Memorial of Saint Benedict, Abbot
In today’s first reading (Gn 32:23-33), we hear how Jacob becomes Israel. We must not forget that Jacob inherits the “yes” of his grandfather Abraham and his father Isaac. They pronounced a “yes” to God’s covenant not only for themselves, but also for their descendants. Likewise, let us not forget that Jacob himself wanted to inherit the birthright through which this covenant passed, though he does not seem to have grasped the true import of the covenant relationship that involved (but then again, who can claim to grasp the breadth and depth of God’s covenant?).
The covenant, however, was never primarily about God’s relationship with isolated individuals, but was God’s way of inviting all of Adam’s seed, that is, all of “Man” back to the fullness of life that God offers all human beings. But this life that God wishes to share with us—God’s own life—is a life of love that must be freely chosen: love cannot be forced. And so here, we discover the importance of Jacob’s wrestling with the angel (God’s messenger). God does not want us to do his will in such a way that we externally do what God wants, while internally rebelling or judging or second-guessing continuously, in growing frustration under the hands of one we consider to be an oppressive taskmaster. Nor does God want us to become automatons who simply execute commands like a computer program, without any personal choice or interiority. No. God wants us to love truly, freely, as God loves. God invites us to that profound union in the Holy Spirit that the Son has with the Father (Jn 17:22-23). Part of saying a full and complete “yes” to God is recognizing where we rebel against such a “yes” and wrestling with God in those places so that God can have a chance to bring us more and more to the fullness of life in those places where we resist. If we hide these areas or pretend that they are not there, our “yes” may always remain superficial, because we avoid letting God engage us in precisely those places where we most stand in need of God’s grace.
Jacob was far from a perfect man when God sent the angel to wrestle with him. It is significant that God, in his freedom, did not desire that Jacob be overpowered by the angel, but rather wanted the result to be a draw. God does not leave us to our own devices, but actually “wrestles” us through the circumstances of this created world. But, at the same time, God does not overpower us, because God wishes for us to make the decision to love as God to be free and not coerced. The wrestling presupposes a “yes” to God, and occurs within a global “yes” to God’s way in which one desires to grow.
Jacob receives the new name “Israel” because he has “striven with God and with men” (Gn 32:28). No longer merely “Jacob,” this man Israel has the vocation to strive, to “wrestle” with God and with men: with God, so that he and his seed might grow into the fullness of life that God offers, and with men, because insofar as Israel lives this life among men, Israel will be something of a scandal to them, for he shows them that there is another, more human way of living, and that way is the way that God offers. In fact, Israel becomes God’s messenger to all of humankind in a way that is similar to the way the angel represented God to Jacob. “Man” will wrestle with God through Israel, as Jacob wrestled with God through the angel. This reality will only be fully revealed in Jesus Christ, true God and true man, who will strive with God and men and prevail, as God and man, and thus open the gates to eternal life for all of humankind.