From Judgment to Mercy
Romans 2:1-11; 14:7-13
by the Rev. Dr. E. Scott Jones
Cathedral of Hope – Oklahoma City
27 June 2008
If you are going to be judged, then you want God to do it.
Because God created you. Because God knows you more intimately than anyone else. Because God really knows your heart and your deepest self. Because God's character is filled with justice, compassion, and mercy.
And you don't want to be judged by anyone else.
Because they haven't created you. They do not know you intimately. They do not know your true heart, your deepest self. And you are fully aware that they can be motivated by self-interest, hypocrisy, anger, or any array of emotions.
Paul knows us all too well. Especially pious, religious people. After all, he was one. And he was one of the most judgmental.
God calls the church into solidarity with God's self. Which means we are supposed to be more like God. God has chosen to act mercifully toward people. Well, so should we.
Reflecting on all these topics this week, I remembered a story. It's about Ruby Turpin.
Our story is set in rural Georgia sometime before desegregation. Ruby is a good Southern woman. She works hard, goes to church, lives a well-ordered life, and dominates her husband Claud.
Claud was kicked in the leg by a cow, so they have to go to town to see a physician. When Ruby and Claud enter the doctor's office, the waiting room is tiny. Ruby is annoyed by this. With all the money that physician's make, surely he could afford a larger waiting room. Ruby is a big woman, and she fills the space.
There is only one empty seat, which Ruby gives to Claud. There is a couch, but a young child is sitting there taking up all the space. He is dirty and his nose is running. He does not move to make room for Ruby, which annoys her.
While standing and waiting for a seat to open up, Ruby surveys the people in the room. There is one well-dressed woman whom she labels as the pleasant lady. There is also the boy, his mother, and grandmother. Ruby identifies them as white trash. Ruby has no regard for white trash. There is also a young woman, about 19 or 20, who appears to be the daughter of the pleasant lady. This young woman is ugly. She is fat and her face is covered with acne. Ruby pities her. The young woman is reading a large book entitled Human Development. There are a couple of other people, not relevant to our story.
Eventually a seat opens up and Ruby takes it. While listening to the gospel music on the radio and occasionally entering into polite small talk with the other people, Ruby begins to think about herself and other people.
We, the readers, learn the following about Ruby:
Sometimes at night when she couldn't 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 black 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 colored then – but that don't mean a trashy one." And he would have made her a neat clean respectable Negro woman, herself but black.
And we learn this about Mrs. Ruby Turpin:
Sometimes Mrs. Turpin occupied herself at night naming the classes of people. On the bottom of the heap were most colored people, not the kind she would have been if she had been one, but most of them; then next to them – not above, just away from – were the white-trash; then above them were the home-owners, and above them the home-and-land owners, to which she and Claud belonged. Above she and Claud were people with a lot of money and much bigger houses and much more land. But here the complexity of it would begin to bear in on her, for some of the people with a lot of money were common and ought to be below she and Claud and some of the people who had good blood had lost their money and had to rent and then there were colored people who owned their homes and land as well. There was a colored dentist in town who had two red Lincolns and a swimming pool and a farm with registered . . . cattle on it. Usually by the time she had fallen asleep all the classes of people were moiling and roiling around in her head.
Now, I mentioned that Mrs. Turpin enters into polite conversation with the other folk present in the waiting room. For instance, the pleasant lady asks about the Turpin's farm and if they have cotton.
"We don't have much cotton . . . . If you want to make it farming now, you have to have a little of everything. We got a couple of acres of cotton and a few hogs and chickens and just enough [cattle] that Claud can look after them himself."
"One thang I don't want," the white-trash woman said, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. "Hogs. Nasty stinking things, a-gruntin and a-rootin all over the place."
Mrs. Turpin gave her the merest edge of her attention. "Our hogs are not dirty and they don't stink," she said. "They're cleaner than some children I've seen. Their feet never touch the ground. We have a pig-parlor – that were you raise them on concrete," she explained to the pleasant lady, "and Claud scoots them down with the hose every afternoon and washes off the floor." Cleaner by far than that child right there, she thought. Poor nasty little thing. . . .
"When you got something," she said, "you got to look after it."
