Justice and grace: the widow of Zarephath and the widow of Nain

Our political discourse is shaped by the language of justice. In England, there is a big debate about “shirkers” vs. “strivers.” The latter deserve government benefits because they are working hard to improve the lot, the former certainly not. A major argument for same-sex marriage is that it would be unjust to deny two people who love one another the right to be married. Drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen are justified by explaining that they are just punishment for the crimes of the victims. Whatever you think about any of these issues, the key thing is that they all use the language of justice.

But is justice really the best way of approaching the world? The lectionary readings for this coming Sunday make us think otherwise.

In the first reading (I Kings 17:17-24), the prophet Elijah raises the dead son of a widow. The entire encounter is framed in terms of justice. When her son dies, the widow is convinced that it is just punishment for something she has done (v. 18). Elijah appeals to God in terms of justice—it is not fair that he should leave her without a man to support her (v. 20). God is apparently convinced by this reasoning and raises the son from the dead (v. 22). Justice prevails. But one implication of the reading is that if the situation had been different—if the woman wasn’t a widow, if she had another son—God might not have raised her.

The parallels between the Luke passage (Luke 7:11-17) and the Kings passage are so close that Luke is almost certainly trying to make a point. He certainly wants to claim that Jesus was a great prophet like Elijah. But I think Luke—along with the entire Christian tradition—wants to say something more about Jesus. We see what that something more might be by looking at the differences between the two passages.

The major difference is that the motivation for Jesus acting to raise the son is not justice but compassion. Rather than imploring God to act justly, he simply reaches out his hand and raises the son.

The people in the funeral procession are astounded. One of the things they say in response is, “God has looked favourably on his people!” (v. 16) That phrase, “looked favourably,” is only used three other times in the Bible and all by Luke. It is used first when Elizabeth realizes she has conceived John the Baptist (1:25). It is used again by Elizabeth’s husband Zechariah when John the Baptist is born in the canticle that has become known as the Benedictus (1:68-69):

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them.

He has raised up a mighty saviour for us

in the house of his servant David.

Although Zechariah is holding his long-awaited son in his hands, he realizes that God has something greater in store for God’s people—the long-promised Messiah is coming.

Luke also uses “looked favourably” in Acts, when the apostles are trying to decide if non-Jews can follow Jesus. James realizes they can when he realizes that God has “looked favourably” on the Gentiles (15:14). The saving work of God is not just for the Jewish people, but for all people from every race, culture, and tradition.

So when Luke uses “looked favourably” in this passage, he is invoking the entire sweep of God’s saving action. God comes to each one of us while we are lost, wandering, and spiritually dead in sin, has compassion on us, and raises us to true and abundant life.

Christians have a word for this compassion—grace. And the key thing about grace is that it is not just. What makes grace so wonderful is precisely that it is unmerited and undeserved. God didn’t have to be convinced of the justice of our cause to come to us. God came to us in Jesus Christ because God loves us. This is the good news.

There’s one final difference between the two stories to highlight. Elijah raises the son in a home. Jesus raises the son on the road out of town. We are that son, lost on the road. The only other time Luke uses the word “compassion” is in the story of the prodigal son when the father sees the son “far off” on the road, has compassion on him, rushes out to meet him, and brings him home (15:20). We, too, are wandering far off, but God comes to us in Christ and brings us home to God’s loving embrace. (Paul makes a similar point in Ephesians 2:13). That is the depth of God’s love for us.

But the world still insists in thinking in terms of justice—and sometimes Christians do too. But grace, the central idea of the Christian gospel, is not just—and that’s what make it so wonderful. The calling for Christians is to realize how lost and dead we are, to realize the depth and unjust nature of God’s love for us, to be transformed by this love, and then to share it with others who are similarly lost, broken, and dead.

God’s love is not just—and we thank God for that.

“Just do it”—but what about when I just can’t?

