|Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at|
This parable is unique to Luke, as is the following parable on prayer (18:9-14 -- the text for October 28). Luke has a greater emphasis on prayer than the other gospels. In the following five synoptic events, Luke adds a comment that Jesus is praying that is not found in the other gospels:
The following parables about prayer are unique to Luke:
A possible reason for this is that "Most Excellent Theophilus," to whom this writing is addressed may have been a Roman official (even though he has a Greek name). As such, he, and those with whom he might share this "gospel," may not have known how to pray. Part of Luke's presentation of Jesus and those who follow him is the importance of prayer for Jesus and his followers.
Besides the topic of prayer, our text and the following parable are also connected by a number of words with the Greek root -dik- = generally referring to "what is right".
|a-dik-ia -- unjust (18:6)|
|a-dik-os -- evildoers (18:11)|
|anti-dik-os -- opponent (18:3)|
|dik-aios -- righteous (18:9)|
|dik-aioo -- justified (18:14)|
|ek-dik-eo -- grant justice (18:3, 5)|
|ek-dik-esis -- grant justice (18:7, 8)|
One of Luke's ongoing themes is the inclusivity of the Gospel. In these two parables (18:1-14), prayers are answered by God for a (saintly and probably poor) widow and the sinful (and probably rich) male tax collector.
There is a sense that our parable deals with the question raised by the Pharisees in 17:20: "When is the kingdom of God coming?" Or, in the language of this parable, "When will this widow receive justice?"
The connection is also indicated by v. 8 when Jesus talks about the coming of the Son of Man. What do we do while waiting -- especially when injustices seem rampant? We pray night and day, expecting that God will grant justice to the chosen ones (v. 7), just as an unjust judge will grant the widows request -- just to get her off his back.
On one hand, Jesus gives an answer to the Pharisees' question in 17:21b: "the kingdom of God is among you" (NRSV). This could refer to the presence of Jesus who was among the people. The kingdom has come with Jesus. Yet, at the same time, Luke's readers and we are still waiting for that day.
Jensen (Preaching Luke's Gospel) picks up on this theme (emphasis in the original):
When is the kingdom of God coming? That was the question of the Pharisees. Jesus' answers was that the kingdom is both present in his life and yet to be revealed in public for all to see. We are not to be discouraged or lose heart as we live out this paradoxical Christian reality. We should, rather, look to the example of a woman who did not lose heart. Her persistence evoked a response even from an unrighteous judge. God is not unrighteous. God will come and grant justice to the righteous ones. God will grant justice to those who stand firm in their faith. Faith is strengthened through prayer! Will the Son of man find faith on earth when he returns? He will if we have been faithful in prayer that our faith not lose heart. [p. 191]
Tiede (Luke) takes this theme a step further:
Luke appears to be addressing a circumstance in his own community of loss of hope in the final judgment. Prayer is therefore the necessary means for not yielding to temptation (11:4b) or experiencing the failure of faith (22:46). The present time is the period of ongoing struggle with tribulations (see Acts 11:19; 14:22; 20:23), and the faithful long for vindication. [p. 304]
Tannehill (Luke) also brings in this larger context:
In the context of the parable, the widow's request, "Grant me justice," would probably relate to a financial matter. In the larger context, her request relates to the disciples' longing in 17:22, a longing for the return of the victorious Son of Man and the fulfillment of God's promises. The instruction "to pray always and not lose heart," then, has a specific focus. It is prayer for justice in an unjust world and for the vindication of believers who criticize the world's values and face the world's ridicule and persecution. This prayer is part of seeking a transformed world. [p. 264]
Related to an untransformed, unjust world, when I wrote these notes three years ago, Matthew Shepherd had just died. Two young men who had severely beaten him and tied him to a fence post in Laramie, Wyoming. What would be justice? What should we pray for?
We still remember September 11, 2001, when thousands, mostly civilians, were murdered in four suicide plane crashes. What would be justice? What should we pray for?
Our military forces are in Afghanistan and Iraq. Soldiers and civilians are dying. How many more people will be killed? Are their lives worth the price of the justice we seek? What would it "cost" us (and the world) if we don't take such measures to eradicate terrorism? What would be justice for the world? What should we pray for?
When will wars and killing and hatred end? When will God's kingdom come? What should we be doing while waiting?
Verse 1 is an introduction to the parable. Verses 2-5 is the parable. Verses 6-8 is a concluding comment. We need to remember that this story, as well as the following story on prayer, are parables. They point to some other truths than the events in the story. In studying parables, one should both examine the parable itself; and then see how it is used within its context. They are not always the same.
Culpepper (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible) suggests this distinction:
Taken by itself, however, the parable may call attention to God's responsiveness to the widow as an exemplar of the poor and oppressed rather than to the widow's persistence in pressing her case. [p. 337]
Verse 2 introduces a judge who is not fit to be a judge. He doesn't fear God nor have any respect for human beings. This phrase is also repeated in v. 4, probably to emphasize the unfitness of the judge -- who is aware of his unfitness.
Verse 3 introduces the widow. The nature of her complaint is not specified. She asks for justice (ekdikeo). This verb (vv. 3 & 5) and related noun (vv. 7 & 8) imply that she had been wronged and wants justice (or revenge).
It is not stated why the judge won't grant her request. Conjectures have been made as to the judge's motivations, e.g., waiting for a bribe, not wanting to offend the more powerful person who caused the injustice to the widow. Such suppositions go beyond what the text tells us.
Verse 4 begins by saying that for a time the judge just didn't want (thelo) to deal with her request. It was a matter of his will.
