Year C, Pentecost 22
In 1974, Muhammad Ali was set to fight George Foreman, who at the time was known for more than just his George Foreman Grill. He was the Heavy Weight Champion of the World. Foreman was younger and stronger. He was favored to win, not only because he was the Heavy Weight Champion, but because of his superior punching power. In the first 5 or 6 rounds of the match, it appeared that Ali was being pummeled. It looked so horrible, so painful, people watching were afraid he would die in the ring. Yet, by the end of round 5, it was clear that Foreman was tiring and Ali was able to go on the offensive. In the 8th round, Ali knocked him out. It is one of the most famous fights in the history of boxing and I promise that if you keep listening, I’m going to make a connection to the Gospel.
This Gospel reading is probably one of the most well-known parables about prayer. It has a lot of different interpretations, but the most popular is that of the persistent widow, or as my mom likes to say, “the nagging woman.” There are a couple of things you need to know about widows in ancient Israel. They were the poorest of the poor. If a woman did not have a husband to support her, she either had to remarry of depend on another male relative. If she was too old to marry, then she would depend on a son. If she did not have a son, then her only option was to beg on the street. Because of this, there were several Jewish laws meant to protect widows, although they were fairly limited in their scope. As a result, widows became a symbol for all those who were poor and oppressed; all of those who needed to fight for their right to be heard.
It is clear that this widow did not have a male relative who was caring for her. If she did, she would not have been the one in front of the judge. She was at the mercy of a judge who had no fear of God and no respect for anyone. She could not beg for mercy. She could not appeal to his sense of justice or his respect for the law. The only power she had in her arsenal was perseverance, and it would appear, more than her fair share of feistiness.
Most of the New Testament was translated from Greek. Some things have been lost in translation. The English translation we use in the Episcopal Church (The New Revised Standard Version) says that the judge said, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she many not wear me out continually by her coming.” Virtually every commentary I read said that the last part of the verse (wear me out continually) is not a good translation. The literal translation would be, “she will end up giving me a black eye.” People are divided about what Jesus meant by this. Some say the judge was actually worried that she would hit him. Others say that black eye is a euphemism for public shame. Still others, (and this is my choice) hypothesized that it was both. He was afraid this woman would hit him and that black eye would result in public shame. The judge, who had no fear of God and no respect for anyone, was afraid of public shaming, even if it was by a poor and powerless widow. It would seem that she wasn’t so powerless after all.
I believe that there are some times when it is good to feel a little powerless. It is a humbling experience. And we must always remember that we are all powerless before the majesty of God. Yet there is a time when being powerless feels more like hopelessness, and that is never a good thing. This woman, while powerless, was never without hope. If she had been, she would not have gone back again and again. Where did she get that hope? The last line of the Gospel reading gives us a good clue. Jesus concludes the parable by asking, “And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Her hope was rooted in faith, and that faith gave her strength to persevere, even when the fight had probably gone out of her.
Some people think this parable means that if you are insistent enough in your prayer life, your prayer will be answered. I have tried that and I have known many people who have tried it. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it does not. When it does not work, it can be faith shattering. It can crush the strongest, the most powerful, and the most fortunate. In my limited experience, prayer is about the process and not the outcome. Sometimes that process will feel more like a boxing match, or a wrestling match than a quiet moment with God.
Jesus prayed a lot. That probably seems obvious, but when you think about, it’s actually kind of odd. He prayed, even though he had control over the outcome. Sometimes he prayed all night. The night before he was arrested, his prayer was such a struggle that he actually sweat blood. Was he trying to change the mind of God, or was he preparing himself for what was about to happen? I believe he was preparing for himself, and that prayer, it was a battle. He was going to work that out with God. In the end, it did not free him from his death on the cross, but it gave him the strength to die in peace.
What Ali was doing the first 5 rounds of that fight was wearing out George Foreman. In essence, he was preparing for the moment when he could overcome his opponent. But in preparing, he took a beating and sometimes that is what prayer feels like, even when the outcome is the one we want. He won that fight, but what I find most interesting was what happened to George Foreman. He lost to Ali and he lost a couple matches after that. Then he became an ordained minister and did ministry full time for at least 10 years. After that, he announced a comeback. At age 45, 20 years after that fight against Ali, he won the Heavy Weight Championship again. He was oldest person to ever win that. It took him 20 years, but he never gave up.
Prayer is a process and it is not for the faint of heart. It’s for those people who are willing to engage in a struggle. Usually it is a struggle of the heart and not the fists (in fact we really discourage fighting in the Christian Church). Yet most of us know that emotional blows can be just as painful as physical ones. Sometimes our prayers will be answered after 5 rounds of beating like Muhammad Ali. Sometimes it will take 20 years like George Foreman. Sometimes it will seem like no matter how hard we fight, how good we are, how just our prayer, it will never get answered, not in this lifetime. It is those times, when we have to remember that our prayer is not meant to change God’s mind, but ours. It is meant to make us into the person who can handle what an unanswered prayer feels like. My prayer for each and every one of you is not only that your prayers be answered, but that when they are not answered in the way you think they should be, you will have the strength for the next round. God won’t give up on us. We cannot give up on him.