RonRolheiser,OMI

Of Winners and Losers

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Our society tends to divide us up into winners and losers. Sadly, we don’t often reflect on how this affects our relationships with each other, nor on what it means for us as Christians.

What does it mean? In essence, that our relationships with each other tend are too charged with competition and jealousy because we are too infected with the drive to out-do, out-achieve, and out-hustle each other. For example, here are some of slogans that pass for wisdom today: Win! Be the best at something! Show others you’re more talented than they are! Show that you are more sophisticated than others! Don’t apologize for putting yourself first! Don’t be a loser!

These phrases aren’t just innocence axioms cheerleading us to work harder; they’re viruses infecting us so that most everything in our world now conspires with the narcissism within us to push us to achieve, to set ourselves apart from others, to stand out, to be at the top of the class, to be the best athlete, the best dressed, the best looking, the most musically talented, the most popular, the most experienced, the most travelled, the one who knows most about cars, or movies, or history, or sex, or whatever. At all costs we drive ourselves to find something at which we can beat others. At all costs we try to somehow set ourselves apart from and above others. That idea is almost genetically engrained in us now.

And because of that we tend to tend to misjudge others and misjudge our own meaning and purpose. We structure everything too much around achieving and standing out. When we achieve, when we win, when we are better than others at something, our lives seem fuller; our self-image inflates and we feel confident and worthwhile. Conversely, when we cannot stand out, when we’re just another face in the crowd, we struggle to maintain a healthy self-image.

Either way, we are forever struggling with jealousy and dissatisfaction because we cannot help constantly seeing our own lack of talent, beauty, and achievement in relationship to other’s successes. And so we both envy and hate those who are talented, beautiful, powerful, rich, and famous, holding them up for adulation even as we secretly wait for their downfall, like the crowd that praises Jesus on Palm Sunday and then screams for his crucifixion just five days later.  

This leaves us in an unhappy place: How do we form community with each other when our very talents and achievement are cause for jealousy and resentment, when they’re sources of envy and weapons of competition? How do we love each other when our competitive spirits make us see each other as rivals?

Community can only happen when we can let the talents and achievements of others enhance our own lives and we can let our own talents and achievements enhance, rather than threaten, others. But we’re generally incapable of this. We’re too infected with competitiveness to allow ourselves to not let the achievements and talents of others threaten us and actualize our own talents in a way so as to enhance the lives of others rather than to let ourselves stand out.

Like our culture, we too tend to divide people into winners and losers, admiring and hating the former, looking down on the latter, constantly sizing each other up, rating each other’s bodies, hair, intelligence, clothing, talents and achievements. But, as we do this, we vacillate between feeling depressed and belittled when others outscore us or inflated and pompous when we appear superior to them.

 And this becomes ever more difficult to overcome as we become more obsessed with our need to stand out, be special, to sit above, to make a mark for ourselves. We live in a chronic, inchoate jealousy where the talents of others are perennially perceived as a threat to us. This keeps us both anxious and less than faithful to our Christian faith.

Our Christian faith invites us not to compare ourselves with others, to not make efforts to stand out, and to not let ourselves be threatened by and jealous of other’s gifts. Our faith invites us to join a circle of life with those who believe that there is no need to stand out or be special, and who believe that other people’s gifts are not a threat, but rather something which enriches all lives, our own included.

When we divide people into winners and losers then our talents and gifts become sources of envy and weapons of competition and superiority. This is true not just for individuals but for nations as well.

One of these competitive slogans within our culture tells us: Show me a good loser and I will show you a loser! Well, seen in this light, Jesus was a loser. People were shaking their heads at his death, and there was no championship ring on his finger. He didn’t look good in the world’s eyes. A loser! But, in his underachieving we all achieved salvation. Somewhere there’s a lesson there!

Welcoming the Stranger

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In the Hebrew Scriptures, that part of the bible we call the Old Testament, we find a strong religious challenge to always welcome the stranger, the foreigner. This was emphasized for two reasons: First, because the Jewish people themselves had once been foreigners and immigrants. Their scriptures kept reminding them not to forget that. Second, they believed that God’s revelation, most often, comes to us through the stranger, in what’s foreign to us. That belief was integral to their faith.

The great prophets developed this much further. They taught that God favors the poor preferentially and that consequently we will be judged, judged religiously, by how we treat the poor. The prophets coined this mantra (still worth memorizing): The quality of your faith will be judged by the quality of justice in the land; and the quality of justice in the land will always be judged by how orphans, widows, and strangers fare while you are alive.

Orphans, widows, and strangers! That’s scriptural code for who, at any given time, are the three most vulnerable groups in society. And the prophets’ message didn’t go down easy. Rather it was a religious affront to many of the pious at the time who strongly believed that we will be judged religiously and morally by the rigor and strictness of our religious observance.  Then, like now, social justice was often religiously marginalized.

But Jesus sides with the Hebrew prophets. For him, God not only makes a preferential option for the poor, but God is in the poor. How we treat the poor is how we treat God. Moreover the prophets’ mantra, that we will be judged religiously by how we treat the poor, is given a normative expression in Jesus’ discourse on the final judgment in the Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 25. We are all familiar, perhaps too familiar, with that text. Jesus, in effect, was answering a question: What will the last judgment be like? What will be the test? How will we be judged?

His answer is stunning and, taken baldly, is perhaps the most challenging text in the Gospels. He tells us that we will be judged, seemingly solely, on the basis of how we treated the poor, that is, on how we have treated the most vulnerable among us. Moreover at one point, he singles out “the stranger”, the foreigner, the refugee: “I was a stranger and you made me welcome … or … you never made me welcome.”  We end up on the right or wrong side of God on the basis of how we treat the stranger.

