Sunday, August 22, 2010

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Who Made You?

Picture: cc Virginia Zuluaga

Dear sisters and brothers, have you ever seen people shopping for designer goods – say, maybe a Ferragamo bag or a Coach wallet, something like that. Maybe you even buy such things yourself. They’re very costly, aren’t they? And not only are they costly, but these days fakes are also very common. And I don’t mean an obvious imitation. Like a bag that says FerraBamo, for example. These days, fakes can look very authentic. So how do you know that you’re getting your money’s worth? How do you make sure that what you’re buying is the real deal?

A good way is, of course, to buy directly from the designer store. But then there are those of us who don’t want to pay the full price. So we go elsewhere, looking for bargains. And that’s when you have to be especially careful. What do you do? You check the product very carefully. You examine the zipper, for example, and the rest of the material. You make sure that the item bears all the marks of the designer. What are you really doing? Whether consciously or not, when you give the product the once over like this, you’re really questioning it, aren’t you? Where do you come from? You ask. Who made you? And you will only buy the thing if the answer is Ferragamo and not Ferradamo.

We find something similar in today’s gospel. Here, Jesus tells a parable about people trying to gain entrance into the kingdom of God. Unfortunately, not everyone is admitted. Not unlike a shrewd buyer of designer goods, Jesus chooses only a certain kind of people to enter the kingdom. Like goods that are guaranteed by a designer store, the people the Lord chooses are those who enter through the narrow gate. And when others try to get in after the gate has been closed, he tells them something very interesting. I do not know where you are from, he says. Even when these people tell him that they’ve spent much time in his company, even though they claim to have listened to him teach in their streets, Jesus says he doesn’t know where they are from. It’s as though, like the shopper looking at a fake product, after giving them the once over, the Lord turns them away because he does not recognize in them any mark of the designer. He doesn’t know who made them.

Some of us may still remember the old Catechism, which presented its lessons in question-and-answer format. Who made you? was the first question. To which the answer was God made me. This is our belief as Christians: that, even though our parents gave us birth, we owe our existence ultimately to God. Who made you? God made me. And yet, isn’t it also true that our birth is but the beginning of a much longer manufacturing process? Although God may have been the one ultimately responsible for putting us on this earth, through the choices we make, we somehow play a part in shaping our own lives. As someone once said: what we are is God’s gift to us. What we become is our gift to God.

But this doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we like. Like designer goods, our lives will be of a certain quality only if they are shaped according to the designer’s directions, only if they bear the mark of the Lord. Isn’t this the problem with the people in Jesus’ parable? Instead of following the Lord by entering through the narrow gate, they have led lives according to their own design, such that the Lord does not recognize his mark on them. He does not know where they are from, who it is that made them.

But how does one enter through the narrow gate? How does one follow the designer’s directions? If it isn’t enough just to go to church every Sunday, what more is required of us? We get some hints of an answer from the rest of our readings.

In the first reading, for example, we find God sending out people to gather the nations into God’s kingdom. And these people who are sent are told to do one thing. They are to proclaim the Lord’s glory especially to those who have never heard of the Lord’s fame. Or, in the words of the response to the psalm, they are to go out to all the world and tell the Good News. Although this may seem like what the people in the gospel claim to have been doing, there is an important difference. It’s possible to spend time with Jesus and even to listen to his teaching only for the sake of our own selfish interests. I may go to church only because my girlfriend goes too, or only because there is something I need the Lord to do for me. I may preach the Word so that people may think highly of me. I can do all these things for my own glory. But what the people in the first reading are sent to do is to proclaim God’s glory, not their own. To allow ourselves to be shaped by God, we need somehow to make the praise of God the center of our lives, as Jesus did. And you can only really praise someone if you have experienced the person’s goodness. Authentic praise can spring, for example, out of gratitude – gratitude for all the good things that God has done, and continues to do for us, gratitude especially for the love that God has shown us in Jesus Christ our Lord.

And yet, life is not just filled with bright moments. It is also sometimes covered in shadow. Can we continue to be grateful, can we continue to praise God at such times? According to the second reading, the answer is yes. Even in times of trial, it is possible to continue giving glory to God if we learn to see such difficult times as moments of discipline. It’s difficult for us to do this because we often connect discipline with punishment. When something bad happens, we may immediately ask ourselves, Why? What have I done wrong? Why is God punishing me? But discipline does not have to be the result of guilt. Athletes in training discipline themselves even though they may have done nothing wrong. The point of the second reading is that it is possible to praise God in dark times, when we learn to see our trials as opportunities for growth in the ways of God. This is how we enter through the narrow gate as Jesus did. Both in good times and in bad, it is possible for us to allow God to shape us. Through praise and through discipline, it is possible for us to come to bear the mark of the Divine Designer: neither the brand of Coach nor of Ferragamo, but the mark of the Cross of Christ.

And we do this even more effectively when we allow praise and discipline to meet, when, in our gratitude for all the good things that God has done for us, we praise God by reaching out to help those who may be experiencing God’s discipline. Isn’t this especially important in these days when massive flooding has displaced thousands in Pakistan, even as, here at home, many others continue to suffer the effects of unemployment and homelessness.

Sisters and brothers, when we examine our own lives on this 21st Sunday in Ordinary Time, whose mark do we see? Who is making us, today?

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