Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage* (Matthew 22:41-23:12) transports me to the longshoremen’s loading docks of Hoboken in On the Waterfront, where ex-prize fighter Terry Malloy has been coerced into participating in the dirty deeds of his brother Charley and mobster Johnny Friendly. It’s an old story of dog eat dog and mighty crush the weak, where the higher ups bark orders to humiliate the low downs, tying up heavy loads so these beasts of burden can shoulder the heaviness of life. The uppity ups are adept at putting people down, oppressing and depressing lowly folk with the weight of the world. The burdens of the world are messy, dirty, soiling people’s spirits with unsightly stains and scars and regrets, most notably heard in Terry Malloy’s poignant cry to his brother, I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody. The high and mighty folk manage to avoid the mess and dirt of the world like the plague. They use threat and intimidation to keep any witnesses to their corruption “d and d” (deaf and dumb), so the powerful can fly high above the frays and keep clean of dirt and grime. That is, until a murdered worker’s sister, Edie, shames the waterfront priest, Father Barry, into getting involved and helping to organize resistance. I love her challenge to him, What kind of saint hides in a church?
Jesus surely doesn’t call us to be that kind of saint. He turns our world of power imbalance, of corrupt exaltation and oppressive humiliation, upside down, proclaiming a good news/bad news forecast of elevation exchange. Echoing the refrain of his mother’s Magnificat, he gives good news to the dirt poor, saying they will be exalted, that is, their spirits will soar out of sight in high altitude. He gives the bad news to the high falootin’ Pharisee types: the highly elevated and squeaky clean spirits of muckety-mucks will crash land in the muck and mud of life. They will be humiliated, while the oppressed will be liberated.
Humiliation. The word comes from the Latin humus, meaning soil. Jesus teaches that if we want to be exalted, taken to the heights, we’ve got to be humble, humiliated, willing to get our hands in the humus, to have dirt under our nails, to enter into the messes of life that we humans invariably make for ourselves. If we live a puritanically protected life, hiding in the church and keeping our distance from people who have messed up, flying high above the fray, making a show of our elevated status, our exaltation will soon be reversed. The kind of humility Jesus called for reminds me of a great Marge Piercy poem, To Be of Use. Here are a few lines: I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart, who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience, who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward, who do what has to be done, again and again. The poem brings to mind Brando’s Terry Malloy in that dramatic last scene of the film, where he has been beaten nearly to death by Friendly’s goons. Father Barry and Edie talk him into not giving up, and Terry asks them to help him to his feet. They stand him up and Father Barry asks him how he’s doing. Am I on my feet? is his reply, and then he strains to move things forward; he takes painful step after painful step to join his fellow longshoremen who have finally decided to muster the courage to stand with him. We live in essentially the same world as Terry and those longshoremen, the same world as Jesus, a world that necessitates massive patience if we want to see good news come to the poor. So let’s get our mud boots on and get to work. Maybe it’s not too late to have class, to be a contender, to be somebody.
How about you? Where does this Primary Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment.