Sunday, October 27, 2013

From Puffed Up to Poured Out

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc garrettsjean

Sisters and brothers, what do you think? What does modern society have in common with a puffer fish?  You know, of course, what a puffer fish is, right? The Japanese call it fugu. You know how it gets its name. The fugu is actually not a very big fish. Nor can it move very fast. But it’s able to survive and to thrive in the wild, because it has a highly effective way of defending itself against attack. The fugu, as you know, has an extremely elastic stomach. Which it can quickly fill with water whenever it’s threatened. The sudden intake of liquid enables the fugu to quickly grow much bigger than it actually is. And this sudden increase in size is usually enough to scare away would-be predators. That’s how the fugu survives. That’s how it gets ahead in life. By a strategy of self-inflation.

Now I may be wrong, sisters and brothers. But it seems to me that it’s not just the puffer fish that relies on a strategy of inflation to get ahead in life. To survive and to thrive in the wilderness of modern society, don’t many of us have to do the same? Don’t we have to spend much time and effort puffing ourselves up just to face the challenges of daily living? We have to spend years in school, for example. Not just to gain an education. But also to puff ourselves up by accumulating academic qualifications. Isn’t this why so many of us get so stressed out around this time of year? When exam season comes around. Parents even more than students. Nor does the stress end after we graduate. Even then, we have to carefully puff up our resum├ęs. So that we can advance more quickly in our chosen careers.

And not just in school and at work. Don’t we have to rely very much on the strategy of inflation even on the social scene as well? Why else do so many of us feel obliged to post intimate personal information and images on social media? If not to enhance our public personas? To puff ourselves up in the sight of others? Even total strangers. In the most recent issue of Digital Life–the Straits Times' technology supplement–for example, the editor, Oo Gin Lee, writes about how his 11-year old daughter has to endure getting laughed at by her friends in school. All because her dad doesn’t permit her to have a Facebook account or a smartphone. Imagine that. Only 11 years old. And already feeling the pressure to puff herself up in the sight of others. Sisters and brothers, what do you think? Doesn’t our modern society have something in common with the puffer fish? The fugu puffs itself up occasionally to repel predators. We have to do it on a daily basis to attract admirers. In both cases, the strategy is the same. Self-inflation.

But please don’t be mistaken, sisters and brothers. I’m not saying that social media is necessarily bad. It’s not. Nor am I saying that students should not take their studies seriously. Or adults their careers. They should. The problem arises, however, when self-inflation becomes our default strategy. When it becomes the only way we know how to relate to the world. And not just to the world. But even to God. For, as you will probably have noticed, our Mass readings today are all about how those who puff themselves up end up failing to find favour in the sight of God. The classic example of this is, of course, the Pharisee in the gospel parable. Notice how the Pharisee puffs himself up in the Temple. How his prayer is really a hymn of praise of himself to himself. In his telling of the parable, Jesus is careful to indicate that the Pharisee stood up in the Temple and addressed his prayer, not to God, but to himself.

But why exactly, we may ask, does he fail? Why is God not impressed with the Pharisee’s considerable litany of spiritual achievements? Why does the Pharisee leave the Temple not at rights with God? The answer is to be found in the first reading. Which reminds us that God is no respecter of personages. In other words, God isn’t attracted by the very thing that the Pharisee tries to inflate. Namely, the Pharisee’s own ego. And the reason for this is not so much that the Pharisee is worthless as a person. He’s not. He is, after all, like the rest of us, lovingly created by God. As is written, in Psalm 139, we are fearfully and wonderfully made (v. 14). The problem is rather that, being so focused only on himself, the Pharisee leaves no room in his heart and in his life for God to enter. The Pharisee is just too full of himself. Or rather, too full of the self that consists only in his own personal achievements. The things in which he takes great pride. Puffed up only with himself, the Pharisee ends up repelling everything and everyone else. Even the merciful God who created him.

In contrast, it is the tax collector whose prayer is accepted. It is the sinner, who leaves the Temple at rights with God. Why? The reason is not too difficult to see. The tax collector succeeds where the Pharisee fails, not so much because he is sinful. But because he is both willing to admit, and able to mourn, his own sinfulness. He knows, from experience, his own weakness. His own inability to make himself holy. And, broken-hearted, he begs for help. God, be merciful to me, a sinner. And God does help. God does hear his prayer, because that is what God is like. As the responsorial psalm reminds us, the Lord is close to the broken-hearted; those whose spirit is crushed he will save.

Here, sisters and brothers, we find the radical difference between the Pharisee and the tax collector. The first puffs himself up with the water of his own egotistical achievements. And, by doing this, ends up repelling God. The second, however, humbly acknowledges his own brokenness. And, by doing this, actually attracts God into his heart and into his life. Allowing himself to be filled with the wine of God’s love and mercy. But that’s not all. While the story of the Pharisee may end with the parable in the gospel. The story of the tax collector actually continues. It continues with what St. Paul writes in the second reading concerning himself.

My life, says Paul, is already being poured away as a libation. What is this life that Paul is referring to, sisters and brothers, if not the same invigorating wine that the tax collector allows God to pour into his heart in the gospel? Here, in the second reading, we find the intended destination of God’s love and mercy. It’s meant not just to be locked up within people like the tax collector in the gospel and St. Paul in the second reading. Those who allow themselves to be filled by God. The wine of God’s love and mercy is meant to be poured out for the life of all the world. Just as blood and water poured out from the side of the crucified Christ. As he hung lifeless on the Cross. And it is by allowing himself to be the vessel through which this gracious outpouring takes place, that St. Paul can hope eventually to receive his heavenly reward. The crown of righteousness reserved for me, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give to me on that Day. The Day of the Lord.

Sisters and brothers, perhaps this is the challenge that our Mass readings are presenting to us today. The challenge to go beyond our usual mode of operation in modern society. And to cultivate instead an alternate strategy for daily living. The challenge to move continually from self-inflation to self-libation. From being puffed up to being poured out. So that more people in our world may truly come to know that Christ, our Crown of Righteousness, has already come. Has already died. Is already risen. For them. For you. For me. For all.

Sisters and brothers, what must we do to keep moving from inflation to libation today?

1 comment:

  1. Lord, like the publican, I come before You with this prayer:

    Lord, Have Mercy on me a sinner.. not worthy of You nor of Your Love


    Lord, please make me more like YOU - humble, sincere and always DWELLING IN GOD WHO IS LOVE.

    Make me an instrument of Your Peace.

    Pax et Bonum

    like the Poverello
    28 October 2013


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