Sunday, August 25, 2013

Spotting the Right Question

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Naina Redhu

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you were a student preparing for a major examination. Maybe the ‘A’ or ‘O’ or ‘N’ levels. And imagine also that there was just too much material and too little time for you to study everything. What do you do? Well, very likely, you do what many students do. Instead of studying everything, you choose to focus on certain topics more than others. You try to make an educated guess as to what is more likely to be tested that year. You take a calculated risk. And, to help you to do this, you study closely the questions that were set in earlier years. You study the trend. You try to spot the right questions.

If done well, with the proper guidance, this kind of gamble usually pays off. At least some of the questions you’ve prepared will indeed be asked in the exam. And you end up doing much better than if you had tried to study everything. But then, sadly, there are also some students who, for one reason or other, end up spotting the wrong questions. Imagine for a moment that you were one of these students. You’ve prepared hard to answer a certain number of chosen questions. You enter the exam hall. You open the exam booklet. And, to your horror, none of the questions in the booklet are the ones you’ve studied. Imagine for a moment, what would be going through your mind and heart. Imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The sense of dread and despair. The feeling of wasted efforts. The terrible realisation, that you could have passed this examination, if only you had studied different topics. If only you’d chosen the right questions. But you didn’t. You spotted the wrong ones instead...

Not a pleasant feeling. Not an experience anyone would want to have. Or even to wish upon someone else. And yet, isn’t this very much like how the people are probably feeling in our gospel reading for today? In a sense, they too are undergoing a major examination. The mother of all examinations. Not just the ‘A’ or ‘O’ levels. But the test that determines who will be saved. The entrance examination for eternal life itself. And the reading makes it clear that this examination is decided on a single criterion. Notice what the master of the house says to those who knock on the door: I do not know where you come from. Which is another way of saying, I do not know you.  Quite clearly, entrance into eternal life is determined by how well the candidates know and are known by the master of the house, the Chief Examiner himself.

But how does one demonstrate this knowledge? What question or questions does one need to answer? Quite clearly, the people in the gospel have spotted certain questions. They have prepared certain answers. We once ate and drank in your company, they say, you taught in our streets. In other words, for these people, knowledge of the Chief Examiner is judged mainly by proximity. By having occupied and shared the same social and geographical spaces as the Chief Examiner. Perhaps they even pride themselves in being members of the same race or country as the Chief Examiner. But, to their shock and horror, these are not the questions that are being asked of them. Entrance to the kingdom does not depend on proximity. At least not the kind on which they rely. Nor does it depend on race or nationality. For, as we find in the first reading, God’s desire is to gather people from all nations. People from places far and wide. Even and especially foreigners. Those who do not belong to the Jewish race. I am coming to gather the nations of every language, says the Lord. And not only is the Lord gathering foreigners. God promises even to make some of these foreigners into priests and Levites. People chosen to help others come closer to God.

So if neither physical nor social proximity, if neither racial nor national identity gains one entrance into eternal life, then what does? How does one come to know and be known by the Chief Examiner? What question or questions does one need to study in order to show that one has acquired this knowledge? Try your best to enter by the narrow door, Jesus says. But what is this narrow door? The answer is not difficult to find. We discover it by recalling the experience of Jesus our Lord. He came for one reason. To lead us all through the Doorway of eternal life. And when we consider the Way that Jesus himself walked, we begin to see that although it may be hard to enter this narrow door, it is not difficult to spot it when we come across it. The door is easy to recognise, because it has a very distinctive shape. It bears the shape of the Cross.

To enter through the narrow door is to follow Jesus in walking the Way of the Cross. Which is also the Way of Love. It is to try continually to respond always in a loving way to the different challenges, the various trials and tribulations, that the world may place in our path. Forgiving those who hurt us... Trying to work for the good of others and not just ourselves... Ultimately, seeking to do only what God desires of us. This is what Jesus did. Jesus who humbled himself to become the Suffering Servant of all. Jesus who laid down his life for his friends. And it is not easy to do this. This is not usually our first response to challenging situations. It takes time and effort to learn it. To acquire it.

