Over two million people “liked” this picture on Facebook.
Shockingly, the person that “shared” it was a Christian.
I felt a 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. If our taxation levels are at the breaking point, I hope I’m on vacation when some actual hardship comes to North America.
I wanted to ask, “Who is this person who is ‘able to work, but refuses to work’?” Even if this described EVERY person on government assistance it would make up a small portion of the tax dollars collected.
It took a great deal of restraint, but I didn’t reply to this post.
Still, it’s been bugging me for months and then I re-read Flannery O’Connor’s short story “Greenleaf.” Here she not only describes the exact sentiment expressed in the Facebook post, but she identifies its cause—one that would be completely eliminated with a basic understanding of the gospel, more specifically, the part about Grace.
Mrs. May, the protagonist of “Greenleaf,” owns a small farm and she believes it functions entirely by her efforts and hers alone. 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.” Mr. Greenleaf‘s arrival precedes the establishment of the farm. Good thing too, because he is the reason her farm is as successful as it is. This is not, at first, apparent because the third-person narrator tells the story from Mrs. May’s perspective and is, therefore, not to be trusted to report things honestly. 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,” we are receiving 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 doesn’t see any of it. She places a high value on her own, relatively insignificant, efforts and a correspondingly low value on the many undeserved blessings she receives.
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, 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 Greenleafs, on the other hand, absorb grace in all its forms. The name is suggestive of their familial 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 parlor “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 labor 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).
O’Connor’ whole point with Mrs. May is to show that a denial of grace necessarily leads to ingratitude and resentment. Mrs. May’s life is defined by ingratitude, but she is blind to this failing. Ironically, she says to Mr. Greenleaf, “some people learn gratitude too late . . . 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 the infrastructure fosters wealth and 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 greatest empires in history.
And you have all this either as an act of divine will or, if you’re not religious, as an accident of birth, but either way, you can take no credit for it. It’s an undeserved gift; it’s grace.
The appropriate response for grace in any form is gratitude and not resentment. When we understand everything we have as a gift, we are far more willing to give it away—and support our government giving it away on our behalf.
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.
If Mrs. May had Facebook, she certainly would have “liked” the photo. But she had no understanding of grace.