Sermon on Genesis 32:22-31 and Luke 18:1-8 for Pentecost +22, October 16, 2016
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.” Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him. 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.
Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
What does it mean to be a person of Christian faith in a world like this? That is a question that will not let me go. If faith means anything at all, it means trust. To have faith is to trust God with your life. Easier said than done.
There are at least two reasons why it is hard to have faith in a world like this. One is that you probably should have some idea of what God is like, if you are going to try to trust God. The other difficulty is that the world is like this. Lots of bad things happen. The most recent example is that Hurricane Matthew killed over1,000, most of whom were desperately poor Haitians. The number will rise much higher, they tell us, if we add deaths from Cholera.
Besides big public events like hurricanes and the holocaust, we all have our own experiences of bad things that have happened to us, or to our families. So what does it mean to be a person of faith in a world like it is?
What is God, in a World Like This?
That brings us to the God-question. What is God like? Specifically, what is God like, given what the world is like? This question is so difficult that it causes many people to give up believing altogether.
They put it like this: if God is all loving and all powerful, why does evil and suffering exist? A loving God would not want evil and suffering, and an all-powerful God would be able to stop it. So either God is not loving or not all-powerful, or simply does not exist. If God is like Superman, he is standing there with his hands in his pockets instead of intervening.
That argument only works if God is really like a Superman who stands somewhere, separate from the world, watching it with unlimited powers of intervention. But clearly that cannot be the right way to imagine God. The suffering of children alone should be enough to immediately show that concept must be mistaken.
Aristotle’s Perfect God
So, how then do we imagine God? Well you could start with abstract concepts, like perfection. God must be perfect; God could not be less than perfect, right? And from perfection you could reason that God must have perfect knowledge, perfect power, perfect control and all kinds of perfections. This is Aristotle’s version of God. He ends up being called the “unmoved mover.” The perfectly self-sufficient being that gets the ball rolling for all the lesser beings of the material world.
Well, as it turns out, Christianity was born in a world in which the dominate thinkers followed Aristotle, so Christian systematic theology ended up have a distinctly Aristotelian flavor.
But Christianity did not start with Aristotle; certainly Jesus didn’t. In fact, Christianity’s concept of God grows from Jewish soil. Instead of abstract ideas like perfection, our Jewish ancestors began with stories of encounters with God. From these stories you cannot get a systematic theology. In fact Jewish people to this day do not even attempt to write systematic theologies.
Instead of systematic theologies, the stories of God-encounters are what we have. They are the collected wisdom of the Jewish tradition, and hence, our wisdom tradition as well.
We just read one of the stories of a God-encounter, and it is, admittedly, one of the oddest stories in the bible. Then we heard a parable of Jesus, and it is odd as well. But both of them help us as we try to understand what it means to be a person of faith in a world like this.
So, let us look at the Jacob story first. To refresh your memory, this is the third generation from Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac was the father of Jacob. The cycle of Jacob stories in the bible is rich and multi-layered.
Remember, Jacob was a twin; the one who was born second, who came out of the womb grasping his elder brother Esau’s heel. According to the biblical story-teller, he was named for that grasping pose. Famously, he also grasped the blessing of the firstborn that should have gone to his brother. He got the blessing, but had to flee, fearing his brother’s reprisals.
So, in this story, after a long absence from his homeland, Jacob and his now huge family and all their vast possessions are on the journey back home. Truly, he has been blessed. The story-teller says that after he secured his family’s camp, he went off by himself to sleep alone. Why? We are not told.
Then the biblical story-teller says these few, odd, eerie words:
“Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.”
A man? What man? What kind of man? An angel? A demon? A visitation of God? We look for more information. The story continues,
“When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.”
Whatever this “man” was, all we know is that he was unable to prevail over Jacob, but he had the power to dislocated Jacob’s hip with a mere touch.
The man then asks to be let go, but Jacob, the grasper, is unwilling to let him go without a blessing. The heel-grasping blessing-steeler now wants a legitimate blessing, even if he has to fight for it. So he gets his blessing, but then he gets something he did not ask for: a new name.
