We know it when the color rises in our cheeks and we feel suddenly like it is 10 degrees warmer. We may want to close our eyes and disappear indefinitely. Or our eyes may look down, or anywhere but the person who stands right now before us. We may start to stumble in our speech, our sentences making little sense, even to ourselves. We may want to run and hide; likely we will want to gather ourselves and make a hasty exit.
Embarrassment. It is a common human experience, though perhaps you, like me, have found that few things embarrass me as much as they did when I was younger… However, now when I am embarrassed, I am really quite chagrined; those feelings don’t go away as readily as they used to even if the embarrassment comes less often in comparison. Being older just means that the stakes are higher for the things that cause embarrassment. It’s not the spilled soup on my shirt that sets my heart racing, but the sudden, unintended revealing of my internal world, which suddenly spills out for public consumption and comment or criticism.
Who among us hasn’t felt embarrassment? In this election season, some in our nation are now reeling from embarrassment as Americans; some Christians are blushing who see the inconsistencies in the values they hold most dear and in the cozy relationship with Jesus that they presume; and some folks are presently smarting from new revelations of our failures to be hospitable to immigrants and our Muslim sisters and brothers alike. We continue to be embarrassed when our American ideals are distorted, mocked, or sold as real estate to the highest bidder pandering for attention.
When I was little, embarrassment was lying to my mother and then her asking me to look her straight in the eyes. When I grew a little older, embarrassment was not keeping a promise or confidence that I had promised to keep. As I grew older still, embarrassment became a useful tool to know precisely when and how I personally had strayed from my own deeply cherished principles, self-image, or value judgments.
If you are wondering why we are discussing embarrassment today, you need look no farther than this story of the unjust judge. Jesus tells his disciples a humorous story of an unjust judge who neither fears God, nor has respect for the people. There is a widow who keeps bothering the judge; she is not weak, or passive, or quiet. Instead, she is strong, active, and loud—and she pounds on his door, shows up on his doorstep, in his place of privilege, in his jurisdiction, precinct, city, town, courtroom, state…well, you get the picture. She is relentless in her pursuit of getting justice which is long overdue, not simply a hearing… She is as relentless in her pursuit, as the judge is in his refusal to grant her on-going request.
She raises her fist and bangs on that door until.
Until what? You might ask.
The widow hammers away at that prominent leader’s door until the unjust judge is “worn out” by her knocking.
Well, “worn out” is what some translations say. Others say “beaten down.” Yet, in the Common English Bible, the unjust judge says, “but I will give this widow justice because she keeps bothering me. Otherwise, there will be no end to her coming here and embarrassing me.”
How can a vulnerable widow, a woman, embarrass a powerful judge?
Go ahead, friends, I invite you to imagine her standing there, embarrassing that powerful judge with her very presence.
I might remind you that women were not seen as particularly powerful in Jesus’ time. Typically, widows were seen as even less powerful.
The primary reason why Jesus tells this story is to encourage his disciples to continue to pray without ceasing and not to lose heart. And then he highlights this woman, this widow, as our reference point and our model for both persistence and resistence.
The unjust judge is embarrassed…embarrassed enough to act. Embarrassment is a useful tool. If people are capable of feeling embarrassment, they are capable of feeling the disconnect between what they espouse and what they have done. Wikipedia defines embarrassment as an “emotional state of intense discomfort with oneself, experienced when having a socially unacceptable act or condition witness by or revealed to others.”
Friends, embarrassment is far different from shame. Shame is deep regret about who and what you are, not what you have done. I have no use for shame, but plenty of use for embarrassment. Or as Brene Brown distinguishes between emotions: “Guilt says I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame says I’m sorry. I am a mistake.”
The unjust judge knows the expectations of his job. He knows his power. He understands at some level that he has failed not just the widow but his also public role. The primary motivator for his granting the persistent widow justice is NOT his fear of God. Not his respect for those he serves, or for his public office, or the religion that prompted his beliefs and understandings of law, but his own embarrassment over this widow showing up continually on his doorstep to press her case day-in, and day-out. Claims for justice are easier to ignore when they don’t involve us personally or are hidden from our daily view. But when they show up, in person, knocking down our doors and insisting to be let into our lives, they can no longer be ignored.
Sometimes it may seem as if God himself or herself is the unjust judge. Sometimes we may feel as if our petitions and prayers go unanswered. But this story is not about an aloof God who will only be moved by embarrassment. God is not the unjust judge. God is more like the widow who has come knocking on our door, ready to use our embarrassment as Christians, or rather as human beings, to motivate change, compassion, and the proper response to injustice.
“For a while” the unjust judge simply refuses to grant the widow’s petitions.
How long is a while?
Ask those who banged on the doors and fought to end the American slave trade.
Ask those who knocked unceasingly to see women receive the vote.
Ask those who pounded the pavement to see Civil Rights become reality.
Ask those who pressed to see the Berlin Wall come down.
Ask those who petitioned and prayed to see our LGBTQ sisters and brothers be able to marry and raise families.
How long is a while? Until such a time that we collectively feel a disconnect between what we say we believe and how we live out those beliefs…until such a time that we understand that the God of love is knocking on our hearts and we crack the door open wide enough for holy light to reach all of our embarrassed silences, dark truths, hidden regrets, and failures to repair the breach. Until such a time that we so deeply know the reality of God’s loving mercy that we are completely and utterly turned inside out and upside down so that we realize the limits of our mercy and the limits of our love in comparison.
Catherine Ingram shares this story:
A few years ago, I was with a close woman friend in a grocery store in California. As we snaked along the aisles, we became aware of a mother with a small boy moving in the opposite direction and meeting us head on in each aisle. The woman barely noticed us because she was so furious at her little boy, who seemed intent on pulling items off the lower shelves. As the mother became more and more frustrated, she started to yell at the child and several aisles later had progressed to shaking him by the arm.
At this point my friend spoke up. A wonderful mother of three and founder of a progressive school, she had probably never once in her life treated any child so harshly. I expected my friend would give this woman a solid mother-to-mother talk about controlling herself and about the effect this behavior has on a child. Braced for confrontation, I felt a spike in my already elevated adrenaline.
Instead, my friend said, “What a beautiful little boy. How old is he?” The woman answered cautiously, “He’s three.” My friend went on to comment about how curious he seemed and how her own three children were just like him in the grocery store, pulling things off shelves, so interested in all the wonderful colors and packages. “He seems so bright and intelligent,” my friend said.
The woman had the boy in her arms by now and a shy smile came upon her face. Gently brushing his hair out of his eyes, she said, “Yes, he’s very smart and curious, but sometimes he wears me out.” My friend responded sympathetically, “Yes, they can do that; they are so full of energy.”
As we walked away, I heard the mother speaking more kindly to the boy about getting home and cooking his dinner. “We’ll have your favorite—macaroni and cheese,” she told him.
Friends, even when embarrassment is our only motivating factor, God can use our embarrassment to good end, prompting our changed behavior and converting our minds to live into our highest principles and ideals. Yet, as the story about the little boy and his frazzled mom shows, mercy and love are God’s greatest and favorite motivators. Like the friend who spoke kindly to the worn out mother in the grocery store, we each have the power to answer provocation and hurtful behavior with concern, anger with greater kindness, and bone-tired weariness with renewed offers to help carry the burdens of life.
If this unjust judge could be motivated to help the widow at his door, how much more will God help those who are in need?
And if we are cast in the role of the unjust judge, then what will motivate you to finally answer the persistent knocking at your door? What will motivate us?
Will it be our embarrassment, a Godly example, loving mercy, or something else?
And does it matter?