The Lilies of the Field

by William E. Barrett
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Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

The Lilies of the Field is a story about the power of altruism. A strong, talented African American man and a group of German nuns in the Rockies are characters that form a seemingly unlikely close bond. However, their differing backgrounds—Homer, the protagonist, being Southern Baptist, and the nuns being Catholic—illustrates the fundamental concept of creating a diverse community.

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Another theme in the story is the strength of faith—whether religious faith or faith in humanity. This is illustrated by Homer's numerous failed attempts to walk away from the nuns' increasing projects; he always felt an instinct preventing him from abandoning them. A man of trade, he expects to receive compensation for his work, but he later realizes the values of altruism and goodwill.

The themes of free will and divine intervention are also explored in the story. The nuns believe that Homer was sent by God to assist them in building the chapel. However, Homer, despite being from a Christian denomination himself, believes that it was he who decided to help them, not God.

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Latest answer posted August 31, 2020, 11:00 pm (UTC)

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The story can be interpreted in two ways. If he was sent by God, then the story is about the power of faith and divine intervention. If Homer simply decided to stay and help, then the moral of the story is that "godliness" exists within all humans in the form of altruism, and God is not needed to intervene.

Although racism features in parts of the story, personified by Livingston, it is not a prominent theme. In fact, the racist attitude of Livingston proves to be one of the catalysts in Homer's decision to finish the chapel. Homer wanted to prove Livingston wrong, and he does so by showing his work ethic and talent.

When the nuns decide to show their gratitude toward Homer by prominently featuring St. Benedict the Moor and a painting of Homer by Sister Albertine, this reiterates the theme of the story: that sainthood or saintliness is achieved through acts of kindness, even if you're just a regular man, like Homer.

Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 242

The Lilies of the Field is primarily about the power of prayer and faith and the need for humility in accomplishing one’s goals. It was a daunting task for five German-speaking nuns to escape from communist Eastern Europe, come to a strange land, and dream of their own chapel and some day a school for poor Spanish boys. Not only did they lack material resources but also they had no one who believed in their dreams. Yet, Mother Maria Marthe never doubts that God will help them. Thus the power of faith is at the heart of the narrative.

Homer Smith also learns the lesson of humility. Initially, his attitude of self-sufficiency and independence, a defense mechanism for dealing with the racist attitudes prevalent during the period, makes him reject the help of the community. He has skills and is proud of his intellect and ability to survive. Even after he is certain that the nuns are totally oblivious to the color of his skin, he bristles at the slightest provocation. Gradually, he undergoes a spiritual regeneration, realizes that ignorance breeds superstitions and misunderstandings, and sees the importance of humility in his life. He accepts the fact that building God’s house leaves no room for individual glorification but offers an opportunity to bring the community of worshipers closer. Smith’s odyssey teaches him to be a better human being and accept his role of being an instrument of divine will.

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