So much time has passed since then. Even so, I still offer this story with no small measure of pain.
We stood around her casket on a rainy Christmas Eve forty years ago. It was just my mother and dad, my three sisters, my grandfather, and me. There was no visitation for receiving the care and comfort of friends. There was no pastor to speak a word of light in our darkness, a word of comfort to our sorrow, a word of life as we faced death.
I was in the 7th grade. Though my grandparents had only moved to Illinois as my grandmother’s health declined the year before, I knew that church was not part of her life. I did not know why, for it was never talked about. I was left to conclude that she was not a person of faith and in my then black- and-white, 12-year-old’s faith, I reasoned that now, as a result, she must be in hell.
I agonized over it, worried about it, wept at the thought of it, but I never spoke of it for fear of upsetting anyone. It affected me deeply though. Oh yes, even though the prophet Ezekiel is standing firm in the certain truth that our futures are not determined by our parents and grandparents, the proverb quoted there: “The parents have eaten sour grapes and the children’s teeth are set on edge” still rings true. We are shaped and changed by those who have gone before us. Without a doubt, it surely matters how we live our lives — for our own sakes, of course, and for our contemporaries — but also for the sake of those who come after.
I was well into adulthood before I heard the story behind the story. Even my dad, her oldest son, did not know the reasons why until then. He heard it from his sister whose mother had confided in her in her last years.
- Why did Beulah speak with such bitterness about the church?
- Why did she insist that her children be educated in the Catholic tradition, but never darken the doors for Mass herself?
- Why was her special disdain reserved for certain normally respected and respectable residents of the town in Massachusetts which was her place of growing up and raising a family of her own?
This is why. In 1933 Tom Clark, my dad’s dad, died from a stroke. He was 40 years old. They had a comfortable life until everything was lost in the stock market crash a few years before and in those last years of his life, Tom had been scraping by, doing his best to provide for his wife and two small sons.
When Tom died he left behind Beulah, who was not yet 30 years old. My dad, Tommy, was five. His little brother, Rodney, was three. At his death, Tom Clark’s small family was left virtually penniless. And so Beulah took the only job she could get: selling magazines and cigarettes at a small downtown newsstand. She had no protection and found herself at the mercy of others. And so it was that for the rest of her life she would not forget that certain pillars of the community and the church — married men with families of their own — did not hesitate to make advances towards her. I cringe to think of it now — how very painful and frightening this must have been for her. And without a doubt, her distress was compounded by this — that their ‘witness’ to her was that the faith they professed seemed to have no bearing on their behavior when they walked into that shop. It would appear that their example was that of the son Jesus describes today who heartily and eagerly said yes to their father, and then somehow forgot, failed, and did precisely the opposite of what God would want.
Beulah never did get past it. And forty years later her granddaughter, not knowing the whole story, wept in fear for her soul.
Oh yes, it matters what we do. It matters how we live our lives in all the places we are privileged to live them.
Of course it is not as though any of us can ever get it completely right. Neither of the sons described in Jesus’ story today got it right. For one said ‘yes’ and then proceeded to not do it. And the other shamed his father by saying ‘no’ before he got around to doing what he should. It’s not that we won’t fail. But that shouldn’t keep us from trying. That shouldn’t stop us from doing what we can to ‘get it right’ for the sake of one another and for the sake of all those who come after. Oh no, that shouldn’t stop us from yearning after the new heart and new spirit which leads to life as Ezekiel promises today!
There is a lot going in in today’s Gospel lesson. By now Jesus is in major conflict with the chief priests and the elders. I can’t blame them for being distressed at Jesus’ actions and accusations. (Remember that in Matthew’s telling, just before this tense exchange he has violently cleared the temple of the money-changers.) Perhaps I would react in much the same way that they did. At the same time, I have been on the other side of the equation as well. I have known — at least from a distance — the consequences of being an ‘outsider’ to the faith like the tax collectors and the prostitutes Jesus speaks of now. I try to stay in touch with that ache even now. It makes me less certain, of some things, yes. At the same time, I think it also makes me more open.
If I had never known Grandma Hunt’s whole story this may not have been so. I might still be worried about her apparent lack of faith. But then I learned about the pain that put her in that place. And while, like all of us, she certainly bore some responsibility for how she dealt with this, ever since then I have wondered at how that struggle shaped the rest of her life. Imagine what a difference it could have made if just one of those who had attempted to take from her what was not theirs to take — if even one of them who had forgotten that Beulah was a child of God: so very loved by God and meant to be honored as such — Imagine if just one of those had later apologized. How might it all have been different if only one had turned back and tried to make things better? Don’t you suppose that one would have been doing the ‘will of the father?’ Even if it came late? For that matter, I can’t help but think that if Jesus were telling the story, maybe, just maybe, Beulah preceded all the rest into heaven itself. This side of joining her there of course, I simply won’t know.
In this meantime though, I find myself less likely to judge, less confident in my conclusions: especially about ultimate things. Unlike my seventh grade self, I trust that to God even as I try to remember that what I do and say matters. Even to children I may never meet.
- I expect most of us can think of times when we have been like both of the sons in Jesus’ parable today. Where have you seen this play out in your experience?
- Since Jesus’ words are directed at people like you and me, it may be hard at first to find the ‘grace’ in this story: at least for you and I who profess belief but don’t always ‘live’ it. What do you think?
- For me there is some comfort in the understanding that what appears to be absolute, not always is. For instance, Jesus reminds us that those least likely, by our standards, to ‘enter the kingdom of heaven first’ are those who actually do. I, for one, am grateful to leave such as this in God’s hands. How about you?
- It may be an unusual tying together of the prophet Ezekiel’s words and Jesus’ teaching today. I think it worked in the story I offer, but there are, no doubt, other ways to do so. What are your thoughts?