The Sunday lectionary gospel reading for Trinity 18 in Year C is the Parable of the Unjust Judge and the Persistent Widow from Luke 18.1–8. A surface reading, confirmed by most online comments on it, is that basically we need to be nagging God before he will answer our prayer! But a more careful reading, locating the episode within the context of Luke’s wider narrative, points to some important new perspectives.
Following the story of the healing of the ten who had a dreaded skin disease (last week’s lectionary reading), Jesus responds to a question from the Pharisees about the coming of the kingdom of God, stating that ‘the kingdom of God is amongst you’ (not ‘within you’ as some have suggested). Then in Luke 17.22, Jesus turns to his disciples and makes a series of compressed statements about the ‘days of the Son of Man’, most of which find their parallel in the fifth block of Jesus’ teaching, on eschatology, in Matthew 24. (It is quite striking here that Luke avoids recording Jesus using either the language of the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ which alludes to Dan 7.13, or the language of the parousia of the Son of Man—perhaps a reflection of his writing to a mostly Gentile audience.) The key idea is introduced at the beginning of these sayings:
Then he said to his disciples, “The time is coming when you will long to see one of the days of the Son of Man, but you will not see it.” (Luke 17.22)
In other words, the theme here is about patience in waiting whilst living through the delay of Jesus’ return, and it is this idea which Jesus appears to pick up on at the beginning of our reading. So the theme of his teaching here is not merely persistence in the experience of unanswered prayer (which is more the focus in the similar passage in Luke 11) but specifically enduring in our longing for justice whilst we await Jesus’ return.
The general and stereotypical nature of the scene is made clear by Jesus introduction: ‘There was a certain judge in a certain town…’ (κριτής τις ἦν ἔν τινι πόλει), a little bit like us introducing a story with ‘Once upon a time…’ Some commentators have suggested that the characterisation of the judge as someone ‘who neither feared God nor cared what people thought’ could be construed positively, showing that he is disinterested in his dispensing of justice. After all, in Mark 12.14, the Pharisees flatter Jesus by saying ‘You aren’t swayed by others, because you pay no attention to who they are.’. But parallels of the double phrase in contemporary literature make it clear that this is a negative assessment. Josephus describes King Jehoiakim as ‘neither reverent towards God nor fair to human beings’ (Ant. 10.283) and Dionysius of Halicarnassus portrays some Roman conspirators as ‘neither fearing the wrath of the gods nor regarding the indignation of men’ (Ant. Rom. 10.10.7; both from Mikeal Parsons p 263). And Luke frequently portrays those who ‘fear God’ as being virtuous (e.g. Acts 10.2).
In contrast with this powerful, arrogant man, Jesus introduces this vulnerable, dependant woman. In any patriarchal society, where income, protection and security depended on having a man for support, being a widow (like being an orphan) was to be in a unique position of vulnerability. God’s concern for the vulnerable and marginalised means that care for widows and orphans is a consistent feature of God’s command to his people, in both Old and New Testaments (see Lev 19.9–10, 23.22, Deut 14.28–29, James 1.27 and numerous other texts). There are three particular things about this woman which highlight her need. First, she has to represent herself; courts are normally the province of men, and it appears that she has no male relative who will represent her. Second, she has to return continually, which means that she does not have the financial resources to offer a bribe and have her case settled quickly (not an unusual issue in many courts around the world today). Thirdly, she appears to have been denied justice, and the implication is that she has perhaps been deprived of her rights in inheritance. It might be that she has been deprived of her living from her late husband’s estate; later rabbinic law suggests that widows did not inherit directly, but makes provision for her living from the estate for that reason.
What is striking about her, though, is rather than coming across as a ‘hopeless, helpless victim’,
This woman assumes unusual responsibility for her own well-being, adopts a self-presentation of shocking initiative, and thus continually returns to the magistrate in her quest for justice (Joel Green, NICNT p 640)
She thus follows a line of biblical tradition represented by the figures of Ruth, Tamar and other widows, as well as in Luke the woman with an issue of blood in Luke 8.43–48. This pictures fits with Luke’s wider portrayal of women as active practical, moral and spiritual agents, and models of discipleship in one way or another.
Jesus’ parable and stories in Luke frequently turn on insight given by an inner soliloquy—for example, the younger son coming to himself in Luke 15—and here the judge articulates his own calculation. It is striking that the judge’s assessment of himself matches precisely the assessment by which he has been introduced; his action is motivated by not a shred of concern or altruism, but simply by self-preservation and what will make his life easiest. Here, Jesus uses a comic image, and it is important that we do not miss the humour through pious reading. The judge fears that in the end the woman will come and ὑπωπιάζω him. Some translations take this metaphorically as ‘wear me out’, but the word actually comes from the realm of boxing and means ‘to beat’, perhaps in the sense of ‘giving a black eye’. The only other place the word comes in the NT is in 1 Cor 9.27 where Paul talks about ‘beating my body’ as a metaphor for physical discipline.
The language Luke uses is startling, perhaps even humorous, coming as it does from the boxing ring, for it invokes images of the almighty, fearless, macho judge cornered and slugged by the least powerful in society. Thus Jesus accents the astonishingly uncharacteristic initiative and persistence of an allegedly impotent women in the face of injustice. (Green p 641)
There is definitely scope here for a short, entertaining drama as part of a Sunday sermon!
As with earlier parables in Luke, Jesus is instructing his disciples to learn something about kingdom realities from realities in the real (and distinctly ungodly) world around them—but always with a twist. Jesus tells them (and us) to ‘listen’ to what the unjust judge says—but in doing so urges us to move from the lesser to the greater. If this is what an unjust judge will do, how much more will God listen to us, since God is indeed passionate about justice and does consider the needs of his people.
But if God is unlike the judge, we are to be like the widow! She offers a model of assertive confidence in the cause of justice. Like her, we are to cry out for justice ‘day and night’, just as the widow Anna prayed in the temple ‘day and night’ looking for the consolation of Israel. We are like the souls of those under the altar in Rev 6.10 who ask ‘How long, O Lord, before you judge the world?’ We long not just for justice for ourselves, but for God to come and bring justice to the whole world, and judge in favour of those who have been exploited and oppressed.
But here is the edge: if we are to be like the widow in our attitude, it will be in part because we are like the widow in situation. The end of this story connects back to the beginning of this narrative section—we will indeed long for the ‘days of the Son of Man’ (Luke 17.22) as we experience injustice and rejection in this world. The context of apparently unanswered prayer is not merely the frustration of our own desires and needs, but the cosmic time we live in, in the overlap of the ages so that we remain in this, passing age, whilst also experiencing the resurrection life of the age to come in Jesus, which we long to see fully expressed in his return. The context of our prayer is our patient waiting for Jesus’ return—hence Jesus’ challenging question that he ends with: will he find us as patient, persistent widows, crying out for justice in both hope and patience when he comes?
This kind of eschatological perspective is found in Pete Greig’s teaching about unanswered prayer, both in his book How to Pray and in this short video summary. We appear to see prayer go unanswered because of God’s world, because of God’s ways, but also because of God’s war—a spiritual battle which will only be concluded when Jesus finally returns.
(The illustration at top is from a painting by the Pre-Raphaelite John Everett Millais.)