Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Impunity and Persistence

Below is a rough translation and some initial comments regarding Luke 18:1-8, the Revised Common Lectionary’s Gospel reading for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. Your comments are welcomed. 
Luke 18:1-8

1 Ἔλεγεν δὲ παραβολὴν αὐτοῖς πρὸς τὸ δεῖν πάντοτε προσεύχεσθαι αὐτοὺς καὶ μὴ ἐγκακεῖν
Then he was saying a parable to them about their needing always to pray and not to lose heart,
Ἔλεγεν: IAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
δεῖν: PAInf, δέω, 1) to bind tie, fasten 
προσεύχεσθαι: PMinf, προσεύχομαι, 1) to offer prayers, to pray
ἐγκακεῖν: PAInf, ἐγ-κακέω, to be weary in anything, or to lose courage, flag, faint
1. The first pronoun in the verse, αὐτοῖς , is pretty straightforward, indicating those to whom Jesus is speaking this parable. The antecedent, however, is pretty distant, as far as I can tell. In 17:22 Jesus turns his attention from the Pharisees who posed a question to the disciples.
2. The definite article τὸ before the infinitive δεῖν poses a challenge. δεῖν is often translated as “must,” but it is a verb that is rooted in the verb “to tie” or “to bind.” It is used often in the gospels to speak of something that is bound to happen – such as Jesus’ disclosures of his impending death. However, to precede this infinitive with a definite article makes it awkward to translate. If we simply translate it “the need” it seems to turn the infinitive into a simple noun.
A helpful reader (DR) offers this: πρὸς τὸ δεῖν is a not unusual construction: the 'articular' infinitive often follows a preposition, as here. It's a common NT Greek way to say what we'd usually say with a participle.
3. The second pronoun αὐτοὺς is likewise a challenge. It is missing in some of the early documents. Some translations treat it as if it were nominative, “that they ought always to pray ...” but it is in the accusative case, therefore it is the object of a verb. I am now hearing it as the object of the infinitive verb “needing.”
Again, DR has sent me this comment, which I have incorporated into my rough translation (making a tad bit less rough): προσεύχεσθαι αύτους has the pronoun in the accusative because the subject of an infinitive is always accusative.

2 λέγων, Κριτής τις ἦν ἔν τινι πόλει τὸν θεὸν μὴ φοβούμενος καὶ ἄνθρωπον μὴ 
Saying, a certain judge was in a certain city who neither feared God nor respected humanity.
λέγων: PAPart nsm, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
φοβούμενος: PMPart nsm, φοβέω, to strike with fear, scare, frighten.
ἐντρεπόμενος: PPPart nsm, ἐντρέπω, 1) to shame one  2) to be ashamed  3) to reverence a person  4) to turn about
1. There is probably no greater definition of impunity than someone who has power and yet has no fear of God or regard for humanity.
2. It seems to me that when the OT speaks of the fool who says in his heart “There is no God,” it is not a matter of intellectual doubt but a matter of living as if there is no moral order to the universe and as if life has no divine purpose, meaning, or consequences. I hear the phrase “fear God” here similarly, that one with power who does not “fear God or respect humanity” is one who has no sense of accountability for serving justice rather than one’s own self-interests.

3 χήρα δὲ ἦν ἐν τῇ πόλει ἐκείνῃ καὶ ἤρχετο πρὸς αὐτὸν λέγουσα  Ἐκδίκησόν με ἀπὸ τοῦ ἀντιδίκου μου. 
Yet a widow was in that city and was coming to him while saying, “Vindicate me from my adversary.”
ἦν: IAI 3s, εἰμί, 1) to be, to exist, to happen, to be present
ἤρχετο: IMI 3s, ἔρχομαι, to come or go, used of persons or of things.
λέγουσα: PAPart nsf, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἐκδίκησόν: AAImpv 2s, ἐκδικέω, 1) to vindicate one's right, do one justice
1. Already, by using the imperfect and not the aorist tense, Luke is indicating an ongoing activity of coming to the judge and not just a ‘one and done’ visit.
2. “Adversary” is literally anti- (ἀντι) justice (δίκη), just as “vindicate” is literally out of- (Ἐκ) justice (δίκη).

