I think I got my tendency to cheer for the underdog from my mother. Growing up, she would always root for the team or individual competitor that was not expected to win. Whether it was hockey, the Olympics, the World Cup, or the local highschool track meet – her sympathies always leaned towards the smaller, the perceptibly weaker, comparably unsuccessful side.
I also think the surprising success of the Ottawa Senators last season was attributed to their underdog status. No one expected them to win, especially when their top star players were out with injuries and the fact that they were only in their second year of a rebuild.
They were the ‘pesky Sens’, a description that endured right into the playoffs when in the first round they defeated the top team in the Eastern Conference. The come-from-behind pattern to win games was common. The resiliency they showed when down and almost out – to keep at it, to pester their opponents with feisty, gutsy plays – was inspiring. They persisted. They were unrelenting. They literally beat their opponents into submission.
Maybe that’s why I really like the woman who unrelentingly pleads with the unjust judge. She is the underdog in this scenario. But she doesn’t give up. She keeps at it. She pesters the judge. And finally he gives in.
We like this woman. She is given to us, we say, as a model for persistent prayer. Let’s not forget that this Gospel text (Luke 18:1-8) is about how we ought to pray. In the first verse we read why Jesus told this story: “To pray always and not to lose heart.”
Indeed, this is how we have come to understand our relationship with God: We are like the woman; and God is the judge. Right? It is our job to persist, and bother God with our needs and prayer requests. And not just once, but keep at it. We are to be like the ‘pesky Sens’, making our case to God over and over again. We pray to God about the problems in our world and the problems of our own making. We make it our business, as good Christians, to pester God.
And, for some of us, we don’t seem to give up. Because we believe that, like in the parable, God will eventually give in and grant us our request. Surely, God will look with favour upon those of us who persist in pestering God.
Many of us will say that when we don’t get the answer we want, it means God said ‘no’ to our pestering. But that’s not what the parable says about prayer, and about our relationship with God. It doesn’t answer the critical question: Why doesn’t God grant us our prayer request even and especially when we do persist? The truth is, persistence doesn’t always get us what we want, no matter how hard we try.
What is more, the granting of the woman’s plea is not based on the merits of her case but merely on the fact that the judge is fed up. Is this the image of God the Gospel proclaims – a God who really doesn’t care, has no respect for anyone, a God who becomes irritated with us, a God who is – as the passage articulates – ‘unjust’? Is this the God who loved the world so much to send Jesus (John 3:16)?
Don’t you think it’s a bit strange to identify God with the unjust judge: to identify God with someone who has no concern for justice? Isn’t it a bit strange to suggest an understanding of this parable that insists that prayer petitions are answered simply because of our nagging God into action and that God acts without any concern for the content of the petitions themselves?
So there are some problems with the traditional interpretation of this parable, as much as it can motivate us to remain faithful in our life journey with God. Persistence is definitely a quality and value much needed in a church that has in many quarters grown complacent and ho-hum about the practice of our faith.
But, you can see why I hesitate to conclude that being ‘pesky’ is not the point of the parable. At least as it relates to us.
Maybe that’s why Scripture lesson from Genesis is linked with this Gospel story in the lectionary. This has always been one of my favourite pieces of Scripture. I can’t help but cheer Jacob on. No matter how much of a rascal Jacob may be, I still want Jacob to win that wrestling match with God. strong>
He starts out as the underdog here, in a couple ways. For one thing, he’s up against God Almighty. For another, Jacob is returning to the scene of his crimes when he is told that Esau is on his way to meet him; on his way with a force of 400 men.
Perhaps Jacob is having second thoughts about his journey to face up to the mess he’d made of things. Perhaps Jacob is having second thoughts about continuing on the path towards reconciliation and taking responsibility for his actions. In Jacob’s dark night of the soul, God has no other choice than to wrestle with Jacob.
But, unbeknownst even to him, Jacob has inner strength, and almost prevails against God. All night long they wrestle and at daybreak it becomes clear that Jacob will not relent. And so God strikes Jacob on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint.
Why did God bother Jacob like that? Maybe God pestered Jacob for the very same reason that God pesters us. As the lyrics from the new title track of the contemporary Christian music group, Switchfoot, repeat: “Love alone is worth the fight”.
Why does God persistently wrestle us to the ground? Love. God says the love for creation is such that makes divine persistence annoyingly necessary. To push us. To prod us. To get us moving. To get us doing what we need to do. To keep us on the path towards doing the right things. To prompt us, nudge us in the direction we might not want or consider easy – but deep down we know we have to do.
The ‘Pesky Sens’ sometimes didn’t play by the rules. They would do the little things, sometimes illegal, that would get under the skin of the opposing players. They were pesky.
Just like this wrestling match between God and Jacob. God starts the fight. And it is God that tries to finish the match with a blow that is below the belt. God does this even though Jacob may have been a liar and a trickster; even though he may have cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance and conned his father Isaac into blessing him.
But Jacob is older and wiser now and he’s doing exactly what God has told him to do: He’s heading home, he’s going to face the music and try to make amends with his brother. God pestered Jacob into continuing his journey towards love, reconciliation and forgiveness.
