“MUST WE ALWAYS FINISH LAST?” (Mt 11:11-15): 13 December 2007 (St. Lucy, Thursday)
Woody Allen’s 1989 film “Crimes and Misdemeanors” is about two men who can’t be more different from one another. The first is an eye doctor named Judah (played by Martin Landau), whose mistress (Angelica Huston) is enraged when she realizes that contrary to promises made earlier, he will not leave his wife to live with her. In retaliation, she resorts to blackmail and threatens to ruin his reputation. Desperate, Judah decides to hire someone to kill her. But instead of getting caught and punished, or even just losing sleep over his crime, Judah manages to move on. The crisis lifts, and to his surprise, his life even prospers.
The second man is nice guy Cliff (played by Woody Allen), who is recovering from a recent divorce. He is not without his flaws, but he is a principled and serious documentary maker. But his dedication to his craft has made commercial success elusive. In the end, not only is he fired from a job, but he also loses the woman he loves to a man he detests. This nice guy ends up a failure, the classic loser.
These two stories mirror what often sadly happens in real life: Nice guys finish last. Put another way: “The innocent suffer, and the wicked prosper.” In the gospel reading today, the Lord seems to refer to the same disturbing reality. He says, “The Kingdom of heaven suffers violence, and the violent are taking it by force.” It’s no intellectual discourse. He makes this pronouncement in the same breath that he speaks of John the Baptist, who at that time is languishing in prison.
Things haven’t changed much since then, have they? And so my question to God today is: “Must it always be so? Do nice guys always have to finish last?”
It’s hard enough to be good. It’s hard enough to be moral and to follow the rules, to avoid the ‘don’ts’ and to walk away from the so-called “forbidden fruits.” It’s tough enough to keep working at being good when it’s neither rewarding nor cool to do so. But to actually end up finishing last or to lose against the evil forces in this world despite one’s efforts to be moral? Is it too much to ask that the wicked not be permitted to prosper so blatantly, and that the innocent be spared from too much suffering?
And as though that’s not hard enough, we also have to struggle against those who can’t seem to care less about being good. To make things worse, they’re often better at fighting these battles. They’re more clever and more efficient. After all, they’re more ruthless, having at their disposable every possible imaginable and unimaginable means. I’m afraid they’re looking like the winners. Just like Judah in the film.
In Allen’s film, there is a third, more minor character: a rabbi played by Sam Waterston who is going blind. For me, the blind rabbi is the most important character in the film. His blindness is both ironic and symbolic: Ironic because In one scene, he consults Judah the eye doctor, but his doctor ends up asking him, the blind patient, for moral guidance (The advice given, of course, goes unheeded).
But the blindness is also symbolic for two reasons: First, it is symbolic of the apparent injustice in this world: The one unequivocably righteous character in the story is losing his sight and by the world’s standards, seems to be a loser too. But secondly, his physical blindness notwithstanding, it is he who has the keenest moral vision. His eyes are fixed not on things of this world, but on what he calls the underlying moral structure of things that is, for him, the only basis for living a meaningful life.
How appropriate that we should speak of blindness on the feast of St. Lucy, a first-century martyr whose name means “light” and whose eyes were gouged out during torture. Today even as we face a question for which we have no adequate answer, we are invited to ask ourselves: “Are we willing to choose rightly even if we cannot see the rewards of being moral, even if we are bound to finish last?”
The final scene of Woody Allen’s film is telling, and it happens at the wedding party of the rabbi’s daughter. During one quiet moment at the celebration, the blind rabbi takes his daughter by the hand and dances with her, surrounded by the beaming faces of their families and friends. But as everyone can see, it is he who is leading the dance.