Come Holy Spirit, and enkindle in the hearts of your faithful, the fire of your Love. Amen.
The kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire laborers for his vineyard.(i)
Many of Jesus’ parables prove difficult to understand, and his disciples frequently misinterpret the truth he intends in the stories that he tells. Adding to his followers’ difficulties, we with two thousand years between us and the culture, politics, and economy of Jesus’ time and place, struggle to relate the agrarian, slave-holding world he references, to our own situation. Therefore, we postulate the U.S. dollar value of the ancient talent and study the biology of mustard seeds, all in the hope of discerning the mystery of Jesus’ teachings.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard, however, makes no esoteric reference to either Galilean lending systems or Greco-Roman political philosophies. Rather, its challenge is its timeless simplicity and clarity, for the parable is not difficult to understand, only hard to accept: see, like the laborers in the vineyard we begrudge God’s generosity, believing we know better how to order not only earth, but heaven; and we believe we have earned as an entitlement what God offers only as a gift.
[The owner of the vineyard replied,] ‘Take what belongs to you and go; I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’
So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”(ii)
In our contemporary American experience, we strive for position, and the parable baits us into proudly casting ourselves as those strong-backed, stronger-willed laborers who arrived at the vineyard before dawn, and toiled all day, and then…we stop reading. Waiting for our wages and watching others receive preferential treatment, we disagree with the Lord’s order of things, and we have the audacity to petition God for fairness rather than for grace. We urge the owner of the vineyard to recognize that the earthen privileges we enjoy have been hard-earned, and we expect heaven to show equal regard and reward for our achievements.
Mrs. Turpin would certainly presume her place among those called to work early in the morning. When a horse kicks her husband, Claud, the Turpins set off for the town doctor in the rural south of the early 1950s. As Flannery O’Connor describes the scene in her short story, “Revelation,” the doctor’s waiting room, “which was very small, was almost full when the Turpins entered, and Mrs. Turpin, who was very large, made it look even smaller by her presence.”(iii)
Around the perimeter of the waiting room sits a cast of characters representing the various social strata by which Mrs. Turpin makes sense of the world and her place within it. There waits “a blond child in a dirty blue romper who should have been told to move over and make room for the lady. He was slumped down in the seat, his arms idle at his sides and his eyes idle in his head; his nose ran unchecked.”(iv)
Across from the child sits “a well-dressed gray-haired lady whose eyes met [Mrs. Turpin’s] and whose expression said: if that child belonged to me, he would have some manners and moved over.”(v)
Next to the gray-haired lady, a “girl of eighteen or nineteen, [scowls] into a thick blue book which Mrs. Turpin saw was entitled Human Development. The girl raised her head and directed her scowl at [Mrs. Turpin] as if she did not like her looks…The poor girl’s face was blue with acne and Mrs. Turpin thought how pitiful it was to have a face like that at that age. She gave the girl a friendly smile, but the girl only scowled the harder.”(vi)
Two seats down rests “a thin leathery old woman in a cotton print dress. [The Turpins] had three sacks of chicken feed in their pump house that was in the same print. She had seen from the first that the child belonged with the old woman. She could tell by the way they sat – kind of vacant and white-trashy, as if they would sit there until Doomsday if nobody called and told them to get up.”(vii)
Next to the well-dressed pleasant lady was “a lank-faced woman who was certainly the child’s mother. She had on a yellow sweat shirt and wine-colored slacks, both gritty-looking, and the rims of her lips were stained with snuff. Her dirty yellow hair was tied behind with a little piece of red paper ribbon.”(viii)
Now, “without appearing to, Mrs. Turpin always noticed people’s feet. The well-dressed lady had on red and gray suede shoes to match her dress. Mrs. Turpin had on her good black patent leather pumps. The ugly girl had on Girl Scout shoes and heavy socks. The old woman had on tennis shoes and the white-trashy mother had on what appeared to be bedroom slippers, black straw with gold braid threaded through them – exactly what you would have expected her to have on.”(ix)
O’Connor’s characters emerge from her rural Georgia upbringing, a world in which she recognized racism and classism as so deeply embedded in her community’s way of life that few could diagnose the judgmental diseases they carried…and fewer still even knew they had taken ill. Writing as a devout Roman Catholic, she took issue with a Christian journey in which worldly accomplishment and acquisition marked position in heaven as on earth, and her vision of the Gospel set her at odds with both literary critics and the mainstream Church. Late in her career she reflected that she was an author “with certain preoccupations,” namely “that belief in Christ is…a matter of life and death.” That conviction “[has] been a stumbling block for readers who would prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence.”(x)
Like the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, “Revelation” assails a piety of entitlement and achievement, charging belief in Christ as a matter of humility and heart, and not of promotion. On that theme, O’Connor continues: “Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them – not above, just away from – were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well…Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head, and she would dream they were all crammed in together in a box car being ridden off to be put in a gas oven.”(xi)
Sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, she and her companions discuss the fecklessness of the local working classes, the difficulty of people other than themselves, and the shame of wasted opportunities. One such waster, they surmise, is Mary Grace, the eighteen-year-old in Girl Scout shoes. As her mother explains – in front of the teenager – “‘I think people with bad dispositions are more to be pitied than anyone on earth…[and,] I think the worst thing in the world…is an ungrateful person. To have everything and not appreciate it. I know a girl,’ she said, ‘who has parents who would give her anything, a little brother who loves her dearly, who is getting a good education, who wears the best clothes, but who can never say a kind word to anyone, who never smiles, who just criticizes and complains all day long.’”(xii)
“‘Is she too old to paddle?” Claud asks, perhaps raising a knowing eyebrow and winking toward the unhappy girl, who’s “face was almost purple.”(xiii)
“‘It never hurt anyone to smile,’ Mrs. Turpin [interjects,] ‘It just makes you feel better all over…[and] If it’s one thing I am,’ Mrs. Turpin said with feeling, ‘it’s grateful. When I think who all I could have been besides myself and what all I got, a little of everything, and a good disposition besides, I just feel like shouting,
“Thank you, Jesus for making everything the way it is!’”
