The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
The musical Annie, set during the Great Depression and based on the comic strip Little Orphan Annie, was one of my favorite musicals as a child. I listened to the Broadway soundtrack every night when going to bed, watched the 1982 film version religiously on VHS, and was thrilled to play the orphan Tessie in our own grammar school production. It’s been quite a while since those days, and though I don’t remember all of the musical or why I was so obsessed with it, somehow the character of Miss Hannigan stands out in my mind.
Miss Hannigan runs the orphanage where Annie lives. Ironically, Hannigan hates children and is a tyrant to the girls entrusted in her care. She frequently punishes the girls and forces them into labor while she imbibes large quantities of alcohol. I suspect Hannigan drinks because she is one of the have-nots, and it is this not having which forces her to perform a job she despises. She’s incredibly bitter. As she sings in “Little Girls”:
Some women are dripping with diamonds Some women are dripping with pearls Lucky me! Lucky me! Look at what I'm dripping with Little girls
Miss Hannigan even grows jealous of Annie, whom she mistreats the most. First, Annie, is invited to spend Christmas at the mansion of Oliver Warbucks, a billionaire. Then, to add insult to injury, Grace, his secretary, tells Hannigan that Warbucks wants to officially adopt Annie. Hannigan’s envy rages. How dare the orphan she hated so much gets to have everything Hannigan herself has ever wanted! Hannigan, along with her con-artist brother Rooster and his thieving girlfriend Lily devise a scheme. Rooster and Lily will claim to be Annie’s real parents in order to earn a hefty reward, a portion of which will go to Hannigan. However, the plot fails. The Broadway version ends with Miss Hannigan, Rooster and Lily getting arrested. Interestingly, the 1982 film version rewrites that ending in order to redeem Hannigan. Rooster attempts to kill Annie. Hannigan tries to stop him but fails. Annie is rescued and adopted. Hannigan attends the celebratory party.
I think the original ending on Broadway echoes a truth that Jesus teaches us in Mark’s Gospel “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all.” Miss Hannigan wants to be first and ends up last due to her cruelty, greed, and willingness to exploit a child. Had she placed her own interests last and been the public servant she was expected to be, her fate could have been different.
Miss Hannigan’s story is a stark reminder of how vulnerable children are to hatred and violence at the hands of adults. They certainly were in Jesus’ time. Children, women, and slaves had no rights and were viewed as burdens on society. Just as women were considered property of their husbands, children were considered property of their parents. They could be abandoned and left to die if such was the will of a Roman parent.
It is a little over 2000 years since those days and, still, children all over the world—even in our own neighborhoods—are exploited, abused, and treated cruelly every day. Sometimes it is in the form of physical, sexual, verbal, or emotional abuse. I think of how many Miss Hannigans have never healed from their own childhood traumas and, in turn, project and inflict them upon the children in their care, and how those children grow up and repeat the pattern with their children. I think of children in war-torn countries who witness or become victims of unspeakable acts of violence such as killing, maiming, sex trafficking, and recruitment into armed forces. I think of children in U.S. detention centers piled next to each other, laying on top of thin pads for mattresses, and using tin foil as blankets. They are huddled in such small rooms that, even with face masks, one wonders why the CDC social distancing guidelines don’t apply to them. Or perhaps one doesn’t need to wonder. The message is clear. They are not wanted.
But in God’s eyes every child is a wanted child. We see this in Jesus’ example in Mark, how Jesus takes a child in his arms. In his arms! Such a move was outrageous, especially for a man, in Jesus’ time and culture. And it is through this very act, this radical embrace of a child, that Jesus demonstrates how everyone—every single human being—is outrageously loved, cherished, and respected by our Divine Parent, without condition.
We see Jesus’ welcome of children in other Gospels—for instance, in Matthew when he says “let the little children come to me […] for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these” (19:14) and when he warns “unless you become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (18:3).
Family counselor and writer Dorothy Law Nolte put it best in the last line of her inspirational poem “Children Learn What They Live”: “If a child lives with acceptance and friendship, he learns to find love in the world.” That love is the very kingdom of which Jesus speaks.
Jesus offers us the radical invitation to accept, to embrace, and to uphold the dignity of every individual—from the greatest to the least—and to recognize God’s life-giving Spirit present within them. He asks us not to be the Miss Hannigan who exploits and loses. He asks us to be the Miss Hannigan who has a change of heart, who serves by taking positive action, and who shares in the celebration that is the kingdom of God, a kingdom where the child in all of us is welcomed, safe, respected, and cherished. Such is the way to finding love in the world. What might you or I do today to help a fellow child of God (young or old) find that love?