According to the biblical story, Jacob was the father of the 12 sons who became the 12 tribes of Israel. Why do we call them Israelites instead of Jacobites? This story is the reason. The strange “man” Jacob wrestled with and prevailed over changed his name to Israel. In the story-world the reason is this:
“the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’”
“Israel” comes from he verb, “to struggle.” From this point on, what does it mean to be an Israelite? It means to be hard-wired to struggle with God. In the end, Jacob understands that he has seen the face of God, and names the place as such.
Faith and Struggle
What does it mean to be a person of faith in a world like this one? It means we are people who struggle with God. In a world in which bad things happen and bad people get away with so much, we cannot but struggle with God. As people whose faith descends from the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we have it in our DNA to struggle with God.
And so did Jesus. We remember his struggle in prayer in the garden on the night of his arrest. We remember his struggle on the cross when he cried out,
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
And here this parable, we hear him teaching his followers to be people who persistently struggle with God.
The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge
How does this work? Jesus tells a parable, ostensibly about prayer. He uses some cut-out characters. There is the widow. She is at the bottom of the social ladder. She is poor and powerless, and has been denied justice. Then there is the judge. He is the quintessential bad guy. He admits that he neither fears God nor respects human rights.
The story, according to scholars, is meant to be somewhat comic. The judge stands for God. Of course he is about as opposite to God as he can get. Even when he grants the poor widow justice, it is not because he decides to do good, but only that he is sick and tired of being pestered by her. His motives are self-serving to the end.
So, is this, then, a charming story about how we should be like the widow and keep banging on the door of heaven with our prayers until God finally answers?
No, it cannot be that charming story, because that story is a false one. Its falseness is highlighted by the story itself. It takes a long time for the widow to finally get anything out of the judge; the passage of time is an important part of the plot. He does not act quickly. And anyone who has ever prayed knows it can be like that, more often than not.
But listen to Jesus’ conclusion to the parable:
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
If God did act quickly, the whole point of the story of the widow’s dogged persistence is subverted.
Unless, that is, God’s actions towards justice are as unlike the the command-response power of the judge in the parable as the character of the judge is unlike God. In other words, just as God’s character is the opposite the judge, in this story, so God’s way of acting in the world is different.
We do not believe in the Superman kind of God who intervenes in a controlling manner. Rather we conceive of God as the ground of all being, the depth dimension in all of our experience. We understand that God’s power in the world is not coercive but persuasive. How? We understand that God is at work in every moment, luring us towards the good, towards the beautiful, and towards the truth.
What evidence do we give for such a faith? Only that there is, within all of us, in spite of the way the world is, a longing for better. We long for justice, in spite of all the injustice around us. We long for peace. We long for good to triumph over evil. We long for equality.
And we have a deep sense that the way the world so often is, is broken. It is our feeling of not-at-home-ness in this world, which we experience as glimpses of transcendence, that give us hope that there is more to this world than meets the eye.
In fact, we are not okay with the way the world is, just at the widow in the parable was not okay with her situation. We are not okay with the injustice, the oppression and the violence. We are not okay with how women are treated. We are not okay with economic systems that only widen the gap between super-rich and poor. We are not okay with mass incarceration. We are not okay with discrimination of any kind. We are not okay with scapegoating immigrants or Muslims. Just like the widow, we will not rest until the way things are, becomes the way things should be.
The Struggle and Prayer
As this parable sits in Luke’s gospel, it is supposed to be about prayer, and how we ought to keep praying and not give up. We do not pray to Superman to magically change things.
Rather, in prayer, we pour out our hearts and souls to the God who gives us our sense of justice, our understanding of goodness, and our hope for change. In prayer, we center ourselves in that source of being who is also personal, who lives in us and works through us to be a part of what scholars call God’s great clean up of the world (John Crossan). It is meant to be a collaborative clean-up.
In prayer, like Jacob, we struggle with God. We struggle because of the way the world is. And we struggle because, like the mysterious man in the dark, there are more things about God, and how God works in the world, that we do not understand than that we do understand.
We accept that. We are finite. But struggle is in our Judeo-Christian DNA. And in that struggle, like Jacob, we perceive the face of God, even as we cry out for justice.