Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch

I want to tell you the stories of two men, almost exact contemporaries and both committed ministers of the Gospel.

The first is William Ashley Sunday, born in 1862 in Iowa.  William’s father was a Union soldier killed in the Civil War, and William himself bounced around during his childhood, spending some time in an orphanage.  He was blessed with athletic skill, and as a twenty-one year old phenom he signed to play professional baseball for the team that was then called the Chicago Whitestockings.  By then they called him Billy, and in Chicago Billy Sunday was exposed for the first time to the sin that is endemic in the world, including the effects of alcohol abuse on working people.  These revelations and a chance encounter with a preacher on a Chicago street corner led Billy to a conversion experience.  All the other things in his life subsided, and Jesus became his lord and king.  Billy gave up baseball and began holding his own revival meetings.  By the beginning of the twentieth century, Billy was receiving invitations to preach in large American cities.  Eschewing churches or auditoriums, Billy’s advance team built huge wooden arenas called “tabernacles” in cities where Billy appeared, adding to the anticipation of his revivals.  Decades before Billy Graham appeared on the scene, Billy Sunday was a prototypical mass preacher.  He stomped and yelled, employing exaggerated gestures and colloquial language.  He moved millions.  And he believed that the key to saving the world was for people to invite Jesus into their hearts to be their king.  For Billy, this was an entirely internal affair. Jesus’ kingdom was interior, the realm of the heart.

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In 1861, the year before Billy Sunday was born, a baby boy named Walter Rauschenbusch was born in Rochester, New York.  Walter was the son of a Baptist seminary professor, and it soon became obvious that Walter would follow in his father’s footsteps.  He grew up and was ordained, and in 1886—the same year Billy Sunday met the street corner evangelist in Chicago—Walter Rauschenbusch took a call to serve as pastor of Second Baptist Church in New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen.  Walter’s experience in New York was as transformative as Billy’s in Chicago.  In the Hell’s Kitchen of the late 1800s, he witnessed immigrant communities in sordid living conditions, labor exploitation by industrial giants, and government indifference to the plight of its most vulnerable citizens.

Walter Rauschenbusch read his bible again, and he realized that in the Gospels Jesus spends most of his time talking about the kingdom of God.  Jesus’ actions, Walter also recognized, actually transformed the real, physical lives of the people he met: Jesus set captives free; he offered healthcare to the sick; he overturned the moneychangers’ tables and convinced swindlers like Zacchaeus to deal fairly with people.  Jesus is a king who came to change the world, not only our hearts, and the Gospel, Walter decided, is a social Gospel.  With an evangelical zeal as strong as that of Billy Sunday he wrote and preached on the Social Gospel, giving the new Progressive Movement of the early 1900s a powerful Christian voice.

I daresay these two names were unknown to most of us: Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch.  But in the first two decades of the twentieth century, they were national celebrities.  There were no bigger names.  One filled cavernous rooms.  The other sold best-selling social commentaries.  Both were absolutely committed to the idea that Christ is king, but their visions for what that looks like were as different as night and day.

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Walter Rauschenbusch

Why do I tell you their stories?  Because this is Christ the King Sunday.  Next Sunday we begin a new church year.  Today is the end, the culmination, the ultimate Sunday before little Jesus Baby New Year shows up with his sash next week and we enter Advent to do it all again.  It is not incidental that we end the church year with Christ the King Sunday.  The last word is almost always the most important word, and for Christians the last word is that Christ is king.  If we pause and listen to those words, they will ring strangely in our American ears.  Like bazillions of Americans, Jill is watching the Netflix series The Crown, and her fascination with the life of Queen Elizabeth stems from the fact that the notion of royalty is so entirely foreign to our American sensibilities.  We don’t have kings.  (That’s sort of the entire American point, isn’t it?)  Except here we are, those of us who claim to be Christian in addition to—or before—we are American.  And today we say that Christ is King. So what do we mean by that?

The options are those of the contemporary Christian titans, Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch.  Though they lived a century ago, their distinctive approaches still drive our thinking today.  Both bent the knee to Jesus as king, but their understandings of what that entailed were very different.

