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This is the eighth of 9 parables analysed from the viewpoint of the sociology of a primitive agrarian society. Herzog’s insights are awesome. He adds so much to our understanding of Jesus and the world in which he grew up. Douglas Oakman is another recent writer to look out for if you are into the historical Jesus like I am (ref. below.)
The parable of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8)
1/ He told them a parable about the need to pray at all times and never to lose heart.
2/ This is what he said: ‘Once there was a judge in this town who neither feared God nor cared about people.
3/ In that same town was a widow who kept coming to him and demanding: “Give me a ruling against the person I am suing.”
4/ For a while he refused; but eventually he said to himself, “I’m not afraid of God and I don’t care about people,
5/ but this widow keeps pestering me. So I’m going to give her a favourable ruling, or else she’ll keep coming back until she wears me down.”
6/ And the Lord said, ‘Don’t you hear what that corrupt judge says?
7/ Do you really think God won’t hand out justice to his chosen ones – those who call on him day and night? Do you really think he’ll put them off?
8/ I’m telling you, he’ll give them justice and give it quickly. Still, when the son of Adam comes, will he find trust on the earth?’(Translation: Scholars’ Version from the Jesus Seminar)
Herzog introduces the parable as follows: “(it) exposes the conflict between the Torah as it exists ideally and the Torah as it functions in practice. It also focuses on the importance of the widow as an oppressed woman whose voice breaks the culture of silence in which she is immersed and forces an accommodation with the Torah as practiced by the judges of unrighteousness or injustice.”
The parable itself is only verses 2-5. Verse 1 is Luke’s introduction, and verses 6-8 are sayings he has attached to it.
Let’s look at the characters. The judge “neither fears God nor respects human beings”. He takes bribes, is corrupt and unredeemable. He is unable to realize he is hurting the destitute widow. He is probably one of the urban elite.
The case seems to concern the widow’s inheritance rights. She is entitled to be maintained from the resources of her husband’s estate unless she chooses to return to her father’s house, in which case she forfeits her right to receive any maintenance from the estate of her husband. Whatever she chooses she will be urged to remarry as soon as possible. In court a woman would usually be represented by a male relative. The fact that she represents herself suggests she has no support available from this quarter. Her persistence , her desperation, indicate that the outcome of the case is a matter of life and death for her. Instead of staying out of sight and out of mind like a woman was expected to be, she is defiant. She realizes it is no use appealing to the judge’s better nature for he has none, so she tries to blow the cover off the operation. Her opponent is trying to stitch things up with the judge behind the scenes. She cannot afford to bribe him so she breaks the silence surrounding the covert machinations. The legal system lives by the lies or cover stories it creates.
Walter Wink calls this “the Domination System”. He says, “When anyone steps out of the system and tells the truth, lives the truth, that enables everyone else to peer behind the curtains too…it is not surprising that the fundamental threat to the system is living the truth.”
The widow is active and aggressive. She doesn’t denounce the judge but demands that he do his duty. It takes constant repetition and nagging persistence to break through the wall of silence erected to protect the cover story and disguise the truth.
Paulo Freire speaks of this as emerging from the culture of silence and naming the world.
The widow tests the limits of the judge’s expediency. She pesters him relentlessly and publicly. Though he feels no shame in delaying the verdict to cut the best deal he can, he also wants to move on. there will be other less troublesome and more rewarding cases. The widow is forcing the judge to reevaluate the cost-benefit ratio of her case. In a form of damage-limitation he may grant her request just to shut her up (and to preserve the public perception that he is interpreting God’s Torah.) The last thing he wants is to have attention drawn to the case.
Even though the cards were stacked against her she refused to quit. She analyzed the situation and devised an action that broke the spell of inevitability cast by ruling elites. The refusal of the widow to accept her predestined role breaks social barriers and crosses forbidden social and gender boundaries. The result of her shameless behaviour is a just verdict. This would all have been quite disturbing stuff for Jesus’ listeners. What can be learned from her course of action in this particular case?
(i) Herzog, W.R. “Parables as subversive speech: Jesus as pedagogue of the oppressed” John Knox press (1994) p. 215
(ii) Funk, R.W., Hoover, R.W. & the Jesus Seminar “The Five Gospels: The search for the authentic words of Jesus” HarperSanFrancisco (1993)
(iii) Oakman, Douglas “The political aims of Jesus” Fortress press (2012)
(iv) Wink, W. “Engaging the powers: Discernment and resistance in a world of domination” Fortress (1992)
(v) Freire, P. “Pedagogy of the oppressed” Seabury (1968)