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.

Justin Welby pleases no one

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, spoke today in the House of Lords on the legislation that could legalize same-sex marriage in England. It is noteworthy that he even spoke. There was some thought that the bishops in the House of Lords would just abstain, though I think that would have generated as much comment as anything they could and did say. It is the perils of Establishment that the archbishop should be compelled to speak on this issue and at this time.

Given what was known about him when he took office—namely, that he is a self-described “conservative evangelical”—he said some things that were surprising:

It is clearly essential that stable and faithful same sex relationships should, where those involved want it, be recognised and supported with as much dignity and the same legal effect as marriage.

But then he expressed his ultimate opposition to the legislation, for reasons that have much to do with the nature of the particular legislation under consideration.

It is this opposition (creatively reinterpreted by some headline writers) that has seized the initial headlines and has already light up my various social media streams with negative comments. But I imagine that in the not very distant future there will be people from the opposite end of the spectrum who start hitting him for what seem to be positive comments about same-sex relationships.

The end result? I think this is a speech that will please no one. Neither liberals nor conservatives in the church will have to look hard to find reason to be outraged. (Being outraged has lately become a cottage industry in the church, as in our politics.)

As I read the speech, I thought back to Rowan Williams, who similarly managed to please no one during his tenure in Canterbury. Perhaps that’s just the nature of the job and the peculiar nature of episcopal ministry, in which you are not just attempting to advance an agenda (as political leaders are) but serving as a “focus of unity” in the body of Christ, an entity that is like nothing else that exists in the world. But when these exigencies meet the real world of politics, the result is the vitriol that is quickly sprouting around the Internet.

It made me think back to this sermon the archbishop gave some weeks ago.

He concludes by saying:

In the end it is not up to us. We put everything we can into it but in the end it’s God’s call. And that’s very, very good news. So we don’t have to believe in ourselves, in our processes, in our inspiration, let alone in an archbishop of Canterbury.

Amen to that.