Saturday, November 16, 2019

Beyond Days of Reckoning

33rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, do you know what a day of reckoning is? It’s a day of judgment. A time when wrongdoers are made to pay for all the bad things they have done, and those who have been good are rewarded for their efforts. I’m not sure, but I suspect that there are some of us here for whom we already know exactly when the day of reckoning is going to take place. It’s this coming Thursday, the 21st of November. Do you know why? That’s when the PSLE results will be released. For isn’t it true that many of us see this particular day as a time when misdeeds are punished, and hard work rewarded? I’m referring, of course, not so much to the children who sat for the exams, but more to their poor parents!

It’s sad but true, isn’t it, that so many of us seem to consider the PSLE as nothing more, or less, than a stress-producing, anxiety-inducing preparation to face a fearsome day of reckoning? Of course, it’s easy for me to talk, since I’m not a parent myself. And yet, don’t some of us wonder whether it really has to be this way? Whether the process of educating our children could be less burdensome? Don’t we wish someone would find a way help our kids cultivate a love for learning, by making it just a little bit more enjoyable?

I mention this not to make fun of those who may still be recovering from the trauma of the PSLE. But more because, as I’m sure you’ve already noticed, our readings today describe something that looks a lot like a day of reckoning, a day when spiritual exam results are released. We see this perhaps most clearly in the first reading, which speaks of a day that is coming like a blazing sun. Burning up evil-doers, on one hand, and healing good people, on the other.

In the gospel too, Jesus describes the coming destruction of the city of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 AD, as something like a day of reckoning. A day when the fidelity of disciples is tested. Those who remain faithful to the Lord’s name, even in the face of terrible trials – including being betrayed by their closest relatives and friends – all these faithful disciples will be rewarded. Their endurance will win them their lives. The implication being that those who do not endure, those who fail to remain faithful, will be punished.

So we can perhaps be forgiven, my dear friends, if we were to see the coming of the Lord as nothing more than a fearsome day of reckoning. A time for the bad to be punished, and the good to be rewarded. So that, in order to prepare for this terrible day, we have to do what many children and parents in Singapore force themselves to do to get ready for the PSLE. We need to put in great effort. We need to endure the unavoidable pain of hard work.

In other words, we need to do something like what St Paul is asking the Thessalonians to do in the second reading. We need to go on quietly working and earning the food that we eat. Except that the work we have to do is not just the kind that puts money in our bank accounts, and food in our stomachs, but the kind that will help us obtain a good score when the heavenly PSLE results are released. We need to engage regularly in fervent prayer and in charitable works.

All of which is, of course, not wrong. We do need to prepare to face the Last Judgment. And just as it’s proper to work hard to get ready for the PSLE, so too is it appropriate to think that we need to work hard to prepare ourselves to stand before the Lord when he comes. But still, just as we may wonder whether there’s more to the PSLE than a traumatic process of pain and suffering (especially for parents), might we not also wonder whether the spiritual life is really meant to be all doom and gloom? Is there not perhaps some truth in that old saying that all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy?

Thankfully, the opening prayer that we offered earlier, helps to give us a more balanced view of what preparing for the Day of the Lord should feel like. For it seems significant that, in this prayer, we prayed not so much for the diligence to engage in hard work, or for the capacity to endure pain and suffering. Important though these may be. Instead, what we prayed for is the constant gladness of being devoted to (God), for it is full and lasting happiness to serve with constancy the author of all that is good… 

Constant gladness and lasting happiness born of service with constancy. This is what we prayed for. And what does this suggest, if not that – surprising as it may sound – our efforts to prepare for the coming of the Lord should really bring us joy, even in the midst of trial? Of course, this joy is not the kind of passing pleasure that we may get from indulging in various addictions, like shopping or gaming. It is instead perhaps more like the interior calm and profound peace that comes from being rooted in the love of God. From living a loving, purposeful, God-centred life, in which even trials and tribulations are considered joyful opportunities to bear witness. Consoling occasions for experiencing the presence of the Lord, who promises to give us, in time of trouble, an eloquence and a wisdom that none of our opponents will be able to resist or contradict…

I’m reminded of these consoling words from an old Christian song written by Michael Card…

There is a joy in the journey.
There's a light we can love on the way.
There is a wonder and wildness to life.
And freedom for those who obey.
And freedom for those who obey.

