Looking Out for Number One
Looking Out for Number One
It's inescapably human... looking out for number one... came the thought as I listened to the Gospel reading for the fourth Sunday in Lent, these verses in particular, from Luke 15:
14When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. 16He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. 17But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.” ’ 20So he set off and went to his father.
As most of you would know (or should!) I've excerpted these verses from Jesus' Parable of the Prodigal Son which describe the moment when the young wastrel, in the words of AA lore, "touches bottom," gets some smarts, and prepares to swallow his pride.
Well, (and here's what struck me as I listened) what's the first thing he does "when he came to himself"? He does some major scheming to restore himself, if not into his father's good graces, at least into dad's care and protection. Sure he is ready to throw himself on his father's mercy, but he knows, calculates even, that his father is merciful. Where is the purity of heart? Where is the total self-abnegation, free from any thought of what's in it for me eternally, like, say, Huck Finn who decides he'll go to hell before he'll rat on Injun Joe? Or how about Sydney Carton taking the place of Charles Darnay with "'tis a far far better thing that I do, than I have ever done"? The prodigal's example dims compared to these two.
The son among the pigs: shades of Jimmy Swaggart crying into the microphone. No matter how you slice it, the conclusion remains the same, the motivation is self-serving.
To which, I strongly suspect, Jesus would respond in large red letter words, "So what." He seems to know, though he never says it as baldly as I am saying it here, that just about everything we do, including those deeds most admirable, is tinged with self-regard. No wonder, then, that the second great commandment to love reads, "Love your neighbor as yourself." Not "love your neighbor better than yourself." If we take care of the other the way we take care of number one, the world, except for a few masochists, would be a harmonious place. Jesus, you see, gives us a very specific self-reference as to how we are to love our neighbor.
Like I have been heard to ask sarcastically at the dinner table when a fifteen year old explains why a classmate deserves to be regarded with contempt: "Oh, I get it, Jesus tells us to treat our neighbor as he treats us." Not that I manage to transform student relations at Hall High; I probably only convince my grandsons not to tell me anything more about the ethical patterns that prevail among their peers.
But I digress, when the important point vis a vis the prodigal son in the pig sty is that Jesus doesn't seem to worry about the purity of our motivations as much as we do. Or Bertrand Russell, who derogates them. He's the early 20th century inspiration behind the latest critique of organized religion by Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. It is an overly ripe canard often thrown at believers that they worship God only because they are afraid of death; and religion provides comfort in the face of that human mystery. (This argument fails to consider the plight of those who believe in life after death and are certain they are destined to go to hell.) But what about the atheist's motivation, the satisfaction to be taken, the reward to be savored, in a mind so much more fearless and courageous than those of us in the common masses frequenting temples?
Either way we are trapped inside ourselves with suspect motives.
To which Jesus (again!) would retort, "So what." Not that he endorses wanton self-serving, like Gordon Gekko of the film "Wall Street" who posits the doctrine that greed is good. Just that our hearts, however filled with generosity, are also inclined to second and third thoughts, usually hidden deep inside ourselves, of what's in it for me. T. S. Eliot in his play "Murder in the Cathedral" authored the famous line, "The highest treason: to do the right thing for the wrong reason." True, there are distinctions to be drawn among our motivations. Yet all of them are ours and as such self-serving.
Nor would I remove Jesus from this inevitability. Hebrews writes in an oft-quoted verse (12:1b-2), Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God. Even the cross of the savior of the world can be read as a stepping-stone to personal gain!
What finally matters is what we do. Let God sort out our reasons. Getting smart, going home, swallowing one's pride (coming back from the dead is how Dad describes it), whatever the advantage to be gained, is the right and blessed move in the economy of God's salvation.