On a sex worker, judgement, and grace
When I was twelve years old my absolute favourite teacher of all time - Colonel Bouldin - announced that he had to be away for some time "to do some things for some people for some time." The mysterious nature of these words, plus his military background, had my mind racing towards all kinds of possibilities about why he had to go and - being during the Cold War and all - I settled on the theory that he was going to smuggle a dissident out of East Germany. Years later, as an adult, I asked him why he had gone away for those weeks and I can't remember his answer, but can sadly report that it had nothing to do with espionage.
The woman sent to replace him I shall call Mrs. McKenzie. I have changed her name because these musings are now on the Internet for all to see and I don't want her coming after me. Although only about four feet tall, she was as solid as an oak, and she always draped her trunk in paisley dresses that seemed all lovely-and-grandma-y but I think may have well masked a psychopath.
Her first day with us she was giving us the spelling words on which we would be tested at the end of the week. At one point she said. "EP-i-tome: E-P-I-T-O-M-E. A person or thing that is a perfect example of a particular quality or type. EP-i-tome."
My hand shot up, seemingly by force of its own will. Mrs. McKenzie ignored me. I was jumping and waving so that she would see me, but she had gone on to the next word ("fallow: F-A-L-L-O-W ...) Presumably surmising that I was not going to stop (an accurate assessment) she said, "Yes?"
"I believe the word is pronounced uh-PITT-a-me, not EP-i-tome."
There was some "oohing" from the class, which ceased immediately when Mrs. McKenzie hefted her frame off the stool she had been sitting on and walked to my desk. She looked at me with unbridled rage; the paisleys on her frock now seemed to curl away in fear.
"Lewis," she spat, making the name itself seem like a curse. "I knew before you even opened your mouth - that's why I didn't want to call on you. Yes: same eyes, same arrogance. You are obviously Kathy's brother and obviously cut from the same ugly cloth." With that she spun around so quickly that a paper on my desk was sucked into her gravitational pull and fell to the floor.
Now thinking back over the scene - especially having spent a great deal of time in classrooms myself as a teacher - perhaps I ought not to have corrected Mrs. McKenzie. (Even if I shuddered at the thought of my classmates growing up mispronouncing that word; I imagined them embarrassing themselves in job interviews and at cocktail parties in some distant future.) And I certainly ought not to have followed up what I said by using epitome in a sentence in which I grouped it with Mrs. McKenzie and substandard teacher. Two wrongs do not a right make - I get that.
But I couldn't get beyond her statement I knew before you even opened your mouth. Based solely on something completely beyond my control - a family relationship, my eyes - from the beginning I didn't have a chance with Mrs. McKenzie. It just seemed so blatantly judgemental. And the presence of this unfair judgement not only closed Mrs. McKenizie to anything I might have to say, but also brought to the fore behaviour in me that was unworthy of who this brown-eyed brother of Kathy should have been. It was the epitome of a failed opportunity.
So frequently - perhaps due to repetition but also perhaps due to linguistic sensibilities - our Biblical translations can veer towards the antiseptic. "Harlot" the King James version calls Rahab from the Book of Joshua, and it's old-fashioned and poetic and somewhat removed from us. The New Revised standard version calls her a "prostitute," which is a little closer to how we perhaps speak today, but still doesn't carry with it the lens of shame and loathing through which Rahab would have been viewed by her contemporaries - especially the Jews whose God had even gone so far as to make adultery one of the ten biggies. When I was a deacon, a priest came to give a parish mission at my deacon parish in Chicago, and he began his first session by shouting "She was a filthy whore!" in the church whilst some ladies gasped and clutched their pearls and some gentlemen looked around nervously. That's the kind of dynamic that would have followed the original Rahab around.
But, rather extraordinarily, she emerges as a heroine, saving the Jewish scouts from the execution that most certainly would have met them had they been captured by the King of Jericho. Although she was not the kind of person to whom good decent folk would give the time of day, God used her to fulfil his plan. Those who could leave their judgement out of the story saw only the power and possibility of God active in the world; those who could not saw nothing but a sex worker, a sinner so terribly unlike them, of course.
Rahab - without having a big Hollywood conversion in which she promises to amend her wicked ways - is eventually shown to be an important instrument of God's grace. And her final vindication against those who would judge her comes in St. Matthew's Gospel, when, listing the ancestors of Jesus, among them is one Rahab the dirty sex worker. Matthew - seemingly unable to resist free-wheeling women with generous hearts - wants everyone to know that Jesus, the Son of God, is cut from the same beautiful cloth as a sex worker.
It's a great lesson for us all who probably from time to time think we know about a person before he or she even opens his or her mouth. God's enormous grace will not be limited by our closed minds - this has been shown time and time again. And we need to be open to what he would teach us, and through whom he would teach us. It could well be Rahab the crack addict, Rahab the rough sleeper, Rahab the prison inmate, Rahab the conservative, Rahab the liberal, yes, even Rahab the Trump supporter might well be vehicles of God's grace for us.
When we dismiss anyone out of hand because of judgement and prejudice, we're in essence saying that God cannot use that person as a conduit of the grace he freely gives us. And this just seems like ingratitude to me. It is, I think, the epitome of ingratitude.