The story of Israel as told in the Bible is a strange one. Whereas most of us tell stories that are carefully edited to justify our choices and responses to conflicts and minimize the impacts of our mistakes, the authors and editors of what we Christians call the Old Testament didn’t do this. This story is no less carefully curated, but the ancient Jewish storytellers and scholars edited it to tell a story of failure, rather than success. In light of the disaster of the Exile from the Land of Promise, they told a story of a people who consistently fail to live up to their responsibilities before God and one another — who are in a word, faithless: They are freed from slavery but their complaining leads to their wandering the desert for a generation; they are given a beautiful land to occupy, but fail to push out the land’s existing peoples (from our perspective, this is a small mercy rather than a failure, but that’s not the perspective of the text); they are given a unique relationship with God, but carry on affairs with other gods; they are given a law promoting justice for all, but govern unjustly.
If we flash forward a few hundred years, we find Paul doing something different with the story of his people. His Letter to the Romans was written in large part to break down the barriers between Jewish and non-Jewish Christians in Rome, so a “See, Israel isn’t that special — just look at how their own version of the story shows them fail over and over again!” telling of the story would actually serve his rhetorical purposes. But he doesn’t do that.
Instead, as we read in today’s Epistle reading, he champions Israel: “They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises; to them belong the patriarchs, and from them, according to the flesh, comes the Messiah” (Rom 9.3-5). For Paul, the honesty and self-awareness of Israel’s national story doesn’t negate its beauty and holiness. Rather, it enhances it. For, despite all odds, the Jewish people had survived everything the world had thrown at them: national slavery, wars of conquest, rivalry, civil war, invasion, exile, and centuries living under the thumb of a who’s who of major world Empires.
Israel’s story is glorious, says Paul, not because they were “successful,” but because they never gave up on themselves or on God, and God never gave up on them. And in this they have truly earned the name Israel: “the one who wrestles with God.” They, like their distant ancestor Jacob, who we read about in today’s Old Testament reading, have contended with God and men and lived to tell the tale.
Jacob’s life was not easy. He was born the second twin in a world that was suspicious of twins and in which being the firstborn meant everything. Worse yet, he was born into a family where the parents were divided against each other and played favorites between their sons. After he manages to take for himself both the birthright and blessing that rightfully belonged to his brother, Jacob is forced to flee into the wilderness and make a life of his own. One night, God appears to him in a dream and affirms that, no matter how it may have been attained, he is the child of promise, through whom God will fulfill the promises made to his grandfather Abraham. Later — perhaps getting a taste of his own medicine — Jacob is cheated by his future father-in-law and ends up with a complicated blended family full of its own rivalries. (As the story of Joseph tells us, Jacob repeated the mistakes of his own parents and played favorites among his sons.) And now, he must face his brother again, his old nemesis. He sends his family across the river into the land where Esau lives, but he stays back — we can only imagine way; perhaps he just needed some time alone to steel himself for his meeting with Esau. It is then that God appears to him in the flesh and wrestles him until dawn. Jacob emerges wounded, but alive to tell the tell. And with a new name, Israel, befitting his real strength: he has contended with God and men.
What emerges for me in these two readings is a new shading on the idea of faithfulness. Faithfulness is a two-way process of trust and trustworthiness. This means that it is only demonstrated in stress and hardship. What makes God’s people and Jacob exemplars of faith is not their holiness or their ability to live the way God called them and us to live, but their tenacity and resilience in the face of life’s difficulties — especially those of their own making. They didn’t go anywhere. They refused to back down. They took honest stock of their histories and didn’t sugarcoat anything. They took responsibility: Israel told its national story as a narrative of failure; Jacob crossed the river to meet the brother he’d cheated. They didn’t give up on God and they didn’t give up on themselves. And God didn’t give up on them either. And this is what faithfulness looks like.
This should be encouraging for us. We all face so many ethical decisions every day it is often overwhelming. There are so many ethical balls in the air — ecological, social, economic, local, global, and now during the pandemic, big questions of personal and community public health — and we live in a culture with so little grace, which demands perfection on all of these questions, whose demands are often contradictory. Perfection isn’t possible. What today’s readings remind us is that perfection isn’t what is asked of us. The way to be faithful isn’t to be perfect, but to stay with it, to keep showing up, and to be honest and take responsibility when and where we mess up. The way to be faithful is simply not to give up on ourselves or on God. Because we know that God hasn’t given up on us.