Sunday, September 20, 2009

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
Receiving the Hands of the Child

Readings: Wisdom 2:12, 17-20; Psalm 54:3-4, 5, 6 and 8; James 3:16-4:3; Mark 9:30-37
Picture: cc po1yester

Sisters and brothers, have you ever visited a pre-school? Or maybe watched pre-school children at play? Today I’d like to invite us to imagine the scene at a pre-school, where a child is at play. What is the child playing? Two games that we probably know well. The first has to do with fitting blocks of different shapes into their respective slots in a box. The blocks will only fit into the slots if they are of the same shape. The child has to match them. Can you picture it? The second game has to do with making shapes out of play-doh or modeling clay. The child is free to make whatever shape it likes because the clay yields to its touch. The clay submits to the hands of the child. The child is limited only by its own imagination. Can you picture the scene? Shouldn’t be too difficult, right? But then this child does something different, something creative. It decides to combine the two games. It shapes the play-doh from the second game so that it fits into one of the slots in the first. Can you imagine what the scene looks like? Do you think the child will succeed?

It may seem surprising, sisters and brothers, but perhaps this scene of a child at play can help us to appreciate the deeper meaning in our scripture readings today. Like our pre-school scene, our readings today also present us with slots and blocks and modeling clay. Can you find them? Can you see what they look like?

First, let’s look for the slots. The first reading gives us the names and descriptions of two different kinds of people, two slots of different shapes. The first has the shape of the wicked. The second that of the just. And these two differently shaped slots, these two different kinds of people, are contrasted in terms of what they do and what motivates them. In the first reading, the wicked are threatened and offended by the words and way of life of the just. So upset are they that they even go to the extent of plotting to mistreat and to murder the just. With revilement and torture let us put the just one to the test, they say. Let us condemn him to a shameful death. Conflict and cruelty, hostility and homicide: these are what characterize the conduct of the wicked. And the second reading tells us something of what motivates such horrible behavior. Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there is every disorder and every foul practice. Jealousy and selfish ambition, leading to conflict, violence and even death: such is the shape of the wicked.

Contrast that with the shape of the just. Whereas the wicked act defensively, out of anxious self-assertion, the just rely ultimately on God to defend them. As we heard in our responsorial psalm: Behold, God is my helper; the Lord sustains my life. The just are able to do this because they are moved by the very thing we prayed for earlier in our opening prayer when we said that the perfection of justice is to be found in God’s love. The just are moved by the love of God. Such that whereas the foolish actions of the wicked lead to disorder and violence, the just act according to the wisdom from above, which is pure… peaceable, gentle, compliant, full of mercy and good fruits and is sown and cultivated in peace. Whereas the selfish ambition of the wicked leads ultimately to the taking of innocent life, the love of the just allows them to lay down their life for others.

These then are the two different slots in our readings, the wicked and the just. And, in the gospel, we find two blocks that match them. Jesus is, of course, the Just One, moved by the Wisdom and Love of God to lay down his life for others, both friends and enemies alike. In his life we find the block that fits into the slot of the just. In contrast, in their jealousy and hardness of heart, the religious authorities who plot to have Jesus condemned and crucified fit the slot of the wicked.

And don’t we find these same slots and blocks in our own experience today? Don’t we find them in our world, in our communities, in our families, perhaps even in our own hearts? In our parish communities, for example, do we not find, on the one hand, people who serve selflessly in different ministries, people who help in proclaiming the word of God, in leading the singing, in preparing the coffee and donuts, or in putting out the chairs? But, on the other hand, in some parishes, perhaps not in this one, we may also find jealousy and selfish ambition at work, such that various ministries come to be monopolized by the same people, to the exclusion of others. Where else in your experience, sisters and brothers, do you encounter the slots of the wicked and the just?

But that’s not all. More than just slots and blocks, in our readings today, we also find something that looks like a child working with play-doh. Isn’t this what Jesus is doing with the disciples in the gospel? We are told that as they began a journey through Galilee, Jesus was teaching his disciples. In telling them about his impending Passion and Death, Jesus was trying to make them understand that the Cross is central to the path they have chosen, the path of love that leads to life. He was trying to shape them to fit into the slot of the just. But the teaching is too much for the disciples. They demonstrate their lack of understanding by arguing among themselves about who is the greatest. They show that their shape still tends to fit more easily into the slot of the wicked than the slot of just. But all is not lost. For we are also told that the disciples remain silent when questioned by Jesus. They are embarrassed, a sign that perhaps there is still hope for them. In the days ahead, they might yet be molded into the right shape by Jesus, if not before his Crucifixion, then perhaps after his Resurrection. But for this to happen, they must remain pliable as play-doh. In contrast to the hardness of Jesus’ enemies, the disciples need to learn to submit to the healing hands of the Lord. Will they succeed?

