This week the Canadian Census released a portrait of Canadian families. What did we learn? First of all, there are a lot of different kinds of families. Common-law couples with kids. Common-law couples without. Same-sex couples. Singles. Blended families. Single-parent families. Multi-generational families all under one roof. The most common kind of family remains the most traditional one: a married mom and dad and kids. What does that say about us? Does this mean we are more conservative in our values than the United States, which has more single-parent families, for instance? That’s what one Globe columnist suggested. In fact, I’d say the growing diversity of Canadian families speaks to the diversity of our population, and our acceptance of diversity. And probably the fact that we tend, as a nation, to take more responsibility for one another. These days, though, we also have to be wary that this national sentiment isn’t slipping away.
Consider the recent leaked-tape scandal distracting our neighbors to the south. Presidential candidate Mitt Romney is caught giving a speech to a wealthy group of donors. In the now infamous speech, he gets talking about the 47 per cent of Americans who can’t be bothered to take responsibility for their lives, who, as he puts it, expect food and housing and feel entitled, basically, to a handout. They are, reading between the lines, the lazy ones not worth a candidates time.
But what do we feel entitled to? This idea of entitlement comes up every once in a while in discussions at dinner parties. What should people be entitled to? Can they just expect to get unemployment and welfare anytime they need it? Usually, in my experience, this view is expressed by someone who has it pretty good – and had it pretty good growing up. Someone who had the fortune to be born into an upper-middle-class family, who had educated parents, who had certain advantages. Someone who got to university and left it debt free. We tend to make life about smarts – some people just have it. But of course, we know it’s really not so: smart people can be unlucky. They suffer tragedy that throws them off. They get a couple years of a bad teacher. And smart people can miss out on opportunities because they had to work a part-time job rather than sitting on student council.
Our readings this morning tackle this issue of entitlement, by asking the question: what do we owe one another? Given that we’d all rather be wise than foolish, the second reading spells it out: “Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom…,” the reading tells us. “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Full of mercy. Without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. Hypocrisy – that’s a good word to focus on. When people talk about entitlement – as in receiving help from the government – they often fail to count the help that they themselves received. When people count their success as a personal accomplishment, and someone else’s apparent failure as personal weakness, they want us to ignore all the breaks and helpful people that made success possible. But the second reading cautions us to be wise to this hypocrisy – to be full of mercy, and to not be partial to one version of events while discounting the flip side. The good fruits of wisdom teach us not to be ambitious in our success, but to be ambitious in what we do with it.
Then we have Jesus, in the famous moment from the gospel, placing a child on his lap, when the people around him would have shooed that child away. The illustration is clear: a child is a non-person, not important, not worth Jesus’s time. But Jesus dismantles that view; “Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me.”
What’s more, Jesus says: “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant to all.” A parishioner asked me this week what drives me — what keeps me going? I said a sense of entitlement. Not the ‘I’m better than you are,’ or judgmental kind of entitlement, or the works-righteousness sort of entitlement. It is the kind of entitlement that acknowledges that I have been given my fair share of breaks and I’m just trying to say thank you for everything I have been and am being given. “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant to all.”
This is as clear a call to mission as one can read in the gospel. We who find ourselves among the first – who want to be seen as first among God – must lead in service. That is the entitlement we have received from the gospel. Not glory, but service.
That is the nature of the social contract that we live in; and the contract we follow with the gospel.