Last week, I was out walking my dog Orla. We were near the end of our walk, trying to navigate through the intersection down by the Chatham Village Market to head up Depot Street on the way home. Even though the high tourist season is over, it is a busy corner, so I always walk with the traffic light and stay in the crosswalk. I was crossing Crowell Road with the traffic light when a NAPA Autoparts delivery truck came off Main Street, turning left onto Crowell Road. I pointed out to the driver I was in the crosswalk and, as a pedestrian, had the right of way. Instead of stopping for me to cross, he kept going and hurled an ‘F-Bomb’ at me. I was dressed in my clerics.
I'm sure everyone here wants to try to be a good person. We want to act with civility and kindness. We are trying to be courteous and patient with each other, but it feels more challenging and difficult to do. The frequency of news reports of aggressive passengers escorted off airplanes, unruly customers asked to leave restaurants, and disruptive Congresswomen ejected from theaters seems to be increasing.
People blame the COVID pandemic for this trend. It didn't bring out the best behavior in some people. Others claim it goes back further, and they place the responsibility on some of our political leaders. A couple of weeks ago, I told you about an article by the columnist David Brooks. In the piece, Brooks traces the origins of the breakdown of civility in our society back more than seventy-five years to the end of World War II. Then, the education system transitioned away from stressing moral education and civility in our school curriculum.
Regardless of who is to blame, our culture seems to be working to drive us to dehumanize others. It wants to divide “us” from “them.” It segregates our brothers and sisters into different racial, ethnic, religious, and economic groups. The gaps between who we would like to be as people and who we are becoming are growing wider and wider. These days, our good character and purity of heart are challenged more and more often. Will we endure these hostile times and emerge stronger in our character, or will our goodness ebb away? Will we let current attitudes gain strength or help reverse these trends?
To reverse this drift toward a lack of civility, we need to realign our behavior and make it more attuned to the example of Jesus. We must show mercy towards those we disagree with, resist the desire to confront those who offend us angrily, and instead show compassion. To become a more civil culture, we need to avoid being too quick to be offended by others. We must be ready to love those who might appear to be unlovable.
For several weeks now, our Gospel passages at Mass have come from the Community Discourse in Matthew's Gospel. This lecture was Jesus' instruction to His apostles as they walked from Galilee up to Jerusalem, where Jesus would offer His life on the cross for our sinfulness. Jesus realized that before He left His disciples, He needed to share with them instructions on how to live as a loving community of faith after his death.
Matthew's Gospel is one of four gospels in the Bible. A gospel is a recounting of Jesus' ministry written by one of the evangelists. While similar to a biography, it isn't a totally accurate recounting of Jesus' life. A gospel is a theological story stressing certain aspects of Jesus' message tailored to the situation faced by specific segments of the early Church.
Matthew's gospel was probably written in Jerusalem about fifty years after Jesus' crucifixion. It was composed for a community primarily of Jewish Christians to help them resist the criticism of the Pharisees and other Jewish groups claiming Jesus was unfaithful to the Jewish religion. On the contrary, Matthew depicts Jesus' constant faithfulness and how he fulfills the Jewish Messianic expectations.
Two weeks ago, Jesus taught the disciples how to resolve conflicts between themselves. He told them if they disagreed, the two parties should work out the issue in a face-to-face discussion. If that didn't work, they should ask two or three community members to help judge the matter. The whole church should only become involved if this small group could not resolve the conflict. If even the church couldn't settle the complaint, the offensive party should be shunned by the church and treated as a sinner or tax collector. Treating them as a sinner or tax collector didn't mean total exclusion, but entailed possible reunion if the offender asked for forgiveness. The faithful disciple always needs to be open to reconciliation.
Last week, Jesus offered a parable on forgiveness. He taught Peter and the others that God grants limitless forgiveness to the sinner who pleads for it, and we must forgive as God forgives. Forgiveness is the willingness to cancel any debt we feel owed by an offender. Offering forgiveness doesn't mean we have changed our minds and now believe we were the guilty party. Forgiveness isn't permission to be hurt again, nor does it permit continued physical or emotional abuse. Forgiveness is coming to recognize that our anger hurts us more than the one who has offended us, and letting it go will bring us healing. Forgiveness is for our sake and not the offender's well-being.
Today, Jesus uses another parable to teach a lesson. Parables are stories with a surprise ending, and today is likely Jesus' most surprising parable. It teaches that God isn't fair. No, God is abundantly generous. Jesus teaches that the objective of our Christian relationships can't be fairness. Strict equality might be good in business relationships but not in personal relationships. It doesn't work before the law, either. We will miserably fail if we try to make all our relationships fair. If we concentrate on being fair in our relationships, we will miss many opportunities to be generous to others. Scrupulous fairness will keep us from doing good for others.
God wants to give everyone what they need. That is the lesson of today's parable. It recounts the everyday plight of laborers in Jesus' day, a system still prevalent in much of our world. Many workers lived hand to mouth. They were dependent on being hired day to day. They assembled in the public square, hoping a landowner would employ them. If no one did, their family often went hungry.
Today's employer goes to the square and hires workers throughout the day. He employs even some laborers as the day draws almost to a close. Bible scholars wonder why there were still workers in the square looking for employment at the end of the day. Were they known for being lazy, lacking skill, or the old? Regardless, they were there desperately, anxious to earn even a fraction of the daily wage. Astonishingly, the landowner generously gives everyone- the first hired and the last- exactly what they need to survive: the daily wage. He wasn't fair, but he was generous.
The landowner's generosity causes those hired early to feel jealous. Jealousy isn't necessarily bad. It is different from envy, which is a sin. Envy is the covetousness of another's gifts and is accompanied by the desire to work to take their advantage away from them. Envy tries to diminish others' happiness, blessings, and good fortune out of hatred. On the other hand, jealousy is the desire to have something that someone else possesses because you see its goodness, value it, and wish you could have the same for yourself.
God is jealous of our hearts. God is generous to us, hoping to win them. God doesn't value fairness but is willing to be over-the-top generous to us with grace, mercy, and love to win our hearts.
In our relationships, we need to imitate God and do for one person what we wish we could do for everyone. If we allow fairness to dictate our behavior in our relationships, we will miss many opportunities to do good. We can't hold back from making a loving gesture for one person in need just because we can't do it for everyone.
In trying to resist the hurtful and destructive behavior of people around us, we need to live life not as an exchange economy where we measure out goodness to repay the goodness we have received. Instead, we need to operate in a gift economy. We need to offer our gifts without expecting to get anything in return. Our goodwill must be shared generously and without limits. Respond to God's generosity with your generosity.
Today, begin living more generously. It doesn't necessarily mean only with your money, although if we have been blessed with that gift, by all means, you need to practice material generosity. Be generous with your other blessings. Be of service to others. Support those in need who lack companionship, comfort the suffering, and needful of all types of care. Don't strive to be a fair person. Yearn to be a generous Christian imitating God's generosity to you.