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 16:1-13 (Part Two)

“What will I do?” the dishonest manager says to himself (Greek = en eauto). Our text is one of the six parables in the Lukan account that use interior monologue as a narrative technique. That technique demonstrates a consistent pattern in the Lukan story and gives us some possible insights for interpretation of the text. As Dinkler notes, this aspect of Lukan technique has been “underexplored” and was prematurely abandoned after the work of Sellew and colleagues thirty years ago. I’d encourage you to read both articles if you have the time, but we’ll do some review work here.

The six parables include the Rich Fool and the Unfaithful Servant in chapter 12, the Lost Sons in chapter 15, our own Unjust Steward in chapter 16, the Unjust Judge in chapter 18, and the Owner of the Vineyard in chapter 20. In each of these stories, the protagonists “all think out their plans and strategies in private moments that are nonetheless simultaneously displayed for other characters in Luke’s story to see and hear” (Sellew, page 239).

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio on Pexels.com

As readers, we have first-person access to their unspoken thoughts, motives, and perceptions. As Michal Beth Dinkler notes, “the thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed” in the Lukan account. This is precisely what Simeon prophesies in Luke 2:35. The Lukan author demonstrates that Jesus has a deep and special insight into the hearts of these characters, and by extension, into our hearts as the listeners and readers. The question for interpretation is, what shall be do with those heart thoughts in our teaching and preaching?

What do these characters have in common? Each is faced with a moral and/or existential dilemma that requires a decision. In the case of the Rich Fool, that dilemma is a positive one. Yet, a decision is required, nonetheless. The use interior monologue deepens our understanding of the character’s psychological situation and increases our empathy and engagement. Both Sellew and Dinkler note that this is a common strategy in ancient narratives, and that the Lukan author takes advantage of this familiar literary approach.

This line of inquiry is somewhat surprising since the majority opinion these days is that ancient people had little or no interior life and little or no interest in that interior life. One of my favorite scholars, Bruce Malina, is a champion of this perspective and brings a wealth of sociological insight and data to the discussion. I have never been convinced by Malina and company on this particular point, though I have quoted it often enough. Our texts call Malina’s particular conclusion into question – not by denying it, but rather by asking for a more nuanced understanding of the ancient appreciation for the interior, psychic, emotional life.

In most ancient literature, interior monologues are limited to heroic characters (in epic settings) and to women (in romance novels). In the Lukan account, those who engage in interior monologues are neither heroes nor women. So, the Lukan author exercises some skillful freedom in applying this approach.

I would observe that factor common to all the Lukan characters in question is that they are dealing with money and possessions. They either have money, have had money, or manage someone else’s money. Even the Unjust Judge is contrasted to the poor and powerless widow and is therefore by contrast rich and influential. I think the Lukan author has a particular class of would-be disciples in mind in these accounts – men of relative wealth and power who are now considering following Jesus but are not prepared for the financial and status sacrifices this following will involve.

We could and probably should add a seventh example of the Lukan use of interior monologue. In Luke 7, Simon the Pharisee has a conversation with himself about Jesus’ questionable judgment in receiving the tearful anointing of the anonymous woman. Jesus perceives this internal conversation and challenges it. Again, Simon is neither a hero nor a woman. And he is certainly wealthy enough to host a major public banquet with Jesus as one of the guests.

Sewell observes that even though the Lukan author uses interior monologue appropriately and skillfully, this technique is specific and exceptional. In using this technique, Sewell argues, the Lukan author accomplishes two things. The author demonstrates repeatedly that Jesus can see into human hearts, “to lay bare their full humanity and thus their failings” (page 253). And because this technique draws us into those fully human and fallible experiences, “we see ourselves reflected in [the Lukan author’s] little people caught in awkward places.” The scheming, struggling, and striving “could just as well be our own” (page 253).

