Sunday, September 25, 2016

Between Furniture and Clutter


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


My dear friends, do you know the difference between furniture and clutter? Imagine for a moment, if you will, your dream home. What does the interior look like? What do you find there? … Now imagine what the home of a hoarder probably looks like. Someone who compulsively collects junk. What’s the difference between the two? One obvious difference would be, of course, the amount of stuff in each house. Very likely, there’s much more stuff in the hoarder’s house than in your dream home.

But that’s not the only difference, right? Isn’t it true that even some well-furnished homes can be quite full of stuff as well? It’s just that the stuff is arranged in such a way that it somehow doesn’t make the space feel crammed. On the contrary, it actually makes it cosier. More inviting. Isn’t this the key difference between furniture and clutter? A properly furnished home welcomes people in. But a house that’s filled with clutter simply crowds them out.

Furniture welcomes in. Clutter crowds out.

This is true not just of our homes, but also of our lives as well. Like homes, human lives too can be filled with either furniture or clutter. They can either be welcoming, or they can crowd people out. Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings for today? Both the first reading and the gospel speak to us of people whose lives are filled with clutter.

The first reading is a dire warning addressed to those living in the lap of luxury. They lie on ivory beds. Feast on lamb and veal. Enjoy wine and song. But, attractive though it may be, all this luxury is actually no more than clutter. It fills the hearts and lives of the rich in such a way as to leave no room for the poor. This is the serious accusation that is levelled against them. The grievous sin from which the rich need to repent: About the ruin of Joseph they do not care at all. And this kind of cluttered living has serious consequences for the rich themselves. When attacked by their enemies, they will be the first to be exiled.

Cluttered lives, which crowd out the poor, leading to dire consequences. Clutter. Crowding. Consequences. We find the same 3-fold pattern in the life of the rich man in the gospel parable. Not only does he dress in designer clothes, and feast on gourmet meals. But he does this every day. And all this decadence causes him to fail to notice the destitute person lying at his gate. As a result, after he dies, the rich man suffers in Hades. A cluttered life, which crowds out the poor, leading to dire consequences. The same sad pattern as in the first reading.

Except for one additional detail. Something very important. Something highlighted by the opening words of the gospel. Words that tell us to whom the parable is addressed. Jesus said to the Pharisees… To better appreciate the importance of these words, we need to recall what earlier verses of the gospel tell us about the Pharisees. Not only do they love money, they also present themselves as highly religious people (cf. Lk 16:14-15). But the kind of religion they practise serves only to harden their hearts. Causing them to ignore the suffering of others. In other words, luxury is not the only thing that can clutter up our lives. Certain forms of religion do too. The kind of religion that tends to make us arrogant instead of humble. Self-righteous rather than merciful. Judgmental instead of forgiving.

But if this is what clutter looks like in the spiritual life, then what about furniture? We find the answer in the advice that St. Paul gives Timothy in the second reading. As a man dedicated to God, you must aim to be saintly and religious, filled with faith and love, patient and gentle… The kind of religion that Paul and Timothy practice fills their lives, not with the clutter of luxury and self-righteousness, but instead with the furniture of God’s loving and merciful presence.

And this divine presence causes them to act in a particular way. The same way in which God acts. The way described in the responsorial psalm. Which tells us that God is just to the oppressed, gives bread to the hungry, sets prisoners free, gives sight to the blind, raises up those who are bowed down… This is what it means to live a saintly and religious life. To be filled with the furniture of God’s presence. It is, quite simply, to welcome those most in need. Those who are poor. Not just materially. But spiritually as well.

As it is with our homes, so too in the spiritual life. Furniture welcomes people in. And clutter crowds them out. All of which might help us to reflect more deeply on ourselves. Very likely, for many of us, our lives are filled with a lot of stuff. Many activities and things. Many people and relationships. Which isn’t a bad thing. But the important question to ask is how we relate to all this stuff. How we arrange them in our lives. And, especially, what is at the centre of everything.

If what fills the centre is nothing more than our ego, our own selfish concerns and anxious strivings, then our lives will be cluttered. Crowding out all concern for others. Especially the needy. If, on the other hand, we allow God to occupy the centre of our lives, then we will gradually become more and more open to others. Even those who may be different from ourselves.

