- Jeremiah 31:27-34 & Psalm 119:97-104
- 2 Timothy 3:14-4:5
- Luke 18:1-8
First Reading: A new covenant
The first reading offers one of the classic prophetic texts from the Hebrew Bible, and the source for the familiar phrase “new covenant” (or, “new testament”).
During the last couple of decades of the 7C BCE and the first decade or so of the 6C BCE, Jeremiah found himself exploring the boundaries and contours of his relationship with God. He seems to have begun as an avid supporter of the deuteronomistic reform agenda in the kingdom of Judah. That movement is named “deuteronomic” or “deuteronomistic” by scholars of ancient Israel and Judah because its key ideas seem to have been encapsulated in the book of Deuteronomy. Indeed, it is possible that the mysterious document “found” during the “repairs” to the temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem was an early form of the central chapters of Deuteronomy.
These religious reformers developed an early form of prosperity theology. The well-being of the nation could be assured if it observed the laws of Moses with great care. In this theology, blessings were promised by God to those who obeyed the “statutes and ordinances”—and severe curses were to fall on those who did not. Such a theology could cut both ways. Success was a visible demonstration of God’s favour, while calamity was a sure sign that the person had sinned and was under divine wrath. The friends who arrive to comfort Job in his predicament are almost caricatures for this kind of orthodoxy.
After initially investing his personal and national hopes in the simplistic algorithm of the Deuteronomists, Jeremiah eventually came to a different view. He realised that the covenant required radical obedience from the nation, and that calamity would almost certainly befall the city if it failed to keep the covenant. The old covenant, once the most sacred concept in Jeremiah’s religion, came to be seen by him as a symbol of failure and judgment.
However, Jeremiah did not abandon the idea of covenant. Rather, he looked for a new and different kind of covenant. In this new convenant, there would be no need of religious experts and teachers of Torah, because each person would have the divine Torah inscribed on their hearts.
There is also a radical idea of personal and individual responsibility emerging in this passage. Without losing his profound sense of solidarity with the whole community, Jeremiah asserts that people will now be blessed (or judged) on the basis of their own faithfulness to God’s demands.
Second Reading: The sacred tradition
The second letter to Timothy is not counted among the genuine letters of Paul, and the passage chosen for this week illustrates why this document is correctly assigned to a much later stage in the development of early Christianity.
The recipient, Timothy, is described as having grown up in a religiously observant family—presumably Jewish, although by late in the first century it could have been a Christian family. Sacred tradition plays a major part in the way that faith is understood, and right at the centre of the faith are the inspired writings—the Scriptures:
… from childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.
The phrase “all scripture is inspired by God and is useful …” is perhaps not the best rendering of the Greek (pasa graphe theopneustos kai ophelimos … ), which might be more accurately translated as:
“every God-breathed writing is also useful for …”
In any case, it soon becomes apparent that the author is is not so much seeking to define the Bible nor to describe Timothy’s upbringing. Rather, we are in the midst of a tirade against opponents whose views, were they to prevail, would—at least in the imagination of the writer—ruin the faith and the lives of anyone who came under their influence.
You must understand this, that in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, brutes, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them! For among them are those who make their way into households and captivate silly women, overwhelmed by their sins and swayed by all kinds of desires, who are always being instructed and can never arrive at a knowledge of the truth. As Jannes and Jambres opposed Moses, so these people, of corrupt mind and counterfeit faith, also oppose the truth. But they will not make much progress, because, as in the case of those two men, their folly will become plain to everyone.” (2Tim 3:1-9 NRSV)
Similarly, the words that follow the compliments about Timothy’s upbringing and his sound grasp of the tradition, urge him to resist false teaching:
In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I solemnly urge you: proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching. For the time is coming when people will not put up with sound doctrine, but having itching ears, they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own desires, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander away to myths. As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.” (2Tim 4:1-5 NRSV)
These words reflect the tensions within Christianity in the final decades of the 1C and the opening decades of the 2C. The descriptions of the opponents draw on traditional Jewish descriptions of moral and religious decay “in the last days,” but they also reflect the growing estrangement between what came to known as the “catholic” and the “gnostic” expressions of Christianity. The Pastoral Epistles prescribe a good dose of patriarchal authority as the cure for these problems, and for the best part of the next 2,000 years that was to be the recipe adopted by the church.
