It continues to amaze me that some people think God is a projection of humanity’s wish. That may be true of idols or false gods, but it just doesn’t work with the God of Moses and the prophets, the God made flesh in Jesus. This God doesn’t act or behave as we would.
It is not just that God is more merciful than we might be, or more forgiving; God seems not even to think the way we do. As Isaiah reminds us, “As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts.”
Of course, God starts from a different place. Having all that is required, God’s actions do not spring from need, unless it be the need to give. The whole point of God’s love is in giving something to the other.
We needy creatures, however, act most basically out of insufficiency. It is understandable that we perceive all love in terms of fulfilling our lack. The other, whether God, human, animal, or thing, stands before us to serve our needs.
What is more, other beings stand as competitors. They, too, need. They want the same things we want. And their gain seems our loss. Not for nothing did Jean Paul Sartre, in one of his more rancorous moments, claim that hell was other people.
WH Auden wrote:
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have:
Not universal love,
But to be loved alone.
As Abel was a threat to Cain, so it has ever been.
No one needs to teach us to compete for love. A child, little more than a year old, will scream at the telephone’s intrusion on a mother’s attention. At the age of two, the threat of the other becomes so strong that some toddlers will literally hold and turn the face of the parent to grab back the gaze momentarily given to someone else. By three, some children seem most interested in toys when someone else is in the room who might dare to touch them.
“Who do you love best?” These are the words of a child who fears losing something when there are other children in the family. “I love all of you equally,” is never a satisfying answer. When the rest are out of the room, the question persists: “Now you can tell me; who do you really love best?”
“Am I your best friend?” Teenagers are not the only ones who harbor the hope to be number one, to be the one and only. Sharing the love of a special friend with someone else is rarely an occasion for toasts. It is rather like the loss of a nonrenewable natural resource. A new friend, a third member to the group, is like an invading army. And when we ourselves were unwelcome newcomers to a dyad, how often have we felt like a useless “third wheel”?
“Why am I not enough for you?” One hears the refrain from adults. A spouse says to the beloved: “Why do you need to go out with your friends? Why do you spend so much time doing things I don’t care for? Am I not enough?”
And I have heard the answer to the crestfallen questioner: “No, you are not enough. I love you and you’re my ‘one and only’ and you’re good to be with. But you are not everything.” Such is the error “bred in the bone.”
In our more honest and alert moments, Christ’s parable of the estate owner and the hired hands might well distress us. Some hard-working and enterprising souls start laboring in the vineyard at dawn. Subsequent groups, no doubt less resourceful, arrive at noon, mid-afternoon, and late afternoon and are put to work by the landowner. Finally, at the moment of payoff, those hired late receive a full day’s pay—and get paid first.
Those who started working at the break of day are not pleased with such a sweet deal: “This last group did only an hour’s work, but you have put them on the same basis as us, who have worked a full day in the scorching heat.” But the landowner, claiming that no injustice was done or agreement broken, does not accept their complaint. “I am free to do as I please with my money, am I not? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
Now, just judge that I am, and aspiring lawyer that I have been since infancy, I think the complainers had a point. The arrangement just isn’t fair. (How many times have we spoken or heard this refrain?) Surely the full-day workers did more to win the rewards of payment and approval. Surely they should have some compensation to match their efforts and achievement. By any just comparison or calculus of effort, they deserve more.
But more of what? More love? More happiness? How could there be more of that, unless love and happiness were themselves in some way unsatisfying to us? This matter of grace, this life of the kingdom, is not a calculus of rationality. It is a bountiful gratuity.
St. Paul seems to have felt this mystery of abundance. Even the greatest goods of life no longer hold him in thrall. He loves them, true. But it is a love that has ceased to grasp or compare. It is finally a love that gives, that says “yes” rather than, “You have to be mine and mine alone.”