4 καὶ οὐκ ἤθελεν ἐπὶ χρόνον, μετὰ δὲ ταῦτα εἶπεν ἐν ἑαυτῷ, Εἰ καὶ τὸν θεὸν οὐ φοβοῦμαι οὐδὲ ἄνθρωπον ἐντρέπομαι,
And he was not willing for a time, but after these things he said to himself, “Even though I do not fear God nor respect humans,
ἤθελεν: IAI 3s, θέλω, 1) to will, have in mind, intend
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
φοβοῦμαι: PMI 1s, φοβέω, to strike with fear, scare, frighten.
ἐντρέπομαι: PPI 1s, ἐντρέπω, 1) to shame one  2) to be ashamed  3) to reverence a person  4) to turn about
1. It is easy to pass by this clause, but “he was not willing” is the crux of the problem here. A judge whose power was in the service of fearing God and respecting humanity would not shirk the responsibility of granting justice to a ‘powerless’ widow. If the judge did fear God, then he would have known Exodus 22:22-24, “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans.” Or, to state the matter more positively, he would have known that his role as judge should be grounded in the character of God according to Deuteronomy 10:17-18 , “For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing.”  

5 διά γε τὸ παρέχειν μοι κόπον τὴν χήραν ταύτην ἐκδικήσω αὐτήν, ἵνα μὴ εἰς τέλος ἐρχομένη ὑπωπιάζῃ με. 
yet because of the trouble this widow brings me I will vindicate her, in order that she may not continually enter attacking me.”
παρέχειν: PAInf, παρέχω, 1) to reach forth, offer  2) to show, afford, supply
ἐκδικήσω: FAI 1s, ἐκδικέω, 1) to vindicate one's right, do one justice
ἐρχομένη: PMPart nsf, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
ὑπωπιάζῃ: PASubj 3s, ὑπωπιάζω, 1) to beat black and blue, to smite so as to cause bruises and livid spots 1a) like a boxer one buffets his body, handle it roughly, discipline  by hardships … 2a) to give one intolerable annoyance  
1. We would expect ‘the trouble’ or ‘this widow’ to be in the nominative case, but they are accusative because of the preposition διά.
2. The ‘γε’ is part of a ‘Εἰ ...γε’ construction beginning in v.4 that I am translating as “though ... yet.”
3. According to, the combination of εἰς (into) + τέλος (end, completion, perfection) can be “continual.”
4. I tend to translate ἔρχομαι (to come) as “enter” when it is in the middle voice.
5. I love that the first definition of ὑπωπιάζω is “to beat black and blue.” She’s just wailing on this guy and he is saying, “No mas!” I also like the secondary definition, “to give one intolerable annoyance.”

6 Εἶπεν δὲ ὁ κύριος, Ἀκούσατε τί ὁ κριτὴς τῆς ἀδικίας λέγει
Then the lord said, “Hear what the unjust judge says:
εἶπεν: AAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
Ἀκούσατε: AAImpv 2p, ἀκούω, 1) to be endowed with the faculty of hearing, not deaf  2) to hear
λέγει: PAI 3s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak

7 ὁ δὲ θεὸς οὐ μὴ ποιήσῃ τὴν ἐκδίκησιν τῶν ἐκλεκτῶν αὐτοῦ τῶν βοώντων αὐτῷ ἡμέρας καὶ νυκτός, καὶ μακροθυμεῖ ἐπ' αὐτοῖς; 
Then will God not produce the vindication of his elect who cry out to him day and night, even bearing patiently with them?
ποιήσῃ: AASubj 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc.
βοώντων: PAPart gpm, βοάω, 1) to raise a cry, of joy pain etc. 
μακροθυμεῖ : PAI 3s, μακροθυμέω, 1) to be of a long spirit, not to lose heart  1a) to persevere patiently and bravely in enduring misfortunes  and troubles 
There are several translation choices one faces in this verse.
1. The word ποιέω can take on several different shades of meaning. I am going with ‘produce’ to show that it is a different verb than παρέχω above (v.5, “to bring”). Yet, I am not quite comfortable with ‘produce the vindication’ either. I’d love to use the phrase “do justice” here, to echo Micah 6:8, but that phrase is ποιεῖν κρίμα, not ποιεῖν ἐκδίκησιν. 
2. The καὶ following the comma is curious. The NIV, ESV, and NRSV all end up making that comma and καὶ a radical break into two questions. καὶ can mean ‘and’ (usually does), but can also mean ‘even’ or ‘also.’ I suspect that how one interprets the meaning of this parable will color how one translates this question/these questions. By making this last phrase a question of long-suffering patience, it can serve at the set up for the “quickness” in the next verse. I have a different take, which I will address below.

