A Provocation: Twenty-second Sunday After Pentecost (October 16, 2016): Luke 18:1-8

Luke 18:1-8
18:1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.

18:2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people.

18:3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’

18:4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone,

18:5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.'”

18:6 And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.

18:7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them?

18:8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

A Question or Two:

  • Why was he a judge, an important public official, if he did not respect people?  Oh wait, I guess there are people like that in every century.  Never mind.
  • Why do translators choose the blandest possible reading of the verb ὑπωπιάζῃ (translated as “wear me out”), when the verb means “beat me black and blue.?”  Oh wait, translators usually choose readings that behave themselves.
  • But why make such a weak choice when translating a parable, since parables (by definition!) NEVER behave themselves?

Some Longer Reflections:

Notice that the judge has no reverence for God, no respect for anyone.  He therefore fails both tests of Torah observance (love God, love neighbor).  He also fails the comprehensive statement of what God requires that is found in Micah 6: Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly with God.  It would appear to be impossible to tell this judge apart from any other blowhard pagan in love with his own ability to project his power.  There has always been a great plenty of such people.  They always seem to be in the public eye.  They always seem larger than life, or at least they always tell us that they are.  They live in big towers, perhaps to compensate.

We make stars of such people.  We even make presidential candidates of them.

That should disturb us.  Perhaps it does.  Finally.

“She will give me a black eye,” says the judge, and he is worried.  The thing about a black eye is that it will leave a mark.  Most people who like to throw their power around make sure that their public face looks pretty and presentable, however ugly it might appear when they impose themselves on others in private.  That allows them to pretend to be charitable giants, hugely successful at everything, admirable, even.  A pretty, unmarked face lets them claim that every complaint is a whining lie.   A black eye will lead to awkward questions.  The judge is going to need a story that will make this audacious woman pay for breaking with his script.  In this case, he decides to cave in ahead of time, laughing at her as he does.  It’s the only way to avoid incurring shame at the hands of a woman.  Sometimes that’s the only way women can get what is right.

But this is presented as a parable about how God’s faithful people should “pray always and not to lose heart.”

That implies that God is being set parallel to the blowhard judge.

Isn’t God better than that?  Shouldn’t God be better than that?  We wouldn’t have to ask if the question were not justly contested.  The question is structured to be answered ideologically.  Will God delay long?  Yes, it would seem, even though the ideological answer should be (MUST be) no.  God should never delay.

But any decent attention to the world (or the Bible) makes it clear that people find themselves asking “How long, O Lord?” with great frequency.  God delays.

  • It may even be the primary function of faith to find a way to wrestle with this painful reality.
  • Perhaps the engine that drives this is tied to generating complaint against a God that ought to perform better than an unjustly judge.
  • Perhaps the scene is giving faithful people an argument to use against a too-slow God, which appears to be the only God we encounter.

At the end of the scene, Jesus asks if faith will be found on earth.  Why?

What is at stake here?  Perhaps the point is that, the more we make stars of people like the judge, people who impress us because they are free (or pretend to be) from worrying about how they are seen by other people, the more we act like animals, not human beings.  The judge might just be a warning.  Torah observance (and faithfulness of any sort) is finally about our life together and our responsibility to each other.  But responsibility limits us.  We finally have to listen, to consider, and to answer to each other.  And that is inconvenient, no matter what your political preferences.  Think slowly about your reaction to the current discussions of racism, of the violence committed by law enforcement officers, of the violence committed against those same officers.  Think slowly about the frustrations that make the surface of our society seethe and boil.

We appear to be tired of listening, considering, and answering.

Perhaps the candidacy of Donald Trump is revealing that we are all in danger of becoming the judge who respects no one.

That is as many frightening thoughts as I can entertain this morning.

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