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.