In one sermon (available on YouTube), Billy Sunday says he won’t rest until “this old world is bound to the cross of Jesus Christ by the golden chains of love.”  But it is clear that for Billy Jesus’ reign is interior to the human heart.   Throughout his career, he was criticized (as Billy Graham would sometimes later be criticized) for having as his close friends men like John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and while encouraging such industrial barons to place their souls under the reign of Christ, that encouragement did not translate into changing the way they did business or laboring to better the lives of suffering people.  Billy Sunday’s message is an entirely personal, not public, one.  He spoke to the individual heart in hopes that it would become the subject of Jesus the king.  If Billy Sunday hoped for societal change at all, he assumed that the subjugation of the heart would somehow mysteriously, eventually, organically lead to social change.  Overt Christian social action was absent from his religious understanding.

Walter Rauschenbusch, by contrast, was the original social justice warrior.  For Walter, Christ’s kingship was not primarily of the heart, but of the outward world.  In his last great work, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch states the hope that, with Christ as king and through the concrete social actions of his subjects, the very kingdom of God would emerge in our world.  Injustice, suffering, and want would be overcome, and that requires that the subjects of Jesus first and foremost speak and act in the world boldly for social change.  But Walter Rauschenbusch was criticized, too, and in his case there were some who thought he co-opted the Gospel to undergird a Progressive political agenda.

Christ’s kingship as a matter of ruling the heart or as a charge to social change…but might this be a false choice?  The epistle lesson for today, which is the great Christ hymn from Paul’s Letter to the Colossians, tells us that Christ “has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son.”  It then goes on to tell us what that means: “In [Christ] all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him…so that he might come to have first place in everything.”

The great biblical scholar and Anglican bishop N.T. Wright warns against what I’m calling the Billy Sunday-Walter Rauschenbusch dichotomy.  One the Billy Sunday side, Wright says, “[Christians cry], we want a religious leader, not a king!  We want someone to save our souls, not rule our world!”  But of the Rauschenbusch perspective, Wright equally warns, “If we want a king, someone to take charge of our world, what we [really mean is that] what we want is someone to implement the policies we already embrace.”[i]

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In Colossians, Saint Paul is clear and unequivocal that both perspectives are partial and incomplete, if not downright wrong.  Jesus’ kingship is not only about social action.  It is about “things visible and invisible,” and that most certainly includes the disposition of the heart.  Being subjects of Christ the king means nothing less than crucifying our own desires, loves, and pursuits in favor of Christ’s own.  It absolutely includes those moments in which we are driven to our knees as before a lord and king, to say “Not my will, but yours live in me.”

Jesus’ kingship is certainly a matter of the converted heart, but it is not only so.  Paul says that “thrones, dominions, rulers and powers” are within the bounds of Christ’s kingdom.  In other words, if any lead in ways that are contrary to the love and grace of God, and of God’s care for all people, then as subjects of Jesus we are required to serve Christ as king over any earthly leader, and we are compelled to speak out and act in the world for Christ’s love, challenging power, challenging the structures of society, declaring that God’s kingdom supersedes all earthly ones.

In other words, Billy Sunday and Walter Rauschenbusch are two equally essential sides of the same coin.  They are dopplegangers in addition to being exact contemporaries.  We need them both, as faithful witnesses to Christ the king.  When we turn our hearts to Jesus and allow his heart to become our own, and when we then live and act in the world in favor of signs that his reign is in-breaking, then Christ really does become king.  And for his subjects, in him all things hold together.

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[i] Wright, N.T. Simply Jesus: A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters, pg. 5.

What is resurrection?

At Episcopal funerals, the solemn anthem provides the very first words, the initiating sentiments addressed to all those who have come to mourn and remember someone they’ve loved.  It says this: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.  I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold him, who is my friend and not a stranger.”[i]

Many likely believe these are the elegant and poetic words of Archbishop Cranmer or some later Prayer Book wordsmith, but they are actually the words of the most anguished human in recorded history.  They are the words of the biblical Job.  They are also our first reading today.  It is strange that they are so hopeful.

Job utters these words right in the middle of the Book of Job, after his family has been killed and his body has erupted in boils and sores, but long before God shows up in person and Job’s outlook changes.  At chapter nineteen, Job has been listening to the world’s worst best friends tell him incessantly that his misfortune is the result of his own sin.  Job responds with a lament that God and the world have humiliated him, injured him, and forgotten him.  (Have you ever felt that way?)  But then, in a brief non sequitur that seems to surprise Job as much as it does the reader, Job utters today’s words of hope.  For a moment, Job catches a glimpse of another reality, and it captivates him.  He sees it as the really real: “As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.  After my awaking, he will raise me up; and in my body I shall see God.  I myself shall see, and my eyes shall behold him, who is my friend and not a stranger.”