8 λέγω ὑμῖν ὅτι ποιήσει τὴν ἐκδίκησιν αὐτῶν ἐν τάχει. πλὴν ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐλθὼν ἆρα εὑρήσει τὴν πίστιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς;
I say to you that he will produce vindication to them in quickness. When the son of humanity has come will he find faith in the earth?
λέγω: PAI 1s, λέγω, 1) to say, to speak
ποιήσει: FAI 3s, ποιέω, 1) to make  1a) with the names of things made, to produce, construct,  form, fashion, etc
ἐλθὼν: AAPart nsm, ἔρχομαι, 1) to come  1a) of persons
εὑρήσει: FAI 3s, εὑρίσκω, 1) to come upon, hit upon, to meet with  1a) after searching, to find a thing sought 
1. The word ἆρα is one of those words that does not get translated directly, but seems to indicate the tone of a sentence. and say that it “implies anxiety or impatience on the part of the questioner.”
It would be ironic to say that Jesus is asking this question impatiently, v.7 speaks of God’s patience and Luke frames the whole parable as one about not ‘losing heart.’ I am not settled on the right tone of this question.

This is a puzzling story, partly because of the parable itself and partly because of the way that the narrator frames it. Luke introduces the story as a parable about praying without losing heart. Whenever we hear the word “prayer,” we are accustomed to hearing it as our cries to God in some form or another. Therefore, we look at this parable and it seems that the widow is us, the pray-er, and the judge must be God, the pray-ee. Verse seven seems to confirm that suspicion, with Jesus likening describing God’s action of “producing vindication” to “the elect” who cry out to him day and night.

However, like many parables, the quick leap to assuming that the authority figure (king, father, householder, judge) is a type for God can be very troubling. In many cases, these authority figures behave in ways that are petty, jealous, impatient, vengeful, and hateful, contrary to how God is understood through the Scriptures. In this parable, the judge is explicitly described, by Jesus and in his own words, as neither fearing God nor honoring humans. How can that person of impunity be a type for the biblical God? It is a description that might work for some of the Babylonian, Greek, and Roman deities, but it is surely contrary to the God whose “steadfast love endures forever.” It is a description of a god who is great, but not a god who is good.

So, the internal problem of this text is that the judge seems to be an anti-God figure, while v.7 seems to draw an analogy between God’s ways and the ways of the judge (as well as God’s elects’ way and the way of the widow.) It leaves us wondering,
I will offer three ways of approaching this question.

1. It could be that Luke has inherited the kernel of a parable, which he does not understand. The kernel of the parable would be the interaction between the judge and the widow, with the widow prevailing because of persistence and not because the judge can be expected to live up to the standards of justice. The kernel of the parable actually depicts God as the widow. Think about it – if God really could/would send lightning bolts down on evil people, why doesn’t that happen often? Or, even occasionally? You know, just enough to provide disincentive for evil? Instead, what happens is that the powerful and wealthy and dishonest and brutal often thrive while the innocent and powerless suffer.

So, what does God do? How does God operate? God sends prophets to speak a word of truth, to demand justice, to call for vindication. They are often ignored, silenced, or killed. God sends another. They speak for God: “Thus says the Lord.” And those who fear neither God nor humans – people without conscience or a regard for the moral law – ignore them. In the end, justice can prevail, but it prevails because God’s people persistently speak the truth. The widow is how God operates, particularly through a community of truth-tellers.

I suspect that is the kernel of the parable that Luke inherited, but he cannot wrap his head around it. God as a widow, having/exercising only the power of her voice against injustice? Luke is not the only one who would would struggle with such an understanding of God.

Our Brew Theology group at the church I serve recently had a conversation with Thomas Oord, author of God Can't, who argues that because God is loving and not controlling, God will not transgress laws of nature, human will, etc., to act, but will act in conjunction with those whose hearts are transformed by love. That's a terrible oversimplification, but it is a challenging thought which - I think - might be the similar kernel of this story, that the persistent work of advocating for justice is ultimately how God "works" in the world. ... I'm still new to Oord's argument, so I need to stir that thought a bit. 

