Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wednesday in the 17th Week of Ordinary Time (II)
Ask Not What Your Country Can Do For You…

Readings: Jeremiah 15:10, 16-21; Psalms 59:2-3, 4, 10-11, 17, 18; John 13:44-46
Picture: CC h-angele

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country… Many of us will remember these famous words uttered by the late, and then President of the United States of America, John F. Kennedy, in his inauguration speech of 1961. What Kennedy was doing was inviting his fellow citizens to change their mindsets, their view of the nation. He was asking them to see their country not so much as a kind of dispenser, from which they could expect to withdraw a constant stream of benefits, as much as a joint project, in which they were called to collaborate. Kennedy was issuing a stirring call to his fellow Americans to change from being mere self-centered consumers to zealous contributors and collaborators. Ask not what you country can do… ask what you can do…

Often, such an important shift of perspective needs to take place in the spiritual life as well. For isn't it true that many of us operate as consumers in the spiritual as much as in the secular life? We view God as some kind of 24-hour dispenser, or a year-round Santa Claus. Our prayer has mainly to do with asking God for what we want. We make wish-lists, not unlike those we find in the blogosphere. Like the Prodigal Son in the famous parable, we think nothing of abandoning our Father and squandering our inheritance. It’s important for us to learn instead how to ask what we can do for God and others.

But that’s not quite the end of the story. For aren’t there also those among us who only know how to ask the latter question? Don’t some of us think of ourselves only as workers and laborers? Like the older son in the parable, we spend our lives working hard, ostensibly for our Father. But we don’t really relate to God as a loving Father, as much as a hard taskmaster, or a tyrannical slave driver. And, however hard we may try, we can’t seem to quell the resentment that may lie simmering under the surface of our hearts. Focused so much on what we can and ought to do for God and for others, we never quite realize all that God does for us.

And this latter perspective might even seem to find support in our readings for today. The two people in the gospel parable have to sell all their possessions for the sake of the Kingdom. And, in the first reading, the prophet Jeremiah’s fidelity to God leads him to suffer terrible persecution. I neither lend nor borrow, yet all of them curse me… In their relationships with God, all three seem to find themselves having to give and give, to do and do, more and more. But are they really only asking what they can do for God? Not quite.

We cannot help noticing, as we did this past Sunday, that the two people in the gospel consider the sale of their possessions a joyful thing. Their gain is far more than their sacrifice. Even in the difficult times experienced by Jeremiah, the prophet recalls how he came to enter into the Lord’s service. It wasn’t only by considering what he could and ought to do. Instead, he had actually been won over by God’s goodness to him. When your words came, I devoured them: your word was my delight and the joy of my heart… And, even when facing persecution, Jeremiah doesn’t merely grit his teeth and soldier on resentfully. He revisits the question that first brought him into the Lord’s service. He ponders prayerfully over who God is for him. Do you mean to be for me a deceptive stream with inconstant waters? And God doesn’t leave him to struggle alone. God reassures him of God’s continued presence and protection. They will fight against you, but they will not overcome you.

What does this mean for us if not that, in the spiritual life, both questions are necessary? We need both to ask what we can do for God, as well as what God does for us. But most importantly, we need continually to ponder over who God is for us. In the words of Jesus at Caesarea Philippi:

But who do you say I am?


  1. Coincidentally before I read your reflection, the Olympic moments was on Channel 5, recaptulating the past victories at the games.
    Ask not what the country can do for you, yet on the faces of those who won gold medals, it was clear that they have done what they could to make their country proud.
    At another level, I experienced their joy when the close up shots of their faces reveal the pent up surge of pride and patriotism. The years of hard work, dicipline and focus led them to be the world's best in their endeavor.
    Our humdrum life is more akin to a mini marathon for some, a full 42 km for others, but we must also compete and run the race, in order to end the journey face to face with the source of my being. I am certain that HE will reward me for my meagre effort and give me recognition that I have lived as He has expected of me, though inadequately.
    My Lord and my God sustains!

  2. According to Fr Ignatius Huan, the first half of the Our Father prayer is made with submissive faith (focused on what we can do for Him) while the second half is made with expectant faith (focused on what He can do for us). In that case, the logical answer is that God is our Father in heaven, quite close to the way parents willingly play Santa Claus to their children! I use many other names of course. However, for a long time, to pray to God the Father had been really difficult for me. So nowadays, I find myself consciously trying to address our heavenly Father more frequently.


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