Fr. Glenn: Setting Example

By Rev. Glenn Jones
Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church
Los Alamos

Sort of keeping on last week’s theme of honor and integrity, we know their importance in the individual life…and in the world. 

It is largely due to the lack of honor and integrity, I think, that our society is becoming such a morass of lawsuits, interminable contracts, etc. The long-honored custom of taking someone at his word or asking to cement a deal by word and handshake, is considered almost laughable in our day … naïve at very least.

Why is that? Why was it that in the past a person’s word was considered gold, and yet now we hardly trust at all? What caused such a shift in the ability to trust … or, more accurately, in the ability to be ABLE to trust. Simply because individuals succumb to the temptation of gain over personal honor and integrity.

We behave according to virtue because of two reasons: 1) fear of punishment, and 2) a sense of personal honor, which the virtuous find as far exceeding any material reward they might otherwise realize by deceit or subterfuge. The virtuous know that honor and integrity are cherished treasures, which no amount of money can hope to buy. 

In the past there was much more widespread belief in and following of the teaching of God in scripture … and, as mentioned last week, the certainty that there is no “no getting caught”, but rather always the remembered exhortation that “…since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses [of angels and saints], let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us…” (Hebrews 12:1) … not even to mention again the warning of Jesus: “Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known.” (Luke 12:2) for “He who walks in integrity walks securely, but he who perverts his ways will be found out.” (Proverbs 10:9)

I often worry about our youth, who no doubt survey the societal landscape with all the daily accounts of lying, cheating and stealing, and I wonder at how so many—much to the credit of themselves, their parents and their peers—remain virtuous and honorable. Lamentably, of course, some fall away from the good; that’s always tragic to see, especially when their behavior becomes obviously self-destructive. And yet … can we judge them, surrounded by poor examples? We cannot know all the influences in their lives. We can only seek to set a good example of honor, integrity and virtue, and hope that they’ll be wise enough to understand the enduring beauty and joy of such a life, rather than gravitate toward the misery to which vice so often leads. Yet we leave judgment to God, for as St. Paul writes: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” (Romans 14:4)

The task of the good person is simply to try to plant the seed of virtue in others … to set an example of the Good, in hope of not only maintaining honor and integrity within himself, but influencing others as well—especially the young—to pursue it. No, we shouldn’t toot our own horn; that is unnecessary and counter to humility. But as Jesus says: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid…Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 5:14-16)

“But I’m just one person; what good can I do?” the reader might protest. But I’m reminded of that story of the boy running back and forth from beach to sea, gently placing stranded starfish back into the ocean. A curmudgeon walking by snorted: “Young man, you cannot possibly save all these starfish!” But the boy simply continued his work, and replied: “No; but for those I do, I make all the difference in the world.”

We, too, need to make that difference … even for one person out of millions. You never know what domino effect may begin through a simple act of charity, patience or random kindness … expecting no reward for self, but leaving reward up to God.

The wise farmer knows that not every seed sprouts and comes to fruition, and yet he plants nonetheless. Likewise, not every good deed, honest word or act of integrity will be welcomed, or even acknowledged (in this life, at least). And yet, if no one sets the example, how will those who come after know the good? And so … as St. Paul exhorts us: “…aim at what is honorable not only in the Lord’s sight but also in the sight of men.” (2 Corinthians 8:21) … and “…whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

St. Paul knew that he would not necessarily see the fruit of his toil, and he knew that it was not he, but divine grace, which brings that toil to fruition: “…neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth.” (1 Corinthians 3:6-7) And so, like Paul, we simply seek the right and the good … knowing that some seeds sprout quickly, while others lay dormant for the right conditions. Thus, the unknown poet writes:

In youth, because I could not be a singer,
I did not even try to write a song;
I set not little trees along the roadside,
Because I knew their growth would take so long.
But now from wisdom that the years have brought me,
I know that it may be a blessed thing
To plant a tree for someone else to water,
Or [write] a song for someone else to sing.
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