“This parable,” Richard Swanson writes, “begins a flurry of teaching that reinforces a basic Jewish understanding: if you want to see what people believe, watch their feet, not their mouths. People are willing to say all sorts of things, and to confess all sorts of faith,” Swanson continues, “but actions are what matter in the real world that God created” (page 214).
Frederick Douglass is reported to have said it this way: “I prayed for freedom for twenty years but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” Douglass had been born enslaved. But at age twenty, he took bold action and escaped his enslavement.
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel echoed the words of Douglass when his family asked about his decision to participate in the Selma Civil Rights march of 1965. One report notes that when he returned from the march he was asked if he had found time to pray during the journey. Heschel replied, “I prayed with my feet.”
The parable that begins Luke 18 can be read as separating prayer from action. However, I find that to be an inadequate reading of the text. It is certainly legitimate for scholars to debate how much of this parable is “original” to Jesus and how much has been supplied by the Lukan author as editorial framework. But separating the widow’s prayers to heaven from her actions in dealing with the judge does not respect the integrity of the text as we have it. The widow acts as she prays. The widow prays as she acts.
She prays with her legs and feet. She is prepared to pray with her fist, if it comes to that.
I would commend to you Francisco J. Garcia’s workingpreacher.org commentary. The parable, Garcia writes, “urges us to resist the tendency to think about prayer in a simplified and uni-directional way, as merely words we offer to God in a transactional and hierarchical manner…It also makes a clear, intimate, and inseparable connection, in my view,” Garcia continues, “between prayer and justice.”
The Lukan parables are such good stories by themselves that readers tend to abstract them from their context. That’s always an interpretive error and no more so than when we read our text this week. Jesus (in the Lukan narrative) tells this parable to follow up on some dire eschatological warnings in Luke 17:20-37. Those warnings end with the ominous mini-parable: “Where the body is, there also the vultures will be gathered” (my translation).
It’s hard to imagine a more graphic, vivid, and multivalent picture of the coming crucifixion. While the disciples cannot (at least in the logic of the narrative) really experience this picture in its fullness yet, the Lukan audience certainly can. With those words ringing in their ears and that picture flooding their imaginations, they (we) need some words of encouragement and sustenance. We get a mental “snap of fingers” to refocus our attention and to reboot our courage.
“But then he told them a parable concerning the necessity of them to pray at all times and not to become weary, saying…” (Luke 18:1, my translation). The Lukan audience is wrestling with the apparent “delay” of the second coming of Christ. It would appear that they, and we, are in this discipleship business for the long haul. That long haul is going to include disappointment, suffering, and periodic persecution. How shall we live as disciples in the mean times and in the meantime? The answer here is that we keep on praying, with feet and fist when necessary.
One temptation in interpreting these Lukan parables is to treat them as allegories. “Who does the judge represent?” we ask ourselves. “Who are the ‘widows’ among us?” we wonder. More to the point, “What is the relationship between the character of the judge and the character of God in this story?” Those can be interesting questions, and I’ve wrestled with them in a variety of sermons over the years. I’ve rarely been satisfied with the product. I think that’s because these aren’t very important questions.
The less we allegorize these Lukan parables the better, I think (unless the Lukan author intends for a story to be an allegory – which the author is quite able to do when that’s appropriate). I want to begin by treating the judge in the story as a particular judge, and the widow as a particular widow. Whether this parable reflects some actual event in the audience’s experience (which it may) is not the point. The point is to focus on the action in the story before we go anywhere else.
Let’s look first at the judge. “There was a certain judge in a certain town who neither had reverence for God nor respect for people” (Luke 17:2, my translation). “The parable’s concern for this judge is less his judicial role than his attitude,” Levine and Witherington write, “This judge is governed by self-interest and self-preservation; in a culture where honor is of import, the judge eschews social regard” (page 482).
The lack of reverence for God and respect for people is set up with grammatical parallelism. The participles rhyme phonetically. The dual construction uses negative correlatives to connect the two. This is a passage where it’s clear that the parable’s early life was spent as an oral story. Not only is the story memorable but it simply sounds good, almost musical, in its oral presentation. More to the point, the storyteller makes that the lack of reverence for God and the lack of respect for people are equally bad.
We might find such an independent-minded magistrate as an ideal of judicial impartiality. However, first-century and biblical authors and audiences would not share our perspective. Levine and Witherington lay out the textual evidence from the Hebrew Bible, Josephus, and Greek literary tradition (page 482). The judge is not commended for either his impiety or his indifference to public opinion. These characteristics label the judge as a negative character.
At the same time, there is no need to pile on when painting the judge as a self-serving scoundrel. There is nothing in the text about a corrupt judicial system. There is nothing in the text about the judge having powerful friends and/or taking bribes. “Because we have no details about the widow’s opponents,” Levine and Witherington write, “we cannot determine whose case – his or hers – is just” (page 483). Within the normal operating parameters of the system, those with less power and influence are often going to go unheard. Faithful persistence will be necessary in such circumstances.
The widow is the embodiment of that faithful persistence. There was this judge, you see, but there was also this widow. Verse three has an adversative which indicates a contrast with or opposition to the previous sentence. “But there was a widow in this town, and she kept coming to him…” The verb for coming is a Greek imperfect and indicates ongoing action that began in the past and continues into the present.
As soon as we have the mention of a widow, we get a cascade of biblical imagery. Levine and Witherington catalogue a number of the Torah references to the treatment of widows. God protects the widow, the orphan, and the sojourner, especially in the book of Deuteronomy. Deuteronomy 27:19 (NRSV) says, “‘Cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice.’ All the people shall say, ‘Amen!’” The prophets portray justice to widows, Levine and Witherington write, “as shorthand for covenant faithfulness” (page 484).
Witherington notes the words of Ben Sirach (35:21, NRSV) in this regard: “The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal; it will not desist until the Most High responds…” This follows on the words of Ben Sirach in chapter 34:12-18, where the writer notes that God will not ignore the prayers of the marginalized.
Witherington notes that this eschatological framing fits well with the place of the parable in the Lukan account. While Levine is not enthusiastic about this connection, I find it helpful and to the point. The words from Ben Sirach, chapter 35, will bring us directly to the following text, the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector. The widow seeks “justice” (“justification”?). The tax collector goes away “justified” (“having received justice”?) after his humble prayer.
I think it’s worth looking ahead a bit further as well in chapter eighteen. The lectionary won’t get us to the healing of the blind man in Luke 18:35-43. But it’s worth noting that the blind man persists in his prayers as well. In verse thirty-nine, those in the front of the crowd ordered the blind man to be quiet as Jesus passed. But the man shouted more loudly still – “Son of David, have mercy on me!” It is this persistent prayer which is heard and answered. As a result, the man regains his sight, follows Jesus (as a disciple) and glorifies God. All who see this healing praise God as well.
The narrative arc in this chapter is the importance of persistent, patient, active, and assertive prayer in the mean times and in the meantime. This prayer will require hands and feet as well as hearts and minds.
Of course, in the minds of many, I have now moved from preaching to meddling. Won’t be the first time, or the last.
References and Resources
Levine, Amy-Jill, and Witherington, Ben III. The Gospel of Luke. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Swanson, Richard. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.