Dinkler builds on Sewells’ work in very helpful ways. She notes that in the Lukan account, “hearing” is particularly important and happens in the heart as much as the ears. In the Lukan account, what matters is what happens “inside” the person more than what happens outside (see 11:39-40). Based on Simeon’s prophecy, we are prompted to expect that Jesus will pierce the hearts of many and know what’s happening. And Jesus followers will align their hearts with God’s perspective and agenda, if they are to be faithful Jesus followers.

Dinkler reminds us of Bernhard Heininger’s analysis of ancient Greek comedic speeches. First, there’s an introduction to the speech. Then there is the problem identified. Finally, there is the chosen solution. We can see that pattern in all of the interior monologue passages we are examining. It’s useful to compare these passages to Greek comedy. The protagonists are not portrayed as heroes. Rather, the issue is whether they are wise or foolish (Dinkler, page 382).

Perhaps the text that stands in the background of all these interior monologues is the counsel in Psalm 14:1, that the fool says in his heart that there is no God. Dinkler briefly examines some Hebrew Bible texts where an interior monologue is assumed or portrayed. “These instances of interior monologue demonstrate how, for many ancient Jews, an individual’s thoughts were a reliable indicator of her or his posture toward God. Usually,” Dinkler continues, “in the contexts of these writings, the think is not wise but foolish” (page 384).

Dinkler argues that this is the case in the six parabolic examples of interior monologue in the Lukan account. To cut to the chase for a moment, the Unjust Manager may be wise in the ways of this age among the children of darkness. But that wisdom does not translate into wisdom that works in the age to come and among the children of light. Figure out how to use this age’s wisdom productively, but don’t become a foolish captive to that wisdom like the protagonists in these parables. In the end, these fools end up acting like there is no god but themselves.

The Rich Fool sees only himself and not God. The Unfaithful Servant acts as if the master of the house will not return and expect to find a good and faithful servant. The prodigal son calculates the best speech to get himself out of trouble and back at his father’s table. The unjust manager does much the same. The unjust judge is identified twice as not caring two hoots about God or people. The Owner of the Vineyard is so bad at this that it costs him the life of his son.

Dinkler summarizes that all of these characters are fools to one degree or another. None is a hero. “None has a wise or honorable interior disposition, as Jewish teaching would commend” (page 392). What, therefore, as we as the listeners are readers to gain from these narratives and monologues?

First, we are drawn deeply and intimately into the drama (and comedy). The question posed several times will be our question. What shall I do? That question lands in our mouths and leads us to speak more of the words of these characters as we are pulled into the plot. We have an experience parallel to the character and an identification with that character.

We can’t help but judge the character, and perhaps ourselves, in this process of identification and empathy. The protagonists don’t come out well in the stories. Do we agree with that evaluation? If we do, how does that work out as we evaluate our own internal monologues, choices, and actions? If we experience a conflict in worldviews, the result may be conversion – metanoia (page 394).

I would return to the social positions and property status of the protagonists, something the articles don’t address as a commonality. It may be that the wisdom or foolishness of the characters is not the only item on the agenda. What impact do power, position, privilege, and status have on our relative wisdom or foolishness? My father often observed that only rich people can afford to be periodically and systemically stupid. Poor people with such behaviors tend not to survive very long. Does privilege make us stupid and foolish? It certainly tempts us to serve mammon rather than God – the definition of foolishness in Psalm 14.

Well, that’s a bit of progress on this hard text. But our work is not nearly done.

Resources and References

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.

Sellew, Philip. “Interior Monologue as a Narrative Device in the Parables of Luke.” Journal of Biblical Literature 111, no. 2 (1992): 239–53. https://doi.org/10.2307/3267542.

Text Study for Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 (Part Three)

Did the younger son “repent”? The answer to that question requires a more complex response than might first be imagined. Translation matters a great deal in the interpretation of this parable. Verse 17 is deliciously ambiguous in the Greek. “But as he was coming (in)to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s paid laborers have more than enough bread, but here I am, being destroyed by hunger!” (my translation). The verse offers divergent possibilities for interpretation.