When I was growing up, a lot of people wore t-shirts or other athletic gear emblazoned with this logo:

The slogan pretty well sums up the dominant thinking of our world. We are to measure ourselves by our accomplishments and our abilities. We are judged by our marks on our exams, our ability to secure a promotion, our sexual prowess, and so on and so forth. If you can’t “just do it,” then you don’t have a place in society.

Today, a lot of people are going to be walking around with a different logo emblazoned on themselves, the one to the left. There’s no text to go along with it, but if there was, it might say, “I just can’t.” Perhaps you’ve had this experience. You try and try to “just do it” but no matter how hard you try, you just can’t.

This is where the good news of Jesus Christ begins—with the recognition that sometimes we cannot be the people God is calling us to be, sometimes we can’t do justice, love kindess, and walk humbly with our God, sometimes we can’t love our neighbour as ourselves, sometimes we can’t love God with all our heart, soul, strength, and mind.

And God sees all this and says, “That’s OK. You are loved.” That love is shown to us in the presence of God’s son, Jesus.

But the story doesn’t end there. And we see that in the logo Christians wear today. It’s a cross, the ultimate symbol of “I just can’t.” The cross shows just how deeply God knows the failings, imperfections, and inabilities of the world and its people.

The empty tomb on Easter Day, however, shows us how God redeems our failings and invites us into a new life in which “just do it” becomes an option in a whole new way. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves in the story.

Today, it’s alright to turn again to God and say, “I just can’t.” And hear God say, loud and clear, “I love you anyway.”

What about when we don’t “do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God”?

A particular verse from the prophet Micah—chapter 6, verse 8—has long been a favourite of many Christians. “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” It even got a shout-out from Episcopal priest Luis Leon in his benediction at President Obama’s inauguration. It seems to summarize what many people believe about the life of faith.

The trouble is, of course, that there are many parts of the world where justice, kindness, and humility—along with a lot of other wonderful virtues—are not in great abundance.

One of these places is Sri Lanka. Since the end of its civil war in 2009, a single family of brothers has managed to consolidate its grasp on the levers of state power. Recently, the chief justice was impeached and removed from office. So much for justice, when it’s clear that the courts are firmly under the thumb of the president. A friend of mine involved in the church in Sri Lanka e-mailed to say, “Our situation is quite tense just now as people live in fear and anger and the Regime grows more suspicious and unpredictable. We need the prayers of all.” The church has been actively involved in this situation, in part by opposing the impeachment.

But I was struck by the recent pastoral letter of the Bishop of Colombo. In it, he denounces the current situation and writes, “We no longer appear to be a constitutional democracy.” But the action he calls for is not what you might expect. He calls for the church to repent:

This is a time for us as a Church to take an honest look at ourselves, where we have shamelessly compromised our loyalty to God. We need to repent of ways in which we, as individuals as well as collectively, have;

  • been silent when we should have spoken
  • allowed ourselves (thoughtlessly or out of fear) to be used by those in authority to speak lies or commit wrong and unjust acts
  • consciously received benefits for ourselves through acts of injustice committed against others

I as your Bishop, call the Church to a period of lament together for the terrible state of our nation today, and repentance for our failing as a Church to “love mercy, to seek justice and to walk humbly with the Lord” (Micah 6:8).

While reading this letter, I was reminded how Jesus’ ministry began with the call to repentance. It is very easy to long for change in the world and to demand that other people change. But that is not what Jesus begins with. Jesus begins with our own transformation. The message of the Gospel seems to be, “Change is going to come. Let it begin with me.”

I’m all for doing justice, loving kindness, and walking humbly with God. But I also know that simply stating that again and again won’t make it happen. What will make it happen, though, is turning again (the meaning of the word “repent”) in our weakness and imperfection to the overflowing love of God in Christ and allowing ourselves to be transformed in that encounter to be agents of the new reality God longs for us to live in.

The Bishop of Colombo has called for this Sunday, 3 February, to be a Day of Lament in the churches of the diocese. Perhaps we can join our sisters and brothers in Sri Lanka in prayer that day, as we pray for transformation in that country, but most of all within ourselves.

