A farmer ordered a dozen egg-laying chickens from the local livestock dealer, and said, “I’ll be away when you deliver them tomorrow, so just leave them in their cage outside my back door.” When the farmer returned home that evening, however, he found an empty crate, for the latch was defective, and the chickens had escaped. He immediately began a frantic search—not only on his own farm, but on the neighboring farms as well. The next day the farmer angrily called the livestock dealer and complained, “Because of your negligence, I spent half the night searching my farm and the neighboring farms for those lost chickens; it took me almost five hours to find all twelve of them.” After a brief silence, the dealer responded, “Twelve? I’d say you did pretty well for yourself. I must have misunderstood you yesterday. I thought you wanted half-a-dozen egg-layers—so there were only six chickens in that crate” (James F. Colaianni, Sunday Sermon Treasury of Illustrations, Vol. I, p. 265).
Like the farmer, we can have some very definite ideas on what’s right and wrong— except we’re often mistaken or misguided in our zeal to defend our rights. When we evaluate any situation, we automatically tend to see it from our own point of view; when we pass judgment, we’re almost always harder on other people than we are on ourselves. These double standards are spiritually dangerous, for they blind us to the inescapable truth that one day we will be judged by God according to His standards, not our own. Therefore, if we’re truly wise, we’ll begin preparing for this day of judgment by treating everyone we know and everyone we encounter with love, mercy, and respect.
God’s ways are far above ours; as the Book of Sirach (15:15-20) says, “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; He is mighty in power, and all-seeing.” St. Paul (1 Cor 2:6-10) echoes this idea by speaking of God’s wisdom as mysterious and hidden, and as something quite different from the so-called wisdom of this world. Sometimes we hear people try to justify or excuse themselves by saying something like, “Well, I may not be perfect, but at least I haven’t murdered anyone.” According to the Gospel of Matthew (5:17-37), the obvious response is, “No, but have you had murderous thoughts toward anyone? If so, you too are guilty in God’s eyes, and will be held accountable.” Jesus makes it clear in the Gospel that God doesn’t grade on a curve; whether in the areas of anger, sexual behavior, honesty and the taking of oaths or vows, or anything else, we are called to strive for perfection, and will be held fully accountable—not only for our deeds, but also in regard to our words and thoughts. This is a very difficult standard— but, as the Book of Sirach reminds us, “If you choose you can keep the commandments. . . ; if you trust in God, you . . . shall live.” The Lord’s grace and assistance are always available to us, and when we fall short, we are always entitled and encouraged to call upon God’s mercy—as long as we ourselves have tried to show mercy toward others.
In the 1750s George Washington was a very young and hot-tempered officer in the Virginia militia, and during a dispute with another office, said something very insulting. The offended officer knocked Washington to the ground, and everyone expected him to get up and challenge the other man to a duel, but he said nothing. The next day Washington went to the officer and said, “To err is human. I insulted you yesterday, and you took satisfaction. If you consider that satisfaction sufficient, let us be friends. Here is my hand.” The surprised fellow officer took Washington’s outstretched hand, and the two of them remained as friends the rest of their lives (Rev. Francis Spirago, Anecdotes and Examples for the Catechism, p. 264).
What might have happened if instead George Washington had nursed a grudge, sought revenge, and made no effort to get his fierce temper under control? He probably would not have achieved that nobility of character which made him one of the greatest figures in human history, and certainly would not have received God’s blessing and peace, which proved crucial for him in enduring the difficult days of the Revolutionary War. Like our country’s first and probably greatest president, we are called to overcome our natural tendency toward anger and hurt feelings—so often rooted in pride—by humbly repenting of our sins and acknowledging our ongoing need for the Lord’s mercy. As Jesus says in the Gospel, “Settle with your opponent quickly while on the way to court; otherwise your opponent will hand you over to the judge, and the judge will hand you over to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison.” The judge refers to God, and the prison represents purgatory. If we’ve not sufficiently tried to be reconciled with God and our neighbor here in this world, we’re choosing to undergo a much more painful process of divine justice and purification in the next—and that’s always a very bad bargain.
In the Gospel we heard (Mt 5:1-12) on the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.” If we open our hearts to God’s peace, and genuinely try to share it with those around us—in particular, by forgiving those who wrong us, and sincerely apologizing to those we have wronged—then the Lord will indeed recognize us as His children, and welcome us with an abundance of mercy and favor. Our Heavenly Father’s standards are impossibly high—but at the same time, He responds to our honest love with unimaginably great grace and blessing. This means the more we let ourselves be filled with His love and peace, the more we can look forward to the day when finally we see Him face-to-face.