Sisters and brothers, even if we may rightly consider the coming of the Lord as a day of reckoning, perhaps our preparations to face it can be far more peaceful and joyful than the experience of the PSLE. What can we do to claim this gift of peace and joy for ourselves, as we continue preparing for the Lord’s coming today and everyday?

Sunday, November 10, 2019

When Destination Determines Direction

32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, if you were to get into a car that I happen to be driving, and I promise to take you wherever you want to go, do you know how to tell whether or not I’m keeping my promise? Of course you do, right? How will you do it? By simply observing the direction in which I’m going. By paying attention to the landmarks and the street signs we pass along the way. So, for example, if I agree to take you to the airport, but you notice that I’m heading west instead of east, and the signs tell you we’re on the way to Tuas instead of to Changi, then you probably have good reason to be suspicious.

In other words, we can tell the destination someone intends to reach, not just by accepting what the person has to say, but also by considering the direction in which that person chooses to travel. By paying attention to the signs along the way. This, I believe, is also what we find in our Mass readings today.

In the gospel, a group of Sadducees pick a fight with Jesus about the resurrection from the dead. As you know, Jesus and many of the Jews of his day, firmly believed in the resurrection. But the Sadducees did not. And it’s important for us to realise that this is not just a difference in some abstract incidental belief. Rather, it is a fundamental disagreement over humanity’s final destination. One side aims to go no further than the boundaries of this world. The other hopes to reach far beyond.

To their credit, the Sadducees made no attempt to hide their disbelief. They professed it openly. As they do in the gospel. And we know that the wealthy and worldly Sadducees testified to their disbelief not just by the things they said, but also by the materialistic direction in which they chose to steer their daily lives. As we see in the scornful argument they use against Jesus in the gospel, the Sadducees’ minds and hearts were filled only with worldly perspectives and temporal concerns.

So that if we were to imagine, just for a moment, that the Sadducees were placed in the same position as that heroic mother and her seven sons in the first reading, it’s difficult for us to imagine them reacting in the same way, right? Forced to choose between apostasy on the one hand, and torture and death on the other, we may be forgiven for expecting the Sadducees to quickly choose apostasy. After all, without the hope in the resurrection to sustain them, from where will they draw the strength they need to suffer and to die?

In contrast, the mother and her seven sons demonstrate their belief in the resurrection, not just by what they say, but especially by how they choose to live, and how they choose to die. Their heroic sacrifice is an eloquent sign of the firmness of their faith, of the stability of their hope in God’s promise of new life. So that those moving words from the responsorial psalm can quite easily be placed on each of their lips: I kept my feet firmly in your paths; there was no faltering in my steps…. As for me, in my justice I shall see your face and be filled, when I awake, with the sight of your glory.

Again, my dear friends, we discern someone’s intended destination, not just by accepting whatever that person happens to say, but also by considering the direction in which that person chooses to travel. By reading the road signs in that person’s life. If this is true of the people in our readings, then what about us? What about me? I who, at Mass every Sunday, together with the whole congregation, publicly profess that I look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. Amen. To what extent does the reality of my life actually match this faith that I so regularly profess?

When I consider the direction in which I choose to steer my life everyday, what do I find? What are the things I typically allow to occupy my mind and heart? How do I decide where to channel the energies and resources at my disposal? What perspectives and concerns do I consider? What do I worry about? What keeps me up at night? And, perhaps most significantly, how do I react when I encounter those difficulties and trials that, from time to time, life inevitably places in my path? How do I handle those often subtle temptations to compromise my beliefs, to give in to the materialistic and self-centred demands of the world, at the expense of my Christian faith?

