Flannery O’Conner’s amazing short story, "Revelation," begins with the main character, Rudy Turpin, walking into a crowded doctor’s waiting room. She’s there with her husband Claud, who has been kicked by a cow on their farm and has an abscess on his leg. She notices a blond six year old boy whose shirt was dirty and was too rude to move for her, wonders why his mother hadn’t wiped his nose. She shoves Claud towards a vacant chair. It doesn’t take long to figure out what she’s doing, going around the room, sizing up every person there: Mary Grace, the overweight girl of eighteen or nineteen, the acne on her face, scowling into a thick blue book. The young mother and her daughter who she is sure are "white trashy," an older woman, another younger woman, not "white trashy, but common," Rudy decides.
Sometimes, O’Conner writes, Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. There is a clear pecking order, then as now, though the story is set in the 1960s rural south – the wealthy white landowners above her, and the many more groups below her, the poor, the uneducated, certainly anyone of a different race. All of this southern judgmentalism is couched in religious pretense. Thank you, Jesus, she would say. Thank you Jesus for all the many blessings you have given me, and that you hadn’t make me like THEM.
As the scene unfolds Mary Grace keeps looking at Rudy over her book, as though, "she knew her in some intense and personal way, beyond time and place and condition." Finally Mary Grace can’t take Rudy Turpin’s passive aggressive polite behavior, the judging of everyone, and hurls her book at Rudy, striking her above the corner of the eye. She leaps over and begins to choke Mrs. Turpin. Finally, subdued and sedated, she replies to Mrs. Turpin’s question, "What have you got to say to me?" Mary Grace says, "Go back to hell where you came from, you old wart hog." Rudy goes home and lays down, later steps out in to their yard to wonder. She calls out to God from their front porch: "What do you send me a message like that for?" "How am I a hog and me both? How am I saved and from hell too?" Why me? I help everybody I can, I do for the church, she says. Then more fury rises up inside… anger at God for passing judgment on her passing judgment….Who do you think you are? She cries out to God…
Jesus is passing through Jericho – it doesn’t seem like he intends to stay. A man is there named Zacchaeus, a chief tax collector, and rich. Rich men in the past few chapters have a hard time following Jesus; they are too tied to the things they own. Contracts for collecting taxes in a region were farmed out across the empire…and [locals were hired] to collect them. Zacchaeus would have been personally responsible for paying the taxes to the government, but he would also have been free to collect extra from the people in order to make a profit. Opportunities for theft, fraud, and corruption abounded and tax collectors were generally despised.1
But something drew him to Jesus. Zacchaeus runs ahead, climbs up a sycamore tree to get a better view and, as the crowd swells, it turns, Jesus is walking to him, and, all of the sudden, is right there in front of him! Hop down here, I’m coming to your house. Zacchaeus jumps down, rejoices at welcoming him, but the people grumbled. That’s what the crowds do, they grumble, like the people in Egypt, like the crowds now…it’s easy for discontent to swell. But in the heart of this amazing exchange Zacchaeus repents, turns, decides, in that moment, to change his ways, gives away half to the poor, paying back quadruple what he has collected that he shouldn’t have. And Jesus pronounces, TODAY, salvation has some to this house. For the Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost.
There’s a regular NPR segment called, "Words You’ll Hear" – in which they explore the meaning of non-traditional uses of language they’ve noticed in the media. The piece begins with a political pundit on CNN commenting on a Donald Trump rally, parsing Trump’s language. This analysis, by a Republican consultant named SE Cupp, said that the Trump campaign has been trying to other-ize other campaigns when they begin to surge. Otherize. Other-I-Z-E. We know the word ‘other’ a linguist they are interviewing says, but when you take a word like this, other, and make it a verb, to other-ize, it seems to be about treating someone as outside of a particular dominant social group or class. To other-ize means to portray someone else as other, as different, not like us, not from here, doesn’t know the things we know.2
I think we do this, just like the Pharisees, just like the crowd with Jesus and Zacchaeus that day. You can’t eat with him, Jesus. He’s not like us. He doesn’t know the things we know. It wouldn’t work. Like the ways we other-ize, sometimes without even intending to, people from somewhere else, maybe the wrong neighborhood, who didn’t go to the right schools, doesn’t have the proper appropriate social graces. We southerners can be pretty caddy about this stuff, and it gets worse the more differences we come up with. Our political discourse on ALL sides – to be clear, EVERYONE is doing it, and it’s shameful – is all about other-izing right now, those people, we can’t imagine THEM running the country. Everything will fall apart. THOSE others, who don’t agree with the things I agree with, who are incapable of understanding those things WE KNOW are crystal clear. Because they are a refugee. Or poor. Or gay. Or a not as expensively educated as we are, or democrat or a republican or a liberal or a conservative or a Christian or a muslim or too young or too old. Watch yourself and the people you’re around this week, listen for other-izing. We saw it turn violent Friday night in Chicago. Other-izing is insidious, and we’re all guilty.
But the thing I love about Jesus in this text, in each of the texts we’ve read in Luke through Lent, is that Jesus does not seems to care about those categories. He intentionally subverts the groupings the religious leaders have set up, and eats and drinks with all the wrong people. Those religious leaders are other-izing Jesus all the time, and he doesn’t bite. He engages the joyful, beautiful and broken person right in front of him with grace, and invites them to follow, to live a life not bound by who the world says we must be, but who He is. Jesus calls us to be free from all of that, freed by God’s grace, so we can serve and listen, nurture and reach out, call for justice, give away our stuff, give away our money, so we might ALL participate in the glory of the kingdom of God that is breaking in, God’s love changing it all.
O’Conner’s story ends Rudy Turpin standing on her porch, gazing into the sunset. As she thinks through the day she is granted that revelation that is the title of the story, a vision from God. I’m going to read the final paragraph to the end so you can settle into O’Conner’s language. "She saw a streak 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 tumbling toward heaven. There were whole companies of white trash, clean for the first time in their lives, and bands of [African Americas] in white robes, and battalions of freaks and lunatics shouting and clapping and leaping… 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 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, Rudy, could see by their shocked and altered faces even their virtues were being burned away…In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was. At length she got down and turned off the faucet and in her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In woods around her the invisible cricket choruses had struck up, but what she heard were the voices of the souls climbing upward into the starry field and shouting hallelujah."3
Even their virtues were being burned away. I wonder how it felt for Zacchaeus, rich but profoundly outside of the system, shunned by the people around him, to be accepted by Jesus? We know it changed who he was, and he began to live differently. Maybe in a world of too much painful other-izing, we, the church, might find a way to exhibit something of the kingdom of God?
May it be so, for you and for me. All praise be to God. Amen.
1. The HarperCollins Bible Dictionary, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), page 900.
2. "With ‘Otherize,’ Pundits Reach Outside The Dictionary To Describe Politics," NPR.org, March 7, 2016.
3. Flannery, O’Conner, published in her 1965 collection, "Everything That Rises Must Converge." This language found online.