Whose Persistence? Preparing to Preach on the Parable of the Pleading Widow

pleading widowLooking back on a sermon I preached six years ago on this week’s readings from Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8, I am struck by how much my own images of the Divine One we call God have changed and yet remain oddly similar. The intervening years have afforded me the opportunities to begin to leave behind notions of an anthropomorphic God who intervenes in our lives. As I have embraced the writings of progressive and evolutionary theologians, I have struggled to understand and articulate God’s nature from the perspective of panentheism (everything is in God). There are those who suggest that this is a departure from the Christian tradition. Yet looking back, I am beginning to see this movement as a natural progression of the tradition. Indeed, so much of what I have always loved about Lutheran theology has freed me to explore this path. So, I offer this old sermon as a snapshot of my own pathway toward new visions of the Divine. I trust that my early efforts to move beyond the notion of God as the “unjust judge” will move some to begin to see God in, with, and through all those who persistently plead for justice. 

What little I know about the art of wrestling I learned from my brother Alan. He and I are just eighteen months apart in age and together we participated in many a wrestling match. All too often one or the other of us would be bothering the other and before we knew it we were rolling around on the floor wrestling. I’ll have you know that up until the age of about twelve I was quite a good wrestler. Up to that point I usually managed to hold my brother to the ground and with my knees firmly pinning his arms I would be able to get my brother to agree to my point of view. But my brother’s adolescent growth spurt put an end to my winning streak. Just as soon as my brother was big enough to pin me to the ground I decided to stop bothering him. Bothering my brother became dangerous and I had to give it up in order to save my dignity.

Perhaps all the bothering I persisted in with my younger brother was just preparation for my eventual vocation. You see where we come from, there’s a common nickname for people in my profession we’re jokingly known as God-botherers. In Belfast, ministers, priests, and pastors are all lumped in together and collectively we make up the ranks of those whose business it is to bother God. We bother God on behalf of others and we do it morning, noon and night; we bother God with both public and private prayers; we bother God with the problems of our parishioners, the problems of the world and with problems of our own making. We God bothers never seem to give up. But then if you look at Jesus’ parable of the pleading widow who is rewarded by the unjust judge for her persistence then surely God who is just will look with favor upon those of us whose business it is to bother God.

I must confess that I was tempted to use the children’s sermon to encourage the children to be persistent and to never give up because who knows what they could achieve if they only keep on asking, and asking, and asking, and asking. Surely if even an unjust judge relents under the persistent pleading of the widow, just imagine how much more a parent who loves their child might be willing to do if that child just keeps on and on and on and on.

Does the average interpretation of this parable disturb you as much as it disturbs me? The normal interpretation of this parable is to say that just as the unjust judge heard the widow because of her persistence, and not because of the merits of her case, so too God will hear us if we persist in our requests. So we should persist in our requests and God will give in, like the unjust judge who gave into the widow’s requests, even though he had no fear of God and no respect for anyone, he gave in just because the widow kept bothering him. But take it from me, a professional God botherer, you can be as persistent as you like, but persistence doesn’t always get you what you want. God doesn’t always answer my prayers and I’m pretty sure God doesn’t always answer your prayers either.

Now I know that some of you are going to say, wait a minute God always answers, it’s just that sometimes God says no! Well according to this parable we ought to be able to wear God down if we just keep asking.  So, what about those ardent prayers out there who have been knocking on God’s doors until their knuckles bleed begging and pleading for mercy, if this parable is to be believed then surely even an unjust God would have heard them by know?

