We are all called to ministry. And, just maybe, we are called to be fighters and irritants. Putting it another way, we are called to be counter-cultural. We are called to demonstrate an alternative way. Writing about the rise of the early church, Nick Page says: “The church grew strong because it was constantly swimming against the tide. The church stood out because it was visibly different. The kingdom of fools grew, because the kingdom of the world seemed so foolish by comparison.”
Genesis 32 describes a fascinating moment in the story of Jacob. Jacob was, to be blunt, a rather dodgy character. From his early life, he was a trickster, devising schemes to make himself come out on top. He swindled his brother out of his rightful inheritance. He nearly met his match with his uncle Laban, but managed to twist things to his economic advantage. After a long absence, he is returning home and preparing to meet his estranged and defrauded brother Esau. And he encounters God. God does not come to him as some sweet, forgiving presence, but as a rather mysterious adversary. Jacob is engaged, rather surprisingly for an encounter with God, in a lengthy and inconclusive wrestling match. He hangs on, refusing to let go without a blessing and, as well as the blessing, receives a new name, Israel – the one who strives with God. And he is left with a limp. As the theologian Walter Brueggemann points out: “On the one hand, Jacob/Israel soars to bold heights. … But then, he is corrected by a limp, affirming that only God is God. On the other hand, Jacob is a cripple with a blessing. (He) must wonder how it is that blessings are given and at what cost.” Brueggemann adds: “This same theology of weakness in power and power in weakness turns this text towards the New Testament and the gospel of the cross.”
If we are going to engage in effective ministry, we need to encounter God. We need to get God’s call first-hand. Another scholar, Richard Hays, comments: “Those called to the work of ministry will emerge from such an encounter limping and chastened, knowing that our words are inadequate, that we are not sufficient for these things. But we also will know that the God whom we serve, the God who has graciously and inexplicably called and blessed us, is wonderful beyond all telling.” Putting it bluntly, ministry is not an easy ride. At least, if you find it so, you have probably got it wrong. It tends to leave us exhausted and wounded. But it’s worth it! And God’ll be with us.
So this Old Testament passage depicts God as the God with whom we need to struggle. But then let’s look at Luke 18 (v. 1-8) for another surprise. We knew that Jesus was a teacher, a healer, a preacher, a man of prayer. But what does this story think it’s doing? We didn’t know that Jesus was also a comedian. This story is so ridiculous – and we might expect it to leave Jesus’ listeners laughing. A woman keeps knocking on the door of a corrupt politician until he gets so fed up that he promises to give her what she wants, if she will only shut up.
The people knew characters like these – the woman who has nothing, no husband, no inheritance, no social standing – and the politician who is only in it to make the deals that will advance his career, but who gets so annoyed that he ends up doing something good in spite of himself.
It is actually a good story, and it’s OK because Jesus insists that God is nothing like this unjust judge. But perhaps the point of the story for us is this – that we are that woman. We are awkward. We are annoying. We keep trying to get what we think we should have – we keep trying to go where we think we should be – and it is just not happening. I am not sure how we minister to stacks of persistent widows – but I know that we have got to try.
Jesus told good stories, sometimes even funny ones, but a really good comedian shows profound understanding of how things are in the humour. Effective ministry requires us to engage with the persistent widows and to help them find the things that God wants us all to keep hammering away at.
This woman will not be silenced. She challenges the abuse of power. She sees what is wrong with the system. She strikes a blow for freedom, true freedom. Doing all that, and helping others with it. That’s ministry!