We know today’s gospel (Luke 18:1-8) as the parable of the unjust judge. One implication of that title is that the widow is just. Maybe she is. But I’m not convinced. That makes the story too clean and easy. So I struggle with this story. I think it is a difficult and challenging story because it so easily lends itself to a simple and superficial reading. Here’s what I mean by that.
We could follow Luke’s lead and say that this is simply a story about our “need to pray always and not lose heart” and the widow is an image of one who perseveres in prayer. I’m not against that kind of prayer I just don’t believe that God is like an unjust judge who we are supposed to wear out with our prayer until God relents and finally gives us what we want. If that’s what God is like then I was often god-like when my boys were little.
Is that really your understanding of prayer? Is that the kind of God to whom you want to entrust your life? Is that what you want to teach your children or grandchildren about prayer and God? It sure doesn’t fit with what we see of Jesus in the gospels when he feeds, heals, and raises from the dead. What happened to “For God so loved the world …” (John 3:16), Jesus asking, “What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:51), or his promise “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20)?
We could see the judge as the corrupt systems of power that oppress and the widow as those who are powerless and oppressed. While that is a reality of our world it’s nothing new. We see that every day. Besides, rarely do the cries of the oppressed change the mind or actions of the oppressor. If it was as simple as crying out for justice women, people of color, migrants, LGBTQ persons, the Ukrainian people, would have a very different experience of and place in our world today.
We could see ourselves or Uvalde as the widow and echo her cry, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” Who hasn’t wanted that after what happened here? Isn’t that what you want when you or someone you care about has been hurt or injured? Someone needs to pay. It’s only fair. I wonder, though, if she and we are more interested in vengeance than justice.
Parables are supposed to surprise and shock us but there’s nothing either surprising or shocking about the three interpretations I just gave. Parables are supposed to interrupt business as usual but those three interpretations describe business as usual. Parables are supposed to open our eyes to a new world view but those three interpretations show us what we’ve already seen.
Those interpretations are not necessarily wrong or lacking truth, they’re just simple and superficial. And that ought to be our first clue that there is more to the story than what we read.
We assume the judge is unjust and the widow just and we celebrate when she’s finally granted justice. That’s how the usual interpretation goes. But I want to offer an unusual interpretation, one that might shock and surprise you, one that might cause you to say, “Mike, you’ve gone to far and that’s just crazy.”
What if the widow is unjust?
Maybe she’s not much better than or different from the judge. What if this parable is challenging our usual idea about justice? What if it’s revealing our willingness to often settle for a simple and superficial understanding and practice of justice?
The usual understanding of justice “tends to be organized around three questions”:
- “What law was broken?”
- “Who did it?”
- “What do they deserve?”
(Yoder, The Little Book of Trauma Healing, 86-87)
And what they deserve is usually seen as some form of punishment (Ibid., 87). At a minimum we want “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” (Leviticus 24:20) and more if we can get it. That’s what the widow wants too. But didn’t Jesus say something about loving our enemies (Luke 6:27)?
We hear her crying for justice against her opponent but the Greek word that gets translated as “justice” actually means “avenged.” (Amy Jill-Levine, Short Stories by Jesus, 242) She wants her opponent to be punished, hurt, injured, and suffer in the same way she did or still does. I wonder how often that’s what we want when we cry for justice against our opponent.
Eventually the judge says that he will rule in her favor “so that she may not wear me out.” However, the Greek word that gets translated as “wear out” is “a boxing term: the judge is concerned that the widow will give him a black eye” (Ibid., 243). He didn’t rule on the merits of the case, he ruled out of self-interest and self-preservation. The widow didn’t get justice she got what she wanted and so did the judge. I wonder how often we equate justice with getting what we want.
Here’s the thing: more often than not hurt people will hurt people (Yoder, 1). We know that. We’ve seen it happen. We’ve experienced it. We’ve done it. That’s not justice. That’s the cycle of violence. If we want it to change maybe we need to change first.
What if justice isn’t primarily about just deserts, punishment, or revenge? What if justice is about restoring balance and making things right as best we can? What if justice isn’t only about individual actions but the systems in which we all participate? What if justice is about meeting the needs of hurt people, both victims and offenders? What if justice means some should be held accountable for meeting those needs but all are responsible?
This isn’t about “them” somewhere out there. This is about all of us everywhere. Surely, we’ve at least learned that much since May 24th.
How are you doing justice today? How will you do justice tomorrow, the day after, and the one after that? I think that’s what Jesus is getting at when he asks, “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
I don’t know if he will. That’s up to you and me.