Lessons from Anne Shirley: Jesus and the Undesirables

One of the most poignant moments in Anne of Green Gables is when crusty Marilla Cuthbert tells her brother they haven’t any use for a boy and he replies, “But maybe we’ll be of some use to her.”

Since Matthew has spent the last hour driving her back from the train station, listening to a little girl’s hopes, dreams, and ambitions for the future, indulging melancholic comments about her red hair, and knowing an inevitable firestorm awaits her at Green Gables as soon as his sister gets wind of the “mix-up,” he’s more than ready to open his home and his heart to a wayward orphan, particularly one that never stops talking and is full of big words.

Marilla isn’t having it. Or at least, she doesn’t want to have it. The devastation Anne faces in heart-crunching. She drops to her knees, pounding fills her ears, and the world blurs as severe disappointment settles into a battered soul. She needs Green Gables, though she cannot tell them why, to have someone, anyone, give a damn about her, or need something from her other than servitude. She needs a new dress (with puffed sleeves), she needs Marilla to “teach her right from wrong,” and most poignantly, she needs Matthew’s love.

While Matthew sinks into what he defines as a “troubled” state of mind but what Anne might call “the depths of despair,” Marilla remains resolute; she will not be touched by this orphan, she will not be softened by tears, and not even Anne’s sentimental sigh, as she comments that it’s sad she’ll never know what being a child is like, is going to change her mind! Her increasing ill-temper indicates a storm within her soul, but like any wind-battered tree, she refuses to break or bend until the moment of crisis, of facing the decision to leave Anne behind forever with another family, one who “won’t put up with no back talk.”

A recent chapter in a book by Barbara Brown Taylor discussed the philosophy of being a “stranger” in the world; she remarked that only those who have been strangers can know what it’s like to be one. Though she passed no judgment on a man who responded to a polite inquiry from a stranger with a shotgun, distrustful of the “dark faces in the truck,” I was left with a feeling that perhaps we’re too quick to fear the unknown and turn people aside. Yes, they may harm us, they may break our heart – they most certainly will, if we let them into it; but it’s hard to be a stranger, and to invite them to become not a stranger is divine.

There’s no magical moment when someone ceases to be a stranger; it’s somewhere in-between a name and looking back a decade later on a lifetime of memories. Some people cease to be strangers with their name; others are strangers all their lives, their secrets locked deep. The only thing standing between us and them is an introduction and once one is made, someone is no longer a stranger.

Jesus ignored no one who needed him, but prioritized the abused, downtrodden, and disliked; he favored and ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, both of whom came from families so poor, they had no choice but to live in service to the Romans. He paused on the way to a rich man’s house to heal his daughter from illness to inquire who touched his cloak in the crowd and to dialogue with a woman ceremonially unclean. Her extensive bleeding meant anyone who touched her would be ritually unclean, requiring an expensive purification ritual to make them “clean” again. Because of this, she could have been chased out of town and should not have been in the crowd, where each jostle would bring her into contact with others. Yet, Jesus healed her, spoke to her, tarried with her so long, word came from the rich man’s house his daughter had died; while He came for one and all, He came mostly for “the least of these,” those without friends, rejected by society, and in need of love.

Jesus could have simply spoken and healed people; he didn’t need to touch them, but he chose to, both because humans are physical beings and because it’s unlikely anyone else had touched them for a long time. He made the healing spiritual and physical, in the purest sense; not only did he speak and eat with the “undesirables,” he was willing to touch them. He chose his disciples from among the “rejects”; their profession meant other rabbis had passed them over in the temple; none were “important” or “intelligent” or “learned” enough to become a rabbi’s disciple… until Jesus came along. People flocked to him for two reasons—his miracles, and because he cared about the “dregs” of society that everyone else ignored, mistreated, abused, or chased out of town: the lepers, beggars, prostitutes, tax collections, and demon-possessed, in short, the people nobody wanted.

Anne is literally unwanted, looked down on for being a girl and an orphan, as if some sin brought that fate upon her; she is a throw-away child, who has an (abusive) home for a time until the woman has no more use for her (“You’re not kin”). She’s never had anyone want her, all her life, to the extent that she pinches herself on the ride to Green Gables; she cannot believe this is real, that she has a home to go to. She’s an undesirable… Rachel Lynde sees her as a problem, and Marilla expects her to be a thief. This bigotry comes to full force when Marilla insists Anne stole her broach, despite having no evidence other than it disappearing, and threatens to send her back because of it. Judged, condemned, and kicked aside, without mercy.

And yet, Matthew wants her. He wants to love her. He loves her, in spite of himself. Throughout the beginning of the story, Marilla tries to talk him out of it, to be the voice of reason against the instinct of compassion, but even she isn’t without mercy. Here, we find two sides of Self, engaged in their own weaknesses — human nature, exemplified; Marilla is Reason, and Matthew is Love… but when faced with Anne’s devastation, Reason fails; and when love becomes difficult, demanding Matthew stand up to his sister, Love fails. His Love lacks the courage to take on Reason. Neither is perfect, but Anne needs both. And in our own lives, both browbeat us in equal measure — Reason gives us reasons to stay un-involved, to not care, to leave people as strangers, to make their pains none of our affair; and Love tells us not to be so petty, and mean, and stupid, to have compassion for the underdog, the abused, the maligned, those most in need of tenderness.

Anne’s precisely the sort of person Jesus cared about most; an unwanted child, a redhead, an orphan, someone never shown a lick of human kindness, who had a chocolate toffee two years ago and it was wonderful… an undesirable. Our world is, tragically, full of them and since Jesus last walked the earth centuries ago, it’s our place as believers to welcome them, love them, extend compassion to them, though they wear many different faces, all of them, at least at first, strangers. Jesus’ message was radical then, as it is radical now; because it was always about the undesirables.

Who are they now? Who does society look down upon, spit upon, want nothing to do with? Start there, and you’ll find God, for when you serve “among the least of these, you serve me.”

4 Replies to “Lessons from Anne Shirley: Jesus and the Undesirables”

  1. Bravo on your very insightful observations, but I take you one big step further – Anne Shirley is clearly intended to be seen as a female messiah, because she has the same effect on those around her as Jesus (or Buddha) did – she is a moral change agent, a bringer of enlightenment

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