Saturday, October 22, 2011

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Check Your Cloth!

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 17:2-4,47,51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40
Picture: cc *vlad*

Sisters and brothers, not so long ago, I was given a brand new car to drive. It was white in colour. Being a conscientious kinda guy, and wanting to keep the car spotless for as long as I could, I implemented a rather serious plan. Every morning, before I set off for the day, I used a damp cloth to give the vehicle a good wipe. In other words, I did the very thing that is done every morning in Singapore by domestic help. I cleaned my car.

One morning, as I was performing my self-imposed domestic duty, I discovered what looked like a spot of tar on one of the doors. Thankfully, after some vigorous rubbing with my cloth, I managed to remove it. Only to find, as I continued cleaning, more such black spots on other parts of the vehicle. To my great annoyance, it seemed as though the more I cleaned, the more those cursed spots kept appearing. Then, fortunately for me, after having expended a good deal of energy–far more than usual–I finally began to see the light. You see, it wasn’t really the case that my car was covered with tar. Instead, what was happening was that the one black spot I had removed at first, had clung stubbornly to my cloth. So that, as I cleaned, I was actually transferring the tar all over. Quite ironically, my conscientious efforts were contaminating the car as much as cleaning it. In order to keep my car immaculately white, in order to remove all the black spots, what I first had to do was to check and to change my cloth.

Since that fateful morning, I’ve come to wonder whether the insight I gained while keeping my car clean, needs also to be learned by those who are trying so hard to maintain peace in our world. Why is it that, it often seems as though the more strenuous our efforts at removing the dark spots of violence and terror in our world, the more prevalent they appear to be? I’m not sure. But could it be that the reason lies as much in our chosen instruments for maintaining order, as it does in the chaotic world itself? Could it be that true peace, cannot really be won by declaring war? Even if it is a War on Terror? Could it be that, to truly clean the world, we need also to check and to change our cloths?

I am, of course, not a political scientist. And I claim no expertise in such matters. But even if the lesson gained while cleaning a car is not quite applicable to the realm of geopolitics, it certainly does appear relevant at least to the spiritual life. This is what our Mass readings remind us today. Consider the Pharisees in the gospel. Not unlike the conscientious driver of a white car, they too want to keep their religious lives clean. And their chosen instrument–their cloth of choice–is the Law. For the Pharisees, the spiritual life can only be kept spotless, if it is constantly being put in order–or polished to a shine–by the Law. To do this, effort must be expended, not only to interpret the Law, but also to enforce it. The way of the Pharisee is thus also the way of the lawyer and the policeman. And yet, it’s quite striking, isn’t it, to consider the terrible consequences of such an approach? Today the gospel tells us that the Pharisees put their question to Jesus only to disconcert him. To disrupt his peace. In their efforts to maintain order, the Pharisees attempt to disturb the One Who Alone is our Peace (Ephesians 2:14). And when their reliance on the Jewish Law fails to achieve their purpose, they will eventually resort to Roman authority. At their prompting, Pilate, the Roman governor, will condemn Jesus to death. What begins as an exercise of cleansing, ends in a scandal of contamination. They will manipulate the law to torture and murder the Prince of Peace.

In contrast, in his answer to the Pharisees’ question, Jesus offers a radically different instrument for keeping the spiritual life clean. Instead of an obsession with the Law, Jesus proposes a surrender to Love. In place of the expertise of lawyers and enforcement by policemen, Jesus models the Way of the Cross. What the Lord is telling the Pharisees is that, if they wish to be truly clean, they must first change their cloth, contaminated as it is by the tar of idolatry. They must first repent of their idolatrous worship of the Law, and return to the love of God with all their heart, and soul, and mind. It is only in this way that true peace can be attained. And not just attained, but also shared with many. Isn’t this also what St. Paul writes about in the second reading, when he reminds the Thessalonians that it is because they first broke with idolatry, and became servants of the real, living God, that their faith has spread everywhere?

And that’s not all. Even though Jesus is asked for only one commandment–the greatest–he names two. Not just love of God, but also love of neighbour. And not just any neighbour. As the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke’s gospel (10:25-37) reminds us, the neighbour that most requires our attention is the one who is most in need. The one who has been robbed and left by the roadside to die. The ones who are somehow excluded by the prevailing order, as currently interpreted and enforced by the powers that be. The way of peace passes through the needy neighbour. This too is what we find in the first reading. In giving the Law to Moses, God pays particular attention to the poor, to strangers, to widows, and to orphans. Classes of people most excluded from the society of that time. In his day, Jesus himself would include tax collectors and prostitutes as well. What we find here, sisters and brothers, is scriptural support for something that the late Pope Paul VI wrote in his message for the Day of Peace in 1972: If you want peace, work for justice. If you want an orderly world or society, pay attention to those who do not yet find a place in it. Those most excluded from it. Even those who may seem to be mired in sin, or blinded by apathy.

Sisters and brothers, it is not easy to keep the spiritual life clean. We all know this from experience. What our Mass readings do for us is highlight an essential step in the process. First, continually check your cloth. And be willing to change it wherever necessary. First, ensure that your priorities are right: Love of God and needy neighbour before all else. Only then will the other things fall into place. Isn’t this an important lesson for us to learn, especially today, when some of us may be feeling especially threatened by what may look like chaos all around us? Chaos in the world. Chaos in our communities and families. Chaos even in our church. Chaos in our hearts. In the midst of all this apparent disorder, we may feel sorely tempted to respond by imposing order through the ever stricter interpretation and enforcement of laws. And yet, our readings remind us of the terrible danger that awaits those who choose such an approach. The idolatrous obsession with order and law–however well-intentioned–can lead to the eventual crucifixion of Love.

Sisters and brothers, even as we continue trying to keep the vehicle that is our spiritual life clean, perhaps it’s important that we also ask ourselves this question: Does our cloth need changing today?


  1. The cloth used to polish the car is different from the material used to adorn ourselves. Most of us wish to be differentiated by the clothes we wear. So instead of conversion we change our “appearance” by reaching into the wardrobe.
    This transference effect puts up an artificial fa├žade to hide the real self and is how we transfix ourselves to the exclusion of others, more in want. We have become less genuine because of these adornments. So how we peel off these veneers (maya)?
    Even in the organized chaos of our lives, there are areas where we have to be consciously aware of competing needs, focussing on the essentials and rising above the secular. I reach for psalm 46:10 and learn to be still to listen to the small voice within, often drowned by the noise without.

  2. Experience has taught me that it is impossible to keep a white car, a white coat or a spotlessly white spiritual life perfect, unless the car happens to be in the showroom, away from the dust and mess of real life.

    I have decided instead to love my (not white) car- which is really a metaphor for my life journey, in order that I may 'love others as myself'.

    The purpose of having a car is to make it useful for the journey- to give rides or bring aid to others in need. This ties in well with the Greatest Commandment to love God and neighbour.

    I prefer to have a colourful car which reflects a rich inner life of joy and service guided by the gentle hand of the Spirit of Love.