Great Expectations

Here’s how young Pip learned that he had great expectations. One day the lawyer, Mr. Jaggers, showed up at the forge, where young Pip lived and worked, and said to Joe the blacksmith, Pip’s adult brother-in-law,

I am instructed to communicate to him,” said Mr. Jaggers, throwing his finger at me sideways, “that he will come into a handsome property. Further, that it is the desire of the present possessor of that property, that he be immediately removed from his present sphere of life and from this place, and be brought up as a gentleman—in a word, as a young fellow of great expectations.

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Pip does indeed become a gentleman, even something of a dandy, but—as most of us remember from our high school reading—he is quite wrong in his expectations. For many years, he believes that his benefactor is the wealthy, eccentric Miss Havisham, and that he has been raised in his estate so that he can marry her adopted daughter, and his childhood playmate, the haughty Estelle. 

It’s only toward the end of the novel that Pip learns the true identity of his benefactor. It’s Abel Magwitch, an escaped convict whom Pip had once aided as a small boy. The man never forgot the kindness, and, coming into wealth, he decided, in an act of unconditional love, to make Pip a gentleman.  

After revealing his identity, Magwitch explains that the only way to create the life, which he wanted for Pip was to endow it and then stay out of it.

Yes, Pip, dear boy, I’ve made a gentleman on you! It’s me wot has done it! I swore that time, sure as ever I earned a guinea, that guinea should go to you. I swore afterwards, sure as ever I spec’lated and got rich, you should get rich. I lived rough, that you should live smooth; I worked hard that you should be above work. What odds, dear boy? Do I tell it fur you to feel an obligation? Not a bit. I tell it, fur you to know as that there hunted dunghill dog wot you kep life in, got his head so high that he could make a gentleman—and, Pip, you’re him!

God is like Able Magwitch, seeing something in us while we’re still whippersnaps—indeed, before we were even conceived—and filling our lives with goodness. But God is also like Able Magwitch in stepping out of our lives, leaving us at liberty—literally creating our freedom—so that we can fulfill God’s own great expectations. God creates and sustains human life, and yet, that we might be our very selves, God also retreats from it. 

That’s why the only way to return God’s love is to love and to care for those who share this world with us. There is nothing else that we can give to God. Our prayers, even when they are those of adoration rather than petition, “add nothing to God’s greatness.” Even the Eucharist, which we speak of as offering to God, is, in reality, God’s gift to us in Christ.

Sometimes, non-believers take pride in their care for this earth and its people, and they ask what religion does for the world. “What good are prayers, and religious practices, if the poor are ignored, if justice is not done, if the environment is not sustained?”

Let us not duck the question by debating who does more good work, believers or unbelievers. Let us frankly answer it, because we need to be honest, more than anything with ourselves. Unbelievers are right. By itself, love of God is empty. It does nothing. Even God does not need it. God in Trinity is love itself, utterly self-sufficient. There is nothing in the nature of God that explains our need to love God and to serve God in others.

It’s to human nature that we must look for an answer to the question about love of God. It is in the very nature of love to bespeak itself. Love unexpressed is a wound against nature. That’s why love of God must show itself in love of others, because they alone are in this world with us. There is no one else here, within the world, to love. 

But, if love of God and love of others amount to the same, why does Christ enjoin both?

You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your soul,
and with all your mind.
This is the greatest and the first commandment.
The second is like it:
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
The whole law and the prophets depend on these two commandments (Mt 22: 37-40).
 

Why are there two commandments rather than one? Because the two loves alone are insufficient. Love of God, without love of others, is only the beginning of love. And love of others, which doesn’t lead to love of God, is a love without sight of source or summit.

Love created the world and now love sustains and awaits the world, waits as we learn to love, waits with the greatest of expectations.

Exodus 22: 20-26    1 Thessalonians 1: 5c-10    Matthew 22: 34-40

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