The Persistent Widow – Context

01_Persistent_WidowLuke 18:1-8  1 Then he told them a parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary. He said, 2 “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being. 3 And a widow in that town used to come to him and say, ‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’ 4 For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, 5 because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’” 6 The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says. 7 Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night? Will he be slow to answer them? 8 I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily. But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

Context.  On the 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time the story of the 10 lepers and the portions of Luke’s gospel that precede those verses, dealt with forgiveness, faith and gratitude. There is a portion of Luke’s gospel that is passed over in the Ordinary Time sequence – Luke 17:20-37.  You can find the reading here.

At first read this somewhat apocalyptic text seems misplaced – aren’t those readings located in Jerusalem just prior to the Passion? But Luke has a logic for inclusion of vv.20-37. The disciples had asked that their faith be increased and they were told that they did not understand the nature of faith (17:5-6). As almost a counterpoint, the one leper who returns in gratitude to Jesus (vv.15-16) is told that his faith has saved him (v.19). The experience of the leper, seeing his healing and praising God, offers an apt illustration that the kingdom of God is among you (v.21) even as the Pharisees ask in v.20 when the kingdom of God would come.

It is worth mentioning again Joel Green’s (The Gospel of Luke, 627) insight about Jesus words to the leper, your faith has saved you:

Here, something more than healing must be intended, since (1) the efficacy of faith is mentioned and (2) all ten lepers experienced cleansing. The Samaritan was not only cleansed, but on account of faith gained something more — namely, insight into Jesus’ role in the inbreaking kingdom. He is enabled to see and is thus enlightened, itself a metaphor for redemption.

The account of the ten lepers relates a typical pattern of God’s activities throughout scriptures, namely, God acts first. Then our proper response to God’s actions is praise and thanksgiving as we come to see God’s hand in what has happened.  The one leper has given evidence in his life and praise that the kingdom is indeed among us. The Pharisees, still blind, are asking about signs of the kingdom – about the when and where of the in-breaking of God’s reign.

The Pharisees are told that the coming of the kingdom will not be preceded by observable signs, but also such phenomena will not even accompany the coming of the kingdom – indeed, the kingdom is already among you (v.21).[1]  Lacking the eyes of faith they misinterpret the signs all around them and are blind to the presence of the kingdom. This brings about the judgment described in 17:20-39 and makes particularly poignant a verse from our 29th Sunday text: But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth? (18:8).

One context of these sections of Luke is the connection between gratitude-vision/faith-judgment. With this in mind listen again to the words of St. Paul:

18 The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth by their wickedness. 19 For what can be known about God is evident to them, because God made it evident to them. 20 Ever since the creation of the world, his invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, they have no excuse; 21 for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. (Rom 1:18-21)

Jesus’ parable about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary (v.1) stands as a climax for the longer section on faithfulness at the coming of the Son of Man (17:20-18:8). Read against the horizon of 17:22-37, Jesus’ teaching is particularly oriented toward the necessity of steadfast, hopeful faith in the midst of trials.

This parable is unique to Luke, as is the following parable on prayer (18:9-14, the gospel for the 30th Sunday in Year C). Luke has a greater emphasis on prayer than the other gospels. In the following five synoptic events, Luke adds a comment that Jesus is praying that is not found in the other gospels:

  • Jesus is praying at his baptism before heavens open (3:21)
  • Jesus spends the night praying to God before selecting the twelve (6:12)
  • Jesus is praying before he asks the disciples, “Who do the crowds/you say that I am?” (9:18)
  • Jesus is praying on the mountain before the transfiguration. (9:28, 29)
  • Jesus is praying before the disciples ask him to teach them to pray. (11:1)

The following parables about prayer are unique to Luke:

  • The Friend at Midnight (11:5-8, following the Lord’s Prayer)
  • The Widow and the Judge (18:1-8)
  • The Pharisee and the Tax Collector (18:9-14)

Brian Stoffregen also points out that besides the topic of prayer, our text and the following parable are also connected by a number of words with the Greek root –dik– = generally referring to “what is right”.

  • a-dik-ia — unjust (18:6)
  • a-dik-os — evildoers (18:11)
  • anti-dik-os — opponent (18:3)
  • dik-aios — righteous (18:9)
  • dik-aioo — justified (18:14)
  • ek-dik-eo — grant justice (18:3, 5)
  • ek-dik-esis — grant justice (18:7, 8)

Is this Luke’s way to convey that the content of prayer must always address justice or the lack of it? Clearly the parable of the judge and widow is a case of justice that has seemingly been denied.

[1]     Some translations of v.21 take entros to be “within you” versus “among you” leading some to over accent the idea of God’s indwelling as the location of the kingdom, thus a purely spiritual kingdom. Yet other text speak of the kingdom as objective and coming (21:31; 22:16,18).  Given that in v.21 the pronoun “you” (hymeis) is plural “among you” or “in the midst of you” is a better translation – and thus more in-line with these other verses.

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