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Tossing the mighty from their thrones


Flannery O'Connor, in her short story "Revelation," tells of a Bible-thumping matron, a smug, Christian woman looking down her nose at a teenage girl in a doctor's waiting room. The matron is knocked unconscious by a book thrown by the girl. When the woman awakes, she sees the whole of life differently.

That evening, as she throws slop to her pigs, she looks at the sunset and sees a long line of people dancing their way up to heaven on top of a nearby ridge. The book-throwing girl is in the lead along with a lot of other scruffy folk. The woman knocked unconscious and her husband take up the rear, running to catch up.

Go back a couple of thousand years. The scene is Jesus in the Temple talking with some Pharisees. Pharisees despise prostitutes and tax collectors because of their "impurity" and their contempt for the establishment. The prostitutes and traitors hear God's message, unlike the chief priests and elders who are ensconced in the Temple and secure in their status.

What is the point of Matthew's theological message? It's "the politics of otherness." Tension has arisen in the community from Jesus' mission of preaching the basileia or kingdom of God -- love and justice -- for all humanity.

Some accept but many reject. We are challenged to identify with either those of Israel who reject Jesus or those of the remnant of Israel who accept the Christ/Sophia. Jesus names as blessed those outsiders, the apiru, whom society despises.

The parable takes place in the public arena. Tax collectors, Pharisees and prostitutes are all public and economic figures. The story reflects the biblical and cultural linking of women, sexuality and sin.

By the way, the Magdalene was not a prostitute, despite the myth. The title is an error of scriptural interpretation. The prostitute is dangerous to the patriarchal system, because she is not properly related to a man either as wife or daughter; so despite a first impression, this parable encodes aspects of women's power.

In the story told by Jesus, prostitute women begin to deconstruct patriarchal power, which is exclusive and destructive. God stands with them. They are the fulfillment of God's promise. God is present with God's liberated people when the marginalized are incorporated as equals into the group around Jesus. Membership in the patriarchal family is replaced by membership in the public family of disciples obediently doing the will of God, who is symbolized as Father. Women are here in direct contrast to the opponents of Jesus -- the Pharisees.

These women are our companions today.

I am a co-member of the Loretto community. This summer we met for our annual assembly in the border town of El Paso, Texas. We spent a day across the border in Mexico learning about immigration, maquiladoras and other issues of social justice. A van-load of us went to hear the stories of sex-workers or prostitutes. In a community health clinic we heard four Mexican women tell their stories. One woman had been sold by her family at the age of nine to a prostitution ring.

The women are now involved in AIDS education, needle exchange and health promotion among their companions, including transvestites -- the most detested by society. One told us she still occasionally turns a trick when she needs money. She has been brutally beaten by the police, who told her she has no rights. The women practice yoga. One advised me to do yoga daily to relieve stress.

From judgment to grace in solidarity with the poor and oppressed: Sr. Mary Ann Cunningham said at the end of our meeting, "I came here thinking I was better than you, and I leave here thinking we are sisters."

Ruth McDonough Fitzpatrick lives in Virginia.

National Catholic Reporter, April 25, 1997