Charles Belk, a 51 year old Harvard educated television producer was in Beverly Hills for a pre-Emmy dinner when he excused himself to check the meter for his car. Before he knew it, he was surrounded by six police cars, searched for weapons, handcuffed, left sitting on a curbed for 45 minutes before being transported to police headquarters. There he was fingerprinted, put under $100,000 bail and accused of armed robbery. He was denied a phone call; explanation of charges put against him; being read his rights and being able to speak to his lawyer for “a lengthy time.” All he was told was that he fit the description; of a robbery suspect: a tall, bald, black man. Belk was held for six hours before the police reviewed the tape proving Belk’s innocence. He was released and the department released a regret explaining the circumstances. It was a case of mistaken identity.
Mistaken identity can be as benign as calling someone by someone else’s name. Mistaken identity can plague our lives – we live out the life our parents have laid before us or that social media deems best. We place labels on others that have nothing to do with whom they are. Who are we created to be? What have we been created to do?
Today we visit with one of the Bible’s best identity thieves: Jacob. We first we hear of Jacob in the book of Genesis 25. He is wrestling, struggling with his brother Esau in his mother Rebekah’s womb, causing his mother no end of discomfort. And today we find him wrestling with an unknown being all night. From the womb Jacob was not at peace with who he was. He was born second – grapping at his brother’s heel, ready to pull him back and take his place as the first born. Hence his name in Hebrew – Jacob --- which in Hebrew sounds like “heel” – and “grabbing the heel” was idiomatic way of saying “tricking someone.”
Jacob lived up to his name. He manipulated his older brother Esau’s birthright from him in exchange for a bowl of stew – a birthright that entitled him, among other things, to double his parent’s inheritance. With mother Rebekah as an accomplice, Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, and stole Esau’s blessing; a blessing reserved for the first born. This theft of the blessing was the last straw. Esau was ready to murder him so Jacob was sent into an exile that would last 20 years.
Those 20 years were not easy. Jacob found his comeuppance in his uncle Laban. Jacob was tricked by the older man into marrying both of his daughters, Leah as well as Rachel, whom he really loved. Jacob struggled for six years to build a flock of his own from his uncle’s flocks. Ultimately Jacob was successful and managed to build a flock even greater than his uncle’s: it infuriated Laban and enraged his cousins who claimed “Jacob has taken away all that was our fathers, and from what was our fathers he has acquired all this wealth.” For the guilty conscience of Jacob, this must have been an echo of Esau’s fury, whom he defrauded 20 years earlier. So again, Jacob must flee, but he cannot avoid confrontation. Jacob is going home.
Jacob left empty handed. He returned however with two wives, two concubines, 12 children, servants and numerous flocks. He returned with something more – Jacob had learned to love and to care. Because of this, Jacob was filled with anxiety about his past. He heard Esau was meeting him with an army of 400 men. Jacob struggled with what to do. First he strategically placed his family to keep them out of harm’s way.
So on the evening of meeting with Esau, Jacob finds himself alone. In the dark, Jacob has a strange encounter. He wrestles all night with a “man” a being, an angel; we don’t know exactly who this mysterious being was, but it ends up wounding Jacob in the hip. Wounded, dawn approaching, Jacob does what he knows, he holds on, refusing to let go until the being blesses him. It was a stolen blessing that got him in trouble in the first place. Maybe this blessing will make it right. And the man/being does something interesting. He asks Jacob his name, and then he renames Jacob – Israel, from the Hebrew, “prevails with God”
Jacob tried to steal a name and an identity that wasn’t his own. God, through this Man, blesses Jacob /Israel with a new identity. A God-given identity of purpose, insight, an identity forged from struggle and woundedness, strength and love.
Isn’t this what Jacob was after all his life? An identity of his own --- an apart from Esau? An identity that comes from God. Something deep down he struggled to have all his life – a true identity not based on birth order, on marriage, on prosperous he was. An identity not based on favoritism. It is with this true identity, given him from God based on faithfulness to one’s struggle. With this new identity he can now face Esau, and reconcile.
Like Jacob, Jesus faced the approaching night wanting to be alone. Earlier in Matthew, we learn that Jesus was rejected by his native town because of his unique identity. His village neighbors wouldn’t believe Jesus could become anything different than the carpenter boy they’d known for decades. Moreover, the religious establishment were calling Jesus “Beelezub,” a devil. And King Herod believed Jesus to be John the Baptizer resurrected.
What was Jesus to do in the face of all these mistaken identities? He could give up. Tone it down. Give in. Jesus knows what it’s like to have others dictate to us who we are. Jesus probably understood the struggle of Jacob, and all of us who feel insecure, labeled second best. Jesus needed to go off by himself to a deserted place, to gain perspective. What did he find? The crowds followed him. Not his village neighbors. Not the Pharisees and Torah scholars. Not King Herod and his retinue. The crowds. The average person, the person ignored by the religious, economic and political elite. The crowds followed Jesus and affirmed his identity. Because once the great crowds came to Jesus, Jesus of course gets it. He experiences their need, their pain and their confusion about who they are. And Jesus has compassion on them. He heals the sick. He teaches – for hours – and the crowd is riveted to him. We don’t know what Jesus taught them all that day. We could hazard a guess and say Jesus taught them what the Law really stands for: what it means to love God and neighbor. Jesus taught them about their worth in the eyes of God.
But according to our passage, the great lesson was yet to come. Soon it was evening--- and the disciples were nervous. These people were hungry. What should they do? So the disciples came to Jesus with the logical solution – send them away, let them take care of themselves, let them get something to eat in the near village. But Jesus says no. You give them something to eat. All the disciples were able to suss up were five loaves and two fish. Jesus doesn’t criticize this meager offering. Instead he takes it, blesses it, and transforms it. Somehow, there was enough to eat.
It isn’t important to figure out how Jesus did this miracle. It isn’t important to know who exactly Jacob was wrestling with. What is important to see is that Jesus and Jacob both prevailed in seemingly impossible circumstances. They didn’t succumb to fear. They stayed in the struggle. And Blessing came out of both struggles – their identity became clear. Jacob became Israel. Jesus became Divine Compassion in flesh; and what’s more Jesus taught his disciples, as he teaches us—that we are not to send people away—but to struggle to meet the needs of the hungry, the lost, the hopeless, the ill. That’s where we will find our true identity – our true calling in life: We are created as children of God, created to make a difference, created to bring about miracles of loving, being, and transformation of souls and in the communities in our midst. Let’s not make a mistake: that is our identity first and foremost.
We struggle to find our place in this world. It is easy to get lost and act out, like Jacob, in identities that are not really ours. It is easy to become victims of the mistaken identities others project on us. Like Jesus, we need to sift through what others say about us. Like the disciples, we have to learn to know our true identity through having our ideas challenged, facing obstacles that seem insurmountable. We too can find ourselves awake at night – struggling, or called to be alone to figures things out.
The most important work we have before us is claiming our God-given identity: that God has a place for us in the world and God loves us through Christ our Lord. We are freed and made whole in God’s image. So we must put aside any mistaken identity, false identities, and claim our true identity as children of God.
We are created to love, be loved and connected and to create a loving world. That is what the world is truly hungry for. It is what we are truly hungry for, deep down. Embrace the struggle. Let us find our real name. Let us find ourselves in God’s love – and be blessed, and be the blessing we are meant to be. Amen.