I subscribe to Richard Swanson’s weekly e-comments/blog at “provokingthegospel.” In this week’s post, Swanson makes some helpful and interesting points. First, we hear that the younger son was “coming (in)to himself.” Swanson suggests that this “could imply that he experienced a deep, life-changing realization that remade him completely. Maybe. But,” Swanson continues, “it could also merely imply that he did the math and realized that, on his current trajectory, he would crash and burn in a short time.”

Photo by KoolShooters on Pexels.com

One response is at least the beginnings of repentance. The other is the self-serving counsel of prudence. The one thing that I wish translators wouldn’t do is make the decision for the non-Greek reading student. The Today’s English Version translation, for example, has something like “when he came to his senses.” That’s not “wrong” as a translation. But I think it over-reads the text and over-determines the outcome.

Sometimes overdoing the translation is a no-harm/no-foul action by translators. But here, I would argue that’s not the case. If one of the intentions of the Lukan author is to challenge us to wrestle with the ambiguity before coming to our own conclusions, then overdoing the translation actually violates the intention of the text. So, let’s wrestle with the text rather than resolve it prematurely. What does it mean for the younger son (and/or for us) that he “came (in)to himself”?

Swanson argues that “the translators of this scene have papered over a clue to the son’s moral state.” He is talking about the translation we get in the NRSV that describes the paid laborers as having “bread enough and to spare…” He suggests that this is a fair enough translation, but it doesn’t convey the real tone of the younger son’s complaint. It’s not that the hired help has “enough” bread, according to Swanson. The younger son is irritated as he remembers (accurately or not) that the hired hands have “more than enough” (that is, too much) bread.

The contrast is with those who have too much and don’t “deserve” it, and he who has too little even though he “deserves” to have it all. “The fact that he contrasts his situation with that of servants (who should be glad just to have a job),” Swanson writes, “suggests that he believes his status entitles him to more food. Does this sound like life-changing repentance?” No, Dr. Swanson, it doesn’t.

We should stick with this interior monologue for a bit in order to hear the real tone of the son’s conversation with himself. The use of interior monologues with the self is a consistent feature in the Lukan account and especially in several of the parables. Interior monologues are quoted seven times in the Lukan account, and six of those times are in the parables. Dinkler suggests that these monologues are consistent with the foreshadowing found in the Song of Simeon, where the elderly prophet declares that the judgments of the hearts of many will be revealed (see Luke 2:35).

Dinkler notes that in ancient Jewish literature, such as in Psalm 14:1, “what one says in/to one’s soul conditions and reflects one’s relationship with God, especially indicating wisdom or foolishness” (page 382). Most often, this self-talk emphasizes “the folly of wicked self-address” (page 383). A survey of Jewish literature within and beyond the biblical canons demonstrates “how, for many ancient Jews, an individual’s thoughts were a reliable indicator of her or his posture toward God. Usually,” Dinkler notes, “in the contexts of these writings, the thinker is not wise but foolish” (page 384).

Dinkler describes the various parabolic inner monologues in some detail. They include the foolish farmer and the unfaithful servant in Luke 12, the prodigal son in Luke 15, the crafty steward in Luke 16, the unjust judge in Luke 18, and the owner of the vineyard in Luke 20. Leaving the parable of the prodigal aside for the moment, four out of the five monologues offer negative portrayals of the characters.

The owner of the vineyard asks a question of himself, which might be neutral (but also might not). In the overall narrative of that parable however, the landowner acts recklessly and foolishly. The landowner’s folly leads to the quite predictable death of the son. Many commentators read the parable and see the landowner as yet another foolish character who talks to himself.

What about the inner monologue of the younger son? Dinkler argues that this is not such a clearcut case of a negative rhetorical evaluation of the character. He notes that the son begins as a negative figure, based on the description of his lifestyle. Traditionally, interpreters have seen a change in that description precisely at the moment when the younger son “comes in(to) himself” and begins to talk with himself. But that interpretation may miss a great deal.

