It is so important that I feel I must be forgiven for mentioning once again that the Gospels were not written for us, they were written for a specific audience at a specific period in time within a specific socio-economic and political framework. To deny this truth, or worse still just ignore it, is to rob the original text of its meaning and impose some foreign modern interpretation on ancient texts.
Modern scholarship dates Luke and Matthew somewhere around 80-90CE. This knowledge is pivotal to a better understanding of the text. From 66-73CE The Jewish people rose up and rebelled against Roman occupation (specifically unfair taxes), and the “Zealots” took control of Jerusalem. They were driven out after an extended Roman campaign. Jerusalem was a stronghold, and the Romans did not initially attack this triple-walled city, rather extracting revenge on surrounding villages and towns, burning, murdering and pillaging as they went. Once they set their sights on Jerusalem it was only a matter of time before the city fell. It was destroyed by the Romans, along with the temple, the literal home of God Almighty according to the Jewish people of the time. The Zealots who were left escaped to Masada and held off Roman legions until committing mass suicide on the eve of their defeat.
There were to be another two rebellions by the Jewish people, from 115-117CE and finally from 132-136 CE.
Luke and Matthew’s gospels were written in this period of massive social and political upheaval and turmoil, soon after the first Jewish rebellion. There would not be someone alive in the area who was not related to someone who had died at the hands of the Romans. Widows would have been everywhere, and a state of shock and horror would still be present, along with a seething hatred of Roman occupation that re-erupted some 40 odd years later (not too unlike World Wars One and Two). Now, when you read in the gospels of a ‘saviour’ come to ‘free people’ and establish a new ‘reign of God’ where the ‘last will be first’ and the oppressed will rule, you can see the context in which these words would have been read, and the hope that such words would have brought.
Today’s reading is so much more than just a call to prayer- they are a call to hope against hope that a new and just society will be established, and where pain and suffering will be banished once and for all. Our hero in this story is the lowest of the low, a widow that has no male to speak for her. In Jewish societies, it was the male’s role to speak for a woman, and it was the woman’s role to remain silent. If the woman was single, or widowed, then it was her brother’s role to speak for her. In order, if there was no brother, then her father would speak on her behalf. For this woman to speak on her own behalf means she was truly alone, without husband, brother or father. This speaking out was unheard of and shameful, and she not only did it, she did it incessantly! The judge of the story finally gave in to honour-shame societal pressures and granted the woman’s wish. Modern translations don’t make this pressure to ‘give in’ obvious to modern readers, but the Greek verb translated as “wear me out” literally means “give me a black eye.” It was also figuratively understood as “give me a black face”, or “shame me in public”. The judge was finally shamed into acting on behalf of the poor widow.
It is very dangerous to understand parables outside of their specific context and audience. God is not an aloof judge who has to be badgered into action to save face. Just like an earlier parable in Luke 11:11-13 (where an argument is made that if unjust parents are prepared to give good things to their children, so God will give so much better things to his children), this parable is meant to give us hope that God is listening and will bring justice and peace to the world. God is not an aloof know-it-all, and is not found in aloof know-it-all evangelists and preachers who ‘claim’ to know the truth and speak with arrogance, dismissing others as ignorant and misguided. To be a person of faith is to act as a person of faith, and to walk the road of humility and love for others and for the world. To be a person of faith is to live in the hope that we can be better, that the world can be better, and that the reign of God is that better that we live for. To be a person of faith is to incessantly and without ceasing live that hope into reality.