Wrestling with God

  • October 23, 2016

jacob-wrestlesGenesis 32:22-31
Luke 18:9-14

What do money and prayer have to do with each other?

In the parable from the gospel of Luke, we meet two people who have come to the temple in Jerusalem to pray.  One is a shining example of religious devotion and ethical behavior. He fasts twice a week, and gives a tenth of his income away. This guy is doing everything right when it comes to money. But do you hear his prayer? “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, tax collectors.”  This man spends his prayer time trying to gossip with God, showing himself off and looking down on others.

The other man praying in the temple that day is very different.  He’s a tax collector, someone who collaborates with the colonial powers and takes a little extra from his people on the side.  This guy is doing everything wrong when it comes to money.  But when he comes to the temple to pray, he doesn’t even look up to heaven, he’s so ashamed.  He beats his breast, and cries, “God be merciful to me, a sinner!”  Jesus says: “I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exult themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

It matters, what we do with money.  And, it matters how we pray. Jesus tells us that greedy humility is preferable to generous contempt.  But I wonder if there aren’t more options for us. The story of Jacob’s wrestling match is actually from last week’s lectionary, but I saved it up for this week because I was struck for the first time that it is, at least in part, also a story about money and prayer.

What leads up to this climactic moment for Jacob on the banks of the River Jabbok?  Jacob, son of Isaac and Rebecca, is a slippery character from the beginning. He somehow manages to trick his older brother Esau into trading in his financial birthright for a bowl of lentils. Then, he tricks his father Isaac into giving him the blessing that rightfully belongs to Esau. As a result, on his deathbed, Isaac grants Jacob his paternal blessing for wealth and power: “May God give you of the dew of heaven, and of the fatness of the earth, and plenty of grain and wine…. Be lord over your brothers, and may your mother’s sons bow down to you…”  (Genesis 27:28-29).  Jacob has taken the most valuable things in his family away from Esau – and when Esau finds out, he threatens to kill him. So Jacob flees to Haran.

In our passage today, it is twenty years later. Jacob leaves Haran with his well-established household: wives and children and livestock.  As he travels, Jacob learns that Esau is near.  So Jacob sends word to his brother that he wants to be reconciled. But the only response Jacob receives is the news that Esau is approaching with four hundred men.  Jacob fears that his life is still in danger, so he sends Esau a gift.   It’s not just a nice fruit basket, either. Jacob sends two hundred female goats and twenty male goats, two hundred ewes and twenty rams, thirty camels and their colts, forty cows and ten bulls, twenty female donkeys and ten male donkeys. Still, there is no response from Esau.

That night, Jacob sends his wives and children ahead, across the river, towards Esau and his four hundred men.  He stays alone on the other side. Perhaps he hopes he will be safe there. But during the night, he is found: not by Esau and his army, but by a mysterious wrestler. They grapple with one another until daybreak, when Jacob’s opponent puts his hip out of joint. Then Jacob demands a blessing.. The wrestler says: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  As the sun rises, Jacob limps away, saying: “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.”

Like the tax collector, Jacob takes what is not his.  He steals his brother’s birthright and his father’s blessing, and ends up wealthy: in wives and children and goats and sheep and camels and cows and donkeys. But unlike the tax collector, Jacob does not come before God in repentance. God has to come after him, to wrestle with him and change him and bless him.  Only then is Jacob ready to meet the brother who has already forgiven him and enter into a new stage of life.

What do money and prayer have to do with each other?

It is my great privilege that I do not have to worry about money that often. There is no question that we can buy what we need. The doctor’s visit, the new pair of shoes, the groceries can be paid for.  We have employment and education and health insurance, excellent day care, a safe and beautiful place to live. But sometimes I still manage to get myself into trouble about money. I get jealous of those who have so much more than we do, who own a home, who go on amazing vacations, who can afford expensive hobbies.  Or, I get defensive because I feel guilty that we’re not giving more of all that we have, a little irritated that giving is never a completely settled issue.

It takes prayer, for me, to put things in perspective.  When I can force myself to bring my spending before God, I stop having those faint regrets about my choice of profession or my giving commitments. I stop fantasizing about the things I don’t have. I lose my defensiveness about the possibility of giving more.  The money I have is no longer a restriction or a guilty weight; it feels more like an opportunity.  That money could be turned into so many beautiful things. That money could be turned into ministry.

Just think of it – our money can help fuel some of the amazing things going on here.  Have you noticed what’s happening in this community? Children are drinking up messages of hope and teaching us new ways of being faithful.  Teenagers know without a doubt that their church will accept them when they come out.  Newcomers are arriving and finding the spiritual home they need.  Those living through tragedy have a community to hold onto until the anguish subsides. Leaders are stepping up with incredible dedication and faithfulness.  Elders are sharing wisdom to help us all keep perspective.  People of all ages and abilities are sharing stories, and breaking bread together. To quote Jim: “I can say that people really treasure one another; the Spirit is alive and at work in everyone.”

This year I will continue to give about a tenth of my post-tax income to this church, in addition to our renovation pledge. Sometimes, that feels like a lot. Sometimes, it feels like not enough. Mostly, it feels like what we can manage, paying the bills that we have. After prayer, it feels like an honor to contribute to what we are all doing together in God’s name.

What does your prayer about money sound like this season?  Are you a little too proud of what you’ve been able to do, and need to remember your humility?  (I haven’t met very many people like that, but maybe you’re hiding it well!) Is your money a weight of guilt on your heart that you need to offer up to God?  Are you running away from accountability, waiting for God to challenge you to a late-night wrestling match?  Are you grieving what you can’t do for yourself, for your family, or for others?

Whatever kind of prayer you need to pray, I hope you will pray it. I hope you will let God in to the conversation you are having with yourself and any members of your household about money.  Our Congregational Giving Team has tried to help by offering some resources in the mailing; take a look at it, if you haven’t already; there are extras in the hallway if you need one. No matter how much or how little we have, God belongs in our conversations about money. God belongs in those conversations, not to shame us, or to blame us, or to pressure us, but to invite us into a whole different relationship with money.

When Jacob walks away from his wrestling match, he is changed.   He’s let go of the past.  He’s  received a new name.  He’s had a holy chiropractic adjustment; his body is actually realigned for a different kind of living. He has a blessing that truly belongs to him.  This is the liberation that our God offers to all of us: forgiveness, transformation, blessing, so that whatever we do, we do in love and with delight. Thanks be to God.