June 07, 2021
The Proper 6B Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Mark 4:26-34 from the Lectionary Gospel; 1 Samuel 15:34-16:13 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 92:1-4,12-15 from the Lectionary Psalms; and 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, (11-13), 14-17 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Epistle: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 88 (Lord’s Day 33)
Author: Scott Hoezee
Like the message they convey, so also the two parables in this part of Mark 4 are mighty small. This is no Parable of the Prodigal Son that takes up the better part of a whole chapter. Jesus manages to convey something about the smallness of the kingdom via two stories that are themselves pretty tiny. And yet, like the seeds also depicted, these small little parables pack a punch. They capture the very kingdom mystery and (apparent) weakness Jesus is highlighting.
The kingdom is finally a mystery. It’s like a farmer who tosses seed out onto a field and then walks away. He sleeps, he gets up. Days come and days go but somehow, even as the farmer is doing apparently nothing, the seeds grow. In verse 28 you read the phrase “all by itself,” and in Greek that is the word automate, from which we get our word “automatic.” Automatically, mysteriously, without any apparent outside assistance, the seeds just grow and suddenly the day arrives when you’ve got a whole field of wheat ready to be harvested.
Although this parable of the growing seed is among the shortest of all parables, it has proven to be surprisingly difficult to interpret. Scholars cannot agree what the key element is here: is it the power of the seeds, the inactivity of the farmer, the mystery of how seeds do what they do? What is the point here? Surely this is not meant to foster inactivity on our part. It would even be a bit startling if the bottom line here was that we really shouldn’t think much about the growth of God’s kingdom one way or the other.
In short, don’t walk away from Mark 4 singing “Que sera, sera–whatever will be, will be.” But more on that below.
Let’s first toggle over to the other parable. If the growing seed parable seems to be about the mystery of kingdom growth, the mustard seed image is about the apparent weakness of the kingdom. The day will come when the results of the kingdom’s silent, steady growth will be impressive. Meanwhile don’t be surprised if the seeds you plant look ineffective. Don’t be surprised if the witness you have to offer gets laughed at on account of looking so puny. It’s the old “Jack and the Beanstalk” fable: Jack’s mother scorns the tiny beans he brings home from the market. They can never live off those! So in anger she hurls them out the window. Those beans were a non-starter, a mistake, a dead-end nutritionally and in every other sense. Except that, of course, they ended up sprouting into a beanstalk that went, in a way, clear up to heaven.
But Jesus says the gospel message will get a similar reception. We live in a universe and in a world with huge threats to existence and with sickeningly large social and geopolitical problems. There are meteors hurtling through space, many of which would wipe out life on earth if they struck us. There are dictators harboring or seeking weapons of mass destruction, many of which threaten our survival as a species. In the Middle East but in so many other places, too, there are seemingly intractable hatreds and prejudices between and among various ethnic groups. There are viruses like the coronavirus and the COVID disease it causes that frighten us. Hunger and poverty loom up like a whole mountain range of daunting problems whose heights we don’t know how to scale.
Yet in the midst of all these threats from within and from without, in the face of great sin and evil, faced with maladies that are global in scope, we Christian people swing in with no more than that simplest of all messages: Jesus saves. A Jewish carpenter’s son from halfway around the world and from over 2,000 years ago is the one we hold up as some kind of solution. And not a few folks today want to say, “Give me a break!”
But we keep on repeating the old, old story because we believe that somehow, some way, it’s going to work. If we yoke these two parables now, we can see both the theme of how puny our efforts look and our ardent faith that even though we don’t understand how these kingdom seeds grow, they do whether we are watching or not, whether we are tending them every moment or not. They grow silently and mysteriously in people’s hearts. The seeds didn’t look like much to begin with and they grow without making much noise. If you go sit next to a wheat field a week or two after the seeds have been sown into the earth, you could sit on the edge of that field all day and throughout an entire night and you’d never hear a blessed thing.
On Wall Street, the moment that opening bell sounds each day, there is an immediate frenzy of activity. That loud baying for money creates a cacophony that pierces your gizzard with its shrill intensity. If you were on the Senate floor during a debate, you’d feel the sizzle in the air. They say that when Lyndon B. Johnson was the most powerful Senator, he would give people what became known as “the Johnson treatment.” He’d loop one of his powerful and long arms around another Senator’s shoulders and then lean his massive face directly into the other man’s face, all the while poking and jabbing and thumping his index finger into the man’s sternum until he cowed him into agreement. Now that’s power at work!
