Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Proper 13 Year A

Proper 13 A
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Genesis 32:22-31; Psalm 17:1-7


Isaiah 55:1-5; Psalm 145: 8-9, 15-22

Romans 9:1-5; Matthew 14:13-21

Jacob is en route to try to reconcile with his brother, Esau, from whom he cheated his brother's birthright as firstborn.  Jacob sends his two wives, Rachel and Leah, and the whole household to the other side of the stream called Jabbok, (which means crooked or twisting). while he spends the night alone.  In the middle of the night, "a man wrestled with him until daybreak."  When "the man" realized Jacob would not surrender, "he struck him on the hip socket and Jacob's hip was put out of joint...."  Still, Jacob would not relent.  "I will not let you go unless you bless me," Jacob insists.  "The man" asks Jacob his name.  After Jacob tells him, "the man" declares: "You shall no longer be called Jacob [which, like the nearby stream, Jabbok, means 'crooked'] but Israel [which means 'God is reliable']  for you have striven with God and with humans, and you have prevailed."  Jacob/Israel asks "the man" his name, but instead "the man" blesses him.  To mark this momentous name change from Jacob to Israel and his night of wrestling, Jacob names the place Pleniel, (which means 'appearance' or 'face of God'):  "For I have striven with God face to face, and yet my life is preserved."  Jacob/Israel left this place, "limping because of his hip."  

The psalmist describes her prayer/song for justice as "guileless."  she acknowledges sleepless nights when the Lord "probed" her heart and "found no wrong in me."  She attests to her loyalty and asks for the Lord's "mercies."  By the last verse of the psalm, she is wide awake and beholds the Lord's "face" and "image."


This Isaiac prophecy exults in God's abundance. It was a promise fulfilled in the past through David, but it is about to be experienced again! It is abundance beyond any human capacity to be bought with or secured by money. The poet/prophet invited his readers/hearers to imagine and to seek and to "eat" that which "is good."   It is an abundance whose source you do not even know yet that will come to you.  It is an extension of the Lord's "everlasting covenant" which was initiated and is continued for one reason and one reason only-- God's "steadfast and sure love...."  Given Israel's contemporary status as a captured people in the Babylonian capital and Jerusalem still in ruins, the poet/prophet makes a promise that highlights the certainty and power of God's promise; "nations that [currently] do not know you will run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel...."

Verse 8 is a direct quote from Exodus 34:5 of the ways God is knowable-- "gracious/merciful/slow to anger/great in kindness."  these attributes extend to "all creatures."  Therefore, all creatures look to the Lord for "hope" and generosity each season.  this is a reasonable hope, because the Lord is always "just" and "faithful." 

Paul celebrates God's blessings on his own people, the Jews-- the patriarchs and prophets, the Law, the liturgy and the promises. But he anguishes that they do not recognize the Messiah.

In Matthew's narrative, Jesus has just completed a long series of teachings on seeking the kingdom as a life-long quest when he gets the disturbing news of the macabre beheading of John the Baptist. 

Matthew's version of the event that immediately follows, when Jesus shifted the expectation that his followers had the capacity/abundance to "feed" any number they might imagine as overwhelming, is sparer than Mark and Luke's but powerful in its own ways.  Although Jesus needed to get away from the crowds, when he saw the rapidly growing crowds "he had compassion for them...."  Seeking what perhaps they thought was best for Jesus, the disciples advised Jesus to send them back to their villages so they can "buy food for themselves."  But Jesus tells the disciples: "you give them something to eat."  But they report they only have "five loaves and two fish" among them.  Jesus took what they had, "looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke it" and gave it to the disciples for distribution,  "and they all ate and were filled," with enough leftovers to fill "twelve" baskets.  The total count  of this massive crowd was "five thousand men;" and only Matthew adds, "besides women and children."

Roland Barthes 1971 "textual analysis" of the Genesis narrative of Jacob's night-time wrestling match initiated a series of similar post-structuralist examinations and a new insistence that biblical texts must be read on their own terms. He concludes: "...What most interests me in this famous passage is not the 'folkloric' model but the frictions, the breaks, the discontinuities of readability, the juxtaposition of narrative entities which manage to escape logical articulation...." "...The problem, at least as I raise it for myself, is in effect not to reduce the Text to a signified, what ever it may be (historical, economic, folkloric, or kergymatic), but to keep its signifying power open." ( The Postmodern God, Graham Ward, ed. p. 94)

Taking this stance, we read the text not with preconceived assumptions about any neatly settled meaning, no matter how venerable. Rather, we engage it deeply each time we live with it for some time expecting/awaiting new, current, personal meaningful insights we want and need. There is an abundance whose limits will never be discovered.  And we leave ourselves open to a certain kind of "seduction."

Abundance is the great undercurrent that runs throughout biblical textsenough left over for any stragglers Even Paul's disappointment in his own people is that despite God's past generosity they cannot recognize this even more extravagant gift in Jesus.

Jean-Luc Marion is exploring this stance in depth. He is saying that we look at the world and our experience of living in it and make a decision: either it can all be trivialized, conceptualized, manipulated for the basic instincts of each individual or it can be accepted as extravagant gift received through and shared among communities for the common-weal. He says that once we make a decision, we are primed for "revelation," a sudden, complete change of perspective and exposed to a certain kind of "seduction."  In his famous essay, "Sketches of a Phenomenological Concept of Gift," (found in
The Visible and the Invisible), Marion observes that many gifts, including "the receiving of life, death, forgiveness, confidence, love or friendship of another" occur totally outside any monetary or "terms of property."  Furthermore, the gift is only realized or made actual when the one who accepts it, makes an "act of acceptance," Marion writes.  These are the realities of life that surround, support, sustain any individuals life.  They are as abundant as we chose them to be.  We already posses them in sufficient abundance.  We rely on receiving them from others for our own survival.  After Jesus offers the prayer of thanksgiving, all participate/see/taste/share the "abundance" that was already there.  The disciples blunder that the crowds could go home and "buy" what they really wanted and needed is fully exposed.

When  one permits herself this "act of acceptance" she becomes susceptible to a certain kind of "seduction."  I allow myself to be "seduced" by the realization that "I, I alone, and more than another, affirm the capacity to let myself be seduced and freely consent to this seduction...." (pp92-93)  Is this that certain kind of "seduction" that affected Jacob/Israel so powerfully?  Or transformed a persecutor into a missionary, as with Paul?  (Both had a new name given to them.  Marion writes about names that we are not "simply called by this name, but indeed to this name."  Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Giveness, p292)

In sometimes strange and usually clever ways, the biblical narratives nudge the reader into a place to accept (or reject) the revelation of abundance and the One who set such extravagant giving into motion and sustains all creation.  And to further identify that One as the same One who pursed God's covenant people so relentlessly and anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the same message to all.

The biblical texts (if we keep their "signifying powers open") are never finished speaking to us of abundance beyond any human understanding or even expectation of abundance. To take the "act of acceptance" leaves one open to a certain kind of "seduction."