of Terror and Death, on some very important Bible stories that have helped me make sense of who God is, who I am, and what it means to have met Jesus and to follow as Jesus has called me to follow.

Today, I’d like to focus on the two most important of those stories.

The first is from Genesis 32:22-32, the story of a frightened Jacob who meets a mysterious stranger at a crossing of the wadi jabbock and wrestles with that mysterious stranger.

Jacob is scared. He is getting ready to see his long-estranged brother Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright as the first son (by a few minutes) and then out of his blessing from their father Isaac. He has divided his people — his wives, his children, his slaves and servants, and his possessions — so that some portion of himself will survive an attack from Esau. He has sent gifts ahead to his brother. He has left his family, and gone on ahead — alone — to meet Esau. And he prays for God’s protection:

10 I am not worthy of the least of all the deeds of steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan, and now I have become two camps. 11 Please deliver me from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I fear him, that he may come and attack me, the mothers with the children. 12 But you said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be numbered for multitude. (Genesis 32:10-12 ESV)

Alone, Jacob meets the mysterious man, who grabs hold of him. Jacob grabs back. They struggle all night.

When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he touched his hip socket, and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. (Genesis 32:25 ESV)

The man demands Jacob let go of him, and Jacob refuses. “I will not let you go unless you bless me,” he says. He demands to know the man’s name, and the stranger replies not with his name, but by giving Jacob a new name — Israel יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל — meaning “he has struggled with God” or “he has persisted against God.” (Though it could also mean “God struggles” or “God persists.” But scripture gives us a meaning, and we’ll stick with it.) The mysterious stranger is never identified, but we’re told Jacob names it Peniel פְּנִיאֵ֑ל, meaning “Face of God.”

This struggle with God is faith for me. It’s how I understand what it means to meet God. And what amazes me about this tiny story is that even though the entire story of God’s people Israel is about God’s faithfulness and their failure to be faithful to their God, this story is about one man’s refusal to let go of God. In fact, Jacob is so intent on fighting, on struggling, on sticking with this, that God has to fight dirty — has to put his hip out of joint (one rabbinical commentary I read suggested this was a euphemism, and that God either tried to or succeeded in raping Jacob) — to make the struggle stop.

In struggling with us, His created things, creatures of mud bearing a tiny bit of the divine breath, God has to fight dirty. And even that doesn’t work. Because we won’t let go of God.

Think about that. We won’t let go. That’s faith. A faith even God has to contend with.

There’s also the matter of the injury. Jacob walks away, limping, wounded, from his night-long struggle with God. It is wounding, it leaves us limping, meeting God. Struggling with God. Wrestling with God. Not letting go. We are wounded. We limp. (Though the same rabbinical commentary says the wound here described, putting out the hip, would leave Jacob screaming in pain and unable to walk.) We are not the same. Not after this.

Because we also have a new name. We have a blessing (we do not know what the blessing was here). We are very different then we were the night before, when we crossed this dry riverbed, frightened and alone. We are marked, in a way we weren’t before, as God’s.

This struggle, as I said, is faith for me. God grabs hold. I grab back. And my gabbing back, for all my fear, doubt, and unfaithfulness, is too much for God. Who must fight dirty to get me to let go. Very dirty. Leaving me wounded. Changed. Blessed.

The second story that is hugely important to me is that of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:25-37. A lawyer asks Jesus how to “inherit” eternal life? What does the law say, Jesus asks? Love God and love my neighbor, the man replies. You got it right, Jesus says.

But that’s not enough for the man.

“Who is my neighbor?” he asks.

The man wants to know who he has obligations to. And who he doesn’t. The command to love neighbors comes from Leviticus 19, but there is an implication in the Torah that whoever isn’t Israel isn’t quite a neighbor and certainly isn’t a brother. (This is explicit in Deuteronomy 23, when God allows Israel to charge foreigners interest on loans as part of God’s forbidding interest to “your brother.”) So, the man wants to know, who does he not owe this obligation of neighborliness to?

This is where Jesus gets interesting. When Jacob asks the mysterious stranger what his name is, the stranger replies by giving Jacob a new name — and never revealing his. Jesus doesn’t say who the neighbor is. The lawyer wants a noun. Jesus responds with a verb, a story of what it means to be a neighbor.

I suspect this story is well known enough so that I don’t have to do a blow-by-blow. A man — very likely a Judean — is on his way to Jericho from Jerusalem when he is ambushed, beaten, and left for dead. A priest and a Levite pass him by, and do nothing. A Samaritan — someone who is not of Israel, but instead worships the corrupted faith grounded in a version of the Torah — comes along and cares for the man, picking him up, binding his wounds, taking him to an inn, and paying for his care.

Who was the neighbor? Jesus asks.

“The one who showed him mercy,” the lawyer replies.

“You go, and do likewise,” Jesus says.

This is the command to us. Go and do likewise.

There’s a twofold meaning here for me. The first is that the neighbor is whoever God puts in front of you, wounded and needing help. The help given is tangible, real, physical. This is about immediacy, about hearts and heads and hands. This is what we would call an act of charity. It’s not about policy or governance or making the road safer or bringing anyone to justice (though none of those things are precluded; they just aren’t what love means when someone is bleeding in front of you). It’s about meeting someone, unexpected, and being their help and their healing.

This is hard. We like to pick our causes. And we can. We’ve made a world in which it is hard to meet real neighbors. So we tend to focus our efforts on imagined ones, mediated neighbors. It’s not wrong to help those in need far away, and I won’t say they aren’t neighbors. But we can choose to encounter them. Or not.

Out and about, we can’t choose to encounter someone. We can choose not to help them, to walk around them as the priest and the Levite did. But there they are, in front of us.

So, this story means, for me, that part of following Jesus in the world means purposefully living in it, not avoiding the places where we meet strangers and not turning away from their need. That means leaving a lot to chance. The people we meet are not always admirable, not always kind, not always people we would claim as neighbors if we could choose.

But we can’t choose. That for me is a major point of the parable. And of the whole Gospel. This is hard for moderns, because everything about modernity strives to create a world in which we can choose as much as possible — who we are, what we do, where we live, how we’re governed, who our neighbors are, who they aren’t, how we meet and deal with them.

Things most human beings have never been able to choose.

There is, however, another part of “go and do likewise” that intrigues me. While Jesus is clearly using a hated Samaritan as an example of how a neighbor acts, part of me also knows that Judean listeners would identify with the beaten man, and not the Samaritan. They would hear themselves as the victim here, walked around and left uncared for by their own.

Part of that risk we take in the world is the risk that we too shall be left beaten on the road to Jericho. That we will need care from absolute strangers — from hated enemies — and that care will come.

That’s an amazing kind of vulnerability that Jesus is teaching here. You too could be left for dead, and the only people who will care for you are enemies. And I cannot help but see some part of the coming judgment upon Jerusalem, the war that would see the city’s destruction, and the refugees who would huddle in the midst of the very empire that had made that war, finding no one to care for them but those they have avoided or consigned to outer darkness because of their sinfulness or faithlessness to Israel’s God.

Regardless of what is at work here, I believe Jesus is also telling the lawyer, and his disciples — faithfulness also demands vulnerability. It demands risk. You won’t always be a caretaker (which can become a position of power for Christians, who can come to see themselves as bestower of goodies to the world); you may also need care. And it will come from those least expected to care.

Perhaps this parable should be a reminder to the church that the world, as hostile as it may be, is still God’s world, and that God’s people should be open to the means God will use to care for the church in a hostile world. We may be surprised by who will care for us. And how.

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