This Gospel passage is about the importance of talking to God and doing all that we can to get on his wavelength. We shouldn’t worry too much about the details of the story, except to say that it pits a powerful person, a judge, against a powerless person, a widow. Women didn’t have many rights in Jesus’ day and if there were no sons or brothers to speak up for them it was easy for people like the lazy judge to ignore them. So Jesus’ listeners would have been expecting the widow to come off worst from the encounter. Yet she doesn’t give up. She’s determined to fight her corner and, by sheer perseverance, she persuades the good-for-nothing judge to do the right thing.
Jesus concludes his story by saying, if a bad person can be convinced to help someone in need, how much easier it must be to get God on our side. He wants to help us and, if we let him, he will hurry to our aid.
Which brings me to the week’s big story - the rescue of the thirty-three Chilean miners buried more than 700 metres, or 2,000 feet, below ground in the San Jose copper mine - because it resonates with the parable Jesus told.
First, I want to remind you about their own perseverance in prayer. Some of the miners were Christians, and they organised prayer meetings twice every day while they were trapped, asking God to help and encourage them. But they didn’t leave everything to God. They also helped in their own rescue, by not giving up, by rationing their food and eating tiny amounts for the first three weeks of their ordeal, by sounding horns and setting off explosives to try to attract the attention of the rescuers, and by moving the dust and rocks created by the drill which was enlarging the escape tunnel so that it would be wide enough to get them out.
A striking television image showed the oldest miner, Mario Gomez, kneeling in prayer after he got out of the rescue capsule. He has been a miner for 51 years, since he was twelve. All the people who were gathered round him, the camera crews, the rescuers, the families and colleagues, fell silent while he said thank-you to God. It was a very impressive moment and even hardened journalists were clearly moved by it.
But he wasn’t the only one. One of the younger miners told reporters that he had never prayed much before. ‘I learned to pray while I was down there in the mine!’ he said.
Jose Henriquez is partly responsible for that. He’s a part-time minister, like me. His job, while the miners were trapped, was to try to keep everyone’s spirits up by organising the prayers.
But this story isn’t just about the perseverance of the miners. Miners have been trapped before and sometimes they have been given up for dead. In Mexico four years ago 66 miners were trapped underground in a mining disaster, but the rescue attempt was given up after only five days.
The circumstances were different, because that was a coalmine and it was believed the Mexican miners might have been poisoned by methane gas. But, above all, what stopped the same thing from happening at the San Jose Mine was the families of the miners. Mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, even toddlers, went to the mine entrance and camped there, refusing to go away until the miners were found.
They were like the widow in the story. They were only ordinary people, up against the mine owners and the government. But they refused to give up hope and they kept on campaigning to make sure the search would continue. Then - when the men were found alive - they campaigned to ensure that the rescue would be carried out quickly.
And so, unlike a lot of news stories, this one has a happy ending. Esperanza, the baby daughter of one of the miners, Ariel Ticona, was born while he was trapped underground. He had asked his wife to give her this name, which is the same name chosen by the family and friends of the miners for the makeshift camp where they kept their vigil until the rescue. In Spanish it means ‘hope’. As people of faith we always have to go on hoping, even in the darkness, for God is concerned to protect us and will hurry to come to our aid.
And that’s where we could leave the story if we were only focusing on the Gospel reading, but - of course - we can’t really stop there because miners are still trapped underground. Last week it was in Chile, yesterday it was in China. And life may not be happy ever after for all of the Chilean miners, either, because traumatic events can have a strange effect on people, affecting their moods and their personality.
Jesus asks us to trust God, but the Old Testament reminds us that sometimes we also have to wrestle with fear, and doubt. Jesus says God is concerned to protect us, but Jacob was scarred by his encounter with God. It wounded him.
The story of Jacob wrestling with God is a very strange one, of course, which is why we didn’t read it in the earlier service. It serves a number of functions.
Partly the story sets out to explain the origins of the name ‘Israel’ - which appears to mean ‘someone who struggles with God’ but which could also bring us closer to the story of the widow, because it might mean ‘someone who perseveres with God’, as the widow persevered in her campaign for justice. But the story also explains the name ‘Peniel’, the place where we come ‘face to face with God’. And it also seeks to explain why it is forbidden for Jewish people to eat sinew from the hollow of a thigh bone.
But it’s also a story shrouded in mystery and ambiguity. Does Jacob really wrestle with God, or does he only think he has wrestled with God? Is it actually his brother Esau who comes to wrestle with him, or a stranger - a bandit or a robber? They only wrestle at night, when it’s difficult to see the identity of the other person. At daybreak, vampire-like, the mysterious wrestler pleads to be allowed to get away.
It’s only afterwards that Jacob concludes he has been wrestling with God. Is this simply his way of making sense of a very bruising experience?