In other words, when I honestly consider all the road signs in my own life’s journey, what do they tell me about the destination towards which I am actually heading? How firmly do I believe in the resurrection? Of course, I must acknowledge that, unlike the angels, I am made of flesh and blood. I live in the material world. But still, to what extent do I allow my decisions in time to be informed by the vast yet consoling horizon of eternity?

And what if all the signs in my life indicate, perhaps to my great surprise, that my chosen path is closer to that of the Sadducees than that of the mother and her seven sons? What then? Is there a way for me to change course, if I want to? From where do I find the courage and strength to do that? We find a helpful answer to these questions in the second reading which, as you’ve probably already noticed, begins and ends with sentences starting with the word may. May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father… comfort you and strengthen you in everything good that you do or say.… May the Lord turn your hearts towards the love of God and the fortitude of Christ.

In other words, the reading begins and ends with words of prayer offered for those to whom the reading is addressed. Not only prayer for comfort and strength, but also prayer that their hearts might be pointed in the right direction. What’s more, in between these words of prayer, we find, at the heart of the reading, a heartfelt appeal for more prayers to be offered, this time for the author and his collaborators. Pray for us; pray that the Lord’s message may spread quickly… pray that we may be preserved from the interference of… evil people.

What does this tell us, my dear friends, if not that the road to eternal life is paved not just by our good intentions, or by our inspiring words – important as these may be – but more by our loving choices sustained by insistent and humble prayer. Prayer such as the one we are gathered here at this Mass to offer. The ultimate sacrifice of the One who came from heaven to earth, in order to bridge for us the distance between time and eternity. To blaze for us a path from death into life.

Sisters and brothers, if we were to each take some time to consider the direction in which our life is heading, what will we find? To which destination are you truly heading today?

Sunday, November 03, 2019

Homeward Bound

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: YouTube Simon & Garfunkel 

My dear friends, have you ever suffered from homesickness? Do you know what it feels like? Perhaps there are some of us here who are feeling it even now. As you know, homesickness is what happens to people living away from home for an extended period of time. Foreign students, for example, or migrant workers. Or even those who move into a new estate, or join a new parish. Those who find themselves in a strange environment, surrounded by unfamiliar people. In such situations, it’s understandable to feel like a fish out of water. It’s natural even to feel sad. To miss the familiar comforts of home.

And yet, uncomfortable though it may be, homesickness is not always a bad thing. Of course, if I am working or studying in a foreign country, I should try to get over my homesickness quickly, in order to concentrate on what I have to do. But isn’t it a good thing for me to feel homesick from time to time? To not allow myself to get too comfortable in the new place? To miss the family and friends, the spouse and children, whom I may have left behind? Isn’t homesickness a useful reminder to me of where I truly belong, of where I eventually need to return?

I mention this, because I wonder if it may not be something like what Zacchaeus is going through in the gospel. We’re told that he is one of the senior tax collectors and a wealthy man. Actually, he may even be the head or commissioner of the tax office. And yet, when this important government official finds his access to Jesus blocked, he runs ahead and climbs a tree just to get a better view. Surely such conduct is unbecoming of someone in his position. Can you imagine one of our Members of Parliament doing this? Why does Zacchaeus do it? What makes him so anxious to see Jesus?

I’m not sure, my dear friends. But perhaps it’s because, rich and important though he may be, Zacchaeus is feeling spiritually homesick. Perhaps there is a part of him that longs for a different way of life. A life sustained no longer by compromise, and corruption, and collusion with foreign powers. A life less comfortable perhaps, but more authentic. A life rooted in his own God-given desires for love and acceptance, for truth and justice and peace. Could this be why Zacchaeus is so generous? Even to the extent of offering to give half his property to the poor, and repaying those he may have cheated four times over? Could it be that Zacchaeus is willing to do all this, just so that he can return home to God?

In the first reading, we are told that, little by little, God mercifully corrects those who offend. Or, in other words, God brings back those who have strayed away from home. How does God do this? What does this little by little conversion look like? Could it be that what we see in the gospel are precisely the external signs of this gradual interior process? Could it be that even before Jesus spots Zacchaeus up in the tree, God had already reached into the tax collector’s heart, and disturbed his comfortable life? Could it be that, for Zacchaeus, the discomfort of homesickness is really the first step on the road home?

