10/16/16 – An Invitation To Feisty Prayer

Readings for the Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost (Year C): Genesis 32:22-31; Luke 18:1-8

There is a provocative story in the Jewish Talmud about an argument between Rabbi Eliezer and a group of other rabbis regarding an oven, called the oven of Akhnai. The rabbis insist that the oven cannot be ritually pure while Rabbi Eliezer argues that it indeed can be made pure. In order to prove his argument correct, Rabbi Eliezer performs a series of miracles, first causing a carob-tree to move, then a stream to flow backwards and then walls to bend. Finally, a voice from heaven affirms that Rabbi Eliezer is correct. Yet, even after the heavenly voice, the rabbis use the Torah to prove that they are in fact correct and Rabbi Eliezer is wrong. As a result, God laughs with delight at the rabbis and declares, “My children have defeated me! my children have defeated me!”[1]


What I love so much about this story is not only the feistiness of the rabbis who have the chutzpah to argue and even disagree with God, using God’s own words against him, but also the fact that God seems to delight in their feistiness and take pleasure in their victory. Our readings this morning invite us to pray with a similar feistiness and audacity. Our reading from Genesis is about the feistiest patriarch of all, Jacob. He has just learned that his brother Esau is advancing towards him and his family with 400 men. Now Jacob had stolen Esau’s birthright and blessing and the last words he heard out of Esau’s mouth were: “I will kill my brother Jacob” (Gen 27:41). So understandably, Jacob is terrified and profoundly worried about the safety of his family. So he prays boldly, “God of Abraham and Isaac, deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother Esau, for I am terrified that he may come and kill us all.” And then twice, he reminds God of God’s promises to bless him, saying, “God, you said you had good things in store for me and I believe you, so now is a great time for you to start delivering on your promises. Remember God, you said, ‘I will surely do you good.’ So I need you to do right by me now.” Surprisingly, Jacob does not apologize for all of his deceit and trickery over the years. Instead he boldly throws God’s promises in God’s face and then God responds by saying, “Ok, you want to play like that? I like your feistiness. Let’s take this outside.” So Jacob sends his family and belongings across the river Jabbok (which is a wonderful Hebrew pun and inversion of the name “Jacob”) and stands alone for a final showdown with his God.

God then appears to Jacob as a man who wrestles with him all night and although the man dislocates Jacob’s hip, he cannot prevail against him and he eventually has to ask Jacob to “let go.” And Jacob, whose name means “Tenacious Grip,” says, “No, I will not let you go.” Jacob seems to understand that this man represents his God and so he once again reminds God of God’s promises to bless him, saying, “I will not let you go until you do what you have promised, and that is bless me!” Jacob uses God’s own promises as a reason to keep holding him and ultimately prevail against him in this marathon wrestling match. And not unlike the story in the Talmud, God seems to respond with delight. “My child has defeated me! My child has defeated me!” God says, “You have lived up to your name, Jacob, but now you can let go and release your tenacious grip because you’ve won. Your name is now ‘Israel,’ the one who is feisty enough to wrestle with God and win. And now here is your blessing.” And he blessed him.

According to Harvard professor of Jewish Studies Jon D. Levenson, “One of the most remarkable features of the Hebrew Bible” is not just that people argue with God, but “the possibility that people can argue with God and win.”[2] And I would add that another remarkable feature is that God seems to delight in this gutsy and feisty way of praying. That is exactly the kind of faith and prayer that Jesus urges to practice in this morning’s Gospel. He urges us to pray frequently and courageously, to not lose heart, but to pray from the heart (which is what the word “courage” means), to pray with the same chutzpahof a poor widow in the presence of a godless and hostile judge. By saying to the judge, “Grant me justice against my opponent,” the widow reminds the judge that his job is to execute justice, not matter how disrespectful he might be. Although God is no corrupt magistrate, he still expects our prayers to be as tenacious as a feisty woman who asserts her right for justice in the face of an oppressive system. Jesus expects our prayers to be as bold and subversive as the actions of an unruly Rosa Parks or the writings of a Harriett Beecher Stowe, who according to Abraham Lincoln, wrote the book that freed the slaves (Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Jesus expects us to be feisty in our prayers like my favorite Spanish Mystic Teresa of Avila (whose feast day was yesterday), who threw God a playful jab after being bucked off a horse into her own river Jabbok, and said with loving familiarity, “God, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few!”


It is into this kind of spirited intimacy that Jesus invites us into, where we can be feisty enough to claim God’s promises and blessings, to trust confidently in God’s justice and righteousness and to act boldly enough to wrestle with the Almighty. Jesus asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find this kind of faith on earth?” Will Jesus find these kind of bold prayers and this kind of feisty faith among us here today?  May it be so. Amen.

[1] Bava Metzi’a 59b

 [2] Jon D. Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence (Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994), 149.