Genesis 32:22-31+Psalm 121+2 Timothy 3:14-4:5+Luke 18:1-8
There is a tiny, picturesque village in South Africa nestled in the wine-producing region between Franschhoek and Stellenbosch in the Western Cape. It’s called Pniel which means Face of God, just like in Genesis 32. Pniel was founded in 1843 as a place for people to live who had just been emancipated under the Slavery Abolition Act that ended slavery throughout the British Empire. It was a mission station. The Apostolic Union Church (now the Congregational Church) building dominates the town, and it was the church that owned the land, divided into 99 parcels, that the formerly enslaved lived on. The cost of being a tenant was to pay rent to support the minister at the church, and the houses passed down from family to family and were never sold outside the community. Descendants of these original tenants still live there.
As in so many parts of the world when emancipation came, those in power did everything they could to keep their source of cheap labor, finding new ways to bind human beings to land they did not own, claiming that a certain period of time needed to pass before they would be prepared to own land, to work for themselves, to be truly free. In Pniel, part of the deal was that, in order to live there, you had to be Christian, and you had to have a marketable skill. And you had to pay the rent to the church.
Jacob wrestled with an angel through the night. Well, the text says it was a man, but it was an angel. Jacob is in an in-between place, leaving behind the land of his father-in-law, facing the potential wrath of the brother he cheated not once but twice, and moving back into the inheritance that is his as the heir of Abraham, his grandfather, and Isaac, his father. Whatever torment he had over that seems to come to life in this angelic smack-down. But the angel doesn’t beat him, it just wounds him, but he refuses to let go until he wrestles a blessing from the angel. Jacob receives a new name, Israel, and the wrestling place receives a name, Peniel, the Face of God.
The people of Pniel in the Western Cape had to wrestle for a long time before achieving true freedom. There is a haunting monument to the enslaved, a large stone with chains dangling over the side, shackles open. They did not give up until they had received their blessing, just like Jacob.
In the parables of Jesus, we usually look to one of the principal characters as a god figure – the king in the great banquet, the manager in the vineyard who pays everyone the same thing. I don’t think we can do that with this parable, however, because I don’t believe that God makes us beg and beg and beg before getting a response. We have a clue to what Jesus is up to in the very opening of the reading today: “Jesus told his disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). It isn’t so much about trying to convince God to do what we want but simply to be persistent in praying at all.
I am not going to ask for a show of hands, but I wonder how many of us here today actually take time to pray, to spend time with God, to lift our concerns and open our hearts to the God who hears them. Now, I am sure that there are plenty of us who throw up the occasional, “O God, let the Yankees lose” kind of prayers. Right? No? Just me? Or, on a more serious note, when we are worried about someone who is sick or dying or hurt, or we are having trouble in a particular relationship or our kids are struggling, we might turn to God with nothing more than the word “help.”
But the funny thing about prayer is that the more you do it, the more you realize that it changes the one doing the praying. You know when you are in the presence of someone who prays daily and deeply. The late Archbishop Desmond Tutu used to begin his day with four hours of prayer. It isn’t as if he had an easy life. He was a victim of the worst of apartheid, treated as less than human, and yet his faith, his daily prayer, strengthened him to face it all with courage, conviction, and irrepressible joy, no matter the circumstances. I have met people in congregations, in work settings, in convents and monasteries, in all walks of life who, when I am with them, exude peace in the midst of everything. They know that God is with them. They know that God is not always going to heal their loved one or end suffering in the world. They also know that God always answers prayer, even if it isn’t in the way we wanted it.
In this parable known as the Unjust Judge, we have a widow asking for justice. Widows were a special category in the Hebrew scriptures at the time of Jesus. They were the most vulnerable of the vulnerable, and those in authority were supposed to protect them. This judge failed to do that until he got tired of her pestering him. She refused to give up on achieving justice. And we should not either.
If we believe that following Jesus means that we stand in solidarity with the poor, the oppressed, the imprisoned, the unhoused, and those on the margins, then we do not give up on seeking justice on their behalf. In Deuteronomy, we read “Tzedek tzedek tirdof – “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gave you” (16:18). The 12th century Spanish rabbi “Rabbi Abraham [ibn Ezra] commented: “Justice, justice. It is mentioned twice in order to indicate that one should pursue justice whether it would be to his advantage or loss.” Other rabbinic sources stress that the word “justice” is repeated to indicate that you must pursue a just cause by just means.
We, then, are to be like the widow in pursing justice, but that is not all. Jesus goes on to say that God hears our prayers and will not delay in answering them, even if it feels that way. The psalmists cry out, “How long, O Lord, will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me” (Psalm 13, BCP p. 597). When we are in the midst of our troubles, we can feel alone, unheard, and abandoned, but Jesus encourages us to persist. Don’t give up. Faithfulness in prayer will give us strength to carry on when the burden seems too heavy to bear. It might even bring you to Pniel, to see the face of God.
I think often of that little village in the Western Cape and the faithful people who live there, even now. What they and their ancestors endured through the centuries is unfathomable, but they never ceased to cry out for justice, just like that persistent widow. There is still plenty of work to do in the post-apartheid era. They still walk with a limp, like Jacob, but they have wrestled their blessing from those who would deny it.
This is good news for them and for us. As Jesus told the disciples, do not lose heart.