Thursday, August 21, 2008

Thursday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Pius X, Pope
Beyond Hand-Washing

Readings: Ezekiel 36:23-28; Psalm 51:12-13, 14-15, 18-19; Matthew 22:1-14
Picture: CC aka Kath

In the movie, As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson’s character suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder. It’s a debilitating condition in that it forces him to do various things in highly ritualized and rigid fashion. The simple act of washing his hands, for example, takes incredibly long, because he has to do it a certain way and a definite number of times, each time replacing the soap in a particular position, and so on. In a memorable scene, Nicholson wants very much to take his beloved out to dinner. But he almost ruins everything by making his date wait an eternity for him, while he showers in the bathroom. It’s quite ironic, isn’t it, how obsessing over getting clean – over preparing oneself for something – can actually hinder us from truly enjoying the main event?

Sometimes I wonder if the same might not be said about the way we live our religious lives. We know how important it is to have clean hands and pure hearts. Often, much of our spiritual energies are spent trying to keep ourselves away from the filth of sin. And this is probably as it should be. Indeed a large part of our readings today is all about how God promises to cleanse God’s people. I will give you a new heart and place a new spirit within you… you shall be my people and I shall be your God.

But there are also other important points to note. First, the readings are less about the people keeping themselves clean (try as they might, they seem quite powerless in this respect) than about how God purifies the people. And second, cleansing appears only as a part – albeit a significant and important part – of the message in our readings. There is also something more. Could it be that some, if not many of us, often obsess so much over trying to keep ourselves clean that we end up hardening the very hearts that God promises to soften? Could it be that we pay so much attention to spiritual cleanliness that we end up neglecting the other just as important aspects of the message?

The gospel presents us with two of these aspects. Jesus’ parable highlights the point that in addition to cleansing us, God also calls us to enjoy the joyful fellowship with God and one another. It’s probably true that our preoccupation with our many secular activities is the main reason for our reluctance to take up God’s generous invitation. But one may also wonder whether, at least sometimes, our obsession with our own sinfulness could have the same effect. Such obsessions can keep our attention focused more on ourselves than on the mercy of God.

In addition, our efforts at staying away from sin can also make us neglect the third important aspect in our readings today. Not only does God cleanse and call us, but God also expects us to allow ourselves to be clothed with the wedding garment that is the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It is only in putting on Christ, in striving to live the life that he lived, in immersing ourselves ever more fully in the challenges of daily human living, that we can truly be kept clean from the stain of sin and selfishness. Could it be that, instead of remaining perpetually obsessed with washing our own hands, it is precisely only in trying to hear and heed God’s call and in allowing ourselves to be clothed in Christ, that we are cleansed?

How might God be calling and choosing us to go beyond our obsession with cleanliness today?


  1. Hi Chris!

    It's been a while since I wrote anything to you on this comments page. But I feel prompted to share this with you. I hope all is well with you (if you are already in the States).

    With prayer and love

    Week 20 Thursday
    If you paid close attention to the first reading, you will see about 16 times the usage of the pronoun “I” or “my”. And this refers to Yahweh, who puts in all the effort to see a change in the situation at hand. How much Yahweh takes the initiative in ensuring that his beloved people Israel are assured of their identity as God’s specially chosen and beloved. If we read it in the correct light, we should be seeing this as a reassuring love letter.

    But we don’t. A lot of times, we do not see Scripture as God’s love letter to us, and perhaps this is due to our preconceived notion that Scripture is boring and dry. Once we think this way, we set ourselves up to not gain anything from the reading of scripture and treat it more like something to get over with, rather than something that will change us.

    When we really get it, that God is crazy over us, then reading a parable like the one in the gospel must allow us to even see love there, when for many, this parable is rather frightening and dark. But it’s not. The problem is that there is love offered, but none of it is taken in the right spirit, which is a spirit of gratitude and thanksgiving.

