Three Widows

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November 12, 2018

Three widows are featured in our readings, including the woman in the story of the widow’s mite, as we used to call it. The “mite” was her tiny gift of all she had into the treasury, which Jesus counted higher than the big donations of the wealthy.

Our other two widows, Naomi and Ruth, are also poor. Theirs is a beautiful short Bible story with a harsh start and happy end. Naomi had been married to Elimilech, with whom she had two sons. Elimilech died. In Israel, the rain stopped, crops failed and there was famine. Looking for food, Naomi led her sons to the land of Moab. They settled there and the sons grew up to marry Orpah and Ruth, gentile women of that country. Then both sons died. Now there were three widows in one family with no children, no money, and no work. These were dire straits. Generously, Naomi urged her daughters-in-law to return to the safety of their own parents’ homes. Tearfully, Orpah said goodbye, but Ruth wouldn’t leave Naomi. “Where you go, I will go,” she vowed. “Your people shall be my people and your God my God.” Like the widow with her mite, Ruth offered all she had. Ruth’s great-grandson David would be king.

I still have the Bible this cathedral gave me as an ordination gift in 1982: New Oxford Annotated, expanded edition, Revised Standard Version. It is handsome, black leather bound, but also scholarly and full of expert notes. The notes to Ruth date the story’s composition. Like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, it was written centuries after the events it describes occurred. By then, after David, Israel was divided and had been conquered several times, culminating in 587 when Jerusalem was sacked, the temple destroyed and the Jews were exiled to Babylon. In 538, Babylon was overthrown by Cyrus, King of Persia, who let the Jews go home and rebuild their city and temple. In scripture, the books of Isaiah, Ezra, and Nehemiah tell that story of return. Ruth was written at about the same time as Ezra and Nehemiah.

Now I quote the experts in my old ordination Bible.

Israel after the Exile developed tendencies in two opposite directions: on the one hand a major tendency to draw within herself and emphasize the exclusiveness of her election as God’s chosen people, and on the other hand a broad and liberal one which sought to make of her “a blessing in the midst of the earth (Isaiah 19:24), a ‘light to the nations.’ (Isaiah 49:6) Among the noblest monuments to the latter tendency are the books of Jonah and Ruth.

So the Bible embodies a debate: Should we be like this, or like that, to be faithful? 

If we follow Thomas Aquinas, and here I do, this was not a conflict between good and evil, but between two variants of good. According to Aquinas, “whatever is of value, and can satisfy desire, is good.” [i] That is a definition of good without judgment. It would include things we would judge as bad, but Aquinas would say that, even with bad things, if we want them it is because there is something good in them to attract us. In the Book of Ruth, the Bible shows the goodness in Ruth, a foreign immigrant. In Ezra and Nehemiah, it lays the accent on Israel’s unique vocation.

[i] Timothy McDermott, ed. and trans, St. Thomas Aquinas: Summa Theologiae, A Concise Translation (Westminster, Md.: Christian Classics, 1989), 168.

Aquinas distinguishes two meanings of good: the useful and the worthy. He explains: “That which satisfies of itself we call worthy, and the satisfaction found in it delight.”[i] Think of a smiling baby or a triple play in baseball. “That which satisfies on a way to something else we call useful.” A job you love is worthy, but even a job you don’t enjoy is useful to the worthy end of providing for yourself or for your family. For these widows, a husband for one of them would be useful. Naomi whispers advice to Ruth on how to land a wealthy one. Yes, money is useful—even though with Jesus this was not the point of emphasis. The potential husband Naomi has in mind for Ruth, Boaz, is also worthy, a good man in his own right, making him doubly desirable.

In ethics, we talk about ends and means: worthy ends and useful means to reach them. Only a worthy end can justify a means. I’ve started watching a television series, The Last Ship. In season one, a viral epidemic has devastated civilization—far beyond the troubles in the Book of Ruth. Two warships, one Russian and one American, survive at sea, each with scientists aboard working to develop a vaccine. The Russian crew has gone rogue, its admiral promising his sailors that if they can develop the vaccine they will rule the world and be rich beyond their dreams. The U.S. Navy ship remains committed to constitutional democracy. Militarily, their goal is to protect their scientist, develop the vaccine, and distribute it liberally, lawfully, and broadly to the nations. Both ships have guns and use them. For just the one ship does the end justify that means.

According to Aquinas, survival itself is a worthy goal. With epidemics, we have protocols for quarantines. Sick people are confined, losing their freedom of movement, to prevent the spread of the disease through the population. The end of saving many lives is held to justify that drastic means.

We often say “the end doesn’t justify the means.” In saying that, we are weighing worthiness and assessing usefulness. According to Aquinas, the means must be proportionate to the end. The goal of saving civilization would be great enough to justify some drastic means, but there are always limits. To gain the world we should sacrifice our life, but not our soul.

