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The Widow Who Persevered Until Justice Was Done

Luke 18:1-8

An excerpt from Jesus and Courageous Women
copyright © 2001 by Elsa Tamez

   Up until this point I, Lydia, have told you actual stories about real women. But I have also heard many parables that Jesus told in which women are the main characters. To me these women are also very real; parables teach by using examples from everyday life.

widow meeting judge on the steps while he speaks to others   This particular parable has to do with the struggle and resistance of a poor woman, a widow. Each time I hear the story of this widow, I find new energy to continue resisting within the context in which I live. Resistance is indispensable for those of us women who aren't satisfied with the life of submission we lead, so filled with obstacles to our fulfillment as human beings. Many of the stories of women I find in the Scriptures are highlighted by resistance and perseverance. When we resist and struggle without fainting against any injustice placed in our way, we begin to attain what we seek.

   Jesus told the parable of the stubborn widow to encourage his followers to persevere in prayer and to struggle against injustice while awaiting the coming of the Kingdom of God.1 This parable concerns the importance of praying without ceasing. Jesus assures his followers that God will do justice in the end.

   The setting of this parable is a city- which city we don't know, but here all the cities are very much alike. Understandably, they differ from the rural areas; there are many attractions and much perversion in the cities. It is well known there are authorities in the cities who are too often corrupt and seek their own interest and expect to be worshiped by the people. Frequently they make alliances with the priests, governors, military chiefs and the rich. But this is nothing new. In the writings of the Prophets we read the critiques of the kings, judges, priests and false prophets of Israel and Judah. This doesn't mean that there aren't any good people-but the corrupt certainly abound! Doesn't it seem that wherever there is money and power there is corruption?

judge sitting on throne looking down on kneeling woman    This parable specifies that the judge was a bad character who did not fear God or respect human beings. I believe such judges are found everywhere. The insistence in the Scriptures on doing justice for the widow and orphan is due to the fact that generally, for those living in poverty, there was no justice. It was preferable to listen to those who had power, prestige and money2 than to those who sought justice. In the parable, we hear twice that this judge respected no one, not even God (Lk. 18: 2, 4). Respect for God and human beings is part of a whole way of living: to respect our neighbor is to respect God and, by the same token, to oppress the weak is an offense to God. This is what the Scriptures teach (Prov. 14:31).3


widow following  judge and arguing her case    Also in that city, continues the parable, lived a widow who presented herself constantly before the judge, asking him to grant her justice. In this story we have two people living in the same city who are opposites on every level. But that is the way it is. Cities are full of contrasts; many people live at the expense of others.4 The injustice here is structural. I can see that, because as a merchant of purple cloth I relate to all kinds of people here in the city. I know that we women must be very astute in order to avoid having others take advantage of us.

   The judge represented someone who was the complete opposite of the widow. She was poor, a woman, and a widow; in other words she was vulnerable and defenseless. She had a legal case pending against someone who had wronged her. She reminds me of thousands of women today in our Greek and Roman cities, and also of our ancestors. The widow, the orphan and the foreigner are the most unprotected persons in our culture; they are frequently overlooked and their rights are denied. That is why we find that the statutes in their favor are repeated frequently in the Scriptures. For example, there is one that says: "you shall not wrong or oppress the resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan" (Ex. 22: 21-22).

   It is clear to me our patriarchal system is responsible for the problems experienced by widows. We women belong to the men as if we were objects, and we are not given the right to make decisions about or for ourselves. Our father or husband or oldest son is supposed to defend us. So when we are widowed, no one pays attention to us. It is expected that a man will protect us. This makes me very angry. I am very critical of cultures that oppress women and I seek to be faithful to Judeo-Christian tradition. I know that our God defends the helpless. As a foreigner and a woman here in Philippi, I love to hear in the synagogue the Scripture readings that declare that God cannot be bribed; God seeks justice for the orphan and the widow, and loves the foreigner and gives him or her bread and clothing (Deut. 10:18).

   The parable doesn't tell us what injustice had been committed against the widow. I have heard that sometimes widows have their homes violently taken away from them (Lk. 20:47). I have known of cases of widows who have gone before a judge to claim their right to a levirate marriage, that is, to marry the brother of their dead husband, in order to give birth to sons in his name.5 We don't know why the woman went to the judge, but surely it had to be something important for her survival, since she insisted unceasingly that he hear her petition.

