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Readings: 21st Sunday after Trinity

11 October 2013


Proper 24: Genesis 32.22-31; 2 Timothy 3.14-4.5; Luke 18.1-8

Grant, we beseech you, merciful Lord, to your faithful people pardon and peace, that they may be cleansed from all their sins and serve you with a quiet mind; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

WHEN someone will not take no for an answer, a friend says: "What don't you understand, the N or the O?" I can imagine the judge shouting something similar to the woman in Jesus's parable.

Unlike some parables, Jesus spelled out the meaning of this one before he told it. Having recently told the disciples not to be distracted by false signs of the coming of the Son of Man, he told this parable to encourage them to pray always and not lose heart. How we live while we wait for God to act is at the centre of this. We know, for example, that the Thessalonian Christians needed to be reminded by Paul to get on with normal life while waiting (1 Thessalonians 5).

To emphasise his point, Jesus made the protagonist a widow, the classic example of vulnerability in his society. Worse, this widow was being harassed by an opponent. Women did not go to court, because their menfolk did that for them; so the fact that this widow had to go herself to face not merely a judge, but an unjust judge who cared nothing for anyone and answered to no one, tells us that she was totally alone.

With the odds stacked against her, desperation drove her on. She has many equivalents today, not least poor people around the world who take on opponents such as corrupt sweatshop-owners or multinationals that are deforesting the Amazon basin.

Jesus had already taught about persistence, using the example of a man pestering his neighbour (Luke 11.5-13). Now it was a woman's turn, and he may have had words from Ecclesiasticus 35.14-18 in mind. There, a widow persisted in pressing her case, with tears running down her cheeks. But her judge was not unjust: it was the Lord, who does not show partiality, even to the poor, and yet listens to the one who is wronged. This time, Jesus described a worse situation with a powerful outcome, because Jesus's judge did not listen.

Jesus's language built the tension: "pray always . . . not lose heart . . . kept coming to him . . . keeps bothering me . . . wear me out by continually coming . . . cry to God day and night . . . delay long in helping . . . quickly grant justice".

The climax is that God will grant justice quickly to those who persist, crying to God day and night and not giving up. At the end of this parable, Jesus returned to the heart of his concern, asking the pointed question: "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?"

Hearing this parable alongside Jacob and the mystery man wrestling obstinately, neither willing to give up, exemplifies the prayerful persistence that Jesus had in mind. Neither man would desist until the stranger changed the rules of engagement, striking Jacob rather that wrestling with him. Still Jacob refused to yield, and demanded a blessing.

The exchange about names was about control. To know someone's name, or to give someone a name, was to have some power over him or her: in the creation story, God gave humans authority over the animals by inviting Adam to name them. When Jacob told the man his name ("supplanter") and received a new name ("one who strives with God" or "God strives"), he conceded his power to his opponent.

Then, when Jacob asked his opponent's name (this time saying "please", which suggests some nascent humility), the man dodged the request, and reinforced his mastery over Jacob by blessing him. Finally, Jacob got the message: he had seen God and lived, and yet he limped as a permanent, sobering reminder of the struggle with God.

The epistle is also about persistence: "Proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable," and have "utmost patience in teaching". Timothy was to endure suffering, and his persistence in his vocation was not rewarded immediately with unalloyed bliss.

Putting all this together, we are challenged to be faithful, and to persist when things are against us or there is no immediate answer to our prayer. If an unjust judge can be worn down by someone who will not take "no" for an answer, how much more will God, who yearns to grant justice, answer? This may not be in the way or the timeframe we expect; yet persistence and willingness to yield to God's power and authority will yield a blessing. That is God's nature.

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