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

This may be what I do for Sunday — not sure yet.

“You can pray until you faint,” Fannie Lou Hamer said in 1964, “but if you don’t get up and try to do something, God is not going to put it in your lap.” Fannie Lou Hamer knew that truth from her own experience. I read her story in the book, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, edited by Michelle DeRusha.[i]

The year was 1962. Fannie Lou Hamer was forty-four years old. She was married to a sharecropper. She was the mother of two adopted daughters. Fannie Lou was a black woman, the first person at her church in Ruleville, Mississippi to raise her hand. She was the first who volunteered to go the twenty-six miles to the county courthouse and register to vote. She was the first in line when the white clerk snapped, “What do you want?”

Fannie Lou knew the risks. Blacks in rural Mississippi in 1962 didn’t register to vote. If they did, they risked public abuse, job loss, physical beatings, and lynching. “I guess if I’d had any sense, I’d a been a little scared,” she said later. “The only thing they could do to me was kill me,” she continued,” and it seemed like they’d been trying to do that a little bit at a time ever since I could remember.”

Mississippi had a literacy test for voter registration. The first time Fannie Lou tried to register, she failed that test. The clerk required her to read and explain section 16 of the Mississippi state constitution. That section described and defined “de facto” laws. Fannie later said that she knew “as much about [de] facto law as a horse knows about Christmas day.” Me, too.

Because Fannie Lou tried to register to vote, she lost her job. Local people threatened to kill her, and she was forced to flee. She dodged bullying and bullets. She also returned to the county courthouse thirty days later to take the voter registration test. This time she had studied. She passed the test.

However, her registration was rejected because she hadn’t paid the poll tax in the previous two years. Of course, she hadn’t paid the poll tax because she hadn’t been a registered voter! Fannie Lou joined the ranks of activists who worked to register other black people to vote. In that role, she was falsely arrested and jailed. she was beaten almost to death. She challenged both local and national power structures.

Fannie Lou Hamer never gave up. And she never gave in to hate. Because of her Christian faith, Fannie Lou Hamer loved even those who wanted her dead. “You have to love ’em,” she said.

“Whether confronting a belligerent voter registration official, lying bloody and beaten on the cold floor of a jail cell, or standing triumphant as a delegate before a national audience,” Michelle DeRusha writes, “Fannie Lou Hamer lived out that love day by day.”

Jesus tells his disciples a parable. This parable is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. Jesus describes a persistent widow to illustrate his point. The widow is a lot more like Fannie Lou Hamer than she is like me.

There’s this judge. He’s not afraid of God’s judgment. He doesn’t give a hoot what people in town think of him. This judge likes his position. He likes his peace and quiet. Beyond that, he just doesn’t care.

And there’s this widow in town. She’s getting a raw deal. The details don’t really matter. Jesus says she’s getting the dirty end of the stick. The judge can straighten things out if he wants to. But he doesn’t want to. He doesn’t care. If he ignores the widow long enough, maybe she’ll just go away.

But the widow won’t go away. She keeps confronting the judge. “Give me justice against my adversary!” she demands. After a while, the judge has a little meeting with himself. “It’s true,” he says, “I don’t fear God’s judgment. I don’t care about public opinion. But this widow! All up in my business wherever I go! At some point, she’s going to punch me in the face! Best if I do what she wants and get rid of the problem.”

So, the widow wins. She never gave up. She never backed down. She used dogged determination and physical intimidation. The widow got her justice.

Fine, Jesus. Cute story. A little slapstick humor. The underdog triumphs. What’s not to like? But how does this tell me about my need to keep on praying and not be discouraged? Jesus, I’m not quite following you on this one.

“Pay attention to what the unjust judge is saying,” Jesus tells us, “And won’t God bring about justice for his chosen ones – those who are shouting to him day and night? Will God delay in helping them?” The answer seems to be obvious. Of course, God delays in helping God’s chosen ones. Just look at our personal experience and our history. God hardly ever seems to be in a hurry to set things right!

Except, that’s not really what Jesus says. You know, even Bible translators have a bad day now and then. The wording in the King James Version is much better than the NRSV for this verse. “And shall not God avenge his own elect, which cry day and night unto him, though he bear long with them?”

Jesus’ story isn’t about how fast God’s response time is compared to that miserable judge. The parable is about how God hangs in there with us no matter how long it takes. The judge doesn’t care about the widow’s case. But God does! The judge delays because he’s unjust. God bears with us until the world is redeemed. If that terrible judge finally gets to the right decision, then certainly our loving God will get us to the New Life where all things are put right.