But a growing wheat field makes none of the noise of a stock exchange and has none of the sizzle of high-powered politicking. The Jesus whose kingdom we present jabs no fingers into anyone’s chest. He invites with gentle words, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest.” But people don’t want quiet invitations to rest. They want powerful and inspirational promises of success. But our Lord himself said that this is not how you get into his kingdom.
Every day the “Congressional Record” is published and it is each and every day a very thick book detailing every word spoken on the floor of the House and Senate. Every week the Biden Administration issues a flurry of new policy initiatives, also totaling into the thousands of pages. The United Nations works hard to cobble together solutions and coalitions aimed at addressing what ails this world. Were you to bring together all the newspaper sections that record the daily activity on the New York Stock Exchange, the Nikkei Index, the Chicago Board of Trade, and all other financial markets in the world, you would have a stack of newsprint many inches thick.
Such a huge output of words, such a thick volume of records detailing the policy efforts of governments: that is the kind of thing you expect when people seriously tackle this world’s challenges. Yet we Christians stand on the sidelines and what do we offer? The thin, sixteen-chapter little volume called the Gospel of Mark. It’s small. It’s old. And although we don’t say we could do without the efforts of government or of those involved in commerce, we do make the audacious claim that none of those things is ultimately very meaningful compared to the gospel.
1 Samuel 15:34-16:13
Author: Stan Mast
This old story about God’s choice of David as the new king of Israel fairly bubbles with contemporary relevance, especially in America. I wrote the first draft of this Sermon Starter just a few weeks after the inauguration of the Biden/Harris team. The words of Shakespeare’s witches of Eastwick described the national mood perfectly: “Double, double toil and trouble. Fire burn and caldron bubble.” Although our Constitution is designed to guarantee the “peaceful transfer of power,” there were moments when it felt like we were within inches of the kind of coup that had just happened in Myanmar.
There was toil and trouble bubbling in ancient Israel, too. Thus, old Samuel saw that his God- given mission of anointing a new king was fraught with danger. After all, the old king, Saul, was still very much in power, even though God had rejected him. Saul’s handsome head had gotten too big for his own good; he took on roles reserved for priests. And he had decided that he could make his own rules; he was, after all, king. So, God rejected him from being king and in the opening verses of chapter 16 God directs Samuel to find a new king up in Bethlehem.
But God’s directions put Samuel in immediate danger, because the road to Bethlehem led straight through Gibeah of Saul. Saul would naturally want to know what his former mentor was doing on the Bethlehem road. Telling him the truth would be tantamount to treason. So, God gives Samuel legitimate cover. Take a heifer with you to sacrifice when you anoint the new king. Tell the old king the first part of that story—a half truth, not an untruth, and necessary if God’s plan was to work. And work it must. Everything depended on it.
The future of Israel depended on it. Saul had proven himself unworthy of leading God’s chosen people. With a king like him, Israel’s entire future was in jeopardy because they would naturally follow his lead and stop following Yahweh and obeying his commands (15:11). If that happened, Israel’s mission to the nations of the world would be compromised, and all would be lost. Saul had been the people’s choice (chapter 8), while David would be God’s choice (16:1). The next king had to be a man after God’s own heart (13:14). Getting this right meant everything for Israel, and the world.
So, the stage is set for God’s next great act in the drama of salvation. Samuel did what the Lord said, taking the heifer for sacrifice up the road to Bethlehem. The elders of the town meet Samuel with trembling, partly because he was the great man of God and partly because he had removed Saul as King. Their shalom was put in jeopardy by the arrival of Samuel, but he assures them that things are just fine. “I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.” He invites them to come to the sacrifice and, per God’s previous order, includes Jesse and his family in the invitation.
Here comes Jesse and his 7 fine sons. When Samuel sees the first born, he is sure that Eliab is the one. After all, Eliab is the replica of Saul, handsome and tall, an imposing figure, exactly what a king should be by the world’s standards. “Surely, the Lord’s anointed one stands here before the Lord.” It is more than interesting that the word “anointed” is the Hebrew word messiach (messiah). This new king will be the Lord’s Messiah. Samuel says more than he knows.
But God sets a new standard for the king of his people. “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” It would be tempting to build a whole sermon around those famous words, because they apply to so many areas of human relationships. But don’t let the homiletical juiciness of those words cause you to lose sight of the point of the story. It is about God’s choice of the next king of Israel, and the world.
And what matters in a leader, especially the leader of God’s chosen people, is that leader’s heart. Does that leader have a heart for God? More importantly, is this potential king a man after God’s own heart? Is this person God’s choice, as opposed to the people’s choice? Only God knows the heart, so only God can choose.
That’s what the story is about, as evidenced by the repetition of the phrase, “the Lord has not chosen this one,” and the summary, “the Lord has not chosen these.” I imagine there was desperation in Samuel’s voice when he asks Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?” Jesse’s answer is not promising. “There is still the youngest, but he is tending sheep.” Oh great! The eighth in line, the runt of the litter. And a mere shepherd at that.
But, don’t sell God short! God knows what he is doing. God has a habit of choosing the least likely, the youngest, the outcast, the foolish and the weak and the lowly (I Corinthians 1:26-31) to do his most important work. And God has the ability to use the supposed flaws of his elect to accomplish his purpose, like choosing a shepherd to be the greatest king and the forerunner of the Good Shepherd (John 10).
Sure enough, no sooner does this youngest son come strolling in smelling of sheep than the Lord says, “Rise and anoint him; he is the one.” And, surprise, he is one handsome dude! That wasn’t the reason for God’s choice, but it was God’s gift to his choice. God is nothing if not complicated. So was his chosen servant; he would become famous and infamous, a warrior and a musician, a man after God’s own heart and a man who would follow his own heart at times with disastrous results. No one ever said God’s chosen people were perfect, but, the Bible says, God can use them just the same.
Thus, Samuel carries out God’s mission. “Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers and from that day the Spirit of the Lord came upon David.” This is the first time we hear the name of this new king, the new Messiah. But we will hear his name forever, because it is from his body that the Messiah will come. “The Lord will give him the throne of his father David (Luke 1:32).”
The story ends with Samuel going home. His role in the drama is over. Now a new character takes center stage—the King of God’s own choosing, as demonstrated powerfully by the presence of the Spirit of the Lord in his life. It is no accident that the next story opens with the news that “the Spirit of the Lord had departed from Saul and an evil spirit from the Lord tormented him.” Ironically, or providentially, the newly anointed King is called to soothe Saul’s tortured spirit by playing his shepherd’s harp and to serve in Saul’s army with his rugged outdoorsy skills. Saul has no idea who David really is. Only the family of Jesse knows. David’s public coronation will wait until the right time, God’s time.
As I said before, God is the central actor in this story—not Saul, not Samuel, not even David. God rejects Saul, sends Samuel, carries out his plan, chooses David, and fills him with the Spirit. This is a crucial chapter in the long story of redemption worked through Israel, the story that has Jesus as its center. The allusions to Jesus are rife in this story: the town of Bethlehem, the least of Jesse’s sons, a shepherd anointed to be King, the Spirit of the Lord coming upon him at the beginning of his work, even before anyone knew who he was or what he was doing.
One of the curious, even troubling features of this story is the fact that God changed direction with respect to Saul. “And the Lord was grieved that he had made Saul king over Israel.” Had God made a mistake? Has God now changed his mind? In other places, God says that he does not change his mind the way humans do (cf. 15:29). But now here, God grieves as though he has made a mistake he now regrets. How do we know that God won’t do the same with David, or with us?
Here’s how The New Interpreters Bible explains. “Saul and the people were a conditional experiment that depended on obedience (12:14-15, 25), but the Davidic kingship would rest upon God’s unconditional commitment (cf. II Samuel 7:13-15).” Thus, God can change his mind regarding specific incidents (think of Nineveh’s surprising repentance and God’s relenting on the punishment he threatened through Jonah). But God will never change his mind regarding his plan to save the world through the Son of God who was the Son of David. God may change his mind about circumstances, but never about covenant.
On a personal front, this story reminds us that it is crucial to get it right when choosing a leader. That is true not only for a nation or a church, but also for each of us personally. The future depends on choosing the right King. A king like Saul can lead you to ruin. A king like David and David’s greatest Son can lead to shalom. God has given us the right King. May each of us choose to follow him. Our future depends on it.
The narrative details in this story point to the hand of God in human events, which reminded me of an interview I saw on the news the other day. Martha Teichner has written a delightful book titled, When Harry Met Minnie: An Unexpected Friendship and the Gift of Love Beyond Loss. It’s all about a series of chance meetings that resulted in the adoption of a dog to keep another dog company and the human friendship that sprouted from that canine relationship. It looks like an adorable book. But I was frozen in my seat when Ms. Teichner said with deep solemnity, “I have absolute faith in fate.” All of those happy occurrences were simply an impersonal fate being worked out. How much more comforting to have absolute faith in a personal God who works through the narrative details of our lives, especially when that God loved us enough to become one of us.