If God is just and persistence in prayer is the answer then why can’t all those pleading persistent parents wrestle healing out of God for their children. Mothers and fathers pray day and night and beautiful children still die every day. To those who insist that some deaths are God’s will and we just have to learn to accept that,

I for one will never accept that, a just God desires anything but goodness for God’s children. God doesn’t kill children. Disease kills children, wars kill children, violence kills children, mistakes kill children and accidents kill children. So, why doesn’t God intervene? I pray for peace and justice all the time.  I pray for healing all the time. I’ve been bothering God for years and I’m still waiting for peace to break out. I’m still waiting for the hungry to be fed. I’m still waiting for justice and mercy to prevail.  I’m still waiting for children to be safe and for an end to suffering. I’m still waiting for the weeping to stop.  And on those dark nights when it seems as though the world is so full of hate, and greed, and violence and suffering threatens to overwhelm me I get so angry with God’s indifference and neglect that I’d be more than willing to go a few rounds with God.  There are nights when the darkness is so overwhelming and my heart is so grieved that I’m sure I could summon up the strength try to pin God down. I’d be willing to wrestle with God, if I thought I could wrestle a few blessings out of God. Maybe that’s why our Scripture lesson from Genesis has always been one of my favourite pieces of Scripture. I can’t help but cheer Jacob on. No matter how much of a rascal Jacob may be, I still want Jacob to win that match.

Even though my own wrestling career was only a short one, I did learn a thing or two about wrestling and it seems to me that there are a couple of problems with the wrestling match that takes place between Jacob and God. You see according to the Scripture it is God that starts the wrestling match and it is God that tries to finish the match with a blow that is below the belt. So why does God pick a fight with Jacob? I mean Jacob may have been a liar and a trickster; he may have cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and conned his father Isaac into blessing him, but Jacob is older and wiser now and he’s doing exactly what God has told him to do, he’s heading home, he’s going to face the music and try to make amends with his brother. So why does God pick a fight with Jacob and why does God try to end that fight with a low blow that leaves Jacob permanently crippled?

Perhaps God was afraid that Jacob was weakening in his resolve to face up to the mess he’d made of things. Jacob is returning to the scene of his crimes when he is told that Esau is on his way to meet him; on his way with a force of 400 men. Perhaps Jacob is having second thoughts and God has no other choice than to wrestle with Jacob. So, this “ish” shows up in the dark night of Jacob’s soul. “Ish” is a Hebrew word that can be translated as, “the man” or “the angel” or even as “God.

All night long they wrestled and at daybreak it becomes clear that the ish cannot prevail against Jacob and so the ish strikes Jacob on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint. But Jacob still did not give up and he continued to wrestle with the ish. Then the ish said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.”  But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” And so, the ish, blesses Jacob with a new name and says to Jacob, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

Jacob asks the ish, “Please tell me your name?” But the ish said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And then the ish blessed Jacob.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “for I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Why did God bother Jacob like that? I believe that God bothered Jacob for the very same reason that God bothers us. Jesus’ parables are not always as simple as they first appear. Don’t you think it’s a bit strange to identify God with the unjust judge: to identify God with someone who has no concern for justice? Isn’t it a bit strange to suggest an understanding of this parable that insists that prayer petitions are answered simply because of our nagging God into action and that God acts without any concern for the content of the petitions themselves? Who could be bothered to worship such a God?

I believe that there is more to this parable. You see Jesus has this habit of turning our understanding of God upside down and if we look closely at this parable you might just see Jesus turning things over. Think about it, how many times in the Bible have you read a story in which God identifies with or sticks up for the widows and the orphans? Jesus himself was constantly encouraging his followers to care for widows and orphans.

So, what happens if instead of identifying God as the unjust judge we identify God as the widow? I believe that it is us who fill the role of the unjust judge who neither fears God or respects people. It’s more than likely that we are the ones dominated by our egos and generally looking for what is in it for us. We are really stubborn in our self-seeking. But God is persistent in love for us. God is the hound of heaven who wears us down, like the widow, by persistently pursuing us. Eventually, we waver and sometimes we let God enter our lives and guide us to do the right thing.

God is persistent in trying to break down our defenses. God is the one who is bothering us. God is the one who takes the initiative. As long as we insist as seeing prayer flowing only from us we are missing the point. Prayer is communication between God and us. Prayer isn’t just about our requests offered up to God so that God can do our bidding. Prayer is about relationship.  And every once in a while just as my brother and I liked to bother one another, God just can’t resist bothering us.

From time to time, I’m sure that God has no choice left but to try to wrestle us to the ground and pin us down. It’s our task to try to figure out what God is trying to tell us when we wrestle with events in our lives.