The story really is about our need to keep on praying and not be discouraged. But it’s not the kind of praying we usually think about. Jesus is talking about the kind of praying we find in our first reading. Sometimes praying means wrestling with God until we’re ready to be blessed and changed. Answers to those prayers don’t come easy. And sometimes we walk away limping.

Many of you don’t know this. But I’m a widower. My first wife died not quite twelve years ago. I took her to the emergency room on November 8, 2010. She died at home on November 20. She was fifty-one years old. It was awful.

My world collapsed. Most of my prayers were screams of anguish and anger. The one answer I wanted I couldn’t get. Sometimes I thought God had abandoned me. But that didn’t happen. As I raged and wrestled, as I shook and shouted, the Holy Spirit remained within me and around me. God bore with me. God waited until God could help me limp across the river of acute grief onto a new path of life.

That’s the personal angle on this parable. God does bring about justice for God’s chosen ones. God bears long with us – even in the moments of deepest darkness. I can’t scare God off with my anger and despair. That’s my experience and my testimony. I’m always glad to talk about that if you’re interested.

But there’s more to the story here. God’s justice is personal, but it’s much more than that. That’s why I started with the story of Fannie Lou Hamer. She testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when she was beaten and abused, when she thought she might give up all hope. And she testifies that the Holy Spirit sustained her when the unjust judges of this world refused to give her justice.

You may be crying out to God day and night for personal rescue and relief. In Jesus, God is standing with you in that struggle. And God will bring healing and hope in the end. As a community of faith, we are called to cry out to God day and night for social justice as well. The widow represents all who are abused and oppressed by systems of unjust power. She reminds us that God intends to transform victims into victors – no matter how long it takes.

Jesus ends the parable with a question. All the best parables end with questions. I think all the best sermons do too.  “And yet,” Jesus wonders, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Jesus isn’t wondering about faith in general. Jesus wonders about finding the widow’s faith here. Jesus wonders if he will find the sort of faith that hangs in there, that won’t give up, that won’t take no for an answer. Jesus wonders if he will find the kind of faith that won’t settle for injustice.

Jesus asks you and me that question. How will we answer?

[i] Michelle DeRusha, 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Books, 2014), pages 327-333).

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?”

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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.

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.

Text Study for Luke 18:1-8 (Part Two)

What does the widow want? “But there was a certain widow in that town and she kept coming to him as she said, “Ekdikehson me against my antidikou.” I haven’t translated either word in verse three, because that’s the problem here. The verb could be translated as “get justice for me.” Or it could be translated as “get vengeance for me.” Or it could be that the term represents both and in the cultural context those two ideas are in essence the same thing.

Schrenk (TDNT II:443) suggests that the idea of “vengeance” is the earlier meaning of the word. It comes, then, from the world of blood vendettas. That’s certainly the world of our biblical documents. Otherwise, why would legislation in the Hebrew Bible be required to limit and/or proscribe such vendettas? In the Christian scriptures, the verb can refer to punishment, revenge, or justice. E. Earle Ellis translates the verb as “vindicate.” This could carry both senses of the word together.

The real problem, I think, is that we want the widow to be the hero in the story. We’d be confused or even offended if the hero turns out to be a morally ambiguous character. Amy-Jill Levine argues that our widow is precisely such a character. “If a manager can be dishonest, a tax collector righteous, a landowner generous enough to provide a living wage to everyone in the marketplace, and a judge neither God-fearing nor respectful toward the people,” Levine declares, “surely a widow can be vengeful” (page 241).

How much “reversal” can we stand in the parable, found only in the Lukan gospel of “great reversals”? No matter how much we might be cheering the widow and jeering the judge, “Not all parables,” Levine reminds us, “have ‘decent’ figures” (page 242). The widow asks to have things set right, but that doesn’t mean that she is necessarily in the right. It is the case, after all, that the one who resorts to punching one’s opponent may have lost the legal argument.

If the parable discombobulates us, as Levine suggests, “then we may be on the right track” (page 244). The parable does not indicate whether the widow is rich or poor. She has repeated access to the judge and the discretionary time to pursue that access. She is not afraid to appear in public, use the levers of municipal power, and make the judge’s life difficult. She does not appear to be passive or helpless.

In fact, the widow has an “adversary” or an “opponent.” She has someone on the other side of the argument. There’s nothing inherent in this word to indicate that the other party is an “enemy” or is somehow evil. At times, the word can be used to describe the devil as an accuser. However, the sense of the word points to the other person in a lawsuit. The widow may well regard that other person as an enemy, as someone with evil intent. But that’s more in the eye of the beholder than it is in the nature of the case.