Welcoming in or crowding out. Hospitality or indifference. This is what distinguishes the godly from the selfish. And not just godly and selfish individuals. But also godly and selfish countries, communities, parishes, neighbourhood groups, ministries, families

Furniture welcomes in. Clutter crowds out.

My dear sisters and brothers, with which of these are we filling our hearts and our lives today?

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Non-Stick Pan


25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Didriks

My dear friends, have you ever tried cooking with a stainless steel pan? If you have, then you’ll know that there is something you need to do to the pan before placing the raw food into it? Do you know what you need to do to the pan? Yes, you first need to add some cooking oil to it, and heat it up. Otherwise, the food will stick to the pan. And your dining experience will be ruined.

Don’t you find this interesting? A pan is made for the sole purpose of cooking food that can then be served to people to eat. And yet, left in its natural state, the pan tends to cling stubbornly to the food. Refusing to let it go. So that, in order to fulfil its purpose, the pan must first be treated. Either with hot oil, or some synthetic non-stick material, like teflon. Something needs to come between the pan and the food. Otherwise the pan remains sticky. The food is ruined. And people go hungry.

But it’s not just frying pans that tend to be naturally sticky. We human beings do too, don’t we? We tend to cling stubbornly to things that we are actually supposed to let go. And one of the things that we are especially prone to clinging to is money. Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings today?

In the first reading, God accuses certain people of oppressing the poor and the needy. How do they do this? By cheating the poor of their hard-earned money. By charging more for less. By swindling and tampering with the scales. And they do this while making a show of observing the Jewish Law. Although they are careful to stop work on the Sabbath and other religious holidays, they can’t wait till the feast is over, so they can continue to cheat and oppress the poor.

And it’s not difficult to guess why they do this. The reason is simply greed. The tendency to cling to things. Especially to money. Money that is meant not just for themselves. But also for others. Not unlike a sticky stainless steel frying pan, greedy people cling to things that they are supposed to serve to others. As a result, food is ruined. And people go hungry.

But that’s not all. Greedy people don’t just end up victimising others. Whether they realise it or not, they also damage themselves. Like a sticky frying pan, they fail to fulfil the purpose for which they were created. Isn’t this what Jesus teaches us in the gospel parable?

Why is the dishonest steward commended by his master? Not for his dishonesty. That is, of course, wrong. But for his astuteness. For his willingness to let go of money when it’s the right time to do so. For his ability to use money to win friends. So as to secure his future. This is what an astute child of the world knows how to do. To make a short-term loss, in order to secure a long-term gain. This is also what Jesus expects the children of light to be able to do. With one crucial difference.

For the dishonest steward, as well as the other children of the world, making friends means networking with rich and powerful people. But, for the children of light, making friends means the exact opposite. It means doing what the responsorial psalm says God does. The image is striking. Although God is high above all nations, yet God stoops from the heights to look down. God lifts up the lowly from the dust, and raises up the poor from the dungheap.

What this tells us is that the poor are the friends of God. It is only by using money to make friends with the poor, that we, the children of light, are able to secure our future in the kingdom of God. Much like how a frying pan is made to cook and serve food for the hungry, we, the children of light, are called to expend our resources and even our very selves to help others. Especially those most in need. It is only by doing this that we attain our true purpose. For this is also what Jesus himself did. He who was rich made himself poor. So that we might be made rich out of his poverty (2 Cor 8:9).

And yet, to do this is not easy. For like an untreated frying pan we all have a natural tendency to be greedy. To cling to the things we are supposed to use to help others. And by clinging to them, we ruin not just others, but ourselves as well. What then must we do?

Again like any frying pan we need to allow something else to come between us and the things to which we cling. Not hot oil or teflon. But the love of God. The same God who, the second reading reminds us, wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth. We need to coat ourselves with the steadfast love of our merciful God. How? By heeding the advice of St. Paul: first of all, there should be prayers offered for everyone… Prayers offered so that God might melt hearts hardened by greed. Allowing them to let go of the things to which they cling. The things that are meant for the benefit of others.

Something like this is also what we have just celebrated in the combined rite of acceptance and welcoming. In submitting themselves to this rite, our dear catechumens and candidates have expressed their commitment to continually allow themselves to be coated by the love of God. To let nothing come between them and that love. The love expressed so eloquently in the sign of the Cross of Christ. So that they may no longer cling to anything or to anyone apart from God.

