This Sunday is the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Lectionary Cycle C. Today we consider the Judge:
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.’”
More literal translation: There was a certain judge in a certain town. Echo of previous passages – a certain rich man who experienced an abundant harvest or a certain rich man (fool) who lived in purple garments and fine linens but never gave heed to poor Lazarus.
This judge is likely a local magistrate yet of notable status within the community. Despite his exterior bearing Jesus characterizes him as someone who neither feared God nor respected any human being (v.2). In the scriptural tradition The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge (Prov 1:7) and the threshold of God’s grace: His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him (Luke 1:50). Fear (holy awe) is the manner in which he disciples and others respond to Jesus’ power (8:25, 35; 9:34, 45). Further, Jesus instructs the disciples not to fear their persecutors but to fear God (12:4-5). Luke portrays those who “fear God” in a positive manner (cf. Acts 10:2, 22, 35; 13:16, 26). It can be taken that a lack of such fear is a sign of one’s thorough wickedness. The statement that the judge does not fear God points to 2 Chron 19:7, where King Jehoshaphat appoints judges in Judah, charging them, “And now, let the fear of the LORD be upon you. Act carefully, for with the LORD, our God there is no injustice, no partiality, no bribe-taking.” Without such fear, can one expect justice or impartiality except with a bribe?
The role of judge was to maintain harmonious relations and adjudicate disputes – while hearing all complaints impartially: 16 I charged your judges at that time, ‘Listen to complaints among your kinsmen, and administer true justice to both parties even if one of them is an alien. 17 In rendering judgment, do not consider who a person is; give ear to the lowly and to the great alike, fearing no man, for judgment is God’s. Refer to me any case that is too hard for you and I will hear it.’ (Dt 1:16–17). The judge’s responsibility was to declare God’s judgment and establish shalom among the people. Yet despite the emphasis on impartiality, the OT repeatedly speaks of the obligation to show special regard for the alien, the orphan, and the widow (see Lev. 19:9–10; 23:22; Deut. 14:28–29; 24:19–22; 26:12; cf. James 1:27; on widows, see also Exod. 22:22–24; Deut. 10:16–18; 24:17; Ps. 68:5; Isa. 1:16–17; 54:4; Lam. 1:1; Mal. 3:5).
We are not told why this judge seems to have so steadfastly refused to render justice to the widow. One is left to speculate that despite the instructions of Dt 1:16-17 and the covenantal obligations to give special place to the cry of the widow, our judge has motivations that have nothing to do with God’s will or establishing shalom among the community.
The inner dialogue of the judge is similar to those of the rich fool (12:17-19), the prodigal son (15:17-19) and the dishonest steward (16:3-4). The soliloquy affirms Jesus’ initial characterization of the judge – and carries the same idea of “don’t bother me” as present in the parable of the neighbor-in-need. In the face of the persistent widow the judge “eventually…thought, ‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being, because this widow keeps bothering me I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.’” (vv.4b-5). It is unclear how long the issue has lingered without address – long enough for the judge to begin to feel badgered. Not motivated by his fear of God or sense of justice, his standing in the community – he simply fears this could escalate to bodily harm. There are translators who argue for a more literal translation of “give me a black eye.”
Like all “black eyes,” there is a double effect, representing both physical and social distress. That is, the judge complains that the widow’s relentless badgering not only causes him physical harm but also risks publicly embarrassing him. For this reason, he says – perhaps justifying his actions to his wounded sense of self? – that he relents not because he has changed his mind but simply to shut up this dangerous widow. In this case, audacious, insufferable, even intolerable behavior results in justice.
Image Credit: Братья Белоусовы (Палех), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Modified to include both parts of a larger plata.