Text Study for Luke 18:1-9 (Part Three)

I would like to settle for the conventional reading of our text. The tasks of interpretation and preaching would be much simpler. I’d like to do that, but I can’t. I come to the rhetorical question in Luke 18:7 and the seemingly facile answer in Luke 18:8a, and my pastoral spirit rebels. “But will not God certainly accomplish vengeance for his elect who are shouting to him day and night, and he is waiting patiently upon them? I’m telling you that he will accomplish their vengeance without delay” (my translation).

In my experience, things don’t work out like that. As I have studied and discussed this parable with others over the years, I have learned that alert listeners in the pews don’t buy it either. Some assume that there’s a secret preacher’s code in the text. They wait for me to decrypt the text with some Greek translation magic or some historical oddity. When I don’t do that with this text, they are polite enough not to point out my failure.

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Other alert listeners just stop listening. They know that the last two verses of this text don’t reflect their experience either. They know that no amount of exegetical gymnastics will rescue this text from the obvious failure to deliver. God does not deliver justice or vengeance for the sake of those who cry out to God, day and night – not, at least, on any human time scale. God delays plenty long in responding – often so long that a response no longer matters to the petitioner. “Quickly” is not a word they associate with God’s actions.

All we need to do is listen to the Lukan framing of the parable to experience the problem. The Lukan author tells us that this parable will move us to pray always and to not be wearied of the task. If God grants justice and does so quickly, then why do we need this parable in the first place? If the divine response is so timely, why do we need this sustenance to keep on praying and not collapse with exhaustion?

It seems that the Lukan author seeks to have it both ways in our text. I find that this hermeneutical pushmi-pullyu is not lost on serious listeners. I’d recommend preaching on one of the other appointed texts, but they seem to present the same set of problems.

This textual struggle isn’t limited to the community of the Lukan author. Luke 18:7 takes me to the imagery in Revelation 6. The Lamb who was slain is opening the seven seals on the scroll. The first four seals unleash the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The forces of the Roman Empire bring conquest, warfare, economic plunder (by the privileged), and death by sword, famine, and pestilence. The scene could be taken from any Roman battlefield (or from the streets of Ukrainian cities at this moment).

When the Lamb opens the fifth seal, John the Revelator sees under the heavenly mercy seat the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the sake of the word of God and for the sake of the testimony which they had. These souls cry out with a great voice and say, “Until when, holy and true ruler, will you not judge and avenge our blood out from the inhabitants of the earth?” (Revelation 6:10, my translation).

These souls are not told that their avenging will come quickly. Instead, they each get a nice white robe.  God asks them to rest a while longer, until more martyrs are made to complete the number of their company. In his commentary on Revelation, Eugene Boring hears the connection with our text as well. The martyrs in Revelation six, Boring writes, “have no doubt that the present injustice is not the last word, but do not understand why God does not bring it to an end now” (page 125, his emphasis). Boring notes that the martyrs join the cries of Israel in Psalms 74 and 79 and those who “are shouting to the Lord day and night” in our text.

Boring writes, “There must be elements of personal feeling here – Christians too had feelings of resentment, bitterness, and revenge. But,” Boring continues, “neither here nor in the teaching of Israel and Jesus can such cries be reduced to personal anger and desire for revenge.” He notes that the verb, ekdikeo, can mean both “avenge” and “procure justice for” someone. “Here is a cry for God to reveal himself (sic),” Boring suggests, “a plea for a public vindication of God’s justice…” (page 125). He quotes from Psalm 79:5-10 to help make his case.

Psalm 79 is written in the aftermath of the Babylonian ravaging of Jerusalem. On the one hand, this is a theological problem because God’s honor is now at stake. One the other hand, the psalmist knows that this is the consequence of Judah’s faithlessness. The psalmist prays that God’s compassion will come speedily to meet the sufferers, that forgiveness and deliverance will arrive soon. But the psalmist also prays for sevenfold vengeance upon the conquerors and the surrounding neighbors who are enjoying the spectacle.

