Parables: Session 5
The Persistent Widow and the Friend at Midnight
The Lord be with you.
And with your spirit.
Let us pray.
O Lord, teach us to seek you, and as we seek you, show yourself to us; for we cannot seek you unless you show us how, and we will never find you unless you show yourself to us. Let us seek you by desiring you, and desire you by seeking you; let us find you by loving you, and love you in finding you; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who is the way, the truth, and the life. Amen (BCP 2019, p. 672. For Seeking God, adapted).
We have spent four weeks reading and learning better how to read parables. Let’s put our skills to the test in this final session with two somewhat related parables: The Persistent Widow and The Friend at Midnight.
The Parable of the Persistent Widow
Luke 18:1–8 (ESV): 18 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. 2 He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. 3 And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ 4 For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ ” 6 And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. 7 And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? 8 I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
Let’s start by considering some basic information.
Do we know the context for the parable: who, what, when, where, why?
We have to read a bit of previous and subsequent text to answer some of these questions. In Luke 17:11 we see that Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem; then given what happens shortly after the parable — the Triumphal Entry in Luke 19 — we know that his was Jesus’ last journey to Jerusalem on the way to the cross. So, this is among Jesus’ final parables, which likely makes them particularly significant and pointed.
To whom was the parable given? Again, reading backwards to Luke 17:22, it seems likely that Jesus is speaking to his disciples, probably those traveling with him to the Passover, and perhaps to a larger crowd of interested pilgrims.
What was the purpose of the parable? About this we don’t have to wonder; Luke tells us in Luke 18:1. Always pray and don’t lose heart.
Who are the main characters in the parable? The protagonist is a persistent widow seeking justice against her adversary. The antagonist is a judge who neither feared God nor respected man.
I chose this parable specifically to introduce one additional consideration in our reading of parables: Be aware of — and challenge — preconceived notions. Widow and judge may conjure certain images and understandings either from our prior reading of Scripture or from our own cultural context and experience. These images may well prove to be valid, but they should always be examined nonetheless.
Let’s start with the judge. What is our image of a judge? How does that align with the biblical character of judge?
In Scripture, there are at least two types of judges: military leaders who deliver the people from their adversaries and elders who apply the law with wisdom, discernment, and equity. Two points are important here: (1) it is God who appoints or raises up judges, and (2) the law being applied is not civil law as we consider it — laws made by people to serve the agreed on common welfare — but rather God’s law given to promote the holiness of Israel. That the judge in the parable neither fears God nor respects man says that he is failing in every way to judge as God intends. He is a false judge. This is crucial for interpreting the parable; it tells us that the parable is an anti-allegory. For God’s sake — literally — we are not to identify the judge as God! Just the opposite. God is wholly unlike the judge. God wants to, and will, give justice to his elect. The point is that if forceful perseverance wins over an unrighteous judge, how much more will it prevail with a righteous God who loves us.
And, now to the widow. What images come to mind when we read about widows? In the Torah, widows are often linked with the orphans and the strangers, people who were on the margins of society, powerless, and economically challenged. The Law treats them with special consideration and provides for their welfare. In the Psalms, God is presented frequently as their champion, as the one who cares for them and provides for them. It was not always so with the ones God appointed to care for them.
Luke 20:45–47 (ESV): 45 And in the hearing of all the people he said to his disciples, 46 “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and love greetings in the marketplaces and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, 47 who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”
And then, following this condemnation of the Scribes, Jesus reinforces the notion of the poor widow:
Luke 21:1–4 (ESV): 21 Jesus looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the offering box, 2 and he saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. 3 And he said, “Truly, I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them. 4 For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”
So the stark contrast is drawn between the rich, avaricious, powerful, faithless Scribes and the poor, generous, powerless, faithful widow. We probably bring this image of a widow to our reading of the Parable of the Persistent Widow, as well we should. If we do that, knowing that the parable is really about persistent prayer, what image of prayer do we have?
But, the Bible — both Old and New Testaments — presents a contrasting view of widows, as well. For this insight I’m indebted to Amy Jill-Levine, whom I’ve referenced before, and her book on the parables, Short Stories By Jesus.
There is Tamar whose story we find in Genesis 38. She is the twice-widowed daughter-in-law of Judah. When Judah fails to care for her as custom required, she takes matters into her own hands. She disguises herself as a prostitute, seduces Judah, and becomes pregnant by her father-in-law. When, after three month, her pregnancy is discovered, Judah — not knowing that he is the father — intends to burn her for immorality. When she finally tells him the story and produces damning evidence against him, he responds, “She is more righteous than I.” Here we have a strong widow who takes matters into her own hands and wrests what she wants from a prominent but heedless man. The widow “bests” the powerful man.
There are Naomi and Ruth, both widowed. Naomi “coaches” Ruth on how to win the heart and hand of her kinsman redeemer Boaz who then together become the great grandparents of King David. A righteous Moabite widow takes matters into her own hands and enters the line of the Messiah.
There is Judith. If you haven’t read this book that we count among the Apocryphal books, I recommend it; it is a rousing good story and one included in our Daily Office lectionary. Spoiler alert: Judith — a widow — is a beautiful, seductive assassin who single handedly saves all post-exhilic Israel by decapitating an enemy general. A righteous widow takes matters into her own hands, bests a foolish and gullible man, and saves a nation.
In the New Testament (Acts 9:36 ff) there is Dorcas/Tabitha whom Peter raised from the dead. She was praised by the widows in Joppa for her good works and charity. Here I make the assumption — and it is just that — that Tabitha was one of this group of widows. If so, we have a widow of some means who by her good works and the love they engendered garnered the favor of the man Peter.
