Month: October 2019
The Widow and the Unjust Judge
If you’ve been at the Cathedral for a while, you’ve heard me tell a story or two of my maternal grandmother, Boo. You may not, however, have heard me talk much about my other grandmother, Buell Stuart Thompson, from whom my middle name comes. My grandmother was from McGehee, Arkansas, deep in the Delta, where mosquitos are the size of chicken hawks and have been known to carry away small children and dogs. Her Southern drawl would have fit equally well in Dothan, Alabama. Her grandkids couldn’t say “Grandmother,” so we called her “Gee.” Gee died when I was fourteen, so my memories of her are not as many as those of my other grandmother, Boo. Nevertheless, Gee was a remarkable woman.
Gee had five burly brothers—country boys all, with the names Skeet, Jap, Cutter, Tom, and Fred—and for years she would fill her tiny living room with a drop-leaf dining table each Sunday at noon, where she’d feed all those Stuart men. Gee was in charge of them all, and of that no one was in doubt.
My dad tells a childhood story of how he once accidentally walked into an enormous yellowjacket nest in the barn behind their house and ran home stung and crying. Without hesitation, Gee grabbed an old fashioned, hand-held pump sprayer full of mid-century insecticide and marched into the barn cussing a blue streak to do battle with the yellowjackets as if they were the German Luftwaffe. Gee walked out unscathed. The yellowjackets did not.
In the 1970s, Gee developed cancer of the sinus cavity behind her right eye. Radiation beat the cancer but destroyed the eye, and Gee had a glass eye implanted. The implant soon became infected and had to be removed, but Gee insisted for the reminder of her life upon wearing the glass eye itself minus the implant, which meant the eye sat way back in her eye socket, giving her an eerie look and drawing the stares of curiosity seekers. Gee didn’t care. Cleaning that eye in the sink one day, Gee dropped it, promptly called a plumber, and informed him matter-of-factly, “I need you to come over. I’ve dropped my eye down the drain.”
Gee broke both hips in the early 1980s. Finally, she developed lung cancer after a lifetime of chain smoking Now cigarettes. Remembering what cancer treatment was like the first time around, she made the steely-eyed decision to forego any treatment and let lung cancer run its course. She died in 1987 at age seventy-eight.
Gee’s husband, my grandfather, died in Houston in 1956 (under the care of Michael DeBakey, no less) when Gee was forty-seven. For the next thirty-one years she lived, widowed, in one half of a one-bedroom duplex in McGehee, renting out the other half for income. To my siblings and me, Gee was a gentle and tender soul. To others, I’m told, she was tough as nails and had a withering look. And I cannot read today’s Gospel passage—the Parable of the Widow and the Unjust Judge—within imagining Gee.
The version of the Bible from which we read each Sunday is the New Revised Standard. It is usually a good and responsible translation, but not today. In too many ways, it smooths the edges of what Jesus conveys in his story. The NRSV suggests that the widow pleads with the judge, “Please grant me justice,” but the Greek is forceful and forward, more like “Justice belongs to me, and you’d better give it to me!” The NRSV then says that the judge ponders, “This widow is bothersome. She may wear me out” as if the threat to him is mere exasperation, but the Greek actually uses a boxing term. A more faithful translation would be, “If I don’t heed this widow, she’s going to knock this door down and beat me to a pulp!”[i]
In other words, the image of this widow is not that of a mousy, pitiful and weak person tapping tentatively in desperation at the judge’s door. It is of Gee, corralling a room full of ornery men, marching into battle against wasps and hornets, staring at cancer through her one good eye and saying, “I’ll die on my own terms, thank you very much.” The judge in this parable thinks, at first, that he has power and the widow is powerless. He quickly learns that she will not be cowed, that he is the one in trouble in this situation, and that he’d best respond to her with the justice she knows she deserves.
To the audience to whom Jesus told this story, this depiction would have gotten their attention. Widows in their culture were not the protagonists in any story. Widows were not people to emulate. Widows were nobody. They had been extensions of their husbands in society’s eyes, and when those husbands died, they were rendered, in effect, non-people. For exactly this reason, due to widows’ extreme vulnerability, throughout the Old Testament there are injunctions that others must look out for widows, protecting them and advocating for them. But widows would not—and by the rules of society could not—do this for themselves. A widow knocking on a judge’s door on her own behalf would have been as nonsensical to the hearer as a cow walking on the moon.
