In 1932, around the time of the Summer Olympic games in Los Angeles, California, Paramount Pictures released a farcical movie titled “Million Dollar Legs.” The movie was planned originally to star the Marx Brothers. The script was very similar to the silly, childish, but entertaining type of humor that made the Marx Brothers famous. At the last minute, however, W. C. Fields was chosen for the leading role.
Fields played the President of a tiny, vaguely eastern European, republic called Klopstockia. The republic was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the President managed to retain power only as a result of his physical strength. (His cabinet ministers arm-wrestled him daily to determine who would lead the government.)
An American brush salesman working in Klopstockia fell in love with the President’s daughter. The President saw an opportunity to shore up his tenuous political power by requiring the salesman to lead Klopstockia’s amateur athletes to victory at the upcoming Olympic games in Los Angeles.
The salesman was understandably reluctant to be an Olympic coach; he had no experience whatsoever of coaching athletes. Eventually, his love of the President’s daughter overcame his misgivings about coaching an Olympic team. He won the Olympic competition, and the hand of the President’s daughter, due largely to a very fast runner on the Klopstockian team. The movie’s title derives from the very fast runner who helped win the competition. The runner literally had “million dollar legs.”
Reluctance to take up overwhelming challenges is common and sensible. The human ability to evaluate risk and reward prevents a great deal of failure and disappointment. There are times, however, when it is both to our own benefit and that of wider society for us to take on what might appear to be a nearly impossible task.
Today’s first reading says, “Nations shall walk by your light, kings by the radiance of your dawning.” (Isaiah 60:3) This prophecy was uttered to the exiles who had returned from Babylon. At the time this prophecy was spoken, there was nothing about Jerusalem or its residents that would lead one to think of them as being capable of being a light for the nations.
Despite their diminished state, God called the newly returned exiles to a new vocation. Their new vocation was not only to rebuild Jerusalem for the sake of all Jews, but to do so for the sake of all people. I’m sure that, just like the brush salesman in the movie, the exiles felt that their new task far exceeded their abilities. Crucially, God knew better. He said about the returned exiles and their universal vocation, “Then you shall see and be radiant, your heart shall throb and overflow.” (Isaiah 60:5)
“Million Dollar Legs” could not have been more absurd even if the Marx Brothers had been chosen to star in it. I would like to think, however, that the movie intended to offer insightful social commentary. I don’t think it’s too far-fetched to see the movie as a parable about the counter-cultural message proclaimed by celebrating the democratic ideals of the Olympic Games at a time when fascism was gaining popularity throughout the western world.
Even if it is devoid of any deeper meanings, the movie is a good illustration of the message of the Scriptures this Sunday. It is often the case that we are called to a vocation that seems beyond our abilities. If it is God calling us, however, we can be certain of divine assistance in responding to the call. Just as the poor, displaced, and overwhelmed exiles were called to repair both Jerusalem and the entire world, we are called to serve God in ways that might seem very daunting.
It is common enough to be reluctant to participate in volunteer activities, evangelization efforts, and social justice work. These sorts of tasks can be very intimidating. Anyone who is honest with themselves might well admit that they are not sufficiently virtuous to be seen as a leader of virtuous projects. Crucially, God knows better. These are the tasks to which God calls us each day.
To be reluctant to give public witness to one’s faith is probably a sign of prudence. To give public witness to one’s faith, despite one’s unworthiness, is a sure sign of trust in God. To be reluctant to take up the struggle to improve the lives of the poor is probably a sign of common sense. To take up the struggle to improve the lives of the poor and marginalized, despite the likelihood of failure, is a sure sign of selfless love.
God calls each of us, and all of the Faithful, to be light for the world. If we have any common sense at all, this should sound terrifying. If we have any faith at all, it should also sound like an obligation that comes with the promise of Divine assistance.
The next time you see great need, and feel reluctant to try to make a difference in the world, keep in mind that both the need and your feelings of unworthiness are the sound of God’s voice. God calls us each day to bring light to the world, and God offers us Divine strength to accomplish what we could never hope to accomplish on our own. Our response to God’s call brings with it the promise of God’s help.