Historical Cultural Context

Shameless Behavior

Cultural insights urge more precise translations of this story to show why its popular title, “The Persistent Widow,” is inappropriate.

The Widow

The word for “widow” in Hebrew means “silent one” or “one unable to speak.” In the patriarchal Mediterranean world males alone play a public role. Women do not speak on their own behalf.

A widow who has lost her husband and spokesperson to death is in an even worse condition if the eldest son is not married.

Younger widows were considered to be very dangerous and were urged to remarry. One of the major concerns in the early Church was determining who truly is a widow.

Because widows were not included in Hebrew laws on inheritance, they became common symbols of the exploited and oppressed. Prophets like Isaiah (Is 1:23; Is 10:2) and Malachi (Mal 3:5) criticized the harsh treatment they received, and throughout the Bible widows are viewed as being under the special protection of God (Jer 49:11; Ps 68:6; Jas 1:27).

Because the widow appears alone in this parable, we can assume that she has no male family member who can appear on her behalf. She is truly alone and therefore in a very vulnerable situation. At the same time, she is desperate. Being already deprived of everything of value in this society, what else does she have to lose? Her life?

The Judge

Very likely a local magistrate, this is a stock character for Luke (see Lk 12:14, 58; Acts 18:15). The story asserts (Lk 18:2) and the judge himself admits (Lk 18:4) that he does not fear God and that he is “shameless,” that is, no one can make him “feel ashamed.”

The Cruncher

The widow “keeps coming” to the judge. Remember that this is not a private audience; it is a very public event. The entire community waits, watches, and witnesses the event regularly.

What finally moves the judge is not her persistence but rather that, literally translated, “she will end up giving me a black eye” (Lk 18:5). The Greek word in that verse is borrowed from boxing.

The Greek language also used the word figuratively to mean “blacken one’s face,” which means to publicly shame a person. The translation “wear me down” is incorrect and misses the entire point: “shame.”

By publicly badgering the judge every day, the woman repeatedly shames this shameless person. Who knows but, at some point, that she might not even poke him in the eye, literally?

And the judge who boasts that he is insensitive to shaming strategies and cares not a whit about his honor ultimately yields to her pressure.

After all, in a culture where law-courts were not about justice but shaming others no matter what the cost, this judge would be damaged by the gossip report that a woman has shamed him. He’d never live that down and couldn’t continue as judge.

Moral of the story

Jesus’ conclusion is: If a helpless widow can get through to a shameless judge, all the more can a petitioner be heard by an honor-sensitive God.

The moral makes convincing sense in the Mediterranean world but may be less convincing in the modern world.

Many believers remember offering prayers that seem to have gone unanswered. Some spiritual wags have remarked: “Of course God answered. The answer was no.”

This observation may be simplistic.

Remember that the Mediterranean world is strongly group oriented. The widow’s petition was publicly made; for all his bluster and denial, the judge respected public opinion. It was group pressure that made the judge cave in.

Americans are individualistically oriented and generally discount the value of the group. Americans generally address individualistic prayers to God in private. No group hears, no group can help. The widow’s strategy is worth pondering.

John J. Pilch

John J. Pilch is a biblical scholar and facilitator of parish renewals.
Liturgical Press has published fourteen books by Pilch exploring the cultural world” of the Bible.
Go to http://www.litpress.org/ to find out more.

 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson