What Mother Teresa wouldn’t do for a million dollars

The story has been repeated many times. A reporter watched Mother Teresa of Calcutta as she cleaned the maggot-infested wound of a man on the street, only to say, “I wouldn’t do what you do for a million dollars.” Mother is supposed to have replied, immediately, with a bit of a wry smile, “I wouldn’t either.”

Christianity has its own calculus of value, and it is not that of the world. The world must reckon—to the extent that it can—what things are worth. That is the only way we can compare objects and actions to achieve a balance in commerce. Granted, it is often not fair. It’s simply what the market dictates.

But Christians do not reckon as the world does because our picture of what it means to be human has been redrawn by Christ. Jesus of Nazareth reveals two disparate realities: who God is and who we are called to be. Put another way, he is both the fullness of the deity and the fullness of our humanity. So we look to him to comprehend both God and ourselves. Because of Christ, we view both divinity and humanity as transcendent, incalculable—certainly as priceless.

For us, the deepest truth about our humanity, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, is its inability to be circumscribed. So, when we ask what is possible of humanity, what is expected from each of us in our daily lives, we shun talk of lines, of privilege and of limitation. Instead, we speak of openness, of duty and of radical hope.

Thus says the Lord:
Share your bread with the hungry,
shelter the oppressed and the homeless;
clothe the naked when you see them,
and do not turn your back on your own (Is 58:7).

A few examples: Yes, a woman has a right to determine her role in reproduction, but the value of a child, born or unborn, cannot be reduced to a question of rights. Every human life possesses unlimited potential, even when it is unexpected and undesired and even when it is marred by sin. That is why the death penalty cannot be defended as a form of just retribution. The most evil of men might yet be touched by grace and then do more to restore the world’s justice by how he lives than by how he might have died.

Another example. Some would say that a lifetime commitment is no longer possible: We live too long; we have too many options; life itself is simply too complicated for that. Yet Christ poured out his life until even his blood stopped flowing. His last words in the Gospel of John are, “It is finished” (19:30). Every vow, faithfully kept, testifies to our understanding of what it means to be human. It is to give the self away, completely and irrevocably. That is not always possible in our fragile lives, but we must never reduce human potential to that which can be calculated.

So, for example, some would say that when suffering exceeds enjoyment of life, we humans have a right to end our lives. But we Christians do not call our lives our own, and therefore we calculate more than pleasure and pain. We believe that we ourselves are incomprehensible mysteries, that more happens within our lives than we ourselves know, that, as both our origin and our destiny lie beyond our reach, we are responsible to a mystery even larger than we are.

The cross of Christ does not make our suffering good in itself, but it does reveal that suffering has meaning, that it can achieve some greater good if borne well. Our counting is always cruciform. Our hopes for the world emerge from the darkness of an empty tomb.

Nations have a right to defend their borders. Indeed, they have the duty. They exist to promote the good of their citizens. That is why—let us admit it—from the very beginning, Christians have been diffident citizens at best. We believe in the flourishing of all men and women. We believe that evil is best conquered by the goodness of love. Those who lead nations must calculate as best they can. They have an awesome responsibility to their citizens. But Christians must ever seek to break down walls of division and hatred. We have a responsibility to God. Walls do not come from God or from our redeemed humanity, neither of which can be enclosed.

Christ commanded:

Your light must shine before others,
that they may see your good deeds
and glorify your heavenly Father (Mt 5:16).

In Christ, in Mary, in the life of every saint, we Christians see human life rewritten, transformed, raised up. Christ and his saints did not do what they did for millions of dollars but for something far more valuable, the inestimable worth of our redeemed humanity, which can be neither calculated nor restrained.

Readings: Isaiah 58:7-10   1 Corinthians 2:1-5   Matthew 5:13-16

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