Faith on Earth: SALT's Lectionary Commentary for Nineteenth Week after Pentecost
Nineteenth Week after Pentecost (Year C): Luke 18:1-8
1) Now approaching Jerusalem, Jesus continues to teach his disciples along the way. Appropriately enough, as he approaches the end of the journey, he takes the “end of time” as his subject: the full flowering of God’s coming kingdom. His birth and ministry have heralded the dawn of that new day; hence his remark that “the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21). But it won’t fully arrive until his return, “when the Child of Humanity comes” (Luke 18:8).
2) For his followers, this naturally raises the question: What do we do in the meantime? We understand the Realm of God will be an era of justice, love, peace, and joy - but what about all the injustice, hate, conflict, and sorrow here and now? What does faith look like in a world like ours? This week’s parable is Jesus’ response.
3) Throughout the Bible, widows are often icons of both vulnerability and tenacity. Alongside orphans, immigrants, and others, widows are frequently named by the Hebrew prophets as deserving special protection and respect (see, for example, Exodus 22:21-25; 23:6-9; Deuteronomy 24:14,17-18; Isaiah 1:17). And at the same time, widows such as Tamar, Ruth, Naomi, and Anna are models of strength, initiative, and resourcefulness (Genesis 38; Ruth 1-4; Luke 2:36-38).
4) More than once in his teaching, Jesus uses a “how much more” form of argument. For example, encouraging prayer, Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will God give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!” (Luke 11:13). Or again, assuring his listeners that God cares for them: “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will God clothe you?” (Luke 12:28). This week’s parable has a similar underlying design.
1) At the outset, Luke underlines the parable’s purpose: to encourage the disciples “to pray always and not to lose heart” (Luke 18:1). This implies, of course, a situation of considerable distress and discouragement. The community is longing for God’s kingdom to come, the very kingdom Jesus has been describing in Chapter 17 - and by telling them this parable, Jesus signals that the new era’s full arrival is still a ways off.
2) An unjust judge, who neither fears God nor respects God’s children, initially refuses to grant justice to a widow. But she persists, and persists, and persists, until at last the judge agrees, if only to get her off his case - and indeed to avoid getting beat up! The NRSV translation obscures the almost slapstick tone of the teaching: translated literally, the judge says, “because this widow causes trouble for me, I will give her justice, so that she may not, in the end, give me a black eye by her coming” (Luke 18:5; hypopiazo, “to give a black eye,” is a term borrowed from boxing!).
3) In effect, Jesus is saying: If even an unjust judge eventually gives in to a persistent request for justice by a woman he neither loves nor respects - how much more will God, the consummately Just Judge, grant justice to those he so dearly loves? So: take heart!
4) A clear and present danger here is the possibility of (mis)understanding Jesus to be saying that God will grant his beloved whatever justice they ask for - and so, if we ask for justice and don’t receive it, we must not be among God’s beloved. But this misses the teaching’s larger context: Jesus is acknowledging here that God’s kingdom of justice hasn’t arrived yet for God’s beloved, and he’s urging them to remain active, faithful, and courageous in the meantime. No matter how long it takes, he says, keep calling on God for justice, keep demanding it like a tireless, tenacious widow - and keep trusting that in the end, justice will be done!
5) For one day, God’s kingdom will come. Justice will come. The Child of Humanity will come. For Jesus, there’s no question about that - the question is whether we’ll be able to trust and persevere in the meantime, whether we’ll follow the widow’s example or fall back into discouragement or complacency. When the Child of Humanity comes, will there be faith on earth? (Luke 18:8).
1) In the end, this parable is one of the many portraits of faith we find in the Gospels, and as usual, faith looks more like being bold than being pious. It looks like a persistent, pugnacious widow demanding justice - even threatening a corrupt judge with a black eye! This is no mild, serene, “heavenly faith.” This is “faith on earth,” a bold, tenacious confidence amid circumstances that could easily lead to despair. This is the faith of keeping at it, hoping-against-hope, refusing to take no for an answer. This is the faith of a tenacious widow with a wicked right hand.
2) And this portrait of faith, please note, is also a portrait of prayer: not as a meekly-bow-your-head sort of thing, but rather as planting your feet and taking a stand. This is prayer as persistence, prayer as lamentation. In Jesus’ day, a typical posture of prayer was standing, arms out, palms up, eyes open, voice clear - and what’s more, fully half of the Bible’s 150 psalms are either psalms of lament or include lengthy passages of lamentation. The Psalter is the tenacious widow’s prayer book, and it should be ours, too!
3) Jesus’ final question, then, contains both a declaration and a challenge. The declaration is the radiant good news that Yes, despite appearances, the Child of Humanity will come. God’s realm of justice and love will indeed arrive in the end, and your faith shall not be in vain - so take heart! Follow the tenacious widow’s lead, praying without ceasing, lamenting when necessary, insisting on justice and trusting that it’s on the way.
4) The challenge, of course, is living out this faith in the meantime, surrounded by apparently insurmountable obstacles. Confronting corruption or complacency, overwhelming evidence (as in today’s climate crisis) or cynical, dismissive “realists” (as in today’s politics), the tenacious widow’s faith can seem daunting, exhausting, or just foolish. But there she is, determined as ever, heading back to the courthouse. Tamar, Ruth, and Naomi are already with her, inviting us to join them. Even the most corrupt powers-that-be, Jesus insists, tremble when they hear the widows are coming by. In this way, their tenacity itself becomes a witness to the Gospel: The kingdom of God has come near - and in the end, God’s justice shall not be denied!