And yet, here she is in Jesus’ parable thundering against the door of the powerful, demanding that her voice be heard and goodness prevail. And she succeeds. How is that so? The remainder of today’s passage gives us the answer. Jesus contrasts God to the judge in his parable, and of God Jesus says, “Will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
In other words, though the judge may not know it, and though the world surrounding her may not admit it, God has already granted justice to this widow. And what is God’s justice? Biblical scholar Paul Metzger defines it this way: “God’s justice involves making individuals, communities, and the cosmos whole… Justice flows from God’s heart and character. As true and good, God seeks to make the object of his holy love whole.”[ii]
And so, we see that despite the initial sneering disregard of the judge toward the widow, her worth, her dignity, and (he learns the hard way) her power precede his answering or even her knocking on the door. From the outside, the widow may look weak, but internally she is fathomlessly strong, because she has already embraced the wholeness within that God grants her. And because she has done so, she is empowered to seek justice without. The judge doesn’t stand a chance.
The question then becomes for Jesus’ audience, who were largely made up of others society would deem weak, unworthy, or broken: Will they embrace God’s justice within them? And will they then live in the world as this widow, through whom dignity shines and power thunders, making the judge quake in his high seat?
The question is for us, too. Though in our modern world we may wear a disguising façade, I daresay we sometimes feel weak, and unworthy, and broken. We may see images and hear voices that tell us we are nobody, that break us down and strip us internally of our worth. But like the widow, we, too, are God’s own children, the objects of God’s holy love. No matter what anyone has ever told you; no matter what anyone has ever done to you; no matter what you have ever said or done, you are the object of God’s holy love. That love mends our brokenness and makes us whole, and the world has nothing to say about it. It makes me want to exhale in sweet relief. It makes me feel like I could knock down any door.
In his discussion of God’s justice, Paul Metzger says that, “Both individual transformation and community transformation are part of restoring wholeness…With transformed hearts, we are to extend God’s justice” into the world.[iii] We aren’t told what the widow’s case before the judge is about. But I daresay one of her character, in whom the justice of God brims to overflowing, speaks for more than herself alone. I bet she also speaks for others to whom the world grants no voice. We are called to do the same. No matter who we are, not matter what power society says we have or lack, when we awaken to the wondrous recognition that in God and to God we are whole, we cannot help but work in the world to extend God’s justice to others through acts of courage, goodness, and grace. In that way alone the thickest doors closed to God’s children will be broken down, God’s love will redeem both the voiceless and the powerful, and God’s justice will reign over all the earth.
[i] Levine, Amy-Jill. Short Stories by Jesus, pp. 242-243.
Vanity of Vanities, Session 1
Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries sure would help a lot.
Wouldn’t you like to get away? Sometimes you’ve want to go where everybody knows your name…
I’ve only ever had one establishment that called out my name as soon as I entered and began preparing my order before I could speak it. It was an ice cream shop called The Little Dipper on the market square in downtown Roanoke, Virginia. I’d walk in, the two ladies behind the counter (who were the owners) would call out agreeably, “Barkley!” and they’d immediately begin making my favorite: a blueberry milkshake. So simple; just vanilla ice cream, milk, and fresh blueberries. It wasn’t even on the menu, but there’s nothing in the world I’d rather have. The ladies at The Little Dipper knew it, and whenever I was there, their smiles, their welcome, and their sacramental offering of that blueberry milkshake could turn the worst day into the best.
But there is one thing about a blueberry milkshake that can be problematic: blueberry seeds. They are so tiny as to be almost imperceptible. That is, until one gets caught in your gum line. For the average consumer of blueberries, this is not a problem. But when you eat as many blueberries as I do, and especially when the blueberries are blended into a milkshake the seeds can become an irritant. It’s remarkable that a blueberry seed in the gum line can be completely preoccupying. Such a tiny thing, but when it is lodged there everything else becomes tertiary. That seed commands one’s entire attention. Trust me. I love blueberries.