Immanuel Kant, the philosopher, wrote rules for modern ethics called categorical imperatives. One firm rule is not to forget that people are worthy whether we’re useful or not. Like the widow’s mite, human value isn’t measured by utility. We must therefore never treat each other simply as a means, but always also as an end—according to Kant, and Christ.[ii] For Ruth and Naomi, that requires seeing Boaz as not only a provider but also a human being.

In ethics, problems are plentiful. One problem is when unworthy means are or might be, useful.

Last summer, in the United States we debated immigration ends and means. That debate was settled quickly, with almost everyone agreeing that separating children from their parents at the border is unworthy, even if it would be useful to deter unlawful entry. In that case, the end did not justify the means.

Now, a new development posing new, debatable, dilemmas: caravans approach from the south, moving up through Mexico. Imagine Ruth and Naomi in that crowd. The United States is Boaz—worthy and wealthy among the nations, doubly desirable. So here we go again, our country, debating ends and means.

Shamefully, our debates are too often ugly— especially when racial bias grabs the microphone, contrary to both our founding ideals and the hope of our religion. Racism discounts other people’s human value, as does calling people racist when they’re not. Such talk may be useful politically but it is morally unworthy.

Apart from race, the debate is still fervent, with high stakes. That might start with the basic economics of it. In general, immigration would be useful to employers and producers, raising prices through increased demand, and depressing wages by increased supply. For employees and consumers, it cuts the other way: lower wages, higher prices.

So here are Tom, Dick, and Harry. They went to Central High and were friends in homeroom. A given immigration law and its loose or strict enforcement may be useful to Tom, helpful to Dick, and hurtful to Harry. If Harry wants to tighten the border to protect his job, Tom might disagree, but not from moral high ground necessarily. Maybe Tom is dean of an Episcopal Cathedral and can safely feel his job is safe. Then who is he to blame his friend for thinking differently? Sally was in the same homeroom, and now works as an advocate for immigrants, but always by legal means and with an appreciation for enforcement—because chaos makes Sally nervous and law-breaking makes her mad. Sally’s cousin Sarah works across the room in the same office and she is impatient with rules. Sarah’s heart breaks for Ruth and Naomi and she would cut wires to let them in, never mind the law. Peter, her son, rebels against his mother’s laxity, which drove him crazy growing up. At lunch after church, he voices concerns similar to Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s. Are the people in the caravan committed to the values that define our country? Do they love the Declaration? Would they defend the Constitution? Patrick, Peter’s younger brother, pipes up. “We’ve got to take the chance—hope, not fear, should be our guide.” Patrick reminds Peter that their own family ancestors had come from Ireland during the potato famine. He doubts that as they loaded on to their crowded boat the Declaration and the Constitution were utmost in their minds—but their great-grandfather O’Connor died defending them in World War I (after often hearing growing up that all Irishmen were drunk and stupid.) In the Second World War his son, the boys’ grandfather, earned a Purple Heart at Normandy. It is a family treasure. After lunch, Patrick drives home.  He has a “no borders” bumper sticker on his car. Behind him in traffic, Maria is appalled. “That is anarchy,” she mutters. Maria works here on a green card it took her years to get.

Across America, such thoughts are batted back and forth across the dinner table.  As the caravans move closer they will intensify. This is democracy at work, the benefit of living in a free and worthy country.

Immigration debates are informed, but not settled, by the scripture. Jesus himself was not above the controversy. When a foreign woman asks him to heal her sick daughter, Jesus at first declines, vexed, with an echo of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is Israel he has come to save, he says. The mother makes a smart rebuttal and, on the spot, Jesus changes his position. You will find that encounter in Mark, chapter 7.

Our country is worthy for the value it places on us and the protection and weight it gives to our various opinions.  We are free to share them, voice them, change them—and vote them. I am going to put the accent there.

Every two years we arrive at polling places, bringing all our worthy and unworthy stuff: biases, altruistic attitudes, economic calculations, biblical reflections, family stories, political allegiances, oddball notions, temperamental quirks, lingering resentments, and, when we remember to ask, the Holy Spirit of the good, almighty God. When the poll worker says “Next!” we step into the voting booth, mark our ballots, pull the lever and go home. The next morning, we wake up to find out what the majority has decided this time. Sometimes when the vote is very close we wait and argue over recounts, but eventually, there is a verdict we accept. It makes us glad, or sad, or mad. We fold the newspaper and put it down, turn off the computer and TV. We dress, eat breakfast and get back to life. We do so knowing there is a next election, then another, then another, always two years hence.

Each election judges a debate for now. The next one may open it again and judge it differently. Smart rebuttals change positions. Such a noble means is a worthy end in its own right and, every time, cause for celebration.

[i] McDermott, Concise Translation, 168.

[ii] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, J.J. Patton, ed. And trans., (New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1964), 96. Patton calls this “the formula of the end in itself.”

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.