Love alone is worth the fight.
I believe that there is more to this Gospel parable for Luke. You see Jesus has this habit of turning our understanding of God upside down and if we look closely at this parable you might just see Jesus turning things over. Think about it, how many times in the Bible have you read a story in which God identifies with or sticks up for the widows and the orphans? Jesus himself was constantly encouraging his followers to care for widows and orphans.
So, what happens if instead of identifying God as the unjust judge we identify God as the widow? I believe that it is us who fill the role of the unjust judge who neither fears God or respects people, so often. It’s more than likely that we are the ones dominated by our egos and generally looking for what is in it for us. We are really stubborn in our self-seeking.
But God is persistent in love for us. God is the hound of heaven who wears us down, like the widow, by persistently pursuing us. Eventually, we waver and sometimes we let God enter our lives and guide us to do the right thing.
God is persistent in trying to break down our defenses. God is the one who is bothering us. God is the one who takes the initiative. As long as we insist as seeing prayer flowing only from us we are missing the point. Prayer is communication between God and us. Prayer isn’t just about our requests offered up to God so that God can do our bidding. Prayer is about relationship. And every once in a while, God just can’t resist pestering us.
From time to time, I’m sure that God has no choice left but to try to wrestle us to the ground and pin us down. It’s our task to try to figure out what God is trying to tell us when we wrestle with events in our lives.
We wrestle to find meaning, to find purpose and the struggle is often intense. Sometimes we may not know the reason we are forced into the struggle. Understanding and listening don’t always come easily for us. It’s often hard for us to see the hand of God at work in the struggle. We stumble in the dark, just as Jacob is left alone in the night to wrestle.
As for the low blows, I’m sure God knows what God is doing. For often it is the wounds and the scars that we receive in the struggles that remind us of the pain and enable us to be better at tending the pain of others. After one of those long periods of darkness it is only in the final outcome that we realize that we have been touched by God.
As for those unanswered prayers, remember that well-known story of this devout Christian who lived directly in the path of a storm. And the civil authorities issued a flood warning and told all the residents to evacuate. Well the devote Christian prayed and prayed and decided that because he was on such good terms with God that God would save him from the flood, if only he would have faith.
So when the sheriff came by on patrol he tried to convince the devout Christian to evacuate…but the fellow said, “no, no, I have faith and God will save me. Well the storm came and the river rose beyond its banks and the flood waters flowed dangerously close to the fellow’s house, and the National Guard came by in a row boat and tried to convince him to evacuate but he told them, “no, no, I have faith and God will save me.” Well eventually the fellow’s house was flooded and he had to climb up on his roof and a news helicopter saw him trapped up there and they tried to help him evacuate, but the devout Christian just waved the helicopter on and said, “Don’t worry; I am a Christian and I have faith and God will save me.” strong>
Well, finally the house was swept away in the flood and the man couldn’t hold on any longer and he drowned. When the man arrived at the pearly gates St Peter was really surprised and told him that they certainly weren’t expecting to see him there for quite some time. As you can imagine, the devout Christian was very upset and he demanded an audience with the Almighty.
And so St. Peter ushered him into the Holy of Holies and the fellow started ranting and raving at God. God didn’t take too kindly to the man’s complaints and let him know in no uncertain terms that God was sick and tired of this guy’s ingratitude. After all God had heard his prayers and God had sent the sheriff in a squad car, the national guard in a boat and the news media in a helicopter all to save him. And still this fellow couldn’t get up off his duff and do something.
God doesn’t send bad things our way. God is not some kind of cosmic puppeteer up in the sky sending us trials and tribulations to build our character. God doesn’t send bad things our way anymore than God kills innocent children. The bad things that come our way come as a result of humanity’s abuse of God’s precious gift of freedom. God does not wish us harm, God wants only what is good.
But when bad things come our way as a result of the brokenness of creation, our God does promise to be with us in the struggle. Prayer doesn’t consist merely of us reciting our wish list. Prayer is about conversation and conversation involves listening as well as talking. Prayer is about relationship and relationship requires action. It is not enough to pray for God’s reign. It’s not enough to pray for justice and peace. It’s not enough to pray for an end to hunger. It’s not enough to pester God with our requests. God is calling us to get up off our duffs and do something. And God will provide the necessary things once we actually get off our duffs.
Like the pleading widow, our God cries out to us for justice. Like the widow our God continues to pursue us. Prayer provides God with the means to enter our lives so that God can challenge us to change the world. Like the pleading widow, Our God persistently cries out for justice trusting that eventually we will hear God’s pleas and begin to cry out for justice with both our words and our deeds.
And yes we ought to be persistent in our prayer so that our prayers can become more than just words and we can be about the work of ushering in God’s reign of justice and peace. The struggle will be intense; be prepared to wrestle with God but do so with the assurance that in the end we will receive God’s blessing. For we will see God face to face, and yet our life will be preserved.
So continue to pester God. But also continue to be pestered by God. And together with God we will ensure all our prayers are answered and God’s grace shall prevail.
Many thanks to pastordawn whose blog appears in WordPress. Her many wonderful thoughts and words appear in this post, from hers entitled “Whose Persistence”