“The Lord has taken away the judgements against you”

Last Sunday, we heard from the prophet Zephaniah in church, who tells us in chapter 3, verse 15, as part of his prophecy for the future restoration of Israel:

The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.

The word “judgement” has been invoked recently by James Dobson, who says that Newtown is God’s judgement for a nation that has gone off the tracks. It’s not that I think Dobson misunderstands God (though I do), but that I think he misunderstands judgement.

When I was about 14, my family had a dog, a little beagle named Sparky. Each day after school, either my brother or I had to walk her. This usually provoked some bickering since, while we were both keen on owning a dog, neither of us were actually keen on walking her. So my parents came up with a solution: every Sunday, we sat down at the kitchen table, looked at the week ahead, and assigned each day’s after-school dog-walk to one of us. This was written on our weekly calendar and put on the refrigerator.

This worked fine until I came home from school one day a bit earlier than my brother and decided that, although it was my day, I could not possibly walk Sparky that day. Since our infallible list was written in pencil, I erased my name and—in my best imitation of my father’s handwriting—wrote in my brother’s name. He duly came home and asked if I had walked the dog. “Why, no,” I said, smiling sweetly, “it’s your day” and pointed at the calendar.

I’ll spare you the details of the verbal brawl that erupted but it reached such a point that my brother called my father at work. I was summoned to the phone. My father is the kind of person who almost never raises his voice. But on this day, I heard a voice that was quite loud on the other end of the line: “Did you change the calendar?”

In that moment, I realized I had absolutely nothing to say. Not one word. Instead, I wanted to sink into the floor. My father asked again, “Did you change the calendar?” Still, I said nothing. I just stood there, mute, holding the phone in my hand.

That moment of me standing there in silence, wanting to sink into the floor, was a moment of judgement. But it wasn’t my father doing the judging, it wasn’t my brother, and it wasn’t God. It was me. I had come face-to-face with my own wrong-doing, my own inability to do good, and I knew it. This is only one of many, many times that my own actions have led me to the equivalent of crippled silence. I know judgement well; I bet I’m not alone.

If we think about judgement in this way, then Zephaniah’s prophecy is a piece of incredibly good news: “The Lord has taken away the judgements against you.” In Christ, we learn that God’s love and mercy is constant and steadfast. That means we can always turn again to God and the crippling judgements we inflict on ourselves are taken away. This is the act of repentance, a word that is closely related to the word for “turn.”

So I agree with Dobson: the shootings in Newtown are a judgement. But they are a judgement we have inflicted on ourselves in contravention of the will of God. In those shootings, we see clearly the nature of our society: overly violent, unable to care adequately for those with mental illness, too lenient with our gun laws. The shock and grief that so many of us have felt since last Friday are a sign of the judgement contained in the Newtown shootings.

So what to do? We repent of our failings as a society and turn again to our merciful God; the burden of the judgement is, as Zephaniah tell us, taken away; and we are enabled to work towards the kind of society in which we do not so routinely inflict this particular form of judgement on ourselves. (I’m making this sound like it’s a one-off kind of thing. Of course, it’s not; it’s part of the pattern of faithful Christian living.)

It’s very easy to inflict judgement on others: that’s what Dobson has done, and it’s what others have done in response to him. It’s lot harder, however, to acknowledge the judgement on ourselves—I don’t like crippling silence—and repent of our failings as a society. But it’s the first step in creating the kind of world we want to live in.

I’ve been singing this song a lot to myself lately. Would that it were true:

Gasp! He talks about Jesus!

One of the things I noticed about Archbishop of Canterbury-select Justin Welby is that in his announcement tour on Friday, he talked about Jesus a lot. There were multiple references in the press conference and various interviews to “the good news of Jesus Christ.”

Now, to point out that a bishop talks about Jesus might not seem like the most noteworthy event. But it’s striking how frequently it has been mentioned in the press accounts. For instance, the Guardian:

Constitutional convention also mostly stops archbishops from talking about Jesus in public. No one seems to have told this one.

