Monday, January 26, 2009

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Panhandler's Plea

Readings: Jon 3:1-5, 10;Psalm 25:4-5, 6-7, 8-9; 1 Corinthians 7:29-31; Mark 1:14-20
Picture: cc stephenccwu

Sisters and brothers, I’m reminded today of a young couple whom I walked by just a few days ago along State Street in Downtown Santa Barbara. They were panhandling. Which isn’t so out of the ordinary for that part of town. But what drew my attention was the fact that they looked cleaner and healthier than the average hobo, and they were also accompanied by three dogs. On taking a closer look, I noticed that the guy was holding up a piece of cardboard on which was written something that almost made me laugh out loud. Family killed by Stormtroopers, it said, need change for Jedi training. With a sign like that, I’m not sure if they actually collected any money.

In any case, strange as it may seem, it is those words crudely scrawled on that ragged piece of cardboard, that our Mass readings recall to my mind today. As we are all probably well aware, the words allude to the Star Wars saga. But what possible connection might they have to today’s readings? And what possible relevance might they have for us? At least three points, I think, three points of convergence between the panhandler’s sign and the scriptures, three aspects that invite our reflection.

First, there is, of course, the element of misfortune and danger. Family killed by Stormtroopers – not just a reference to a past misfortune, but also an implication of real and present danger. Those familiar with Star Wars will remember, for example, how the evil Emperor’s strenuous efforts at finding and destroying the young Luke Skywalker not only result in the death of Luke’s friend and mentor, Ben Kenobi, but also force Luke to flee his home planet of Tatooine. Misfortune and danger. Not unlike the situation that we find in our readings today.

Consider the message that Jonah is sent by God to announce to the Ninevites in the first reading. Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed. There we have the explicit danger, the fast approaching misfortune. And there’s also something unspoken too. What’s implied is that it is through their own conduct, their own actions, that the Ninevites have brought this calamity upon themselves.

We find something ominous in the second reading too. Here, even though no sin or fault is indicated, we’re reminded of the ephemeral nature of our existence upon this earth – for both the innocent and the guilty alike, the world in its present form is passing away.

Still, all is not lost. Something can yet be done. And here’s the second point of convergence. For our panhandling friends on State Street, the solution lay, apparently, in receiving spare change. For the Ninevites too, the answer lay in change, but change of a different sort. What they needed was not so much monetary assistance from without, as much as divine intervention from above. And in order to receive this, they had first to undergo a change of heart, an interior conversion expressed in concrete exterior actions. We’re told that the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth.

As a result, another very mysterious change was brought about. Apparently, a change actually took place in God. We’re told that God repented of the evil that he had threatened to do to them. However we choose to interpret this statement, the point remains that the way out of the perilous situation facing the Ninevites lay in change of a very definite sort, change that was both deeply felt and concretely expressed. The dark clouds of danger and misfortune could only be dissipated when the Ninevites resolved to turn away from their usual attitudes and actions.

But that’s not all. Even if that’s how the first reading ends, the other readings tell us that this change, this repentance, this turning away from, needs to be accompanied by a turning towards something or someone. Need change for Jedi training, said the panhandler’s sign. Likewise, and this is our third point of convergence, the change of repentance is needed only so that we can undergo training of a certain sort. This is the same training for which the psalmist prays when he asks God to teach me your ways, guide me in your truth and teach me… It is the same training for which Simon and Andrew, and James and John abandoned fish and family in order to undergo. Not Jedi training, surely, but Jesus training. Come after me, and I will make you fishers of women and men. It is also through this same training that we learn what it might mean to put into practice Paul’s enigmatic words to the Corinthians in the second reading: to have spouses and yet to act as not having them, to weep and to act as not weeping, to rejoice as not rejoicing, to buy as not owning, to use the world as not using it fully.

These then are the three points of convergence between the scriptures and the panhandler’s sign: danger, change and training. And do we really have to reflect much more deeply to see their relevance for us today? Surely the dangers of our current situation are evident enough. Can we not see ever more clearly the likely consequences of, for example, continuing to enshrine greed as the only necessary engine of progress, or to excuse the shedding of innocent blood as inevitable collateral damage, or to neglect our responsibility to respect and to uphold the sanctity of life as much as the sacredness of the earth?

Faced with these and other dangers, do we not find ourselves yearning for change? And yet, are we not also painfully aware of what the Ninevites realized so well – that we can truly change the world only by first changing ourselves? And do we not need now, as much as the first disciples did then, to undergo the training that our Lord continues to offer us? Indeed, isn’t this the very training that we have gathered here, around ambo and altar, to celebrate – the paschal training offered by the One who lived, died and was raised to life for us?

Sisters and brothers, perhaps we’re not so much different from those two youthful panhandlers on State Street, or from the recalcitrant people of Nineveh, or those diligent fishermen on the Sea of Galilee. Like them, we too require change so that we can devote ourselves to the training that is able to save us from calamity.

How might the Lord be offering these very things to us today?

1 comment:

  1. At an event a few weeks ago, a woman came up to me, asking for the model of my phone. I gave her the answer and was about to tell her more when she revealed the reason for her question: She simply wanted a touch-sensitive phone.

    Looking back, I can't help but think, "Do you know how powerful this phone is? You can surf the Internet for free via Wireless@sg (wifi); read email, blogs and anything that supports RSS feeds; save Web pages (browser); translate Chinese to English and English to Chinese (dictionary); scan business cards (optical character recognition); use it like a PDA (Symbian OS) - load / read bibles and other ebooks, edit MS Office documents; listen to thousands of songs (walkman with 8GB memory); use a stopwatch or timer; shoot photos with a 3.2MP camera, record audio, hold video calls, etc. And you want it just because its screen is touch-sensitive?"

    This makes me wonder: Have we been asking God for meagre, miserable things when He has magnificient plans for us?

    If only we are trusting and willing enough to devote ourselves to His training... Not only would we be saved from calamity, we would also secure "a future full of hope (and not woe)"! (Jeremiah 29:11)


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