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We’re condemned to act in character


Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say - ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.”

- John 12: 20-33

At first glance, Jesus doesn’t seem to be making a great deal of sense here. He responds to a yes or no question with a long discourse that seems wholly unrelated to the business at hand. But his response is not the non sequitur it first appears to be, because the appearance of these two Greeks signifies an important point in the life and work of Jesus. They represent the universal Christian mission - something that could only begin with the death of Jesus.

Now the Son of Man must either go forward or quit.

Jesus will not quit, of course. We know that, not only because we already know how the story turns out, but because we know that any decision other than the decision to go ahead would have been utterly out of character for Jesus. His life - his character - was built bit-by-bit, day-by-day, decision-by-decision. To be sure, Jesus was free, in the sense that he could have, in principle, decided not to go ahead. He had a choice, and, in principle, he could have chosen to go back to Nazareth and live out the remainder of his life as a carpenter. But he didn’t want to, and wouldn’t have wanted to, and thus the decision to go forward, though objectively courageous, probably wasn’t something that Jesus had to think about very much.

I’m convinced that people in Jesus’ situation don’t think of themselves as making momentous choices. It may look that way from the outside, but I don’t think that’s the way it is. They simply do what seems like the thing to do, meaning they do what is most consistent with the decisions they’ve already made, meaning they do what is most in character. In a similar way, I don’t think that people we think of as especially courageous think of themselves that way. Rosa Parks, for example, hasn’t described refusing to move to the back of the bus as heroic. In her mind, she was tired: tired from a long day’s work and tired of being pushed around. Heroes don’t think they’re being courageous; they just think they’re doing what has to be done. In other words, they are acting in character.

Now “in character” does not necessarily mean smartest or best, most prudent or holiest. It simply means most consistent. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we spend our lives forming ourselves, both individually and collectively. Day after day, decision after decision, we make ourselves into the men and women we are: men and women who live primarily for themselves, or men and women who live primarily for others; men and women with broad, generous and expansive vision, or men and women who are narrow and closed in upon themselves. The upshot of this is that there are very few things we do or say that don’t matter.

Even a decision that has little effect on the way the world operates makes a difference in the life of the person making the decision; a given decision may not be as important as another, but every decision is important nonetheless. Every time I ignore a small injustice done to someone, it becomes easier for me to ignore, and even participate in, the world’s greater injustices. If I quietly watch a retail clerk snub a person of modest means, it becomes that much easier for me to participate in the structures that keep people in poverty. A great many seemingly benign or inconsequential moments add up to something that is truly deadly. It is not for nothing that we are urged to live deliberately.

Once character is formed, it cannot easily be changed, not without genuine and even wrenching effort. Often this effort is inspired by something that serves to shatter the world in which we have been living: a new experience, perhaps, or a bit of hitherto unknown information or a new acquaintance. We’re left at a real turning point, a point from which we can proceed in a new and better direction. This is when we must claim our God-given freedom to begin to build our characters anew. With God’s help, we can do just that.

Jesuit Fr. Dirk Dunfee is minister to the Jesuit community at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo.

National Catholic Reporter, April 7, 2000