In today’s first reading we hear about the strange incident of Jacob wrestling with a man who is shown to represent God. And this story accounts for the origin of the new name given to Jacob by God – the name ‘Israel’ – which means ‘struggle with God’. It is this name which is given to the people descended from Jacob. The change in name also indicates that Jacob owed his position as father of the Israelites to God alone.
It can be said that the name sums up much of the relationship between God and the Israelites even to this day. It was a struggle for God to keep his people close to him as they twisted and turned to get away from him to follow false gods. Despite the struggle God constantly blessed his people as he blessed Jacob.
The meaning of the word ‘Israelite’ also applies to us, for we also are in a constant struggle with God. God is always calling us to himself but his invitation is always free and never forced. And all the while there are factors pulling us in the opposite direction. We are drawn by our own selfishness; we are drawn by the appeal of the false gods of money, power and pleasure, by the hollow values proposed as the means to the good life. God sometimes seems distant while we are tempted to embrace temporary attractions. I’m sure none of us would deny that life, even in a religious community, can be a struggle and that this struggle produces many tensions in our lives.
It’s a bit like a rubber band. When you pull from the ends in opposite directions tension is created in the band. When you let go of one end that tension is released. Faithfulness to God means letting go of whatever pulls us away from him. When we learn to let go, the struggle ends and we find peace in God’s loving embrace.