Afriend once told me a story of a conversation with a rabbi who said that the New Testament was not a holy book. In sympathy with the rabbi, my friend said that he could understand how the rabbi was offended by the more anti-Jewish sections of Matthew, or by Paul’s view that Christ was the end of the Law. The rabbi said, “No. I can understand these things in the first century context; the real problem is that the New Testament has no humor in it!” Today’s Gospel, while continuing the theme of faithful and trusting prayer that echoes through the readings, contains a bit of saving humor.
The parable of the widow and the judge grew a bit like Topsy, with three different applications: an initial interpretation, that it illustrates tireless prayer; a conclusion, that justice will be done for God’s faithful one; and a final question, whether such faith will last. As often in Luke, the parable begins with a stark contrast—between a heartless judge and a stalwart widow. As one who neither fears God nor respects any human being, the judge is in direct contrast to the ideal judge of 2 Chron. 19:5-6, upon whom the fear of the Lord rests, while the prophets castigate venal and heartless judges (see Am. 2:6-7; 5:10-13).
The heart of the parable is the battle between the widow and the judge. In both the Old and New Testaments, the widow is a sad instance of powerlessness, often the victim of injustice (as is still true in many parts of our world). We should not think of the widow as aging and infirm, since the average life span was 40 and the parable itself portrays the widow as vigorous. She comes alone to the gate where the judge presides and does not take no for an answer. She seeks the justice denied her by some antagonist (perhaps a relative of her late husband who is unwilling to return her dowry), and the judge refuses somewhat humorously, unabashedly glorying in his own lack of fear of God or humans.
Current translations mask the humor of the parable. During his soliloquy the judge says, “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I shall deliver a just decision for her lest she finally come and strike me.” The Greek for “bother” literally means “causes me toil or labor” and is roughly equivalent to “working me over.” Most startling is the original of “come and strike me.” The original Greek (hyopiaz-o ) is a metaphor from ancient boxing that means “strike below the eye.” A modern paraphrase of the judge’s reflections would be, “Because this widow is working me over, I will recognize her rights, so she doesn’t give me a black eye by her unwillingness to give up.” The humor is that a woman fighting for her rights pummels a complacent and fearless judge like a faltering boxer. Jesus’ hearers are confronted with a new vision of reality inaugurated by God’s reign, where victims claim their rights and seek justice—often in a surprising and unsettling manner.
The application of the parable that follows in the Gospel is that God’s justice is very different from human justice. God’s justice is on the side of the weak and the vulnerable, which God will secure as the people cry out day and night. The concluding question about whether the Son of Man will find faith at his return is a Lukan adaptation to his community, which is aware of the delay of the return of Jesus and is undergoing trial or testing (see Lk. 11:4). Only through prayer can fidelity (faith) be assured. The continual prayer urged in the parable is not simply passive waiting, but the active quest for justice.
Today more than ever the church must be nurtured by the kind of prayer embodied by the woman, persistent and courageous prayer in the face of brutal evil. Like Moses praying for his beleaguered people, this prayer demands the support of others. At times, we can raise our arms in prayer only when others are holding them up as we grow weary. Yet not even this is enough. The psalm tells us that our help is from “the Lord who made heaven and earth,” and who, like Aaron with Moses, is “at your right hand.”