“Mankind was My Business”

The over-all theme of the Parable of the Great Supper [Luke 14:16-24] has to do with how being “busy” can easily lead to excuse-making of a dubious kind because we then justify postponing our relationship with God based upon those very excuses.  But as Christ said in the parable, the Master of the Supper was not impressed.

This somehow connects in my mind with a certain literary classic.  Over the years I have read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens (and seen more than one film version!).  For me, one of the most effective passages in the book is toward the beginning, when the Ghost of Jacob Marley visits Scrooge on Christmas Eve.  By this time, the miserly and miserable character of Scrooge has been masterfully etched in by Dickens.  And to this day, the name of Scrooge is synonymous with avarice, greed, and a joyless and meaningless accumulation of profit.  Earlier, Scrooge had articulated some of the utilitarian philosophy of the 19th century when he coldly said in reference to the poor and prisoners, “If they would rather die they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.”

The Ghost of Marley returns to haunt Scrooge, but Marley himself is in great torment and anguish.  Imprisoned in chains from which he cannot free himself, Marley is doomed to roam the earth as a restless spirit witnessing human suffering that he cannot alleviate because he ignored that suffering selfishly during his time on earth.  Of the chains, Marley says, “I wear the chain I forged in life.  I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it.”

With a deep, bitter regret, Marley then confesses: “My spirit never walked beyond our counting-house—mark me!—in life my spirit never roved beyond the narrow limits of our money-changing hole; and weary journeys lie before me…!  Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one’s life opportunity misused!  Yet such was I!  Oh!  Such was I!”

At this point in this somewhat macabre dialogue between the two, Scrooge begins to grope for some signs of hope and relief as he intuitively realizes that Marley is speaking words of warning to him for his cold-hearted scorn for the rest of humanity.  When Scrooge protests the working of an unseen providence by saying, “but you were always a good man of business, Jacob,” we then hear what may be the most significant—and well-known—passage in this scene:  “‘Business!’ cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again.  ‘Mankind was my business.  The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were all my business.  The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business…!  It held up its chains at arm’s length, as if that were the cause of all its unavailing grief, and flung it heavily upon the ground again.  At this time of the rolling year,’ the spectre said, ‘I suffer most.  Why did I walk through crowds of fellow beings with my eyes turned down, and never raise them to that blessed Star which led the Wise Men to a poor abode!  Were there no poor homes to which its light would have conducted me!’”

Anticipating the regret of a life not well-lived is a frightening thought.  Especially if it comes down to having been too busy!

Good literature is capable of leaving strong indelible images that are much more effective than a well-argued treatise.  Dickens’ characters were always exaggerated or “larger than life,” as we may say.  But they then “typify” a great deal about life in the process.

Besides the necessary business that makes up our lives, and which must be done carefully and responsibly, just what else is it with which we are so “busy?”  Does that business also lead us away from charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence?  Are we presently scurrying around, making sure that we will have a “Merry Christmas,” while also turning our eyes downward so that we too cannot “see” the blessed Star that guides us to the Incarnate Christ?  Are we going to somehow be able to “fit” the Church into our “Business?”  Both the parable from Saint Luke’s Gospel and Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol raise the issue of our stewardship of time and the Christian truth that “mankind is our business.”