And what about us? Does the Lord not continue to mold us too, shaping us to fit the slot of the just? And does not this molding often bear the shape of the Cross? Think, for example, of the parent who loses a child to cancer. How will s/he respond to such a tragic experience? Some might end up hardening themselves, remaining trapped in their grief and their anger at God and the world. But then, there may also be others who gradually allow their pain to lead them to reach out to others who have experienced a similar loss, or who contribute towards the work of finding a cure for this dreaded disease. Remaining pliable, these parents submit themselves to the hands of the Lord, as he shapes them to fit into the slot of the just. They learn to lay down their lives for others. They learn the deeper meaning of Jesus' words to the disciples in the gospel: Whoever receives one child such as this in my name receives me; and whoever receives me, receives not me but the One who sent me?

Sisters and brothers, in various ways, like the pre-schooler and the play-doh, Jesus wants to shape us to better fit the slot of the just. How receptive are we to his touch? Will this child succeed?


  1. Those of us who have really watched children play with shapes and play-doh will no doubt recall how messy the whole process can be. And being the serious adult that I am, much of my pre-occupation is in the dreaded cleaning-up rather than sharing the delight of the child at play.

    Reading Fr Chris' reflections, I couldn't help thinking of God's delight in moulding us to fit into the mould of goodness, and his grief when we resist his hands of love and discipline, and insist on allowing ourselves to be moulded by the persuasive and destructive hands of evil.

    And yet, it is not so straightforward, is it?
    The invisible moulds of good and evil exist not on the play table, but within our hearts. The invisible hands of the good and the bad spirit moulding our hearts, minds and wills are not always so easy to tell apart, especially when evil is disguised as an angel of light.

    So, much as we desire to follow the path of light, sometimes we just obliviously stumble along the wrong way, and live to regret it.

    Children have the habit of digging all the play-doh out of their moulds and starting over again. And as Fr Chris has shared, the pliability of the play-doh is what lends itself to a make-over.

    In the hands of the divine creator, we are never too far gone (unlike mouldy play-doh that most mothers will throw out! :) to be too late for a new shape. And I guess that's going to be a life-long process for God's patient hands, to continually reshape us more and more perfectly to his divine will for our eternal life with him.

    Thank God we have a maker who loves to play!

  2. The reflection and the accompanying sharing cannot help but bring a smile to my wry face.
    As we some of us we are often the image of a square peg in a round hole. We don't ever seem to fit the slots.
    A playful God is a wonderful analogy and in childlike manner we submit to the kneading, nudging and prompting to reshape ourselves provided we are pliable. Lo! our hearts are not that dried by the evil winds that sap away the original innocence of the dough.
    Actions first considered as "It's alright" then turns into "It's right" and finally "It's a right". Take the issue of gay rights.
    Our Creator must be lamenting at the misfits that we have turned out to be in our weak attempt to craft our lives befitting into what He intended us to be.
    What a merciful God we have!!

  3. What does God as a loving and compassionate parent do when we somehow seem to be misfits OR at least misfits in the eyes of our fellow brothers and sisters who seem the perfect fit (or they would have us think!)

    Having been a parent refereeing domestic demonstrations of unmet rights, I think God, who is infinitely more powerful and strong, has more compassion for the lost sheep than our fellow imperfect siblings would have for each other.

    Isn't it common knowledge that we often slime others to unconsciously detract attention from our own human weaknesses which we are too proud to even let God know?
    Furthermore, one often labels another with righteous indignation without knowing the real story behind the hurt child who has grown up to be a less-than-welcome adult.
    Some of these hurts may even come from the time of infancy or before through unintentional lack of love!

    Through our myopic prejudices, we try to take the place of the merciful Father, Judge and Mediator who alone knows the entire history of every child even before conception, and who is likely to be more understanding and patient than the humans he created.

    I'd like to think that beneath the facade of every hurtful defence and wrong path taken is an untainted soul awaiting rescue from the smear of sinful separation from God.
    If God can wait for eternity for us to turn our hearts to him, I think I can wait for my fellow siblings too and not give up prematurely.

    Meanwhile, I'd better get a mirror to have a good look at myself, and try to see my own goodness beneath the mountain of hurt and pain that have piled on me through the years of earthly living.
    Until I can be compassionate towards my imperfect self, and see my hidden goodness through God's loving, searching eyes, there is little hope for my accepting the stain on my brother's shirt.

    God bless us all..

  4. Fr Chris, I think I undersand better what you mean. Still wondering though...

  5. Square peg in a round hole? Wicked and just. Reminds me of my office. So many different characters, and correspondingly, the politics involved.

    How do I stay above the fray? At least, I'm not right at the top and way below. So my head is not lopped off, neither do I get totally trampled upon.

    The analogy of play-doh also makes me think that we need to adapt to the circumstances. Since I can't change others, I would have to change myself. If I can't bring myself to do this, then I would not fit in.


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