The Book of Genesis says that when Jacob was a young man he played a trick his father, and stole the family blessing from Esau, his brother. Esau became very angry and said, “I will find my brother and I will kill him if it’s the last thing I do.”
So, Jacob ran for his life. He ran all the way to Haran to live with his uncle Laban. During his time in Haran, Jacob became the father of 12 sons. The 12 tribes of Israel bear the names of his 12 sons.
When Jacob was about 50 years old he said, “I really should clean up the baggage left over from the early years of my life.” So he decided to return to his homeland to see if he could be reconciled with his brother. When Jacob came close to the land of Canaan his scouts told him, “Your brother is marching toward you with 400 soldiers and they are heavily armed. What shall we do? You’ve got to tell us what to do.” Jacob replied, “Right now I’m so scared that I don’t know what to do. Just give me some time to think about it.”
But Jacob fell asleep while he was thinking about it. During the night he wrestled with someone who seemed a lot like God. When daybreak came the godlike person wanted to leave. But Jacob said, “I won’t let go until you give me a blessing.” The godlike figure gave the blessing and said, “Now you have a new name. You are no longer Jacob. From this day forward you are to be called Israel.” Israel is a Hebrew word that means, “The one who struggles with God.”
Then the godlike person departed and Jacob said, “I will call this place Peniel because this is where I met God face to face.” When his family called him to breakfast, Jacob did not tell them about his wrestling match. He simply said, “My fear is gone. I am no longer afraid and now I know what to do.” He put down his weapons and told his soldiers to go away and he went out alone to meet his brother.
Esau came forward from his camp - also alone - and the two brothers met in the middle of the field and they embraced. In this way the two brothers were reconciled and their story had a happy ending. That story is very important for all Jews and all Christians because it tells us who we are. We are the descendants of Jacob and Jacob is called Israel. We take our identity from that little word: Israel. This is not to be confused with the modern-day country called Israel. Rather, we get our identity from the biblical people called Israel. In the Bible, Israel means “the people who struggle with God.”
Since the Bible is the foundation of our spiritual heritage, we are called to see ourselves as being the people who struggle with God. The history of our faith contains many stories about people who struggle with God.
One day God said to Moses, “I want you to be the leader of my people.” But Moses did not comply with God’s request. He fought back. Moses said, “I won’t do it because I’m no good at public speaking.” God said, “I would like to make you an offer. How about if I designate Aaron to speak for you in public?” Moses thought about it and said Yes and that ended his confrontation with God.
Hannah was another person who struggled with God. Seven years after she was married she complained bitterly to God: “O Lord, why are you so cruel to me? I want to have children but I never get pregnant. My neighbors are always teasing me for being barren. If you give me a son I will dedicate him to you.” Within a year she bore a son and dedicated him to God. Then she gave thanks to God by writing a famous song called the Canticle of Hannah. Her struggle with God ended on a happy note.
Several centuries later, Isaiah also had a serious quarrel with God during a time of prayer. Isaiah was saying his prayers in the Temple when God called him to be a prophet. He was quick to say, “Not I Lord. I can’t do it. I am a sinful person and I say sinful things. So there is no way that I can speak for you.” But God fought back by taking a fiery coal from the altar of sacrifice and touching it to the lips of Isaiah. Then God said, “Now your lips are purified. Go forth and proclaim my message.”
Another story about someone struggling with God is found in today’s Gospel. Jesus presents the parable of the persistent widow and the dishonest judge. Jesus begins the parable by saying that the topic will be praying to God. The widow and the judge are having a battle of wills. Every day she knocks at his door and begs that justice be done and every day he says No. The judge resisted for a long time but finally rendered a judgment in her favor. In that parable, the judge represents God.
Then Jesus says: “If a human judge will answer the petitions of a citizen who has no power, how much more will God answer your petitions if you are persistent? So don’t give up in your relationship with God. Stay loyal to God and pray every day.” Without a doubt, we have heard that message hundreds of times in the past: God is calling us to pray every day. And many of us, myself included, find ourselves saying, “I find that really hard to do.” It seems that some obstacles or barriers are making it hard for us to pray every day. I would like to look at two of those obstacles.
Number One is our set of expectations. We might have the mindset that we need to offer nicely polished and beautifully worded prayers to God. If we stick to that expectation we will be silent on those days when nothing wonderful comes to mind during our time of prayer. But if we change our expectations and see ourselves as people who struggle with God we will have something to say to God every day.
Some days we will complain bitterly like Hannah did. Some days we will bargain with God like Moses did. Some days we will protest against God’s plan, like Isaiah did. The bottom line is this: if we see ourselves as being the people who struggle with God, we will have something to say to God every day. We won’t be caught in the false notion that we must always say something nice to God.
A second obstacle to prayer might be our concepts of God. Sometimes we can re-establish contact with God by changing the metaphors that we use when talking to God. For example, children see God as a loving parent. But that metaphor doesn’t always work so well for teenagers. They need more than one concept for God. That’s why they are asked to participate in our Faith Formation programs. With the help of the Bible they look at how God might be their companion, peer and friend.
They frequently discover that Jesus is their companion, peer and friend because he is fully human - living at our level while remaining fully divine. Of course, the same is true for adults. With the help of Bible reading, we come to see God in a variety of ways. We discover that old metaphors and new metaphors can both be helpful. They can help us to be face to face with God during our times of prayer.
You never know which picture of God will be helpful today. We might see God as being the loving creator, or the Good Shepherd, or the just judge, or the merciful redeemer, or the gentle father, or the loving mother or the faithful friend.
I will close with two conclusions: We can help ourselves to pray every day - like the persistent widow in the Gospel - if we give ourselves permission to struggle with God when things are not falling into place for us.
Secondly - we can pick up new energy for our prayer life if we give ourselves permission to try out new images of who God is. We can’t go wrong because God is bigger than any one concept anyway. We are called to pray without ceasing.
Jesus says, “Pray always and never lose heart.”