And by witnessing their commitment, by accepting and welcoming them, we the rest of the worshipping community  at the parish of St. Ignatius, commit ourselves to supporting them. Especially with our prayers. But also by our example. So that, not just them, but indeed all of us, may be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.

My dear catechumens, candidates, brothers and sisters, delicious food is already sizzling in the frying pan. What must we do to keep serving it to those who need it most today?

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Ignorance Is...


24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


My dear friends, can you complete this sentence? Ignorance is…  That’s easy enough, right? Ignorance is… bliss. So goes the proverb. And we know what it means, don’t we? It expresses the popular belief that it’s often better not to know something than to know it,and then to be kept awake at night worrying about it.

For example, in the movie, Men in Black, a top secret team of government agents go to great lengths to protect the earth against alien attacks. All the while keeping the rest of the human race blissfully unaware that aliens even exist. Let alone that they walk and work among us on earth. In disguise. Why keep everyone in the dark? The reason is simple. For fear that knowledge might lead to a general panic. Ignorance is bliss.

And perhaps many of us can identify with that. Especially those of us who have ever felt reluctant to see a doctor. Even though we might not be feeling 100% fit. Why? Precisely for fear that the doctor might discover something seriously wrong with us. Better not to know about it. Even if it’s there. Knowledge brings hassle and worry. Ignorance is bliss.

But do you agree, sisters and brothers? Does ignorance really bring bliss? And nothing else? What do you think?

At first glance, our Mass readings may appear to confirm this belief. In the first reading, it’s not aliens but God who comes very close to exterminating the people of Israel. Punishing them for their idolatry. For worshipping a golden calf made by their own hands, It is only because Moses pleads for them that God relents, and decides to show mercy. But, on their part, the people remain unaware of just how close they’ve come to being wiped off the face of the earth. For them, it would seem that ignorance is indeed blissful. Even ignorance of the immense mercy of God.

And yet, it doesn’t take much deeper reflection for us to realise the serious limitations to this point of view. Sure, ignorance of God’s mercy may lead the people to experience bliss of a certain kind. But doesn’t it also prevent them from regretting their actions and turning back to God? As you know, idolatry remains an ongoing problem for them all through the Old Testament. And perhaps the reason why the people find it so hard to repent is because they do not really appreciate how truly merciful God is towards them. Which goes to show that bliss is not the only outcome of ignorance. Stubbornness is too. Hardness of heart.

We find something similar in the gospel. In that beautiful parable that we all know so well, the elder son is quite obviously ignorant. Ignorant of how much his father really loves him. How much mercy the father shows him. You are with me always, his father tells him, and all I have is yours. Clearly, in his father’s eyes, he is not only a son, but an heir as well. Yet, the elder son  is ignorant of this. He considers himself nothing more than a slave. Look, all these years I have slaved for you, he tells his father, and never once disobeyed your orders… And, as a result of his ignorance, the elder son stubbornly refuses to celebrate his younger brother’s return. He resents his father’s willingness to forgive.

This situation of the elder son exactly mirrors that of the Pharisees and scribes at the beginning of the gospel. It is in response to their protests that Jesus tells the parable. Like the elder son, the Pharisees and scribes refuse to rejoice at the repentance of their siblings, the tax collectors and sinners. Why? Perhaps because, for all their apparent fidelity to the Law, the Pharisees and scribes have never really experienced or understood the mercy of God. Which indicates, once again, that ignorance leads not just to bliss. But also to slavery and resentment. To green-eyed envy and self-righteous judgment. Stubbornness and slavery. Jealousy and judgment. These also are the effects of ignorance.

In contrast, knowledge of God’s mercy brings very different results. In the parable, we’re told that the younger son came to his senses. What does this involve? Not just the realisation of how far he has fallen. Although that’s there. And not just the regret of all the foolish and sinful choices that have brought about his fall. Although that’s there too. For the younger son, coming to his senses also involves the recognition that, if only he returns home, his father will surely take him back. A beginning appreciation of the depths of his father’s love for him. If ignorance leads to stubbornness. Then even an initial understanding of God’s mercy brings repentance. And the joy of being forgiven and received back into the father’s house.

