My three-year-old son is in the thick of the concrete thinking stage of childhood. He is busy learning about the world, and part of that is taking comfort in order and absolutes. His little brain needs to know whether everyone is a “good guy” or a “bad guy.”
When we’re saying the Saint Michael prayer . . . Saint Michael = Good guy. Satan = Bad guy.
When we’re watching a nature documentary . . . Sharks = Bad guys. Always. Hyenas = Bad guys. Lions = Good guys. Except when Lions = Bad guys. Gazelles = Good guys.
People, of course, are even harder to figure out than lions.
I vividly remember sitting in Mass two years ago, reeling in the wake of the scandal rocking the Church as decades of priest sexual abuse had come to light. Today’s Old Testament reading was proclaimed. Like a child, I was grateful in that moment for order and absolutes. I knew that God heard our pain and understood our suffering and that justice would come for those bad guy shepherds.
Reading it again now, as the sharpness of that scandal has faded and other heartbreaking issues have leapt to the forefront of the troubles of the Church and our world, I am comforted more by the mercy of the parable in the Gospel reading, Matthew 20:1-16, than I am by the justice of the prophecy.
Yes, retribution will come swiftly for unrepentant bad guys. But as an adult, I am striving to be capable of more sophisticated reasoning. “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11 NRSVCE).
I am not three, so I remind myself that no one is 100% a bad guy*: not fallen priests, not historical figures, not current activists on one side or another of important issues, not even sharks. God wants each of us, no matter how tardy, no matter how sullied. He wants each of us, not canceled, but repentant and redeemed.
*As Christians, we desire the repentance and redemption and salvation of even the greatest sinners. This eternal truth doesn’t, of course, absolve those who have committed crimes from civil and temporal punishment.