The Persistent Widow Story.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 June 2022

Luke 18.1-8.

Last time I wrote about parables, I brought up the Midnight Friend Story. Well… same gospel, same idea, but whole different story. Comes in chapter 18 instead of 11. It’s also called the Unjust Judge, the Importunate Widow, the Persistent Woman, and the Unjust Judge and the Widow. All depends on which of them you wanna emphasize, but since the widow is meant to be our role model, I think the story oughta be named for her.

Luke 18.1-8 KWL
1 Jesus is speaking parabolically to his students
on the necessity of them always praying
and not becoming discouraged,
2 saying, “There’s some judge in some city
with no respect for God, no regard for people.
3 There’s a widow in that city;
she’s coming to him, saying,
‘Prosecute my opponent for me!’
4 For a time, he doesn’t want to.
Afterward, he said to himself,
‘Though I don’t respect God, nor have regard for the people,
5 because this widow keeps bugging me,
I’ll prosecute her opponent for her.
In the end, she may come give me a black eye!’ ”
6 The Master says, “Listen to what this unjust judge says.
7 Might God not prosecute on behalf of his elect,
who cry out to him day and night,
and have patience with them?
8 I tell you he will prosecute for them, quickly.
But at the Son of Man’s coming,
will he then find any faith on the earth?”

Some notes about my translation. The term the widow is using is ἐκδίκησόν με/ekdíkisón me, which the KJV translates “Avenge me.” That’s perhaps too literal of a translation. Ekdikéo means to carry out a punishment, and the word isn’t particular about whether it’s a judge sentencing a criminal, a vigilante murdering a criminal, or someone with a grudge taking out petty revenge upon a neighbor. Since Jesus is talking about a judge, he is talking about some level of due process.

Problem is, Jesus isn’t talking about a righteous judge. In his culture there were two kinds of judges:

  • Jewish judges followed and interpreted the Law, the commands the LORD handed down in the 15th century BC.
  • Roman judges followed and interpreted the laws decreed by the senate and people of Rome.

So when Jesus describes this judge as caring neither about God nor people, he describes a person who ignores the standards for both Jewish and Roman judges. He doesn’t base his rulings on law and legal precedent; he follows his conscience. He’s what we’d call an “activist judge”—the kind of judge people love when he shares their politics, ’cause he’ll rule their way, no matter what the law says! But they soon discover a lawless judge creates a lot of instability in society, no matter how moral these judges might imagine they are.

Widows and judges.

And what if one of these judges have no morals?

Here we have a judge who won’t stand up for widows. Jesus specifically brings up a widow because he’s trying to trigger his listeners. Widows are the one category of people the scriptures explicitly tell us to stand up for. You mess with widows, you’re gonna piss off God.

Exodus 22.22 KJV
Ye shall not afflict any widow, or fatherless child.
Deuteronomy 10.18 KJV
He doth execute the judgment of the fatherless and widow, and loveth the stranger, in giving him food and raiment.
Deuteronomy 27.19 KJV
Cursed be he that perverteth the judgment of the stranger, fatherless, and widow. And all the people shall say, Amen.
Psalm 68.5 KJV
A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation.

[Judge who’s biased in favor of the widows; don’t get the wrong idea.]

Isaiah 1.17 KJV
Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow.
Zechariah 7.10 KJV
And oppress not the widow, nor the fatherless, the stranger, nor the poor; and let none of you imagine evil against his brother in your heart.
Malachi 3.5 KJV
And I will come near to you to judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers, and against the adulterers, and against false swearers, and against those that oppress the hireling in his wages, the widow, and the fatherless, and that turn aside the stranger from his right, and fear not me, saith the LORD of hosts.
Matthew 23.14 KJV
Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye devour widows’ houses, and for a pretence make long prayer: therefore ye shall receive the greater damnation.
James 1.27 KJV
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.

There are other scriptures in which God is irritated by people who mistreat widows. The reason he stands up for them in particular is because in bible times they were the least powerful members of society.

The Hebrews, and later the Judeans, had a patriarchal system, in which men ruled their families like little kings. They were supposed to care for the women of the family—wives, daughters, concubines, female slaves—and protect them and do right by them. And of course if you’ve seen any patriarchal families nowadays, you know they didn’t really; most of these patriarchs only looked out for themselves, ’cause humans are selfish like that. Patriarchy is a sucky system which God’s biblical commands are actually meant to undermine, not support. But more about that in the appropriate article.

Anyway if the patriarch left, or died, without anyone to care for the women in his stead, the women were basically on their own. Which sounds like freedom—and in many ways it kinda was—but in a male-supremacist society, things were kinda rigged so the women found it extremely difficult to do for themselves. They’d get exploited.

