The Rev. Peter Faass, Rector
All three of our scripture readings today have the common theme of persistence.
In the Genesis story we hear of Jacob in a wrestling match. “A man wrestled with [Jacob] 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.” We eventually learn that the man is actually God. Jacob wrestles with God all night long - for hours and hours on end - despite the fact that one would believe God has an advantage over him. And yet, he persisted.
God prevailed over Jacob on the mat only when God took an unfair advantage and dislocated his hip. Yet despite his being made lame, Jacob holds fast to God. “[God] said, "Let me go, for the day is breaking." But Jacob said, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me." You see, Jacob desperately wants God’s blessing. He is returning home to Israel which he left after he stole his older brother Esau’s birthright through trickery years before. Jacob believes that Esau wants to destroy him in retribution. If he can wrangle a blessing out of God it will serve to protect him in what he knows will be an inevitable encounter with Esau. But God wants to leave without giving Jacob his blessing. And yet, he persisted.
Because Jacob persevered, God acquiesces and gives Jacob a blessing. Jacob has to be gob-smacked by what his persistence has resulted in: God’s blessing and the fact that he is still alive, for it was believed by the Hebrews that to see God face to face would result in death. In awe and wonder Jacob says, “"For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved." All because, he persisted.
In Paul’s second letter to Timothy, Paul advises his younger protégé to persevere in the face of adversity. Timothy is the leader of a group of churches and responsible for protecting them from destructive outside influences, as well as dissidents from within. “Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it,” Paul writes him. He continues, “I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.” Paul encourages Timothy to persevere in the face of strong opposition. And Timothy prevailed over his opponents, because, he persisted.
In the Gospel of Luke, we hear the parable of the widow and the unjust judge. The unjust judge, “neither feared God nor had respect for people.” I will refrain from drawing any contemporary parallels here! The widow has been wronged by someone and she keeps coming to this judge demanding justice. “Grant me justice against my opponent,” she insists. But he doesn’t. This in itself is appalling. Throughout scripture, widows are counted among the most destitute members of society, alongside other vulnerable groups such as the poor, orphans, and resident aliens, or, as we call them, immigrants. Because of the precarious social and economic position of such groups, biblical texts make provision for them, saying that God calls us to ensure that they do not fall victim to exploitation by others, and are well-looked after.
This widow is one feisty woman! She has been taken advantage of, most likely by unscrupulous predators. She is looking out after her own best interest by repeatedly going to the unjust judge to demand justice. Eventually the unjust judge thinks to himself, “’because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'" And so he grants her justice because, she persisted.
This is an instance where the NRSV translation of the scripture takes the punch out of the textual meaning . . . literally. In the original Greek the phrase the NRSV translates as “wear me out” is the verb hypopiazo, which means “to give a black eye.” So, what the original text states is, “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming!”
Wow! The widow is a pugilist! Her persistence and call for justice are such that the judge characterizes her actions as those of a boxer. She’s Rocky! And he wants to be rid of her for fear she goes to sucker punch him. So, he gives her justice because, she persisted.
Now this imagery of the widow as a boxer, ready to take on the judge is a humorous one. It’s funny; worthy of a SNL skit. But the jokes not on the widow. “New Testament scholar F. Scott Spencer rightly recognizes, the humor in this scene is not one of comic relief. The humor in this scene instead pokes fun at the powers-that-be, “lampooning and upending the unjust system stacked against widows, orphans, immigrants, and the like.” Like our political cartoons today, Jesus’ parable encourages us to laugh at those who wield their power unethically. We laugh, though, in order to challenge such figures, and ultimately, to offer a different way.”
We may initially laugh at the image of an older, frail woman as a boxer. But the one who is the butt of the joke is the judge, a buffoon who is the antithesis of God’s mercy. In God’s eyes the joke’s always on the one who doesn’t look out for widows, orphans and immigrants; on the person who makes their lives harder, more miserable by their callousness and lack of respect for people and God.
Jesus promises us that God will vindicate these “little ones” against those who inflict hardship on them, or who fail to use their power to alleviate their plight. God does not protect the property and monetary interests, or the immoral behaviors and desires, of the powerful and privileged who defy God’s ways. And God will never condone those who support those who do so.
Rather God is compassionate, ready to respond to the needs of the powerless and distressed. Jesus is crystal clear in stating this truth; the ways of God’s reign call for our priorities to be based on compassion.
To emphasize this Jesus compares and contrasts the judge to God. He tells his listeners, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” In other words, if a recalcitrant, compassionless judge who has no respect for people eventually gives what is needed, then God, who is full of compassion for the beleaguered of the world, will do so with enthusiasm. God doesn’t need to be badgered or cajoled into doing so.
In this parable God is like the widow, (and at least in her willingness to fight for what she needs, like Jacob) in her own relentless commitment to getting what is needed to gain justice. And she did so because, she persisted.
Jesus tells us to pray night and day – to be persistent like the widow, and Timothy, and Jacob – in seeking God’s guidance and companionship to bring about justice and mercy for all people. To persistently pray to God, asking that we be given the wear-with-all and the chutzpah to become persistent boxers and wrestlers against the powers-that-be who ignore the pleas of the needy and marginalized. To be willing to give a metaphorical black eye to those who defy God’s reign. To laugh at the pompous buffoons of the world, challenging them in their egregious behaviors and ultimately, to let them know there is a different way; the way love which is a power that can never be defeated or overcome because it is of God.
My companion followers of Jesus, let’s go to the mat for God, and as Paul writes Timothy in his first letter, “pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. [And] fight the good fight of the faith.” (1 Tim. 6:11b – 12a)
In our prayers let us beseech the Creator that we become pugilists for God, and that in so doing we move God’s reign ever closer, because, we persisted.
F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 292-93.
 Brittany E. Wilson, Assistant Professor of New Testament, Duke Divinity School, Durham, N.C., Working Preacher commentary on Luke 18:1-8. https://www.workingpreacher.org.