Is The Minimum Enough?
Read January 23, 2014 (Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time) Mass readings at USCCB.org.
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Two men, each around 50 years old. Each doctorate-degreed and very successful in his chosen field. Each a married father of three children.
One is a university professor. During his early years before receiving tenure, he worked very long hours – at the laboratory running experiments and at the office writing manuscripts and grant proposals – busily conquering his little corner of the scientific universe. I once remarked to him that it must be rather difficult to do all that with a family. He reflected with what seemed to be equal parts boast and lament, “Well, I don’t do that anymore. Oh, I still work the same hours; I just do more from home now. My children see me.”
The other man is a corporate vice president. He travels a lot, but he schedules his trips around his children’s activities as best he can. When not traveling, he doesn’t schedule early morning meetings so he can drive his children to school. Several months ago, my family happened to be dining at the same restaurant as his family. We noticed something peculiar and extraordinary. After they ordered their food, none of them retreated into an electronic device to pass the time. Instead, they pulled out a deck of cards and played a game all together until their food arrived.
One man is doing the bare minimum by being physically present but otherwise preoccupied. The other man is going above and beyond by being truly present to his family. We might ask ourselves, Which one am I usually more like?
In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus challenges his disciples – and us today – to go beyond the bare minimum by reflecting on the law of talion. Talion is a principle developed in early Babylonian law that criminals should receive as punishment precisely those injuries and damages they had inflicted upon their victims. Hence, “An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Talion, however, was not mandatory. Rather, it was the ultimate satisfaction a plaintiff might demand: justice with the minimum amount of mercy. It was essentially a backstop against excessive punishment.
Setting this up as the absolute minimum standard of decency and humanity, Jesus exhorts his audience to find a deeper form of justice than the supposed equilibrium offered by mere talion. “What is unusual about that?” He asks. “Do not the pagans do the same?” Indeed, Jesus expects more of His followers. Echoing the words of Moses from the first reading, He expects them to be holy, striving for perfection. They should be conspicuous by their willingness to display excessive generosity and mercy. Would this be said of us today?
Or, have we caved to worldly ideals? Generally speaking, the world seems to have an inordinate preoccupation with efficiency, a much greater interest in doing than being. Git ‘er done, right? St. Paul, however, warns us the ways of the world will surely lead us astray. “If any one among you considers himself wise in this age,” he tells the Corinthians, “let him become a fool, so as to become wise. For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in the eyes of God.” One might wonder whose judgment we actually fear more: the world’s or God’s? Are we willing to be seen by others as fools for Jesus?
Fortunately, Lent is practically right around the corner. During this penitential season, the Church specifically encourages us to slow down and reflect, to be more and do less. By immersing ourselves in the three traditional pillars of Lenten observance – prayer, fasting, and almsgiving – we effectively re-enter the waters of our own baptism. We should emerge with a true conversion of heart to renewed life in Christ. In Lent, we have a great opportunity to, as St. Teresa of Avila used to tell her sisters upon exiting the confessional, begin again.
So the real question for us as we approach this Lenten season isn’t so much, Which man am I more like today, the one who just shows up or the one who is truly present? The more important question is, Which one am I striving to be? God doesn’t expect perfect holiness from us, but He does expect us to earnestly work at it, knowing that at times we will stumble and occasionally even fall. It’s for precisely these times that God’s boundless mercy and compassion exists. Indeed, we would do well to remember, as Pope Francis reminds us in his Lenten message, “…that forgiveness for sins committed is possible, that God is greater than our sinfulness, that he freely loves us at all times and that we were made for communion and eternal life.”