In today’s Gospel lesson, for the second time Jesus invokes another tiny seed—this one mustard—to talk about faith. Jesus says, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.”
Most often when discussing this passage, preachers focus on the stupendous and miraculous power of such faith, but I find that seed much more interesting. I’m captivated by the notion that Jesus would choose as his repeated example a thing so very small.
In sermons recently I’ve talked a lot about faith, about how faith is not some magic, spoken formula about Jesus that punches one’s ticket to heaven; about how faith is not some unrealistic (and unbiblical) belief that God’s going to make everything turn out o.k.; and about how faith is the recognition—the wondrous recognition—that this world is animated by God; that God pervades our waking like the very air we breathe; that God is always here, immediately with us, no matter where and no matter what, in the grandest moments and in the most mundane.
Often, the first realization that this is what faith is comes in a flash, a bare moment of insight that passes as quickly as it came. In the 86,400 seconds that make up a day, the encounter with the reality of God may have taken just one.
And it doesn’t even have to be a knock-you-down, Road to Damascus moment. The dawning of faith as an awareness of the presence and companionship of God may come from something as ordinary as being called by name by a smiling face when you walk through the door of an ice cream shop.
But when it happens—once it’s happened—this tiny, perhaps almost imperceptible encounter becomes like a blueberry seed stuck in the gums. Even as those subsequent 86,399 seconds stream by, even as the demands of work, and family, and the day crowd in, the seed is still there, making its presence known, reminding one of the taste of God sweeter than a blueberry milkshake. Its presence may even be an irritant. One may wish it would go away, that this tiny but all consuming new thing would let life resort back to what it had been. But it won’t. It stays, this new faith. It never fully recedes into the background. It demands attention, as the smallest thing becomes the most encompassing.
Another image that Jesus uses to describe faith in the Gospels is the pearl, as if to drive home the point to the thickest of us. A pearl is, after all, nothing other than the transformation of an irritant, a grain of sand that works its way into an oyster’s protective shell and that, once there, will not be ignored. The oyster has no choice but to respond to the grain. That irritant spurs the oyster on to respond again, and again and again And slowly, day after day, week after week, that tiny grain grows into a thing of profound beauty and value. When you think about it, I’d say that’s more miraculous than planting a mulberry tree in the middle of the ocean.
So what does this mean for us at Christ Church Cathedral on this very day? It speaks directly to us, I’d say, as we enter into this season of stewardship. Stewardship is, first and foremost, a term related to the growing and transforming of things. It is about turning fully toward those encounters, profound and mundane, in which we have recognized God. It is about the way in which the seed planted by such encounters, tiny as it may be, lodges itself within us and will not be ignored try as we may. It is about how that seed—that grain of sand—which may, at first, confuse or even irritate us as it tries to upend our status quo, can grow into the pearl of greatest price.
Using the language of the miraculous, Jesus says today that there are no limits to what we can accomplish when we finally give in and allow that relentless seed of faith to grow and to capture our hearts as well as our attention. And when we express that transformation within us through our support for God’s mission in the church, there are no limits to what we can accomplish in God’s world.
In my own life, this is the experience I know most to be true. Faith, that wonder at the reality and presence of God, is like that blueberry seed lodged in my gums. Sometimes, honestly, I wish I could root it out, that it would just go away and let me live my life as I see fit. But then I remember the threshold of God across which I am always called by name. I remember the love that knows what I need even before I ask for it. I remember the taste of grace, sweeter than a blueberry milkshake.
How should we respond? If we each responded in the full measure of our relief, our joy, our wonder at the encounter with the reality of God, then the Cathedral’s ministry budget would be overflowing, the impact of Christ Church on this city would be miraculous, and mulberry trees would grow in the middle of the ship channel.
We can respond that way, each of us. When we walk through these doors, we are known by name. The face of the God of love smiles upon us. God nourishes us with the grace we need even before we can ask. Faith is like a blueberry seed. It is the smallest thing, and the greatest thing in all the world.