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Terrance KleinApril 13, 2017
"Descent to Hell," by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11)"Descent to Hell," by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1308-11)

Benjamin Franklin famously asserted that life offers only two certainties: death and taxes. In the long course of human history, some have escaped taxes but no one eludes death. And the only surety about death is that it closes life. There are no taxes on the other side. Earth’s joys and pleasures, its sorrows and trials end at death. And, says St. Paul, so, too, does sin.

For a dead person has been absolved from sin.
If, then, we have died with Christ,
we believe that we shall also live with him.
We know that Christ, raised from the dead, dies no more;
death no longer has power over him.
As to his death, he died to sin once and for all;
as to his life, he lives for God.
Consequently, you too must think of yourselves as being dead to sin
and living for God in Christ Jesus (Rom 6:7-11).

Taxes are a part of the law, and the intention of all laws—whether the Mosaic covenant or that of nations—is to do good and to resist evil. Yet, as St. Paul knew so vividly, in a world of sin, a world profoundly alienated from God, sin can turn the law into a curse rather than a cure for evil.

In a world profoundly alienated from God, sin can turn the law into a curse rather than a cure for evil.

That is certainly true in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), where the poor are driven off the land, quite legally and utterly without mercy. The intention of law is to give life, but, in this American classic, it becomes so oppressive, such an instrument of evil, that the impoverished Joad family must break the law to live, must defy it even to die with dignity.

Twelve members of the Joad family, along with the Rev. Jim Casy (does that number strike anyone as significant?) pile into one woebegone truck, headed west. Grandpa Joad prattles about the California grapes, which he will soon crush over his head, yet he dies before they reach the Oklahoma border.

Pa said, “We got to figger what to do. They’s laws. You got to report a death, an’ when you do that, they either take forty dollars for the undertaker or they take him for a pauper.”
Uncle John broke in, “We never did have no paupers.”
Tom said, “Maybe we got to learn. We never got booted off no land before, neither.”
“We done it clean,” said Pa. “There can’t no blame be laid on us. We never took nothin’ we couldn’ pay, we never suffered no man’s charity. When Tom here got in trouble, we could hold up our heads. He only done what any man would a done.”
“Then what’ll we do?” Uncle John asked.“We go in like the law says an’ they’ll come out for him. We on’y got hundred and fifty dollars. They take forty to bury Grampa an’ we won’t get to California—or else they’ll bury him a pauper.” The men stirred restively, and they studied the darkening ground in front of their knees.
Pa said softly, “Grandpa buried his pa with his own hands, done it in dignity, an’ shaped the grave nice with his own shovel. That was a time when a man had the right to be buried by his own son an’ a son had the right to bury his own father.”
“The law says different now,” said Uncle John.
“Sometimes the law can’t be follere’d no way,” said Pa. “Not in decency anyways. They’s lots of times you can’t. When Floyed was loose an’ goin’ wild, law said we got to give him up—an’ nobody give him up. Sometimes a fella got to sift the law. I’m sayin’ now I got the right to bury my own pa. Anybody got somepin to say?”
The preacher rose high on his elbows. “Law changes,” he said, “but got to’s go on. You got the right to do what you got to do.”

St. Paul told the Romans that one man entered death and destroyed its power. He now offers us a life without sin, without sorrow, without the sting of death.

Are you unaware that we who were baptized into Christ Jesus
were baptized into his death?
We were indeed buried with him through baptism into death,
so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead
by the glory of the Father,
we too might live in newness of life (6:3-4).

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that Christ entered hell “to free the just who had gone before him” (No. 633). Artists love to paint the harrowing of hell, to capture that moment when the just were delivered, when the law of sin and death was set aside so that mercy could triumph.

Christ offers us a life without sin, without sorrow, without the sting of death.

Steinbeck offers his own, homespun image of this. Before the family reaches the golden promise of California, Grandma Joad takes ill. Ma Joad is lying with her in the back of the truck, when they are stopped at the California border, once again, by the law.

“Agricultural inspection. We got to look over your stuff. Got any vegetables or seeds?”
“No,” said Tom.
“Well, we got to look over your stuff. You got to unload.”
Now Ma climbed heavily down from the truck. Her face was swollen and her eyes were hard. “Look, mister. We got a sick ol’ lady. We got to get her to a doctor. We can’t wait.” She seemed to fight with hysteria. “You can’t make us wait.”
“Yeah? Well, we got to look you over.”
“I swear we ain’t got anything!” Ma cried. “I swear it. An’ Gramma’s awful sick.”
“You don’t look so good yourself,” the officer said.
Ma pulled herself up the back of the truck, hoisted herself with huge strength. “Look,” she said.
The officer shot a flashlight beam up on the old shrunken face. “By God, she is,” he said. “You swear you got no seeds or fruits or vegetables, no corn, no oranges?”
“No, no. I swear it.”
“Then go ahead. You can get a doctor in Barstow. That’s only eight miles. Go on ahead!

Only when they are safely inside California does the family learn how Ma Joad has herself harrowed hell on their behalf.

“You sick, Ma?”
“No, jus’ tar’d.”
“Didn’ you get no sleep?”
“Was Granma bad?”
Ma looked down at her hands, lying together like tired lovers in her lap. “I wisht I could wait an’ not tell you. I wisht it could be all—nice.”
Pa said, “Then Granma’s bad.”
Ma raised her eyes and looked over the valley. “Granma’s dead.”
They looked at her, all of them, and Pa asked. “When?”
“Before they stopped us las’ night.’”
“So that why you didn’t want ‘em to look.”
“I was afraid we wouldn’t get acrost,” she said. “I tol’ Granma we coudn’ he’p her. The family had ta get acrost. I tol’ her, tol’ her when she was a dyin’. We couldn’ stop in the desert. There was the young ones—an’ Rosasharn’s baby. I tol’ her.” She put up her hands and covered her face for moment. “She can get buried in a nice green place,” Ma said softly. “Trees aroun’ an’ a nice place. She got to lay her head down in California.”
The family looked at Ma with terror at her strength.
Tom said, “Jesus Christ! You layin’ there with her all night long.”
“The family hadda get acrost,” Ma said miserably.
Tom moved close to put his hand on her shoulder.
“Don’ touch me,” she said. “I’ll hol’ up if you don’ touch me. That’d get me.”
Pa said, “We got to go on now. We got to go on down.”
Ma looked at him. “Can—can I set up front? I don’ wanna go back ther no more—I tar’d. I’m awful tar’d.”

They are both plainspoken stories, our Gospel and The Grapes of Wrath. Both tell of the power of sin to subvert the law, to make of it an instrument of death rather than of life. Both speak of how love can sacrifice itself in the cause of life and thus deliver us from the law. At the close of The Grapes of Wrath, we have no promise that love will win out over sin and death. At the close of the Gospel, God insists that it will.

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Silvia G
7 years 1 month ago

Thank you for these reflections on Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter. I have somehow never gotten around to reading The Grapes of Wrath, but that did not prevent me from appreciating how you used it as an aid to shed light on ancient and eternal truths in a way that felt deeply personal. It reminded me that the human and the divine, once again and always, finds a way to come together.

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