The Widow’s Might

“Jesus told the disciples a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. He said, ‘In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.” For a while he refused; but later he said, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.”’ And the Lord said, ‘Listen to what the unjust judge says. And 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. And yet, when the Son of man comes, will he find faith on earth?’”

Luke 18:1-8

The widow in Jesus’ parable is the quintessential nobody.

Socially speaking, she’s on the lowest rung of the ladder—an insignificant nonentity.

Picture this widow as an impoverished indigent who must scratch and claw to get by.

A widow was supposed to receive financial support from her deceased husband’s estate — but so many widows ended up with such a meager pittance that the word “widow” came to be synonymous with destitute.

So this widow without legal clout or friends in high places repeatedly pleads her case to an unsympathetic judge who could care less.

And through sheer doggedness and pluck this woman of no account finally wears down the hard-hearted judge and secures justice for herself.

She exerts a force all out of proportion to her size and status.

The widow’s persistence in the face of impossible odds reminds me of the despised, puny weed that, in search of sunlight, manages to break through a concrete sidewalk.

The widow’s grit and stubborn refusal to give up reminds me of the ant I happened to notice the other day as I was getting out of the car—this ant was toting a piece of straw three times its size — it would make a little headway and then the load would come loose and the ant would have to regroup and get a new grip on its cargo and carry on — this process was repeated over and over — this indefatigable ant showed no sign of jettisoning its mission as it proceeded on bit by bit.

It’s as though God fuels the widow, the weed, the ant — the nobodies — with a courage and vigor that allow them not only to persevere but to actually accomplish remarkable feats.

It’s as though God is determined that these nobodies will be recognized, appreciated, valued.

The New Testament is full of stories about Jesus encountering nobodies who are lost and floundering, who have been written off by others and even themselves as hopeless and useless.

But in these meetings with Jesus something happens to these nobodies that infuses them with new life, hope, and courage—something happens to these nobodies that thoroughly invigorates them with a new fervor and passion—it’s almost as if they have come back from the dead—they have become somebodies with a capital S.

When I was in seminary, the Jewish theologian Martin Buber was much in vogue.

In fact, he was so often quoted in the church’s educational materials that he was jokingly referred to as our most illustrious Jewish Episcopalian.

It was a sign of how influential Buber was in Episcopal circles when a new stained glass window honoring him was dedicated at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral.

In 1923 Martin Buber had written a little book called “I and Thou” — but it was only in the l950s and 60s that this book became that rare thing — a theological book that was read avidly not only by seminarians and academics but also insurance agents, automotive workers, and stay at home moms.

Perhaps the aspect of the book that most captured the attention and imagination of readers was Buber’s carefully drawn distinction between “I-it” relations and “I-you” relations.

Buber defines the I-it relation as one in which I deal with someone in an impersonal, mechanical, rote fashion.

There are a lot of situations in which it is appropriate for me to relate to someone in an I-it manner such as when we call a bank representative to get a credit card activated — or when we’re trying to negotiate with a car dealership about financing — or when it’s part of a work place requirement that interactions be efficient, repetitive, abbreviated.

Here we are more concerned with a particular transaction or service than the individual with whom we’re dealing.

But there are times when relating to someone as “it” can have a quite injurious, damaging effect — it can mean dismissing or ignoring someone as insignificant, unimportant, superfluous, invisible — it can mean relegating that person to the status of a nothing, a zero, a nobody.

But the I-you relation, as Buber describes it, is fundamentally, qualitatively different — to address a neighbor as “you” and not “it” is to acknowledge someone in the fullness of her humanity.

It is to recognize her as singular, distinctive and irreplaceable, as someone who’s as real as we are in every sense, and who has a story unlike anyone else’s—

To acknowledge someone as “you” is to recognize this person as a fellow sufferer and celebrant of life’s tribulations and wonders.

It is to appreciate this particular human being as having this shock of hair across his forehead, these eyes full of mischief, this nose slightly out of kilter, this habitual way of pausing before finishing a sentence.