If this is true, then what does it mean for me? I who spend so much time trying to make my own life as comfortable as possible? Of course, there isn’t anything necessarily wrong with being comfortable. But isn’t it possible for me to become so comfortable in this world, as to forget that my true home lies in God? Isn’t it possible for me to become so used to the poverty and injustice, the pain and conflict that I see in the world around me, that I no longer feel disturbed by it, much less yearn for something different?

And when I allow myself to become comfortable and complacent in this way, am I not doing precisely what St Paul tells the Thessalonians not to do, at the end of the second reading? Am I not living as though the Day of the Lord has already arrived? As though I have already reached my final destination? As though there is nothing left to work towards?

And yet, at the end of the gospel, Jesus takes care to remind his listeners that the Son of Man has come to seek out and save what was lost. Which of us can deny that this work is not yet complete? Which of us can deny that we ourselves – pious Catholics though we may be – still have quite a distance to travel to reach our heavenly goal? Which of us can deny that there are still many people around us who, comfortable though they may be, still suffer terribly from homesickness? And which of us can deny that, if we do not notice any of this, it’s only because we have allowed ourselves to become far too comfortable, even as we remain far away from home.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing to feel homesick from time to time. Sometimes, as it was for Zacchaeus, homesickness may even be a great blessing. What will you do to beg and better receive this blessing from God today?

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Between Casinos & Scanners

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc EasySentri Sentri

My dear friends, have you ever walked through a security scanner before? How about a casino? Have you entered a casino before? Is there any difference between the two? I’m not sure, but I imagine that the best way to walk into a casino, especially if you’re there to gamble, is to make sure that your pockets are as full as possible. If not literally, then at least figuratively. Not only do you want to have easy access to lots of money, but you also want to let others know that you do. Why? Well, not just to impress your fellow patrons, but also so that the casino staff will roll out the red carpet for you. So that they will treat you like the high-roller you really are. A high-roller enters a casino with full pockets in order to impress.

The opposite is true of a security scanner. As you know, the best way to walk through one of these is to make sure that your pockets are well and truly empty. I remember once being surprised when I was stopped after walking through a scanner, since I had already emptied my pockets. But, as it turned out, they were not as empty as I had thought. I had left my handkerchief in one of them, which the scanner was able to detect, even though it was just a piece of cloth!

In sharp contrast to a casino, if I want to pass through a security scanner, and get to my destination as quickly as possible, then it’s better that I go in with empty pockets.

I mention this difference between a casino and a scanner because I believe it can help us understand better the valuable lesson that our Mass readings are teaching us today. In the gospel parable, the Pharisee begins to pray in much the same way a high-roller might walk into a casino. Not only does he make sure that his pockets are as full as possible – by listing all the pious practices he engages in regularly – but he also broadcasts them out loud, to make sure that everyone knows about them. Even worse, he looks down on those who don’t seem to have much cash on them.

In contrast, the tax collector prays as though he were walking through a security scanner. Instead of looking for all the things he can use to impress God, he allows his pockets to be emptied. He lets himself realise what a huge difference in dignity there is between him and the almighty, all-holy God. And yet, probably much to the surprise of his listeners, Jesus declares that it is the tax collector, not the Pharisee, whose prayer reaches its intended destination.

The first reading tells us the reason why. It’s because, unlike the staff at a casino, the Lord is a judge who is no respecter of personages. Like a security scanner, God is unimpressed, even turned off, by full pockets and flashy clothing. God is drawn instead to hearts that are surrendered and empty. Hearts that may even be broken, as the tax collector’s heart seems to be. Broken by his own weakness and sinfulness, in the face of God’s great mercy and compassion. For as the responsorial psalm reminds us, the Lord is close to the broken-hearted, those whose spirit is crushed he will save…

I’m not sure what you think, my dear friends, but this insight that God is more like a security scanner than a casino can actually be very encouraging. Especially for those of us who, like me, may find it difficult to pray when we are in a dark interior space. When I am feeling guilty, for example, for having committed a stubborn sin yet again. Even after confessing it for the umpteenth time. Or when I may be fuming mad at someone with whom I live or work. Someone with whom I’ve been trying very hard to be patient. Or when I’m disappointed in God for allowing me to fail at something in which I so very much wanted to succeed. Or when I fall sick, and find myself indulging in self-pity.