The Hebrew word אַלְמָנָה/almanáh is kinda the catch-all term for such women. It means “abandoned,” but it gets translated “widows.” The Greek word used to translate it, χήρα/híra, means “widow,” so that’s what bibles generally go with.

When women got exploited, usually their man would stand up for them and settle things. (Yeah, they could try to stand up for themselves, and even succeed sometimes. But you know how sexists can be.) But since widows had no man, they had to go for the next best thing: The local judge, one of the men who ruled their city. He was supposed to make things right. Not necessarily by having a courtroom trial; local judges seldom did any such thing. Usually they just talked to the individual parties, figured out which of them was in the right, and ordered the one in the wrong to right things. But in many circumstances—same as now—there’s not really anything to figure out. One of them was obviously wrong. Confessed to it and everything.

Jesus doesn’t spell out the circumstances of this case, and doesn’t need to. Maybe the widow’s opponent is obviously guilty; maybe not. Either way the judge needed to hear the case… and he didn’t, ’cause he didn’t care. Didn’t respect God enough to care.

Judges in our culture are supposed to be unbiased. In Jesus’s culture they were ordered by the Law to be totally biased: They were to have a certain customary favoritism towards widows who had no man to stand up for them. This widow clearly knew this, and kept pestering the judge for this favoritism. Rightly so.

Ast some point this judge realized ignoring her would get him nowhere: “In the end, she may come give me a black eye!” That’s the literal translation of ὑπωπιάζῃ/ypopiádzi, “hit under the eye.” But translators wimp out and go with “lest she weary me.” Obviously they’ve no experience with really angry women.

Now yeah, there’s no way we’re gonna punch God in the face. But again Jesus wants us to contrast God’s attitude with this judge’s. He won’t ignore a plaintiff when she pesters him enough—and God won’t ignore us when we pester him either. If our cause is truly righteous, if we’re actually being exploited, if he considers us his chosen people and really did promise to be there for us: Do you expect he’ll never come to our rescue?

If not, what kind of faith is that? What kind of welcome will that be when the Son of Man returns to answer these very prayers?

In comparison with God.

This is not a parable where the widow is meant to represent Christians, and the judge represents God. It’s what the Pharisees called a קַל וְחֹ֥מֶר/qal v’khomer, “light and heavy” comparison. Works like so.

  • We’re trying to prove P is true.
  • Q is a circumstance similar to P, accepted as true.
  • Q is more extreme. More significant. “Heavy.” P is comparatively “light.”
  • If Q is true, P must be true.

It’s Pharisee logic, not Aristotelean, so westerners don’t always recognize it as logic, but middle easterners certainly do. The judge in this story is a bad judge, but the widow wore him down with her pleading; God in comparison is a righteous judge, and won’t the widow’s tactic work be all the more effective?

There are always gonna be those who gripe, “God’s never gonna put a stop to evil.” Not just because he wants us to get off our lazy keisters and put a stop to it ourselves; they think God doesn’t care, or God’s cursed them for some reason. No doubt there were a number of Jews in Jesus’s day who had that attitude about the Roman occupation: They looked at the might of the Romans and imagined God would never get rid of them. That anyone who claimed Messiah would conquer the Romans, was delusional. (And of course they expected Messiah to conquer the Romans with war, not by getting ’em to become Christian. But let’s not get into all their mistaken interpretations just now.)

Jesus replies we need to get in God’s face. He adopted us when we believed in him. You’re his kid. Act like it.

Some of us have sucky parents, who never did anything for us when we asked. My dad always expects a quid pro quo: He’ll do for me, but then I owe him. I suppose his goal is to make it so we’ll never ask him for anything. Problem is, it works too well: Every visit turns into a negotiation, and we’d rather not go through that, so as a result he never sees his kids. Or grandkids.

If Christians have a similar mindset about God, we won’t pray, nor ask God for stuff. We won’t wanna get any further in debt to God. As if saving us from sin and death doesn’t infinitely put us in his debt already—and as if doing as he wants isn’t a joy. Well, to be fair, it’s not a joy when we’re still unrepentant selfish bastards. But we’re not meant to be bastards. We’re his kids! And he’s a generous Father, not a stingy one. He’s giving us his kingdom.

If we can get other people to give us stuff by being rude, bratty, irritating, and persistent, shouldn’t it be easier to get our petitions heard and granted by our loving Father? In fact it is. So why don’t we get what we ask for? The usual: We’re either asking for the wrong stuff, or we give up too easily and never ask.

That’s not how we’re to pray. Try it again. Approach God boldly. He’s given us access. He 4.16 It makes no sense to give up so easily when we’re guaranteed to have God’s ear. It makes no sense to expect nothing when he wants to give us everything. So when we pray, we need to get in there and pray. Be insistent about it. Be stubborn. Keep at it. Pray without stopping.

It’s okay; Jesus taught us to.