Boring writes that the Christians who hear the Revelator’s words identify with the cry of the martyrs. They, too, wonder “How long?” The Revelator encourages them to persevere to the point of death if necessary. There is no promised escape. Instead, the promise is that more will die before the crisis comes to an end. When that end comes, it will come through the power of the Lamb who was slain. Therefore, rescue from death seems unlikely. Rather, in Revelation, the promise tends to be rescue through death.

“John’s encouragement to martyrdom,” Boring concludes, “is utterly realistic” (page 126). I don’t think the Lukan author is, on the face of the text, “utterly realistic.” My serious listeners over the years have concluded that this text seems to make promises it cannot keep.

This may seem like an unnecessary detour through the twists and turns of Revelation. Yet, our text is in response to the end-times warnings from Jesus in Luke 17:20-37. Our text is the Lukan author’s first response to the question of the Lukan community in a time of crisis. Some of that crisis is probably discomfort or even minor persecution. Some of that crisis is dealing with the delay of the return of Christ. In either case, the question for the Lukan community certainly is “How long, O Lord?”

The Lukan answer is not a timetable. It is, rather, an absolute assertion of God’s enduring faithfulness. Luke 18:7 is written with the strongest possible Greek construction. This is, as Daniel Wallace points out, an “emphatic negative subjunctive.” Wallace notes that this construction is “the strongest way to negate something in Greek” (page 468). This grammar denies not only the certainty of something but also denies even its potential existence. The notion that God would not grant justice/vengeance to God’s chosen ones is inconceivable (yes, I now find myself in Princess Bride territory).

One exegetical solution is to suggest that the Lukan author just screwed this one up. Curkpatrick makes that argument in his article. The dissonance between the narrative framework (from the Lukan author) and the actual parable (from Jesus or the tradition or the Lukan community) is obvious and pronounced. Curkpatrick performs exegetical surgery on the text to lay out that dissonance in excruciating detail. Every time we think we’ve found a way to make the framing and the parable work together, Curkpatrick points out that they really don’t.

His solution is to let the narrative tension live in the text. “Recognition of this dissonance may mean having to look differently at the concept of unity in texts,” he writes, “especially given the secrets of their origins, to live with the unresolved tensions, and thereby to discover that our texts can be as strange and dissonant as they are familiar and resonant” (page 121). That’s a fine way to conclude an article in the Journal of Biblical Literature. But it’s not going to do me much good as a preacher this Sunday.

Moreover, I can’t accept the conclusion, regardless of the clear and detailed evidence Curkpatrick marshals to make the case. Is it really credible that the Lukan author – a pretty fair hand at the task so far – suddenly becomes a hack who can’t stitch together a parable and a narrative frame? The Lukan author selects material and speaks a message. The goal is a clear account for Theophilus. Are we to believe that the Lukan author had a bad day at the writing desk?

And if we suggest that, are we to believe that the Lukan author didn’t bother to go back and rework that supposed bad section of the account? I don’t find that credible in the face of the rest of the Lukan corpus. I can certainly accept the likelihood that the Lukan author has as much trouble with the delay of the return of Christ and the suffering in the meantime as I do. I’m not ready to accept that in this moment of high stakes, the Lukan author has made a mess that lectionary preachers have to clean up every three years.

Our text presents exegetical issues not easily resolved. Our text tackles questions that face alert disciples in every age. But I don’t think our text is a ham-fisted failure that simply needs correction or glossing over. There’s certainly more work to do here.

References and Resources

Boring, M. Eugene. Revelation. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989/2011.

Curkpatrick, Stephen. “Dissonance in Luke 18:1-8.” Journal of Biblical Literature 121, no. 1 (2002): 107–21. https://doi.org/10.2307/3268332.

Dinkler, Michal Beth. ““The Thoughts of Many Hearts Shall Be Revealed”: Listening in on Lukan Interior Monologues.” Journal of Biblical Literature 134, no. 2 (2015): 373-399.

Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus. HarperOne. Kindle Edition.

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.

Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. Grand Rapids, MI.: Zondervan, 1996.

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