At times like these, it can be very difficult to pray. Difficult because, without realising it, I may think that I can’t come before God with nothing to show for myself. I may think that I need to hide my weakness, my empty pockets. Or find some way to fill them myself. And yet, to feel that way is really to approach God as I would a casino. To think that God needs to be suitably impressed in order to hear my prayer. Which is the opposite of what our readings are saying. That good effective prayer is honest humble prayer. Prayer that allows my heart to be laid bare. This is the kind of prayer that is more likely to reach its intended destination.

But that’s not all. For it is not just prayer that I need to learn to enter with empty pockets. The same can be said of the whole of my life. Isn’t this what we find in the second reading? Towards the end of his life, as he awaits his eventual execution, St Paul speaks not about being filled but about being emptied. Poignantly he writes that his life is already being poured away as a libation, a sacrificial offering. And yet it is precisely in his emptiness, that he experiences the Lord standing by him, giving him power, bringing him safely to his intended heavenly destination.

To walk through life as I would a security scanner. With empty pockets and even a broken heart. This is not a message that the world likes to hear. On the contrary, for many of us, isn’t life much more like a casino? Don’t we spend much of our time desperately filling ourselves? Isn’t this why we call ourselves consumers? And yet, it’s helpful to remember that the Lord whom we gather here every Sunday to worship is the same One who did not cling to his equality with God, but emptied himself for our sakes, even to the point of giving his life for us on the wood of the Cross.

Sisters and brothers, as we proceed with our prayers here at this Mass, and as we pass through the church doors when our celebration is complete, will we be walking through a scanner or into a casino? How full or empty will your pockets be today?

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Between the Keychain & the Computer

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc David Erickson

My dear friends, have you ever received a gift that you did not use? Or didn’t use fully? Someone once gave me a keychain, with a cute little statue of the patron of our parish – St Ignatius of Loyola – attached to it. And I’m embarrassed to admit this, but it was only much later that I discovered what that keychain was for. When its base was removed, the statue could be plugged into a computer and used to store data. It was a thumb-drive! I could, of course, continue to use it as nothing more than a keychain. But what a waste that would be, right?

Actually, I’ve since come to see that that keychain is not the only thing I fail to use fully. The same is true of my smartphone too, for example, or my computer. Each of these gadgets has many functions that I do not use. Some of which I haven’t even discovered. And what about you, my dear friends? Have you ever received a gift that you didn’t use fully? I ask because, in our Mass readings too, a gift is given that’s not fully used. And the reason it’s not fully used is because it’s easily mis-recognised. Much like how I mistook the thumb-drive as nothing more than a keychain.

At first glance, the most obvious gift we find in our readings is that of healing. In both the first reading and the gospel, lepers are cured of their terrible disease. And we can, of course, choose to focus our attention on this remarkable gift. Which, in itself, can be a great source of comfort and encouragement, especially to those of us afflicted by serious illnesses of our own, or who may know people suffering in this way.

But what is not as obvious is that the gift offered in our readings goes far beyond the healing of diseased bodies. We see this perhaps most clearly in what Jesus says to the one who returns to give thanks. The Lord begins by asking, were not all ten made clean? And he ends by declaring, your faith has saved you. Notice the difference in the verbs used in the question at the beginning and the declaration at the end.

For Jesus, ten lepers were made clean, but only one is saved. To put it another way, beyond the healing of their diseased bodies, all ten lepers were offered the gift of salvation, the gift of fullness of life. But only one of them was able to claim it. The other nine were so focused on the physical cure, they missed the less obvious but far more precious gift. We might say that, like me, they took such delight in the keychain, they failed to recognise the thumb-drive hidden within it.

