The Parable of the Mortgage Renegotiation Lobbyist
Luke 18:-8 (Proper 24, Year C)
This is a notoriously difficult passage to interpret. It is typical of Jesus to portray a person with power as a thinly disguised stand-in for God (the father in the “Prodigal Son,” the woman in the “Lost Coin,” etc.). But here the person of power is a self-admitted corrupt government judge (v. 2). This has troubled preachers for millennia. On the other hand, it is also typical of Jesus to say things that will confound the listener/reader in order to create instability in us and (hopefully) creative thinking.
The traditional way of getting around the “God-as-corrupt Judge” problem is to interpret the passage as follows. If this awful person will finally break down and grant justice to a poor widow, then think how much easier or quicker God will do it. This works, but the parable still says that we have to keep on crying out to God “day and night” before God will answer (v. 7).
A different approach, and one that might be more fruitful for a church developing an economic justice ministry, would be to look more closely at the back story of the characters in the parable, and see if what they were portraying takes the story in a slightly different direction.
Look first at the Judge. Government officials in Palestine in Jesus' day were typically hired by Herod the Tetrarch on retainer. He took on far more than was necessary, paid them little, and demanded that they pick up the remainder of their income from user fees (kickbacks, bribes). The attitude of this Judge seems to represent that model accurately. To get a case heard in court one needed to pay an exorbitant fee (half for the state and half for the judge), and to get a decision in your favor you had to pay another “fee.” (Or one could organize an anonymous, tax-exempt, “social welfare” 501(c)(4) organization and pay for the judges next re-election campaign, but that's another story.) Habakkuk's cry from an earlier age that “the law is slacked and justice goes forth perverted,” seems appropriate here.
The widow on the other hand quite possibly had nothing. It is estimated that over ninety percent of the widows in the first century C.E. were desperately poor and the most common reason was indebtedness. The very name, “widow,” in Hebrew means the “silent one” or “One unable to speak,” which illustrates their powerlessness. Women in general were not allowed to work, so if they lost their husbands they almost always also lost their ability to make payments on their property (farm or home) and were rapidly foreclosed on forcing them to become homeless and destitute. Banking in those days was not as complicated as it is today (which is not necessarily a bad thing). An individual or group of wealthy land owners or government officials would pool their funds and loan it out to poor people at impossible rates for the ulterior motive of eventually foreclosing on the property. Typically they would not handle the messy work of evicting families themselves, but would farm that out to a broker, often a lower worker or a servant. See the parable of the Unjust Steward and our commentary above (Luke 16:1-13) for one such broker in action. The options for widows were not good. Widows were usually fairly young (the average end-of-life was around forty), so occasionally they had a son who was old enough to work for adult wages and he took over the farm or the job that the father held. That's not mentioned in the story, so it probably was not an option for this person. If her children were young (which by default seems more likely), they could be taken from her and put to work for children's wages (essentially enslaved) in order to make payments on the home that the widow was no longer allowed to live in. Ironically, there was one paying vocation that the men who ruled the country would allow for a woman, and that was prostitution, but for good or ill, that too does not seem to be an option chosen by this widow. These possibilities are guesses, but they are true of most widows of the age, so they are probably close to the picture that Jesus was attempting to paint. Most of his hearers would know at least one, if not more, women who were brought to ruin and tears through this kind of evil, human created, disaster.
So what did the woman do? Foreclosure for failure to make payments may have been immoral, but it was legal, so she couldn't have taken the case to court unless the broker or the bankers or the “robo signers” had actually done something illegal. Notice that she calls the person she is opposing, an antidikos (from anti “against” and dikos “law”), which is literally someone who is “against the law,” so she's clearly making the claim that he had done something fast and loose with the mortgage financing paper work. Even so, normally a widow could not take a wealthy conglomerate of mortgage holders to court. She couldn't come up with the fee to get in and couldn't come up with the bribe to get a decision in her favor. So what does she do?
We can't say with precision, but we do know that she badgered the judge until he finally relented and granted her justice. What he says is, “‘because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming” (vv. 4b-5). What is translated in the NRSV as “wear me out,” hypoiazein, is actually an ancient boxing term for giving someone a black eye. It was used as a metaphor for humiliating someone. Joseph Fitzmyer says she “besmirched his character.” Dan Nelson describes her as “damaging his honor.” Both of these translations imply that she did something in the public square that shamed him into doing what was right. We have no way of knowing what that was, but evidently, in some first century form, this woman successfully influenced the judge by staging public acts of protest that eventually wore him down by humiliating him in front of his other colleagues and friends. We don't know how she did it, but it's pretty clear that she did some form of “community organizing” or protesting (letter writing?). She held some kind of public demonstration that highlighted the injustice of her home being taken away and the future of her kids and eventually he decided in her favor simply to get her to stop. Given the times, she probably gathered other marginalized, widowed friends and wailed in front of his office until he broke, but we'll never know. Contemporary scenes of the “Bankers for Tax Cuts” protests on Wall Street, or Jubilee USA members circling the World Bank with paper chains, and calling on the bank to offer “Change Not Chains” for developing countries, come to mind. Perhaps creative diligence in the face of injustice is the important take-away that Jesus want's us to hear in the story.
At the beginning of the story, Jesus (or Luke, speaking for him), says that there are actually two messages in this parable. The first is to continue praying in and for these important issues. Note that he doesn't say “pray without ceasing” (which is a Pauline concept found in Thessalonians 5:17) but don't give up on prayer as a way of achieving justice. As Howard Marshal puts it, it does not mean “continuous” prayer, but “continual” prayer. Second, he says to never give up (meenkakein), to “not lose heart.” Nothing, as Reinhold Niebuhr used to say, that is worth giving your life to, can be accomplished in one life time. Never give up. At the end of the parable, Luke has Jesus say again that if you continue to pray and cry out to God, you will eventually see justice prevail (v 7).
- Who is someone in your community (or world) who comes from (or has fallen into) a situation similar to this widow?
- What stories do you hear in the news that sound like the actions of the Judge? For background resources, you might look up stories of the mortgage crisis that exploded in 2008 and the stories of banks signing tens of thousands of foreclosure documents without reading them in 2010. For numbers in your state, go to Realty Trac and click on “Stats and Trends.”
- What parallel stories do you know of people who have stood up for justice in their community and brought about social change for the good? What did they do? How did they do it?
- This might also be interpreted as a story about a woman who lobbies to protect her children and a good discussion could be led on how to protect children in an economy and society not friendly towards them. For data on the condition of children in the US, see the Children's Defense Fund.
Grant us, Lord God, a vision of
your world as your love would have it:
a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor;
a world where the riches of creation are shared, and everyone can enjoy them;
a world where different races and cultures live in harmony and mutual respect;
a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love.
Give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From Prayers for Justice and Peace
A contemporary example of this interpretation can be found in Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary : New Testament (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993).
Bruce Malina and Richard Rohrbaugh, Social-Science Commentary on the Synoptic Gospels (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992) p. 397.
Joseph Fitzmyer, The Gospel According to Luke X-XXIV, Anchor Bible Series Vol. 28a Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co, 1986), p. 1179.
 Dan Nelson, “Textual Studies, C” http://sio.midco.net/danelson9/yearc/proper24c.htm
I. Howard Marshall, The Gospel of Luke: A Commentary on the Greek Text, The New International Greek Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company: 1978), p. 671