Genesis 32:22-31+Psalm 17:1-7, 16+Romans 9:1-5+Matthew 14:13-21
In our wanderings through the book of Genesis, we are hitting the high points, the major stories, but there are some details that get left out that are, in my estimation, rather important. We are only three chapters beyond where we were last week, but an awful lot has happened between then and now. You will recall that Jacob was tricked by his uncle and future father-in-law Laban into marrying Laban’s elder daughter Leah and then having to work an additional seven years to marry the one he really wanted, Rachel. Well, many years have passed, and in those years we see that while Laban may be a bit of a swindler, Jacob is no slouch in that department. He has fathered eleven sons (Benjamin is yet to be born) and one daughter by Leah, Rachel, and their two servant women, Bilhah and Zilpah, and Jacob manages to trick Laban out of the bulk of his flock. So when he decides it’s time to head back to the land of Canaan, he is a wealthy man.
Now we have to look back a few more chapters, because when last we heard from Esau, Jacob’s older and hairier twin, Jacob had tricked him out of his birthright and their father’s blessing. The part we didn’t read then is that Esau was furious, of course, and threatened Jacob’s life. Going to find a wife among his kin was not the only reason Jacob went off to Haran. He feared for his life. Well, now that he is going back home again, he’s going to have to face his brother whom he cheated and who wants to kill him.
So Jacob sends messengers on ahead to Esau to say, “Hey, we’re coming back. No hard feelings, right? Let bygones be bygones after all this time. Right?”
The messengers return to tell Jacob that Esau is coming and has an army of 400 men with him. Jacob is terrified. He seems to have forgotten that the covenant is with him, the same promises made to his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac are his. But he thinks Esau is going to kill him, so he prays to God for deliverance. And then he amasses goats and sheep and camels and cows, and he sends his servants ahead in waves, one at a time, to bring these gifts to Esau. It’s a way of showing his brother how rich he is, for one thing, and it’s also a bribe, a plea for safety.
But Jacob is not done. He sends everyone and everything that remains in his caravan – his wives and children and their maids – he sends all of them ahead of him. Yes, that’s right, all the servants are in the front and then Jacob’s family is next, so that just in case Esau gets past the wave of servants with their flocks, he’ll get to the women and children next before Jacob is in any danger. It’s a pretty callous and cowardly move. But the teller of this story needs to set up Jacob to have this wrestling match with God or an angel or a man or whatever it was. Because it is here that Jacob becomes Israel – God prevails. It is the name of a man, then a people, then a kingdom, and today, a nation. Jacob wrestled a blessing from God and bore a limp for the rest of his days as a reminder. God prevails.
Much like our readings from the Hebrew scriptures, the gospel this morning left out a significant part of our story. In chapter 13 of Matthew we heard all those parables of Jesus, and then he is rejected by his hometown whose people wonder where this guy they’ve known all his life got so smart. Who does he think he is, anyway?
Chapter 14 opens with one of the more gruesome events in the Christian scriptures, the beheading of John the Baptist by Herod Antipas at the request of his stepdaughter and her mother. Once the deed his done, John’s disciples ask for the body so that they can bury it, and then they send word to Jesus, John’s cousin.
This is why our reading today opens with the words, “Jesus withdrew in a boat to a deserted place by himself” (14:13). It’s what we do when we are grieving. We need some space. We need some time. But Jesus was not permitted that space and time, because people needed him. They were sick and in need of healing. At the end of the day, the disciples want to send everyone away to go forage for food, and in one of the greatest directives to come from Jesus’s mouth, he says, “you give them something to eat” (14:16).
Jesus knows the disciples have nothing to give all these people. But they have just witnessed Jesus giving of himself to the crowds when he didn’t have anything left, either. He wanted time and space, but he got hordes of people taking even more from him. And he didn’t turn away. No matter how much he might have wanted to, he saw the need in front of him, and, our text says, “he had compassion for them” (14:14). So now it’s the disciples’ turn. Sure, maybe you have nothing, but it’s more than these people have. Don’t turn away. You might miss the miracle.
These miracle feedings of Jesus appear in all four gospels. Something like this happened, and many scholars and preachers will tell you that the miracle is that, in response to Jesus, people shared what they had, and everyone had enough and then some. Maybe. Or maybe having enough for everyone is the fruit of compassion. When you think you have nothing left but you see a need right in front of you and don’t turn away, there is enough.
Jacob refused to let go of the One who wrestled him to the ground and broke his hip. He refused to look away until he received his blessing.
Friends, don’t look away from the need you see right in front of you, wherever you are and whatever it might be. You give them something to eat. You give of your time to someone who is lonely. You offer help to someone who is struggling to manage. You look with compassion on those around you, without looking away, and you might just wrestle a miracle, a blessing, from God.