Today’s gospel begins with a reference to prayer, a favourite theme in Luke, and ends with a question about faith, another Lukan theme. If the parable is about prayer, then the unjust judge images a God who has no respect for anyone and is slow to hear the cry of the poor! There are clearly problems with this and scholars are divided on how to explain it. The most likely explanation is that, in the editorial process, the gospel writer has added the introduction about prayer, the final instruction to pay attention to the judge’s words and the three questions at the end. The original parable probably ended with the words of the judge. What difference might this make for us as 21 st century readers? It is all presented as word of God, but the story almost certainly took on different meanings as it shifted from an oral to a written context. Luke fits the parable rather awkwardly to the issues he wants to address with his communities.
The setting for the verses representing the original parable is ‘a certain city’. There are two main characters, the judge and the widow, and another non-speaking character ‘in the wings’, namely the widow’s opponent. The hearer or reader is invited to fill the gaps. Who is this opponent? What sort of injustice is the widow experiencing? Since the judge clearly recognises the validity of her claim, why does he refuse to hear her plea? Is it because he is accepting bribes from the woman’s adversary? What judge would admit to having no respect for anyone, even to himself?
A vital clue to understanding the parable lies in the translation of the final words of the judge. It literally reads: ‘so that she won’t finish up giving me a black eye’. Translators have consistently softened the impact of this with a metaphorical reading. Is Jesus drawing attention to the plight of widows in the society who can accept justice from a corrupt judiciary only if they resort to violence? The widow in this story is one feisty woman: without the support of a husband or the benefit of social security payments, she has only her own personal resources to rely on. The judge operates from the assumption that she is prepared to use her fists. A system that provides no other recourse for the vulnerable simply has to change.