Saturday, April 24, 2010

Wrestling with God

It may seem lunatic to suggest that a single episode in a work as complex as the Bible could encapsulate the meaning of the entire text, but I’m going to make exactly that claim. The episode occurs in Chapter 32 of Genesis, when the patriarch Jacob, preparing to meet for the first time in 20 years with his estranged brother, Esau, spends a troubled night wrestling with a mysterious stranger who may be God, or may be an angel, or possibly is just a man.

It’s an enigmatic story, one that seems to spring up out of nowhere and bear little direct relationship to the surrounding narrative. No cause for the wrestling match is given; it just happens. There’s not really a winner; Jacob holds his own through the night but at daybreak has his hip dislocated by a touch from the stranger. And yet at the conclusion of the wrestling match, the stranger confers on Jacob a blessing and gives him a new name, Israel, which means to struggle or fight with God. And of course that name becomes the name of the nation founded by Jacob’s descendents, the chosen people whose history is the primary narrative line of the Bible.

Jacob is the most complex character to emerge in the Bible up to that point. His life has not been particularly admirable -- he extorts his brother’s inheritance from him, tricks his sick father into bestowing upon him a blessing intended for that same brother, escapes his brother’s vengeance by running away, is himself tricked into marrying a woman he does not love but by whom he proceeds to father seven children, etc. – and yet he has at least three close encounters with God, culminating in the nocturnal struggle.

Jacob’s life has been more or less a continuous struggle, beginning in the womb, where his wrestling with his twin causes his mother, Rebecca, an uncomfortable pregnancy. Jacob emerges from the tomb second after Esau, but holding onto his twin’s heel, determined not to be left behind and willing to hold his sibling back if needed so that he can catch up.

The younger twin, described as a simple tent-dweller, becomes his mother’s favorite, while his father favors the firstborn, an outdoors-y sportsman. Mama’s boy and Daddy’s little man are destined for conflict.
In the first important adult encounter between the sons, Esau has come home from a hunting trip hungry and tired. Jacob has prepared a savory lentil stew, but will only share with his brother if Esau gives up his expected inheritance to his slightly younger brother.

And while their father, Isaac, is an almost entirely passive figure, Rebecca is a schemer, willing to deceive her husband to get what she wants for her favored child. Jacob goes along with Mom’s scheme, putting on his brother’s clothing and allowing Rebecca to cover his arms and neck with goatskin so that he can trick his blind, failing father into believing he is Esau and gaining the heir’s blessing intended for the firstborn. Jacob is depicted as unsure about this move, conflicted about the deception, but ultimately acquiescent to his mother’s plan.

He gets the blessing, but lands in a world of trouble. When the deception is discovered, Esau plots vengeance and Jacob hastily escapes, heading east to the home of his uncle Laban, Rebecca’s brother, where he is to find a wife (so that he doesn’t intermarry with the Canaanites and cause his mother grief as Esau did).

Laban is every bit as crafty as his sister. When Jacob falls in love at first sight with Laban’s younger daughter, Rachel, Laban extracts seven years of servitude from him, then, on the wedding day, switches Rachel with her older sister Leah. Jacob wins Rachel’s hand only by promising another seven years of service. After that, Jacob labors another six years to breed sheep and goats to support his growing family, before escaping from Laban’s clutches.

But this second escape sends him back to Canaan, where he awaits an uncertain reception from his wronged twin. It is at this point where Jacob, fleeing from oppression into danger, encounters his wrestling partner.
In art, the stranger is typically depicted with wings, an angel. But that common interpretation is not supported by the text, which calls the wrestler first a man, but then has the stranger tell Jacob that he has “prevailed with God and with men.” Further, we are told that “when the form of God passed by, the sun rose on him” and that Jacob names the site of this encounter “The Form of God.”

Jacob has demanded to see his opponent’s face; again whether this happens is left a bit unclear, although I think the implication is that he does not. He never really knows what God looks like, despite the fact that he has spent hours in his arms. With a perfect flourish, the stranger disappears just as the sun rises.