Now throughout these conversations, the young ugly woman continues to make faces at Mrs. Turpin. She will look up from her reading and scowl at her. Sometimes, when Ruby is thinking about the other people, after her thoughts the girl looks at her. It is as if she knows Ruby. In fact, Ruby feels as if the girl "was looking at her as if she had known and disliked her all her life – all of Mrs. Turpin's life, it seemed too, not just all the girl's life. Why, girl, I don't even know you, Mrs. Turpin" thought.
One of the gospel songs on the radio gets Mrs. Turpin to thinking about her goodness and her blessings:
To help anybody out that needed it was her philosophy of life. She never spared herself when she found somebody in need, whether they were white or black, trash or decent. And of all she had to be thankful for, she was most thankful that this was so. If Jesus had said, "You can be high society and have all the money you want and be thin and svelte-like, but you can't be a good woman with it," she would have had to say, "Well don't make me that then. Make me a good woman and it don't matter what else, how fat or how ugly or how poor!" Her heart rose. He had not made her black or white-trash or ugly! He had made her herself and given her a little of everything. Jesus, thank you! she said. Thank you thank you thank you! Whenever she counted her blessings she felt as buoyant as if she weighed one hundred and twenty-five pounds instead of one hundred and eighty.
As she was thinking these thoughts,
All at once the ugly girl . . . [fixed her eyes] like two drills on Mrs. Turpin. This time there was no mistaking that there was something urgent behind them.
Girl, Mrs. Turpin exclaimed silently, I haven't done a thing to you!
Mrs. Turpin decides that she will not be intimidated, so she asks the girl if she is in college. The girl doesn't answer. The girls mother then says, "The lady asked you a question, Mary Grace."
Mary Grace responds, "I have ears."
The pleasant lady then answers for her daughter. Mary Grace goes to Wellesley. She's a real book worm and even during her summers she reads and reads. Her mother wishes that she would get out more and enjoy herself.
The pleasant lady goes on,
"I think people with bad dispositions are more to be pitied than anyone else on earth," . . . .
"I thank the Lord he has blessed me with a good one," Mrs. Turpin said. "The day has never dawned that I couldn't find something to laugh at." . . .
"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!' I could have been different!" . . . 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 her left eye. It struck almost at the same instant that she realized the 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's fingers sank like clamps into the soft flesh of her neck. She heard the mother cry out and Claud shout, "Whoa!"
Everything was chaos for a moment as the nurse and physician run in, Mary Grace is wrestled off of Mrs. Turpin and pinned down to the floor where the doctor gives her an injection. After Mrs. Turpin's head clears, she looks down at Mary Grace.
There was no doubt in her mind that the girl did know her, knew 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 moment as if she saw with pleasure that her message had struck its target.
Mrs. Turpin sank back in her chair.
An ambulance is called, and Mary Grace is taken away. Ruby and Claud finish his appointment and return home. They are so tired they lie down for awhile. While resting she begins to think about what the girl has said,
The image of a razor-backed hog with warts on its face and horns coming out behind its ears snorted into her head. She moaned a low quiet moan.
"I am not," she said tearfully, "a wart hog. From hell." But the denial had no force. The girl's eyes and her words, even the tone of her voice, low but clear, directed only to her, brooked no repudiation. She had been singled out for the message, though there was trash in the room to whom it might justly have been applied. The full force of this fact struck her only now. There was a woman there who was neglecting her own child but she had been overlooked. The message had been given to Ruby Turpin, a respectable, hard-working, church-going woman. The tears dried. Her eyes began to burn instead with wrath.
Eventually Ruby gets up and goes about her business. Then she heads down to the pig parlor to wash down the pigs for the evening. Standing there, with the hose pointed on the hogs, she enters into conversation with God. "What do you send me a message like that for?" she asks. She demands to know why. She is a good woman, a hard-working woman. She isn't trash. She tells God that if he likes trash better, then he should go get himself some trash then. Eventually she is so angry that she's yelling at God, "Go on, 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! . . . Who do you think you are?"
Then Ruby stares for a long time at the hogs, as the sun is setting behind the hillside in front of her. There is a strip of purple left in the sky by the setting sun. She imagines it as a bridge leading to heaven. Ruby Turpin has a vision:
She saw the streak 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 blacks 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. She lowered her hands and gripped the rail of the hog pen, her eyes small but fixed unblinkingly on what lay ahead. In a moment the vision faded but she remained where she was, immobile.
At length she got down and turned off the faucet and made her slow way on the darkening path to the house. In the 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.
[from "Revelation" by Flannery O'Connor]