17B Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23. “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor, Pharisees, and Mary Grace
September 1, 2018 St. Mark’s Joanna Seibert
The Pharisees and some of the scribes, the religious leaders of the day, have heard about Jesus/ and have come all the way from Jerusalem to Galilee to see him for the first time/ up close and personal. Jesus is already suspect since he left his steady job in Nazareth to roam the countryside with no visible means of support except from a few women. HMMM… OOOH, right away they eye him not following the law, disobeying the purity codes, no hand washing. Oh goodness, there is more. “Also, many other traditions,” not washing the cups and saucers. They don’t hesitate to question Jesus, and in return he comes right back with scripture from one of his favorite parts of the Hebrew Bible. “Isaiah wrote about you hypocrites. You honor and worship God with your lips, but your heart is far from God. You honor your own traditions, not God’s commandments.” Then Jesus gets really fired up describing that it is not what goes into a person, but it is what comes out. It is about what happens when the outside touches the human heart inside of us/ and whether we respond with love and peace or we respond with one of the twelve evil intentions he describes. I suspect we all are pretty familiar with at least a few of them. /
Perhaps if Jesus wanted to tell a parable today to teach us about “honoring God with our lips, but defiling him with our hearts, he might send to our computer’s “in box,” Flannery O’Conner’s last short story, “Revelation,” for our required reading this Labor Day weekend. I will entice you with the story’s cliff notes.
The scene opens in the waiting room of a doctor's office in the South, where a smug Ruby Turpin is chatting amiably with another woman who is a stranger to her, as Ruby surveys the room and sizes up the other people seated around her. (Her name Turpin, reminding us of turpentine, may give us a clue about her real personality.) A gospel hymn plays on the office radio, “When I looked up, and He looked down.” The woman Ruby talks to/ sits near her overweight homely daughter, Mary Grace, whose face is blue with acne. Mary Grace also is reading a thick blue book. She is home from a school in the north called Wellesley College.
(I hope you are paying attention to the names of the characters and O’Connor’s description of the them, Turpin, Mary Grace, blue.)
Mrs. Turpin feels a tremendous degree of self-satisfaction regarding her own position in the world/ and in this doctor’s waiting room. Her caste classification boils down to race and ownership of land. Since she and her husband Claud own a house and a little land to raise pigs on, she considers herself obviously superior to people who own only a house. And since she is white, she considers herself superior to any blacks, regardless of how much property they own. But after this her classification system breaks down. She cannot decide what to do with people who have a lot of money but are common,/ or those who have "good blood" but have lost their money and have to rent. What she is really thinking, however, is how could anybody in any way be superior to Mrs. Turpin?
Inevitably Ruby Turpin's reflections break into speech; she joyfully says, "If it's one thing I am, it's grateful. When I think who all I could have been/ besides myself/ and what all I got, /I just feel like shouting, 'Thank you, Jesus, for making everything the way it is!' It could have been different!... Oh, thank you, Jesus, thank you!"
At that moment Mary Grace apparently can no longer tolerate this self-congratulatory blather and hurls her blue book, which happens to be called Human Development, /at Mrs. Turpin, hitting her over the left eye. Mary Grace then lurches across the waiting room and lunges for her throat. Mary Grace is subdued and falls into some kind of fit. Mrs. Turpin leans over her and "the girl's eyes stop rolling." At this point Mrs. Turpin asks her, "What have you got to say to me?" Mary Grace answers as she is carried from the waiting room to a psychiatric hospital, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog!" /
Mrs. Turpin finds this comment very unsettling, and she wonders if it may be some message from God, who may be trying to intervene in her life. "How," she asks God later, "am I both a hog and me? How am I both saved and from hell?"
In O'Connor's world-view, however, both of these things are perfectly consistent. O'Connor believes that Mrs. Turpin is indeed a hog, just like the ones she raises, who live in a pig-parlor where their feet never touch the ground. And simultaneously, Mrs. Turpin is saved because everyone is entitled to God’s saving grace. That Mrs. Turpin is neat and clean, pleasant to the black workers, and volunteers time at her church is nice, but it is not what entitles her to God’s grace; God’s grace is offered freely to all: prostitutes, tax collectors, poor and well to do blacks and whites. Remember that the harbinger of this message in O’Connor’s story is named Mary Grace.
Still anxious, Ruby Turpin returns home. While working on her farm she questions God out loud. As she contemplates the "message" God has sent her, she has a vision of the souls of the characters from the waiting room walking up to Heaven. “There were whole companies of those who are dirt poor, /clean for the first time/ and bands of blacks in white robes,/ and battalions of people she considers freaks and the lowest dregs of society shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs. And bringing up the end, the rear of the procession is a tribe of people like herself and Claud who have always had a little of everything and the God-given wit to use it right. ..They are marching at the end of the line, behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they had always been for good order and common sense and respectable behavior. They alone sing on key. Yet she can see by their shocked and altered faces that even their virtues are being burned away.” Ruby Turpin is at the end of the line, but she and all the souls are shouting Hallelujah.////
There is of course one difference between Mrs. Turpin and the Pharisees and the scribes. When Ruby Turpin has “the book thrown at her” she stops/ and turns around in her mind to see if there is a message. The Greek word is metanoia, to turn around, to repent. We know from later on in our story that most of the Pharisees and scribes never turn around, repent. They will only look for a way to destroy the messenger. Jesus’ message of change is too painful. The message is outside of the box of their tradition, now human tradition. They have forgotten the essence of God’s commandment of love and grace open equally to all, to everyone. Period./
My experience is that there are people in our lives today at church, the workplace, at home, at school, on the streets who are speaking to us about changes we need to make in our spiritual and physical lifestyles,/ our addictions,/ our prejudices,/ the things that come out of our mouths that defile us,/ but we, like the Pharisees, fail to listen to them. The message may be too painful, or we do not see the messengers as persons of authority, because we are superior to them because of our education, our wealth, our social standing, our race, or the land of our birth. Each of us will have the opportunity this week to encounter Mary Grace and her blue book of Human Development./
O’Connor says Mary Grace may not be pretty. Mark says Mary Grace will not be the authority figure we are accustomed to hearing. Mary Grace may not wash her hands. Mary Grace may not be able to sing on tune or even speak our language. She may be someone we would unconsciously consider beneath us.
Brother L’Esperance from the Society of St. John the Evangelist writes that “Revelation is not a far-off event that happened in some by-gone time. Revelation is something that is happening in the here and now.
Right here, today.” //
And we are just at the right place today at St. Mark’s! This week a multitude of events will begin that can bring revelation, a new way of life. There is a retreat Saturday with Barbara Crafton, also the catechumenate program, EfM, and most especially the five-week parish wide spiritual tune-up during the formation hour where adults and children will meet St. Ignatius of Loyola, a 16th century monk who developed simple tools that have connected men and women for centuries to a personal God. /
I pray that in these coming weeks we like Ruby Turpin will have a “revelation,/ a revelation” and will look Mary Grace directly in the eye,/ attempt to sit a little closer to her in the waiting room of our hearts/ and if possible,/ ask her to tell us a little more about God’s plan for Human Development/ so that we can keep singing Hallelujah/ with her/ in tune/ or out of tune.
Flannery O’Connor, “Revelation,” The Complete Stories, 448-509, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux 1989.
Karen Bernardo, “Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Revelation,' Storybites. 2018.
“The Eyes Have it, Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Revelation,’ William Andrews, The Literature of the American South, A Norton Anthology, Norton 1998
Br. Rovert L’Esperance, “Revelation, Society of Saint John the Evangelist, ssje.org Daily Email.