It’s an intriguing mystery left hanging, and that’s perfect. As such, it embodies the mysterious, shifting relationship that God has with humanity throughout the Bible, one minute all-powerful, the next bending to the will of his creations; one minute loving, the next angry and vengeful.

Jacob’s life suggests he has felt the full impact of God’s shifting temper. He’s been blessed (literally) but he has also paid a heavy price for his misdeeds. He’s seen a stairway to heaven, but has remained earthbound.
It’s important to remember that if Jacob is wrestling with God – the concept of God, the reality of God, the powers of God – God is also wrestling with Jacob. And the creator does not win out over the creation. The way he dislocates Jacob’s hip with a touch suggests that he could prevail – I mean, after all, he is God -- but he chooses not to. He’s willing to engage, willing to deal with His creatures’ struggles for supremacy.

God made this mess we call humanity, and now he has to live with it.

Over and over throughout the Bible, we see this conflict play out. God sets down rules, humanity disobeys them. He forgives, they forget. He metes out justice, they ignore the intended lessons. I frankly get tired of the lesson being repeated over and over in books like Chronicles, but in Genesis, this episode has a raw and immediate power. God is right there, being grappled with, demonstrating his power but not too much, and then letting Jacob win, or think he has won.

Jacob embodies all of the conflicting thoughts and behaviors that we humans are prone too. He’s a submissive, obedient son to one parent but betrays the other; he cheats and lies, but remains faithful to the God of his father; he flees from the scene of his crimes, but when they catch up with him, he deals with the consequences manfully. There’s no character quite like him in the rest of Genesis. We don’t encounter another, similarly conflicted and comparably complex character until David (although Moses shares some of these qualities).

And this story only works, I think, with a protagonist as complex and contradictory as Jacob. For the action to make sense, Jacob has to be a fully rounded character, one who can stand in for all of us, collectively. Up to this point, God has been the only character in the Bible with this many shades; now his creation has come into adulthood, and God has himself a real contender to face off with.

Jacob’s partial victory in the nighttime struggle presages Jacob’s reunion with Esau, where his brother, who has evidently made a raging success of his life, forgives his errant sibling. They embrace and then agree to go their separate ways, to live and let live despite their past differences, but they come together once more to bury their father (who has somehow survived 20 years after the deathbed scene that prompted Jacob’s flight).

And the story of Jacob and Esau's brotherly conflict presages the next major narrative in Genesis, the story of the conflict among Jacob's own progeny that leads to Joseph's sale into slavery, his rise above servitude and his ultimate reunion with his brothers.
Families. Can't live with them, can't live without them. And by diving in and engaging in the hand-to-hand combat, God makes it clear that He is part of our family, for better or for worse.

Saturday, April 3, 2010

"The Poor Are Told Good News"

I didn’t start this blog to make a political statement, and I don’t want to turn it into one, but I have to say that the ugliness of the American political scene in this time of healthcare reform sent me careening toward the Gospel of Luke.

I love each of the four canonical Gospels for a different reason. If I’m asked which is my favorite, I generally name Mark, because I find its tight literary structure, clarity and rapid pace to be supremely readable. (I often compare its beginning to the opening of a James Bond movie, plunging us without preparation into the middle of the action along the Jordan River). But I also love the stately, scholarly Matthew, carefully making the case that Jesus is the next logical step in Jewish history. And John, with its incomparably beautiful prologue and the five long discourses of Jesus, has a richness of spirit that is transporting (it was a favorite of the early Gnostics because of its focus on inner spirituality).

But Luke is something special, too, a work that – like the often neglected book of James – keeps us rooted in our daily lives and gives us a lesson on how to work toward grace in a difficult world. The Jesus of Luke’s Gospel is, profoundly, a man who sees the inequality and unfairness of the world around Him, and has something to say about it.