In 4b-5, we hear the judge talking to himself. This is a frequent technique in the Lukan parables (the rich fool, 12:17-19; the prodigal son (15:17-19; the dishonest steward, 16:3-4).
This inner monologue indicates that the judge acts out of selfish motives. He will grant the widow's request, not because he fears God or respects people; but to get this troublesome woman off his back.
His reflection about the widow "bothering" (kopos) him recalls the same word used when the neighbor is pounding on the door at midnight: "Do not bother me," says the voice from inside. In both cases, the persistent asking resulted in a positive -- though reluctant -- response to the repeated request.
The NRSV includes two translations of 5b:
Tannehill (Luke) comments about this phrase:
The translation of the last part of verse 5 is uncertain. The NRSV's "wear me out" is an attempt to translate hypopiazo, which literally means "strike under the eye" or "give a black eye to." It is a term applied to boxers, not a term one would normally apply to a widow. It is probably not meant literally (partly because the present subjunctive implies repeated action), but a forceful phrase is needed for translation. Perhaps "that she may not keep battering me" will do. The picture would probably strike the audience as comic. [p. 264]
Could "giving a black eye to" also suggest that her continued actions, which continually point out his refusal to fear God and respect people and grant justice, makes him look bad?
Here, like with the unjust (adikia) steward (16:8, 9), this unjust judge does the right thing, but for the wrong reasons. If they can act justly out of misplaced motives, how much more will God grant justice (or make friends) out of proper motives?
Craddock (Luke) concludes his comments on these verses with:
The human experience is one of delay and honestly says as much, even while acknowledging the mystery of God's ways. Is the petitioner being hammered through long days and nights of prayer into a vessel that will be able to hold the answer when it comes? We do not know. All we know in the life of prayer is asking, seeking, knocking, and waiting, trust sometimes fainting, sometimes growing angry. Persons of such prayer life can only wonder at those who speak of prayer with the smiling facility of someone drawing answers from a hat. In a large gathering of persons concerned about certain unfair and oppressive conditions in our society, an elderly black minister read this parable and gave a one-sentence interpretation: "Until you have stood for years knocking at a locked door, your knuckles bleeding, you do not really know what prayer is." ...
Following the parable, Jesus poses his own question to disciples who have been asking him When? and Where? concerning the coming of the Son of man. When the Son of man does come, will he find faith still alive among us? It is those who endure who will rejoice at his coming; for others, it will be a day of darkness, not of light. [pp. 209-10]
What is this faith that Jesus hopes to find on earth when the Son of man comes? Is it the persistent prayer of the widow (see also the widow Anna who prayed day and night in the temple 2:37)? Is it the continual demand for justice from one experiencing injustice? (Craddock notes that a widow in that culture was an image of helplessness easily victimized by the powerful.) Could "faith" also be applied to the judge -- to people in such positions -- will they fear God and respect people and grant justice?
Culpepper suggests an application from the judge's position:
The parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow offers opportunities for reflection for the responsibility of the faithful to care for widows, orphans, and strangers in their midst. It affords a striking challenge to any theology to tie God's providence to God's compassion. It serves as a graphic lesson on the importance of prayer and patient endurance, and finally it focuses on the quality and vitality of one's faith.
... Many find it far easier to worry over the health of their prayer life than to be concerned for the well-being of widows.[p. 339]
And a little later:
...the parable of the unjust judge and the persistent widow calls for a reexamination of our faith. Have we turned a deaf ear to those who cry out in need, or have we given up hope that God will hear our calls for help? Faith requires different responses from the widow and the judge. What does faith require of us? Have we the faith of a mustard seed, the faith of a widow? [p. 340]
In the parable, the one who is lacking faith is the judge. So Jesus' question may be directed to those people who do not fear God or respect people -- those people who are only concerned about themselves -- not giving themselves a "black eye."
The message about persistent prayers for justice comes out of this text, but I find that most believers -- especially when they are in difficult situations -- need little encouragement to continue to pray day and night. When there is nothing else to rely on, faithful praying comes to the forefront. I believe that Jesus will find faith among them when he returns.
What I think is more common is the lack of faith among those for whom life is going well. They don't need to concern themselves about the welfare of widows and orphans -- or the entire planet -- so they don't. When Jesus comes, will they have faith?
For us who are in positions of power and authority, do we speak out and act in ways to promote justice for all people? As I mentioned earlier about the beating of the gay man, or the reaction of some Americans to anyone who appears Arabic or Muslim, can we not speak out against such hate and work against prejudices in our society?
Some time ago, we had a "guest steward" preach in the church I was serving at the time -- an attorney who is a member of another denomination. He made a comment that all the money in the world will not transform our city, state, or world. It takes the words and actions of the believers to bring about transformations. Along with that, I would also add, our prayers. At the same time, it wasn't just the woman's prayers that produced actions from the judge, but her actions of persistent coming to and bothering -- her prayer involved some actions -- so it should be with us.
I recently heard another layman talk about his commitment to pray for each person in his cul-de-sac. They don't know that he is praying for them. He said that he doesn't know if his prayers are making any differences in their lives. He knows that it is changing him and the way he looks at and relates to his neighbors.
I know of a pastor who regularly uses his church directory to pray for the members by name. Although he didn't say it, my guess is that his prayers do much to change him and his relationship to those members.
Within the gospel of Luke, there is abundant encouragement to pray. There are examples of Jesus' praying -- if he needed to pray, how much more do we? If nothing else, during the period when we are waiting for the kingdom to come, we are to be people of prayer.
Faith Lutheran Church, 2215 S 8th Ave., Yuma, AZ 85364