But what does this spiritual thumb-drive look like? What does it mean to be saved, to enjoy the fullness of life? This is where our readings again prove very helpful. For they show us at least three characteristics of those who are saved. Or three steps, if you like, for claiming the gift of salvation.

The first step is perhaps the most obvious. It is gratitude. The same gratitude expressed by both the Syrian, Naaman, in the first reading, and the unnamed Samaritan in the gospel. When each of these men realises that he has been cured, he is able to do something that’s not easy to do. At least not for me. Unlike the other nine lepers, both are able to allow their attention to be shifted away from themselves to the one who has blessed them, the one who has gifted them. Before going home to Syria, Naaman takes the trouble to return to Elisha. Before going to ask the priests to certify his cleansing, the Samaritan goes back to the Lord to say thank you.

But that’s not all. I say thank you everyday to various people who help me. This is the polite thing to do. It’s what I’ve been taught to do since childhood. But I don’t do what the two grateful lepers do. Unlike the Samaritan in the gospel, when I thank the auntie who clears my table at the foodcourt, I don’t throw myself down at her feet. Such an action is far more than a polite expression of gratitude. It is in fact an act of worship. And worship is also what Naaman promises to do after he returns to Syria. He pledges to dedicate his whole life in devoted service to the one true God, because he realises that there is no other.

Gratitude expressed in wholehearted worship of the one true God. These are the first two characteristics of salvation. The third characteristic is found in something else that Jesus tells the grateful leper. Stand up and go on your way… Of course,  the Lord may simply be telling the leper to move on. But notice how the reading begins by reminding us that Jesus himself is on the way… Perhaps it’s not too far-fetched then for us to think that Jesus is inviting the leper to take up his own cross, and to follow the Lord on the way to Jerusalem. The Lord is calling the leper to discipleship, to become what St Paul has become in the second reading. Someone who willingly bears his own hardships for the sake of the Good News, even to being chained like a criminal.

Gratitude, worship, and discipleship. These are the three characteristics of salvation that we find in our readings today. These are the three steps we need to take in order to claim the great gift of salvation offered to us in Christ. And these are also the things that should really characterise our own celebration of the Eucharist every Sunday. For here, we recall the many gifts we have received, and for which we can be grateful. Above all, the loving sacrifice of Christ for all our sakes. Here, in bread and wine, we unite ourselves to the offering of Christ, in an act of fitting worship. Here, we commit ourselves to lives of true discipleship. Lives in which we allow ourselves to be moulded into the Body of Christ, willing to be broken in love for the sake of a world fragmented by selfishness and sin.

Unfortunately, it’s too easy for me to approach the Eucharist with far less reverence than it truly deserves. It’s too easy for me to treat the Eucharist as I would a cute inconsequential little ornament on which to hang my keys. And so to miss the gift of salvation hidden within what looks like nothing more than  a routine ritual.

Sisters and brothers, there is a wonderful gift hidden in this weekly celebration of ours. What must we do, you and I, to better recognise it and to connect it to the rest of our lives, as we might a thumb-drive to a computer today?

Sunday, October 06, 2019

Heart Lotion

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Marco Verch

My dear friends, do you moisturise? I mean, do you apply creams and lotions to your skin to keep it soft and smooth and supple? Perhaps, for some of us, this is not so necessary here in Singapore, where it’s usually so humid. But if I were to travel to a foreign country, where the air is very dry, then I have to remember to moisturise my skin every day. Otherwise it will become so dry that it might even harden and crack. Has that ever happened to you?

And it’s not just the weather that can cause a person’s skin to harden like that. I once shook hands with someone who had spent many years hand-washing clothes for a living. And I was surprised by how hard and rough this person’s skin was. It was like shaking hands with sandpaper!

Actually this is something we all know very well. Whether it’s dry weather or strong detergent, harsh conditions can easily cause our skin to harden. But what we may not realise is that harsh conditions can harden not just our skin, but also our hearts as well. Isn’t this the danger that our Mass readings are teaching us how to avoid today?