“…Thank you, Jesus for making everything the way it is!”
The absurdity of Mrs. Turpin’s exclamation reminds us readers that we cannot begin the Gospel work of redeeming the world if we refuse to acknowledge its need of reformation…we cannot begin the Gospel work of redeeming the world if we refuse to acknowledge its need of reformation. And in our heart of hearts, we know our first thoughts, and recognizing that “the way things are” benefits us, we choose ease before righteousness, and “a good disposition besides.”
Jesus’ parable challenges us and all those who justify themselves by their privilege: those who claim power and wealth as expressions of moral superiority, and those whose only ethical compass is soulless self-interest. All the momentum of Jesus’ life and ministry threatens the belittlers and the bullies, whether they attack by the gross passive-aggression of O’Connor’s judgmental bigots, or the outright-aggression of those who have a podium and a microphone.
Back in the waiting room, as the Turpins and Mary Grace’s mother volley back-and-forth their criticisms of the teenager, tensions build…and build…and build…until…“The book struck her directly over her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the girl was about to hurl it. Before she could utter a sound, the raw face came crashing across the table toward her, howling. The girl’s fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck. She heard the mother cry out and Claud shout, ‘Whoa!’ There was an instant when she was certain she was about to be in an earthquake.”(xv)
“The girl, held down on one side by the nurse and on the other by her mother, was wrenching and turning in their grasp. The doctor was kneeling astride her, trying to hold her arm down. He managed after a second to sink a long needle into it.
“The girls’ eyes stopped rolling and focused on [Mrs. Turpin]. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them was now open to admit light and air.
“Mrs. Turpin’s head cleared and her power of motion returned. She leaned forward until she was looking directly into the fierce brilliant eyes. There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. ‘What you got to say to me?’ [Mrs. Turpin] asked hoarsely and held her breath, waiting, as for a revelation.
“The girl raised her head. Her gaze locked with Mrs. Turpin’s. ‘Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog,’ she whispered. Her voice was low but clear…[and] Mrs. Turpin sank bank in her chair.”(xvi)
This is a difficult story to preach. I have replaced O’Connor’s characters’ epithets with euphemisms where I could, and still the language remains as coarse as a dress made of feed sacks. Like the parable, “Revelation” is not difficult to understand, only hard to accept, for with the same righteous indignation that we cast ourselves as those arriving to the vineyard before dawn, we admit our Turpin tendencies to earn what God offers as a gift and to begrudge our Lord’s generosity.
While an an awkward and imperfect angel, be sure that Mary Grace wields nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus, and as Human Development strikes Mrs. Turpin’s head and Mary Grace’s words strike harder at the woman’s heart, O’Connor suggests we pull comfortable footwear out of our closets, because if we, likewise, continue in our self-righteous ways, we’re going to be standing in Saint Peter’s queue for a good, long while.
“Revelation” concludes: As she laid to sleep that night, “A visionary light settled in [Mrs. Turpin’s] eyes. She saw…a vast swinging bridge extending upward from the earth through a field of living fire. Upon it a vast horde of souls were rumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white-trash, clean for the first time in their lives…and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end of the procession was a tribe of people whom she recognized at once as those who, like herself and Claud, had always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. She leaned forward to observe them closer. They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and commons sense and respectable behavior. They alone were on key. Yet she could see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues were being burned away.” And in the procession to heaven, they were last.
The parable of the laborers in the vineyard may be the most dangerous story in scripture. In it, Jesus asks us to turn upside-down our personal expectations and our social, economic, and political systems: from wages, to gifts; from earning, to receiving; from judgement, to mercy; from fairness, to grace…demanding faith in Christ not as a matter of no great consequence – an identity we whittle in our spare time – but as a matter of life and death, for us and for the sake of the whole world.
In the name of the God,