Gen 32:3-8; 22-30; Luke 18:1-8
Unlike some of Jesus’ other parables, we don’t have to work too hard to figure out what he means. Sometimes we’re left to our own devices to figure out what the parable means, and sometimes Jesus tells us at the end of the parable. However, in this morning’s parable, Luke tells us from the start that Jesus told his disciples “a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart” (Luke 18:1). As straight forward as the meaning of the parable is, the parable itself is quite odd. The story Jesus tells is about a judge who “neither feared God nor respected man.” Now, in the analogy Jesus is making with the parable, this judge who doesn’t fear God represents God, and the widow who comes to the judge who comes to the judge, again and again, demanding justice represents the behavior Jesus wants to see in his disciples. Her persistence and her demand for justice are how Jesus’ disciples, how we, are to pray.
It’s odd, first, that the role of God in this analogy is played by someone who doesn’t fear God, and second, that in the story, the judge doesn’t give justice because it’s the right thing to do but because the widow nagged him so much that she beat him down, and finally he gave her the justice for which she was looking. Hopefully, that’s not how things work with God. God is a God of justice who wants what is right and good for his people and for this world, and hopefully, we don’t have to beat him down to get him to finally act and to do what is right.
The parable then ends with Jesus explaining what the parable means in more detail than Luke did, but Jesus adds a significant word. He says, “And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:7–8). Now, this is not the time nor the place to discuss what Jesus means when he speaks about the coming of the Son of Man. The answer to that question is too complex and nuanced, and that is not the word that interests me anyway. Jesus says, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Faith. That’s the word that interests me today.
I said before that faith is like a window out onto the world that allows us to see that there is more going on in the world simply than what we can see with our eyes. Faith allows us to see the creating, redeeming, and sustaining God at work in the world around us and invites us to participate in that work. So, why then, does Jesus bring up faith in a conversation about prayer?
Before we try to answer that though, let’s take a quick detour to our reading from the book of Genesis. This is a passage that we are probably all familiar with. It’s the story of Jacob wrestling with God, or perhaps better, of God wrestling with Jacob. You’ll notice at the start of the reading that the competition, or whatever you want to call it, seems to happen at the other man’s initiative, and it’s later in the passage that we discover that that man was God himself. It’s in this moment in which God is striving with Jacob and Jacob is striving with God that Jacob’s name is changed from Jacob to Israel, and this will be the name of the people of God for generations to come. The offspring of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are the Israelites. They bear this name that arises from this conflict.
Now, something interesting happens here with the name. The man says to Jacob, “Your name shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with men, and have prevailed” (Genesis 32:28). Except that’s not what the name Israel means. It doesn’t mean “you have striven with God;” it means “God contends, struggles, fights.” God is the one who initiates the conflict with Jacob in this story and God is the subject of his name as well, and yet the text clearly says otherwise, and this is one of those moments where the reader of the Hebrew Bible is aware that something strange is happening, but we can’t see this in English. The text is drawing out the question, “Is Israel a group of people who are always going to be contending with God, or is God always going to be contending with the people of Israel?” Who is the initiator in this divine-human interaction? It’s God who seems to be the initiator, but it’s Jacob who refuses to let him go until he receives a blessing, much like the widow refused to drop her case before the judge until she received justice.
It seems from the narrative of Genesis, based on where this story is placed, which is between Jacob preparing to meet Esau again and the reunion itself, that God has come to Jacob to try and transform him and prepare him to meet his brother after all these years. It’s God who takes the initiative in this transformation, but it’s Jacob who clings to him desperately. You see, God doesn’t usually zap us. He can, and he has, but that’s not the normal process. If only it were, right? Wouldn’t it be great if sanctification were as easy as me waving my hands in front of you, maybe some small lightning bolts jump from my fingers, and then zap, you’re changed? You’re exactly the person God wants you to me. Wouldn’t that be great?
Sorry, but that’s not usually how it works. The process of being conformed into the image of God’s Son is a long process that involves Scripture, sacraments, accountability, and a number of other things, but it especially includes prayer because prayer is one of the quintessential places where we become Israel. We strive with God in prayer, and he strives with us, and in that striving, in that conflict, in that repeated request to the judge for justice, we are changed. We are transformed. We are conformed to the image of Jesus Christ. And that desperate clinging to God, that refusal not to let him go without a blessing, that repeated request to God for things to be made right even to the point that it might seem like we’re beating him down or driving him crazy with our requests, that is all an act of faith. That is looking through the window, seeing God at work in the world, and saying, “God, work here too. Work in this life. Work in this place. Work in this story. Work here and now.” And when the answer seems to be no, when injustice seems to prevail, when all that comes back from the judge of heaven and earth is silence, ask him again. Struggle with him. Fight with him. Contend with him. Beat him down. Imagine if we were a group of people known for beating God down with our prayers. You can’t pray too much. You can’t ask for too much justice. You can not ask too often for a situation to be made right. The God of heaven and earth invites you to struggle with him in prayer, and what you’ll find is that it was the God of heaven and earth who took the initiative in the struggle all along, and you will be transformed.
But let me leave you with this. Be Israel. Contend with God. Feel God contending with you in prayer, but don’t forget what it costs. Jacob is changed before he goes to meet Esau, but he walks with a limp as he goes to meet his brother. Jacob is changed, but it costs him, and to contend with God in prayer will cost you too. Your desires will be changed, your mind will be changed, your heart will be changed, and sometimes those changes will hurt. It will feel like losing a part of yourself. It will feel like dying to yourself because that’s exactly what will be happening. You may walk with a metaphorical limp all your life, but you will be Israel, you will be the person God created you to be.