“Today, we’re going to talk about the widow and the judge. I have no clue what this thing means,” Amy-Jill Levine said. “The more I look at this, the more disturbed I get. The good news there is that if I’m disturbed by a parable, at least the parable is working.”
Levine, professor of New Testament and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University’s Divinity School, returned to the Hall of Philosophy lectern at 2 p.m. Thursday to discuss the parable of the wily widow and the unjust judge. “Wiley Widow and Unjust Judge” was the fourth in the Week Eight lecture series theme, “Human Creativity, The Spark of the Divine.”
One of the most important things the parable of the widow and the judge does is to challenge stereotypes, Levine said.
“Biblical widows — they’re supposed to be weak and hopeless. They’re not. They move mountains,” Levine said. “They’re expected to be poor; they’re often savvy stewards. They’re expected to be exploited. Get out of their way.”
The New Testament opens in the book of Matthew with a genealogy full of widows. Levine also posited that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was a widow.
“When Jesus tells parables about widows, I don’t think he’s thinking of helpless, exploited, poor, dependent people,” she said. “I think he’s thinking of women who have had to make a go in a different environment by using their connections, their wits, their faith and their tenacity.”
Levine used the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible to study the parable in Luke 18:1-8, which begins, “Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.”
Levine reminded her audience that everyone interprets parables differently.
In the parable, a widow ostensibly seeks justice from an unjust judge, one who does not fear God and does not respect other people. The widow’s persistence wears out the judge, and he grants her choice.
To Luke, the widow models patient prayer, not passionate action, and in effect, this casts God as an unjust judge, something with which Levine takes issue.
“The notion that repeatedly we have to bang on the door of heaven to catch God’s attention is hardly appropriate theology,” Levine said.
Rather than the power of prayer and God, Levine believes the parable actually is about a widow and a judge, in a literal sense.
Widows are subject to stereotyping in Jewish law codes, but many widows in the Bible were strong and opinionated. In fact, the widow in the parable is not asking for mere justice — she is asking the judge, “Avenge me against my adversary,” Levine said, using the original Greek text.
“This is not a sweet little old lady; this is a widow who wants revenge,” Levine said.
The law codes in Exodus and Deuteronomy imply the widows need extra protection because they lack status and patriarchal protection. Archeological evidence from the first century has proved that widows then had clout and access to courts and were not universally oppressed or homeless. They could receive “gifts,” the unofficial term for inheritance.
“To think that first-century widows epitomized helplessness is to sell the widows short,” Levine said.
The widow in the parable is evidently well off. Levine offered several reasons: the widow has access to the court and doesn’t use poverty as a reason for her appeal to the judge. She speaks to the judge in the imperative, and she lives in a city and does not work; she could afford to return to pester the judge regularly.
The Greek word for the vengeance the widow seeks is the same as the word describing the vengeance God wreaked against the firstborn sons of the Egyptians in the Old Testament.
“I don’t think parables have to have decent figures,” Levine said. “Sometimes I think pretty much everyone in the parable is behaving.”
The judge in the parable, too, does not demonstrate decency. His interior monologue reflects the assertion that he does not fear God or respect his fellow human beings. In the Bible, Levine explained, interior monologue demonstrates the conniving nature of a character. His personality is unusual for a judge — at the very least, the judge must be foolish, as the Bible proclaims those who do not fear God cannot be wise, act morally or observe Jewish Law, Levine explained.
“In terms of the judge’s lack of respect for fellow human beings, part of me kind of likes that,” Levine said. “I don’t respect a person based on that person’s status or ethnicity or geographical origins or physical features. This is a judge who’s completely open, who has no prejudice whatsoever.”
Levine clarified, however, that she would like a judge to be able to respect those who come before him in the courts. The judge and the widow are a good match for each other, she said. Neither of them respects the other. Levine referred to the New Revised Standard Version’s use of “bothering.”
“Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming,” she said, referring to the judge.
The use of “bothering” does not encompass the full meaning of the Greek, which translates to something like “strike me on the face” or “give me a black eye,” Levine said.
“At this point, we should be disturbed,” Levine said.
The judge is granting the widow vengeance to avoid violence.
“Luke, bless his heart, cannot abide a topsy-turvy world,” she said.
Luke tends to restrict widows to minor or stereotypical roles. But one widow, Anna, prefigures the widow’s persistence in the parable of the day. In Luke 2, Anna prayed and fasted and spent days and nights in the Temple.
Another significant widow Luke references is one in Zarephath, whom the prophet Elijah sought out in the midst of a famine. After miraculously receiving food, the widow’s son falls ill and dies. She brings him to Elijah, asking if he came to punish her. Elijah cries out to God for the boy’s healing, and he is revived.
The widow demands consistent follow-through.
“This widow insists that if somebody is going to take care of her needs, it cannot be a one-shot deal,” Levine said. “She demands of Elijah not just one miracle, but a life of faithfulness.”
Jesus has compassion on another widow, the widow of Nain, whose son he raises from the dead. In her hopelessness, Jesus tells her, “Do not weep.”
“The widow of Nain receives not just compassion, but also the opportunity to act,” Levine said.
Jesus awards her son back to her to take care of once he is alive.
“This parable says, ‘Don’t put (the widows) in a box.’ No one conforms to stereotype,” Levine said. “And once we begin to say ‘all widows are,’ that’s no different than saying ‘all Jews are’ or ‘all Methodists are’ or ‘all African-Americans are.’”
She continued, “Even if we want to go with a positive stereotype of the weak, faithful widow … if we read with stereotype, we will always be in trouble.”
The way the parable shakes the status quo cannot be ignored, Levine said.
“We remain confused and disturbed, and we should not allow Luke to domesticate this parable into something simply about prayer,” she said. “What is it about us that we want to attribute (the judge and the widow) with decent categories? We want that woman to be nice. … If we can make a widow who wants vengeance into a model of prayer, then we can take anybody who is a negative example and turn him or her into something positive.”
The parable also is disturbing because the widow and the judge are complicit in a system that promotes vengeance, rather than justice.
“When we go into a law court, what is it that we really want?” Levine asked. “Do we want justice, or do we want vengeance, and what’s the difference between them?”
She reminded her audience that the importance of parables lies not in what they mean, but what they do.
“The parable forces me to cross-examine my own views,” Levine said. “Rather than look at the Bible or the parable as a book about answers, this parable, and the Bible in general, is a book that says, ‘Help me to ask the right questions.’”
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine is University Professor of New Testament and Jewish Studies, E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of New Testament Studies, and Professor of Jewish Studies at Vanderbilt University Divinity School and the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also Affiliated Professor at the Woolf Institute, Centre for the Study of Jewish-Christian Relations, at Cambridge University in the United Kingdom.
Dr. Levine earned her B.A. with high honors in English and Religion at Smith College, where she graduated magna cum laude. She went on to earn her M.A. and Ph.D. in Religion from Duke University.
Professor Levine’s numerous books, articles, and essays address such topics as Second-Temple Judaism, Christian origins, Jewish-Christian relations, and biblical women. She has served on the editorial boards of the Journal of Biblical Literature and the Catholic Biblical Quarterly and has held office in the Society of Biblical Literature, the Catholic Biblical Association, and the Association for Jewish Studies.
A widely sought-after speaker and favorite at the Chautauqua Institution, she has given hundreds of talks on biblical topics to both academic and nonacademic audiences, including church, synagogue, and community groups throughout the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom. Her awards include grants from the Mellon Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council of Learned Societies.