Loving Good Things
You shall rejoice in the good things
the Lord has given you and your house – Deuteronomy 26:11
But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again. – Luke 15:24
There will be rejoicing among the angels of God over one sinner who repents. – Luke 15:10
Love, the divine charity, has been described in many ways, notably by Saint Paul in the famous thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians: patient, kind, seeking not its own. At its root the divine charity is on display in the existence of the world, which is itself the overflowing of love that is the Trinity into the existence of creation. For that is the indomitable rule of life. Love overflows into existence. To be creative, to call good things into existence, is to imitate God, from whose life flows the cosmos in its order and beauty. And when the seventh day came, God saw that it was good.
Among humankind the fruit of love is the desire for the existence and the good of another. In its perfection is the giving of one’s life for another. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:3). The grand reality and exemplar is the cross of Christ, when God offered Himself, and with the charity it bought at Pentecost, that sacrifice enables Christians to give themselves up to their ordinary duties with love and then on a certain day perhaps to follow Maximillian Kolbe and say, take my life in place of his. Few are called to make such a sudden and complete gift of life, but wherever will is bent to what is good, restraint allowed willingly to discipline desire, the divine charity is quietly on display. Love rejoices in what is good.
Love has moral antonyms. One is hatred. The desire that another should not be, perhaps because of some wrong suffered. But more commonly the failure of love results in envy, or the resentment that God has given to others the good things that should be ours. While envy is a rebellion against charity, it is more specifically a rebellion against Divine Providence. And it is the stuff of life in these our times. What is politics without envy of the rich, with rich defined as those who have more? God gave one commandment about the distribution of wealth. It was the last of the ten: “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife; you shall not desire your neighbor’s house or his field … or anything that is your neighbor’s.” There is now vast industry, unknown to the author of Deuteronomy, whose purpose it is not only to inform regarding the marketplace, which may be useful, but to promote an abstract covetousness, perhaps not a desire for our neighbor’s possessions but the conviction that what he has should rightly be mine as well. Injustice is one root of the warfare that breaks out between the rich and the poor. Too easily envy and covetousness follow in its shadow,
The good things of this world, possessions, talent, beauty, are distributed by God unevenly, and it is the task of Christians to be grateful for the good things wherever we find them, for those good things He has given to others as well as for the good things He has given us. Envy of the talents and possessions He has given others in its most noxious form is resentment of the mercies God has given others. What God has for every soul is grace, the operant form of His love, and His gifts are His to distribute as He wills. Thus Jesus told the story of the workers in the vineyard who charged the owner with injustice because he gave those who had come late the same pay that he had given those who had labored all day. In today’s Gospel there is the famous complaint of the prodigal’s brother: “Look, all these years I have served you and not once did I disobey your orders; yet you never gave me a young goat to feast on with my friends. But when your son returns who has wasted your substance, for him you slaughter a fatted calf.” Envy blinds the eye of the soul to the blessings of others.
The greatest sorrow in life is to lose God, as Charles Péguy wrote, to fail to be a saint. And the greatest joy is to be in what is called a state of grace, to be in God’s presence with a heart full of love and a conscience unclouded by sin. Just as there was rejoicing when the lost coin was found, just so there is rejoicing when one dead through sin, as the prodigal son, is brought to life through repentance. Then even the angels in heaven rejoice.
Saint Paul reminds us that we are not to rejoice in evil but in what is right, but given our strange penchant of fallen mankind for bad news, catastrophe is always interesting and holiness is a bore. Bad news is always a temptation. Our first reflection may be relief that the evil pending did not happen to me. Next may come reflections on the moral meaning of the event. Perhaps he did, or did not, deserve it. The taste for good wine and great music is developed over time. And so also the incomparably greater ability to rejoice in the good is a work of time. But to do so is to be like God. The second commandment may not require that we lay down our lives for our neighbor today, but at the least that loving him as we love ourselves must mean finding pleasure in the good things that are his, even and especially when they are not ours. And this is why Saint Paul reminded us not to rejoice in evil but to rejoice in what is right.