   I want to emphasize the widow's stubbornness and perseverance. Repeatedly she went before the judge saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent" (Lk. 18:3). The widow was simply demanding her rights before the courts of justice. It seemed she had no other recourse for justice, because she kept going back. The judge, who was responsible for seeing that justice was done, would not hear her case. The woman's situation must have been desperate. It is very upsetting to have to go continuously to the courts, when there are many other things to be done everyday. She was sure of her rights and was not willing to give up and accept the oppression by which she was being wronged. I am familiar with the courts of the Hellenistic cities; they are depressing places for the poor and for slaves. More often than not, those who have power get their way.6 All the comings and goings to the courts make one bitter. Apparently the non-Roman courts were similar, because injustice was prevalent among the judges under Herod's jurisdiction.

widow meeting judge on the steps while he speaks to others   The widow persists, for perseverance is her only means for overcoming. The parable says that for along time the judge refused to listen to her or do justice on her behalf (Lk. 18:4). She was very stubborn. Perhaps she had decided not to stop going until she got a positive response from the judge, who finally tired of seeing her every day and listening to her same story. But not only that. Although it may sound strange, I think perhaps the judge began to be afraid of her. Here was this woman who was so sure of herself that she kept coming before him; perhaps it was becoming scandalous in the eyes of other people! Maybe he was afraid of losing his honor and becoming a public embarrassment. He even admitted that this woman was capable of hitting him in the face and giving him a black eye at any moment. If that happened, everyone would know and this would certainly affect his honor and authority. That's why one day the judge said to himself, "Because this woman keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming" (Lk. 18: 5).7 Finally she achieved her goal; her insistence and her constant demand that justice be done paid off. The judge didn't concede out of his own good will; the rights of widows did not interest him. The judge gave in because he was overcome by the widow's perseverance. The judge, an arrogant man, had to give in to the request of this poor and very stubborn widow.

   The widow in this parable gives all of us a great example of how we have to keep moving in the patriarchal society we live in, no matter what the cost. We can't passively allow ourselves to be imprisoned in the roles that society assigns us, for if we do, we will lose all our battles. We cannot simply accept the injustices that are committed against us and cross our arms, cry and feel helpless. We must resist and struggle.8 No one could have imagined that a woman like the widow would have the courage to hit the judge if he did not resolve her case. Both the woman and the judge surely were losing patience. In the end, the judge gave in because the woman would not be intimidated. In fact, he saw her as a threat who could lead him to public shame.

   At the end of this parable Jesus exhorted his listeners to follow the example of the widow and to pray without ceasing. This meant that his followers should pray and struggle for justice day and night. For though the situation is difficult and the odds are great, and there seems no hope for change, our God, who is not like the bad judge, will respond. Jesus provides the guarantee that justice will triumph. As his followers, it is our responsibility to persist, to be stubborn in prayer, and to remain steadfastly present in the struggle for justice.

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Notes

   The line art illustrations are copyright © 2000 Doris Pritchett. They are reproduced from Jesus and Courageous Women: Youth Study by Ann Craig (New York: Women's Division, General Board of Global Ministries, The United Methodist Church). Used with permission. Click on a picture and you will see a larger one. All of the drawings for this story are here.

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   *"Lydia" speaks first-hand about her experiences as a follower of Jesus in study book Jesus and Courageous Women. "Lydia" is a fictionalized version of the seller of purple cloth mentioned in Acts 16:14-15: "A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, 'If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home.' And she prevailed upon us."

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   1 The evangelist Luke narrates this parable conscious of the delay of the parousia, seeking the perseverance of the communities. Luke places the parable after the eschatological mention of the days of the Son of Man.

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   2 These were the three fundamental characteristics for belonging to the upper classes of society within the orders of senators, knights, and decurions. However, they also hold true for societies of the Middle East such as Israel, as we deduced from the critiques of the prophets. Actually, today's reality is not too far from this tendency.

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   3 See also Prov. 17: 5; 15: 25; 19: 17; 22: 22-23.

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   4 Marked contrasts are evident in Rome, and therefore in all the Hellenistic cities. Although the narrator Lydia speaks of her everyday experience in a Hellenistic city outside of Palestine, the same can be said to be true of the Hellenistic cities of Palestine. There were many of them in the~ time of Jesus. See Joaquin Gonzalez Echegaray, Arqueologia y evangelios (Estella: Verbo Divino, 1994), p. 45.

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   5 In the Hebrew Bible (Genesis 38) we read of the case of Tamar. She doesn't go to the judge but disguises herself as a prostitute to conceive with her father-in-law and have descendants; something similar happens in the case of Ruth and Boaz. If the judges won't listen, women must use their "wiles" to see that justice is done.

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   6 The Roman legal system was dual, with courts for the rich and noble and others for the poor. The penalties were also different, harsh for the poor and slaves, and lenient for those of the upper levels of society. See Elsa Tamez, The Amnesty of Grace: Justification by Faith from a Latin American Perspective (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), p. 56.

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   7 The Greek word hypopiazein is strong and means to slap, lit. "hit in the eye." It is a term taken from boxing; cf. J. Fitzmyer: "Lest she come and give me a black eye" (The Gospel According to Luke, X-XXIV [New York: Doubleday, 1985], p.179). The versions generally soften the term and translate "bother" or "wear out my patience." Ivoni Richter Reimer translates it as a slap and talks about the patriarchal fear of slapping: "El poder de una protagonista. La oración de personas excluidas," Revista de Interpretación Bíblica Latinoamericana (RIBLA), no. 25 (1997), p. 62.

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   8Luise Shottroff's analysis emphasizes resistance as well and shows that the critique of women's roles is closely related to the critique of an unjustly structured economic society; without the first there is no real liberation. Lydia's Impatient Sisters, p. 110.

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