To see someone as “you” is to perceive this person as having that hidden depth of yearning, anguish, and hopefulness we refer to as the soul.

To address someone as “you” does not necessarily mean liking or agreeing with someone — rather it means appreciating that this fellow, however outrageously disagreeable he may seem to us, is most assuredly invited to the table of the kingdom.

The British sculptor David Moore has created a work called “The Kingdom Tree”.

In the upper hollow of a tree, he has sculpted his vision of a “circle dance of heaven” involving both contemporary and biblical characters,

Moore appended this note to his work — “The first figure to be carved was the man on crutches — Michael Sheridan, a homeless man — and about the most unpleasant man I have ever met. (But) if there’s no room for Michael, there is no room for any of us.”

What is theologically intriguing about Martin Buber’s meditation on the I-you relation is this —

He suggests that what moves and motivates us to acknowledge our neighbor as “you” with tact and delicacy is none other than God the Eternal You working in and through us — he suggests that the very source of our capacity to discern the image of God in the face of our neighbor is none other than God the Eternal You.

Yes, we all know what it’s like to be treated as “it” — and often it’s a painless non-event, scarcely noticeable.

But we also know that sometimes it is hurtful and disturbing and takes a while to get over — what helps most of us move on relatively unscathed is that we are frequently, generously nourished by other human beings responding to us as “you”.

But there are some people who have been subjected to such a constant, relentless dose of being treated as “it” that they feel like a deathly, disposable nobody, an “it”.

How many of you have seen the movie “Precious”?

This movie is not for the feint of heart — it’s rough, shocking, and overwhelming in its depiction of human trauma — but also stunningly hopeful.

Precious is a hugely over-weight Harlem teenager who lives with a horribly abusive mother who constantly reminds her that she is worthless, that nobody wants her, and that she will never amount to anything.

Precious has an infant daughter and is about to deliver another child — we learn that her mostly absent father is the father of both.

Precious is illiterate and almost mute with shame and rage.

Because of her dismal academic performance, she is referred to an alternative school — the first day she attends class there, she is asked to tell about something she does well — after a long pause, she says, “I don’t do anything well.”

Precious is the epitome of a nobody who feels like a hopeless, worthless “it”.

But the movie is also the story of how she meets three people who respond to her as “you” and awaken in her a hopefulness, a curiosity, and a fierce desire to make a new life for herself and her kids.

There is the gentle, considerate male nurse who attends her when her second child is born and who is the first male to ever show her kindness.

There is the teacher who painstakingly, tenderly, forcefully leads Precious slowly but surely into the world of literacy.

And there is the social worker who becomes her unflinching advocate, who faces down the abusive mother, and gives Precious her ticket to freedom from the impossible circumstances in which she’s been barely existing.

All three offer her shelter from the storm of abuse and mistreatment.

All three see something in Precious that is invaluable, priceless, and, well, “precious”.

For the first time, the name Precious is not just a cruel joke.

Under the tutelage of these caregivers, this nobody becomes a somebody with indomitable grit and perseverance like the widow in Jesus’ parable.

In this place we give and receive indispensable nourishment by addressing one another as “you” — it is what gives us the courage and stamina to carry on and to persevere even as that widow in Jesus’ story carried on and persevered.

The coffee hour is sometimes referred to as the third sacrament because in the various casual, humorous, and serious conversations, however brief or extended, that occur after the service, much sustenance and strengthening is exchanged as we respond to one another as “you” rather than “it”.

Through the City Heart program we not only offer food and information about resources — we also greet those seeking assistance as “you” which can be a saving grace because many of our visitors are accustomed to being treated as “it”.

And if Martin Buber was right, it is none other than God the Eternal You who creates in us the urge, the desire, and the capacity to address our neighbor, here and wherever else we might be, as “you.”

The Rev. Robert Dwight
21 Pentecost
Christ Episcopal Church
Dayton, Ohio