Today’s gospel story is unique to Luke. It begins with a reference to prayer, a favourite theme in Luke, and ends with a question about faith, another Lukan theme. If it is a parable 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 have been 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 word of God, but the story almost certainly took on different meanings as it shifted from an oral to a written context. Luke has fitted 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’. It could be any or every city for that matter. 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 is invited to fill the gaps. Who is this opponent? What sort of injustice is the widow experiencing? Since the judge clearly recognizes 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 for 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 rendering. Is Jesus drawing attention to the plight of widows in the society who can expect justice from a corrupt judiciary only if they resort to violence? This 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 and she is prepared to use her fists. A system that provides no other recourse for the vulnerable simply has to change.