Sunday: It’s George Bailey Sunday
George Bailey, the character played by Jimmy Stewart in the classic film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), could relate to this Sunday’s readings — Aug. 31, the 22nd Week in Ordinary Time, Year A.
In today’s first reading comes the startling line “You duped me, O Lord, and I let myself be duped.” It goes on to explain that the prophet fell in love with the Lord, and now he knows too much. In order to satisfy his conscience, he must always speak a harsh-sounding countercultural message — one he gets in trouble for.
George Bailey is like that. Everyone in town finds a way to accommodate the corrupt and corrupting Mr. Potter and his money — but George can’t help himself. He has to cry out:
“Just remember this, Mr. Potter, that this rabble you’re talking about — they do most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community. Well, is it too much to have them work and pay and live and die in a couple of decent rooms and a bath? Anyway, my father didn’t think so. People were human beings to him. But to you, a warped, frustrated old man, they’re cattle. Well in my book, my father died a much richer man than you’ll ever be!”
Bailey could also appreciate the second reading, when St. Paul tells the Romans: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice.”
After spending his life serving his family’s business and his wife and kids, Bailey is a broken man. Potter sums up his life this way:
“Look at you. You used to be so cocky. You were going to go out and conquer the world. You once called me a warped, frustrated, old man! What are you but a warped, frustrated young man? A miserable little clerk crawling in here on your hands and knees and begging for help. No securities, no stocks, no bonds, nothing but a miserable little $500 equity in a life insurance policy. You’re worth more dead than alive!”
He was right: George Bailey’s whole life was a living sacrifice.
And finally, today’s Gospel perfectly sums up the lesson George learns at the end of the movie.
“Whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” says Jesus.
Of course, in the central plot device George literally finds his life by losing it. But more importantly, he learns that by systematically sacrificing every plan and preconception he had about his life he has not decimated his life’s worth, but multiplied it exponentially.
The Church today teaches us that our life can be as wonderful as George Bailey’s — but only if it is as hard as George Bailey’s.
In today’s first reading we are all called to be Jeremiahs and Baileys. We all innocently decided to follow Christ, not intending to bother anybody. Now, we find that Christ’s message is always relevant to circumstances that we face — and often not what others want to hear.
We must find say something to the Potters we face. When our brother says he’s moving in with his girlfriend, when a friend says he’s thinking of divorce, when the relative merits of candidates come up, we can’t simply be meek or neutral.
We also have to learn to give our lives as a sacrifice for others.
Those who try to make themselves happy before all else end up unhappy. Those who decide to make others happy end up happy themselves. Those who try to live for comforts end up profoundly uncomfortable. Those who accept suffering find that the gain is greater than the loss.
That is why Christ’s other famous words in today’s Gospel are a call to happiness, not a call to drudgery: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.”