Friday, August 08, 2008

Pentecost 12A - Jacob wrestling

A hopeful development in the area of criminal justice during the 1990s was the development of the technique known as ‘restorative justice’.  This has been put into practice quite widely in Canada and New Zealand, as well as parts of the United States.  Depending on the nature of the criminal offence, restorative justice might be an alternative to putting a perpetrator in jail, or it might be applied as well as a jail sentence.  But basically the idea is to bring the perpetrator and the victim together for a series of meetings with a specially trained facilitator.  Because, it was realised, each of them have needs that can only be met by the other.  Victims generally need to see the person who has harmed them, to tell that person how angry they are, how much they have been hurt, how some things in their life might have changed forever, and they need to ask ‘why?’.  “Why did you do this?’  And, even though they might not realise it for a long time, the victim of the crime also has a need to forgive.

The perpetrator also has some needs, although again, they might not realise it at first.  They need to hear the consequences of what they have done, they need to hear the anger and hurt, and they need to start working through why they acted like they did, what might be different in the future  And they need, eventually, to ask for forgiveness.  But before forgiveness can even be talked about, the victim and the perpetrator, together, are encouraged to talk about what can be done to put things right.  What punishment should there be?  Is it possible to make some restitution?

As you can probably imagine, this is a really confronting experience for both sides.  Both parties are afraid of the confrontation, and they both need some support.  There’s some really painful stuff that comes out, some truths get spoken, a whole lot of lies get exposed.  There’s shame that has to be faced up to.  But at the end of the process, experience has shown, both parties find some healing, and maybe the chance of a new beginning.

The ironic truth is that that the painful confrontation with the one we have wounded, or been wounded by, is the only way we can finally become complete.  The great psychologist Karl Jung is getting at something like this when he talks about the necessary confrontation with the Shadow, the unconscious part of ourselves where we push everything our conscious minds don’t want to face up to.  According to Jung this is the most important task of the second half of life, facing up to our own Shadow selves so that we can become whole people.

The ancient scribes who wrote down the stories of Genesis knew this truth at a very deep level.  Today we find Jacob, that quick-witted trickster who has gone through life accumulating wealth, wives and enemies, getting ready for it all to come tumbling down around his ears.  Jacob’s chickens have come home to roost, the long-delayed confrontation with his scary brother Esau, the one he cheated out of his inheritance so long ago, can’t be put off any longer.  Esau is waiting on the other side of the river Jabbok, and Esau, we’re told, has brought an army with him.  Still, Jacob tries to buy some time and maybe even fend off his brother’s anger with a series of extravagant presents, tries perhaps to buy some sympathy by sending his wives and servants and little ones across the river first.  Then, eventually, all he has left is himself, alone and in the dark, waiting for the first light of morning so he can cross the river and take whatever is coming to him.

And, the story tells us, God wrestles with him all night.  Clearly, the storyteller means us to understand this in a very physical sense – real dread, real, heart-pounding fear, sweat and straining of muscles, desperately trying to get the better of this silent opponent who, Jacob finally comes to understand, is none other than God himself.  Karl Jung couldn’t describe it any better, the fearsome struggle with the divine that both wounds and heals us.  No place for hiding his true nature in this encounter – Jacob knows he can’t get the better of his fearsome opponent but refuses to let go until he receives from God the blessing that he took by deception from his dying father all those years ago.  And what a remarkable observation – God can’t prevail against Jacob, either – or against me or you – Jacob himself needs to come to a new understanding before the stalemate can be resolved.  And so Jacob gets his blessing, and a new name – Israel – ‘God strives with him’ – or ‘he strives with God’, it doesn’t matter which – and he receives a wound that will always remind him that integrity comes at a cost.

The other day, while I was driving, I found myself listening on the car radio to an interview with Jim Wallis, the American progressive evangelical leader who has just published a new book, called ‘Seven Ways to Change the World’.  And Reverend Wallis was saying he thinks the evangelical churches are beginning to see themselves a bit differently now.  He said, the days of churches being preoccupied with sex and doctrinal controversy might be coming to an end, and that what people are really yearning for is a theology of hope and a new moral centre.  I do hope he’s right!

But what really caught my attention is when Wallis mentioned being at a meeting with the then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown, and they were talking about the fact that 30,000 children die every single day from hunger or preventable illnesses.  Can you even imagine that?  And Gordon Brown said to him, 'You know we have the knowledge for the first time, the resources, the information, the technology to end extreme poverty as we know it - extreme poverty - but we don't have the moral will.' He looks across the table and says, 'That's your job in the churches'.  Wallis said we need to develop the theology, and the politics of hope, and he quoted one of Desmond Tutu’s sayings, 'Christians are prisoners of hope', in other words, as Christians we have to make the choice to have hope, to believe in and to work towards the possibility of a just future. [1]

Which, of course, is exactly what our Gospel reading this morning is telling us.  You know, it used to be popular for preachers to try to explain the miracles of Jesus – oh, maybe it’s not a miraculous multiplication of loaves and fishes, maybe what’s so miraculous about it is that from the first selfless gift of five loaves and two fish, according to John’s Gospel the gift of a little boy, maybe the miracle is that from one act of generosity the hearts as well as the lunchboxes of many were opened.  Well, either way, it’s a miracle, but what we really need to focus on is what it means.  Which is that God’s priority is for the meeting of human need, for acts of compassion and hope.  There’s a rich echo here of an earlier miraculous feeding, the gift of manna in the desert that sustained God’s people as they fled from oppression in Egypt.  And there’s also an echo of the central act of Christian spirituality, the Eucharist itself, God’s most costly miracle of feeding that reconciles and restores us.

Which brings us directly to the point, which is that the providence and the generosity of God has a price tag.  Cheap grace is not the real deal!  I think there’s a special poignancy for us, in our privileged corner of the world, that we hear today’s stories together, Jacob’s nocturnal struggle and the miracle of the loaves and fishes.  Because if the second story reminds us what justice looks like from God’s point of view, and it reminds us that God is passionately concerned with human need, then the first story reminds us that we in our wealthy corner of the world need to struggle with the dark side of our own success, our conspicuous over-consumption, our preoccupation with our own security, our comfort and our lifestyles.  We need the painful struggle of confronting how much the material wealth we take for granted as a society has depended on structures of global inequality.  If the good news for those who have nothing is that God’s desire is for them to be filled, that God is passionately involved in their suffering – then the good news for those of us who have enough can only be that God desires to wrestle with us, that God desires to contend with us for our integrity, to wound us, to convict us and to bless us with the gift of open hearts.

It’s another paradox.  We cry out to be filled, but deep in our hearts something whispers to us that the bread Jesus wants to feed us can only be eaten on an empty stomach.



[1] ABC Radio National, ‘The Religion Report’, 30 July 2008