Job has a vision of resurrection, and for just a moment it changes everything.

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William Blake’s illustration of Job and his friends.

Resurrection is confusing, but don’t you worry—it confuses theologians, pastors, and priests just as much as it confuses everyone else.  What is it?

Most commonly, when we hear “resurrection,” especially at funerals, we unconsciously translate the term to mean “heaven.”  Those we love are gone, but we affirm, again from the Prayer Book, that “life is changed, not ended; and when our mortal body lies in death, there is prepared for us a dwelling place…in the heavens.”[ii]  The challenge is that heaven is very rarely spoken of in scripture this way, and when it is, it is only mentioned fleetingly.  It is amazing that we have developed an entire, pervasive theology of heaven on such scanty evidence.

It’s not that heaven isn’t real; it very much is real.  Rather, it’s that Holy Scripture is clear that heaven is not our final resting place.  Our finality is found in resurrection, and heaven ain’t it.  As I suggested to the Wednesday Men’s Bible Study a couple of weeks ago, heaven is more like the United Club at Bush Intercontinental.  It’s great:  Comfortable, great service, free food and drinks, and stellar wifi.  But it isn’t where you plan to stay forever.  The United Club is a way station, a place of ease and a respite on the journey while we await the joy of our final destination.  In a comprehensive theology of resurrection, that’s what heaven is.

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Heaven is like the United Club at Bush Intercontinental.

More recently, we may think of resurrection as some form of miraculous resuscitation, a bringing back to life again that which was dead.  In literature and film, that always goes terribly, horribly wrong.  Think of the various zombie films and television shows of the past generation (which I won’t go into because Canon Callaham has previously preached on them ably and well.)  This genre famously began with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in 1818, where through the most advanced science Victor Frankenstein brings back to life someone cobbled together from various other people’s parts.  The creature is supposed to be like Genesis’ Adam: innocent and pure.  But it turns out to be more murderous than the humanity that created it, and it serves even today as a cautionary tale for science that can increasingly clone and gene edit in God-like fashion.

If resurrection is neither of these things—neither heaven nor resuscitation—then what, exactly, is it?  That’s what the Sadducees in Luke’s Gospel want to know today.  Actually, they don’t really care.  The Sadducees are a group in first century Judaism who don’t believe in resurrection, so their question to Jesus doesn’t hope for an actual answer; it hopes to make Jesus look foolish.  The Sadducees intend to mock and belittle.  They ask Jesus, if a woman has been married to seven brothers in turn, then to whom is she married in the resurrection?

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Resurrection is not resuscitation.

Jesus meets their mockery with keen insight, and his answer—like Job’s surprising soliloquy—offers a glimpse of what resurrection is all about.  In his response to the Sadducees, Jesus becomes a cosmic grammarian.  Hearkening to the story of Moses and the burning bush in Exodus, Jesus alludes to God’s self-given name as “I am.”  God is, not was.  And in the eternally present God, nothing is lost; nothing will be or can be lost.  That is the key to resurrection, and it is what makes resurrection hope different from either heaven or resuscitation.  In our idea of heaven, we set aside the burdens of our lives and escape our hurts.  In resuscitation, we simply get to keep going for another round with those burdens and hurts in tow.  Can you imagine either of those options being palatable to Job?  Would Job be content in a heaven in which his sores are gone, but in which the futility and injustice of his family’s death was still extant?  Or, at death would Job be content to be resuscitated right back into the life of pain he’s been living?

Neither of these things is the vision that breaks into Job’s consciousness in the midst of his suffering.  Job’s vision is that he will be redeemed, bodily.  He will be made whole, in every sense of that term.  That means he and the world will be repaired, not merely resuscitated.  That means his loss will be restored, not merely that he will be anesthetized to it in some gauzy heaven.

That is the promise of resurrection.  It is not escape from this creation, like heaven.  And it is not a continuation of the same in this creation, like resuscitation.  It is, as N.T. Wright says, “the process of new creation, [in which] what may seem impossible in human terms is possible with God.”[iii]  Scripture gives us two images for what this looks like, one individual and the other corporate.

In 1 Corinthians, St. Paul says, in effect, that what we will be in the resurrection is both the same and different from what we are now as an acorn is to an oak tree.[iv]  If aliens landed on earth, and we showed them an acorn and an oak and said that these two are the same thing, the aliens would be as confused as we are by the notion of resurrection.  But God’s promise is that whatever we are today, with whatever brokenness, whatever stunting limitation, whatever disappointment and hurt; in the resurrection we will be the oak tree to the acorn, grown and blossomed into God’s fullness for us, with strength, and beauty, and completion that is beyond comprehension to us now.  Our limitations won’t be escaped but redeemed, so that the very things that have most pained us will become the source of our strength.  Each of us, individually.

