I've been fielding some private questions about yesterday's short story, The Harless Grocery. 'Thought I'd cut and paste a few of those answers here for anyone else who might be interested.
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First off, you've got Jimmy. He's got a sense that there's something wrong with the way the world's going. He feels the loss of closeness and community in the rise of the nameless corporate, and he's willing to do something about it. In fact, he's willing to engage on a personal level, to risk what he's got to help society's need.
However, there's a little statement at the beginning of the story that is revelatory. "There were limits to what any man could do on his own."
Jimmy's got a system going that most of us (including me) would admire. He's engaging in a culture where folks are accustomed to living off others, and he's teaching the values of responsibility and work. So when the story starts, he seems to be a heroic figure. He is willing to sacrifice on multiple levels to engage in a mentor role where he is teaching the dignity of labor.
So a thief enters and steals a loaf of bread. Why bread? Bread is a literature-rich image. (Think Les Mis.) It’s also deeply connected to the idea of Christ. I won’t go into all that here; however, as this woman reaches out and steals bread, and she gets caught. Jimmy expects her to pay.
Now this is a different dynamic than what we’ve heard about in the story already. Previously, we’ve heard about situations where people asked for help. This time, the woman committed an offense against Jimmy. She tried to take from him.
Jimmy has obviously handled this kind of thing before, and he thinks he knows the appropriate payment. He doesn’t even question it. In his mind, bread (plus other good stuff) equals an hour of work. Yet the woman forces a different question to the surface. For Jimmy’s system to work, the payment will have to go beyond the cost of food to the cost of stealing itself.
The woman is an unlikely prophet. She wipes the sweat off her own face and wipes it on Jimmy like a strange kind of baptism. In his recoil, we see how little he understood about true need. He didn’t get a foundational Biblical concept, that poverty is universal. The truth is not that “they” are poor and “we” help them. The truth is that we are all poor. All of humanity stands in need, even those who are pursuing idealism. and good behavior, and sacrifice.
What Jimmy offers seems like common sense, even grace to us: that an hour of honest work would pay for an offense.
Yet the thief challenges Jimmy. Eve stole one piece of fruit. Would an hour of cleaning the bathrooms more than cover that loss? We know the answer to that. It took the blood of the God of the Universe to pay it off.
It’s interesting that the woman thinks Jimmy is asking her to prostitute herself when he first makes the offer. Jimmy is horrified, because he has established such a fair system of payment. (I’m not going to parse that out here, but it’s not accidental.)
In the end, the thief offers to trade Jimmy something she has for the bread. She’s convinced what she’s got will pay for the bread, and in fact, that Jimmy will leave the deal with a profit. (This bit is important, BTW: “Ain’t no such thing as a fair trade when it comes to stealin’,” said the woman. “One of us has got to leave with more than the other. That’s how stealing works.”)
What she trades him is strange. It wasn’t even hers to begin with. It’s something that she obtained for free and that has no obvious exchange value. (You can’t put a price sticker on this can. All she’s got is somebody else’s dream.)
Besides that, there’s not even a plot to the dream. It’s not a story. It’s just one image. A city from which light emerges.
What has caught the thief’s interest is the difference between a city on which light falls from above and a city that emits its own light. These women (the thief and her sister) are obviously taken with the idea of that, but they don’t seem to understand why. They just know that looking at such a thing was like seeing music. (It transcends dimensionality.)
There is an image somewhat similar to this in the book of Revelation. There is a city from which light emerges constantly, because it is indwelt by the living Christ.
And so the question rises subtly, is the grocer (and the microcosm of rescue he has created) a city from which light is emerging, or a city on which light falls?
He has identified the idolatry (did you notice that word early in the story?) of the 30-foot ceilings and artificial universe of the Wal-Mart, but he doesn’t realize that the light falling through the windows of a little small-town grocery that every one of us would adore also moves through the stuff of earth.
As that question lingers, a little boy enters. Twelve years old. (Same age as Jesus entering the temple.) He asks who paid for the bread, and that is the most important question of the story.
Jimmy releases her. An exchange has been made on a different sort of economy altogether.