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.”