"Protest"(discarded clothing and textile remnants, 22 x 22 inches) by Linda Friedman Schmidt © Used with permission www.lindafriedmanschmidt.com Instagram: lindafriedmanschmidt by Linda Friedman Schmidt ©

Resisting Unjust Structures — Luke 18:1-8

In her commentary on Luke 18:1-8 Kathleen Rushton presents the widow as deliberately resisting injustice which challenges interpretations of this parable as an exhortation to prayer.

Luke’s Gospels has three remarkable parables in which female characters image God. In one, a woman hides yeast in the bread dough; in another, a woman searches for a lost coin; and in a third, which we shall explore, a widow resisting injustice confronts an unjust judge. The Christian tradition has generally downplayed and overlooked these female images of God by removing them from their ancient context.

Jesus is near the end of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem when he tells the parable of the widow. When the Pharisees question him about when the reign of God will come (Lk 17:20-37), Jesus tells a parable full of irony (Lk 18:2-5).

Many interpreters say that the verse before the parable (Lk 18:1) and the three verses after it (Lk 18:6-8) were added later. This means that Luke, or later editors, tried to tame this unconventional woman by reshaping her in a docile, acceptable role of a woman who prays unceasingly. After all, there is nothing threatening about a widow who prays all day. But in the parable, neither the widow nor the judge conforms to expectations.

The Judge

A judge who does not fear God (Lk 18: 2, 4) is a poor judge. He ignores the ancient codes of honour and shame. He embodies the abuse of the Torah: “Consider what you are doing, for you judge not on behalf of human beings but on God’s behalf … Now let the fear of God be upon you; take care in what you do (2 Chr 19:6-7; Deut 24:17).

In the portrayal the judge becomes even more unsettling. God is the very opposite of this unjust judge: “… God will not ignore the supplication of the orphan, or the widow when she pours out her complaint” (Sir 35:14-19).

In ancient societies, widows were structurally victims of economic and social injustice as well as legal manoeuvrings. Those who first heard this parable would have known that judicial decisions could be bought and favoured influential people. Attempts at exploitation are named in the widow’s cry: “Grant me justice against my opponent” (Lk 18:3).

The Widow

Biblical references to widows are usually mentioned with orphans and foreigners — vulnerable persons without resources. There is great concern for widows and warnings about violating their rights (Deut 27:19; Isa 10:2).

The widow portrayed in the parable is not poor and defenceless. She goes into the public place of the courts which is the arena of men. She fronts up to the unjust judge crying out her demands. She “kept coming” relentlessly and assertively pursuing her case. The judge “later says to himself” that: “this widow keeps bothering me” (NRSV; “pestering me” in JB). Such translations weaken the Greek word which literally means “presents me with work/hard work/trouble”. And they verge on stereotypical and sexist labelling of a woman who moves beyond expected behaviour.

The final incongruity is that a powerful judge trembles before a seemingly defenceless widow who might give him a black eye (18:5)! The Greek verb hypōpiazein translated as “she may not wear me out” (NRSV) or “worry me to death” (JB) is a boxing term which literally means “to strike under the eye.” Its figurative meaning is “to slander” or “besmirch a reputation.” The outcome is that in order to save face, the judge does justice for the widow.

Biblical Tradition of Persistent Resistance

The injustice done to the widow is twofold. Her opponent is most likely a relative who should have protected her. She is, also, the victim of an unjust judicial decision which denies her rights. The parable says several times that the judge refuses to act.

In the Old Testament, laments address both those who inflict such injustice and those in whose midst such injustice occurs. Scripture, and the parable itself, present this double injustice to the widow as structural. God intervenes against structural injustice.

The widow’s persistent resistance is reflected in the biblical tradition. In a previous parable, Jesus explains that seed which falls on good ground “bears fruit with persistent resistance (hypomonē)” (Lk 8:15). In the Book of Revelation, persistent resistance enables the faithful to choose the values of the reign of God rather than those of the reign of Rome.

Persistent Resistance Today

The parable of the woman who resists injustice is puzzling. It has often been interpreted as an encouragement to persistent prayer, but must we petition God so relentlessly to be heard? And will God grant justice only to shut us up, or save embarrassment?

To understand this parable, we need to understand that it is less about a model for personal prayer, and more about resisting structural injustice — forcefully and repeatedly, if necessary.

John Paul II’s encyclical On Social Concerns names structures of injustice as “structures of sin” that “are rooted in personal sin, and thus always linked to concrete acts of individuals who introduce these structures, consolidate them and make them difficult to remove” (par 36). This term is seldom applied to situations of our contemporary world where “the collective behaviour of certain social groups, big or small, or even of whole nations and blocs of nations … are the result of the accumulation and concentration” of many personal actions.

“Structures of sin” persist because those “who are in a position to avoid, eliminate or at least limit certain social evils . . . fail to do so out of laziness, fear or the conspiracy of silence, through secret complicity or indifference; . . . [some] take refuge in the supposed impossibility of changing the world, and . . . [others] sidestep the effort and sacrifice required" (par 56).

Prophetic Hope

The widow images God by shedding light on our individual responsibility to confront the reality of the structures within which we live, choose and act. “Crying out to God day and night” against social and environmental injustice describes the life of believers: facing injustice, naming it, denouncing it before the powerful, and working together across boundaries with the patient power of persistent resistance which comes from hope in God’s nearness. Such hope never gives up on taking steps to create new structures of grace.

This parable has liberating potential showing that women, as well as men, fully give flesh to God’s mission in the face of interlocking structures of racism, sexism, military power, economic poverty and other structural injustices. 

Tui Motu Magazine. Issue 275 October 2022: 24-25