Simcha Fisher: Duty and Salvation

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Father with son on his shoulders
Reflecting on the dynamics of parenting can reveal a lot about who Jesus Christ is.

Surprise! Being an adult isn’t all cartoons and candy

When my oldest kid was about four, she happened to wake up around midnight to go to the bathroom. She stumbled through the living room, where my husband and I were sitting.

On this particular night – which was not a typical night! – we happened to be watching Daffy Duck cartoons and eating candy. She didn’t say a word, but just nodded to herself and kept walking. She was clearly thinking, “I KNEW it!”

It was, as I say, not a typical night. A typical night would be more likely to find us filling out insurance paperwork, trying to get stains out of someone’s favourite overalls, or simply trying to muster up the strength to get up, brush our teeth, struggle our way under the covers, and get a few hours of sleep before the baby woke up for her first feeding, so we could catch another few hours of sleep before it was time to get up and do it all over again, take care of everybody and everything all over again.

But what she saw was burned into her brain, and she thought she had found the real secret of adulthood: As soon as the kids’ bedroom door closes, you can do WHATEVER YOU WANT.

She wasn’t really wrong. Adults CAN do whatever they want. The catch is, if they DECIDE to do whatever they want, they’ll almost certainly ruin their lives and the lives of everyone around them, and go to hell when they die. It’s kind of a big catch.

What I tell my kids is that, when you’re a child, people make you do things you don’t want to do. But when you’re an adult, you have to make yourself do the things you don’t want to do. You have to be the unwilling worker and the strict taskmaster, both!

“when you’re a child, people make you do things you don’t want to do. But when you’re an adult, you have to make yourself do the things you don’t want to do.”

It occurs to me that we, even as adults, often fall into thinking of God as the strict taskmaster: the one who descends from on high, telling us what we can and cannot do. Every time we feel the urge to do WHATEVER WE WANT — uh oh, here comes God, saying “no, no, no.” Get up, take care of the thing, don’t do the thing you want to do, do the thing you don’t want to do instead. Then, tomorrow, do it all over again, even though you’re tired.

Following the ten commandments can feel very much like this, some days, or some years. And then we go to confession and admit, “I didn’t do the thing you told me to do. I failed.” And God forgives us, which is nice.

I’ve been teaching my faith formation class, over and over again, that Jesus is the Good Shepherd and we are the sheep. We are the silly ones who need to be saved, and He is the saviour. We are the wandering ones, and He is the one who finds us. We are the ones who fall into the hole, and He is the one who pulls us out again.

So I was making up my lesson plans and I realised that, with all this talk about sheep, I had not yet introduced the kids to the idea that Jesus is the paschal lamb. And boy, the strangeness of it hit me right between the eyes. God is not only the shepherd, but also the lamb.

I know you know this. You’re a Catholic, so you’ve heard it all before. But have you ever thought about how strange it is?

As adults trying to explain life to our kids, we can tell them that being an adult isn’t all cartoons and candy. It’s also working hard and being disciplined and doing chores, and it’s also being the one who has to make ourselves do those things. We grow from being the one who must be compelled to work, to being the teacher who works and compels others to work.

But when the Son of God became human, He went from being the one who cannot be compelled to do anything, because He is God, to being the one who allows himself to be compelled. Allows himself to be bound, to be broken, to be burnt, to be consumed.

He is not only the shepherd, He is the lamb.

I know you know this, because you are Catholic. But isn’t it strange? Why would he do that, when He didn’t have to?

You know the answer: Because he loves us. It’s why parents do things for their children, and why, sometimes, there is a break in the drudgery and we do things for our children with joy and delight. Not because we have to. We could get away without doing them. But we want to, because we love them. There is no need to compel us. It becomes what we want to do.

When we go to confession, we tell the Lord, “I didn’t do the thing you told me to do.” And He forgives us. But more than this: He puts Himself in our place. He becomes not only the one to forgive, but the one to take on the burden of having failed. IT IS STRANGE. He should be the one to compel us, but He does not. Instead He offers an invitation, with love. He invites us to do what we need to do to be safe and well and happy and whole. And when we fail, He takes the fall for us. The Shepherd and the lamb both. He allows himself to be compelled so that we can learn to be like Him, who does things not out of necessity but out of love.

When you’re an adult, you do what you have to do, and you’re the one who makes yourself do it, too. But when you’re an adult in the faith, there are at least some times when work becomes a joy, when obligation becomes delight. To worship God and give Him thanks is, as it says in the Mass, both “our duty and our salvation”. Duty and salvation become one and the same.

So go ahead, adults, and do whatever you want. But ask the Lamb to help you want what He wants, which is to save you.

Related articles:

Simcha Fisher: How I’m teaching about confession with the Sheep Game
George Weigel: Embracing the Redeemer