Unsettling Remarks

Editorial by Art Dewey

From The Fourth R
Volume 29, Issue 2
March – April 2016
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“They’ll not take what we worked so hard for!” shattered the meditative silence of the living room. Those words were so unexpected, yet spoken in a modulated, urgent tone. I glanced to my left. Our hostess, a long-time supporter of Boston College, had invited a Jesuit to hold a liturgy in her house at the end of the fall semester. I had been invited along, as evidence that students of the honors program duly appreciated her contributions. Like many of the Irish of Boston, she and her husband had climbed the corporate ladder out of the working class. Now, ensconced among the upper crust of the suburb of Newton, she took exception to the gospel passage the Jesuit had just read. Her response opened up a discussion for the half dozen of us.

As you know, we once were told, “You are to love your neighbor” and “You are to hate your enemy.” But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for your persecutors. You’ll then become children of your Father in the heavens, for God causes the sun to rise on both the bad and the good, and sends rain on both the just and the unjust. (Matt 5:43–48)

This had been a difficult year. Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in Boston, as in many areas of the country, the black population erupted in protest. The subsequent killing of Robert Kennedy, one of “Boston’s own,” made the situation even more volatile. A number of the Jesuit faculty at Boston College had spent sleepless nights working to defuse the tension.

But here, miles away from the demonstrations and demands, we were sitting in tranquility. There would be no white flight from Newton. It was too well established. Yet the words of our hostess turned an amiable liturgy into a tense conversation. I must confess I do not remember the Jesuit’s reply or any of the others’ remarks. What has stayed with me all these years is the insistent declaration of that well-coifed woman.

Since then, I have worked with that “sun and rain” saying for many years. It seems to me that the words I heard so long ago were one of the most honest reactions to the gospel passage. They certainly disturbed that little conventicle and left their mark on me. I had to sit back and imagine that lady’s perspective. She saw herself and her husband as people who had accomplished much and were continuing to make their mark on society for the better. Then why did she utter such a reply?

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I suspect that she had genuinely engaged the “sun and rain” saying. Like many others she identified with the “good” and the “just.” From that perspective such a saying strikes one as immensely unfair. Who would imagine that God delivers benefits so promiscuously to both good and bad, just and unjust? If I were to identify with the “good guys” who had worked their tails off to be successful, I would hardly want to see the “slackers of the world” getting what they don’t deserve. It strikes one as an affront to all that is decent and honorable.

Indeed, this saying undoes the very image of God. What kind of a god is this, who is woefully indiscriminating, not taking things into account and failing to assign punishments, but delivering only rewards? In fact, where is the future in this saying? There is no imagined payoff, no dreaded end; instead there is only a present showering of benefits.

All this then is utter nonsense. The saying deserved such an insistent retort. My hostess was right on target— from her vantage point. Unwittingly she had disclosed the kind of God she was devoted to—a God who keeps the books, who knows who is “naughty or nice.” Her God will keep her “strong” in the face of so much opposition. The town ordinances will maintain the social perimeter.

But there is another side to the saying of the “sun and the rain.” How would this saying have been heard in a less tonier neighborhood? Can we imagine how the original audience heard this saying? What if peasants and the nobodies of the Roman Empire took it in?

By their very social condition peasants and day laborers would have understood themselves not to be on the receiving side of the divine trickle-down patronage machine. They would not be classed among the good and just. They were the “dirt” of the world, those who scraped by, one crisis away from starvation. If they could get their heads around those words, they would be challenged to hear the unbelievable.

Could they imagine that abundance was in their midst? Would that not have seemed preposterous even to them? What were these words offering them? Perhaps they offered what my hostess feared the most. Not the loss of her worldly possessions, rather something much more consequential. I think she feared the transgressive cast of the saying. For this saying comes from an imagination that disturbs conventional boundaries. It offers its listeners a world different from the usual calculus of profit and loss, privilege and debt. It upsets those who consider those matters settled. It bothers those who would fear to think beyond the scarcity prescribed by the elite. It comes from an imagination that sees another side of the other, such as an enemy, a Samaritan, or some expendable peasant. It troubles those who have “made it,” who have “worked it all out.” It haunts those who shiver at what they have forgotten, what they once knew—the uneasy prospect of a common touch.

Photo of Arthur Dewey

Arthur J. Dewey (Th.D., Harvard University) is Professor of Theology at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A distinguished teacher, writer, translator and commentator, he is the author of Inventing the Passion: How the Death of Jesus was Remembered (forthcoming 2017) and co-author of The Complete Gospel Parallels (with Robert J. Miller, 2011) and The Authentic Letters of Paul (with Roy W. Hoover, Lane C. McGaughy, and Daryl D. Schmidt, 2010). Dewey’s poetry has appeared in Christian Century and his poetic perspective aired on the Saturday Morning Edition on Public Radio Station WVXU (91.7) in Cincinnati for more than a dozen years.