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The Greatest of These: A Garment of Mercy

I anticipated the students’ annoyance.  In the classroom, I was prepared to perform the dual roles of devil’s advocate and referee.  Though unsurprised by the response to the play’s ending, I still was secretly pleased that some members of the class had changed their minds.  Their initial assessment about the central character had been challenged; however there was significant evidence that he had redeemed himself.  As on stage, like in life, if grace is extended to someone after their frail & flawed nature is revealed, then it is plausible that the individual is genuinely liberated.  This is the point in time that a woman or a man is able to truly comprehend the gift of mercy since by accepting it, the meaning is grasped through personally experiencing it.  A person can start to rebuild her life without the impediment of guilt because she is clothed in mercy and by being so, achieves real freedom.  This was one of the main themes that I wanted the students to contemplate as they considered whether in the midst of the unfair and imperfect lives we live, what do the giver and receiver of mercy discover?

So, this was the pattern that I imagined would and did emerge when recently in my Themes in Twentieth Century Literature class we discussed the play, A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry.  My prediction was based upon past experiences in teaching this text when students would swiftly judge the actions of the main character, Mr. Walter Lee Younger as maddening, selfish, & short-sighted and viewed him as persona non grata. In this “American classic”1 the Younger family receives a life insurance check for $10,000, which for an African-American family living in Chicago’s Southside in the 1940’s-the late 1950’s was a significant, life-altering event (Hansberry 23-53). 

While each member of the family has an opinion about how the money should be spent, so does the audience.  College students, in particular, seem to appreciate how this money can provide the family with better options.  But most of the class believed that Walter’s plan for the money was unsound and financially risky.  In fact, his dream of owning a liquor store is unpalatable for his mother, wife, and sister to accept (Hansberry 32-38; 42).  Therefore, in Act II, Scene Two when Walter’s mother [Momma] tells him, “Monday morning I want you to take this money and take three thousand dollars and put it in a savings account for Beneatha’s medical schooling.  The rest you put in a checking account—with your name on it.  And from now on any penny that come out of it or that go in it is for you to look after,” this is the instance when new and returning readers to this work start to feel a strong sense of foreboding  (Hansberry 106-107).  

Likewise in the Biblical narrative, there is the foreshadowing of impending ruin when God warns Adam, “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it:  for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die” (Genesis 2:17 KJV).  Our apprehension is justified in the next chapter when we read that both Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit (Genesis 3: 6, 7 KJV).   Even though this plot and these characters are certainly familiar to us, we may still experience a level of disappointment and express little sympathy towards Adam & Eve when they realize they are naked and are ashamed to meet God (Genesis 3:7, 8 KJV).   It is at this moment that we become aware of the grave consequences of Adam & Eve’s poor choices, which have led them to this juncture.  As we read the account of their eventual banishment from the Garden of Eden, we may demonstrate our loss of patience and confidence in this couple by criticizing their weak moral fiber.  Yet, in reproaching their behavior, our arrogance is also on view. 

In this way we resemble the students in my literature class, who felt justified in their wariness towards Walter because he lost the $6500.00 that his mother entrusted to him (Hansberry 106, 127-129).  Therefore, when he faces a greater personal challenge, they agree with his sister, Beneatha’s assessment:  “That [Walter] is not a man.  That [Walter] is nothing but a toothless rat” (Hansberry 144).  And, unlike Walter’s mother, the students appear untroubled by the force of Beneatha’s anger, when she asks and answers her own question, “Love him [Walter]?  There is nothing left to love” (Hansberry 145).   In Momma’s passionate reprimand, the following lines are especially incisive when she responds, “Child, when do you think is the time to love somebody the most?  When they done good and made things easy for everybody?  Well then, you ain’t through learning—because that ain’t the time at all.  It’s when he’s at his lowest and can’t believe in hisself ‘cause the world done whipped him so!”  (Hansberry 145). 

Although Beneatha is the direct focus of Momma’s admonishment, she is not alone.  As members of the audience, we, too, are culpable because we sit in judgment.  Similarly, our conceit is visible when God describes Adam & Eve’s punishment; thus, we are unprepared by the act of mercy shown to them:  “Unto Adam also and to his wife did the Lord God make coats of skins, and clothed them” (Genesis 3:21 KJV).  During the depth of their despair, God does not desert them.  He covers their naked humiliation with mercy.  In the modern, non-sacred literary tradition Hansberry powerfully articulates this fierce love and loyalty through a parent not abandoning her disgraced child–we observe a mother who chooses to envelope her son in grace.    

What can we ascertain about mercy that college students in a literature class have come to understand?  That those who bestow and accept mercy experience the “greatest of these”:  true love (1 Corinthians 13:13 KJV).

1 In the Foreward to the Vintage edition of the play, Jewell Handy Gresham Nemiroff writes that Frank Rich, the long-standing drama critic for The New York Times consistently described Raisin in the Sun as an “American classic” (x-xi).


Works Cited

The Bible.  [King James Version]

Hansberry, Lorraine.  A Raisin in the Sun and The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window.  New York:  Vintage Books, 1995. 

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