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.