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Children can be very persistent. I saw this in action last week babysitting our two-year-old grandson. He’ll say a word as many times as it takes to get what he wants. From an early age, we learn that persistence pays off.
Like asking, “Are we there yet?” On a long car trip, “are we there yet” can mean “I’m bored,” “I’m excited to get there,” “It’s hard to sit still this long.” Maybe surviving long car rides is one way we help our kids to learn patience and persistence. Don’t give up. As long as we keep going, we’ll get there.
Asking “Are we there yet?” might not be quite the same as pleading for justice, but it is a question that can wear us down, like the widow’s persistence did with the judge in today’s gospel reading.
The parable tells about a widow who keeps pestering a judge asking for justice. We’re told two times that this judge neither fears God nor cares about people. In other words, he does whatever he wants, maybe not even caring about what’s right or just. But he gives in to the widow because she wears him down with her repeated asking.
In the Bible, widows often symbolize powerlessness and vulnerability. Widows are some of the “least of these” that Jesus talks about in Matthew 25, where he says “whatever you did for the least of these you did for me.” We don’t know exactly what the widow in the parable was asking the judge for. We only know that she was asking for justice with her adversary. She was asking the judge to make things right. And we see that her persistence pays off.
Luke tells us in verse 1 that the purpose of the parable is to show us that we should always pray and never give up. (Luke 18:1) Jesus says something similar in the sermon on the mount in Matthew. He says to ask, seek, knock. The verb tense Jesus uses there indicates ongoing action. Keep on asking. Matt 7:7
Sometimes our ongoing asking makes us feel like we’re wrestling with God. That’s what’s happening in the verses we read from Genesis 32. Jacob is on his way back home years after he’d run away because his brother wanted to kill him. He’s spent almost 15 years working for his uncle, and now he’s about to see his brother Esau for the first time. He sends all his family and his livestock on ahead across the river, and he stays behind and wrestles with a mysterious man. Or is it an angel? Or is it God? Or is this a metaphor for Jacob wrestling with himself? It’s not entirely clear. But whoever it is, Jacob is persistent. As dawn comes, Jacob’s wrestling partner says, “Let me go.” And Jacob persists, saying, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” Gen 32:26
Because of that night of wrestling, Jacob is forever changed. He gets a new name: Israel, which means “you have fought with God and with men and have won.” (Gen 32:28) Jacob’s persistence pays off.
I thought you might like to know that I found this painting by Alexander Leloir on a website with a collection of paintings of this scene from Genesis. Each painting is ranked by how much it looks like Jacob is slow dancing with God instead of wrestling. Zero looks more like slow dancing, and 10 looks more like wresting. The website editors gave Leloir’s painting seven points out of ten, because “They’re clearly employing their muscles to do something a little more active than a box step. The billowing linens are a little too reminiscent of the dream ballet sequence in Singing In The Rain for me to fully sign off, though.”
Would you like to see what they thought was the most like slow dancing?
This picture, from an illuminated manuscript. It got zero points because, “They’re just hugging. This doesn’t look at all like wrestling.”
It does remind me of slow dancing, the kind where the couple is just rocking back and forth to the music.
Would you like to see the painting that got ten points?
Wait for it….
This one is by Gaugin. The website editor says, “FINALLY. THIS IS CLEARLY A PAINTING OF A MAN WRESTLING WITH AN ANGEL. For some reason there are Dutch women looking on; I’m willing to overlook that because Gaugin knows what a fight looks like. 10 points.”
Gaugin’s painting has a rather funny title: “The Vision After the Sermon.” Apparently these women have just come out of church and are having a vision of Jacob wresting with an angel. That must have been a very vivid sermon.
I like this painting because it includes more than just Jacob and the angel. There are times in which we’re on our own with God, but so often we’re able to be persistent and not give up because there are people in our lives who encourage us.
So we need to keep on praying, keep on asking, and we need to keep on waiting. Like my necklace – pray, wait, trust.
But waiting doesn’t necessarily mean doing nothing. In the parable Jesus tells, the judge says, “This woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’” Luke 18:5 She keeps asking.
If you can’t find a way to be persistent…keep trying…to be persistent.
Over time, persistence pays off if we keep asking, keep knocking.
A great example is Thomas Edison. He tried 1000 different ways to make a light bulb before he found one that worked. He said, “I haven’t failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” 
He’s also quoted as saying, “When you have exhausted all the possibilities, remember this: You haven’t.” He believed in what he was doing, so he didn’t give up trying.
While we’re praying and waiting, we keep on trying.
You may have seen the story in the news this past week about a man named Anan Syed who had been in prison for 23 years for a murder he didn’t commit. Anan Syed had continued to insist that he had not killed his girlfriend, and eventually his sentence was overturned because DNA evidence proved his innocence, and his lawyer discovered that there was additional evidence that had been left out of the trial.
