A few years ago, I had a friend who, like Nicodemus with Jesus, would come to me at night. This scene though wasn’t quite as pastoral as the biblical one. Mostly my friend came to drink and complain.
This was his issue: Publicly he was a very respected and successful man, in a position of authority with a number of persons working under him. To these, his employees, he was the penultimate nice guy. He doted on them and felt very good about himself because of this. This was, in fact, his pride. In his own eyes, because of the way he treated his employees and because of their subsequent affection for him, he was the most generous and kindly man on earth. He told me: “There isn’t one of them, my employees, who wouldn’t give me the shirt off his or her back. I’ve been good to everyone of them.”
His problem wasn’t there. It was at home with his family. He had a drinking problem and all the inconsistencies that come with that. Simply put, he was never as nice at home as he was at the office and his wife and kids were not nearly as adoring and generous with their praise as were his employees. His family loved him, but saw his weaknesses and suffered greatly from them. Hence, by them, he was constantly challenged, either by their direct comments to him about his inconsistencies or by their angry avoidance of him. This embittered him greatly. Here is how he would generally put things to me:
Everyone likes me, except my family. I suspect that it’s because they can’t deal with my popularity. I go to the office and there isn’t one person there who isn’t indebted to me, whom I haven’t helped specially. We have a good atmosphere there. We laugh a lot and I’m appreciated. Then I go home … well, everything changes! Half the time everyone is avoiding me. If I’m upstairs, they’re all downstairs; if I’m downstairs, they’re all upstairs. They’re forever on my case about one thing or another. If I come home late a couple of times or miss a family thing I said I’d be there for it’s as if committed murder in public. I am fed up with it, being the leper at home, just because I miss the odd thing. They don’t love and appreciate me like the folks do at the office. I’m not asking for much at home, just a little understanding!”
A nice guy at office and an angry alcoholic at home! He didn’t see the glaring inconsistency. For him, the problem was simply that his wife and children were not as appreciative of him as they should be and as he deserved.
Jesus once told a very similar story: Once upon a time there was a judge in a certain town. He was well respected by everyone and, in public, people used to bring out gifts and give them to him because, obviously, he had been good to them. Everyone respected him, except one widow to whom he hadn’t given justice. She hounded him, demanding her just due. For a long time he avoided her and was irritated by her demands. Finally, he said to himself: “I fear neither God nor man, but if I don’t give her justice she will hound me to death!” He gave her her due.
That parable has a double meaning. On the one hand, it is a parable about prayer. With it, Jesus tries to teach us that we should persevere in prayer: God is the judge and we are the widow. Wear God out and eventually God will give us what we ask for. But the parable is intended in a second way too: We are the judge and God is the widow. God’s voice for us is particularly clear in the widows, in the hounders, in the poor, in those people who are not so impressed with our public persona. Simply put, one of God’s important voices for us is to be heard in the persons who irritate us the most; for example, in that one particular person we would most like to avoid in life. In Christ’s view of things God is both the one being asked and the one who is doing the asking. God is hounded and God hounds.
The moral of all this, then, is that we are asked to hear God’s voice in the persons who upset us, that is, in those people who, for whatever reason, are not very impressed with us. Usually that is the people we live with. Obviously, the principle breaks down when that voice is an abusive one. The gospel does not ask us to let ourselves be abused, but it does ask us to make an option for the poor and that option, like the house of God itself, has many surprising rooms, some of which are not very romantic or much to our liking.
Thus, beware of the voice that humbles you: It might just be one of God’s widows, puncturing your persona, and calling you to justice and honesty.