As you might imagine, churches often get requests for research into genealogies—people wanting to find out the family line and history, and genetic testing and websites like ancestry.com have been a bit of a rage over the last couple of decades. Who were my kin? Is one of my long-long-past relations some great leader or ruler … or villain? Did my ancestors come over on the Mayflower, or maybe with the Spanish settling the southwest? But, of course, as far as longevity, all of us not of indigenous ancestry are comparatively newbie immigrants anyway. My own mother’s sister often claimed that her side was descended from Irish kings … which elicited the question from an impertinent, snotty young nephew (ahem!): “Then why are we here and not still there?” Well … sometimes it’s just best not to question family legend if you want to keep good relationships.
While such info may be of some interest, it is certainly not that of greatest import. When hearing boasts of this-or-that historic relationships with an accomplished personage, do we not think: “Well, that’s nice, but what have YOU done?”
Now, we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., last week—one of the greatest orators of our history—who so famously proclaimed in his epic “I Have a Dream” speech that far-seeing vision of humanity: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”
The content of their character. Is that not how we gauge others? Certainly we are raised among various long-held prejudices (and I don’t think any culture is immune), but when we get to know a person, regardless of race or nationality—or ancestry—we gauge that person by the content of his character. Who he/she is … their honesty, integrity, trustworthiness, dependability, fairness, empathy for the travails of others? Thus, in taking measure of others, it matters little who their ancestors were; it matters who THEY are. It matters little what our ancestors have done; what matters is what WE do. To try to glorify oneself by the works or status via incidental relations of the past seems a bit of a pathetic riding on the fading glories of one’s worthier relations.
Similarly, sometimes we’ll see some “tantalizing” headline on a website concerning some “A-lister” celebrity or billionaire. Okay, he/she may be famous and wealthy, and we might admire the characters they play for some reason, but who are they, really? Are they faithful spouse, family and friends? Are they gracious and kind to others, or arrogant and mean. Are they generous, or penuriously selfish?
A favorite passage in the Gospels is that when Jesus, while speaking to a crowd, is informed that His blood relations are waiting to greet Him. He replied, “Who are my mother and my brethren?” And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, “Here are my mother and my brethren! Whoever does the will of God is my brother, and sister, and mother.” (Mark 3:33-35)
Some mistakenly posit that Jesus is dismissing his blood relations in that passage, but that is incorrect; He wants to make the plain point that those who do the will of God—who do the Good—are His truest family, especially when we also consider: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)
We naturally tend to seek out those who are like-minded to ourselves; in them we find affirmation and friendship and reinforcement of our own behavior and thoughts. For instance, in social media we can either “Follow” or “Block” those with whom we agree or disagree, and create our own little echo chambers (which can be a danger as well if we become too isolated from reasoned argument). So, should we not then seek out most of all those who do what is right and good so that we might affirm and strengthen one another in a world that often idolizes that which is not good? Like Mary in the Gospel, should we not sit at the feet of the wise and good (in that instance, Jesus), seeking that which is the better part? (Luke 10:38-42) “Seek advice from every wise man, and do not despise any useful counsel.” (Tobit 4:18) and “Incline your ear, and hear the words of the wise, and apply your mind to … knowledge; for it will be pleasant if you keep them within you…” (Proverbs 22:17)
Of course, for the Christian, there is none wiser—indeed, there can be none wiser—than Christ Himself—the living and effective Word of God; what can be wiser than wisdom? And so His Words ring again to give us firm direction: “Every one then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house upon the rock; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat upon that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And every one who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house upon the sand; and the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell; and great was the fall of it.” (Matthew 7:24-27)
But even for the non-believer, we ask: Is there a greater human philosophy or tenet than Jesus’ “Love one another?” (John 13:34) and “…as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them.” (Luke 6:31)?
So, the best of heritages is not in superficialities of race, color, nationality, culture, etc., but in the essence of what kind of person we each are, and in how we seek the good of one another. Is this not the dream of MLK, Jr.? Is this not the dream of all humanity?
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.