Once upon a time a miserly baker once lived next to a poor kind and generous soul. Every morning the smell of cinnamon buns and sweet rolls wafted out of the bakery and the neighbor would enjoy the aroma as he ate his breakfast of oatmeal. The baker watched from his window – he could see the neighbor enjoying the scent of fresh rolls. The baker’s miserly heart was struck and he thought to himself: The smell of my rolls and bread make his lousy food taste delicious! He should have to pay me for it! Well he went next door and handed his neighbor a bill. The neighbor laughed and said: Thank you for the wonderful smell of your rolls but I don’t have enough money to pay this bill.
Enraged, the baker went to the judge to plead his case. Everyone expected the judge to laugh him out of court but after listening to the baker he said: This is a very unusual case. I must be fair to both parties. He ordered the baker and the neighbor to appear in court and he ordered the neighbor to bring along five gold coins. The neighbor was nervous! Five coins was all the money he had left in the world. Still, he showed up the next morning with the money.
The judge made his decision. I find you guilty of stealing the baker’s smells, he told the neighbor. Do you have the five gold coins I told you to bring? Sadly the neighbor started to hand the coins over but the judge ordered him to stop. Not yet. Drop the coins from one hand to the other. After the neighbor had done this the judge asked the baker: Did you enjoy that sound? The baker answered, Oh, very much sir. The judge smiled to the neighbor then turned back to the baker: Then you have been repaid, said the judge. The pleasant sound of money is I think a fair payment for the sweet smell of your rolls. Case dismissed!
Now here is a story that is more than just a cute fable about wisdom – more – it is a story about our connectedness to one another. We are bound to each other in sounds and smells, in works and ways of which we are often not even aware. In these times of societal, political and even church division, I thought it a good analogy to use.
Jim Wallis, the well-known commentator on religion and values in American society wrote an article for TIME Magazine entitled Whatever Happened to the Common Good? Like the baker in that story, Jim Wallis writes that many Americans are so focused on their personal rights they fail to see their connectedness to their neighbor. It’s my right to refuse the vaccine. It is my right to own a gun. It’s my right to refuse to wear a mask. It’s my right to speak my mind however I choose. It’s my right to do this or that – and so on and so on. More and more, we seem to be so consumed with our personal rights! Jim Wallis maintains that we have forgotten a principle at the heart of community, a principle that has been a building block of both protestant and catholic ethics for centuries – we are in this life together. We are connected to one another in a social contract that should not be broken. We are on a journey to the kingdom as one human family. This is the Common Good!
In philosophy, economics, political science and even religious circles, the common good refers to either what is shared and beneficial for all or most members of a given community. This term first appeared as a philosophical concept in the 13th century in the writings of Thomas Aquinas. More writers such as Machiavelli, John Locke, Rousseau, James Madison, Adam Smith and Karl Marx would continue to develop the concept and the practicalities of such a lived experience.