Once upon a time a miserly baker once lived next to a poor kind and generous soul. Every morning the smell of cinnamon buns and sweet rolls wafted out of the bakery and the neighbor would enjoy the aroma as he ate his breakfast of oatmeal. The baker watched from his window – he could see the neighbor enjoying the scent of fresh rolls. The baker’s miserly heart was struck and he thought to himself: The smell of my rolls and bread make his lousy food taste delicious! He should have to pay me for it! Well he went next door and handed his neighbor a bill. The neighbor laughed and said: Thank you for the wonderful smell of your rolls but I don’t have enough money to pay this bill.
Enraged, the baker went to the judge to plead his case. Everyone expected the judge to laugh him out of court but after listening to the baker he said: This is a very unusual case. I must be fair to both parties. He ordered the baker and the neighbor to appear in court and he ordered the neighbor to bring along five gold coins. The neighbor was nervous! Five coins was all the money he had left in the world. Still, he showed up the next morning with the money.The judge made his decision. I find you guilty of stealing the baker’s smells, he told the neighbor. Do you have the five gold coins I told you to bring? Sadly the neighbor started to hand the coins over but the judge ordered him to stop. Not yet. Drop the coins from one hand to the other. After the neighbor had done this the judge asked the baker: Did you enjoy that sound? The baker answered, Oh, very much sir. The judge smiled to the neighbor then turned back to the baker: Then you have been repaid, said the judge. The pleasant sound of money is I think a fair payment for the sweet smell of your rolls. Case dismissed!
Now here is a story that is more than just a cute fable about wisdom – more – it is a story about our connectedness to one another. We are bound to each other in sounds and smells, in works and ways of which we are often not even aware. In these times of societal, political and even church division, I thought it a good analogy to use.
Jim Wallis, the well-known commentator on religion and values in American society wrote an article for TIME Magazine entitled Whatever Happened to the Common Good? Like the baker in that story, Jim Wallis writes that many Americans are so focused on their personal rights they fail to see their connectedness to their neighbor. It’s my right to refuse the vaccine. It is my right to own a gun. It’s my right to refuse to wear a mask. It’s my right to speak my mind however I choose. It’s my right to do this or that – and so on and so on. More and more, we seem to be so consumed with our personal rights! Jim Wallis maintains that we have forgotten a principle at the heart of community, a principle that has been a building block of both protestant and catholic ethics for centuries – we are in this life together. We are connected to one another in a social contract that should not be broken. We are on a journey to the kingdom as one human family. This is the Common Good!
In philosophy, economics, political science and even religious circles, the common good refers to either what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community. This term first appeared as a philosophical concept in the 13th century in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. More writers such as Machiavelli, John Locke, Rousseau, James Madison, Adam Smith and Karl Marx would continue to develop the concept and the practicalities of such a lived experience.
Jesus too spoke about the sense of common good when he shared the Parable of the Good Samaritan and asked a young man: Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers? And the writer of James speaks of common good we he writes: Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is faith? And again St. Paul writes to the Corinthians: There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit into one Lord.
Recently this past spring, Anna got us all watching “The Mighty Ducks: Game Changers” on Disney. The series is based on the popular movies from the 90s as we are introduced to a new era of kids wanting to make a difference playing hockey. Without giving the entire storyline away, the Ducks have changed and some kids are forced to create their own new team, the “Don’t Bothers” who must fight all odds to have any resemblance of a hockey team. Anna watching it and for me it was neat to see how the kids on the “Don’t Bothers” didn’t just play for themselves. They fought hard and played for each other. In their own way, they played for the Common Good!
I wonder if a renewed commitment to the Common Good might help our country heal in a time of deep division. How might we work together? How do we treat each other, especially the poorest and most vulnerable? How do we take care of not just ourselves but also one another? These are the questions of the Common Good. In the end these are the questions of how we love our neighbor as ourselves. Jim Wallis ends his reflection with a challenge of love:
The common good should impact all the decisions we make in our personal, family, vocational, financial, congregational, communal, and yes, public lives. It is those individual and communal choices—from how we raise our own children, to how we engage with our local communities, to what we are willing to bring to our elected officials—that will ultimately create the cultural shifts and social movements that really do change politics in the long run. Only by inspiring a spiritual and practical commitment to the common good can we help make our common life better.
Perhaps this is a good reminder for all of us entering the school and fall seasons. How can we all work together to deepen and strengthen our families and larger communities? How can we create a culture here that widens our circle of inclusion that truly welcomes everyone? I want to encourage all of us to commit ourselves to the Common Good as we strive to welcome and connect everyone helping them grow in their faith journey so that we can go be church after church sharing God’s love everywhere!