This happens way too much. One of the defense attorneys for Syed said, “Unfortunately, we as a society do not dedicate sufficient funds to ensure that poor people have the effective assistance of a lawyer who can devote the time and resources to a person’s defense.”
In the parable, the widow pleads her own case, but in today’s court system, those who can afford the best lawyers are more likely to win than those who can’t. There are organizations working to change this, and to help those who can’t afford to hire lawyers. The Innocence Project helped Anan Syed. The Equal Justice Initiative founded by Bryan Stephenson has helped “over 135 wrongly condemned prisoners on death row and won relief for hundreds of others wrongly convicted or unfairly sentenced.”
Another organization that works for justice is the NAACP. There’s a great movie about Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice of the supreme court. Before he was on the court, he worked for the NAACP taking cases pro bono (for free). His persistence freed many who had been wrongly convicted.
So we keep on praying, keep on asking, and we wait, and while we’re waiting we keep on trying, and through it all we need to …
Keep on believing. Believing in God. Believing that things can change.
Proverbs 3:5 tells us to trust in the Lord with all your heart. In verse 1 of our gospel reading, that’s what Jesus is encouraging. Don’t lose heart.
In our modern usage, we think of justice primarily in the legal sense, but in the Bible it’s about more than the law. It’s about making things right. “Justice or righteousness is a state of harmony in God’s creation in which all that God has made can flourish as God intended.”
God created the world and called it good. Wherever we find God’s goodness at work, God’s love in action, we are experiencing the kingdom of God.
In the parable, we see a judge who didn’t fear God and didn’t care about people. He was an unjust judge, but even he relented and gave the widow justice. Jesus says, “If even an unjust judge did that, “…don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night?” Luke 18:7
When we are praying, how do we picture God? Do we imagine that God is like the unjust judge who doesn’t care about people? Does God have a grumpy face? Or a loving face? If we’re picturing God with a grumpy face, that can make it hard to keep on trusting. If you were to draw God, what would your picture look like?
We sang at the beginning of the worship service about God’s love enduring forever. Psalm 30:5 says “For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime!” God’s love endures forever.
We read another passage today – Jeremiah. He’s a prophet, and in these verses he has turned from warning the people about the consequences of their sin to is giving them hope for the future. Jeremiah 31:27,31 says, “The day is coming…” We need to keep praying, keep waiting, keep trusting, because God will always comes through. For Israel, that meant the end of being held in captivity in Babylon and being allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple. For us, that means the new covenant, the new promise of salvation in Jesus Christ. Trusting in Jesus Christ, we receive God’s mercy and forgiveness in which we now stand, and we receive the Holy Spirit who helps us to have the knowledge of God deep in our hearts, and to not lose heart.
So we pray, wait, trust, and keep on praying, waiting, trusting.
Perseverance and Faith
Jesus asks a somewhat surprising question at the end of our gospel reading. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:8
Wait a minute, Jesus, I thought we were talking about prayer and justice and perseverance. We are, but all of that involves faith.
In his book How to Pray, Pete Grieg says that continuing in prayer is about faithfulness. He says, “Faith is God’s gift to us; faithfulness is ours to him.” “It’s impossible to grow in faith without growing in faithfulness, and it’s impossible to grow in faithfulness if all your prayers are answered right away.” Some things just take time.
Maybe getting the answers is less important than our persistence and faithfulness. In Hebrews 11, what’s sometimes called the faith Hall of Fame, we find many familiar names – Abraham, Moses, Noah, Jacob, Joseph, Rahab. And verse 13, which says, “All these people died still believing what God had promised them. They did not receive what was promised, but they saw it all from a distance and welcomed it.”
Our prayers and persistence and faith will bear fruit in our own lives, and it will also lay the foundation for those who are yet to come. For the world to be a better place for our children and our grandchildren, we have to keep working to make the world a better place now. Trusting that God will help us to keep on loving him and loving one another. Trusting that God will help us to love our neighbors by showing us how to keep asking for justice, keep showing mercy, keep walking with God as we pray and wait and trust.
Psalm 147:11 The Lord’s delight is in those who fear him, those who put their trust in his unfailing love.
And let’s keep asking the tough questions like, “Are we there yet?” What if “there” simply means continuing to trust in God’s unfailing love? Then I am confident that together we’ll get there.
 Alexander Louis Leloir, Jacob Wrestling With the Angel, 1865 at https://the-toast.net/2014/09/16/famous-paintings-jacob-wrestling-angel-ranked-much-actions-resemble-slow-dancing/
 Gaugin, The Vision After the Sermon (Jacob wrestling with the Angel), 1888
 Stephen Wright in Long, Thomas G.; Long, Thomas G.. Connections: A Lectionary Commentary for Preaching and Worship (p. 406). Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
 Greig, Pete. How to Pray: A Simple Guide for Normal People (p. 88). The Navigators. Kindle Edition.