The Mail—not admittedly the best source—had a similar sentiment in a headline:

Not your average Archbish! Not only does he actually believe in God, but the new Archbishop of Canterbury is the son of a bootlegger who was Vanessa Redgrave’s lover

(This is more than modestly unfair to the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who believes deeply in God and talks a lot about Jesus. Sometimes, though, it take a little while to realize that’s who he’s talking about.)

One thing I am learning in the Church of England is that there is actual debate about how overt clergy can be about their faith—that is, how much they can talk about Jesus. At a meeting I was at the other day, one priest said that in her marriage preparation, she didn’t want to give the couple anything that was “too Christian.” This came as a bit of a shock to me and is, perhaps, a sign of the ways in which Britain is farther down the secularization path than the United States is. (I’ve been chronicling some of those points in my Death of Christian Britain series of posts.)

On the other hand, back in April, I was noting the ways in which the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church went a whole interview without mentioning Jesus.

In every market, competitors are always on the lookout for the thing that will distinguish them from their competitors and make them stand out. Our world has a pretty crowded marketplace of ideas right now. Call me silly, but I think talking about Jesus—the one idea that Christians have that no one else does—is one way to stand out. We still need to answer the question of what the good news is. But for now, I’ll be content with an archbishop who can talk about Jesus—even if it is depressing that that alone is noteworthy.

Search for a Gospel that is both Good and New

Let’s say I’m a twenty-something with a college degree, living in Brooklyn. I kind of have a job but no benefits. I get by with money but I have lots of debt. I don’t see what the big deal is about gay marriage and it’s obvious that the earth is getting warmer. My parents dragged me to church a few times when I was growing up so I know something about all that religion stuff, but now my knowledge of religion is mostly based on people like Rick Santorum. I just don’t see the point of faith and I certainly don’t see the need for it in my life. I’m part of the “Rise of the Nones.”

Now let’s say that one day I’m surfing around the Internet and I come across the interview Katharine Jefferts Schori recently gave to the Huffington Post. The words “female” and “bishop” are so rarely connected in my mind that I click on the link to see what she has to say.

Stepping out of the Brooklyn millennial conceit, here’s the question I want to pose: as our fictional twenty-something peruses the interview, does he find anything that is genuinely Good News? That is to say, does he find any of the life-altering, world-changing, drop-everything-and-follow gospel of Christ Jesus?

(Let’s note, of course, all the provisos. Of course, she was responding to questions, of course the interviewers wanted to ask her about hot-button subjects—sex, creation, Scripture—and of course an interview is not a sermon.)

I think the answer to this question about the Good News is no. Our fictional Brooklyn resident wouldn’t find much to disagree with. Bishop Katharine is in sync on same-gender marriage. Good. The church wants to respond to the poverty of the world. Good. She calls it “God’s mission,” but whatever. We agree.

The thing is, while our fictional millennial may think what Bishop Katharine has to say is Good, none of it is New. He already believes all this stuff already. The church is arriving late to the party. Glad to have you here but you’re old news. You do your thing, Bishop Katharine, and I’ll do mine. None of what Bishop Katharine has to say would, I think, make our millennial think, “Wow, I’ve got to learn more about Jesus and get myself into church!” In fact, by my count, the presiding bishop is quoted mentioning General Convention (once), more than she mentions Jesus (none).

Again, all my earlier provisos apply and nothing in this post is a comment on the presiding bishop herself. This interview, I’m sure you will agree, well represents the dominant working theology in the Episcopal Church in the early twenty-first century.

If you read the Gospels or Acts, it is clear that when people heard the proclamation of the Good News, their lives were transformed. Not just adjusted or modified but completely reoriented towards Christ. The fact that the gospel had such an impact is, to my mind, one of the best confirmations of its truth.

What is the Gospel message in the twenty-first century that is both authentically Good and authentically New, the proclamation that seizes the attention of the hearer and brings about dramatic life change?

How do we preach the unique witness of Jesus Christ in a way that makes people who’ve never heard about Jesus want to devote their whole lives to following in the Way he first showed to us?

That, it seems, are questions we still need to answer.