What also needs to be highlighted in this text about the last judgment is that neither group, those who got it right and those who got it wrong, knew what they were doing. Both initially protest: the first by saying: “We didn’t know it was you we were serving” and the second by saying: “Had we known it was you we would have responded.” Both protests, it would seem, are beside the point. In Matthew’s Gospel, mature discipleship doesn’t depend upon us believing that we have it right, it depends only upon us doing it right.

These scriptural principles, I believe, are very apropos today in the face of the refugee and immigrant issues we are facing in the Western world. Today, without doubt, we are facing the biggest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. Millions upon millions of people, under unjust persecution and the threat of death, are being driven from their homes and homelands with no place to go and no country or community to receive them. As Christians we may not turn our backs on them or turn them away. If Jesus is to be believed, we will be judged religiously more by how we treat refugees than by whether or not we are going to church. When we stand before God in judgment and say in protest: “When did I see you a stranger and not welcome you?” Our generation is likely to hear: “I was a Syrian refugee, and you did not welcome me.”

This, no doubt, might sound naïve, over-idealistic, and fundamentalist. The issue of refugees and immigrants is both highly sensitive and very complex. Countries have borders that need to be respected and defended, just as its citizens have a right to be protected. Admittedly, there are very real political, social, economic, and security issues that have to be addressed.  But, as we, our churches, and our governments, address them we must remain clear on what the scriptures, Jesus, and the social teachings of the church uncompromisingly teach: We are to welcome the stranger, irrespective of inconvenience and even if there are some dangers.

For all sorts of pragmatic reasons, political, social, economic, and security, we can perhaps justify not welcoming the stranger; but we can never justify this on Christian grounds. Not welcoming stranger is antithetical to the very heart of Jesus’ message and makes us too-easily forget that we too once were the outsider.

Embittered Moralizing

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One of the dangers inherent in trying to live out a life of Christian fidelity is that we are prone to become embittered moralizers, older brothers of the prodigal son, angry and jealous at God’s over-generous mercy, bitter because persons who wander and stray can so easily access the heavenly banquet table.

But this isn’t unique to faithful church-goers. It’s part of the universal struggle to age without bitterness and anger. We spend the first-half of our lives wrestling with the sixth commandment and spend the last-half of our lives wrestling with the fifth commandment: Thou shalt not kill!  Long before anyone is shot by a gun, he is shot by a word, and before he is shot by a word, he is shot by a thought. We all think murderous thoughts: Who does he think he is? And it becomes harder and harder not to think them as we age.

Aging without bitterness and anger is in fact our final struggle, psychologically and spiritually. The great Swiss psychologist, Alice Miller, suggests that the primary task of the second-half of life is that of mourning, mourning our wounds so as not to become bitter and angry. We have to mourn, she says, until our very foundations shake otherwise our ungrieved wounds will forever leave us prone to bitterness, anger, and cold judgments.

At the end of the day there is only one remaining spiritual imperative: We are not meant to die in anger and bitterness. And so, as we age, we can progressively slim our spiritual vocabulary down to one word: Forgive, forgive, forgive. Only forgiveness can save us from bitterness and anger.

Indeed, there are few Gospel texts as sobering as the Gospel story of the Prodigal Son. As good commentaries on this text are quick to point out, the central character of this story is not the prodigal son, but the father, and the central message of the text is his over-generous mercy. He is a father who is trying to get his two sons into his house (his house being an image for heaven). But the younger son is, for a long time, out of the house through weakness, while the older son is just as effectively outside the house through a bitterness and an anger that have soured his fidelity. Unlike the father who is grateful and joyous because his wayward son has come home, the older brother is angry and bitter that the father has not withheld his mercy and that his errant brother was not first punished and made to meet certain conditions before he was welcomed back home.

Now there’s an older brother of this sort in all of us. We see it, for instance, in the fierce resistance many, wonderfully faithful, church-going, Christians express apposite certain people receiving communion at the Eucharist. Granted, there are legitimate ecclesial issues here, to do with public forum and scandal, which need to be sorted out, as the recent Synod on family life tried to do. But that synod also highlighted the resistance that many feel towards persons that they deem unworthy to receive communion at the Eucharist.

Independent of the ecclesial issues coloring this, those of us who struggle with certain others going to communion should still ask ourselves: Why is this bothering me?  Why am I angry about someone else going to communion?  What’s really the basis for my resistance? What might this be saying about me? Is my heart wide and mellow enough right now to go to heaven, to sit down at the banquet table with everyone?

Do I have the courage and humility to ask myself this question: Am I not akin to the older brother standing outside the house, bitter that someone who seems undeserving is receiving the Father’s love and blessing?

But we need to ask ourselves that with sympathy. We aren’t bad persons; it’s just that a certain bitter moralizing is an occupational hazard for us. Still we need to ask ourselves these hard questions, for our own sake, lest, blind to ourselves, we become the older brother of the prodigal son.

Paradoxical, ironic, strange, but we can be faithful, upright-morally, duty-bound, church-going Christians, preaching the gospel to others and, at the same time, carry inside of ourselves an anger, a bitterness, and an unconscious envy of the amoral which has us standing outside the house of celebration, blocked from entry because we are angry at how wide and indiscriminating is our own God’s embrace.

But that weakness and bi-polarity have already been taken into account. The story of the Prodigal Son ends, not with the father’s joy at the return of his sinful son, but with the father at the door of the house, gently pleading with his older son to give up his bitterness and enter the dance. We don’t know how that story ends, but, given God’s jealous love and infinite patience, there’s little reason to doubt that eventually the older brother entered the house and sat down at table with his prodigal brother.