Gospel: The unjust judge
This story presents commentators and worshippers alike with a dilemma. Like the Shrewd Manager, this is a story about someone who is not doing the right thing. While the story has mostly been domesticated, so that the persistent woman is a metaphor for perseverance in prayer, the underlying assumptions challenge and confront us.
As a story with only single attestation (there are no parallel versions in other Christian texts), this episode is suspect in some eyes. On the other hand, there seems to be a general consensus that this parable may indeed derive from Jesus.
The Jesus Seminar identified the core parable (vv. 2-5) as possibly coming from Jesus:
It exhibits the kind of unconventional features that are characteristic of the parables Jesus told: the judge grants the widow’s request not because her case has merit or because he is impartial and just in his judgments. He decides in her favor to be rid of her. He wants to avoid being harassed, perhaps to avoid having his honor or reputation beaten black-and-blue (such is the implication of the Greek term used here) by her continual coming to demand vindication. (Five Gospels, 368)
The Seminar understood v. 1 to be an introduction created by Luke to provide a framework for the parable, while vv. 6-8 reflect other Lucan interests of prayer and parousia.
In a similar vein, Gerd Lüdemann affirms the historicity of the core story in vss 2-5:
These verses, the original stratum of the parable, certainly go back to Jesus. That is supported by (a) the criterion of growth, for here with vv. 2-5, calculated backwards, we are at the third stage, and (b) the offensive character of what is narrated. Normally a judge should pronounce judgment on a legal basis. But here he is godless and pronounces judgment only because he is forced to. (Jesus, 375)
Bill Loader notes the “playfully shocking” character of this story:
The parable is not unlike that story Jesus told about the rogue in 16:1-8. Here, too, we may be dealing with a story that was going the rounds at the time and which Jesus picked up and used. The woman was likely to be such a nuisance that the judge relented and dealt with her case. Good on her! In 18:6 Jesus turns the attention of the listener to the unjust judge and proceeds in 18:7 to make a statement about God. If this kind of judge was willing to respond to this poor widow, can’t you believe that God will respond to us? The point is not that God is also corrupt, but that God is likely to respond. The parable is playfully shocking in the way it is prepared to liken God to the judge. This enhances its effect.
Eduard Schweizer suggests a historical process as the tradition gave different meanings to the story at various stages:
The earliest form of the parable culminated in “how much more.” It inculcated the certainty that God hears the prayers of the oppressed “widow,” i.e., the community, which prays for the coming of the kingdom. The parable would be entirely altered if the appellant were a wealthy property owner with all kinds of connections, who could bring a variety of pressures to bear in order to receive vindication. The parable thus also tells the community that its prayers reflect its relationship with God. It cannot, need not, coerce. It can take comfort in the knowledge that it is entirely dependent on God and learn to pray even in times when prayer seems totally meaningless. God in freedom will give the community the kingdom, when and wherever the time comes. This confidence springs from the fact that it is Jesus who tells the parable (or that the community traces it back to him), for in Christ the kingdom is already coming to those who can really hear the parable.
Later it became important that the kingdom come soon (vss. 7b, 8b). The admonitory question in vs. 8b was also added. Finally, Luke takes a sober look at the community of his own day and recognizes that prayer plays too small a part in its life; he, therefore, puts more emphasis on the summons to pray (vs. 1). In the context of 17:22-37, he is probably thinking of prayer for the coming of the Son of Man. (Good News according to Luke, 280)
John Drury offers an interesting and very different assessment. Drury looks at the story of the corrupt judge from the perspective that the long narrative section between Luke 9:51 and 18:14 (“one of the great riddles of gospel study”) is a Christian Deuteronomy — “a handbook on the Christian life in the historical setting of s journey to Jerusalem, just as Deuteronomy is a guide for the devout Jew set in the historical perspective of the journey into the promised land with Jerusalem, the place where God will cause his name to dwell, as its centre.”
