A key moment in Luke comes at the end of chapter 9 when Jesus “set his face toward Jerusalem” (9:51). In the following chapters, we read stories of Jesus and his followers heading toward the big confrontation that led to Jesus’ death. We may think of this section as training for disciples, training for “taking up the cross.”
The parable in Luke 18:1-8 tells of a not-so-impressive judge and an impressive widow. The judge neither feared God nor respected people, two characteristics that probably reinforced each other. As we would expect, the judge was not responsive to the widow’s plea for help.
We aren’t told about the widow’s circumstances, but all too often widows are some of the most vulnerable people in society. Likely someone was exploiting her vulnerability, and the judge’s court was her last recourse. The judge isn’t interested in helping, but the widow perseveres. She’s not willing to accept his disregard but demanded that he do his job and protect the well-being of the vulnerable.
He relents, but not because of any awakening of virtue. She simply wears him down. Jesus then turns to the punch line. God, who does respect people, will be even quicker to care for the vulnerable. So, don’t lose heart. As long as people persevere in their quest for justice, the Son of Man will indeed find faithfulness when he returns.
This parable follows some alarming words from Jesus about difficult days to come (17:20-37). What might we learn about living in trying times from this parable? We learn from the widow to insist on carrying out the Old Testament law’s call for justice, understood as care for the vulnerable. And we learn from Jesus’ commentary that the glimmers of justice that we might see in the grudging responsiveness of an unbelieving judge point to the much fuller and better justice of God.
Jesus offers some challenging teaching in Luke 13:22-30 — centered on the image of the “narrow door” (13:24), which he refers to in response to the question, “Will only a few be saved?” (13:23). This passage requires some careful reading.
A few verses earlier (13:10-17), we read of a conflict Jesus has with a religious leader over Jesus healing “a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for 18 years” on the Sabbath. As always, Jesus acts in a generous way and by doing so offends those who advocate for the scarcity of salvation and healing. Two brief parables, the mustard seed and the yeast, confirm Jesus’ portrayal of the kingdom of God as a place of welcome and liberation.
Then he gets this question about how many will be saved. Read Jesus’ answer attentively. Who is left behind the narrow door? We are not directly told.
“Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets” (13:28) are inside. So Jesus is definitely not making a contrast between Jews and Christians. Note next who else are inside: “People [who] come from east and west, from north and south” (13:29).
That is, a large number will be saved. The people shut out by the narrow door are those like the religious leader in 13:14 who criticized Jesus for healing the crippled woman. The principle of exclusion from the kingdom seems to be that those who seek to exclude others are the only ones actually excluded.
I’d suggest the idea in these stories is not that God actively excludes so much as that those who have a disposition to exclude others, those that don’t recognize that God’s justice is most of all about care for the vulnerable, actually exclude themselves. They miss out on the meaning of God’s kingdom — and miss the kingdom itself.
Ted Grimsrud is senior professor of peace theology at Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Va.