Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Wednesday in the 20th Week of Ordinary Time
Memorial of St. Bernard, Abbot & Doctor of the Church
Muscle Building

Readings: Ezekiel 34:1-11; Psalm 23:1-3a, 3b-4, 5, ; Matthew 20:1-16
Picture: CC phil dowsing

Following from yesterday’s fitness analogy, we might begin our reflection today by considering some facts that underlie our need for physical exercise. Muscles are made to be used. They grow only to the extent that they are exercised. Left dormant for too long, muscles will begin to weaken and waste away. On the other hand, however, they shouldn’t be overworked. Muscles also need enough time for rest and recuperation. Otherwise they will not grow. A right balance of work and rest, therefore, is essential to any good exercise program. In addition, it’s also important to consider how muscles work. Simplistically put, they act like rubber bands that hold together and move various bones or body parts across joints. And, what enables them to do this effectively, are the tendons that connect the muscle to the bones with which it is associated. A torn tendon will not only render the muscle useless but it can also cause excruciating pain.

Why, we may wonder, are we talking about muscles today, when our readings invite us to consider the difference between good and bad shepherds? The connection becomes a little clearer, when we consider Jesus’ description of the Kingdom of heaven in the gospel. When we think of the Good Shepherd, it’s not unlikely that we find ourselves imagining rest along flowing waters and relaxation in green pastures. Indeed, the Good Shepherd Psalm (23) does paint just such a scene for us. And we often associate this same image with eternal rest. Quite appropriately, we sing this psalm at funerals and wakes. Even so, our gospel today invites us to consider how the Divine Shepherd is also a Vineyard Owner, who seems to delight in putting the sheep to work. Could it be that part of being a Good Shepherd is also to find work for the sheep? Could it be that a shepherd can actually do harm by expecting too little from those under his/her care? Could it be that sheep actually need to work? Could it be that, like muscles, they will also waste away if left idle for too long?

This is, of course, a dangerous consideration for us to make. It’s dangerous because we tend towards the other extreme. Is it not risky to speak of work to a nation of workaholics? And yet, isn’t it also true that our busy-ness with secular activities often goes hand-in-hand with a tendency to think of religion only in terms of (eternal) rest? Isn’t this why our faith often seems so divorced from our daily living? Isn’t this why we often turn to God only in times of major crisis or extreme fatigue? Isn’t this why it’s so difficult for us to find the proper balance between labor and leisure?

Perhaps what we need is to consider our work and its meaning in a new light, and within a new context. The dignity of human work – or the human who works (homo faber) – consists in its marking of the earth with the imprint of the human and the divine, in its connecting of the heavenly with the earthly. Our work is meant to somehow make God more present to the world. And, like muscles, we attain this lofty aim only to the extent that we are firmly inserted, at one end, in the will of God, and at the other end, in the needs of the world. (On the dignity of human work, see, e.g., JPII, Laborem exercens.)

And let us also not forget the key piece of good news in our readings today: that the generosity of our God goes beyond any earthly employer. When we work in God's vineyard, we never labor in vain. God rewards every little effort that we make, every little bit of exercise that we engage in.

How are we being invited to flex our muscles today?


  1. Your instruction is so current in my present station in life; having gone past my prime, and begining the process of 'rolling downhill' with each passing year. All the more reason to ensure that the sinews in my muscles work harder. We owe it to ourselves to stay 'healthy' and 'wise'. My better half often berates me if I do not 'stretch' enough.
    Rightly so too because if we do not flex our muscles, they atrophy as they no longer are as tensile as they used to be. The same goes for our mind - the need to flex and stretch.
    In my ongoing faith, I must remember that time is not a major consideration, but the renewed effort to know Christ is. The daily routine of my life consists in spending time to discern through mental exercise. To assist us, there are many ongoing programs in Church that provide ample venues to stimulate our appetite for God.
    In truth, I count as one truly blessed.

  2. Fr Chris,
    The muscle analogy is more apt than you may realise, as the part of the muscle anchored to the proximal bone is actually called the muscle "origin", while the part that works the distal bone is called the muscle "insertion".
    So, strong origin and insertion are both required for the muscle to work effectively.
    I guess in the spiritual life, a strong connection with the One from whom all life originates and a strong presence for the needs of the world makes for meaningful, effective work to build the Kingdom of God.
    Never thought I'd get a chance to connect such boring anatomical facts to the spiritual life 25 years on :)....thanks!

  3. ooooh... we can never get enough of exercising, can we? ;)

    Today's take-home point from Fr Chris is a poignant one, one that we are often not cognizant of and rather not confront - the dichotomy of our faith and secular lives (when both should really be the two sides of a coin). And yes, when he mentioned the W-word (workaholics), it triggerred an adrenalin rush in me not unlike a junkie before a fix or our Olympic paddlers before the grand finals. And yes, I, too, sometimes take cover in the serendipity of religion. I mean, where (who) else can one find security and repose? Which is also why, with a half smirch on my face, I entreat those who go on retreat not to back away too far lest they can't find their way back.

    When I exercise, I always listen to what my body tells me. If one listens carefully, one can almost hear the screams of one's corpus when we stretch ourselves beyond our physical limits. The penalty for ignoring these messages is pain and suffering. The reward for doing it right is a gratuitous dose of endorphins. I firmly believe that I have to do the same in my secular and faith life. To ignore one at the expense of the other is to let it atrophy.


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