These examples — and there may well be others — present an alternate and perhaps contrary image of widows as strong, independent, wise and capable women, fully able to hold their own in a “man’s world.”
Now, bring that image to the parable of the persistent widow. Does it change or nuance your interpretation? Let me add another bit of information from the Greek language this time. The judge says, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’ Many translations have “lest she wear me out by her continual coming.” The ESV “not beat me down” is closer, but isn’t quite there unless you understand “beat me down” in the sense of physical violence. The Greek connotes a physical assault resulting in a black eye. The judge is afraid of the woman and acquiesces.
Now, the point of the parable is still the same regardless of what image of the widow you hold: pray always and don’t lose heart. But the nature of the prayer may be different: not the pleading, hope-against-hope of a poor, powerless widow but the persistent, forceful call on God to do what is right, what he has promised his people to do. The image that comes to mind is Jacob wresting with God at the Jabbok. He has a hold on God and will not let go — even if it costs him his life — until God blesses him. That just may be the right image of the widow in this parable. She has a hold on the judge and will not let go until he grants her justice. This is the kind of faith that Jesus wants to find on earth when he comes. Will he? That’s the question he leaves for his disciples. Will they develop this kind of faith? Will they persevere in it? You see why that question may be important given what is about to occur in Jerusalem. You see why that question might be important two millennia later when we are awaiting his return and the fulfillment of his promises. The parable contains not just a promise, but a challenge, as well.
The Friend at Midnight
Luke 11:1–13 (ESV): 11 Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2 And he said to them, “When you pray, say:
“Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread,
4 and forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.
And lead us not into temptation.”
5 And he said to them, “Which of you who has a friend will go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves, 6 for a friend of mine has arrived on a journey, and I have nothing to set before him’; 7 and he will answer from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door is now shut, and my children are with me in bed. I cannot get up and give you anything’? 8 I tell you, though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, yet because of his impudence he will rise and give him whatever he needs. 9 And I tell you, ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened. 11 What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent; 12 or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? 13 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
This parable is also spoken to disciples and is also a teaching related to prayer. And, it is another example of anti-allegory. God is not like the sleeping friend who doesn’t want to get up and share bread. In fact, the parable turns on just that fact. God will answer if you ask, will be found if you seek him, will open if you knock on the door. God is a good father who gives better than we can desire or pray for. This is a clear teaching against the theologically unsound proverb: “Be careful what you pray for; you might get it.” No, God does not use prayer against us to harm us. He doesn’t give a serpent when we ask for a fish. Even more, he gives a fish when we ask — ignorantly — for a serpent. I’m not a great fan of the song by Chris Tomlin, but his lyrics get it right:
You’re a good, good Father
It’s who You are…
And I’m loved by You
It’s who I am… (Good Good Father).
There are two underlying cultural traits that are central to the meaning of this parable: hospitality and shame.
The large icon of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev that hangs in our narthex is actually titled The Hospitality of Abraham. It commemorates the visit of three “men” — the appearance of the Lord — to Abraham at the oaks of Mamre:
Genesis 18:1–5 (ESV): 18 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.”
At this point Abraham may well have had no idea that these strangers were special in any sense, no idea they were divine. Yes, the text tells us that this was the Lord, but it is simply three men that Abraham sees. So, what you have here may be simply an example of Ancient Near Eastern hospitality. It was expected that you would care for strangers in a time before Hampton Inns and Waffle Houses. To fail to do so would have been a shameful breach of cultural norms. It would have brought dishonor on the family; if it occurred in a village, it would have brought shame on the entire village.
Now, bring this idea to bear on our parable. The man who has a friend show up unexpectedly is obliged to show hospitality if not from friendship alone then from Ancient Near Eastern cultural norms. To fail to do would bring disgrace upon himself and shame upon his village. When he sees his cupboard is bear, it is reasonable — even in the middle of the night — to go to a neighbor for help. This puts the neighbor in exactly the same situation; he must show hospitality or shame the village. It is inconceivable that he would say, “Go away. I can’t be bothered.” This parable was meant to be shocking to the listeners; surely none of their neighbors would do such a thing! And that’s the point. If you can’t imagine a neighbor withholding hospitality and bringing shame on himself and the village, how much more should it be inconceivable for God to act that way. For God to withhold good from his covenant people, for God to refuse the simply hospitality of welcome and food and drink, would bring shame upon God’s own self and upon God as the center of the community. Unthinkable! It is with that understanding that we can pray the Our Father. It is with that understanding that we can confidently ask God for daily bread. So again comes the “lesson” of the parable: ask, seek, knock and you will receive even better than you imagine. Knowing that, be bold in asking. Ask for bread and forgiveness, sure, but push on to ask for the Holy Spirit, for the very presence of God within: “…how much more will the Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
At the conclusion of a series of parables in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus asks his disciples a pointed question:
Matthew 13:51–52 (ESV): 51 “Have you understood all these things?” They said to him, “Yes.” 52 And he said to them, “Therefore every scribe who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven is like a master of a house, who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old.”
This is an important word for us. Every scribe — everyone who longs to understand the word and the parables — must be trained for the kingdom of heaven. The parables don’t necessarily yield up their meaning to the casual reader or listener, to the one who dismisses them as quaint stories. You have to work on the them, and you have to let them work on you. And, if you do, then, like a master of the house you will find old treasures there — the primary meaning of the texts, what you’ve always known to be true about the parables — and new treasures — insights and challenges that you’ve never seen before. That’s why the parables have staying power and why they are ever familiar and ever new. Amen.