But that’s not all. In the second reading, we find something else that knowledge brings. Here, St. Paul writes about his own experience of God’s mercy. Even though Paul had been a persecutor of Christians, God still called him to be an apostle. Mercy… was shown me, Paul writes, because until I became a believer I had been acting in ignorance… And as a result of this radical shift from ignorance to mercy, Paul is now filled no longer with self-righteous hatred for Christians. But instead with heartfelt gratitude to the Lord. A gratitude expressed in the desire to sing God’s praises. And to serve God’s people.

Which is also what we find in Moses as well. For as you may recall, Moses had killed an Egyptian. And then escaped into the wilderness. But God showed him mercy by appearing to him in the form of a burning bush. And calling him to help save God’s people. Isn’t this what Moses is doing in the first reading? Saving the people by interceding for them before God? Just as he had interceded for them before Pharaoh?

In direct contrast to popular belief, at least when it comes to the mercy of God, ignorance brings not bliss, but stubbornness and slavery. Jealousy and judgment. While knowledge brings repentance and rejoicing. Gratitude and glory. Isn’t this one of the main reasons why we gather here today? To recall and to deepen our experience of the incredible mercy of God shown to us in our Lord Jesus Christ.

All of which might lead us to reflect on ourselves. In our daily lives, what do we experience more regularly? Stubbornness and resentment? Or repentance and service? The answers that we give will give us a good indication of how ignorant or how knowledgeable we are of God’s mercy.

My dear friends, at one point in the movie, Men in Black, veteran top secret agent K invites ordinary police detective James Edwards to consider becoming an agent like him. To leave the ignorance of the crowd. And to share the knowledge and mission of the Men in Black. Is it worth it? asks Edwards. O yah, it’s worth it, replies K. If you’re strong enough…

Brothers and sisters, what must we do to obtain the strength to deepen our knowledge of God’s mercy today?

Sunday, September 04, 2016

Between Lost & Found


23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


Picture: cc Long Mai

My dear friends, do you know if this is true? Perhaps it’s just an unfair stereotype, but I’ve been told that there’s a difference between how men and women react to being lost. Have you ever experienced this? It is said that, when a woman discovers that she is lost, she usually wastes no time. As soon as the first opportunity presents itself, she immediately asks someone for directions. And quickly finds her way to where she needs to go.

But, with a man, things get a little complicated. Apparently, when a man gets lost, his first reaction is usually to deny it. No, I am not lost. I just need a little more time to figure things out. Check the GPS again. Try this road. Or go down that street. It’s only after perhaps several hours of driving around in circles, that the man finally admits to himself that he really doesn’t have a clue how to get to where he needs to go. And decides to ask for help.

What do you think, my dear friends? Is there perhaps some grain of truth to all this? Does a woman really experience more freedom to ask for directions than a man? And, if so, what do you think is the reason for this? Why do some of us find it easier to admit to being lost? And to ask others for help? Whereas some others find it so difficult?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I suspect that it has something to do with a difference in the priority of our desires. According to the stereotype, a woman’s first priority is to find her way to where she wants to go. And in the shortest possible time. And she lets nothing hinder her from achieving that primary goal.

The priorities of the stereotypical man, however, are slightly different. Although, like the woman, he too wants to get to his intended destination in a timely fashion, there is often something else that he wants even more. He wants to have the satisfaction of knowing that he made it there on his own. Without any help from anyone else. And this second desire gets in the way of the first. It hinders the man. Makes him less free. In order to satisfy the first desire–reaching his destination–the man must first let go of the second desire–the satisfaction of doing it himself.

Freedom and hindrances. Desires and letting go. These are the same things that we find in our Mass texts today. You will recall that, in our opening prayer earlier, we asked God to grant us, God’s beloved sons and daughters, true freedom. But what does this true freedom look like? What do we use it for?

We find the beginnings of an answer in the first reading. Which tells us how difficult it is for a human being to discover the will of God. To penetrate the intentions of the Lord. For the reasonings of mortals are unsure and our intentions unstable… Often we don’t know what we ourselves want. What our own priorities are. Let alone discovering the wishes of God. So that, relying only on our own strength, we are unable to reach our intended destination. We cannot discover and carry out the will of God. We are hindered by our own weakness. We need God’s help. Thankfully, God does help us. God has granted Wisdom, and sent us God’s holy spirit from above, to show us the way we need to go.

