I had dinner with some friends on Easter Sunday. Among the guests were a couple and their infant son. The baby has quite an appetite; he’s huge. He looks like a miniature sumo wrestler or one of those really overweight cats which sits in a sunny window because it’s no longer capable of chasing birds.
The infant reminded me of Augustus Gloop, a character from the 1970 movie version of the “Willy Wonka” story by Roald Dahl. Augustus Gloop was a grossly overweight boy who couldn’t stop eating. His gluttonous behavior caused him to have an industrial accident while touring Willy Wonka’s factory; literally, he was eaten by the factory and became part of the edible products it manufactured.
The remaining characters fared similarly. A spoiled girl in the tour group fell down a garbage chute while having a temper tantrum. An impertinent girl who disregarded safety warnings was transformed into a blueberry as a result of her capricious behavior. A boy whose life revolved around television was miniaturized to the size of an image on a (CRT), television screen. Another boy whose selfishness led him to break one of the factory’s rules redeemed himself by an act of generosity.
“Willy Wonka” is a morality tale about the consequences of anti-social behavior. Although there is no religious dimension to the story, there are some similarities to the issue addressed by today’s Second Reading.
The author of the First Letter of John wrote, “Whoever says, ‘I know him,’ but does not keep his (the Lord’s) commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him.” (1 Jn. 2:4) This was a direct reference to some members of the author’s church community who had embraced an extremely anti-social belief; they believed that their Baptism prevented them from committing any further sins. They claimed to have a special relationship with Jesus that made it unnecessary for them to follow any moral teaching or to repent of their immorality. The author of the Letter stated that their claim to “know” Jesus was proved false by their behavior.
Like the misbehaving children in “Willy Wonka,” the most likely outcome for one’s life is that, left to one’s own wisdom and guidance, one will reduce the definition of “Good” to mean only what is judged to be good for oneself. The misbehaving children in the movie faced self-destructive consequences because of their unwillingness to practice justice and repentance.
The author of the First Letter of John points out both our tendency toward anti-social behavior and the redeeming effect of turning to Jesus repeatedly for the forgiveness of our sins. He wrote, “I am writing this to you so that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one.” (1 Jn. 2:1) Repentance, as a lifelong practice, prevents self-righteousness and provides a remedy for our tendency to see goodness only in terms of personal benefits.
A habit of lifelong repentance is easily and completely accomplished by making a daily examination of conscience and praying an act of contrition. One of Catholicism’s smartest traditions is the practice of a nightly examination of conscience before bedtime. The end of the day is an ideal time to look back at the good that we encountered during the day and the failures that we experienced; God’s good gifts are occasions for gratitude and our failings are occasions for repentance.
Knowing Jesus, following his teaching, offers the possibility of not reducing “Good” to nothing more than what is good for each of us individually. In addition to daily prayer with the Scriptures, one of the most effective ways to “know Jesus” is to look back on the days’ events, identify the times and places when we felt God’s presence, and ask God’s forgiveness for our unjust behavior.
The author of the First Letter of John wrote, “The way we may be sure that we know him is to keep his commandments.” (1 Jn.2:3) Keeping the Lord’s commandments does more than put appropriate limits on our over-indulgence, selfishness, and thoughtlessness; following Jesus’ commands to love God and neighbor gives us personal knowledge of him and personal knowledge of the depth of the goodness in the world. The author of the First Letter of John wrote, “Whoever keeps his word, the love of God is truly perfected in him.” (1 Jn. 2:5) Knowing Jesus’ teachings and following his teachings should have some obvious consequences for our lives; it should make us always grateful for God’s good gifts and it should make us quick to repent of our sins.