Saturday, August 27, 2011

Nothing is Free

Once upon a time, as stories in the olden days often began, there was a king who loved his people and wanted them to live the good life. But how could he best do this, he wondered. He decided to bring together the wisest men of the kingdom, and told them to set down in writing what the the people needed to know to live a life worth living.

Hundreds of sages, after much discussion, put together 12 volumes of wise sayings, and presented them to the king. He told the sages that the people were too busy and had no time to read 12 volumes, and that they should reduce the number of books. After reducing the 12 volumes to one, and presenting it to the king, the sages again were told to reduce it further so the people would be able to quickly understand how to live the good life. After some months of further discussion and deep thought, they came back to the king with one sentence:  "Nothing in the world  is free." Of all the wise sayings that have been passed down to us over the years, the sages found this saying to be the most valuable.

The Desk Columnist  of the Catholic Times wants us to reflect on the wisdom of this parable. In Europe, they say: Only the cheese in the mouse trap is free. We know that in life if  one side gives and the other side only receives, this kind of relationship  does not last long. There has to be a mutual giving and receiving to have the relationship continue. That's why our ancestors' "spirit of mutual help," "exchange of services and labor," and "the bucket and water relationship" have been so important to Korean thinking.

God is always giving, but we have to cooperate with what was received and is being received with our 'yes'. The 'free' gift that Jesus gave us, as a token of his love, came with a cost. The whole idea of grace may be misunderstood if we believe it demands nothing from us. Grace is indeed free and is moving us continually, but we can choose  not to  cooperate, to receive but not to give back. This whole idea of justification (whether by grace or by works) has led to one of the most contentious issues between Protestants and Catholics. It is surprising that we have not been able to overcome this misunderstanding  by what we have experienced in life.

Though the saying that "there is nothing free on the earth" may seem not to be true, since we tend to think that the most valuable things on the earth are free, we would be forgetting that even the seemingly free things we are blessed with on earth are not without cost, as the columnist makes clear. If we have received something, even if it seems free, it involves a debt we have to repay, an exchange  between the giver and the receiver, a relationship expressed by "The way we plant is the way we will reap." A principle we do well in following.


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