We receive this guidance especially through Christ Jesus our Lord. The One who describes himself as the way, the truth, and the life. It is only when we follow in his footsteps. It is only when we are willing to imitate him in laying down our lives for love of others. That we are then able to find the way to where we need to go. To discover God’s will for us in our lives. To receive the guidance that God provides us. But to do this is not easy. We first need to admit our own weakness. To acknowledge our tendencies to get lost. And to let go of the competing desires that curb our freedom. Hindering us from receiving the Lord’s help.  Keeping us from truly following the Lord. We need to make our desire for God our very first priority. Above all other priorities.

All of which may help us to make sense of what Jesus is saying in the gospel. If any man comes to me without hating his father, mother, wife, children, brothers, sisters, yes and his own life too, he cannot be my disciple…. And, none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions. At first glance, the Lord seems to be demanding far too much from us. How can he expect us to hate the very people who are closest to us? The ones we hold most dear? And how are we to survive if we were to give up all our possessions?

But the Lord is speaking in relative terms. He is inviting us to examine our priorities. He is telling us that we need to make our desire to follow him the topmost priority in our lives. Above any other priority. Above any other relationship. Above any other desire. So that we may be willing to let go of everything and everyone else, when that person or thing hinders us from becoming the Lord’s disciple. This is the meaning of true Christian freedom. The freedom to make our desire to follow Christ our highest priority. Just as the stereotypical lost woman makes it her top priority to arrive at her intended destination.

The second reading gives us a concrete example of what this looks like in practice. In his old age, Paul writes a letter from prison to his friend Philemon. Concerning Philemon’s runaway slave, Onesimus, whom Paul had baptised. Even though Paul would like to keep Onesimus with him as an assistant, he decides to let him go. Paul sends the slave back to his master. But only so that Philemon might have the opportunity to set Onesimus free. To treat him no longer as a slave, but as a fellow disciple of the Lord. A dear brother in Christ.

Quite paradoxically, although Paul is physically still in prison, still bound by the chains that the Good News has brought him, he experiences great spiritual freedom. He does not let his desire to keep Onesimus for himself hinder him from doing God’s work. From helping to reconcile the slave with his master. Giving  Philemon the opportunity to exercise his own freedom. To let go of his possessions. In order to follow Christ the Lord.

Freedom and hindrances. Desires and letting go. These are the things that we find in our Mass readings today. But not just in our readings. If we are honest with ourselves, we find these same things in our lives as well. On a daily basis, we are challenged to remain focused on discovering and fulfilling what the Lord wants of us. That is our intended destination. And yet, from time to time, for one reason or another, we may find ourselves lost. Confused. Disoriented. Times when we may need guidance. It is especially in times like these we need to examine our priorities. To let go of all that hinders us from being truly free. To allow the Lord Jesus to truly be our Way, and our Truth, and our Life.

My dear friends, if it is true that people react in very different ways to being lost. Then what must we do to be more like the stereotypical woman and less like the stereotypical man today?

Saturday, August 27, 2016

Atas


Picture: cc Noel Cosgrave

My dear friends, do you know what a social climber is? I’m sure you do, right? It’s the kind of person who does whatever it takes to get ahead in life. I believe the Singlish word for it is atas. High class. Not that all high class people are social climbers. They’re not. But social climbers are people who try their very best to be and to look atas.

And one way to do this is, of course, by networking. Rubbing shoulders with the right crowd. All those people whom the climber believes can help him or her to climb higher and faster. Usually people already perceived as being atas. High class contacts that the climber carefully cultivates. For example, by visiting the places they visit. Dressing the way they dress. Behaving the way they behave.

But, as you know, this is done not necessarily because the climber really likes all these people. On the contrary, the climber may envy them. Even detest them. These contacts are cultivated not for their own sake. But only as means to an end. They are seen as so many rungs on a ladder. Stepping stones to help the climber reach the top. And that’s all that the climber really wants. To get to the top. That’s the ambition of the climber’s heart.

I mention this because I believe it is possible to misread our Mass readings for today. To see them as nothing more than an instruction manual for social climbers. For even though the readings are all about being humble, they do seem to encourage us to do so only in order to get ahead in life. So the first reading says be gentle in carrying out your business… The greater you are, the more you should behave humbly. But why? So that you will be popular. So that you will be better loved than a lavish giver. And so that you will find favour with the Lord.

