I am going to take each reading separately, so first, the Genesis. The book of Genesis, whilst written by Moses, has its origins in four different ancient sources. The weirdness of this passage may be because it contains parts of these various sources, especially if they came from different cultures.
It is hard to explain Jacob fighting with God, even if it is God incarnate - that is God made flesh. The context of this reading involves Esau. As we recall, Jacob tricked Esau out of his birthright. So, this meeting is between Jacob and a man who vowed to kill him. Jacob’s anxiety may be exacerbated by the fact that Esau is meeting him with 400 men. So the context of this strange dream or encounter is on the day before this historic meeting is to take place. I think this resonates with all of us because we have all had that feeling of foreboding. Indeed, I read that two-thirds of adults in England say they regularly experience “Sunday Scaries”, which is anxiety about the coming week. So Jacob could have been having a restless, sleepless night.
Is Jacob wrestling Esau in his dream, an angel or God incarnate? We do not know, but it is the wrestling that fascinates us. I am old enough to remember World of Sport at 4 pm on a Saturday when Kent Walton would say, “Welcome grappling fans”. Wrestling and grappling involve flesh touching flesh. It is an all-embracing struggle as one person tries to outpower, outthink and outmanoeuvre the opponent. I like the idea of Jacob wrestling with God because, as a Christian, it permits me to wrestle with God myself. Not physically but mentally, calling God to account and trying to understand God’s ways. Even Jesus wrestled on the night before his crucifixion. So I think it is okay to wrestle with God in our minds.
Encountering God will change you. In acknowledgement of that, in this story and throughout the bible, names are changed following encounters. Jacob became Israel, which can mean God saves or one who struggles with God. Abram became Abraham and Saul became Paul. Simon became Peter the Rock. So, names are important as they reflect the new personality formed by an encounter with a living God.
The story has a happy ending. Rather than killing Jacob, Esau forgives, just as later Jacob’s son Joseph would forgive his eleven brothers. So I take away from this reading permission to wrestle with God whilst acknowledging God’s sovereignty over me. Encounters with God create a change in you, and it is okay to face our fears, trust in God and be obedient to God. It is a story of forgiveness and moving on.
From the Luke text, there is much for us to take. The persistent widow talks to us about justice, faith and persistence in prayer. We know that the judge had no regard for God or others, although we do not know if he were corrupt, as some commentaries state. It might be that all judges are corrupt, but the passage only tells us that he was ungodly. According to Deuteronomy 16:18, the role of the judge was to render just decisions, and Exodus 22:22 reminds us that we should not mistreat any widow. Yet, the widow, a woman without a husband, probably childless, was the most marginalised person in society other than children. Yet she has a voice. Despite having no power, no influence and no people supporting her, she uses her voice effectively because of her persistence.
There are many examples of persistence in today’s society. Walt Disney, for example, was told a mouse would never work. Oprah Winfrey was told she was unfit for television. Stephen Spielberg was rejected three times from film school. Elvis Presley was fired after one performance and told “you ain’t going nowhere son, you ought to go back to driving a truck. Sidney Poitier was told he could not act and that he would make a better dishwasher. Colonel Sanders of KFC fame has his “Finger Lickin’ Recipe” rejected 1,009 times. J. K. Rowling had her Harry Potter books rejected by 12 different publishing houses. So, persistence pays off.
The story speaks of faith. The woman did not know that she was going to have her request granted, but she had hope and faith that somehow she would be heard and her cause righted. From this, we can take that ability to keep going in faith, so long as we are also enveloped by prayer. Some people say that prayer is a waste of time, yet through prayer, we can harness the energy, articulate our thoughts, and hopefully see the world through the eyes of God. Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-82), in his book Idylls of the King, said, "Pray for my soul, more things are wrought in by prayer than this world dreams of; wherefore let thy voice rise like a fountain for me night and day."
Prayer indeed works. Sometimes this is in ways we were not expecting. Sometimes it is not in the time frame we want but in God's time frame. Sometimes the prayer we ask is not right for us and is consequently sidelined, but the power of prayer gives us the energy to try harder. If we keep on praying, we keep the hope alive.
The interesting thing about this reading is it shows the unusual happening. The widow wins. Sometimes, when we keep on going, we do get the break that we need. I wonder if the Kingdom of Heaven is a kingdom where the unusual happens.
Regarding prayer, I recall Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) in his book Self Reliance and other essays saying, "Prayer is the contemplation of the facts of life from the highest point of view." So with prayer, we are trying to see things from the compassionate and merciful eyes of an ever-creative, ever-loving God. Prayer through God's eyes helps us see the bigger picture.
In this parable, we see ourselves as perhaps the widow fighting our just causes. But are we ever the judge? Do we have people who continually annoy us, and to get rid of them, we give in? Remembering that we are sometimes the judge, not the widow, may create humility in us.
The main take from this text is how great God is, that if the judge can be moved, how much more God will listen to us. It reminds us of God's ability to listen but also the persistence of prayer. Paul writes in his first letter to the Thessalonians 5:17 that we are to pray without ceasing. Thomas Edison wrote, "Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try one more time." And who can forget Winston Churchill's famous speech, where he stood up to the people longing to hear Churchill at his greatest oration, saying simply, "Never, never, never give up."
Finally, I leave you with the acronym, PUSH, which stands for Pray Until Something Happens. Also remember, it is always the squeaky gate or wheel that gets oiled first.
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Rev'd Martin Wheadon