Luke 18:1-8: A Biblical Defense of the “Nasty Woman”

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Recent United States Presidential Election and the Nasty Woman

In American culture, intelligent women who voice their opinions and stand up for justice are labeled bitches. They are called “nasty” in Presidential elections and threatened with jail. Once a woman challenges a man’s authority or status, or is persistent in her measures for seeking justice, she is seen as a threat. In Luke 18:1-8 we hear the story of a tenacious widow seeking justice from an ungodly judge who feels threatened by her persistence, and Jesus uses her as a positive character model for his disciples. Though scholars have tried to tame this woman, even through translation, she maintains a challenge to the hegemonic myth of woman as bitch. Her story is a biblical defense of the “nasty woman.”

As a young, progressive woman in America who has watched women stand up for their rights and struggle to have their voices heard in this country, watching the 2016 election was painful. Whether one cared much for Secretary Clinton or not, it must be admitted that she is a woman who has worked her entire life to get to where she is today. To see her be berated in debates and torn apart in media, then watch her lose to a man with no experience compared to her thirty years in the field, made progressive women feel the weight of the glass ceiling. Particularly as a woman who, at twenty-four, has faced much misogyny and patriarchy particularly in the male-dominated field of pastoral ministry, my heart ached for Secretary Clinton and raged in pain for women, the subalterns in almost every culture and society, who have worked tirelessly for justice – to just have a voice. As much as women have worked hard to reclaim the term “bitch” and now “nasty,” it has become clear that women (and men) are still working to dismantle the hegemonic myth that strong women are nasty bitches. This is the social location from which I write this paper.

A Nasty Widow in Luke 18:1-8

This parable is only found in the Gospel of Luke, who has more stories of women, particularly widows, than any of the other Gospels.[1] In this passage’s immediate context, Jesus has been speaking about the coming of the Kingdom of God, however, he has been using only women to demonstrate those who are left behind. In Luke 17:32, Jesus tells his disciples to “remember Lot’s wife” then tells a parable a few verses later about two women “grinding grain together” and one is taken, the other is left behind (17:35-36). These women are a stark contrast to the widow whom Jesus uses a few verses later as an example of persistence in faith. This section and what follows throughout the remainder of chapter eighteen focus on the marginalized and rejected peoples of society; the subalterns of Jesus’ world, such as widows, tax collectors, and children. Much like he does for the widow in this parable, Jesus through the lens of Luke works to redeem the marginalized and, through his stories and actions, challenges the dominant culture’s perceptions of them.

Jesus opens the parable by telling his disciples of their “need to pray always and to not lose heart,”[2] and he closes it by questioning if the Son of Man, upon his coming, will find faith in the world. He is questioning whether or not his disciples will trust in the justness of God and not lose heart, despite adversity. The women in the few verses before this widow’s story are Jesus’ examples of people who did not trust, and perhaps lost faith. This widow, however, is persistent. It seems the message is that if one prays faithfully and consistently works towards justice, then justice will come.

It must be noted that the widow in this story does not have much of a voice. While the reader hears what the judge says to himself, as the inner thoughts of his reasoning are made known, the widow only speaks once. She is a subaltern in their society, part of the marginalized community. Within society, she may not have much of a voice, and that is reflected in this parable. We know far more about the judge and his intentions than we do of the woman. Jesus even states, “Listen to what the unjust judge says,” and he begins and ends the parable with descriptions of the judge. He gets far more air-time than the widow, which leads one to question if this parable is even about the widow’s actions at all. Is it about God’s justice or the widow’s persistence? In verses six and seven, God is contrasted with the judge, as the judge is presented as a negative character model. It leaves one wondering if the woman is being contrasted with God’s chosen ones; is she truly a positive character model? It seems, however, that the widow is actually contrasted with the disbelieving women before her, such as Lot’s wife. In this case, then, this widow is a positive character model that stands for the faith which the disciples must have.

The widow in this story, though she may not say much, has a voice in the way Jesus uses her to challenge the stereotype of widows in his society. They are often portrayed as helpless and weak, and this widow is anything but. She is persistent, bold, and strong; approaching the judge each day, demanding justice.

Some translations have tamed the widow’s persistence and character. In the New Revised Standard Version, the judge explains his giving in to her complaints by saying, “so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”[3] However, the original Greek is actually a boxing term.[4] The judge is essentially concerned about physical violence. He is afraid she is going to give him a black eye. As Amy-Jill Levine writes, the NRSV’s translation of the judge’s excuse is a “taming” of the widow’s character. In fact, the NRSV’s translation of the word “justice” is actually the Greek word for “vengeance.” As Levine states, “This is not a sweet little old lady;” this is a woman looking for retribution.[5]

Though widows are stereotypically presented as meek women with little power or voice in Jesus’ time, this widow and many other widows in Luke’s parables break that stereotype. Jesus, according to Levine, is not presenting women who are “helpless, exploited, poor, dependent people.” Instead, these are “women who have had to make a go in a difficult environment by using their connections, their wits, their faith, and their tenacity.”[6] They are models of absolute devotion. Anna, in Luke 2:36-38, is a widow and prophet presented as a woman of great devotion; as well as Zarephath, a widow and prophet for Elijah in 1 Kings 17 who is referenced in Luke 4:25-27. These widows in Luke’s Gospel are “more than victims who need help; they are examples of outstanding devotion.”[7] These women, and this widow facing the judge in particular, are positive character models for consistent prayer and action in the seeking of justice. The fact that they are women challenges the disciples’ understandings of prophets and devotees of God in their male-dominated society. These women are persistent and are not meek, and have an understanding of their patriarchial system. It is this tenacity and their threat to male power, including in the way Jesus lifts them up as a positive character model for people who work toward justice, that makes these women what some twenty-first century men might call a “nasty” woman.

