Exposing Injustice

Jesus’ teachings often came in the form of parables. He no doubt shared these parables with his hearers on many occasions and perhaps in different contexts. Often the original context(s) of a particular parable has been lost in the mists of yesteryear. The Gospel writers try to place parables within the context which makes the most sense to them. 

Luke begins and ends the parable of the widow and the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8) assuming that the purpose of this parable is to encourage persistence in our praying with the faith that God will eventually act. However, if we read the parable without the explanation found in verses 1 and 6-8, we might guess that the parable had a different original purpose. The footnote in the New Oxford Annotated Bible reads, “The point is carefully stated (compare 11:5-8), perhaps because the details are incongruous (as in 16:1-9).” In other words, Jesus may have intended a different meaning than the one assumed by Luke. 

I have never been completely satisfied with the usual interpretation of this parable as an encouragement to persistent prayer in order to receive a response from God. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus even says, “And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” (Matthew 6:7-8)

Perhaps we should seek another interpretation of this parable. The widow was among the most vulnerable persons in Jesus’ patriarchal society. Women needed men to defend their rights and protect their person. In such an unjust system, this particular widow evidently was being cheated by an adversary. In first century Galilee, the courts were notoriously corrupt. Judges chose what cases to hear and very often decided in favor of the person who could offer the biggest bribe. This widow didn’t have the resources to play such a judicial game. Her only recourse was to hound this judge day and night until the man, who by his own admission, did not fear God nor man, finally heard her case. After wearing the judge down with her persistent nagging, the judge finally broke down and granted the woman justice. 

The judge may not have feared God nor man, but like all political figures, he did care about his reputation within the larger community. Imagine an official hounded day after day, morning, afternoon, and night by a poor widow whose livelihood depended on the justice she might receive from this scoundrel. To shut her up and to put an end to any damage done to his “good” name, the judge finally acted on her behalf. 

One’s first step in overcoming injustice is to expose the evil and name the demon.

The injustice and oppression suffered by Jewish peasants and especially the most vulnerable in that society were an ever-present problem. Persons like this widow had very few options to obtain justice. Her only recourse was to hound the judge until she exhausted him with her persistent nagging. It was her only weapon, and it was a nonviolent means of achieving justice. What she did was similar to what Gandhi and MLK did in their nonviolent opposition to injustice. It was also similar to what Jesus did as he denounced the unjust leaders of his day and as he exposed the corruption of the Temple at the end of his life.  One’s first step in overcoming injustice is to expose the evil and name the demon. Such a step has its risks, but in a society where all the power and wealth are in the hands of the ruling elites, that is the only nonviolent option. Such exposure requires courage and persistence. It took Gandhi and MLK many years to secure the freedom they sought for themselves and their people. 

Ten years ago, a legislator in Tennessee proposed a bill which would have reduced financial help to poor families if their children had poor grades in school. An eight-year-old girl came to the state house and followed that legislator day in and day out denouncing this proposed bill. Finally, the legislator, who was receiving so much unwanted attention from the public, withdrew his bill. I doubt if such a person feared God nor man, but he did fear the persistent witness of a little girl who would not leave the state capital until he blinked. That courageous and persistent girl was a modern example of the widow in Jesus’ parable. She was her great-great-great granddaughter.

Jesus was a lot more concerned about the economic and physical wellbeing of Jewish peasants than most people in the church have ever bothered to notice. Increasingly, biblical scholars are recognizing his message as being directed toward the injustice and oppression so prevalent in a predatory society organized to take from the poor and give to the wealthy and powerful. Perhaps this parable is another example of what the late Walter Wink referred to as “naming the demon.” Truth was on the widow’s side, and truth is one of the most powerful “weapons of the Spirit” in the struggle against injustice in this world. 

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