“So,” says Jesus, “you have this need. It’s a constant need, a need you can’t deny, regardless of what you believe—or don’t believe. It’s a need to pray. And it’s not just any prayer. It’s this demand, this stubborn insistence: don’t be against me; don’t be indifferent; bless me; grant me justice. You’re already praying that prayer in the back of your mind even when you don’t notice, even when you wonder if anybody’s listening. But keep praying it! You’re not deluded. Don’t lose heart, no matter what life throws at you.”
That’s what I hear in the story of the persistent widow, and in our first lesson, where we see Jacob, already in excruciating pain from his wrestling match, daring to tell his nameless adversary, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Jacob and this widow are refusing to give up when life seems not only indifferent but downright hostile. They’re not quite sure if it’s God or “the system” that’s working against them, but they’re refusing to let that be the last word. They’re insisting, demanding, that there be more to life than being stuck in a world that either doesn’t care or else tries to do us in.
That’s their prayer, and they’re praying it because not praying it is not an option. It’s a need, says Jesus, a need so basic that we can’t shake it. We’re already praying this the moment we wake up. We wake up praying for a day where blessings happen, where things turn out right. You were praying that this morning before you got here, and you’re praying it right now. So the next time somebody asks you if you pray, you can answer, “As a matter of fact, I do—all the time. After all, I woke up today, didn’t I?” Not praying this prayer is not an option.
So Jesus is not telling us to pray. He doesn’t need to. We’re going to pray this prayer even when we don’t notice. He’s telling us not to lose heart. Why? Because that same prayer, that prayer we can’t help praying, sets us up for one disappointment after another. In fact, we’re praying it because we’ve already had one disappointment after another.
Some of us thought we had turned a corner when we elected our first African-American President. I still want to believe some sort of corner was turned. But now racism is more visible than it’s been for decades. Our elected bodies are too polarized to get anything significant done. Do you think that will change, even if your favorite slate of candidates gets elected this time? One disappointment after another.
It was like that in Jesus’ day. His followers thought God’s commonwealth of peace and justice was right around the corner. What followed was an execution. Yes, afterwards Jesus started showing up in mind boggling ways for his followers. But their detractors called it fake news. What could they say to that? A new community formed and grew, but it had its own internal problems. It still does. One disappointment after another.
In the face of all that we can’t help but wonder: Are we praying to somebody like that widow’s unjust judge, to somebody like Jacob’s nameless adversary? Are we praying to anybody at all? Is our unshakable need to pray a joke played on us by a heartless universe? ….
Don’t lose heart, says Jesus. You’re not stuck in a heartless world. God is here. God is not your adversary. God is not indifferent. God is with you in your prayer, sharing in your constant cry for a day where blessings happen, where things turn out right, not delaying but turning setbacks into new pathways toward that day of our deepest longing.
Jesus also says that God most definitely is not that unjust judge. In fact, Jesus’ whole life with us, pre- and post-resurrection, shows us a God who isn’t like any sort of administrative officer walled off from us in an office. The God whose life Jesus lives doesn’t have an office to hide in. The God whose life Jesus lives is right here, more like Jacob’s wrestling partner, not controlling things from a distance or handing down decrees, but actually mixed up with us in our struggles, so mixed up that it’s not always clear who’s winning.
Did you ever notice how many tantalizing loose ends there are to that story of Jacob’s wrestling match? The story hints that the stranger Jacob wrestled with is actually God, but it never comes right out and says that. Later, Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” But the story says it’s a man who won’t tell Jacob his name. The man discovers he can’t win this match, only bring it to a stalemate by hitting below the belt—literally! Jacob insists on a blessing, and the man responds by congratulating him for winning and by giving him a new name—Israel, which, the story tells us, is a Hebrew word that means “God-wrestler.” I don’t think that new name was the sort of blessing Jacob was demanding! But that’s what he got, and after he lets God go, or whoever it was, all he has to show for his so-called victory is that now he’s limping. That’s a blessing? A new name and a disability? From an unnamed somebody-or-other we can’t overpower but who can’t overpower us either? Was that God? Was that Jacob’s blessing, or did it make Jacob himself a blessing to us? And maybe to God as well? Talk about loose ends!
But ponder this story, with all its loose ends, the next time you notice you’re still praying for a day where blessings happen, where things turn out right. Set it next to Jesus’ story about a persistent widow, the way our lectionary does—another story with loose ends! Envision God with you in your prayer, sharing in your constant cry for a day where blessings happen, where things turn out right, not delaying but turning setbacks into new pathways toward that day of our deepest longing. Envision God praying our demands back to us, God praying don’t be against me; don’t be indifferent; bless me; grant me justice. Maybe God is the persistent widow!
Don’t lose heart. Pray always. Wrestle always. Yes, you’ll be disappointed again and again. But blessings do still happen. Things can turn out right. And you are in great company. Don’t lose heart.