If one can have an adversary or opponent, then one is not powerless. There is a certain parity in the system. The widow is not without resources. The balances of justice may be tilted toward the opponent, who is likely a man (just in the demographic realities of the first-century empire). But that tilting is clearly not the final word. The widow uses the resources at her disposal to get a favorable decision. Perhaps this parable has something in common with the earlier Lukan counsel to make friends with unrighteous mammon in order to survive in the system of this world.

I think that we interpreters give the judge too much credit and the widow too little. We talked in previous weeks about the use of interior monologues in the Lukan account. We get another such monologue here with the judge. Dinkler notes that the judge is described as the prototypical “fool,” at least in terms of the Hebrew Bible. It is, after all, the fool who says in his heart that there is no God (Psalm 14). The internal monologue, Dinkler writes, “establishes that the judge is not neutral or positive” (page 390). I think that, in addition, it establishes him as another powerful man in the Lukan account who sticks with the system rather than with God and pays for that folly in the end.

If we see this parable as yet another example of Lukan comedy (and I also think we should), then it makes additional sense to see the judge as a buffoon in the story. He represents the power of the imperial system to make and enforce the rules. He represents, further, all those who abuse the system for their own purposes and gain. And yet, this powerful man is intimidated into action by a physical threat from the widow. It’s supposed to be funny. And he’s a fool.

Brittany Wilson discusses the comedic nature of the parable in her workingpreacher.org commentary. She refers to the work of F. Scott Spencer who notes that this humor is not comic relief. Rather this parable pokes fun at the powerful “from below.” A system that is always supposed to work for the powerful is turned against itself and is made to work for those most regularly oppressed. “We laugh,” Wilson writes, “in order to challenge such figures, and ultimately, to offer a different way.”

The judge is one of six characters in the Lukan account who engage in interior monologue. All exhibit foolish thinking in one fashion or another. None is wise, honorable, or heroic. These characters lack caution, judgment, and common sense (see Dinkler, pages 392-393). Only rich and powerful people can be so stupid and still flourish in this world. Someone like the widow has to be far shrewder and more aggressive to stay in the game.

In the midst of such a system, the widow finds ways to make this powerful fool do what she needs him to do. She may not be viewed in positive terms by the system, but she gets the job done. And it is clear, Dinkler argues, that we readers are invited to identify with the widow, not with the judge. The point of the story is to identify our persistence in prayer with the widow’s persistence after justice (or vengeance, or whatever, see page 396).

Dinkler reminds us that the judge’s interior monologue is never revealed to the widow. We readers are privy to that conversation, but that’s it. The interior monologue tells us that the judge fears the widow and clearly doesn’t want the widow to know that. His fear “subtly attests to the effectiveness of the woman’s unconventional means of attaining justice,” Dinkler writes (page 396). As readers, we are now smarter than the judge and have more information than the widow.

“True to the common Lukan emphasis on reversals,” Dinkler writes, “the apparently powerless figure receives vindication by exerting her power over the one who supposedly has external authority but fails to use it wisely” (page 397). I find this to be a very helpful analysis in understanding the text itself.

However, I’m puzzling over how to use this analysis in proclamation. Part of the problem with our reading of the text, of course, is that in terms of power dynamics we white American Christians are much more like the judge than we are like the widow.

Of course, at least some of the Lukan audience members were also more like the judge than like the widow. That is especially important as we read this parable. The parable may be ambiguous in part because of the mixed composition of the audience – both then and now. Sometimes, I’m in the position of the judge in an interaction. Sometimes, I’m in the position of the widow.

In this parable, I can learn something from each of the characters. At the least, I need to ask myself in any given situation what sort of power I possess. Only then can I determine what might be the most faithful way to proceed as a disciple.

Perhaps that’s a way to approach this parable, by asking who I am in the parable today. If I’m more like the judge, then as a disciple I have to interrogate my own arrogant foolishness. I can’t take myself so seriously. I have to re-evaluate how I use my power and privilege for the sake of the kingdom. Now we’re in the territory once again of the Parable of the Dishonest Steward. Can I use the system against itself for the sake of Kingdom values? Or will I focus on self-preservation and miss the whole purpose of the Kingdom?

If I’m more like the widow, I can resist the temptation to surrender to discouragement. I can be creative and resilient in seeking whatever leverage I might have in the system. And I can do that knowing that I am working on the right side of history – at least God’s history – as I subvert unjust structures.

What if we could acknowledge that we live in congregations with and as both judges and widows? What if we could strategize together the ways that the judges and widows could collaborate rather than oppose one another? What if vindication for all was the goal rather than self-interest for some?

References and Resources

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.

Text Study for Luke 18:1-8 (Part One)

“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.

Photo by Mikhail Nilov on Pexels.com

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.