By Matthew L. Skinner
Do you want to see what God is like? It just got harder to do so on Wikipedia.
Wikipedia still has an article called “God,” and it hosts a range of ever-changing perspectives. But a few days ago the site made God less visible when it deleted its short article on Antoinette Tuff, the bookkeeper who in late August may have prevented a massacre at an elementary school near Atlanta. Wikipedia merged her name into another, more obscure article.
The Wikipedians’ bland debate over deleting Ms. Tuff’s article weighs her and her actions’ “significance” but says nothing about how she shows us what God is like.
That’s entirely understandable, I know; but still I consider it unfortunate. Because Ms. Tuff, an otherwise ordinary woman just responding courageously and genuinely to what was unfolding before her, helped me see and understand God. Other measures of her “significance” mean nothing in comparison.
Finding the Lost
To explain what I mean, let me consider a different woman. This one is fictional, a character in a parable Jesus tells in the Gospel according to Luke. In Luke 15:1-10, onlookers criticize Jesus for his joyful chumminess with some of society’s more despised members. He responds with two parables, stories meant to illustrate what he is up to. Both parables end with spontaneous, joyful celebration when their main characters (a shepherd and a woman) succeed in recovering things they had lost (a sheep and a coin).
The parables’ point? Jesus can and should party with these “sinners.” What would make for a more appropriate response to the new hope he makes possible when he seeks people out, embraces them, and claims them as dear to him?
But the parables tell us more than this. They also characterize the seeker. These short stories offer sketches of this Jesus who prefers the company of people the religious establishment labels as “sinners.” What kind of God seeks lost things in this way? God is like a shepherd who hikes out to restore the one lost sheep. God is like a woman who sweeps and searches her home until she gets the coin she’s looking for.
A woman who sweeps. What a simple image. But what difficult work.
Make no mistake, the parable calls attention to her effort. The woman lights a lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully. She seeks a lost drachma, not pocket change, but perhaps a full day’s wages or maybe even the price of a sheep. If it takes hard work to find the coin, then she will do the hard work. She refuses to allow bad luck to dictate the outcome or make her a victim. No way in hell will she let circumstances get in the way of recovering what’s rightly hers, what she needs to sustain herself and her family.
God is like that, the parable says.
The brief portrait of this woman lends dignity to hard work. Although we might criticize the parable for its stereotypical, culture-bound assumptions about the nature of “women’s work,” nevertheless it says God is like those who do what they can in the roles they find themselves, even if the rest of society looks at their toil as insignificant, dispensable, or not worth the energy. Perhaps we can find signs of God in those places where people bend their backs all day to do what’s necessary to support a household. Those who struggle to make a living wage might have more insight than I do into God’s resolute commitment to people, especially to those who enjoy few advantages.
The parable also points our attention to the woman’s actions as an illustration of God’s activity to find and embrace those who are “lost.” Other parables may compare God to kings, noblemen, and landowners. Here, however, God looks like a person just doing what she can. No extraordinary talents. No special training. No obvious privileges. Nobody larger than life.
God looks like someone who shows patient commitment.
If that’s the case, then we don’t need Wikipedia articles to show us what God is like. We can catch glimpses of God in all sorts of places where people respond to the needs in front of them, whether they set out to do so or not. These glimpses can appear utterly ordinary, like a school bus driver whose commitment to children actually goes beyond transporting them. In this video, notice his presence in their lives, attending to them so none of them can roll away and gets lost in the shadows or cracks.
In the video, driver Jerry James utters a great line: “This is serious business.” He means more than piloting a bus full of children. He means his devotion to them: investing in young people’s lives in the few minutes he has with them every day. He does what he can.
If you listened to the recording of her call to a 911 operator, maybe you heard a great line or two from Antoinette Tuff as she spoke to a troubled 20-year-old gunman. With no choice but to be present to someone who was — on that day, at least — very lost, she lit a lamp and bravely started sweeping, saying: “I can help you. Let’s see if we can work it out so that you don’t have to go away with them [the police] for a long time.”
Then, as the crisis came to a bloodless end, she soothed him: “It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you, though, OK? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”
That’s what it sounds like when God becomes present to someone who is lost. Thank you for showing us, Ms. Tuff.
And thank you for giving us a chance to experience some joy with you. May it extend even to the guy who put down his gun.
For Further Reading:
National Public Radio, “911 Call Captures School Employee Talking Down Gunman,” 22 August 2013.
Matthew L. Skinner, “The Parables: Understanding Jesus’ Strange Good News,” Huffington Post, 24 February 2011.
F. Scott Spencer, Salty Wives, Spirited Mothers, and Savvy Widows: Capable Women of Purpose and Persistence in Luke’s Gospel (Eerdmans, 2012), pages 40-54.
Gary Younge, “The Heroism of Antoinette Tuff Reveals What’s Missing from Politics,” The Guardian, 25 August 2013.
Matthew L. Skinner is a native Californian who now braves Minnesota winters, serving as Associate Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary in Saint Paul. His research interests focus on the Gospels and the book of Acts, the cultural world reflected in the New Testament, and the Bible’s potential for shaping the theological imaginations of its readers. Sought-after nationally as a teacher for conferences and congregations, he helped create the free site EnterTheBible.org and contributes frequently to WorkingPreacher.org. He’s part of the team that produces Sermon Brainwave, a free weekly podcast for preachers and others exploring the biblical texts assigned by the Revised Common Lectionary. He is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). His most recent book is The Trial Narratives: Conflict, Power, and Identity in the New Testament, and he coedited Shaping the Scriptural Imagination: Truth, Meaning, and the Theological Interpretation of the Bible. For more information and more of his writings, visit MatthewSkinner.org.
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