Next Deuteronomy insists upon the judge’s duty to condemn the guilty and to acquit the innocent, setting Luke to his more sophisticated parable about the godless judge who did justice out of self-interest. We have seen him mixing the blacks and whites of Deuteronomy into grey before. The parable is an obvious pair with the friend at midnight (Lk 11:5-13), having the same construction — the grudging giving of men as a shadow of God’s generosity.(Tradition and Design in Luke’s Gospel, 140)
There is something very attractive about Drury’s understanding of Luke as a self-conscious historical narrative designed to instruct the reader in the dynamics of faithful living. Whether or not we accept his historical assessment of this saying, that seems like an interpretation of Luke-Acts worth retaining.
Still most interpreters put considerable weight on the fact that Luke himself understood this parable as a model of prayerful perseverance. John P. Meier notes this intention by Luke when discussing the relationship between this parable and the short eschatological discourse that precedes it in Luke 17:
With regard to the eschatological discourse in 17:20-37, some may wish to include the parable of the widow and the judge in 18:1-8 as the concluding section of the discourse (so Feuillet, “La double venue,” 5, 25-28). Notice how the reference to the Son of Man in 18:8 forms an inclusion with the mention of him at the beginning of the main section of the discourse in 17:22 + 24. However, the separate introduction at 18:1, indicating that Luke understands the parable mainly as an exhortation to persevering prayer, weakens the possible connection of the parable with the preceding discourse. (A Marginal Jew, II: page 477, note 107)
This interest in exhorting the faithful to persevere in prayer, confident that God will never treat them like a powerful patron who finds the demands of his clients burdensome, is also seen in the rabbinic tradition.
Samuel Lachs notes the following parallel:
She will wear me out Gr. hupopiaze me, lit., “she will give me a black eye.” One suggestion to explain this difficult expression is that it is a translation of tashechir panai, “she will blacken my face,” meaning she will embarrass me. (Rabbinic Commentary on the NT, 323)
Bill Loader is one contemporary reader of this ancient story who seems able to find a seam of gold running through this troublesome tale. In his “First Thoughts” commentary for this week, written in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, Bill observed:
… it is missing the mark if we treat the passage as a general teaching about intercessory prayer. It is primarily about the yearning for change. It was very appropriate that the story told of a poor widow. She represents a behaviour, but she also represents the poverty and vulnerability which is the point of the parable’s message. The story has been shaped in the cruelty of exploitation and the arbitrary abuse of power. It belongs in the world which Jesus is addressing. Jesus is reading the signs in the wounds of the people. The contours of their devastation shape the structures of his thought, because this is where he belongs and these are the people whose cries he hears. Take some heart, even from the behaviour of a corrupt judge who has no respect for anyone! This is digging deep, scraping the bottom of the barrel in pastoral care. The alternative for many is despair, if malnutrition has not already dulled the senses to other possibilities. We know such corrupt figures exist. Does God? Does a God exist who cares? The paralysis of hope can occur at many levels. For many it plummeted with the towers of the World Trade Centre. Faith then retreats into survival mode or fences itself within petty concerns, loses its political and social edge in a sweet jellied peace of mind, or surrenders to the demagogues and demigods of hate. People do not need to avoid pain. It is our role to be there with them in it and not to collude with the alternatives. It means being in touch with the struggles, with the poverty, with all that makes people cry out in our world. It also means living with the affirmation of a God who cares, even though, unlike the promise of 18:8, the solution does not come speedily. In that sense we are to be building supportive communities where people can sustain the crying day and night and not lose heart, where we do not tune out, but live in hope and with a sense of trust that does not make us feel we have to carry the whole world on our shoulders. For facing the pain of the world is, indeed, a crushing experience which most of us cannot bear and which, without support and acceptance of our own limitations, we will inevitably either deny or ourselves become part of the hopelessness. Finding a glint of God in the grey of corruption is a way of affirming we do not have to be God; we are not alone; faith and hope are possible.
That seems like a good note on which to conclude this week’s materials.
- 473 The Unjust Judge – (1) Luke 18:1-18
Liturgies and Prayers
For liturgies and sermons each week, shaped by a progressive theology, check Rex Hunt’s web site
Other recommended sites include:
- Lord, your almighty Word – AHB 61
- God has spoken by his prophets – AHB 92
- Take up your cross – AHB 496
- Forth in thy name, O Lord, I go – AHB 480
See David MacGregor’s Together to Celebrate site for recommendations from a variety of contemporary genre.