In the gospel too, Jesus tells a parable advising guests at a wedding feast to take the lowest place. But why? So that your host may invite you higher. And so that everyone with you at the table will see you honoured. But then doesn’t all this look like nothing more than a sophisticated strategy for climbing the social ladder? I only pretend to take the lowest place. But my sights are really set much higher.

Even Jesus’ advice to his host can be misunderstood in a similar way. When we throw a party, why should we invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind? Is it because we really care about them? Well, it seems not. For the reason given is that repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again. So it may appear as if we invite the poor only so that we ourselves can be made rich. But then won’t we be using the poor the way social climbers may use the rich? Simply as rungs on a ladder? Stepping stones to reach the top? Is this what it means to be truly humble?

I think we can probably all agree that the answer is no. This is not what true humility looks like. True humility is not just about pretending to take the lowest place. Pretending to welcome the poor. Only so that we can ourselves be made rich. For when we do this, we continue to be driven by the same selfish ambition that motivates social climbers. Our concern is not really with the interests of the poor, much less with the will of God, but only with our own advancement. What is needed is a change of heart.

But this is something that is actually beyond our own strength. As the first reading tells us, there is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him. We really do not have what it takes to make ourselves humble. Which is why we prayed the way we did in our opening prayer earlier. We asked the God of might, and the giver of every good gift, to put into our hearts the love of your name. We asked God to change our hearts. To replace our selfish ambition with a burning desire for God. This is the first step to true humility. A change of the contents of our hearts. A clearing out of selfish ambition. And a filling in with the love of God.

And the good news for us is that God has already answered our prayer. By sending us Jesus. Who emptied himself to become a human being like us. And who then humbled himself to accept a shameful death on the Cross. It is when we gaze upon the reality of the Lord’s painful sacrifice. It is when we gather to recall the mystery of his great love for us. That we allow God to change our hearts in the direction of true humility. Melting the hardness of our pride. And igniting in us the fire of God’s love.

But that’s not all. This change in the content of our hearts has an important practical effect on us. We begin to lose our anxious ambition for getting to the top. Why? Simply because we begin to feel at home in God. As we prayed in our responsorial psalm: In your goodness, O God, you prepared a home for the poor. By changing our hearts, God leads us home. God enables us to feel at home in whatever situation we might find ourselves. For our hearts remain always centred on God. As St. Augustine once wrote, You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

The change of heart leads to a corresponding change in spiritual location. From selfish ambition to love of God. From anxious striving to peaceful homecoming. The second reading describes for us what this new spiritual location looks and feels like. What you have come to is Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem… You have come to God himself… and to Jesus, the mediator who brings a new covenant. More important, when we reach this spiritual home, we find a surprise waiting for us. For the reading tells us that in this new spiritual location, everyone is a ‘first-born son’. In other words, here, at home in God, everyone of us is an heir. We no longer need to climb. For we find ourselves already mysteriously at the very top.

A change of heart. A coming back home. A claiming our dignity as heir. Heart. Home. Heir. These are the real stepping stones to true humility. This is the authentic path. Not a climbing over others. But a laying down of one’s life for their sake. This is the path that the Lord himself walked. The path that leads to the heights of heaven. By first passing through the depths of the earth. This is the Christian approach to being truly atas.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to continue walking along this path today?

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Between Obstacles & Opportunities


21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)


My dear friends, if I were to ask you what you think is the most memorable moment in this year’s Olympic Games, what would you say? I expect that, for many Singaporeans, the most memorable moment must have been when Joseph Schooling struck gold in the men’s 100m butterfly swimming event. And that’s to be expected. It is, after all, our nation’s first ever Olympic gold medal! But, even so, I wonder if there is not another even more memorable Olympic moment. Memorable not just for a single nation. But for the whole human race.

It happens midway into the second heat of the first round in the women’s 5000m race. Many runners are bunched up tightly. Jostling for position. Abbey D’Agostino, of the United States, accidentally clips the heels of the runner in front of her, New Zealander, Nikki Hamblin. And, very tragically, both women fall to the track. What happens next is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Instead of simply resuming her race, the American runner, who is quicker to regain her feet, pauses to help her still stunned Kiwi rival to stand. Saying, “Get up, get up, we have to finish this!”

As it turns out, however, the American is more seriously injured. She falls again. And this time it’s the turn of the runner from New Zealand to wait for her and help her up. Resuming the race only when she sees that the American can continue on her own. And then waiting for her at the finishing line. Where the two runners, who have never met before, embrace each other joyfully. Even though they both finish well behind all the others.