Speaking of TV, my wife and I spent many a COVID afternoon binge watching “The Crown,” the Netflix special on Queen Elizabeth and her, how shall I say it, interesting family. For hours, we watched the arcane and inane customs of the British monarchy, as well as the insanely complicated relationships in her family. Though the Queen is legally the head of the Church of England, the King of that church seemed to play little role in royal things. That reminded me of Saul, and later David, and all the leaders of the nations, including mine. It is crucial to get it right when choosing which Sovereign to follow.
Author: Scott Hoezee
What’s in verses 5-11? This lection from Psalm 92 is one of many RCL texts that clearly skips a certain section of a passage, forcing the curious Bible student to wonder why a chunk gets leapfrogged over. Psalm 92 is hardly too long for a single reading or sermon. Yet the Lectionary deletes almost exactly half of the poem.
And a quick glance reveals the reason and it is the same rationale that applies in most every such case: we’d rather not look at passages about the wicked and hear sentiments about their ultimate downfall at the judging hands of God. The fact that the writer of Psalm 92 saw no disparity between the eight verses the Lectionary assigns and the seven it deletes seems unimportant. We know better than to consider such darker, more judgmental broodings. It’s best, then, just to look away from the middle section of this short psalm.
Of course, there are some sentiments in the Hebrew Psalter (and elsewhere in the Old Testament) that the followers of the Prince of Peace need to handle with care and just possibly not adopt as their own. The imprecatory psalms are the primary example of this. Jesus throughout the gospels and the apostles throughout their writings (see especially the end of Romans 12 for instance) make clear that all the punishment for sin has fallen on Jesus. It is not up to us now to go around and curse people or actively to pray for their arms to be broken, their teeth to be smashed in, and other unpleasantries that the psalmists often do call down upon their enemies. “You leave all those things to God,” Jesus and the apostles said, “and for your part, love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you and just generally try to exude the same grace toward others that God has extended to you. (And by the way: You didn’t deserve it either!)”
But that is not what is happening in the middle part of this psalm. Instead we read first a lament that fools cannot see or appreciate what God has made in the creation. Then there is the honest admission that for now, the wicked often prosper quite nicely, thank you very much. Their way of getting ahead in the world surely looks like the wise way to live if you want a comfortable life. Finally, however, there is the ultimate reckoning that because they vandalize God’s shalom, they will not prosper forever but will reap the reward of their anti-creation ways of living and be destroyed when this creation is made new. The wicked did not appreciate the creation when they could and did not live according to the norms of this creation as established by the Creator so why should they get to stick around and enjoy a restored creation one day?
Once the psalmist is finished with all that, he returns to consider his own lot and that of all the righteous not just now but eternally. Although the Lectionary would have us skip the ultimate fate of the wicked, it has no problem with us considering the obverse of that particular coin in the depiction of the felicity and the evergreen status of the righteous once God brings in God’s judgment and sets all wrongs to right. For this poet, this really is just a single coin. You cannot ponder the restoration of the righteous—who did not flourish at all times in a world where instead the wicked too often flourish—without considering the opposite fate of those who oppose God. Indeed, one suspects the psalmist would suggest that you cannot have one without the other.
Again, as Christians who follow Jesus, we are right to hope and pray for the redemption of even those who for now do not believe in or follow the ways of God. Whether that sentiment would have been foreign to someone like the writer of Psalm 92 is not clear. Whether praying for the redemption of—instead of the destruction of—our “enemies” would even be a welcome thought for the ancient Israelites may also be an open question. There are fruitful things to ponder in this line of thought. Although I personally do not like the Lectionary’s attempts to edit the Bible—and they even do so in New Testament lections with the very words of Jesus now and then—if behind such editing there is a desire to keep Christians from too quickly moving to the language of vengeance, then that can be seen as a good thing.
But it might also be useful to ponder the logic of this psalmist’s way of thinking. Behind most of this language there is, I believe, less a desire to see enemies and the wicked get smacked and more a fierce enthusiasm for the things of God. That is, this poet is so gob smacked by the wonders of God’s creation that it simply baffles and even infuriates him to see those who ignore it all, to see fools who can never see past the tip of their own nose. And this poet is so in love with the law of God that shows us how to live prudently and well in the world God made that to see those who rip up this world and who rearrange this world’s moral boundary fences to give themselves maximal benefit in ways that make others suffer . . . well it all creates a scenario that a true lover of God cannot abide.
