Jesus told many parables. The kingdom of God was the primary theme of many of these parables. Quite a number of his parables are found only in the “orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled among us”— the document which we know as the Gospel according to Luke. We have been hearing a number of these this year, as the lectionary has taken us through this Gospel: the lost coin, the lost sheep, the lost (prodigal) son and the lost (elder) son; the Good Samaritan, the rich man who built barns, the man planning to build a tower and the king planning to go to war.
In the parables of Jesus which are found only in Luke’s Gospel, we meet a variety of upper-class people: a rich man who built larger barns for his produce, a tower builder and a king at war, a rich father of two sons, a steward of a wealthy man, a rich man who dressed in purple and feasted daily, a farmer with slaves and a prestigious and powerful judge. In a number of these parables, the way that Jesus tells the story raises challenges for such people: they are called to account for the benefits and blessing s that they enjoy in their lives.
The parable set as the Gospel passage for this coming Sunday (Luke 18:1-8) is a case in point: the prestigious and powerful judge is called to account for the way he does (and does not) dispense justice. Alongside the judge, the widow is held up as a positive role model, because of the way she continues to raise the difficult questions with the judge.
This is regularly understood to be a parable about persistence, with the widow as the key figure. Don’t give up! Keep on pressing the point! Knock on the door of that judge, and keep knocking, until he rises from his sleep and opens the door to you. Don’t let the authorities ignore you or marginalise you. Make a noise! Rouse the sleepers! Agitate! Work to see your demands brought to fruition!
Now, a standard way of interpreting parables is to allegorise them. That means, drawing clear lines of connection between the characters in the story, and people in real life. Classically, the judge who was being disturbed by the persistent widow, knocking on his door, perhaps crying out in the dead of night, this judge is usually equated with God. The persistent widow, by contrast, is equated with faithful people, praying to God.
If that is done, then we are provided a most disturbing picture of God. Do we really see God as unjust, oblivious to the cries of need around him, asleep in bed as the needs of the world grow larger and more pressing? It is not, I would suggest, how people of faith really conceive of God.
What about turning this interpretation on its head? Even though the text suggests that we interpret the judge as a symbol,for God, that isn’t the end of the matter. If the text is about prayer, then it is about the two-way interaction that happens when we pray. Prayer is as much about what we say to God, as it is about what God says to us, what we hear when we pray, what is pressed upon us from our close and intimate engagement with our Creator.
So, if we flip things in the parable—what about if we see the judge as a symbol of systems in our human society? Like our systems often become, the judge was inflexible, aloof, resistant to interference, opposed to alteration. And why not see the woman as a picture of God? Persistent, incessant, calling out the injustices of our society, raising a ruckus when things are unfair or inequitable.
Read like this, the parable is about the way that God continues to press on us, challenging us, confronting us, pushing us to grow in our discipleship and deepen in our faith.
Finally, there is one more aspect of this parable that I want to raise. If we explore the word used to describe the widow in the original Greek of this Gospel, the word that is usually translated as “persistent”, we will find that the original Greek is more accurately rendered as “shameless”. How about that picture of God—the one who is utterly shameless–shamelessly persistent in making demands of us?
In this way of reading the parable, the widow acts in precisely the way that Lady Wisdom is portrayed in Proverbs 8:1-4. She, a female, is on the public arena of ancient Israel: On the heights, beside the way, at the crossroads she takes her stand; beside the gates in front of the town, at the entrance of the portals she cries out. These locations were where men were expected to be active, and the gates to the town were the places where men gathered to discuss Torah and determine cases brought to them as judges.
For a woman to be there, and to be vocally active in such a public way, was a breach of the honour-shame code. Women speaking out in public were acting in a way that challenged the honour of the men who alone “rightly” belonged there. They did not adhere to the posture and action of shame that they were required to demonstrate, as the flip side of honour. They were acting in a way that demonstrated they were shameless.
The widow, pressing the point with the judge, is not only persistent, but—like Lady Wisdom, like God as we listen to and engage with God—utterly shameless.