What do you think happened here, my dear friends? What makes this a memorable moment? I’m not sure, but I think it has to do with how an obstacle was transformed into an opportunity. Isn’t this what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to do? Even though they both finished last. By helping each other after their fall, they turned a serious obstacle to sporting success into a priceless opportunity for demonstrating the true spirit of the Olympic games.

To turn obstacles into opportunities. This is also what our Mass readings encourage us to do today. In the second reading, the obstacle in question is suffering. When we suffer, it is quite natural to think that, for as long as the suffering lasts, we cannot be happy. That the only way to true happiness is to somehow remove the obstacle. To quit the stressful job. To cure the serious illness. To replace the indifferent spouse. To ease the painful loneliness… But the reading invites us to do something different. Not so much to remove the obstacle of suffering, as to somehow turn it into an opportunity for growth. How?

By remembering that suffering is often the way by which the Lord trains the ones that he loves. Those whom the Lord considers his children. Suffering is part of your training; God is treating you as his sons and daughters. Viewed in this light, suffering actually becomes a happy privilege. A confirmation that we are beloved children of God. So that instead of mourning and groaning. Instead of getting depressed and discouraged. When suffering causes us to stumble, we should instead hold up our limp arms and steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread. Seeking to turn the obstacle into an opportunity. As those two fallen Olympic runners did.

But obstacles don’t just come in the form of suffering in general. They often also take the shape of particular people. Those whom we may consider to be our rivals. Competitors. Isn’t this one possible reason why that person in the gospel wants to know whether there will be only a few saved? Perhaps he wants to know how many vacancies there are in the kingdom. So that he can figure out how many people he needs to beat. How many obstacles he has to overcome. In order to secure for himself a place there. As usual, Jesus doesn’t give a direct answer. Instead he tells the questioner to try your best to enter by the narrow door. But what’s so difficult about entering by a narrow door? Why does Jesus say that many will try to enter and will not succeed? Is it because they are all too fat? Even if they are overweight, surely they could squeeze through by turning sideways? So what exactly is the problem?

I’m not sure, sisters and brothers. But I’m reminded of scenes from those old slapstick comedies, where two people try to enter through a doorway that can really fit only one person at a time? They would have no trouble going through if only one were willing to allow the other to go first. But neither of them wants to give way to the other. They keep trying to squeeze through at the same time. And, of course, they fail. And we, the viewers, have a good laugh at their expense.

Isn’t it possible that one of the main reasons why it’s so difficult to enter by the narrow door is that we tend to see one another only as rivals vying for limited spots in the kingdom? Just as Olympians might compete for a limited number of medals. But being saved is not quite the same as competing for Olympic honours. In fact, both the gospel and the first reading surprise us with descriptions of the incredible inclusiveness of God’s kingdom. In the first reading, God promises not only to save a chosen few, but to gather the nations of every language. Even gentile foreigners. Whom the Jews tended to think were excluded from God’s favour. God promises even to make some of these foreigners into priests and Levites.

We find the same inclusiveness in Jesus’ description of the kingdom. People from east and west, from north and south, will come to take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Why are they able to make it through the narrow doorway? Whereas others fail? Perhaps it’s because they are willing to give way to one another. To let the other go first. To see each other not so much as rivals to beat, as people to help. Perhaps it’s because they are able to do what Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin did in such an inspiring way. To see one another no longer as obstacles to overcome, but instead as opportunities for showing kindness and mercy, hospitality and love. 

To see others no longer as threats, but instead as friends. Isn’t this a call that we need to heed especially today? When we continue to struggle with desperate tendencies to exclude others. For example, even as we celebrate something as positive as Joseph Schooling’s Olympic triumph, aren’t there still those of us who delight in using it as another excuse to continue highlighting distinctions between so-called true-blue Singaporeans and foreign talent? Sisters and brothers, why are we so afraid of one another? Should we not be more afraid of failing to make it through the narrow doorway? Of hearing those terrible words being addressed to us: I do not know where you come from. Away from me, all you wicked people!

Sisters and brothers, Abbey D’Agostino and Nikki Hamblin were able to make the Olympic games memorable, by turning an obstacle to success into an opportunity for friendship. How are we being called to do the same today?

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