2. One can accept Luke’s introduction to the parable and the comments attributed to Jesus after the parable as a consistent whole. In that case, God is like the judge and we ought to pray like the widow, by bringing our grievances to God over and over until we get an answer. Only, as it turns out, God is not really like the judge, because the judge acted slowly and God acts swiftly. Perhaps this “is/is not” dichotomy means that in our experience, God is like this judge and we don’t see justice as quickly as we’d like, but we ought to keep begging. In reality, God is not like the judge and we can expect swift answers because we are God’s elect and God is not a God of impunity.

3. Another way to read this parable is as a re-definition of prayer. Prayer is not simply us talking to God, but it is any expression of a demand for justice. (In The Hobbit, one is reminded that the word “pray” is not simply a religious term. When Bilbo continually asks forgiveness for offending Thorin upon their first encounter, Thorin finally answers wearily, “Pray, don’t mention it.” The word “pray” – in its widest definition – is simply a plea from one to another.) The demand for justice is often wearying and seems futile, because the powers that be often act with impunity – as if there is no moral order to the universe and as if there is no respect that one ought to have for humanity. However, persistence can be effective even in advocating for justice. In this sense, “prayer” would indicate not just our cries to God but also our letters to the editor, our petitions to the city council, our protests marches, and our public proclamations. There will be vindication of the true and just and there will be a slow, persistent journey of raising one’s voice over and over again. 


  1. Regarding that last verse: is it possible that Jesus is undergoing one of his own trials of spirit here? A pre-Gethsemane? As preachers are said to preach to themselves, is he perhaps in some small way reminding himself of the need to persevere, to trust patiently in the patient justice of God, even in the face of Pharisees and such, even as he has begun the journey toward Jerusalem? That might give some heart to the "ara." Just a wondering - which I would not have had without your commentary! Thank you. Rosalind

  2. Wonderful thoughts, Rosalind. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. Here are some comments that I received from a friend, who doesn't have to remain anonymous, but is kind enough to send me these comments personally rather than publicly. I don't mind being schooled, even in public. Thanks, DR

    Lk 18.1 (1) πρὸς τὸ δεῖν is a not unusual construction: the 'articular' infinitive (ie one with an article) often follows a preposition, as here. It's a common NT Greek way to say what we'd usually say with a participle.
    (2) προσεύχεσθαι αύτους has the pronoun in the acc. simply because the subject of an infinitive is always acc. in NT Greek, as in Latin. I think it clearly refers to the disciples, here.

    Lk 18.2 ἐντρέπω, sadly, is the opposite of L. intrepidus. I'm attaching a definition from the LSJ dictionary.

    Lk 18.8 ἆρα is simply an interrogative - yes, Jesus may be a tad impatient with the disciples and their questionable degree of faith, but I'm not sure this word is a clear indication of that. (And I think puts a very sensible warning on its definitions sub-pages, about the need to consult another lexicon!) I suggest that it simply follows the first word of that question, πλὴν, which here carries the meaning of 'however', 'and yet', or 'this being the case'...

  4. The parable is about staying in relationship with God though prayer.
    The judge is not seen as God in this parable it is a mistake to do so. The judge is an arrogant, lazy, creep. He is more of a Halloween character, or perhaps a villain character in a Bat Man episode on TV or in the comics.
    But for those who strive to stay in relationship with God, God will use even villains and creeps to bring about the reality of Gods loving will in the lives of the faithful.
    Sure enough God already did just that. In the past God used Cyrus, in the future of Jesus' own disciples God used the arrogance of Herod and the creepiness of Rome to bring about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Salvation of the world.
    Those who persist in staying in relationship with God through prayers will see all this and more. God is always persistent with us. For it is not us who are persistent with God but rather we realize the depths of the loving persistence God has for us.
    O Love that wilt not let me go,

  5. I find the translation of v. 7 particularly meaningful for it resolves the double questions in most translations and confirms God's presence with us in the struggle first witnessed in Exodus. As such neither the widow nor the judge can exemplify God. They are only those with whom God is preset whether or not they are aware of it.

    1. This is an excellent and thought-provoking comment. If God produces vindication, then God is like the judge in the sense that God is the one who has the power to vindicate. If God bears patiently with his elect, then he is like the widow in the sense of persevering. Perhaps neither can exemplify God in all ways, but also perhaps each can exemplify God is some way. Hmm... You've got me thinking out loud, Peter. Thanks.

