Jesus said to the chief priests and elders of the people. “What is your opinion? A man has two sons. He came to the first and said, ‘Son, go out and work in the vineyard today.’ He said in reply, ‘I will not,’ but afterwards changed his mind and went. The man came to the other son and gave the same order. He said in reply, ‘Yes, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did his fathers will?” They answered, “The first.” Matthew: 21 28 – 30
It can be very stressful for us to deal with those difficult people in our lives. Those friends, colleagues and loved ones with whom we want to have a close relationship but whose personalities make it hard for us to be patient and loving. Those people who find a way to bring out the very worst in us. But if we can see past all the many weaknesses of the human personality, we just might catch a glimpse of the presence of Christ within.
In the above Gospel, the first son comes across as disrespectful, difficult, and pretty bad (probably someone we wouldn’t want to be around), while the second son outwardly appears to be respectful, well balanced, and good. But as Jesus shows us, things are not always what they appear to be.
In our own lives those outwardly dysfunctional and difficult people, we all know, might inwardly be very spiritual, loving, and close to God. There is the troublesome relative who feels insulted by everyone and brings chaos to every holiday gathering; the brother or sister or son or daughter who can’t hold a job and falls in and out of addiction or emotional illness, the neighbor who causes dissension and hurt feelings up and down the street. Despite the stress and aggravation that we may experience in their presence, all these souls might turn out, in the end, to be very holy people.
Things are not always what they appear to be. Only God sees and knows what’s in the heart of another. While we are all equal as children of God, we are not all equal in our ability to cope with life.
Writing on this subject Karl Rahner, one of the great Jesuit theologians of the 20th century, said that the issue is one of freedom: how much genuine freedom does one have for the journey, and what does one do with that freedom? Given the impact of environmental, genetic, and cultural factors on one’s personality, how loving of God and others was he or she able to be? In the end, this is the true measure of a person’s holiness and, I believe, how God will judge us.
We all have our personalities. Most of us have debits and credits in this area: traits that are positive and traits that are negative; qualities that endear us to others and hang-ups that drive people away. But we are much more than our personalities, and the realization of this can help us to forgive and accept the negatives in others – and, eventually, even the negatives in ourselves.
When God sends us into the world, God puts a little piece of Godself inside of us. That little piece of God within you and me, and within everyone who was ever born, is our immortal soul – it is the presence of Christ within us. My personality is not my soul. It is only the outward manifestation of my environmental conditions, my inherited genetic traits, and my personal history. My personality is the vehicle by which I move through life; by which I communicate with others. Sometimes that communication is loving and lovable, but sometimes, sadly, it can be angry, bitter, and even despicable – like son number one in the above Gospel.
But the object of our spiritual life is to transcend the limits of our ego, the limits of our personality, and to become one with our true Self — that little piece of God in each of us, the presence of Christ within.
When we can see past all the weaknesses of the human personality, when we can look beyond all the stress and dysfunction that accompanies those difficult people in our lives, we can begin to see their true goodness, and the presence of Christ that lives within. Once our eyes are opened and we can recognize him, it’s not so hard to love those difficult people in our lives — it’s not so hard to even love ourselves.
With love, Deacon Lex