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?


  1. I'm not sure whether God IS testing me. Nowadays, I find myself rather disturbed by talk among believers that good works alone (regardless of faith) is sufficient for our salvation.

    On one hand, since I'm the only convert in my family, I'd be more than overjoyed IF this is true. Afterall, this means that the other members in my family will have no problems meeting God face to face in our after lives AND I'll still meet them in heaven (if I get there). On the other hand, I feel troubled by what I see as a distortion of what I've read in the bible and what we have been taught by the Church so far: That regardless of however hard we may try, we'll always fall short of being really good. So, it ultimately boils down to God's mercy for us, thanks mostly to Jesus' mediation and our belief in Him.

    I don't think that we Christians are spiritually superior to people of other faiths. How to make a blanket statement like this when each one of us is at different spiritual levels (faith or no faith)? All I can see is that the main advantage we have is a divine mediator. Would/Could Christ mediate for people of other faiths when He kept stressing (as reported in the four gospels) that we must believe in Him and that his disciples must go out to the whole world to spread the good news and baptise people in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit?

    However, Fr Chris, re-reading what you've quoted at the end of this post (1 John 4) is making me wonder. Yes, v.7 says, "everyone who loves is begotten by God and knows God". But v.6 also says, "We belong to God, and anyone who knows God listens to us, while anyone who does not belong to God refuses to hear us." And v.9 says, "God sent his only Son into the world so that we might have life through him."

    Can't people like me simply say, "We don't know. It would be great if this happens. Romans 2 says it's possible. But based on what we understand, we can't say for sure..." If in such a case, someone else insists that we CAN say for sure that good works suffice and then start accusing us of being judgemental, who is actually is jumping the gun and being judgemental?

  2. Getting to serve in the vineyard earlier in life rather than later is not so much a burden but a privilege for the wonderful gift of being aware of God's nearness and love and being able to return that love by sharing him with others who may be struggling to find God.

    Of course those of us in multiple ministries will have days of wishing for a sabbatical and "freedom" from labour as it is not always an easy ride to be walking with Jesus when one gets tired, hungry and dry or unappreciated.

    However, whenever I reflect on this parable, I'm in fact drawn to ask another question.

    Why in our world is there such a discrepancy between the wages of a poor man sweeping the streets under the hot sun and a top-earning CEO using his god-given business acumen to create billion-dollar businesses when BOTH MEN worked equally hard (eg 10 hours a day) throughout the day- giving everything they've got in physical, mental or emotional strength.

    Why do we not object when the take-home pay of our Filipino maid is about a dollar an hour, 24/7, and it is their contribution to our lives that enable us to peg our "market" rate at 10, 20, 50 or even 100 dollars an hour to do more "useful" work--including serving on the vineyard of church ministry.

    Should such an awareness not bring deep distress and also deep humility of acknowledging what we have in material and spiritual wealth is ALL from God and not from our own merit?

    And does this not move our hearts to willingly labour with joy in the service of our Lord in serving our less fortunate brothers and sisters, and rejoice with them when they also come to taste the goodness of our Lord of love?

  3. Speaking of wage discrepancies and objections, I'm reminded of the recent protest by Serangoon Gardens residents against a proposed *temporary* housing for around 1,000 foreign workers in their estate.

    Most Singaporeans were migrants or children (or grandchildren) of migrants. Yet, many Singaporeans seem to have forgotten this and often speak up against having foreigners enter our land, and now against letting foreign workers live in their estate. It's almost like the early workers in the vineyard complaining against equal treatment (living in the same estate) for the latecomers!

    In this weekend's Catholic News, Fr Luke Fong challenged us all with an article, "Do not be afraid" of foreign workers in neighbourhood. Towards the end, he painted this scenario:

    "At the end of life we find ourselves at heaven's door. Jesus comes to meet us. We are so glad to see him. We have waited for this moment all our lives. But then he says, "Remember, I wanted to live just 100 metres from your house, but you wanted me to live in Tuas and Choa Chu Kang. You were more concerned with the value of your property than with your humanity. I gave you the opportunity to love me in the strangers from Myanmar, India, China and Thailand. But you rejected it and chose instead to go on annual foreign missions and to give generous financial donations on Mission Sunday. You came to the Adoration Room weekly to get close to me and yet when I wanted to sit next to you on Bus 317, you refused me."