Genesis 32.22-31, Matthew 14.13-21
Our Gospel story this morning is the familiar story of feeding of the five thousand. I wonder if we have heard that tale a little differently in these anxious times? Even if it is not the case for all of us, there is a growing awareness of the extent of food poverty in Britain. A report out this last week described the epidemic of hunger particularly among children, and we saw the importance of the extending of free-school meals and the campaign around that earlier in the summer. The extent too, to which the future is uncertain and anxious, gives us a sense of what it is like to be truly hungry, to not know where the next meal is coming from, to live utterly dependent on the next harvest flourishing for there to be food on the table. It might still take an act of imagination, but our own uncertain times, I would suggest, help us feel closer to the context of that feeding of the 5,000 from unpromising scraps: many of those coming to hear Jesus would have known the pangs of hunger, lived daily with the trust that God would provide, and with the fear of what would be if God did not. In that world the question of the available resources, and who owns them, how they are shared, matters. In times of scarcity, relations with your neighbour, with those who have, and those who have not, are heightened, and polarization threatens.
Our reading from the book of Genesis, initially at least, may seem to be dealing with very different themes. From 5000 hungry people gathered on the lakeside to one man’s lonely night-time wrestling with a man, or an angel, or perhaps with God. This strange tale of Jacob by the ford of Jabbok has inspired many different interpretations, by people who recognise for themselves that night-time wrestling, a wrestling that leaves them, like Jacob, both wounded – in his case limping from a thigh joint put out of its socket – and blessed. We just sang one such interpretation, in that hymn by Charles Wesley: for him this was a story that spoke to his own dark night of the soul – mirrored his own wrestling with his doubts and anxieties, before eventually laying them to rest in the discovery of God’s name as ‘love’. The original poem has 12 verses that explore the different facets of the story – our hymn reduces that to 5, you may be glad to hear. But they still convey that immediate connection Wesley felt with this story – his interpretation both goes beyond the text, but also makes it his own.
Like Wesley, many interpretations are fairly uninterested in the context of the story. While that is understandable, we have reached this story after a number of Sundays reading through the great tales of Genesis. Many of those stories focus on the stresses and strains of familial and sibling relationships – Cain and Abel; Sarah and Hagar, both bearing offspring of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael; Rachel and Leah, sisters and rivals for the affections of Jacob; and, of course, Jacob himself and his brother Esau. Those tales have often focused on hidden tensions as they bubble to the surface; and in the context of scarce resources, the question of which sibling comes out on top is crucial. As Jacob cunningly displayed, in obtaining his father’s blessing that should have gone to his brother Esau, when it comes to the hard work of surviving, such blessing, and the material goods handed on with it, become all important.
That is the context for this story. After stealing the blessing, Jacob fled: both to avoid his brother but also to establish a new life. He has indeed prospered at the home of his kinsman Laban, and is now returning – with his two wives and abundant wealth. And yet he is fearful of the reception he will receive from his brother Esau. As our reading today begins we hear him sending presents on ahead to appease Esau; and finally his whole family, and ‘everything that he had.’ He is left alone to wrestle. With his conscience? With his fears? We are not explicitly told what the man with whom he wrestles represents – the man refuses, in fact, to yield up his name. Instead he offers, having extracted Jacob’s name and put his thigh out of joint, to give Jacob a new name – Israel, and to bless him. The night’s wrestling leaves Jacob wounded, re-named and yet blessed. And so he rises, blessed and limping, to go and meet his brother. What follows is one of the most extraordinary moments in the Old Testament:
Now Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming, and four hundred men with him. So he divided the children among Leah and Rachel and the two maids. He put the maids with their children in front, then Leah with her children, and Rachel and Joseph last of all. He himself went on ahead of them, bowing himself to the ground seven times, until he came near his brother. But Esau ran to meet him, and embraced him, and fell on his neck and kissed him, and they wept.
It is a moment of utter and surprising grace. It is the model, surely, for the father in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son: Esau ignoring the presents sent on ahead, the women and children lined up to form a human barrier, even the figure of his long-lost brother kneeling in obeisance – Esau runs to meet him, and Jacob, and the reader, is overwhelmed, brought to tears, by the warmth of embrace. The template of Cain and Abel, of all the other bickering and the power games, is for a moment laid aside in this embrace, and those tears.
Jacob then explicitly links this moment to the strange events of the night before:
“truly to see your face, he says, is like seeing the face of God–since you have received me with such favour.” Once again, Jacob is blessed, in this moment when fears are revealed to be unfounded, when barriers are broken down, when what unites these brothers is known and celebrated. What unites, not what gives one power over the other – therein lies the blessing. For blessing is a gift, not an obligation; it is about grace, and not power.
In our Gospel, it is Jesus who, when confronted by the disciples fears and anxieties, takes the initiative and orders the people to sit down on the grass and prepare for a meal. Sharing a meal together is his idea, an enactment of the table fellowship that he constantly practices; the fellowship that breaks down religious and social barriers, and unites those usually kept apart. Jesus then prays a blessing over the food that is available. And in the pattern that we repeat week after week in communion, the speaking of that blessing opens hearts and minds so that something miraculous occurs. Jesus preaches and enacts a God of love and forgiveness and then invites those who have seen and heard to sit down together and live for a moment in that kingdom about which he has preached. The blessing of that kingdom changes human hearts and creates the miracle of a new kind of community, one generated by prayer and grace and blessing, and characterized by sharing and enough for all.
Many of us for long months have been starved of that blessing of being together and in communion. That may help us to hear afresh, and once again re-join those at the lakeside, hungry not just for bread but for the reconfiguration of relationships that the kingdom announces and enacts. Hungry enough to hear, and receive, the blessing that changes hearts and minds; that re-creates true human community in the sharing of what we have, so that we discover there is enough for all. Amen.
Questions to consider
What are the ways in which you connect to Jacob’s night-time wrestling? Does the outcome – both wounded and blessed – resonate?
Does the wider context of the story, and in particular Jacob’s relationship with Esau, and the welcome offered by Esau to his brother, change your view of that night of wrestling?
What is the ‘miracle’ of the feeding of the 5,000?