A Turning Point – Br. Keith Nelson

Br. Keith NelsonMatthew 7:21-27

In her short story Revelation, published in 1965, Flannery O’ Connor offers the reader a detailed psychological and spiritual portrait of a character named Ruby Turpin. Mrs. Turpin is a “respectable, hard-working, church-going woman,” white, middle class, and Southern. The story is set in the cramped squalor of a doctor’s waiting room, where an array of white characters – elderly and young, well-to-do and poor – are waiting to see the doctor. The omniscient narrator gives us a particularly intimate portrait of the thoughts that run through Mrs. Turpin’s head and heart, revealing an elaborate, personal hierarchy of class, race, and social status. As the story unfolds, Mrs. Turpin’s interior judgments roil and seethe. The casual conversation she makes with other patients slowly reveals the painful web of classism and racism in which they are all unconsciously enmeshed. And Mrs. Turpin’s running, interior dialogue with Jesus reveals the ways that she uses prayer to validate her prejudice, thanking Jesus for placing her exactly where she is and making her who she is and not like the others she has deemed inferior. The one outlier to this toxic stew of pleasant banter mixed with overt hate speech is a teenage girl named Mary Grace. Riddled with acne, plump, and silently immersed in a book entitled Human Development, Mary Grace looks up occasionally to stare directly at Mrs. Turpin, with a gaze that becomes increasingly persistent and unsettling. Just as Mrs. Turpin concludes one of her most intense, self-affirming, interior prayers with an outburst of “Thank you, Jesus!,” Mary Grace suddenly hurls her book across the room, directly at Mrs. Turpin’s eye. Chaos ensues and both women are forcibly restrained, but as they are lying on the floor, a crucial interaction unfolds:

The girl’s eyes stopped rolling and focused on her. They seemed a much lighter blue than before, as if a door that had been tightly closed behind them now opened 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, know her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition. ‘What you got to say to me?’ she 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. Her eyes burned for a moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.[i]

This is the turning point in the story – which is ultimately a story about reckoning with the truth, searingly painful though it may be to acknowledge. It is, in the end, the story of Mrs. Turpin’s salvation. Mrs. Turpin “comes from hell,” so to speak, because she is already locked in a hell of her own devising, a tiny waiting room of hateful judgement that pretends to penetrate the inner nature of those around her. It’s a waiting room in which the doctor never comes. Or, perhaps, a waiting room where the doctor is secretly one of the patients, and the beginning of a cure is being hit right in the eye by a book entitled Human Development. Of course, Mary Grace both is and is not Jesus; she retains something mysterious that eludes tidy analysis. She is a catalyst of crisis – a Greek word which simply means “the turning point in a disease.”

Our passage from Matthew’s gospel this morning comes from the conclusion of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, a collection of Jesus’ most crucial teaching as it is remembered by the Matthean community. Perhaps the most painful words to hear, at least for this listener, are placed on the lips of the Lord: “Then I shall tell them to their faces: I have never known you; away from me, you workers of lawlessness.” This image of separation from God is tragic, frightening, and sobering. It is significant to note that this passage does not make explicit mention of an eternal or unbridgeable state of separation, as in Matthew 25, in the story of the sheep and the goats: “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire.’” The collective interpretation of the Church has tended to read all passages that suggest movement away from Jesus as an aggregate whole, supplying bits of theology about eternal punishment that may or may not be there.

In his immensely succinct and insightful essay, “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?”, the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Kallistos Ware sets out three types of “punishment” that appear throughout Scripture: punishment in retribution, punishment as a deterrent, and what he calls reformative punishment.[ii] He notes that Jesus unequivocally rejects the first type of punishment; this type neither reflects the true nature of God nor is it acceptable human behavior in God’s eyes. In Matthew’s gospel especially, words are attributed to Jesus that we might characterize as warnings or deterrents from sin which make use of imagery such as eternal fire. But in the end, there is significant weight given in Scripture and tradition to the third, reformative strand.  The consequences of our own behavior, when brought into genuine encounter with the living God, may outwardly seem or feel like punishment but are in fact reformative, fashioning a new and more deeply converted heart from the fires of our own inflamed conscience. Such reformative encounters presuppose the possibility of genuine change, and always hold out an unshakable hope for salvation in and through Christ. It is this through this Christ, St. Paul promises us, that God “will be all in all.” (1 Corinthians). The stance of ultimate dualism that seems often to be the position of Matthew’s gospel is counterbalanced by an equally present strand of ultimate reconciliation woven throughout the gospels and the New Testament. Advent confronts us with a rich and challenging opportunity, and perhaps even a season of crisis, in which to mine our own relationship with Scripture, tradition, and reason, and form our own guiding interpretations of these subjects. In the end, they are wrapped in a mystery which only God can – and will – disclose.

When you read passages like that from Matthew’s gospel this Advent, it may be helpful to ask yourself: Do I interpret these words solely as inevitable predictions about a cosmic future? Or do I interpret them as opportunities – or crises – in which to meet Jesus as a merciful judge today, in the painful truths of my own life – perhaps even in this moment?

[i] Flannery O’Connor. “Revelation,”originally published in the collection Everything that Rises Must Converge, c. 1965, the Estate of Mary Flannery O’Connor. Quoted from The Collected Works of Flannery O’ Connor. pgs. 645-646. c. 1988, Literary Classics of the United States, Inc.

[ii] Archbishop Kallistos Ware. “Dare We Hope for the Salvation of All?,” from The Inner Kingdom: The Collected Works of Kallistos Ware, vol. I. c. 2000, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

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