As a first example, let’s look at the Beatitudes in Luke in contrast to the more famous ones in Matthew. Matthew’s beatitudes deal with inner qualities – the poor in spirit, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the pure in heart, etc. – while Luke’s shorter listing focuses on the physical and economic circumstances of those whom Jesus blesses:
“Blessed are you poor,
For yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who hunger now,
For you shall be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
For you shall laugh.
Blessed are you when men hate you,
And when they exclude you,
And revile you, and cast out your name as evil,
For the Son of Man’s sake.
Rejoice in that day and leap for joy!
For indeed your reward is great in heaven,
For in like manner their fathers did to the prophets.”
-- Luke 6:20-23
Note that in Luke, Jesus is addressing directly those who are blessed, not speaking of a possibly absent third party as in Matthew (the poor in spirit).

And where Matthew follows up the Beatitudes with the six Antitheses that up the ante on Mosaic law, extending its behavioral proscriptions into thought and belief (i.e., lust in the heart, loving your enemy), Luke’s Jesus follows his four Beatitudes with a matching set of Woes or Plagues that are the mirror image of his blessings:
“But woe to you who are rich,
For you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full,
For you shall hunger.
Woe to you who laugh now,
For you shall mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all men speak well of you,
For so did their fathers to the false prophets.”
-- Luke 6:24-26
Is it just an accident that Matthew has Jesus speak his exalted words on a hilltop, while Luke’s more down-to-earth Jesus delivers his sermon on a plain, a level playing field? Were these two distinct sermons in which Jesus preached roughly the same message, or did the two authors apply artistic license to the same broad set of lessons, each editing in his own way and for his own purpose? We’ll likely never know for sure, but I think Luke’s choice of a flat setting, in which Jesus puts himself on the same level as His followers, is consistent with the message Luke has Him deliver. His words, the contrast of the beatitudes with the woes, certainly suggest that the playing field will be leveled eventually.

Luke is the longest of the gospels, and the only one written from a non-Jewish perspective. The author is generally believed to have been Greek, and, based on a brief reference in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, a physician (rather perfect, I think, for these days of rancor over delivery of healthcare). He is also said to have been a painter and, in fact, to have painted a portrait of Mary (The Black Madonna of Czestochowa is traditionally said to be that painting). A couple of famous lines spoken by Luke’s Jesus may seem to underscore the medical connection: “You will surely say this proverb to Me, ‘Physician heal yourself!’” and a little later the words, also spoken in Matthew and Mark, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”

Luke prescribes tough medicine. Of Matthew’s six Antitheses, Luke places only one in that central sermon (working in some of the advice from a second in His explication), but it is perhaps the hardest of all for us to follow:
“But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.
But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.”
Be generous to those around you, friend or enemy, without asking anything in return. Know that the reward is in generosity itself. We can read it, we can believe it, we can agree that it is a principle that should guide our lives. But following it is difficult.

Luke places Jesus’ rejection by the Nazarenes at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry (in contrast to Mark and Matthew) and has Jesus introduce the great theme of this gospel by quoting the prophet Isaiah:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon Me
Because He has anointed Me
To preach the gospel to the poor; He has sent me to heal the brokenhearted,
To proclaim liberty to the captives
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set at liberty those who are oppressed;
To proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
Could it be any clearer where Jesus’ sympathies lie?

I’ll be the first to admit that as much as I admire those who work in poverty to help those in poverty, I’m attached to my creature comforts. I may daydream about being selfless, but I’m not. Nevertheless, I hold the words of Luke’s Jesus as an ideal worth aiming toward.

The gospel of Luke is celebrated for many things. It contains an elaborate Nativity story, the one from which we uniquely get the trip to Bethlehem for the census, no room at the inn and the birth of Jesus in a manger. In Luke, and only in Luke, we have the Annunciation to Mary, the kinship of Jesus and John the Baptist, Mary’s wonderful Magnificat and the Benedictus of Zacharias (John the Baptist’s father). And we have the only story about Jesus’ childhood, a trip to the temple in Jerusalem at the age of 12. It is often noted – and is largely the point of this essay – that Luke’s Jesus pays more attention to the downtrodden of society – the poor, the outcast, widows and orphans, women in general – than any of the other gospels.