“Despite the son’s apparently humble interior monologue, however,” Dinkler offers, “several clues suggest that he may not be truly repentant” (page 387). There is no mention of repentance here, as there is in the previous two parables. In addition, the son’s plans and preparations are not what produce the gracious reception on the part of the father. “Although the son’s self-talk is not overtly negative, as in the prior interior monologues,” Dinkler concludes, “narrative details converge to indicate that he misreads the situation and misunderstands his father; his thinking is incongruent with his father’s will” (pages 387-388).

In all six parables, therefore, the characters who conduct inner monologues demonstrate foolish and even arrogant thinking. They are self-serving and destructive in their relationships with others. None, Dinkler notes, would quality as a Hellenistic hero. None is wise or honorable in Jewish terms. Dinkler goes on to wonder, then, how these characters’ interior lives might impact rhetorically the Lukan readers/listeners and makes several suggestions.

Interior monologue brings us into direct and intimate contact with the characters. This contact can lead us to empathize and identify with the character. “The soliloquies invite readerly identifcation, and this invitation has an evaluative dimension to it,” Dinkler writes. “The narrator constructs the story so as to elicit particular readerly judgments with respect to the characters; these judgments, in turn, prompt readers to consider whether their own views align with the narrator’s perspective,” he continues, “thereby encouraging the μετάνοια— “change in thinking”—that is so prominent in Luke’s Gospel” (page 394).

In other words, Dinkler says, these interior monologues can lead us to consider what we would say to ourselves in similar situations. He suggests that the farmer’s “What should I do?” in Luke 12:17 turns into “What should I do?” for the reader. It’s no surprise that the same question appears in Luke 20:13 in the Parable of the Vineyard. “In a case of ironic reversal,” Dinkler suggests, “a reader who sympathizes with a thinking character’s incorrect perspective will also experience the narratorial judgment that follows” (page 394). We may find ourselves drawn into the reckless foolishness of the characters and be jolted awake by the experience.

“Luke’s moments of interiority are a kind of fusion between Hellenistic literature’s structural uses of inner speech,” Dinkler notes, “and Hebrew tropes about the danger of foolish self-talk” (page 398). We find that Luke’s characters who talk to themselves are not wise or heroic. They’re quite human, and we can easily identify with their moments of self-centered folly. In contrast to contemporary urgings to follow one’s “gut,” for example, the biblical perspective reflected in Luke suggests that our inner monologues are as likely to lead us astray as they are to give us helpful guidance.

All this being said, did the younger son “repent”? “Notice that it is only when the son plans what he will say to his father that he evinces a willingness to surrender his status,” Richard Swanson writes in his blog post. “When he speaks to himself, he notes that the servants have more food than they should rightly have, given their status. Internal monologue reveals the heart,” Swanson concludes, “and this revelation is disturbing. If the young son is finally a selfish manipulator, what will he do in the future?” Swanson asks.  The storyteller,” he reminds us, “leaves this crucial question without an answer.”

Or perhaps the narrative gives us a sort of an answer. The younger son crafts and practices his speech all the way home. He is surprised by his father’s rush to embrace him, but he launches bravely into his script. The father interrupts the speech halfway through. This is so surprising that some manuscript copyists filled in the missing last part of the speech on their own! But that obscures the point. The son’s speech cannot and does not manipulate the father into forgiving. That has already happened before the son even opened his mouth.

We don’t know how the younger son responds to this gift of grace. The interrupted speech is the last word we get from the younger son. The speaking and acting from that point on belong largely to the forgiving father. While we can wonder how it turned out for each of the sons in the parable, we can have no doubt how things turned out for the father.

That seems significant, eh?

Resources and References

Capon, Robert Farrar. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus. Kindle Edition.

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, and Witherington III, Ben. The Gospel of Luke (New Cambridge Bible Commentary). Cambridge University Press, 2018.

Swanson, Richard W. Provoking the Gospel of Luke: A Storyteller’s Commentary, Year C. Cleveland, OH.: Pilgrim Press, 2006.

Swanson, Richard W. https://provokingthegospel.wordpress.com/2022/03/20/a-provocation-4th-sunday-in-lent-march-27-2022-luke-151-3-11-32/.


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