30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Luke 18:9-4
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself, “O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity – greedy, dishonest, adulterous – or even like this tax collector.” Luke 18:11
The Savior tells us that it was the tax collector who went home justified, not the Pharisee; but have you ever wondered what happened to the Pharisee once he got home? Did he ever repent? Flannery O’Connor offers a meditation on this parable in her short story Revelation – though the theme of the exaltation of the humble and the humbling of the mighty runs through many of her stories, this particular story is almost a direct re-telling of the Lord’s parable. The one great difference between the Gospel parable and O’Connor’s short story is that she allows us to see the mystery from perspective of the Pharisee, whom she brings to the very point of conversion.
Overview of the short story Revelation
The majority of this short story takes place in the waiting room of a doctor’s office. The main character and protagonist, Mrs. Turpin, is a well-to-do white woman – she is the Pharisee (and the story is told from her perspective). The antagonist is an ugly teenage girl who seems to despise Mrs. Turpin without any apparent reason – she is the Lord, calling the proud to conversion. Also there is a white-trash woman and (for a brief moment) a black man – they are the tax collector. Finally, there is the ugly girl’s mother, who is a pleasant woman, and also Claud, Mrs. Turpin’s husband – both sympathize with Mrs. Turpin.
Mrs. Turpin is a very agreeable woman, who is grateful for the many blessing she has received. She is generous and kind to all, especially to the unfortunate and the poor. She loves her husband and says her prayers. Moreover, she is a great conversationalist and has a genuinely good disposition. With all that, the ugly teenage girl snarls and hisses at her.
Mrs. Turpin is very judgmental – grateful for all she has, she is particularly thankful that the Lord didn’t make her anybody else. It is this particular quality of her gratitude which makes Mrs. Turpin the Pharisee – she does not consider herself to be like the rest of humanity, and she thanks God for it!
An excerpt from the story conveys this point well: “Sometimes at night when she couldn’t go to sleep, Mrs. Turpin would occupy herself with the question of who she would have chosen to be if she couldn’t have been herself. If Jesus had said to her before he made her, ‘There’s only two places available for you. You can either be a nigger or white-trash,’ what would she have said? ‘Please, Jesus, please,’ she would have said, ‘just let me wait until there’s another place available,’ and he would have said, ‘No, you have to go right now and I have only those two places so make up your mind.’ She would have wiggled and squirmed and begged and pleaded but it would have been no use and finally she would have said, ‘All right, make me a nigger then – but that don’t mean a trashy one.’ And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.”
The opportunity for grace
Unlike the Lord’s parable, O’Connor offers the Pharisee on opportunity for grace – Mrs. Turpin is confronted and called to task for her pride by the ugly girl, who represents Christ.
O’Connor writes, “‘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!” It could have been different!’ For one thing, somebody else could have got Claud. At the thought of this, she was flooded with gratitude and a terrible pang of joy ran through her. ‘Oh thank you, Jesus, Jesus, thank you!’ she cried aloud.
“The book struck her directly over the left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the [ugly] 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 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.”
When the Pharisee got home
O’Connor does not leave us, as the Gospel parable does, at the Temple area. She takes us to Mrs. Turpin’s home – and we are able to witness the beginning of a conversion.
Flannery has the Pharisee speak to God, “‘Why me?’ [Mrs. Turpin] rumbled. ‘It’s no trash around here, black or white, that I haven’t given to. And break my back to the bone every day working. And do for the church.’
She appeared to be the right size woman to command the arena before her. ‘How am I a hog?’ she demanded. […] ‘If you like trash better, go get yourself some trash then,’ she railed. ‘You could have made me trash. Or a nigger. If trash is what you wanted why didn’t you make me trash? […] I could quit working and take it easy and be filthy,’ she growled. ‘Lounge about the sidewalks all day drinking root beer. Dip snuff and spit in every puddle and have it all over my face. I could be nasty.
‘Or you could have made me a nigger. It’s too late for me to become a nigger,’ she said with deep sarcasm, ‘but I could act like one. Lay down in the middle of the road and stop traffic. Roll on the ground.’ […]
“She braced herself for a final assault and this time her voice rolled out over the pasture. ‘Go on,’ she yelled, ‘call me a hog! Call me a hog again. From hell. Call me a wart hog from hell. Put that bottom rail on top. There’ll still be a top and a bottom!’”
The final revelation of the story: “[Mrs. Turpin] lifted her head. […] A visionary light settled in her eyes. She saw the streak [of purple light in the sky] as 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 bands of black niggers in white robes, 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 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.”
This story, and many others like it, secures a place for Flannery O’Connor as one of the greatest Catholic authors of all time…