The widow in Luke 18:1-8 is nasty and therefore problematic. She not only prays, but she takes action, going to the judge day after day. She stands her ground. This judge, as many men in patriarchal, misogynistic societies do to women, ignores the woman and sees her as a pest, until one day he decides to give in, for fear that she might attack him. It is partially this threat that makes this woman problematic. However, the text never states that the woman herself poses a threat, only that the man feels threatened by her.

Much like other women who have challenged the power of men, this widow has been painted as a negative character model for centuries. Some commentaries have labeled her as “nagging”[8] which has a negative, feminine connotation. The complexity of her character also lies in her monetary status: she goes to the courts day after day which implies that she has the funds to be able to do so. This widow, much like Secretary Clinton, is problematic because she takes part in the system. They may have wealth or status, but these are women who have come to understand how the games within their patriarchal system work, and are using it to their advantage. It is here that we see hybridity. As these women challenge the system and seek justice from its oppressions, they are still working within the system. It is because these women challenge the hegemonic understanding of women in a particular system is precisely why commentaries and journalists have presented them as problematic, driving the hegemonic myth of strong, persistent women as bitches.

Several commentaries[9] explain that the threat of physical violence the judge fears would be laughable by the hearers of Jesus’ day. A woman hurting a man, challenging his authority; it is a laughable matter to these commentators. This is precisely why Jesus uses this woman as an example of persistent devotion. He challenges the myth. He takes what may be seen as nasty and presents it as committed devotion to working towards the realization of the Kingdom of God. Additionally, rather than present these women in their stereotypically helpless, weak roles, Jesus forces his followers to see their strength, devotion, and tenacity. The fact that this “persistent, bold, courageous, brash, and demanding” person seeking justice is a woman makes Jesus’ use of her all the more “striking” [10] in the way is breaks down the myth.

Jesus knows that the disciples will face adversities in the coming of the Kingdom, and he presents this widow as someone committed to justice in the face of a system built to oppress and work against her. She seeks freedom from oppression; “a transformed world.”[11] As Levine writes, “Jesus’ teaching here is particularly oriented toward the necessity of tenacious, hopeful faith in the midst of present ordeal.”[12] He wants to know if his disciples will maintain their faith, as this woman did. Are they willing to risk ridicule and being labeled as pests; will the work towards justice in the face of adversity; will they be persistent in their actions toward creating a just world and bringing the Kingdom of God to life? Jesus calls his disciples to be like this ‘nasty’ woman.

In the search for justice, those who represent the oppressed and marginalized are always painted as a threat. It is not just this widow, nor Secretary Clinton. Take, for example, Black Lives Matter protestors who have been portrayed in media as cop killers and reverse-racists. I cannot help but wonder how Biblical commentaries and translators would present people of color if Jesus were alive today and used a Black Lives Matter protestor as an example of how one should be persistent in the pursuit of justice. I also draw parallels to victims of sexual assault who have to continuously go before judges and juries, often being eaten alive by defense attorneys while on the stand. In their search for justice, they may feel the desire for vengeance as this widow did. They go back day after day after day in search of justice.

A Biblical Defense of the Nasty Woman

One thing seems certain; that those who are a threat to oppressive hegemonic norms and challenge systems of power and work for justice are often silenced by society, yet Jesus lifts them up as examples of who we are called to be in the Kingdom of God. Keep the faith. Keep strong in prayer. Never lose heart. If I were to write a sermon based off this text, it would be titled A Biblical Defense of the Nasty Woman. The widow in this story is a clear example of what has recently been deemed in politics/media as “nasty.” She stands up for herself and is not afraid to speak out against injustice, even to the point of being threatening. She faces the injustice head-on, without backing down. She is a defense of the women and people of color who have spent countless years persistently working towards justice in the face of patriarchy, racism, and misogyny, very different from but also very similar to this widow. To them, I believe Jesus would say, “Keep doing the work. Stay strong in prayer. Never lose heart.”

 

Kelsey Peterson, MFA

MDiv Candidate, Pacific School of Religion, Berkeley, CA

Adjunct Associate Professor in Performing Arts, Dance at Saint Mary’s College of California

Youth & Family Minister at Orinda Community Church, Orinda, CA

 

[1] Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, and Jacqueline E. Lapsley, eds., Women’s Bible Commentary, Third Edition: Revised and Updated, 3rd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 495

[2] Lk 18:1

[3] Lk 18:5

[4] Amy-Jill Levine, Short Stories by Jesus: the Enigmatic Parables of a Controversial Rabbi, Reprint ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2015), 242-243.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “The Parable of the Nagging Widow,” The IVP New Testament Commentary Series. InterVarsity Press, online. 29 December 2016.

[9] As found on http://www.textweek.com/mtlk/lk18a.htm. Accessed November 2016.

[10] Robert C. Tannehill, Luke (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), 264.

[11] Ibid. 263

[12] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke, The New International Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1997), 637.



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