Text Study for Luke 18:1-8 (Part Four)

Yes, well, ahem…perhaps the solution is to decrypt the text with some Greek translation magic. These exegetical reflections unfold in real time during the week. I am often more surprised than you at where we end up. And I would never pretend that what I write here is some final conclusion – for me or for anyone else. Nonetheless, Sunday’s coming, as Tony Campolo says. And it will be best if I have something intelligible to share.

The phrase in question at the moment is in Luke 18:7c. The NRSV translates the phrase as an additional question: “Will [God] delay long in helping them?” However, in the Greek text, the phrase is not a separate question. It is the added qualifier to the initial question: “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night?” The answer to that question is, “Of course God will grant such justice (or vengeance) to God’s chosen ones!” The question is, “When?”

Photo by andrew shelley on Pexels.com

The phrase in verse 7c is “kai makrothumei ep’ autois” in Greek. The important word here is “makrothumei.” Rogland’s article examines the meaning of that word. It’s a brief note, and I’d encourage you to read it for the full effect. He notes that the most common meaning of the verb is to be “forbearing, longsuffering, patient.” It can have the meaning of “to wait patiently.” It is this secondary sense that leads some to think that in Luke 18:7c it means something like “to be slow, to tarry, to delay.” That’s the choice the NRSV committee has made in rendering our text.

A minority of English translations go with the sense of “forbearing” rather than “delaying.” The King James Version is closer to the actual Greek text, perhaps, here than the NRSV: “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?” A brief trip to biblegateway.com will show you the distribution among those texts. Martin Luther’s translation tends toward God sticking with people for the long haul as well.

Horst (TDNT, Vol. IV) offers several comments on our passage. “The persecuted community in its longing expectation that justice will be done to it by its enemies (this is how ekdikehsis is to be construed…) is to realize that this ekdikehsis cannot possibly fail,” Horst writes, “It rests in God’s hands” (page 381). It is certain that God’s justice will come and will come unexpectedly. The community suffers from the delay of justice like the oppressed widow. The response to this suffering comes from the assurance that God is longsuffering along with the community.

The “justice” in the text, Horst continues, is not only the eschatological resolution and setting all things right. It is also about the need for ongoing and serious self-examination by God’s elect. This is the source of the final question, whether the Son of Man will find faithfulness on earth when he returns. The time of delay is intended to kindle and strengthen the faithfulness of the elect. It is trust in God’s own longsuffering faithfulness to the community of disciples.

Rogland notes that the passage most often compared to Luke 18:7 is Sirach 35:19. The larger context is also similar to our text, but verses 19 and 20 offer the closest material for comparison. Sirach 35:19 is best read with the sense of “being patient” or “longsuffering,” not with the sense of “to tarry or delay” (page 300). “In contrast to the unrighteous judge who is motivated purely by self-interest,” Rogland writes, “God is patient with his chosen ones…” Rogland cites the specific words of Luke 18:7c to make his point (page 300 to 301).

So, let’s take another swing at the Lukan framing following the parable proper. “But the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge is saying; but won’t God bring about justice for his elect — those who are shouting to him day and night, and [God] is longsuffering with them?” (Luke 18:6-7, my translation). Of course, God will do precisely that!

It is the case that the Lukan author argues from a lesser to a greater case – the rabbinic strategy of qal v homer. But we must attend closely to the nature of that argument. The unjust judge waits for a long time because the judge doesn’t want to accede to the widow’s demands. God, however, waits for a long time because God wants to allow for justice and mercy to have maximum effect. God will grant justice to them at the right time “without delay” (Greek = en tachei).

The question, however, is what triggers God’s action? It is not the request of the chosen ones. It is the appropriateness of the time in regard to God’s intentions. That being said (Greek = plehn), even if God is extraordinarily patient and allows huge amounts of time to pass for people to repent, even after such patient waiting, might the Son of Man then find faithfulness on the earth? The text leaves the answer to that question in some doubt. The particle, ara, makes the answer to the question as indefinite as the answer to the question in verse seven was definite.

In this reading, then, the widow is indeed the hero of the story. That’s the case in the small parable (verses 2-5) and in the larger framework (verses 1-8). The judge is indeed the villain in both cases and is the negative contrast to God. The judge delays due to perverse motives in opposition to the demands of the widow. The judge relents based on the widow’s pressure and the judge’s self-interest.

God waits patiently for people to “get it” and encourages the elect to keep working for justice just like the widow. God waits on the basis of a desire to save. As we will see in the next parable, that patient waiting is sometimes rewarded in surprising ways. The God we see in this parable is the God we see in the law and the prophets – “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13, NRSV).

This understanding of God’s timing continues to develop to the very end of the Christian scriptures. Second Peter, perhaps the latest of the New Testament documents, addresses this issue in chapter three. In fact, we get the same terms that were in question as Rogland compared Sirach and Luke. The Lord does not delay (bradunei) the promise as some might consider delaying (bradutehta), but rather the Lord is patient (makrothumei) toward you (pl.), not wanting anyone to be destroyed but rather wanting all to make space for repentance (see 2 Peter 3:9).

There we have the words in question for our understanding and interpretation. The translation that tells us God is patient (not late) is the more accurate and helpful one. When God is ready for the end, of course, it will come unexpectedly. We get that sense throughout the gospel accounts. We certainly get that sense in 2 Peter 3:10. In the mean times, and in the meantime, disciples are called to live in and toward justice and to do so with patient and persistent faith.

What to do, then, with the NRSV translation that seems to be causing all the problems? If I were doing an adult bible study, I would probably walk my students carefully through this issue and the textual evidence supporting the conclusion. That could be a good bible study. That would be a terrible sermon. It will be a challenge to communicate the meaning of our previous discussion here without putting everyone to sleep with all the details.

I’m thinking about a message with the title “Time for a Change.” Sermon titles aren’t worth much, really. But I hope you might catch the double meaning in that title. On the one hand, our parable reminds us that things are not as God makes them to be. In a world where sin, death, and the Devil still have power, it’s always time for a change. It’s time for me to change. And it’s time for me to be involved in changing the world. The widow in the parable is a model of persistent faith for me in a world where injustice remains the order of the day.

The parable also tells us that there’s time enough for a change. That’s the good news in the text. It’s in that little phrase we’ve been worrying for the last ten minutes or so. There’s time for me to embrace the new life that God offers me every day in Jesus Christ. There’s time for God’s justice to be done in a world where injustice is the norm. There’s time for others to come to know the God of justification and justice – the God we know in the loving face of Jesus Christ, our Lord.

In the mean times and in the meantime, it’s time for a change. And there’s time enough for change. Resignation and despair are responses that don’t give life. Even when death seems to have triumphed, we know that there’s more time for a change. We look forward to the time when all things will be made new, when all things will be changed, when all will be set right.

There’s time enough for changing. And there’s plenty of changing to do. We can take a lesson from our Black siblings who have been working for change for five centuries. If we get tired after a few decades, or a few lifetimes, we antiracist White Christians need to learn from them the power of sustained resistance and rejoicing in the face of injustice. As they say in the Black church, God may be slow – but God ain’t never late.

I think that might preach.

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.

Rogland, Max. “Μακϱοθυμεῖν in Ben Sira 35:19 and Luke 18:7. A Lexicographical Note.” Novum Testamentum 51, no. 3 (2009): 296–301. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20697271.

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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