In her short story, “Revelation,” Flannery O’Connor writes about a woman obsessed with social status. The woman, Mrs. Trupin, would often lie awake at night ranking “the classes of people,” putting them “in their proper order” based on wealth, status and respectability. Of course, Mrs. Turpin always puts herself and her husband, Claud, near the top of the list.
Over the course of the story, she is painfully confronted several times with her own flaws. Through it all, though, she shows the remarkable ability to dismiss these accusations until, in the story’s closing paragraphs, she seems to be directly confronted by God.
While standing in a pasture at dusk, Mrs. Turpin sees a momentary vision of a stairway to heaven. To her shock, it’s not the clean, hardworking, respectable church-goers like her who are leading the crowd of souls ascending to heaven. Instead, it’s all the undesirables she had spent her entire life looking down on. As the story closes, Mrs. Turpin is left with the realization that God doesn’t care about class or social status nearly as much as she does.
In Luke 1, after learning that she was to become the mother to the messiah, Mary bursts into spontaneous praise.
“My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,” she said. “For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”
Most of us who have spent any amount of time in church have probably heard these opening words to the “Song of Mary.” However, continuing through the poem begins to reveal a picture of God that would make Mrs. Turpin and many of us more uncomfortable than we’d like to admit.
“He has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts,” she said. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things, but has sent the rich away empty.”
At this point, most of us want to begin explaining away her words.
“It’s not necessarily wrong to be rich,” we want to say. “The Bible isn’t saying that all powerful people will be brought down, just the ungodly ones.”
That’s not what the text says, however. And when we dismiss the hard sayings of the Bible like this, we rob it of its power to shock and challenge us. We rob ourselves of the opportunity to sit uneasily in the tension between what we would like it to say and what it actually says. And we rob ourselves of the opportunity to encounter divine wisdom in the text. The Bible says God will bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly. It challenges us, just like Mrs. Turpin’s vision challenged her, to imagine that one day the heavenly procession might very well be led by people we think don’t even deserve to be there at all.
Now, to be clear, I don’t think this passage is a blanket condemnation against wealth, power or influence. There are plenty of other biblical texts that seem to rule this out. Instead, I think it challenges us to think about how God views wealth, power and influence. In God’s sight, these things mean nothing. They have no value and no power to earn us even the slightest extra consideration from God. It’s not so much that God will automatically send the rich people away empty; it’s that God has no problem doing that if it’s what has to be done.
The implication for me is clear. The arrival of Christ in the world puts me on notice. I have no reason to think that I should receive anything extra from God just because of where I was born, how hard I work or how fervently I pray. I have no reason to believe that God would turn anyone away just because they don’t measure up to a standard I’ve invented. The metrics I use to classify people and put them “in their proper order” doesn’t amount to much in the sight of God.
Instead of making these distinctions, Jesus liberates me to live a life of mercy and love. He challenges me to love my neighbor as myself as an expression of love for God, not to treat my neighbor with dignity and respect because of who they are, but because of whom I understand God to be. I can’t exclude anyone — my poor neighbor, my sinful neighbor, my immigrant neighbor, my neighbor who looks differently, loves differently, votes differently or believes differently than me — because, who knows, they just might be the ones leading the heavenly procession one day.
Jason Koon is an ordained minister who lives in Morganton with his wife and two teenage daughters. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.