Richard Robb is CEO of a $5 billion hedge fund, and author of a book titled “Willful: How We Choose What We Do.” He wrote it to help us understand the central theme of neoclassical economics: that people base their decisions on rational choice—intending to maximize self-interest. He cites the parable of the Good Samaritan to make a key point about the folly of that approach to living as a good human being. The Samaritan not only stops to check on the status of a beating victim left at the side of a road, but he lavishes all his attention on this one random man “in an act of mercy that’s not optimal in any way. … Rather, the Samaritan’s actions lift his behavior into a realm beyond rational choice. If he’s lavished that degree of care on every beaten-up person he’s found, he’d never have made his way out of Jerusalem.”
His was an act of “for-itself” mercy. A Wall Street Journal columnist commented that “only for economists must the matter be spelled out.” Robb laments, “Rational-choice economics can untether us from life as it is lived.”
Robb neglects to mention the author of the Good Samaritan parable: Jesus Christ. If he had gone further into his Bible, he could have demystified the life lesson Jesus was teaching by helping his audience understand the invaluable family inheritance Jesus was passing on to us: irrational holiness. As this Sunday’s mass celebrates The Holy Family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, we can see that Robb would have done his rational readers a favor by studying the actions of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly father. Here is a man who, when he heard his beloved Mary was with-child, and knowing he was not the father, his initial instinct was to quietly divorce her. An angelic “dream” would then put him back on his irrational lifelong journey of faith, convincing him that Mary’s baby was, in fact, the Son of God and Savior of the World. This would be the first in a series of such dreams for Joseph, several of which we recall during our celebration of the Holy Family. But it wasn’t the dreams that saved Jesus from danger and premature death; it was Joseph’s courage to not make the rational choice: LEAVE THESE PEOPLE!
Instead, as Sunday’s gospel reading recalls (Mt 2:13-15, 19-23), he’s inspired to protect the newborn King from his jealous rival, King Herod, by fleeing to Egypt. And then, upon Herod’s death, he would continue that protection by keeping him away from Herod’s son Archelaus. Yes, it was another dream that inspired Joseph to take his family to Galilee.
He went and dwelt in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He shall be called a Nazorean.”
But danger would follow, and Joseph knew it. That’s why Mary and Joseph feared the worst when their 12-year-old son disappeared one day. After an agonizing search, they find their son getting a head-start on his destiny: spreading his Heavenly Father’s truth among a temple-full of scholars who were masters in all things rational.
When Jesus finally embarked on his public life, he worked on pounding his lessons of irrational holiness into the teachers he selected to pass them on to future generations—up to this very century’s slaves to rationality. It is Christ’s most irrational choice for doing this—Paul, a former persecutor of Christ’s followers—who in Sunday’s second reading (Col 3:12-21) offers advice that explains why his Master’s parable of the Good Samaritan makes complete sense.
Brothers and sisters: Put on, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience, bearing with one another and forgiving one another, if one has a grievance against another; as the Lord has forgiven you, so must you also do. And over all these put on love, that is, the bond of perfection.
If economists were perfect, we’d all be rich. But because The Holy Family we celebrate this Sunday is rooted in a divine lineage, we have an opportunity to courageously strive for our inheritance. Sunday’s first reading from the Old Testament book of Sirach (Sir 3:2-6, 12-14) shows descendants of the Holy Family a basic but surefire way to profit from their irrational investment of faith:
Whoever honors his father atones for sins, and preserves himself from them. When he prays, he is heard; he stores up riches who reveres his mother. Whoever honors his father is gladdened by children, and, when he prays, is heard.
Now let’s be like the Good Samaritan and be the answer to the irrational prayers of our fallen brothers and sisters.