Theme(s): Persistence in praying and in teaching truth // Faithfulness in doctrine and in the praying life //Never give up on God
Sentence: 'Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed, knowing from whom you have learned it' 2 Timothy 3:14
strong, loving and wise,
help us to depend upon your goodness
and to place our trust in your Son
in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
This mysterious story of (a) Jacob wrestling with 'a man' through the night, (b) Jacob demonstrating immense prowess and, (c) upon being blessed, recognising the man was in fact God, offers much food for thought for the student of the Bible. Only a small portion of the food is served up here in this post!
1. The reading is chosen as a 'related' reading to the gospel because it shares with the gospel passage an interest in 'persistence.'
2. Although the story ends with a quaint explanation about why Israelites do not eat the 'thigh muscle that is on the hip socket' (a prohibition not actually attested to anywhere else in the Old Testament), its central importance in the 'theological history' of Israel (the nation) as narrated through the Old Testament lies in the explanation it gives for the name 'Israel.' This name is bestowed on the patriarch Jacob whose twelve sons spawn the twelve tribes which define the extent of the nation Israel.
3. In the original Hebrew telling of the story there are important wordplays:
3.1 Jacob/Jabbok (see v. 22) is ya'aqob/yabboq and 'wrestled' is wayye'abeq (v. 23)
3.2 The location of the story is at Peniel/Penuel (vss. 30-31) which means 'face of God' because Jacob has seen 'God face to face' (v. 30).
4. Jacob's lack of recognition of 'the man' who turns out to be the presence of God mirrors his grandfather Abraham's experience of entertaining three 'men' unaware of their divine status (Genesis 18:1-15).
Sometimes this psalm is misunderstood in respect of its starting point. It is not a call to lift up one's eyes to the hills in order to seek God's help. Rather, the hills (likely the hills of Jerusalem) are precisely where help does not come from. Rather, help comes from the Lord who is the creator of the whole world (plains and valleys as well as hills). It is this God, a God not confined to a specific geographic location, who can help us wherever we are. Further, this God, not confined to a body and thus not subject to the need for sleep, can help us at any time, day or night.
Nevertheless, since this psalm is one of the 'Songs of Ascent' or psalms said by pilgrims on their way 'up' to Jerusalem, there is a certain irony in declaring that help does not come from the hills.
Connecting this psalm to the gospel reading, we can pray confidently to the God who presides over every aspect of our lives 'your going out and your coming in from this time on and forevermore'.
2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
A consistent concern through 1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus is 'sound teaching.' No passage in these three letters better captures this theme than this Sunday's passage.
Paul urges Timothy to 'continue' (3:14) in what he has learned, maintaining his knowledge by recalling how he has learned (both from 'whom', his mother and grandmother and Paul himself, and from 'what', the 'sacred writings', 3:15).
As an aside Paul states his view of "scripture" (3:16, which meant at the least what today we call the Old Testament, but could also have included Christian writings being received by Christian communities as 'sacred writings') and the purpose of scripture(3:17).
In chapter 4, Paul sets up a strong, specific, God-and-Jesus-Christ backed commission for Timothy (4:1-2) in respect of proclaiming 'the message' (i.e. sound teaching).
Note the imperatives through these verses: 'proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favourable or unfavourable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching.' Further imperatival underlining occurs in v. 5.
So, what is the problem to which this 'urging' of Paul is the solution? He foresees a coming time 'when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths' (v. 3-4).
And that situation, it appears, is where the Western world, formerly Christendom, is rapidly heading towards!
If we are frank about this parable, it is quite tricky to make sense of all of it!
v. 1: The intention is that we will read/hear a parable 'about [our] need to pray always and not to lose heart.'
v. 2-5: A parable is told which accords with the intention in the sense that a widow persists in asking a godless, heartless judge for justice and her persistence wears the judge's resistance down to the point where he grants her request.
But the parable 'works' in terms of being about persistent prayer only if we imagine that God is much, much kinder than the heartless judge.
There is then a problem for those of us who also know Jesus' teaching in Matthew 6:7-8 where Jesus teaches against using lots of words in repetitive prayers.
A possible resolution of the apparent contradiction is for disciples to distinguish between:
(i) occasions when prayers are prayed with the intention of flattering God into responding by virtue of quantity of prayers and
(ii) occasions when a simple, short prayer is persistently prayed (e.g. on a daily or weekly basis) in the belief that God (perhaps for reasons hidden from us) calls us to pray persistently for a matter.
v. 6: The Lord then offers an enigmatic comment on the parable: listen to the judge.
Presumably this means: think about what the judge says in the parable and then make the appropriate calculation of what it is that God says to us about our persistent praying. Calculate that God is more eager to answer our prayer than the judge was to answer the woman's plea.
v. 7-8a: Things are starting to get trickier! An additional comment is made but it is not about prayer but about justice!
Of itself the comment could be called 'standard' in respect of God acting justly in response to cries from the unjustly treated, "And will not God grant justice ..."
Nevertheless it is a change of theme from v. 1's "the need to pray always and not to lose heart" in two aspects. First, a change from 'prayer' to 'justice' and from 'not to lose heart' (implying patience) to God's quickness to act. Secondly, there is also a strong sense that the passage has begun with Jesus speaking to the disciples about their prayer life and now tells them about another group, those unfairly treated, a change, we could say, from 'you' to 'them.'
There is a strong connection, nevertheless, between the themes of 'prayer' and 'justice' because God grants justice to those who 'cry to him day and night.'
v. 8b: 'And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?'
Further tricky material to comprehend comes with this ending. The introduction of the Son of Man and his 'second coming' is unexpected, as is the introduction of the theme of 'faith'.
A possible explanation lies in recalling the beginning of this passage in verse one. If Jesus is teaching patient persistence in prayer, the ultimate patience is demonstrated by those disciples who keep praying with faith believing for an answer even to the day when the Son of Man returns.
But that explanation then highlights the implausibility of v. 7-8a speaking of God acting 'quickly' if by 'quickly' we mean 'very soon.' Thus some commentators think a better translation would be 'suddenly', that is, we pray persistently for justice, God does not act straightaway but when God does act he acts with urgency and immediacy (indeed, the ultimate act of justice is the judgment of the Son of Man whose coming may be delayed but when he does come it will be sudden and for most, unexpected).
A few additional comments:
a. there is a parallel here between the shifting sands of themes through eight verses (albeit roughly conjoined around 'prayer') and the beginning of chapter 16 and its shifting themes (albeit roughly conjoined around 'money').
b. dealing with the trickiness of the passage may be 'our problem' as Western exegetes/preachers used to a certain kind of rational coherency, more than Jesus' (or Luke's) 'problem' as preacher in a different time, place and culture.
c. the shifting nature of the themes does permit a preacher to make a decision about what to focus on: prayer or persistence and patience in prayer, justice or seeking justice, the character of God, faith.
d. a final reflection from me: are prayer and justice one and the same theme? To pray about a problem is to ask that something which is wrong be put to rights, that is, to ask for justice to take place. Even illness and prayer for healing is a cry for just dealing as our bodies are unjustly attacked by virus or cancer. To pray for a friend to become a Christian is to pray that they might experience the justification of God in their life ...