We are different.
My father had a small plumbing business. He named it A & B Plumbing because when people looked for a plumber in the Yellow Pages (remember them?) he thought that his advertisement would be one of the first things they would see. He was the kind of a guy who learned how to do everything with his hands—he could fix cars, make things with wood and sheetrock, work with electricity, build sidewalks and stairs with concrete and brick, install heating and cooling systems in a house or an office. We never had to hire anyone to do that kind of work for our family—he did it all, with great craft and creativity. His parents were immigrants and they were very poor, and he learned all those skills by necessity. His challenging upbringing also taught him that the world is a very tough place, that you need to look out for yourself, and that many people are not to be trusted. As I struggled to grow up, I found him to be a hard man, stingy with his money and his love, and our father/son relationship was sometimes rocky. Although he recruited me at times to help him with his work, there was little chance in my young mind for there ever to be an A&B Plumbing and Son. I simply couldn’t imagine following his lead in business or frankly, in life.
As happens in many such families, my mother helped him with details like tax issues, insurance, licenses, and other matters. But my father was a terrible businessman. He was a perfectionist, he did quality work, and my mother always said he undervalued the time and effort that he devoted to his customers. At a certain point it was clear that A & B Plumbing was never going to make any significant money, and he eventually abandoned the business and found a mechanical engineer’s job in Penn Station in Manhattan.
One time, long after he had retired and died from the ravages of diabetes, I encountered one of his former customers. It was one of those unexpected connections: I was officiating at a wedding in New Jersey and one of the guests recognized my name, asking me if I was his son. She told me that my father had been extremely generous and kind to her when she had a very serious and extensive plumbing problem right after she became a widow. “He spent weeks working on my house, and in the end, I never got a bill for any of it,” she said. The only payment he accepted from her was a meal of sandwiches and soda she offered him. She never had a problem with her plumbing after that, and she never saw him again, but she was very grateful and she wanted me to know that. The encounter reminded me of other instances of my father’s quiet generosity that I had long forgotten or even suppressed, similar stories from neighbors and family members. In many ways, it contradicted the lessons he attempted to teach me when I was growing up. When I entered the Jesuits, my father told me that it was a foolish thing to do, and that I was throwing my life away for strangers. But then, what was he thinking with those acts of kindness and generosity? What was in his heart? Perhaps in his own way, it was my father’s attempt to do some good in the world, largely unseen and unnoticed except for the few he served. Maybe the business wasn’t as much of a failure as it seemed.
What did I inherit from my father? Certainly not a thriving plumbing business, and only a small amount of creative skills with my hands. But without even realizing it, maybe he gave me an example of humility and service, and generosity of heart.
All of this came back to me the other day when I read Jesus’ instructions to his “little flock” of disciples as he was passing on to them the ‘small business’ he had inherited when he was called out at the River Jordan. “Your Father is pleased to give you the Kingdom…”, he said to these simple men who worked with their hands as carpenters, builders, fishermen. 'Now go out and build the business,' he said. 'You don’t need much of anything—money, possessions, power--and what little you have you should share with those who have even less.' That kind of detachment, he knew, would change them, and draw them closer to God, their neighbors and especially to one another.
I wonder what their families thought of this new ‘small business’ they took on. Did their wives, their parents, or even their children think they were foolishly throwing their lives away? Follow this guy Jesus, loving and serving others without glamour, attention, or personal rewards? Become examples of loving leadership that the world would reject, that many would call weakness, or stupidity, or dangerously naïve? Was it really worth the risk that love always demands—to see others as sisters and brothers and not as enemies?
I was thinking about that 85 year old priest in France, Fr Jacque Hamel, who was executed on the altar at the end of a morning Mass by some teenagers who thought they had the truth. Although he was well beyond retirement age, he was worried that there were so few priests left, and so he decided to continue to quietly serve his community as best as he could. “Everyone loved him, he was like everyone’s grandfather”, someone said. "He was very humble, and gentle," said another. But even in his death, the risk of love he took yielded a remarkable scene. At his funeral Mass, the church was filled with many mourners, and at the end there was a very moving moment when weeping Christians and Muslims embraced one another as brothers and sisters in love. Outside the church, a banner: “Love for all. Hate for none.”
In a world that is hard and stingy with love, the small flock that Jesus gathered around him continues to grow the business that he began 2000 years ago.
In some ways, the world hasn’t changed all that much. There is still much hatred, bigotry, self interest, inequality, greed, cruelty and violence. People still believe that might makes right, that their tribe or their gods are better than others, that what they believe is the only truth, and that it is important to look out for number one.
But we are different. We should be different. We are the small flock that has been given the Kingdom---A&B Kingdom & Children---and the success of our 'family business' is needed in the world now more than ever.
It should give us pause to take on the inheritance, because it will mean the same consequences of love that the first small flock experienced—when you risk love you sometimes have to let go of things that the world tells you is important: riches, power, comfort, security…and sometimes even your life.
It’s a different kind of company that we are all called to as Christians, but it is a company that offers the only real promise of changing this world into what it is meant to be.