There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
'Render a just decision for me against my adversary.
' For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
'While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.'
Sometimes on Sunday morning it really comes home to me how much Jesus the storyteller is missing from our appreciation of the gospel. Every reading can be done with the same solemn tone, as though it were “gospel” in some pious and solemnly sacrosanct way, and not the “good news to the poor” that it is intended to be. Maybe we feel that if we say it in a dull enough, self-important way, we can avoid the repercussions of the message. A lugubrious reading of the beatitudes, for instance, makes us feel like maybe we’re the poor in spirit for sitting through Mass (we may certainly be the persecuted...☹) The earthy humor that must have been part of the artisan-peasant rapport in a society oppressed both from without (by the Romans) and within (by the temple) is missing from our reading, and possibly never so clearly as when we hear a parable.
I imagine that there was a lot of “winking” going on when these little stories were told, stories of priests and Levites, judges and widows, Pharisees and tax collectors, rich men, absentee landlords, farmers sowing on rocky ground. The characters were universally known and everyone probably held pretty strong opinions on the people involved. Part of the shock wave that launched these stories into the eternal library of religious literature must have been, before they were canonized and moved from the village into the museum, the way people reacted to their own reactions as the story unfolded. Who’s the good guy? Who’s the bad guy? Why did I think it was going to end differently? Who didn’t get their comeuppance, or who did, and why? Why did that one win, and not the other?
Bernard Brandon Scott puts yesterday’s gospel in a cluster with the Good Samaritan and the Pharisee and Publican parables that tease around the edges of "in" and "out," who is acceptable, who is righteous, who is “saved.” In the other two cases, I can see his line of thought more clearly, but in this case, I see this parable more in the place where the mustard seed and wheat and tares are: the emergence of divine justice, or the empire of God, even when corruption stands in the way.
I wish that the gospel reader would bring out the humor that is implied by this persistent but clearly powerless woman storming the judge’s life for a just hearing. The judge is the one with all the power here, and he is obfuscating the demands of the Torah that the widow be heard and that justice be done for her. Ultimately, he chooses to do what is right not because it’s legally right, or because it is the godly thing to do, but because if he doesn’t, she’s going to give him a black eye. The verb in the Greek that is used where our translation has “she will finally come and strike me,” which isn’t a bad translation, is a verb taken from the language of boxing, and connotes, literally, getting a black eye. He’s afraid she’s going to punch him out. The impossibility of this, the humor of it, never quite makes it into the retelling of the story.
The evangelist tells us that it is a story about “praying and never losing patience.” I’m not objecting to that at all, just saying that originally, it seems that this story was more about not counting on the court or human judges to be the place where God’s justice lives, in the same way that next week’s parable of the Pharisee and tax collector reveals that justification does not reside in outward obedience to the Torah and the demands of the temple. As westerners and subscribers to the religion of empire and the God who is emperor and judge, we even sometimes want to make the parable some kind of allegory, don’t we? In this interpretation, the judge is God, and we are the widow, and if we just bug God long enough he’ll stop being such a bastard and give us what we want. But it’s unthinkable to equate God with the behavior of the judge, who does the opposite of what God’s law demands for widows (see Psalm 68 and Psalm 146, for instance). It must be something different from that.
If we want to allegorize the parable, I think we’d need to go in the other direction, where it’s we who are the unjust judge, who care not for people nor God, and who hear the widow-God banging on our door day and night demanding justice from us. Wearied by the baying of the Hound (the “Bitch”?) of heaven, we eventually cave and do the right thing, even though it’s not out of agape, but because we’ve been worn down. That would be an eye-opener on a Sunday morning, don’t you think, if the parable were re-interpreted as “the Bitch of Heaven”?
The whole thing about prayer has had me thinking for several weeks about how I pray, and how for so long I’ve felt that God knows what I need that I haven’t really been as specific as maybe I should be in praying, not for God’s sake, but for mine. I always tend to pray for my family and friends in the most general ways, but to hold them and their days present and future in my heart before God, that’s something I guess I haven’t done as well do. I’m not sure why—maybe I feel God has more important things to work on, or that, as I say, God already knows. But maybe I need to remember more than God does. I was thinking, for instance, that I never until very recently thought about praying that my kids would end up with good life partners, like it’s ever too early (or too late) to pray for that. Not that I want to manage how that happens, but to pray that they know love and intimacy in the amazing ways that can happen, that’s something I started doing recently, rather than just praying for their health and happiness in general terms. I don’t know. That’s just what the gospel makes me aware of as I listen to it over and over again, while wishing that just once they’d read it like it had a funny part, where a judge does the right thing because a widow-beeyotch would otherwise give me the black eye I so richly deserve.