In the first reading, the prophet complains to God about the extremely harsh conditions in his life. Oppression and injustice, tyranny and outrage, violence and contention and discord… These are the terrible things he sees everyday. And yet, God does not seem to care. How long, O Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen.… will not save?

Have you ever felt like that, my dear friends? Have you ever complained to God about the harsh conditions in your life – at the workplace, or in the family, or even in the world at large? Have you ever complained and complained, but received no answer? If you have, then you know the danger that the prophet faces. It’s the same danger that the people of Israel faced when they were wandering in the wilderness, and ran out of drinking water. These harsh conditions led them to harden their hearts. They rebelled. They refused to listen to Moses and to God. Isn’t this why the psalm says, O that today you would listen to his voice! “Harden not your hearts”?

To somehow be able to keep my heart soft and smooth and supple, even under harsh conditions. To continue listening to the Lord, as the prophet does in the first reading. To wait patiently and not to lose hope. To keep trusting that the Lord will not abandon me. Will not abandon us. That the Lord will eventually come to our rescue. All this is much easier said than done, isn’t it? Especially in times of trouble. To be able to do this, we need that spiritual moisturiser that we call faith.

Which probably explains why, in the gospel, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. Scripture scholars remind us that this request the apostles make in verse 5 of chapter 17, should be seen as a response to what Jesus says in verse 4. Do you remember what Jesus says? If (your brother) wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry”, you must forgive him.

In other words, in verse 4, Jesus tells me that I am not to harden my heart even towards someone who repeatedly makes my life difficult. On the contrary, the Lord expects me to somehow keep my heart soft and smooth and supple. Of course, this doesn’t mean I have to allow myself to be abused. No, I should take steps to protect myself as far as possible. But I should also be ready to forgive whenever the person apologises. Even if the person makes my life difficult as often as seven times a day! Is there someone like that in your life?

I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I do not find this easy to do. It requires faith. Which is why it is not surprising that the apostles ask Jesus for more faith. What is surprising is what the Lord says to them in reply. Jesus tells them that, when it comes to faith, it’s not really quantity that makes the difference. For even a word spoken with a tiny bit of faith – the size of a mustard seed – can cause a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea!

But if faith does not depend on quantity for its effectiveness, then on what does it depend? The answer to this question is found in the words: When you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.’” To adopt the attitude of a servant. To be willing to wait on the Master. To be ready promptly to receive and to act on the Master’s every command. This is what makes faith effective. It’s not about quantity but receptivity.

How then to be receptive to God in this way? Isn’t it too difficult for us? Too difficult for me? Yes it is. Unless, of course, I follow the advice that St Paul gives to Timothy in the second reading. I am reminding you to fan into a flame the gift that God gave to you when I laid my hands on you… To be receptive to God’s commands, I need first to allow myself to be receptive to God’s gift. To unwrap the present that God has already given me at my baptism. The precious gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of power, and love, and self-control. To unwrap this gift is to allow the Spirit to remind me of how Christ laid down his life for me on the Cross. So that, moved by this great gift, I may then allow my life to be shaped according to the pattern of the Lord’s loving self-sacrifice. Even to the extent of bearing hardship for the Good News.

To keep tapping into the Holy Spirit’s power. To keep remembering Christ’s sacrifice for me. To allow myself to continue unpacking the precious gift already given to me so generously by God. The same gift that we are gathered here at this Mass to celebrate. This what it means to have faith. This what I need to do to avoid hardening my heart under the  sometimes harsh conditions of daily life.

Sisters and brothers, it’s not just our skin that needs to be kept soft and smooth and supple. Our hearts do too. What steps are you taking to allow God to moisturise your heart today?

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Solving Spiritual Stickiness (Rerun)

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, have you ever tried cooking with a stainless steel frying pan? If you have, then you'll know that there is something you need to do to the pan before putting the food in it. Do you know what you need to do? Yes, you first need to heat up some cooking oil in it. Some people also recommend cooking some green onions in the pan first. Otherwise, the food will stick to the pan, and the dish will be ruined.

