What is prayer? How do we pray? One of my professors once described prayer as “buzzing God’s ear with God’s promises.” Reminding God of the things that God promised to do: establish justice and mercy, peace and wholeness. There’s a couple examples of prayer in our readings for Sunday: Jesus’ parable of the persistent widow, and Jacob’s wrestling match with God. What about you? Is this an apt description of your prayer life, or do you have another metaphor to share?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
When I was in Target recently, I noticed a young boy shopping with his mom. He was maybe eight or nine years old. And he was jogging next to the cart she was pushing, carrying a baseball bat. He was trying to convince his mom to let him put the bat in the cart. “No,” she said, “that’s not what we’re shopping for today.” As I turned down another aisle, I could hear him begin to explain his reasons for needing this particular baseball bat.
I saw them later again in another section of the store. The bat wasn’t in the cart yet, but his mom also hadn’t made him put it back. “Please,” he said, “please.” He said he would do chores to pay for. He said it was just what he needed to improve his game. He said he wouldn’t ask for anything else ever again. He said it was on sale; this was a great price. I honestly didn’t know whether to admire him or to be annoyed on his mom’s behalf. The last time I saw them was in the parking lot. Feeling very nosy, but needing to know, I peeked in their cart. And lo and behold, there it was! He got the bat. His persistence had paid off.
In light of our reading for today, it makes me wonder—is this what prayer is supposed to be like? Today we read the parable of the persistent widow from the gospel of Luke. This poor widow just wants justice. The judge is a bad man. He doesn’t fear God or respect people—something he openly admits. He gives the widow justice in the end, but only because she kept bothering him. Pestering him. Nagging him.
This is not an easy parable to interpret. Is God like the judge? How can that be? The judge is not a good person, at all. The judge can’t represent God, because we know that God is good. So, God is not the judge, but we can learn from the story of the judge, says Jesus. If even an unjust judge will grant justice eventually, imagine what our good and gracious God will do for us!
Pray and don’t give up is a good message. I can get on board with that being the main point of the parable, but even there we run into problems. There are times in my life when I have prayed faithfully and persistently for things that I just didn’t get. I bet it is the same for you. Why is that? Jesus seems to say here that God will swiftly answer prayers, if we are persistent. And yet we don’t see that played out in our lives.
Sometimes, especially in hindsight, it’s easy to see why God doesn’t give us all the things we pray for. I’ve certainly prayed for ill-advised things from time to time. When I’ve been really hurting and angry, I’ve wanted God to hurt the people who hurt me. Just a couple of strategically placed lightning bolts. God hasn’t said yes to those sorts of prayers for me. Something I’m thankful for after the fact.
But what about the prayers for things that are reasonable? What about hungry people who are just praying for something to eat? What about sick people desperately praying for a cure? What about people like the widow crying out for justice? We know that God is on the side of justice. Why can’t those prayers be answered, and answered quickly? The difficult, but honest, truth is: I don’t know.
I don’t know why, sometimes, even though we’re praying for good and just things, there just seems to be no response from God. And our readings today don’t offer any answers to the question of unanswered prayer. They do, though, offer us another perspective on prayer. Our reading starts, “Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” It’s not a parable about why some prayers are answered and some aren’t. It’s a parable about persisting in prayer, even when we might want to lose heart.
And in that case, it is paired perfectly with our first reading from Genesis. Jacob wrestling with a man, that sometime in the course of the night, he realizes is God. Jacob is in a tough spot here. He knows that his brother Esau—whose birthright he stole—has an army and might be ready to move against him. He’s scared, he’s defenseless, and out of the middle of nowhere, this man comes and starts to wrestle with him.
They strive together all night. Neither can prevail against the other. When morning is beginning to break, the figure strikes Jacob on the hip, putting it out of joint. But still Jacob will not let go. Realizing who he has been wrestling with, he demands a blessing. What is your name, the Lord asks? Jacob—which means supplanter, he responds. It’s a name he’s had since birth, since he came out of the womb grasping his twin’s heel. From now on, the Lord says, you shall be called Israel, for you have striven with God and prevailed. Israel—he who strives with God. Jacob leaves this encounter with a new name, a blessing, and a limp.
What does perseverance in prayer look like? Refusing to let go of God. Fighting with God to demand a blessing. Being willing to be changed, even to be damaged, in this exchange with the Almighty, and coming out on the other side limping, but blessed.
What these readings seem to say to me about prayer is that God delights in those who dare to strive with God. To contend with God. To wrestle with God. Wrestling with God, clawing and grabbing and grappling for some hold, it’s not a bad thing. Wrestling is the opposite of apathy. It’s the opposite of resignation. To fight with God is to stay close, to keep our arms wrapped around the one who alone can bless us. Fighting with God means we refuse to walk away.
Prayer is not passive—prayer is a no-holds-barred wrestling match. And when we are discouraged in prayer, when we lose heart (and it’s honest to admit we will sometimes feel that way), we will sometimes feel like the widow, begging for justice and not getting the answers we want. When we feel that way, the message is clear: persevere. We might not get the answer we want, we might end up limping and hurting, but when God is our wrestling partner, we will come out on the other side blessed. Amen.