Thankfully, however, we do not have to do it alone. As the second reading reminds us, God trains us as a Father trains his sons and daughters. God trains us precisely by allowing us, from time to time, to undergo suffering. Suffering is part of your training, the reading tells us. God is treating you as his sons. So that when we do encounter trials in life, we are to try our best not to be discouraged. Not to give up. Rather, we are to try courageously to hold up our limp arms and steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread. To look to Christ Jesus for strength and inspiration. For this is how we come to know our crucified and risen Lord and to be known by Him. This is part of our training. A crucial part of the preparation that helps us to pass the examination with flying colours. For it is intimacy, and not mere proximity, that gains us entrance into eternal life.

Sisters and brothers, it is of course no longer possible for us to share exactly the same physical and social spaces that Jesus of Nazareth occupied more than two thousand years ago. Nor is it likely that there are any Jews among us this morning. And yet, isn’t it true that it remains quite easy for us to assume too quickly that we already know the Lord? And are known by him? Just because we come and occupy a seat here every week? Isn’t it all too easy for us to think that simply by coming to Mass every Sunday we are already preparing adequately for entrance into eternal life? Don’t we sometimes think that repeated entrance through the wide doors of this church will automatically gain for us admittance through the narrow gate of God’s kingdom? And yet, how many of us are truly able to see and to make the connections between our comfortable presence here at Mass on a Sunday with the challenges that we may have to face over the course of the rest of the week? Or with the discomfort that others around us may be experiencing. The poor. The sick. The aged. The homeless. The depressed... What can we do, what must we do, to learn to better recognise and to respond ever more generously to the Lord? Who continually chooses to come to us in the difficult situations and the troubled people we may encounter when we leave this place? What are we doing to come to know and to be known by Christ ever more intimately?

Sisters and brothers, the knowledge that we need to excel in the Great Examination of eternal life has already been revealed to us. But are we really spotting the right questions today?


  1. At first glance, the narrow gate looks very unattractive for it includes the cross and many painful challenges.. perhaps not many can go through this narrow gate....

    The wider gate may seem like a more popular choice as it looks more attractive - with secularism, materialism, power, prestige, ego and pride and lots of focus on the SELF.

    Yet, the narrow gate leads us TOWARDS God; whereas the wider gate leads us AWAY from God.

    If I were to make a choice between these 2 gates - which would be my preferred choice? And, am I ready to pay the price for having made this important decision in my life?

    Let us pray for God to show us HIS PREFERRED CHOICE.

  2. O Lord,

    as You are the Chief Examiner, my only success in my life lies in You.

    May I ask for Your Grace, Your Courage and Your Strength to remain faithful to You, to grow in my rapport with You, and to enter into You, via the narrow door - the only door that leads to You.

    Along the way, as i walk towards the narrow gate, there are bound to be distractions in their various disguised forms - be it all the well meaning people who always have their "best" in mind for me; people with hidden agendas who tend to manipulate or "use" me for their own selfish/personal gains (consciously or unconsciously); there will also be some apparently "attractive" situations and circumstances that seem so so "right" at first glance - yet after further contemplation and prayer, the glitter and glamour would often fade away and i will be faced with a hollow superficiality that leads me AWAY FROM YOU... and i will only be left with a deep regret and remorse, when I realise this reality - and would it then be too late to turn back to You?

    Lord, I want to remain faithful to You, to embrace the cross and enter via the narrow door; yet this decision brings me its share of pains, and often it is a very lonely decision that would continually align me from certain people and situations which are NOT aligned to Your will and plan for me.

    Grant me Lord, the courage and the single-mindedness to keep focussed only on YOU, for only in You can I find my true happiness, fulfilment and joy.

    Lord, keep me ever close to You and never let me be parted from You.

    May YOU INCREASE, O Lord, as i decrease. May my ego, my pride and all that stands in Your Way make way for You. Reign in me, O Lord, and set Your Throne, once again, in my heart.

    Seeing Is Believing
    29 August 2013