    Notice that the king really wants people to share his joy, but they are not at all interested. Like that King, God has always been wanting for us to share in his joy, and that was why he created us. And his generosity made him create us with freedom as well – freedom to want to reject a sharing in this great joy of his life. While this parable may give the impression that those who choose not to share God’s joy will receive punishment, I am inclined to see that it is we who punish ourselves when we make the wrong choices and wrong preferences. To live outside of God’s love will always give us a certain angst, a disquiet and a nagging feeling that not all is right. Take that and multiply it by eternity, and you get hell.

    Did you notice that in the parable, the King addresses the one in the wedding hall as ‘friend’? It’s a clue that he wasn’t angry. How could he when his order to the servants was to get those from the crossroads of the town, and the good and bad alike. I don’t think people called on a whim would have been equipped with a wedding garment. In fact, I think the whole hall will be filled with people who were not dressed appropriately.

    And here is the twist to the story. The ‘few’ that are chosen, taken from the last line of the gospel, refers to those who the King (God) will ask “How did you get in here, my friend”? If heaven is imaged at that wedding hall, if God were to ask us the exact same question, when we see how ill prepared and under dressed we are in heaven, if all we can do is be silent like that man who was ‘chosen’ to be asked, we will find ourselves outside the hall as well. Why? Because silence means we have not grasped how undeserving we are of God’s invitation and mercy. If you ask me, the only thing that any one of us can answer is “I really don’t deserve to be here, enjoying all this. But your great generosity and love has allowed me this joy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.” And if that is the only thing we can utter, we truly are friends of the King - and people who receive an invitation of love with a response of love and gratitude.

  2. The OCD behavior is something I've been exposed to in a relative. It is a psychotic disorder which the sufferer is not conscious of. So how can he be aware of the need to address the problem?
    This analogy can also be applied to some of us since we are often not aware of our own shortcomings. Our rituals sometimes get the better of us. I used to fuss about many things until I learned how not to "sweat the small stuff".
    A chance meeting over lunch today taught me the virtue of listening to a complete stranger who attends the Novena regularly. By sheer coincidence a Canossian sister was also having her meal at the next table in the foodcourt. It seems like an angel approvingly smiles on our conversation.
    How else can I ascribe these moments of my daily life that brings a touch of meaning, instead of looking high and low for a message? Jesus is ever present if we allow the Spirit who dwells in us to recognize Him in the other.
    It was a good day for me!

  3. I know why we focus on cleansing ourselves. It is far easier than answering God's call and clothing ourselves in Christ's way of life.

    How much easier to pray for forgiveness of my sins (and I have countless!) promise to try harder to avoid them, ask for mercy and love.

    How unwillingly do I agree to spend time with the needy, go out of my way to help someone I don't really like, the list goes on...

    How tough it is to turn the other cheek, love that awful, rude, cruel person, bite my tongue when abused, mocked or degraded.

    How to focus on these difficult aspects? It's a constant struggle. I hope making an effort will earn me a few brownie points.

  4. It's a bonus!! When we log on to Fr. Chris', we also get Fr. Luke Fong's (?) commentaries as well.
    It's like the ripple I mentioned earlier in my submission. The spiral ascends when reflections transcends.
    We will never be worthy, but a few brownie points count if we are sincere, surfacing from deep within our psyche. I guess life is to be lived consciously, with all its trappings and moments of doubts and enlightenment.
    Another lovely day lies ahead!!

  5. This musing of mine is in response to Fr Luke's reflections on the Gospel passage (which remind me of those nested Russian dolls that sit comfortably within one another).

    His first take-home point to me was God's prodigious love and generosity in inviting everyone to the banquet, rather than the grinding and gnashing of teeth of those who were cast out of the banquet hall for a breach of the dress code. Rather drastic, I always thought.

    The second (and more awesome) take-home point is the twist to the story. Because silence means we have not grasped how undeserving we are of God’s invitation and mercy. If you ask me, the only thing that any one of us can answer is “I really don’t deserve to be here, enjoying all this. But your great generosity and love (have) allowed me this joy. Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

    All I can say is thank you, thank you, thank you, Fr Luke.


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