This Sunday is the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. Earlier today we considered the larger textual placement of this parable in the flow of Luke’s writing, noting that there is an apocalyptic tone skipped over in the Sunday sequence of gospels, that lends a tone and content to the parable of the unjust judge/persistent widow. Now, we’ll continue to explore the context of the gospel reading. (note: two posts just to break up the long introductory material… interesting, but still long)
In our Gospel Jesus’ teaching “about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary” (Lk 18:1) stands as the climax of a longer section on faithfulness at the coming of the Son of Man with its decidedly eschatological edge (17:20–18:8). Read against this horizon, Jesus’s teaching is particularly oriented toward the necessity of tenacious, hopeful faith in the midst of present ordeal.
Jesus’ parable has two focal points, each associated with one of the two primary characters of the parable. On the one hand, based on an argument from lesser to greater, we hear in Jesus’ words an affirmation of the faithfulness of God: He will assuredly act with dispatch on behalf of the elect. On the other, we see in the widow’s action a model of perseverance in the midst of wrong
These two points – the certainty of God’s justice and the call for resolute faithfulness in anticipation of that certainty – need to be understood in the light of the very real situation Jesus has anticipated in 17:22–25 (the day of the coming of the Son of Man). His followers will encounter hostility, look for the deliverance into the kingdom, and, not finding it, may become disenchanted. Having anticipated this state of affairs, Jesus addresses it, first, by insisting that adversity is integral to the process by which God brings salvation (cf. 17:25, 32–34); and, second, by assuring his disciples that, despite delay, divine vindication is imminent (18:1–8).
Throughout this parable there are echoes of Sir 35:15b-25, where the figure of the widow is also highlighted and God is portrayed as one whose justice is unquestioned. Verses such as these point to other insights about the role of judges in the Old Testament. When Jehoshaphat appointed judges throughout Judah his charge to them included the admonition to “let the fear of the LORD be upon you” (2 Chr 19:7); clearly this is an attribute not shared by the judge of this parable: “There was a judge in a certain town who neither feared God nor respected any human being” (Luke 18:2)
Even with appeals to divine and human impartiality throughout (e.g., 2 Chron 19:4–7; Sir 35:15–16), the OT gives no impression that the scales of divine justice are blind. The God who liberated Israel from Egypt is the God who directs his people to show special regard toward the oppressed among them—specifically for the alien, the orphan, and the widow. In this respect, it is not accidental that Luke habitually portrays widows as persons of exemplary piety and/or as recipients of divine beneficence
The widow has no standing in the OT community given the court system of her day was in the control of men. It is not simply that she is a woman, but she finds herself before the magistrate because she has no kinsman to bring her case to court. That she is continuously before this judge suggests that she lacks the economic resources to offer the appropriate bribe necessary for a swift settlement. In the Scriptures of Israel and Jewish tradition, widowhood symbolized the ultimate state of vulnerability, status deprivation, and need; as the object of God’s concern, they were also to be cared for within the community of God’s people. It is not likely this parable is atypical of real life, rather it is a well known fact of life in which the widow struggles with a corrupt judicial system for her rights.
Image Credit: Братья Белоусовы (Палех), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Modified to include both parts of a larger plata.