Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Tuesday in the 21st Week of Ordinary Time (I)
Memorial of Saint Augustine, Bishop and Doctor of the Church
Keeping to the Point

Readings: 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8;Psalms 139:1-3, 4-6; Matthew 23:23-26

During exam preparation, one of the more common and fearsome pitfalls that teachers constantly warn their students against is the danger of writing an answer that goes out of point. For a beautifully constructed and deeply insightful essay will still receive a failing grade if it does not address the question asked. What a phenomenal waste of time, talent and effort when this happens! Or, as the Malays and Peranakans might say, sayang!

Isn’t Jesus warning against a similar danger in the gospel today? The scribes and the Pharisees expend much effort on keeping minute details of the Law, but they neglect the weightier matters like justice, mercy, good faith. This imbalance in their actions is due to a more serious problem. Their obsession over external observance blinds them to the importance of considering and cultivating the proper interior dispositions that should motivate their actions. They miss the point. And these are the same deep interior things that are the point of the first reading. The writer is concerned to defend the motivations for his ministry: we can swear before God, that never at any time have our speeches been simply flattery, or a cover for trying to get money… And because the motivations are right, the appropriate behaviour follows as a matter of course: we were unassuming… we were eager to hand over to you not only the Good News but our whole lives as well.

In the great essay-writing project that is life, it is indeed easy to miss the point. We succumb to the temptation to focus on the inconsequential things, whether it be possessions, or popularity, or power. We so easily blind ourselves to the interior things by obsessing about the externals. But all is not lost. For even as we may falter, God continues to do what Jesus does in the gospel today. As the psalm reminds us, God continues to search us and to discern our purpose. Often this may happen through some adversity. Unwelcome though these may be, by demonstrating to us the illusory nature of many external things, they serve to bring us back to the point of our existence. It is not an accident that the first reading mentions rough treatment and insults suffered in the course of the ministry. Are these not the ways by which God reminds us of what truly matters?

We are reminded of that passage, as famous as it is beautiful, from the Confessions of Saint Augustine:

Late have I loved you, Beauty so ancient and so new, late have I loved you! Lo, you were within, but I outside, seeking there for you, and upon the shapely things you have made I rushed headlong – I, misshapen. You were with me, but I was not with you. They held me back far from you, those things which would have no being, were they not in you. You called, shouted, broke through my deafness; you flared, blazed, banished my blindness; you lavished your fragrance, I gasped; and now I pant for you; I tasted you, and now I hunger and thirst; you touched me, and I burned for your peace.

Like Augustine, how might we continue to learn to pant for God alone? How is God keeping us on point today?

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