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What is in Our Best Self-Interest? The Answer is a Paradox

One section of my son’s reconciliation workbook asked him to identify the many gifts that had been given to him by Our Savior. I mentioned that his athletic ability had been a gift from Jesus. Ryan looked at me in surprise and said, “His Father gave me that.” His response pulled me into the center of the Mystery of the Trinity and of relationship. Throughout Scripture, we are reminded that God chose to create us in the Divine Image. In the deepest part of our being, then, we are called into relationship, into the eternal bonds of love flowing from the Creator, the Son and the Holy Spirit. 

How do we live out this mystery in our everyday lives? A first step is to acknowledge the fact that God created us to live in community and that we need others. Our culture tends to emphasize the individual – the “self-made man” – rather than acknowledging our need for others. We tend to forget our responsibilities toward others as we de-emphasize their importance to us. Social psychologists note the danger of this attitude through an example called the “Tragedy of the Commons.”

Picture a common pasture shared by many herds of cattle. Each herd owner knows that adding another animal will increase the profits. But all the herd owners make this decision and soon the land is overgrazed. This tragedy occurs when decisions are made in one’s own best interest without considering the responsibilities that are part of living in community.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus notes that a condition of discipleship is to “deny one’s self.” If we wish to save our lives, we must lose them. To deny one’s self is to let go of the egocentric view of individualism and to accept the responsibility that is a part of being made in the image of God. The paradox of our faith is that in losing self-interest we will find ourselves.

This year has been declared our year of Jubilee – a year in which debts are forgiven. In the book of Deuteronomy, we are told to relinquish the claims that keep others in debt to us. The solution to the “Tragedy of the Commons” is presented as well: “The Lord, your God, will bless you abundantly in the land given to you to occupy as your heritage, there should be no one of you in need.”  We live in relationship, we are created in the image of the Trinity – Three in One –  bound by eternal love. In this year of Jubilee, let us ask God to help us bring forgiveness and love into our relationships with family and friends, as well as with strangers and those with whom we differ.