She would have been a good woman,’ the Misfit said, if it had been someone there to shoot her every day of her life’so ends Flannery O’Connor’s celebrated story A Good Man Is Hard to Find. Like the Old Testament prophets and the parables of Jesus, O’Connor’s often grotesque stories shock readers into seeing reality in a new way. The story begins simply, The Grandmother didn’t want to go to Florida, and recounts the car trip that is detoured by the grandmother, who wakes from a nap at Toomsboro and promises the children a visit to an old plantation with secret panels. The reluctant father agrees and takes a detour, but the car crashes and turns over on a winding dirt road. The narrative moves from the comic to the tragic. A trio of escaped convicts led by the Misfit comes along and proceeds to murder the family (offstage, as in a Greek tragedy). As she realizes that death looms, the grandmother becomes kind and compassionate, finally saying to the Misfit, Why, you’re one of my babies. You’re one of my own children! Without a word the Misfit shoots her and praises her as a good woman.
Jesus’ saying, Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand, carries the same urgency. The way God rules, or is about to be revealed in Jesus, presents a life-and-death situation that causes people to reconsider their lives. This initial proclamation of Jesus anchors one part of an arch that extends through the Gospel of Matthew to Jesus’ concluding discourse to his disciples. The master returns suddenly to punish carousing servants (Mt. 25:41-51); the 10 bridesmaids do not have time to buy oil to replenish their lamps and hear the ominous words, I do not know you. The beginning and the end of the Gospel herald the crisis brought by the presence of God’s reign, warning that it may be too late!
Repentance is not simply an emotion, a feeling of sorrow. It means taking a second look at our lives. As appalling as have been the murder of innocent people in recent months, and as ghastly as are the murders by the Misfit, events can summon our nation to a second look at our values and lives. Tragedy and trash are only a click of the TV remote control away, and the world community often becomes the disposal bin. Michael Amaladoss, S.J., commenting in these pages (12/10/01) on how religion can address world conflict, argued that religion must challenge the practices and values that undergird social and economic structures and can foment injustice. He proposed that every crisis, even the crisis of 9/11, is an opportunity and concluded, In short, we need a conversion. What a strange combination of voices calls out to us: the Misfit; Jesus, who often does not fit in with people’s expectation; and a learned Indian theologian who has often sent ripples of concern through the hierarchy. What does this conversion involve? Stay tuned as the journey through Matthew’s Gospel continues.