Sunday, September 21, 2008
25th Ordinary Sunday (A)
Passing the Driving Test
Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 145:2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; Matthew 20:1-16a
Picture: CC Ruth L
My sisters and brothers, many of you drive, don’t you? Do you like it? I do. Of course, we all know that it’s not good for the environment. And, especially with today’s gas prices, many of us are probably trying to lessen the amount of time we spend in our cars. But still, we can’t deny the fact that, for the most part, driving is an enjoyable experience. There’s something about being free to roam about wherever you want, without being constrained by bus schedules or someone else’s routine. And what with the wonderful weather and the beautiful scenery here in Southern California – driving is invigorating!
But not everyone is fit to drive. To obtain a license, not only must you be old enough, you also have to pass several tests. There’s a theory test, a test of eyesight and a road test. You need to pass them all before being given your license. You need to demonstrate your knowledge of local traffic rules and basic driving skills, before being granted the freedom to roam about freely in your car.
There’s a somewhat similar situation in the spiritual life as well. In a way, the Christian life is a quest for freedom. This is not just any kind of freedom. It’s not just the ability to do whatever we want whenever we feel like it. What Christian freedom looks like is illustrated by St. Paul in the second reading. For him, it's a matter of life and death.
Most of us value our own lives very much. Whatever we may say in polite conversation, we don’t really want to die. We cling to life like a stubborn stain to a white shirt. But, on the other hand, we probably also know of others who may actually be looking forward to death. Perhaps their lives are filled with terrible disappointments and suffering. Perhaps they’re lonely and find no meaning in their earthly existence. Whatever their exact situation, they long for release. They see death as a way to escape from their troubles. In either of these cases, whether one desires to live or to die, one remains limited and confined by the circumstances of one’s life. One isn’t free.
In contrast, notice what Paul says in the second reading. Notice the tension he experiences. I do not know which I shall choose, he says, life or death. And the reason for his dilemma is because either option offers him the possibility to love. Death means being with Christ in a most intimate way. And life means being able to serve those entrusted to his care. Paul experiences a tension because he is free. Like a licensed driver on the road, he experiences the invigorating freedom to choose the loving thing in every situation. He is free to conduct himself in a way worthy of the gospel of Christ.
And isn’t this the same freedom that we – the daughters and sons of God, the citizens of God’s Kingdom – are meant to enjoy? Isn’t this the divine driver’s license that we all want to receive? But what do we need to be ready to roam freely in God’s Kingdom? Drivers need to know the roads. We need to know our God.
And our readings today provide us with two tests by which we can gauge our knowledge of God. Both are practical tests. Each one is targeted at people in different situations. The test in the first reading is meant for those who have fallen away from God. The language used is quite strong: let the scoundrel forsake his way, and the wicked his thoughts, let him turn to the Lord for mercy…
Although we may not be scoundrels in the true sense of the word, don’t we all have experiences of being in the wrong, of having sinned in some way? And sometimes it is precisely because we are not really out and out scoundrels that we find it difficult to turn back to God. We wonder how we could have done such a terrible or stupid thing. We are embarrassed to admit our failure to ourselves, let alone to our God. It is precisely at such times that we face a tough challenge. We face a difficult test. It is a test of how well we know our God. It is a test of how deeply we realize what our readings are reminding us today: that our God is generous and forgiving, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and of great kindness… To pass the test is to take advantage of the Lord’s mercy, to turn back and to be reconciled with God.
But sinful though we all are, we don’t always find ourselves in a situation of having fallen. Sometimes, we may actually feel that we are on reasonably good terms with God. Like those people in the gospel, who have been working all day in the vineyard, we may be conscientiously fulfilling all our God-given responsibilities. We go to church. We say our prayers. We give to charity. We care for others. But are we truly free? Again, there is a test for us, a test of how well we know our God. It consists in how we react to situations wherein God shows mercy to others, especially those others whom – whether consciously or not – we may consider to be less holy or less spiritual than ourselves.
To take a rather mundane example, let us say that Mary is a highly respected member of her parish, where, for many years she has been the leader of the lectors. Then, one day, someone else is chosen to replace her. Not only is this person a far less experienced lector than Mary is, but she is also known to be a single parent – the result of a youthful indiscretion. Doesn’t Mary face a test in a situation like this? How will she react to being replaced by such a person? Will she complain as the people in the gospel do? Like those laborers who had worked hard all day, will she also grumble to herself that someone who had previously committed the sin of fornication has now been made her equal? Or will she instead rejoice at the marvelous generosity of her God, who offers to all comers, the fullness of love and life? Will her knowledge of God be such that she is willing to graciously be last who once was first?
Sisters and brothers, I have a secret to share with you. I only recently received my California driver’s license, having only just relocated here from Singapore. And to get that license, I had to take the theory test at the DMV office in downtown Santa Barbara. Here’s the secret. Being already a licensed driver in Singapore for many years, I was rather overconfident and, to my utter embarrassment, I failed the test the first time I took it. Thankfully, after sitting at the DMV and studying the Driver Handbook for a couple of hours, I was able to pass the test the second time round.
Whether it is at the first or second try (or even the third or the fourth) what is important is for us to pass the test -- to realize ever more deeply with each passing day, the tremendous depth of God's love for us -- and so to enjoy the freedom of the sons and daughters of God, the freedom to love as God loves. For, as St. John tells us, everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God… for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).
Sisters and brothers, how might God be testing us today?
Posted by Fr Chris at 9:24 am