Although it is synoptic with Mark and Matthew, and shares many of the same stories and sayings, almost verbatim, Luke’s take on these adds up to a vigorous call to look out for those who are less fortunate than ourselves, and whom we might otherwise scorn. We’re instructed to give to those less fortunate who surround us, without asking for anything in return – indeed, we’re told to avoid any return on our gifts. Luke is all of a piece, its message consistent and plainly spoken.

Two of the most famous of all of Jesus’ parables are unique to Luke, and I’d like to take a look at these, because I see them as brilliant encapsulations of Luke’s perspective.

In the parable of the prodigal son, a young man demands an early release of his inheritance, squanders it on wine and women, is reduced to desperate circumstances entirely of his own making, and returns home to beg forgiveness and offer repentance to his father. He rehearses beforehand the words he will speak when he encounters his dad: “I will arise and go to my father and will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.’ ” But when he arrives home, his father greets him with love and relief before he even speaks, and when the son recites his prepared speech, the dad doesn’t even let him get out that final sentence offering subjection to just punishment. He starts in with a celebration of the young man’s return. There is no attempt to make the son “earn” a second chance. He deserves a celebration, love and tender care simply because he is alive. When the young man’s older brother questions the celebration of his unworthy sibling, dad sets him straight: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.”

Not a word about the younger brother’s change of attitude. I’m not denying that repentance and a return to good behavior are implicit in the story. It’s just that they are in no way prerequisites to the father’s celebration of his son’s return. There’s no tit for tat, no “Why don’t you get a job and then we’ll talk?” Love and care are unconditional.

The parable of the good Samaritan provides a somewhat different lesson. A man on a journey is robbed, beaten and left for dead along the roadside. A priest and a Levite, elevated members of Jewish society, pass by him and go out of their way to avoid giving him help. Only a Samaritan, a member of a scorned and outcast ethnic group, shows compassion. The Samaritan cleans and bandages the injured man’s wounds, takes him to an inn, and, when he leaves the inn the next morning, promises to return and pay for whatever expenses the injured man incurs.

Aid comes from unexpected quarters to the injured man, and the Samaritan cares for the injured man without thought of his own oppressed status and without a thought of recompense. The Samaritan does the right thing because it is the right thing to do.

Jesus’ advice to the rest of us: “Go and do likewise.”

Throughout Luke, warnings against covetousness abound. When a man in Chapter 12 complains that his brother will not share an inheritance with him and asks Jesus to set the brother straight, Jesus replies: “Man, who made Me a judge or arbitrator over you?,” and followed up with the warning, “Take heed and beware of covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of the things he possesses.”

He who dies with the most toys clearly does not win.

A bit later, in Chapter 14, Jesus attends a Sabbath dinner at the house of a leading Pharisee, and tells another uniquely Lucan parable, in which he advises taking the worst seat at a wedding feast and giving the best places to others. He caps off the parable with this: “When you give a dinner or a supper, do not ask your friends, your brothers, your relatives, nor rich neighbors, lest they also invite you back, and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind. And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you; for you shall be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”

Since I’m working on this essay on Good Friday, I think it is only appropriate to devote a few lines to the crucifixion as told in Luke, and the contrast it provides to the story in the other gospels. In both Mark and Matthew, Jesus speaks one final sentence from the cross, in Aramaic, a line from Psalm 22: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” In John, the dying Jesus turns over the care of his mother to a follower, says that he is thirsty, and ends with, “It is finished.”

In Luke, by contrast, Jesus’ time on the cross has a consistency with the overall message of the gospel. Jesus asks God to forgive his executioners (although, of course, they have done nothing to seek or earn forgiveness). He also converses with the two criminals executed alongside him. When one of the criminals mocks his power, he chooses not to respond. The other criminal defends Jesus, and asks Him to remember him when he gets to heaven. Jesus responds: “Assuredly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise.”

Even as he is dying, Luke’s Jesus focuses his final thoughts on those around him. His message is one of unconditional love and care and forgiveness, asking for nothing in return for kindness.