  6. At the risk of sounding like a public radio caller, I love your column!
    I think this parable falls in the "How much more, then..." category. First example i think of is Matt. 7: 9-10 -- if your child asks for bread, will you give them a stone; for fish, will you give them a snake?
    If even this reprehensible judge will eventually do justice, how much more then will God, who is the eternal judge, do justice (and do it quickly)?

    1. Thank you, caller. Please remember our pledge drive ...

      Hi Terry,
      Yes, I think the 'how much more then' interpretation is a strong one for what Luke is doing.
      I explored with my Text Study group what it would be like to lift out vv.2-5 as the parable that Luke received via the oral tradition. Taken alone, those verses lead me to what I listed above as 'option #1.'
      Your suggestion seems to me to be a great explanation of what Luke is doing with the parable.
      Nice to hear from you.

  7. I'm curious why you translated "adikia" in verse 6 as unrighteous. Dikaios seems to be a theme (vindicate and adversary are with the same related root), so if carried through to the punch line, then he would be the unjust judge. So if justice is to be established, whose justice will it be? Divine or human? And what is the difference?

    1. At long last, I should tell you that I agree and have changed it to 'unjust.' I wish there were a way to make all of the 'dikaios' words more uniform in English. Perhaps "justify" for "vindicate" would help make the kernel "just" in English. But, every term I can imagine has problems, even in the rough translation stage.

  8. Who is charging whom in the story? I assume the widow is charged with something and asks the judge to vindicate her. And so also the elect are charged with something (what?) and plead for vindication from God? Is my assumption shared?

    The dikai* words feature strongly. What's their relation to pistis/faith?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Further problems I have: The more I think about her, the less I like the widow! She's not after justice but vindication, even vengeance. She doesn't seem to know that vindication belongs only to the Lord; nor does she know anything about Jesus' recommendation to forgive (debts) and to settle things with your adversary before one actually ends up in court (Luke 12; which also uses antidikos).
      'The Lord'tells us to listen up to what the judge says; the focus is on the judge vindicating. Nothing said to say our focus should be on the widow. The whole point, despite v 1, is that G-d (who alone vindicates) will indicate the elect who cry to him (not because they cry to him). This is all end-time stuff; even the coming quickly sounds suspiciously like Rev 22:20.

      I also wonder whether it's the narrator, not Jesus, who asks whether the SM will find faith.

    3. It would seem that v.1 does focus on the widow, at the one who needs to be persistent and not lose heart. That's the wobbly thing about the relationship between the parable and the commentary around it. V.1 gets us thinking that the widow shows how persistent we need to be in prayer. Then the parable depicts the judge as a complete ass. Then the comment after suggests that it could be a "If an impudent jerk can do this, think of how much more God will act, and swiftly!" But if God acts swiftly, then what is the need for persistence in prayer from v.1?

      And I think you are woefully underestimating the challenges that a widow would face, particularly when justice is being administered by someone so impudent.

  9. regarding the vindication comment, I read your "ekdikeo" literally out of justice as, flowing from justice, coming out from, "out of" opposed to "out of" like an empty tank.

  10. Wondering why you would translate "ἄνθρωπον" in vs 4 as "man"? It is not male-specific and nothing in the context would suggest that it is and because the story is dealing with the widow, it would seem to indicate that the judge's lack of respect is not gender-specific.

  11. Wow and thank you for this work. I am immensely grateful for the offering that allows me to see this text that I have preached a dozen times in new ways.

  12. Life is like this parable. God is not. Perhaps prayer is not measured by answers. If so, and God is just, then there would be speedy miracles galore. But if prayer is the living out of our faith... Who has the time this week to go over the ways Luke has spoken of faith in the past few chapters alone. Mustard seeds and healing faith just to start.

  13. I do wonder if the parable originally spoke to life, particularly when the system of justice is skewed toward the powerful and not the widow, orphan, alien, etc. It does seem, however, that the commentary in vv.6-8 wants us to think about the parable and God together.
    Thanks for your note.

  14. So yet another perspective - with the tradition of the prophets speaking out against unjust situations and Jesus' comment 'You have the law and the prophets' in the Lazarus story, and with Jesus disclosing the emptiness of power (Girard), what if we look at the actions of the widow seeking justice as God producing vindication by persistence? Prayerful persistence for justice in the face of those who fear neither man nor God fits with my experience of history - and calls forth the trust and loyalty of those who would join with the widow/God in doing so.


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