Saturday, October 29, 2011

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time
Mass @ Rachel’s Vineyard
Repair and Maintenance
Readings: Malachi 1:14-2:2,8-10; Psalm 130:1-3; 1 Thessalonians 2:7-9,13; Matthew 23:1-12
Picture: cc Aine D

Sisters and brothers, as you know, machines break down. And it’s usually not too difficult to tell when they do, right? All that is required is for us to pay careful attention to whether or not they’re working properly. You will know, for example, that a refrigerator is broken, if you notice that it is no longer keeping the temperature. But it’s important to notice it sooner rather than later. Otherwise, all the food in the refrigerator will spoil. If we don’t want to suffer such dire consequences, it’s important that we pay attention. We know this. We know how important it is to maintain our machines regularly. And to repair them as soon as they break down.

But it’s not just machines that break down. People do too. You’ve probably seen the shocking news report that has recently been circulating on the internet. It tells the story of little Wang Yue, the 2-year-old girl who died a few days ago in Guangdong Province, in China. She was run over by two minibuses and then left to lie bleeding in the middle of a busy street. Even though no less than eighteen people passed her by, not one stopped to lend a hand. Poor Yueyue was left helpless and groaning, until a 58-year-old woman–who was out collecting trash– took pity on her, dragged her to the side of the road, and called for help.

There’s a striking similarity, sisters and brothers, between the tragic situation of little Yueyue, and that of a refrigerator-load of food that goes bad because the machine has broken down. Just as a refrigerator is meant to keep food fresh, people are meant to have compassion on one another. To care for each other. To extend a helping hand especially to the helpless. When a refrigerator breaks, the food in it spoils. When a society malfunctions, the people in it suffer. Which only goes to show how important it is for us, not only to maintain our machines, but also to look after ourselves as well. And to quickly get ourselves repaired when we are broken. But how is it that people come to be broken in the first place? And how do we go about getting ourselves repaired? These are the questions that our Mass readings help us to answer today.

For what we find in them is a group of malfunctioning people. These are the priests, the religious leaders, of Israel. It becomes obvious to us that they are not functioning properly when we compare the effects of their ministry with those of St. Paul's. In the second reading, the apostle Paul reminds the Thessalonians of how he and his companions had ministered to them. How, like a mother feeding and looking after her own children, he and his team of missionaries had been eager to share with the people not only the Good News, but their whole lives as well. In addition, they had also worked hard to support themselves materially, so as not to be a burden on the people. As a result, the Thessalonians accepted God’s message in such a way that it became a living power in their lives.

In contrast, both in the first reading and in the gospel, the religious leaders of Israel are criticised for the bad effects of their ministry. Instead of caring for the people, instead of having compassion on them, and helping them to bear the heavy weight of daily living, these men have added to the people’s burdens, by insisting that they keep all sorts of trivial religious rules and regulations. As a result, these malfunctioning religious leaders have caused many to stumble under the weight of their misguided teaching. But, thankfully, our readings don’t just describe to us a breakdown in religious leadership. They also tell us how it comes about, and what needs to be done to repair it.

The cause of the breakdown is clear. The people of Israel believed, as we Christians do, that the goal of human life is to glorify God. But the priests in our readings have instead sought only to glorify themselves. As Jesus says in the gospel, everything they do is done to attract attention. And this concern of theirs, to have the spotlight constantly shining on themselves instead of on God, amounts to a breaking of the covenant made between God and the people. Instead of letting God be God, the religious leaders attempt to take God’s place. They have thus strayed from the way that God has marked out for them. And, as a result, instead of being a blessing to others, their ministry becomes a curse. Instead of lightening the load of others, they become a burden. In their experience, we see the truth of what Jesus says in the gospel: anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted.

Fortunately, it is also in this saying of Jesus that we find the remedy. If the breakdown is caused by pride and selfishness, then the repair is brought about by humility and love. By once again–and continually–remembering that it is God alone who gives life. That it is God alone who deserves all the glory. You have only one Father, and he is in heaven. You have only one teacher, the Christ. It is only by doing this–by allowing God to once again be God–that the relationship between God and humanity can be mended. And religious leadership can once again function as it should. Helping people to lighten their loads, instead of multiplying their burdens. This mending of the broken relationship between humanity and God comes about because our Lord Jesus Christ allowed himself to be broken on the Cross. It is this sacrifice of his that we celebrate at this Eucharist.

But that’s not all. There is one other point to note. A very important point. Although, in our readings, the criticism of the priests is very sharp, it is less a condemnation than an invitation to repent. It is a caring and compassionate call, addressed to those who are broken, persuading them to allow themselves to be healed. To forsake prideful ways. And to once again experience the peace that is so beautifully described in the responsorial psalm: my heart is not proud, nor haughty my eyes..... truly I have set my soul in silence and peace.... hope in the Lord both now and forever.

Sisters and brothers, I cannot say for sure, since I haven’t had the pleasure of accompanying you very much on this retreat. But my guess is that, in these days, you too have heard and responded to this invitation. That you too have been allowing what has been broken to be healed. That you too have come to experience anew what the psalmist writes about: the contentment of a little child that has just been fed, and is resting its head on its mother’s breast. Perhaps what remains to be done is to give thanks for the graces that have been received. And also to ask for the wisdom and the strength to do whatever is necessary to take better care of that which once was broken, but which has since been made whole again.

Sisters and brothers, how might we continue to nourish our relationship with God in the days ahead?

1 comment:

  1. One can sometimes tell a families’ lifestyle from the food in their refrigerator. Does it contains the necessities of life (eating to live) or stocked with unimaginable goodies of the pleasurable kind (live to eat)? In our circumstances of plenty, many are still complaining of shortage of the “surplus” kind. We do lead such lives – with quiet desperation.
    Spiritual nourishment helps us to differentiate needs and wants of the essential kind. Not only are we fortified spiritually, this ripples into channels of concern for those who live from hand to mouth, with no refrigerator or electric supply. There is no pretence in being poor.
    How can I improve my vision and begin to see things more clearly for what they are? Are my hands too occupied to reach out to touch someone with kindness? When our hands are fully loaded with burdensome goods, is there room for setting our soul in peace? I turn to Him for answers.


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