by Marina McCoy
Marina McCoy is Associate Professor of Philosophy, specializing in ancient philosophy and literature with a particular emphasis on Plato, the sophists, and rhetoric. Her most recent book, Wounded Heroes: Vulnerability as a Virtue in Ancient Greek Literature and Philosophy (Oxford) was published this month.
"....they had been discussing among themselves on the way who was the greatest. Then he sat down, called the Twelve, and said to them, 'If anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.' " (Mk. 9:35)
Jesus' idea of the "last being first" is often sentimentalized. We can sentimentalize the child—at least until we become parents and see them struggle through the terrible twos! We can sentimentalize the "poor" and all that they seemingly lack—until we build relationships with those we had called "poor" and recognize both their complexity and our own poverty. We can sentimentalize the saints and forget that they had the same kinds of human struggles and foibles as the rest of us.
Flannery O'Connor once noted about her fiction, "All my stories are about the action of grace on a character who is not very willing to support it, but most people think of these stories as hard, hopeless and brutal.”
An example of grace working on the unwilling is found in O'Connor's "Revelation," which primarily takes place in the waiting room of a doctor's office. Its main character, Mrs. Turpin, spends much of her time judging. She judges other people's shoes: the well-dressed lady's suede shoes, the practical shoes of a Girl Scout, or the slippers of the "white trash" mother. She spends her time actively naming classes of people: the "colored people"; the "white trash," the home-owners and land-owners, in which she locates her own family, and the rich. It's clear quite early on in the story that Mrs. Turpin finds her own sense of security and identity in placing herself above other groups of people.
Eventually, her sense of security is disrupted in small ways, moments where we see grace start to creep in. For example, she considers the case of a black, land-owning dentist who thwarts her social expectations. She stays awake at night, struggling with whether she would rather be black, white trash, or ugly, and though part of her struggle comes from her racism and classism, a sliver of the struggle comes from recognizing that a good part of the world does not fit into her categories at all. Eventually, Mrs. Turpin is even smacked with grace, when she is hit in the head with a book thrown by a crazed young girl, who then chokes her and insults her, calling her a "warthog from hell."
The strange grace of the story is that Mrs. Turpin struggles between rejecting the label of the girl and delving more deeply into her sense of anger. When she goes to take care of the hogs behind her house, she angrily rejects the idea of being called a warthog and yet wonders if some aspect of it might be true. Eventually, she cries loudly across the field, "Who do you think you are? " and finds that the same question is echoed back to her. Listening to that echo leads her to a revelatory insight. She envisions a procession into heaven. The first ones entering heaven are the "white trash" and black people that she had always disparaged, followed by "batallions of lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping like frogs." At the very end of the parade into heaven are people she recognizes as being like herself and her family: white, middle class people who follow the rules as she sees them.
"They were marching behind the others with great dignity, accountable as they always had been for good order and common 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."
Mrs. Turpin discovers that God's grace does not work by making the poor rich, making the sick healthy, or the badly dressed well-heeled. Rather, she envisions a God whose grace is one of radical hospitality, a God who has a preferential option to love those whom society struggles to find lovable.
The disciples' problem in the Gospel passage above is not that they do not know the right answer to the question—"who is the greatest?"—but rather that their question is all wrong to start. Like Mrs. Turpin, their starting point is to judge themselves and others. But instead of entering into the conversation about who is better than whom, Jesus stops it. Then, he sits down. Jesus gets down on the ground. Finally, he speaks of reception, of service as a radical welcoming, as accepting people in their reality and neither sentimentalizing them nor ourselves.