The great danger in reading this parable is that of likening God to the unrighteous judge. Whether consciously or not, many people see God as an indifferent if not hostile judge. Similarly, it is easy for Christians in America to equate God's law and God's justice with human law and justice. Behind this equation is a moralistic understanding of the gospel as reserved only for people who are “good enough.”
In his book, Reading the Bible with the Damned (WJK, 2005), Bob Ekblad reflects on leading Bible studies with people in jail. The prisoners by and large assume that God is against them and on the side of people in positions of power. . . .
[M]any characters in the Bible. . . also fall afoul of the law: Moses was a murderer, David was a murderer and an adulterer, Peter was a traitor, Paul condoned murder, and Jesus himself was falsely accused, condemned in a kangaroo court and executed between two criminals. It is very clear that those whom human justice would write off and condemn may be God's chosen instruments. – Susan Grove Eastman
The patriarch Jacob is a character to be found in everybody's family closet. His name in Hebrew is “cheat” and for good reason—although he is the younger twin, he tricks his dying father Isaac into giving him the blessing reserved for the eldest son, Esau. This results in estrangement between the two brothers, and some years later Jacob finds himself having to face a possible showdown with Esau, who happens to be accompanied by a posse of four hundred men. . . . Jacob sends various delegations of servants ahead of him, each one accompanied by a sizable percentage of Jacob's own possessions as gifts to his brother.
It is in this context of family strife and division that, the night before he is to meet his estranged twin, Jacob finds himself wrestling with an unknown visitor until dawn. Who is this strange wrestler? Jacob's conscience? His alter-ego? Or an angel from God? . . .
When the man is unsuccessful at pinning Jacob down, he . . . leaves his mark on Jacob by dislocating Jacob's hip. . . [and] gives Jacob a new name, “Israel, one who contends with God”—Jacob, as it has turned out, has contended with God and won!. . .
Jacob walks away limping, but with a new name and he is a changed heart. Whereas previously he stole blessing from his brother, now knowing himself to be blessed by God, he can restore the stolen blessing and make peace with his aggrieved twin. . . .
Jacob is ancestor to all those who find themselves contending with God. . . Every family has them. This story also tells us that it is okay to fight with God. What is more, like Israel, if we fight with God, God just might let us win! Indeed, all who dare to wrestle with such a God will find themselves, like Jacob/Israel, perhaps a little dislocated but ultimately changed, capable of receiving blessing and, just as importantly, passing it on. – Lisa Marie Belz
2 Timothy 3:14 – 4:5
Preachers wrestle weekly and daily with the word of God and the realities of the communities we serve. Advice to the young pastor, Timothy, is for all of us whether we live among people for whom scripture is sacred or those for whom it is a curious and foreign oddity. “As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” I’d say that is a call to wrestle even more.
Susan Grove Eastman, ordained in the Episcopal Church, is associate professor of New Testament at Duke Divinity School, Durham, NC.
Lisa Marie Belz, an Ursuline Sister from Cleveland, Ohio, is assistant professor of religious studies and graduate ministry at Ursuline College, Pepper Pike, Ohio.
Homily Service 40, no. 11 (2007): 33-42.