So are we really having a parable today about an important man who “who neither feared God nor had respect for people” pitted in conflict against an older woman who is persistently “bothering” him? Thanks, God….
When the deacon finished reading today’s gospel, I bet most of you felt like it was a good story, right? Jesus tells a curious parable about an unjust judge and a widow, and there is resolution in the end. The widow walks away with justice, we feel satisfied that the vulnerable have been protected, and if we are a little disturbed by the way Luke equates the unjust judge with God—if, perhaps, in our own prayer, which Luke tells us this parable is about, we have experienced God to be a similarly taciturn and unresponsive figure—we sort of skip over this with the idea that if the widow can have her claim satisfied, then perhaps our own prayers will find favor with God as well, so long as we keep at him.
Parables weren’t told to make the people who hear them feel good about themselves. Parables are meant to get at uncomfortable truths that are otherwise inaccessible—truths that when they are told directly create resistance and might get you killed, but when they are told as a story can create illumination and self-reflection. So if we feel self-satisfied or unchallenged by a parable, we probably aren’t hearing it right.
I spent some time this week reading Amy-Jill Levine’s book Short Stories by Jesus, which is her exegesis of many of Jesus’ parables—his short stories. I left the chapter about today’s parable more confused than when I started—which is probably healthy and what a parable is supposed to do.
To start: if you think about how the Bible came to be, we know that Jesus said all sorts of things, and people repeated those stories, and eventually wrote them down, and eventually someone—or some community—who became known as Luke took a couple different sources of the things that Jesus said and did and formed them into the Gospel of Luke. We know the author of Luke had access to the Gospel of Mark, because Luke includes pretty much all of that Gospel, and that the author of Luke had access to a set of sayings by Jesus that is known as “Q,” which the author of the Gospel of Matthew also had, because both Gospels include very similar sets of sayings of Jesus. How they located those stories and how they interpreted them differed—as an editor, Matthew, Mark and Luke (and John—though his Gospel is totally different) had a lot of leeway in encouraging their readers to understand what Jesus meant by a certain story or parable, often by how they fit within the narrative, and what specifically they depict Jesus as saying. The most obvious example might be the Beatitudes, which in Luke begin, “Blessed are the poor…” and have a real focus on earthly poverty and worries, but in Matthew begin “Blessed are the poor in spirit…” which is something very different. Editors, and the choices they make, matter.
Today’s parable is only found in Luke. And if you look at how the parable fits in the narrative, you can see Luke’s hand at work. He introduces the parable: “Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not lose heart.” Now, if you had not read that, I bet that when you read the next section, the actual parable, you would not think that the parable was about prayer. The parable itself is just the next quote from Jesus, beginning with “In a certain city…” and ending with, “…wear me out by continually coming.” What follows after that is also Luke’s interpretation, cloaked as Jesus’ interpretation.
So we are left with just the widow and the judge. Now, when you heard this parable, who did you think was the good character? The widow, right? … We know about widows from scripture—widows are vulnerable and poor and protected by the law. There are lots of widow characters in scripture, so we have a stereotype of “biblical widow” in our heads—and it’s a good stereotype. We also know she’s the good character because she is seeking justice. God is always on the side of justice.
Now what if I told you the word “justice” wasn’t in the parable in Greek?
The word for what the widow is demanding—per Amy-Jill Levine—isn’t justice. It’s vengeance. The widow is asking the judge to avenge her. We don’t know if her cause is just. And we don’t even know if she is a poor widow—she seems to have plenty of time on her hands to harass the judge persistently—perhaps she’s a wealthy widow—they did exist. How would it change how we hear the parable, if it were about a wealthy avenging widow?
When the judge responds, he uses a boxing term for why he is relenting… when he says he is afraid the widow will “wear him out” what he’s saying is that he’s afraid she’s going to hit him in the face. He says he will give the widow vengeance out of fear of her… it’s one thing when the judge relents and gives out justice, which he should have given anyway. But what does it mean when the judge gives out vengeance? And as Levine points out, while not fearing God is never a good criteria in 1st Century Judaism, to “not have respect for persons” could mean—positively—that the judge does not render his judgments based upon bribes and responding to the status of his complainants.
I’ve destroyed another Bible story for you, haven’t I?
It’s quite possible that neither character in this parable is savory or someone we should be emulating. A few weeks ago we heard the similarly unsatisfying parable of the unjust manager… the parable ends and you ask yourself, “What am I supposed to learn from this??”
The sayings like this parable that are in scripture that are so confusing and at odds with so many of our expectations about Jesus’ theology are probably the ones that Jesus actually said… because even Luke has to try to frame this parable with an interpretation that is a real stretch. Luke is so uncomfortable with it, that he tries to make it about prayer… “Keep praying. Don’t lose heart.”
Following Jesus is not easy. And maybe one gift of this parable for us today is that as Jesus challenges the stereotypes of his own day—the good widow, the evil judge—so we are called to challenge the stereotypes of our own day. Following Jesus does not provide us with clear answers about everything. Following Jesus does not give us perfect people to celebrate or perfectly evil people to despise. God can be present in changing minds and hearts. And God can be present in faithful persistence. The people we perceive as good can still desire vengeance; the people we perceive as bad can still do the right thing—even if it’s for the wrong reason.
And the people who mold our traditions can sometimes add to them very wisely. “Pray always, and do not lose heart,”is not the message that may go best with this parable… but it’s a good message, one that I needed to hear in this season. We prayed this morning for our upcoming election. And we are going to keep doing so every Sunday until November 8. We are going to be persistent. We are going to pray always, and not lose heart.