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And corporately, God grants the great vision to St. John the Divine at the very end of John’s Revelation.  Again, that vision is not of heaven “up there” nor of a world that is simply more of the same.  Rather, the vision is of the new Jerusalem come down from heaven to earth.  In that great city, which in John’s vision stands for the whole redeemed world, God dwells with us.  Death is no more.  Mourning and crying and pain are no more.  In the middle of that city—in the middle of that world—flows the river of the water of life.  And in that city the gates are never closed.  They are open to all, always, because the love of God reigns.[v]

What difference does all of this make?  Resurrection may be a hope, but it isn’t here yet.  We still live in the world as it is now.  We still feel like Job sometimes.  So why does resurrection matter?  It matters for two reasons.  First, as a future hope.  A week ago I participated with thousands of others in Houston’s annual Alzheimer’s Walk.  As I thought of friends and loved ones who have faded into the ravages of dementia, the notion of a resurrection that ultimately restores us to wholeness mattered a whole lot.  And when I think of the pains many people on this earth—many people in these pews—face daily, the hope that those very pains somehow God will eventually knit into their—into our—strength, strengthens me.

Second, resurrection matters as a present charge.  I turn on the news or social media, and I see a lot of Sadducees, who mock, and belittle, and traffic in smallnesses that ultimately deny the goodness of God’s world and God’s children.  And I see, daily, more and more people listen to the Sadducees and begin to think that perhaps the Sadducees message is the best we can do.  But then I read the words of Jesus, who reminds us that God is, and that God is good, and that God’s promises are sure.  The ancient Sadducees died out.  They were; now they are not.  Today’s Sadducees will die out, too.  But Jesus’ Gospel lives, and at its heart is the promise of resurrection.  And so, we can be—daily—resurrection people.  We can be those who live by the vision of the oak tree to the acorn, who live by the vision of the Holy City whose gates are never shut.  We can be people who grant the world a glimpse of resurrection in the here and now.  And that glimpse will carry us into God’s good future, in which resurrection is the really real.

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[i] BCP 491

[ii] BCP 383

[iii] Wright, N.T.  Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, 218.

[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:37-38.  “When you sow, you do not plant the body that will be, but just a seed, perhaps of wheat or of something else. 38 But God gives it a body as he has determined, and to each kind of seed he gives its own body.”

[v] Revelation 21.

“I sing a song of the saints of God”

I have a confession to make: I am preoccupied with what others think of us.  I know it’s a bad thing to be so preoccupied.  It may even be a vice.  I’m not preoccupied with what others think of the Cathedral per se, but rather with how others view The Episcopal Church.  Let me be clearer still.  It is not people’s opinions of our “hot topics” and controversies that preoccupy me.  No, what steals my attention is how people view our eccentricities and quirks.  And as Episcopalians, we have more than a few of them!

Take, for example, the hymn we just sang at the sequence, “I sing a song of the saints of God.”  As the hymn chronicles the lives of the saints, among its verses is:

 

And one was a soldier

          And one was a priest,

          And one was slain by a fierce wild beast:

          And there’s not any reason—no, none in the least,

          Why I shouldn’t be one too.

 

In case you missed it, this stanza seeks to convince us that being gored and eviscerated by a wild animal is good stuff, worth considering for the Gospel.  Do you think this was any more convincing when it was written in 1920 than it is today?

Because, try as I might to reform, I still care about what others think of us, I checked out some blogs on the internet to see what others say about our hymn “I sing a song of the saints of God.”  Let me tell you, they’re not very charitable!  No one but us seems to like this tune; all others poke fun at it.  One blogger went so far as to suggest a new slogan for us: “The Episcopal Church—Great preaching.  Very silly British hymns.”  At least he liked the preaching…

The hymn was written by Lesbia Scott, an English mother who wrote songs for her children, never intending for any of them to be published.  Her children would beg, “Write us a song about a foggy day,” or “Make us a hymn about a picnic,” and Mrs. Scott would oblige.[1]  And one year, as the Feast of All Saints approached, she determined to write a song that would inspire her children and teach them something about the commitments of Christian faith.

The lyrics risk being lost on us, as they surely are on the internet bloggers.  Another verse says:

 

One was doctor,

And one was a queen,

And one was a shepherdess on the green.

