Your Money or Grace: You can’t have Both
Over two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook (left).
Of course this made me crazy and I could barely contain the rant I felt rant coming on. Taxed to the “breaking point”? Come on! I desperately wanted to point out that the United States has one of the lowest tax rates in the world. Although higher, Canada is also among the lowest. I wanted to ask, who is this person who is “able to work, but refuses to”? Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance it would make up less than 10% of the tax dollars collected.
It took a great deal of restraint, but I didn’t reply to the post. Still, it’s been bugging me for months. Then I read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Here was a far more profound and much more literary response to the exact sentiment expressed in the Facebook picture.
Mrs. May, the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and her efforts alone. She was proud to go, “practically penniless and with no experience, out to a rundown farm and make a success of it.” She declares to her city friends, “Everything is against you, the weather is against you and the dirt is against you and the help is against you.” She is blind to the fact that without weather and dirt, there is no farm–these things aren’t adversaries, they are gifts. And so is the help–the help is Mr. Greenleaf.
The narrator tells us that Mrs. May “had set herself up in the dairy business after Mr. Greenleaf had answered her ad.” Although the narrator neglects to give us all the details, Mr. Greenleaf ‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm. Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is a success. This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator is clearly telling the story from Mrs. May’s perspective (there is extensive use of free indirect discourse). The narrator is not to be trusted to report things honestly, at least not in the beginning of the story. For instance, when the narrator reports a field had come up in clover instead of rye “because Mr. Greenleaf had used the wrong seeds in the grain drill,” it is telling us Mrs. May’s interpretation of reality. Mr. Greenleaf actually ignored her instructions because he knew better.
Everything Mrs. May has, comes to her through the created world and her good fortune at the arrival of Mr. Greenleaf. But she can’t see this. Mrs. May’s places a high value on her own efforts, and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she receives. She rejects Grace in all its forms.
Mrs. May’s rejection of Grace is shown through various symbols. Among these is the “black wall of trees with a sharp sawtooth edge that held off the indifferent sky.” The sun as a symbol of providential grace is blocked off from Mrs. May’s property. In one of her dreams, “the sun [was] trying to burn through the tree line and she stopped to watch, safe in the knowledge that it couldn’t, that it had to sink the way it always did outside her property.” Her dreams reflect her stance toward God and his gifts.
The Greenleaf’s name is suggestive of their attitude toward grace, for green leaves soak up the sun and flourish. When Mrs. May takes a trip out to the farm belonging to Mr. Greenleaf’s twin boys, the “the sun was beating down directly” on to the roof of their house. Their milking parlour “was filled with sunlight” and “the metal stanchions gleamed ferociously.” By contrast, from Mrs. May’s window the sun was “just a little brighter than the rest of the sky.”
Mrs. May resented the Greenleaf’s. She means it as criticism when she says, “They lived like the lilies of the field, off the fat that she had struggled to put into the land.” Here we see that she both takes credit for God’s gifts, and she derides the Greenleaf’s for living out Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 6:28, “And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labour or spin.”
Once, Mrs. May flippantly says, “I thank God for that.” Mr. Greenleaf sincerely responds, “I thank Gawd for every-thang.” He lives out the Biblical injunction to “give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (I Thessalonians 5:18:).
A denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude. Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to it. Ironically, she says to Mr. Greenleaf, “some people learn gratitude too late, Mr. Greenleaf, and some never learn it at all.”
If you live in North America, you’ve won some sort of a lottery. You live in an affluent society where opportunities for work and education abound. You enjoy the highest standard of living of any time or any place in history. Even if you are in the lower-middle class, you take for granted luxuries not even dreamed of by the richest rulers of the past. And you have all this either as an act of divine will or an accident of birth, but either way, you can take no credit for it. It’s an undeserved gift; it’s grace.
I often forget this.
The appropriate response would be gratitude and not resentment. When we understand our wealth to be a gift, we are far more willing to gladly give it away—and let the government give some of it away as well.
Mrs. May was so ungrateful for her undeserved blessings that she poisoned herself and her two sons. She created a false reality where Mr. Greenleaf was a parasite feeding off of her family. Had she survived the story, she certainly would have “liked” the photo (if she had Facebook).