I don’t know about you and this parable, but I’m confused. What on earth are we to do with a story about a person who wears down another person to get what they want? Is that what we’re supposed to take away? Are we supposed to pray so much and so often that God finally just says, “whatever!” I don’t buy it! And, the good news is that parables are meant to disturb us, to get us thinking, to get us wondering. They break into our thinking habits. The first, best question to ask
when confronted with a parable is ‘what does this story mean to me, to us, at this time and place? 

I’ve been reading a lot of Amy-Jill Levine recently. Dr. Levine is an Orthodox Jew, who is a New Testament scholar. She explores what Jesus’ fellow Jewish listeners would have been wondering as they asked the question, what does this story mean to me, to us, at this time and place. As we reflect on Dr. Levine’s work, we can see new light, new possibilities for ourselves in our exploration.

To begin, the first line of the Gospel this evening appears to be a later editorial addition, or at least the author of Luke giving us their interpretation of the parable. Their interpretation pushes us towards a particular interpretation; that this parable is
about prayer and perseverance. And even later interpreters point readers in a particular direction by titling this story in many bibles as “The Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge.” We might imagine then that this poor old widow, fighting
against an unfair tyranny, perseveres and wins the day. Smash the patriarchy! While smashing the patriarchy is a very good thing, it is not necessarily what this parable is raising up for Jesus’ original Jewish crowd.

Let me ask you, when you hear the word “widow”, what is the image that conjures in your mind? Someone old, someone weak, someone who needs looking after. Well, so, some of you may be familiar with a Monty Python’s Flying Circus sketch called “Hell’s Grannies.” In it, gangs of old women terrorize urban England making it “dangerous to even go to the shops” as one young, fit, male victim attests.

Dr. Levine’s perspective is that this parable asks us to challenge stereotypes. She argues that “Biblical widows — they’re supposed to be weak and hopeless. They’re not. They move mountains. They’re expected to be poor; they’re often savvy
stewards. They’re expected to be exploited. Get out of their way.... When Jesus tells parables about widows, I don’t think he’s thinking of helpless, exploited, poor, dependent people... I think he’s thinking of women who have had to make a go in a
different environment by using their connections, their wits, their faith and their tenacity.” 

Have a think for a moment about the elder women in your life; your Mum, your grandmother, and Aunt, a friend. Yes they may be stereotypical, and yet? There are some elders who are remarkably strong, smart and suffer no fools gladly. Some of
their life experience would make your skin crawl, and they survived. The women who too often we are frustrated by in Safeway as they toddle slowly down the aisle, or take too long to get on the bus, or call you when you’re busy. They are the ones who survived into old age in the midst of patriarchy, misogyny, physical and emotional trauma in the workplace and at home. They may not know how to use a computer, but by God, they know how to survive.

Widows were subject to stereotyping in 1st Century Palestine as well, and yet, many widows in the Bible were strong and opinionated.  The law codes in Exodus and Deuteronomy imply the widows need extra protection because they lack status and patriarchal protection. And at the same time, archeological evidence from the first century has proved that widows then had clout and access to courts and were not universally oppressed or homeless. To think that first-century widows epitomized
helplessness is to sell them short.

This particular widow is one of the strong one’s. Dr. Levine calls her the ‘Wiley’ Widow; she has access to the court and doesn’t use poverty as a reason for her appeal. She gives orders to the judge from a standpoint of power. She does not
appear to work and can apparently afford to return to pester the judge regularly. Luke is right, we should pay her attention. And if we go a step deeper, we may not feel as concerned for the Wiiey Widow. If only because the word ‘justice’ in this
section is translated from the word kategoros (
http://biblehub.net/searchgreek.php?q=accuser & https://www.biblestudytools.com/dictionary/avenge-avenger/ ) which is also elsewhere translated as “avenge.” Dr. Levine argues the Wiley Widow in this parable is not asking for justice — she is asking the judge, “Avenge me against my adversary.”

This is not some sweet little old lady; this is someone seeking revenge! And if there is one thing that Jesus is pretty clear about, it’s non-violence. Perhaps, to the first century Jews who heard this story, she may be closer to the Monty Python image of a Hell’s Granny than we at first think. Dr. Levine notes, “I don’t think parables have to have decent figures. Sometimes I think pretty much everyone in the parable is behaving badly!”

Now, let’s turn to the other character in the parable, the Judge.

The judge in this story is not a paragon of virtue either. We learn through his interior monologue that he does not fear God or respect his fellow human beings. In biblical stories, according to Dr. Levine, interior monologue demonstrates the conniving
nature of a character. And Dr. Levine argues, his personality is unusual for a judge —the first hearers of this story might well have imagined him as ‘foolish’ as those who do not fear God cannot be wise, act morally or observe Jewish Law. The Wiley Widow meets the Foolish Judge. And then there is the word “bothering.” Here’s the context again “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” Luke 18:4-5

Dr. Levine teaches us that the use of “bothering” does not encompass the full meaning of the Greek, which translates to something like “strike me on the face” or “give me a black eye,” The First Century people around Jesus would have seen that
the Foolish Judge is granting the widow vengeance to avoid violence. Dr. Levine teaches, “This parable says, ‘Don’t put (the widows) in a box.’ No one conforms to stereotype,... once we begin to say ‘all widows are,’ that’s no different than saying ‘all Jews are’ or ‘all Methodists are’ or ‘all African-Americans are. … if we read with stereotype, we will always be in trouble.”

The parable also is disturbing because the widow and the judge are complicit in a system that promotes vengeance, rather than justice. Dr. Levine says, “When we go into a law court, what is it that we really want. Do we want justice, or do we want vengeance, and what’s the difference between them?” And we could end our discussion here, but, now we see that the parable is bracketed by Luke’s commentary, at first inviting us to see this parable as about prayer, and then that God and the Foolish Judge might be similar in some ways? “And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says.  7  And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?  8  I tell
you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

Did Jesus actually say that, or is Luke simply asking our first best question, what does this story mean to me, to us, at this time and place? You see, Luke is talking to a different group of people than Jesus was. I turn now for a moment to John Dominc Crossan’s new work Render Unto Caesar. Crossan sees Luke as speaking to the Gentiles in the Roman Empire who like many of the religious and moral ideas of Judaism, but are not themselves Jews. They were called “God Worshippers.” I see them as kind of a bridge between Judaism and Christianity. Before there were Christians, there were Gentile God Worshippers, trying to navigate the rules and precepts of the Roman Empire and adopt many of the moral codes of Judaism. This is the audience for Luke and they have to have the parables explained to them, because they are not part of the ‘in
crowd’ to whom Jesus is speaking. And this gives Luke a great opportunity to provide ways for these Gentiles, in their time and place, about 50 years after the resurrection, to understand what this Jewish rabbi was saying through his parables.
And so, Luke uses this parable as a way of saying that constant and consistent prayer works. And fair enough, for the God Worshippers living in the Roman Empire perhaps that was an important message to send and receive. And to go back to Dr. Levine’s thinking, “Luke, bless his heart, cannot abide a topsy-turvy world.” And I wonder
can I abide a topsy-turvy world?

And so we’ve looked at two possible interpretations of this parable. As we prepare to celebrate the Eucharist with each other, I invite you to consider how you interpret this parable. What does this story mean to you, at this time and place? What new
light, what new possibilities can you see?