 

The bloggers have a field day with this line, calling it trite and out-of-touch.  I mean, “shepherdesses on the green?”  Who talks that way?

But in point of fact, the doctor Mrs. Scott refers to in that verse is St. Luke the Physician, the world’s first investigative reporter who sifted through all the available information floating around about Jesus in order to write the books Luke and Acts, our greatest historical chronicles of Jesus and the early Church.

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St. Luke the Physician

And the queen is tenth-century Margaret of Scotland, who not only ruled Scotland during dark times with justice and peace, but also modeled that age-old reality that it is the wife who so often draws her husband and family to God.  You see, because of Margaret, King Malcolm of Scotland went from being little more than a barbarian to being a good and even holy king.  Margaret’s biographer says, “[Malcolm] saw that Christ truly dwelt in her heart;…what she rejected he rejected;…what she loved, he for love of her loved, too.”[2]

The shepherdess on the green is none other than Joan of Arc, who went from peasant herder of sheep to savior of the French nation.  And later in the song, that saint who is killed by “a fierce wild beast?”  That’s Ignatius of Antioch from the first century.  Both Joan and Ignatius died as martyrs for their faith, but both also faced serious occasions of fear and doubt.  As he was being transported to his death in Rome, Ignatius wrote feverishly to his flock, praying that his courage would hold out and he would not beg for mercy when faced with the lions.[3]

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Joan of Arc, the “shepherdess on the green”

In order to teach her children, in other words, Mrs. Scott’s motivation was not silly, sing-song rhymes.  She chose her saints carefully.  She selected remarkable Christians, but also those who were very human, with all the outer challenges and inner frailties faced by each of us.

And it is not even with these great saints that “I sing a song of the saints of God” ends.  I have a feeling that Mrs. Scott was familiar with the traditional reading for All Saints Sunday that we read from Ecclesiasticus this very morning.  In that reading, the sage says, “Let us now honor the praises of famous men…to whom the Lord apportioned great glory.”  But he goes on to teach that, “Of others there is no memory; they have perished as though they had never existed…But these also were godly people, whose righteous deeds have not been forgotten.”

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St. Ignatius and the Lions

Yes, I have a feeling that Mrs. Scott knew this reading.  She also believed it—that the Communion of Saints is populated not primarily with kings and prophets but with the masses of people struggling to love God and to live their lives as God would have them lived.  She wanted her children to understand this, too.  And so the final stanza of her hymn is:

 

They lived not only in ages past,

          There are hundreds of thousands still,

          The world is bright with the joyous saints

          Who love to do Jesus’ will.

 

I’m with Mrs. Scott.  I believe it.  I’ve seen these saints.  I knew one in my grandmother, who loved and tended to the needy with a quiet passion.  It is her more than anyone else who comes to my mind when I hear the Beatitude (which we sometimes read on All Saints Sunday) “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

I’ve seen these saints as nurses and physicians who sit at the bedsides of the ill and dying, treating them not as clinical cases but as souls seeking comfort.

I’ve seen these saints volunteering at the Beacon…and caring for God’s creation…and studying Scripture…and telling someone they will pray for him and then actually doing it.  I’ve seen them laugh with those in joy and cry with those in sorrow.  In my almost seven years at Christ Church, I’ve seen them, again and again, right here.  The hymn ends:

 

You can meet them in school,

          Or in lanes, or at sea,

In church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea,

          For the saints of God are just folks like me

          And I mean to be one too.

 

Indeed.  I think I’ll keep our silly British hymn, thank you very much.  Would that more of us were like Mrs. Scott and took the time to know and share these stories of people of faith: some of great renown but others sitting in these very pews among us, inspiring us by their quiet faith to share grace in a broken and sometimes dark world.

On this All Saints Sunday we honor and remember them all, both known and unknown, and we honor them best when we love the God they love…when, by the grace of that God, we seek to be saints, too.

_____________________

[1] Internet quote from Professor William J. Reynolds of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[2] Ellsberg, Robert.  All Saints: Daily Reflections on Saints, Prophets, and Witnesses for Our Time, 253.

[3] Ibid., 452-453.

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.

Old fashioned bug sprayer

“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.”

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]

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The image of the pitiful, pleading widow is misleading.

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.

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“You are the object of God’s holy love.”

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.

[ii] https://www.christianitytoday.com/pastors/2010/summer/biblicaljustice.html

[iii] Ibid