By Ched Myers and Elaine Enns

 Note: The gospel reading for this Sunday, October 16, the 19th Sunday after Pentecost in the Revised Common Lectionary, is a poignant and amazing text focusing on the agency of women. We shared these reflections last month with pastors in the Greater Minneapolis Synod of the ELCA, and invite you to delight in this story of persistence that pertains both to our prayers and our politics. 

The story is introduced as a parable. Jesus tended to tackle tough issue by speaking in this particular rhetorical form, as did the Hebrew prophets before him. Unfortunately, most of our congregations still spiritualize this kind of grassroots pedagogy, typically understanding them as—see if you’ve heard this one before—”earthly stories with heavenly meanings.” Thus tales about landless peasants and rich land-owners, or lords and slaves, or lepers and lawyers—or persistent women—are lifted out of their social and historical context and reshaped into theological allegories or moralistic fables that are bereft of any political or economic edge—or consequence.  This functions to thoroughly domesticate the parable under our status quo, such that stories meant to challenge our preconceptions about the world are instead deployed by us to legitimate them. In this way, we effectively disarm one of the Bible’s most powerful rhetorical weapons, whose purpose is to rescue us from our domestication and dehumanization under that very status quo.  But what if parables were actually “earthy stories with heavy meanings” as Ched’s teacher Bill Herzog argued in his wonderful book, now a quarter century old, about Jesus as a pedagogue of poor communities?

Jesus’ parabolic pedagogy narrated recognizable scenarios in plain language that any illiterate peasant could understand: farming (Mk 4:1ff) and shepherd-ing (Mt 18:12-14), being in debt (Lk 7:41-43) and doing hard labor (Mt 20:1ff), being excluded from banquets (Lk 14:1ff) and from the houses of the rich (Lk 16:19ff).  These vignettes would draw the listener into their familiarity, only to throw a surprise twist in order to challenge popular assumptions about what was proprietary and what was possible: a miraculous harvest (Mk 4:8), an enemy as a friend (Lk 10:33), or unexpected vindication, as in our text (Lk 18:2ff).

 Jesus was on a mission to get us to see the world differently: “Do you have eyes, yet fail to see…?” he asks his disciples in Mk 8:18 (see 4:10-12).  His aim was to clarify a double vision:

   1)  to unmask illusions his audience had about the status quo and their place in it; in order to
   2)  open their hearts and minds to the alternative he called the “Sovereignty of God.” 

We call this today “deconstructing” and “reconstructing” consciousness.  Jesus thus employs two kinds of parables: those that unmask and critique the way the world really is (e.g., the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the gospel reading of a few weeks ago, Lk 16:19-31), and those that offer a glimpse of the way the world could be—like this sketch of an importunate, tireless activist woman who actually prevails over a powerful white patriarchal system manager!

With that tradition of storytelling background in mind, let’s be clear about this parable in its real life context. Jesus is not inventing some fable about a superhero woman who topples all patriarchal plutocrats with amazing magical powers. He’s relating a tale about persistent women he knew. This included his mother and the powerful peasant women of his people’s histories and traditions, from Sarah to Myriam and from Rahab to Bathsheba (e.g. the ones that Matthew’s gospel snuck into his genealogy of Jesus, Mt 1:1-16).

Such women have always been the backbone of poor communities, including in premodern Europe. These grassroots leaders are strong; they are indeed “importunate” (the adjective often used as a subtitle for this text in Second Testaments); and they prevail more often than the men who try to suppress, manage or avoid them might imagine.

One thinks of modern activist women like the late, venerable Grace Lee Boggs of Detroit, who drew various social movement streams into powerful unity and mentored generations of young organizers for justice (right, Robert Shetterly’s portrait of Boggs for his “Americans Who Tell the Truth” series).  When you are done reading this reflection, we encourage you to take a few minutes to “say their names” to celebrate such women who come to your mind and heart. But first, a closer look at Jesus’ parable, which is one of many Lukan stories that have been marginalized or domesticated by a patriarchal church.

Like so many of Luke’s narrative set ups (e.g. the Lazarus and Dives story that came up in the lectionary three Sundays ago), two opposed characters are introduced synoptically—that is, living side by side in different social universes. The only thing they have in common is that they inhabit “a certain city”—likely a euphemistic code for “We all know which city we’re talking about here”—though in contrasting social places.  The essential opposition is that he has no respect for law or people, while she, a widow (deserving of social solidarity according to Torah, but too often an exploited class), refuses to settle for anything short of full justice (we’re not given details of a case, just the principle). It’s a kind of classic “irresistible force meets immovable object” scenario! 

The plot of the story is brief, and takes place all in the judge’s head (vv. 4-5; the “internal conversation” is a device Luke often uses as a way of giving poor people a glimpse into the otherwise inscrutable minds of the elite). He confirms the narrator’s assessment of his own corrupt character, but also allows that he is just exhausted from the woman’s inconvenient and indefatigable pressing, always up in his grill! The verb “she will wear me out” (Gk hupōpiazē) is a boxing term that means literally “giving a black eye” (used by Paul in I Cor 9:27). In modern parlance that idiom connotes something worse than physical violence: it’s eroding someone’s public reputation. This woman is like running water, wearing him down: an embodiment of Amos’s insistence that justice flow down like a mighty stream. We love the late 18th century painting at right: one dude tries to hold this woman back while she gives the judge a finger while all the men behind her freak out while a baby runs toward her in joy! At the center of the pandemonium she is animating, she stands bright and firm.

Why does Jesus want his listeners to imagine what is happening in the heads of the rich and powerful (underlined by v. 6)?  We would argue that it is to assure them: “You can’t imagine how afraid they are of you using your power through persistent, untiring advocacy!” But even if the patriarchal ruler never yields, adds Jesus the realist in his concluding interpretation (using the rabbinic logic of arguing from the lesser to the greater), we can count on God’s fidelity to the dream of justice (v. 7-8a). Because this God, according to Jesus’ peoples’ oldest traditions, always hears and listens to the cry of the poor (Ex 3:7f; 6:5).  

What we love most about this parable is how Jesus correlates the stubborn persistence of public advocacy to that of fierce prayer. Contemplation and action are not opposed to each other, but two expressions of just faith. Because God’s universe bends toward justice, continually acting and praying for justice are not exercises in futility, but the very way by which the Sovereignty of God comes.  Just ask any woman warrior. The Atlantic magazine wrote a few years ago about the remarkable 2016 picture at right of Ieshia Evans: “A single woman stands in the roadway, feet firmly planted. She poses no obvious threat. She is there to protest the excessive force which Baton Rouge police deploy against the city’s black citizens. She stands in front of police headquarters. And she is being arrested by officers who look better prepared for a war than a peaceful protest. These are images that are impossible to forget, searing themselves into our collective consciousness. One man staring down a column of tanks in Tiananmen Square. A high school student attacked by police dogs in Birmingham, Alabama. This is such a photo.” And it is impossible to differentiate as an image of prayer or activism.

The twist in this parable comes at the very end: “And yet, when the Human One comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Lk 18:8b) This question is meant to haunt all of us who aspire to practice just faith. It challenges us to think of uncompromising women who have advocated for justice past and present, famous and forgotten, and to learn from, and walk in, their way of “hersistence.” We invite you to take a minute to do bring them to your mind and heart, and/or brainstorm among your friends and colleagues. There are many, and they have always held up the world.

Some of the women our ELCA group thought of last month. How many do you recognize?

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