The Crooked Judge

The readings for Sunday, October 16, 2916, Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Cycle C, are
Exodus 17:8-13; 2 Timothy 3:14—4:2; and Luke 18:1-8.

The next item on Luke’s catechetical agenda is prayer. The instruction begins with a parable “about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.” The parable describes a judge “who neither feared God nor respected any human being.” There was a widow who repeatedly approached him for a decision against an adversary. The judge was unwilling to help her. Eventually however, because of the widow’s insistent nagging of this coldly unsympathetic judge, he said to himself, “It is true. I neither fear God nor respect any human being, but because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her a just decision, or she will finally come and give a black eye.” What can we derive for historical and religious instruction from this parable of the Lucan Jesus?

There is Old Testament background to this story as there is to almost anything in the New Testament. Crooked judges were a stain on justice already in the Old Testament. If that were not so, the prophets would not have denounced them. “You turn justice into wormwood (bitterness), and throw justice to the ground,” and “…oppressing the good, accepting bribes, and repelling the needy at the gate.” This is from the great social prophet Amos 5:7, 12, about 740 B.C.

From frequent denunciations of crooked judges we can understand a widespread concern for widows in the Old Testament. From the Old Testament the Christian Community inherited concern and care for widows. There was even a kind of religious order for widows in early Christianity. Paul’s Letters bear witness to such an organization. The care of widows together with daily distribution of food to them is seen is Acts of Apostles 6:1-4. This pious work of the early Church led to what seems to have been the first establishment of the Christian Diaconate. The kind of social network we have today was unknown in early Christian times. Matthew mentions widows once; Mark 3 times; John not at all; but Luke, rightfully called the Evangelist of Widows, mentions widows nine times in his Gospel and three times in his Acts of Apostles.

Luke is well known for his concern for any class of oppressed and poor individuals and groups.
The widow’s persistence wears down this stone-hearted judge. There is no mention of expecting a bribe from her. He just does not want to further endure her nagging. He is afraid of “getting a black eye” from her. The Greek verb Luke uses here, hupoopiozoo, is related to sports, the ancient sport of boxing. It means “to hit under the eye.” St. Paul himself seems to have been a sports fan, since he resorts to the terminology of sports several times to make a point. In 1 Corinthians 9:27 he uses the same Greek verb used here by Luke to express how he boxes his own body to bring it under control, “lest after having preached to others, I myself might be rejected.” Paul may not have meant literally boxing himself, but meant some kind of corporal discipline later common among saints — to the point of recklessness.

Luke the catechetical instructor gives some advice, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.” What did he say? “Because this widow keeps bothering me, I will deliver a just decision for her.” What is the point? If a dishonest judge who has no fear of a just God and has no respect for his fellow-humans will yield to the persistent pressure of a pesky widow, “Will not God give just judgment to his chosen ones who call out (Greek verb meaning to bellow like an ox) day and night, and be very gracious to them? I tell you, he will do exactly that.” Luke at implies that a Christian does not have to bellow like an ox day and night, as we hear from Matthew 6:7-8, “And in praying, do not heap up empty phrases like the heathens do, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”

Luke ends the instruction with a Jesus-saying that spins the parable from persistence in prayer to a major concern of first century Christians, the end of time and the return of Jesus as final judge. But let’s apply the parable to our daily prayer, and from a human point of view, “With patience may a ruler be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone,” Proverbs 25:15.