By Ched Myers
Note: This post is part of a series of weekly comments on the Lukan gospel readings from the Revised Common Lectionary during Year C, 2016. [Image below: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, J.B. Forbes/Associated Press, found at http://www.thefeministwire.com/2014/10/fergusonfridays-black-freedom-fighters-men-interview-black-women-front-line-ferguson/.]
This Sunday’s gospel lesson is the second of two key stories about “determined prayer” in Luke. As is so characteristic of the third evangelist, this vignette about a woman’s unflagging insistence on being heard corresponds to an earlier one about similar importunate behavior by a man (see Luke 11:5-13). That text came up in the middle of the summer (see Wes and Sue’s comments on “shameless audacity” and its relevance to the Black Lives Matter movement here). Each story has two “onstage” characters (a protagonist and antagonist), with the Divine “comparison” well offstage. But while the earlier object lesson took place in a village setting and concerned neighborly hospitality and mutual aid among social equals, our text for October 16 takes place in the city and pits social opposites; it pertains to the public vocation of tenacious advocacy for justice. These twinned stories together articulate how deeply connected the personal and political were for Luke, and should be for us.
Sunday’s story is framed as an instructional parable about prayer as a practice of “not losing hope.” The Greek verb engkakeō in the N.T. always counsels endurance through opposition and/or hardship meant to discourage (see 2 Cor 4:1, 16; Gal 6:9; Eph 3:13; 2 Th 3:13), and so this lesson could not be more important to those working for justice in today’s world, not least in Clinton-and-Trump’s America! Indeed, the scene opens up in “a certain city” (Gk en tini polei), suggesting that the original tale may have alluded to a notorious political personality of the time.
That very figure is introduced first in this account, a judge portrayed in the worst possible light (Lk 18:2). Opposing him “in that same city” is a solitary widow, whose social status was particularly vulnerable in patriarchal antiquity (see some of the many verses exhorting compassion for them here). The judge’s character traits (he “neither feared God nor had respect for people,” repeated in v. 4) represents exactly the opposite of what scripture demands from an adjudicator of “justice,” defined concisely by Isaiah as to “rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (Is 1:17).
Indeed, there is a special relationship in the Bible between the vocation of “judging” and the plight of widows, which is archetypally exhibited by God’s own example:
For the LORD your God…executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. (Deut 10:17-18)
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute. Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
(Ps 82:2-4, see Ps 72:2-4)
Rise up, O judge of the earth… how long shall the wicked exult? They pour out their arrogant words; all the evildoers boast. They crush your people, O LORD, and afflict your heritage. They kill the widow and the stranger, they murder the orphan, and they say, “The LORD does not see; the God of Jacob does not perceive.” (Ps 94:2-7)
The LORD rises to argue the case; God stands to judge… the elders and princes of the people: “It is you who have devoured the vineyard; the spoil of the poor is in your houses. What do you mean by crushing My people, by grinding the face of the poor?” says the Lord GOD of hosts. (Is 3:13-15)
Clearly, Luke has drawn us a cartoon of glaring inequality and oppression.
The heart of the plot that now unfolds is whether “justice will be gained.” That refrain now echoes through each of the three “scenes”:
- the widow persists in demanding justice (v. 3)
- the apostate judge is so worn out that he finally “hears” and grants it (v. 5);
- Jesus (like the prophets cited above) invokes God’s character as a stark contrast, Who grants justice “quickly” and “without delay” (vv. 7f)
The widow’s struggle, against all odds, is to “exact justice (Gk ekdikēsōn) from my adversary” (Gk antidikou; note the same root in both words). This is an all too familiar scenario still today: to demand for that which the “system” in neither inclined nor able to realize fully. Yet demand we must!
Luke’s verb here connotes “avenging” injustice in order to relieve the suffering of victims, and this prayer was often uttered by the first Christians under the seemingly omnipotent boot of the Roman Empire (2 Thess 1:8; Rev 6:10; 19:2). They understood that while ultimately, true “vengeance” is a task for which only God truly qualifies (Rom 12:19), like Luke here they yet insisted that true justice would arrive surely and “quickly” (Lk 18:8, Gk en tachei; see Rom 16:20; Rev 22:6). And somehow, it will be speedier as a result of stubborn human advocacy.
Which brings us to the punchline of the tale in Luke 16:5 (pun very much intended). It is only because of the widow’s tenacity that anything changes here. All gender propriety has been exhausted, suggested by the two phrases that explain the judge’s course-reversal. She “keeps bothering me,” he laments (the identical phrase Gk parechein moi kopon appears in the earlier twin story in 11:7). Meaning “to make trouble or difficult work for,” a modern paraphrase would be “becoming a pain in the ass.” But the tipping point is his admission that she is “wearing me out.” The Greek upōpiazō means literally “to strike under the eye” (hence the term “browbeat”; see 1 Cor 9:27).
Jesus’ “moral to the story” (as in 11:8-10) is to exhort listeners to persist in pressing for what is needed and right (18:6-8a). This is not futile because God’s nature is compassion and justice—unlike the “unjust judge” (v. 6, kritēs tēs adikias, an oxymoron!) “Faith” is here identified with determined advocacy for justice. And this sort of faith is all too scarce in our communities—so much so that Jesus wonders aloud, “when the Human One comes, will he encounter faith on earth?” (18:8b)
This messy, shrill, remarkable story offers, I believe, a poignant portrait of, apologia for, and call to militant nonviolent engagement with the Powers. In closing, I point the reader to two beautiful expressions of the spirit of today’s gospel. One is Lindsay Airey’s reflections earlier this year on how this text illumines and is illuminated by the witness of the uncompromising women of the Detroit water struggle today. The other is this recording of a youth choir singing the venerable South Africa freedom song “Bambelela” (“Never Give Up”). May our churches recover this sort of prayer-as-agitating-faith!