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The Twenty-ninth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year C

The Parable of the Unrighteous Judge and the Persistent Widow 


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Now what’s fascinating to me about this parable—I didn’t know this before I studied it carefully—is the translation of the words here. So we call this the persistent widow, that’s kind of a common translation. But if you actually look at the Greek, the Revised Standard Version does not quite translate this correctly, because what the judge actually says here is:

“Though I neither fear God nor regard man, yet because this widow bothers me, I will vindicate her, or she will wear me out by her continual coming.” (Luke 18:4b-5)

Now the RSV says “wear me out”, but the Greek actually says, “lest she come” and the word here is hypopiazō, and the New American Bible gets this right. The New American Bible says “lest she come and strike me.” But the literal Greek actually “lest she come and give me a black eye.” That’s what hypopiazō means. It’s a boxing term. So Paul actually uses this elsewhere when he talks about boxing the air or shadowboxing, this imagery of punching. So she’s not the persistent widow, she’s the violent widow, and perhaps you’ve known some old ladies like this, who you don’t...you don’t want to mess with them. That’s the kind of woman that’s being described here. Basically, this judge is afraid that if he doesn’t give this woman a verdict, she’s going to come and do physical violence against him. She’s going to give him a black eye. So there’s a bit of a humorous element here to the parable as well.

So that’s where the story stops, and then Jesus gives the nimshal. He gives the explanation to the disciples when it says:

And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God vindicate his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will vindicate them speedily. (Luke 18:6-8a)

So, sometimes people are a little perturbed by this or they’re a little confused by this application of the parable or this explanation of the parable. What they’ll say is, how can that be the right explanation, because the parable is describing an unrighteous judge, but Jesus is saying that this refers to God. And the answer is, you need to understand—wait for it—first century Judaism, because one of the common methods of argumentation in first century Jewish literature, and in later Rabbinic literature, was something called the qal-va-homer. It’s a Hebrew expression; it means “from the lesser to the greater.” In Latin, we talk about the a fortiori argument. In other words, it’s saying, if this is true for this lesser thing, then how much more true is it for the greater? That’s how the argument works. And this was a standard Rabbinic form of argumentation. It’s probably still used in court rooms to this day. And the idea is, if an unrighteous judge will vindicate this widow because of her persistence, how much more will the righteous judge of the universe—namely, God—vindicate His elect who pray to Him with persistence and constancy. You see? Does that make sense? I hope that kind of gives you the logic of the parable.

So although the parable does have a kind of twist there, it’s something unexpected, in the sense that it’s comparing God to an unrighteous judge—you know, comparing the righteous judge to an unrighteous judge—it does make sense. The logic of the parable holds together in an ancient Jewish setting, which of course is the setting in which Jesus would have uttered such a parable. So it’s a very profound parable in which Jesus is telling the disciples, “Be like the persistent widow.” Don’t lose heart. Don’t think that you’ve been abandoned by God. Don’t think that you’ve been forgotten by God. I promise you, if the unrighteous judge would vindicate the widow who was persistent with him, then the righteous judge of the universe, God, will vindicate His chosen ones, His elect, and He’ll do it quickly. He’ll do it speedily. It’s going to come soon.

Now the final passage there, the final line of the parable is one of the most sobering lines in the New Testament. We’ve seen Jesus give a number of difficult sayings in the Gospel of Luke—a number of hard sayings in the Gospel of Luke. And I think this is one of those hard sayings, because it’s very sobering when Jesus says:

Nevertheless, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth? (Luke 18:8b)

I don't know about you, but the impression that question gives me is that the implied answer is no...No. So why would Jesus say such a thing? Two points. First, this last line gives you a clue to the fact that Jesus is talking about the final judgment, when He’s talking about the vindication that’s going to speedily come. He does not mean that every earthly injustice that’s perpetrated in this world is going to be speedily vindicated by some kind of earthly court.

If you’re waiting for all of the injustices of government officials and kings and potentates and dictators and local judges and local politicians and state politicians...if you’re waiting for all of those injustices to be vindicated, and you’re waiting for every single person—especially vulnerable people, like immigrants and widows and orphans—to be vindicated in earthly courts of law, quickly and speedily and fairly, you’re going to be waiting a long time. You’re going to be extremely frustrated, because one of the realities of this fallen world is that often justice is not served. It’s just a fact, especially in nations and governments where corruption is just part of the judicial system. However, as Jesus says, “The coming of the Son of man”, the final judgement, although it might seem like a long way off to us, from God’s perspective, He is coming soon. It’s going to take place very quickly, and that’s especially true if you think about each of our individual particular judgments. They’re going to be here sooner rather than later.

So, Jesus begins to talk about the coming of the Son of man, because the vindication that He’s speaking of is not an earthly vindication in an earthly court; it’s the eschatological vindication. It’s the final vindication that will take place at the final judgment in the coming of the Son of man. So that’s what He’s referring to, that’s the first key point.

Now when He says, “Will he find faith on earth?”—the reason that the implied answer to that question is no, is because of something that Jesus says elsewhere. If you look, for example, at the Gospel of Matthew 24, when Jesus...this is Jesus’ famous olivet discourse, where He actually describes what’s going to happen before the final judgment, before the Son of man comes on the clouds of Heaven and renders the final judgment. And in Matthew 24:12, Jesus says that before the Son of man comes, there’s going to be a time of great tribulation, a time of great wickedness in the world, and it says that not only will evil and suffering and persecution and false prophecy and false messiahs, not only will all of those things increase, but Jesus says, “In that day, the love of most men’s hearts will grow cold.” In other words, there’s going to be a mass apostasy, a mass turning away from God by the greater portion of humanity.

And in fact, St. Paul talks about this in the Second Letter to the Thessalonians 2, that before the Son of man comes, there first must come the great apostasía , the great apostasy, or the great falling away from the faith, when there’ll be much deception and a rise and spread of wickedness.

So Jesus here is presupposing—and that’s, by the way, that’s a very ancient Jewish idea, that the age of salvation is preceded by a time of tribulation and darkness and sin and a lack of faith. I did my dissertation on this if you want to read about it. I thought it’d be a kind of, you know, positive topic—something very uplifting to get me through the difficult times of doctoral studies and graduate school. In any case...but it was very informative. It was very illuminating, because it’s kind of contrary to common modern presuppositions. We tend to think that things will just get better and better and better and better, and then the end will come, and that’s not how it worked in the ancient Jewish eschatology. In ancient Jewish eschatology and in the teaching of Jesus, a time of great apostasy precedes the final judgment.

So He says here, “When the Son of man comes, will he even find faith on earth?” And so Jesus uses that sober exhortation to remind his disciples, well, what do you need to do? If everyone else is falling away, if it seems like—and it can seem that way sometimes—that even, you know, not just members of the Church, but church leaders, there have been great scandals, times of great darkness, not just in the west but in the east, not just in the north but in the south. If you see lots of darkness and sin and falling away from the faith, what do we do? Do we lose heart? Do we give up? Jesus says no. Your response to apostasy should be to pray constantly and not to lose heart, not to give up...to persevere in prayer...

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