Something’s gotta give eventually. For the psalmist, this all coheres.
Perhaps, then, although caution is called for when handling texts of vengeance and retribution, we do well as modern Christians to make sure that following Jesus more closely is the reason for our looking askance at the verses the Lectionary would have us skip. If that is our rationale, it can be a noble one. However, we likewise need to make sure that the reason is not that we are insufficiently in love with God, with the works of God, and with the ways of God. If our enthusiasm for all that is so mild that we cannot quite register disappointment or even a bit of holy anger when we see people riding roughshod over God and God’s creation, then we have a different problem and one in need of spiritual examination.
If we can gush over God and God’s works the way the first four and final four verses of Psalm 92 do, then we ought to be able to see with some clarity the logic of even this poem’s less than happy middle part. It’s nothing we ought to smack our lips over in prospect. But if we never feel this way at all when we see God’s creation and God’s ways trashed, then something may be amiss in us after all.
In a sermon Barbara Brown Taylor told a story related to the African American nanny who used to care for Barbara and her siblings when they were young. They liked their nanny just fine but she could be a bit reserved and sometimes they wished she would engage them more. Well, one day they begged her to do an activity with them. She agreed, somewhat to the surprise of Barbara and her siblings. The nanny told them to get out their crayons and some blank sheets of paper and draw their own house.
So the children did so, sketching their nice two-story home, the front yard, the tire swing, the requisite white picket fence. Then the nanny urged them to grab their orange and red crayons and draw fire coming down from the sky and starting to consume their nice house and yard. “Because that is what’s gonna happen to y’all then the Lord comes again!”
Well it was rather startling and sobering for the children. But the look on the nanny’s face said that for her part, she took great comfort at the prospect of that kind of reckoning coming down from heaven one day by and by.
2 Corinthians 5: 6-10, (11-13), 14-17
Author: Doug Bratt
The end of Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson has taken on perhaps extra poignancy over the past fifteen months or so. That’s partly because, at least in the United States, the global pandemic, political partisanship and struggles for racial justice have added new chapters to the story of what its verse 16 calls “a worldly point of view.”
2 Corinthians 5’s proclaimers might consider the “worldly” ways we have come to “regard” each other. We easily regard each other mainly as Democrats or Republicans, conservatives or progressives. It’s tempting to locate others’ primary identity in the color of our skin, stance on guns, or socio-economic status.
Or think of the new labels COVID-19 have created. Mask wearers and those who refuse to wear masks. Those who have been vaccinated and those who refuse to be vaccinated. Those who view the pandemics as a foreign plot or a horrible accident. Those who favor locking nearly everything down and those who favor opening up nearly everything.
Perhaps especially in the past year, when I hear Paul insist to the Corinthians in the fifth chapter of his second letter “we regard no one from a worldly point of view (16)”, I want to ask, “Really?! Do we really no longer view people from a worldly point of view?
After all, how quick aren’t even God’s adopted sons and daughters to regard especially people who somehow differ from us “from a worldly point of view?” To help our hearers and us approach that issue (without reverting to yet more pandemic examples), those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 5 might consider asking a question like this one: if I were to ask you to describe your neighbor or co-worker, how would you respond? At least some of us might begin by describing what a nice guy he is (or isn’t). You might even tell me the color of her skin before you got around to finally telling me that God created her in God’s image.
Or think of how we identify ourselves to those who ask about us. I tend to first mention my daily work as a pastor. I often say something about where I live and to whom I’m married. I might also say something about my interests and grandchildren. I might even eventually get around to mentioning that I’m God’s adopted son.
Those who proclaim 2 Corinthians 5 want to spend time exploring with our hearers what Paul calls a “worldly view” looks like. Perhaps foundational to that view is its contrast with God’s view of those for whom God so deeply cares. God’s view doesn’t mimic our culture in thinking of people as primarily black, brown or white, rich or poor, gay or straight, Muslim, Jewish or Christian.
Yet if Paul doesn’t want Jesus’ friends to view people the way our culture views them, how does he want us to “regard” them? Clearly he expects us to view each other the way God in Christ views them. “We are convinced,” the apostle writes in verses 14 and following, “that one died for all and therefore all died. And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
At the heart of God’s view of people is their identity as part of the “all” for whom the “one” who is Jesus Christ “died” (14). So God’s adopted children view people not first of all as black, brown, white or any other color, but as those for whom Jesus died. Since Christ died for all, Christians see people not primarily as rich or poor, or as single, partnered or married, but as those for whom Jesus Christ died.
