mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

Notes on Luke 18 1-8

Here are reading notes on Luke 18:1-8, “the parable of the unjust judge,” the common text for Sunday, July 15:

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: What is verse 8 doing here?

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve come back to Luke (there are few notes on the whole gospel here and here).

Chapter 18 is near the end of Luke’s “going to Jerusalem” section (9:51-19:27); what’s left after this are Jesus’ warnings to the disciples about what is about to happen, the healing of a blind man near Jericho, the episode with Zacchaeus in Jericho, and Luke’s version of the parable of the talents (which has an eschatological dimension).

Prior to this, Jesus’ mind has also been on eschatology: after the story of Lazarus and the rich man, Jesus has talked about disciples’ legitimate expectations (Luke 17:1-19), healed 10 lepers (Luke 17:11-19) – just one of whom recognizes the source of his sudden blessedness – and given a long lecture on the signs of the kingdom of God (Luke 17:20-37; spoiler alert: there aren’t any “warning signs.”)

The eschatology in the context should probably make us look for some eschatology in the parable. Jesus brings it in himself, by referring to the “coming of the Son of Man” in verse 8.

The widow is a particularly vulnerable member of the community, since (by definition) her husband has died, possibly leaving her with no means of support. The Torah makes special provisions for widows, orphans and aliens, presumably precisely because of this vulnerability, and the prophets decry people’s willful disregard of these provisions. (e.g., Exodus 22:21-27, 23:1-9; Deuteronomy 10:12-22, 24:17-22, 27:19; Isaiah 1:22-26; Jeremiah 22:1-9)

The judge is a less straightforward figure that we might expect.

First century Roman Palestine was an occupied territory, with a complicated set of political and social arrangements. There was more than one judicial system. People used this fact strategically to get the best deals for themselves in a variety of legal matters (marriage contracts, divorces, business dealings, inheritance disputes, and so on).

The “customary law” of Judea would be “Jewish law;” usually Jewish law would be administered by a three-person judicial panel, but in some cases an individual rabbi might be deputized to decide in some cases. Either way, customary officials probably would not have had the same ability to enforce their decisions as Roman officials would have had. (This is demonstrated in Acts – see Acts 21:27-26:32 in particular; in Acts, this political situation might be a good thing for Paul.)

It would be easy to imagine a case in which customary law would have been on a widow’s side, because of the provisions of the Torah, without being enforceable by a sympathetic rabbi-judge. Such a widow might have sought an advocate in a Gentile official.

This is one good reason to suspect “the unrighteous judge” is a Gentile. The widow might also be a Gentile. Or maybe the widow is Jewish, but is pestering this Gentile administrative official because she has not gotten the answer she wants from the Jewish justice system. But we could imagine both characters are Jewish, a rabbi with some individual legal authority, and the widow who wants him to defend her cause. People read the text all these ways. (Here is one all-Jewish reading.)

CLOSER READING: The narrator tells us the parable concerns “the need to pray always and not to lose heart.” (v1) So, we know what it means before we even hear it. “The need to pray always and not to lose heart” immediately follows the q&a about when, and where, and how we will know the coming of the reign of God. Maybe, then, the reign of God is what we need to pray always and not lose heart about?

The setting is nowhere in particular: “a certain city.”

The judge is described by what he doesn’t do. He doesn’t “fear God” – that is, he recognizes no higher authority that can hold him to account. In human terms, he has no motive to obey God’s rules, as articulated in the Torah, if he even acknowledges the Torah at all.

Likewise he doesn’t “regard” people – in Greek, the passive form of the same verb means something like “suffers shame.” The idea seems to be that the judge does not need to or try to impress people, or doesn’t consider others’ opinions when he renders judgment. We can imagine this as a negative attribute, if we think that what people think of us helps keep us in line. Alternatively, we might be able to see this as a positive quality in a judge, contributing to his complete impartiality.

The widow (v3) is described by what she does. She acts continuously; she keeps showing up and making a demand. She demands justice – maybe “vindication,” maybe she is asking the judge to “avenge” her – against her adversary. Why? What is this about? We don’t know. Except that, from what we know about widows, and their woes, we might easily imagine it has something to do with property.

She must think the judge can help her. We could even say she has faith in this judge.

At last we hear the judge’s thoughts: he reiterates the description in v2. His sole motive, expressed in v5, is his relationship with the widow. She keeps, literally, “bringing him trouble” or the kind of exhaustion one gets from laborious toil. The verb in Greek has the connotation of coming up from behind – the image is that she dogs his steps all the time. “In the end,” she might … do whatever this verb means that is translated “wear me out.”

Literally, it means something like “give me a black eye,” and it is translated many different ways, both in versions, and in other contexts (KJV and NRSV “weary me” or “wear me out”; Common English: embarrass me; English Standard: “beat me down;” Phillips “be the death of me”; New American “strike me”; NIV “attack me.” It is the same verb Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 9:27, the only other time this word is used in the NT, to describe the way he treats himself in view of the ultimate prize.) Derrett argues it means something like “blacken my face”[1] (which will be familiar to readers of the Qur’an, since it is what will happen to unbelievers on the last day, right before they end up in hell).

We know this: it is undesirable; and it is within her power.

Maybe this is no ordinary widow? Or maybe, as Derrett argues, it’s in the widow’s power to destroy the judge’s precious reputation for impartiality and integrity. This is an appealing reading, especially because it underscores the widow’s symbolic similarity to Israel, vis-à-vis God, waiting for God’s ultimate vindication, and relies on the idea that God acts so as not to bring dishonor to God’s name by not acting. (e.g., Psalm 79:10; Psalm 106:8; Isaiah 48:11; Ezekiel 20:9, 36:22)

In v6, Jesus labels the judge “unjust” – maybe because he doesn’t fear God, but maybe because he is a human judge and therefor, intrinsically unjust. The way earthly wealth is intrinsically dishonest (Luke 16:9).

Jesus applies a familiar principle of interpretation: if something applies in a lesser case, it will apply even more in a greater one. If something applies to unjust humans, it will apply much more to the just God. If the unjust judge will grant relief to someone he doesn’t care about, God will definitely grant relief to people God loves.

But when the justice comes – when the Son of Man comes – will that divine justice meet human faith?

Why does Jesus ask this??

What are the alternatives? What else would it meet?

CONCLUDING THOUGHTS: This all makes me wonder whether the issue in the parable might be who “we” (whoever “we” are) seek justice and relief from – that is, whether we continue to have faith that God is the source of justice, or give up on that idea, and pursue other possibilities.

But it also makes me wonder where we really stand in the parable – we might be inclined to think of ourselves as the widow, or like the widow, in the position to be asking for “justice;” Jesus’ listeners probably thought of themselves this way, since they lived cheek-by-jowl with Roman occupiers, and were hungering and thirsting after the righteousness of not being imperialized.

But we might not be living under imperial occupation. (Or are we?) So what if we are more like the judge, in a position to be granting justice? In that case, who is hounding us, demanding justice? And what are going to be the ultimate consequences for us if we don’t accede to that demand?

[1] J. Duncan M. Derrett. “Law in the New Testament: The Parable of the Unjust Judge”. Glimpses of the Legal and Social Presuppositions of the Authors. (Studies in the New Testament, Volume I, Leiden: Brill, 1977) 32-47. (via Google Books)

mosaic of ox representing St. Luke

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