TWENTY-NINTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME
USCCB LINK to all three readings
Jesus told his disciples a parable
about the necessity for them to pray always without becoming weary.
He said, “There was a judge in a certain town
who neither feared God nor respected any human being.
And a widow in that town used to come to him and say,
‘Render a just decision for me against my adversary.’
For a long time the judge was unwilling, but eventually he thought,
‘While it is true that I neither fear God nor respect any human being,
because this widow keeps bothering me
I shall deliver a just decision for her
lest she finally come and strike me.’”
The Lord said, “Pay attention to what the dishonest judge says.
Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones
who call out to him day and night?
Will he be slow to answer them?
I tell you, he will see to it that justice is done for them speedily.
But when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
It is unfortunate that the texts immediately preceding this paragraph from Luke 18 are not readily available, because Sunday’s Gospel depends heavily for its understanding on the text that precedes it which, alas, is not in the Sunday Lectionary. Joel Green explains that Luke 17:20—18:8 form an inclusion, brought to an end by Jesus’ rhetorical question about the Son of Man finding (or not finding) faith when he comes.
Luke 17:20ff is in fact the first lengthy discussion of the “end times” and the coming of the Son of Man. It is famous for such lines as 17:35, “two women were grinding at the wheel, one was taken and the other left;” or Luke 17:37, “Where the corpse is, there the vultures will gather.” The opening text of this Sunday’s Gospel picks up immediately after the vultures. (I’m sorry, I wish I had a better segue for that.) The point of Sunday’s text has to do with faith and surviving the awful days to come, described prophetically in Chapter 17.
Green sees two complimentary themes in this Gospel. One has to do with the vigilance of God in responding to his beleaguered people who call out to him. The other is the need for constancy of faith in making prayers, “without becoming weary.” These themes would appear contradictory unless the supplicant is willing to base expectations on God’s good time, not his own. God indeed has a plan, but its internal logic is not always immediately evident, as we know from Luke 24 when Jesus must painstakingly explain the divine plan to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion.
Before I jump into the interpretation here, I need to point out that the linguistic details of the widow’s demands are a good example of the challenges faced by translators. When I read the texts this morning from the revised NAB at the Bishops’ site, I knew this was not the same translation as I had used years before. The revised NAB used now at Mass reads “Render a just decision for me….” I still own a cherished copy of the original NAB translation of 1970, and I looked up the text there, and it reads “Give me my rights….” This was the reading at Mass until the NAB translation was overhauled some years ago, and the 1970 version had a sharp and lively ring that brings life to the setting, particularly in view of the fact that the setting is apocalyptic and threatening. Green’s commentary uses the new Revised Standard Version of the Bible published in 1989; its rendering goes “Grant me justice….” As all three translations are orthodox, I have to say that Sunday’s Mass text is, well, the weakest of the three. Who talks like that?
As it turns out, both the woman and the judge are caricatures in this story. The widow is a figure of the faithful supplicant who demands (prays) without stopping for what is rightfully hers, justice. The judge is an interesting study himself. Luke stretches his description of the judge almost to the breaking point in his effort to make him look neutral and beyond interests, though apparently he can be bought, as Luke refers to him as dishonest, possibly in contrast to the just judge who is the object of Christian prayer. The judge has no religious leanings and “no respect for anyone.” His motivation for serving up the widow’s rights—or “rendering a just decision” per the revised NAB—is self-interest. At the very least, she will pester him to death, but upon reflection he seriously entertains the thought that she will strike him across the bench.
Luke argues that if a valueless (dishonest) judge can be counted upon to deliver justice even for ulterior motives, how much more can the God of Justice be counted upon to deliver justice in the time of the testing. All the same, the widow’s unceasing contentiousness is symbolic not of God’s tardiness but of her own enduring faith. The faithful soul will storm the heavens with prayer in a faith that never waivers.
Luke has the faith of the widow in mind in recording Jesus’ closing words to this section, as to whether the Son of Man will find faith on earth when he comes. In the early Greek manuscripts, the word “faith” is preceded by a particle, rendering the text “this faith,” probably referring back to the degree of faith symbolized by the widow. The full sense of the sentence would then be rendered, “But when the Son of Man comes, will he find (this kind of) faith on earth? (Green, p. 637) When one considers that this last sentence concludes an episode devoted to the awesome drama of the judgment and arrival of the Son of Man, the need for vigilant prayer and faith becomes obvious.