Yet perhaps especially those whose ears are tuned to the melodies of the Reformed expression of the faith may be ringing about now. Don’t Reformed Christians, after all, profess that Jesus Christ died only for the elect, only for those whom God chose before God even created the world?
As Len Vander Zee, to whom I’m indebted for many of this Starter’s ideas, notes, we don’t have to say that God will somehow save all people in order to profess that Jesus Christ died for all people. After all, by saying that Christ “died for all,” Paul simply means that through God’s atoning work in Christ God did something radically new for the whole world.
So, as Vander Zee goes on to note, God didn’t let people kill Jesus before raising him from the dead just to offer people some kind of religious deal. God doesn’t make offers; in Christ God creates something “new.” God doesn’t offer Jesus to the religious marketplace as some kind of new fad; God’s work in Christ changes the world.
Of course, God expects God’s beloved children to faithfully respond to this new thing God has done. After all, for the seed that is God’s transforming work to fully flower in people’s lives, we must receive God’s grace with our faith. God’s people most respond to Christ’s death and resurrection by faithfully reconciling ourselves to God and each other.
That reconciliation, in turn, shapes the way Christians view the people around us. Instead of viewing people from “worldly” perspectives, Christians see people as those whom God wants to faithfully respond to God’s grace. From “now on,” that is, ever since Christ completed his saving work, we see all people as those for whom Jesus may well have died.
Christ’s love compels God’s adopted sons and daughters to love those whom we don’t like or quickly label as unlovable. So Jesus’ followers seek to live for him who died and was raised for our sakes in part by loving all people with the unconditional love of God.
That means that, among other things, Christ’s love compels God’s adopted sons and daughters to deeply love both our fellow Christians and our enemies. Christians are, after all, sometimes more critical of our Christian brothers and sisters than anyone else. Since we often expect more of them than of those who don’t yet believe, we’re often least loving towards Christians who sin or even merely disagree with us.
God, however, challenges God’s children to live for Jesus Christ by unconditionally loving our fellow Christians. God summons us to respond to Christ’s transforming work by praying and working for what’s best for our Christian brothers and sisters.
Christ’s love also compels his followers, however, to love even our enemies. So instead of, for example, torturing them, we treat them with love. Instead of condemning people to hell, we learn to pray for them. We learn to view even our enemies as those whom God wants to draw into his glorious presence.
Flannery O’Connor was what one colleague calls “a remarkably perceptive diagnostician of the human condition.” One of her most diagnostic but startling short stories is entitled, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”
It’s the story of Bailey, his wife, children, and mother who travel to Florida for a vacation, even though their route takes them through an area in which an escaped convict is on the loose. The ornery grandmother constantly tries to direct the trip. Eventually she convinces her reluctant son to turn off the main highway and onto a deserted road. There they have an accident that disables their car.
The only people who stop at the scene of the accident are the escaped convict O’Connor calls the Misfit and his docile henchmen, Hiram and Bobbie Lee. When the grandmother shrieks his name, the Misfit tells her that it would have been better for all of them if she hadn’t recognized him (a poignant foreshadowing of the story’s final act).
The old lady spends most of the rest of her life desperately trying to save her family and herself by insisting that the Misfit must come from good people. While we sense she really believes just the opposite of what she keeps saying about him, the strong-willed grandmother continues to insist that the Misfit is a “good man.”
Even after the Misfit’s henchmen take Bailey and his son John Wesley away to execute them, the grandmother insists he must be good, not common people. She tells the Misfit he could be honest if he just tried hard enough. All he needs to do, the grandmother keeps on saying, is, “Pray, pray, pray.” Even after the Misfit’s henchmen take the mother and her daughter June Star away to kill them, the grandmother just keeps on insisting that he’s a good man.
Finally, the grandmother peers intently enough at the Misfit to see that he’s about to cry. That leads her to jettison all her religious clichés and murmur that he’s just one of her children, one of her “babies,” in other words, a child of God.
However, when the grandmother expresses this by gently touching his shoulder, the Misfit recoils and then shoots her three times. She would have been a good woman, he concludes, if there were just someone there to shoot her every moment of her life.
The grandmother naturally regarded the Misfit (and nearly everyone else) from a worldly point of view. It seems as though it took her recognition of her imminent death for her to view the Misfit not as he regards himself, but as God views him.