It’s quite interesting, isn’t it? A pan is made for the single purpose of cooking food to feed people. And yet, left on its own, the pan tends to cling stubbornly to the food, refusing to let it go. In order to fulfil its purpose, the pan must first be coated with hot oil or with some synthetic material, like teflon. In other words, something needs to come between the pan and the food. Otherwise the pan remains sticky, the food is ruined, and people end up going hungry.

But it’s not just frying pans that are naturally sticky. We human beings can be sticky too, right? We too tend to cling stubbornly to things that we are supposed to let go. And one of the things that many of us are prone to cling 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, by cheating them 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 being pious. Much like how we may come for Mass every Sunday, the swindlers in the first reading take care to keep the  Sabbath. But their external religious observance doesn’t change them at all. Once the Sabbath is over, they quickly continue to cheat the poor!

And there are no prizes for guessing why they do this. The reason is simple. They are greedy. They cling to money. Money that is meant not to make them rich, but to enable others to survive. Much like a sticky frying pan, greedy people cling to things that they are supposed to serve to others. As a result, the food is ruined, and people go hungry.

But that’s not all. Whether they realise it or not, greedy people don’t just harm others, they also damage themselves. For, like a sticky frying pan, greedy people fail to fulfil the purpose for which they are created. To do that, they need to change. They have to stop being greedy. They have to learn to let go. Isn’t this what Jesus is teaching us in the gospel?

Why is the dishonest steward praised by his master? Not for his dishonesty, of course. But for his astuteness. For his willingness to let go of money when the time is right to do so. For his ability to use money to win friends, in order to secure his own future. This is what an astute child of the world must know how to do to survive. To suffer a short-term loss, in order to secure a long-term gain. And this is what Jesus wants the children of light to learn as well. To be astute like the dishonest steward. To learn to let go of money. To use money, and not to be used by it. But with one crucial difference.

Like the dishonest steward, the children of the world make friends by networking with the rich and the powerful. But we children of light are called to do the exact opposite. For us, to make friends is to do what God does in the responsorial psalm. The image described here is very striking. Although God is high above all nations, yet God stoops from the heights to look down. And not just to look down, God also carefully and compassionately lifts up the lowly from the dust, and raises up the poor from the dungheap.

What this shows us is that it is not the rich and powerful who are the friends of God, but the poor and the powerless. So that, in order to secure our future in the kingdom of God, we need to make friends with the poor. Much like how a frying pan is made to cook and serve food for the hungry, we children of light are called to use our resources, our gifts and talents, to serve those most in need. It is only by doing this that we attain our true purpose as followers of Christ. For this is what Jesus himself came to do. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (see 2 Cor 8:9).

And yet, we know that to do this is not easy for us. Like a frying pan, we all have a natural tendency to be sticky. To cling to the things that are meant for others. And, by doing this, we cause harm not just to others, but to ourselves as well. So what  can we do to become less greedy, less sticky?

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 whom the second reading says wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth. We need to allow ourselves to be coated by the steadfast love of our merciful God. How? One way is by heeding the advice of Paul: first of all, there should be prayers offered for everyone… Prayers that God might lubricate all hearts made sticky by greed. So that they may let go of the things to which they often cling so tightly. To let go and to share with those who need them more.

But that’s not all. For we know very well that people need more than just money and material things, important though these may be. In faith, we believe that what everyone needs most of all is to experience God’s love for them in Christ. And, as Christians, we also believe that this same love has been entrusted to us. We are stewards of God’s love. Called to share it with those who are hungry for it, often without even realising what they are hungry for. These people are, in a sense, poor too. And they are the ones we are called to feed with the Word of God and the Bread of Life. They are the ones to whom we need to proclaim the Good News.

But, in order for us to do this, we must again be willing to let go. To let go of our complacency and our apathy, our insecurity and our anxiety. To allow ourselves to be coated by the great Mystery that we celebrate at this and at every Mass. The merciful love of God poured out for us on the Cross.

Sisters and brothers, in Christ, God has prepared for all people delicious food that’s already sizzling in the pan. What must we do to keep generously and courageously serving this life-giving dish to those who need it most today?

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