We wrestle to find meaning, to find purpose and the struggle is often intense. Sometimes we may not know the reason we are forced into the struggle. Understanding and listening don’t always come easily for us. It’s often hard for us to see the hand of God at work in the struggle. We stumble in the dark, just as Jacob is left alone in the night to wrestle.  As for the low blows, will I’m sure God knows what God is doing.  For often it is the wounds and the scars that we receive in the struggles that remind us of the pain and enable us to be better at tending the pain of others.  After one of those long periods of darkness it is only in the final outcome that we realize that we have been touched by God.

When I think of those days when my brother and I liked nothing better than to bother one another, and just how much fun we had wrestling around, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that our God bothers with us, and is willing to wrestle with us.

As for those unanswered prayers…………..well I heard a story the on the West Wing of all places. It seems that there was this devout Christian who lived directly in the path of a storm.  And the civil authorities issued a flood warning and told all the residents to evacuate. Well the devote Christian prayed and prayed and decided that because he was on such good terms with God that God would save him from the flood, if only he would have faith. So when the sheriff came by on patrol he tried to convince the devout Christian to evacuate…but the fellow said, “no, no, I have faith and God will save me. Well the storm came and the river rose beyond its banks and the flood waters flowed dangerously close to the fellows house, and the National Guard came by in a row boat and tried to convince him to evacuate but he told them, “no, no, I have faith and God will save me.”  Well eventually the fellow’s house was flooded and the fellow had to climb up on his roof and a news helicopter saw him trapped up there and they tried to help him evacuate, but the devout Christian just waved the helicopter on and said don’t worry I am a Christian and I have faith and God will save me. Well finally the house was swept away in the flood and the man couldn’t hold on any longer and he drowned. Well when the man arrived at the pearly gates St Peter was really surprised and told him that they certainly weren’t expecting to see him there for quite some time. Well the devout Christian was very upset and he demanded an audience with the almighty and so St. Peter ushered him into the Holy of Holies and the fellow started ranting and raving at God. Well God didn’t take too kindly to the fellows complaints and let him know in no uncertain terms that God was sick and tired of this fellows ingratitude after all God had heard his prayers and God had sent the sheriff in a squad car, the national guard in a boat and the news media in a helicopter all to save him and still this fellow couldn’t get up off his duff and do something.

God doesn’t send bad things our way. God is not some kind of cosmic puppeteer up in the sky sending us trials and tribulations to build our character. God doesn’t send bad things our way anymore than God kills innocent children. The bad things that come our way come as a result of humanities abuse of God’s precious gift of freedom. God does not wish us harm, God wants only what is good.

But when bad things come our way as a result of the brokenness of creation, our God does promise to be with us in the struggle. Prayer doesn’t consist merely of us reciting our wish list. Prayer is about conversation and conversation involves listening as well as talking. Prayer is about relationship and relationship requires action. It is not enough to pray for God’s reign. It’s not enough to pray for justice and peace.   It’s not enough to pray for an end to hunger. It’s not enough to nag God with our requests.  God is calling us to get up off our duffs and do something. God will provide the necessary.

Like the pleading widow, our God cries out to us for justice. Like the widow our God continues to pursue us. Prayer provides God with the means to enter our lives so that God can challenge us to change the world. Like the pleading widow, Our God persistently cries out for justice trusting that eventually we will hear God’s pleas and begin to cry out for justice with both our words and our deeds. And yes we ought to be persistent in our prayer so that our prayers can become more than just words and we can be about the work of ushering in God’s reign of justice and peace. The struggle will be intense; be prepared to wrestle with God but do so with the assurance that in the end we will receive God’s blessing. For we will see God face to face, and yet our life will be preserved. So continue to bother God and continue to be bothered by God and together with God we will ensure all our prayers are answered and God’s grace shall prevail.

My task this Sunday is to see where locating the Divine in the position of the persistent pleader will lead me. What does it mean to pray trusting that we are not separate from God but in God? Knowing that we are in God, how will we move to enact prayer?

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