Sunday, September 07, 2014

Heart Acquisition Act (Rerun)

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc  Jack Kennard

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that I’ve just paid up the mortgage on my house. After years of hard work, I’ve finally submitted the last instalment. Imagine that this is a piece of freehold property. And now it’s all mine. Now no one else can contest my claim. Now I’m free to enjoy it without any interference. ... Or can I? Is my ownership of the property really absolute? Does no one else have any claim on it whatsoever?

What if this property of mine is located along Amber Road? What if it’s one of the six houses along the path of the proposed Thomson-East Coast MRT Line? In such a situation, even if I were truly the legal owner of the property, the government can still acquire it in exchange for fair compensation. I can’t refuse. The government has a valid claim on the land, even though I’m the legal owner. As you know, there’s a law in our statute books that gives the government this right. It’s called the Land Acquisition Act. It allows the government to acquire privately-owned land for the purposes of national development.

Many of us have heard of this recently amended law. We know about this constraint on our rights as property owners. What we perhaps do not realise is that this is not the only constraint. For example, it has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that, not just the government, but also the poor have a claim on our property. Indeed, in the 4th century, St. Basil the Great, went so far as to insist that the bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help.

Sisters and brothers, whether we realise it or not, for us Catholics, in addition to the Land Acquisition Act–which gives the government a legal right over our property–we are also bound by an unwritten law, which gives the poor a moral right to our belongings. Whether we like it or not, the poor have a moral claim on us. We are somehow responsible for their wellbeing. And it’s important that we keep this in mind as we begin our reflection today, because our Mass readings extend this claim of the poor on us in at least two directions.

The first direction is inward. Our readings seek to deepen the claim that other people have on each of us. Consider what we heard in the second reading, where St. Paul speaks of something that he calls the debt of mutual love. We know of course that a financial debt can be paid with material things–either in money or in kind. But not a debt of love. For love has to do not just with things but with people. Not just with what we possess. But also with what or whom we allow to possess us. The poor have a claim not just on our belongings. They also have a right of way through our very hearts. Isn’t this why our psalm response is so appropriately chosen? O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ O that today you would listen to the Lord’s voice, crying out to you on behalf of the voiceless. The homeless and the hungry. The sad and the sick. The forgotten and the forlorn. Harden not your hearts!

More than just a Land Acquisition Act, our readings remind us that we Catholics are bound also by something like a Heart Acquisition Act. The former lays on us a legal obligation, which we can satisfy simply by allowing the government to acquire our land. We don’t have to like it or agree with it. We can even comply with it while, at the same time, cursing the ones who impose it on us. But we cannot satisfy our moral obligation to the poor in the same way. We are required not only to share our money with them. Not just to write them a cheque once a year in Charities Week. We also have to allow ourselves to be moved by their plight. We are called to love them as sisters and brothers. To love them as Christ first loved us. When he laid down his life for us on the Cross.

And that’s not all. Not only do our readings deepen the poor’s claim on us. From the external world of our possessions to the inner recesses of our hearts. They also widen the scope of our duty. Our readings remind us that our responsibility for others extends beyond those who are materially deprived to those who are morally impoverished. Consider what God tells Ezekiel in the first reading. Having appointed him to be a prophet, a sentry, for the people, God reminds him that he is responsible not just for the righteous but also for the wicked. The wayward. Those who are poor in virtue. Such that if a wicked person loses his life because Ezekiel has failed in his duty to warn him, then God will hold the prophet responsible for the wicked person’s death.

This same responsibility, which God places on the shoulders of the prophet in the first reading, Jesus places on the shoulders of his disciples in the gospel. On you and on me. The scenario that Jesus paints is one in which a Christian sees a brother or sister doing wrong. No other details are given. In such a situation–where those of us who dislike confrontation, those who, like me, would simply choose to remain quiet and do nothing–Jesus proposes a whole series of steps for helping the person who has gone astray. First you speak to her in private. Then with witnesses. Then in public. Finally, when all else fails, you treat her as an outsider.

It all sounds very troublesome. Who among us will bother to do all this? And yet, even if we may not follow the Lord’s process in all its details, it’s important that we see the motivation behind it. This is not just a method for conflict resolution. Its aim is not so much to seek compensation for those who have been wronged. Or to give the wrongdoer a piece of our mind. The aim is rather to win back your brother or sister. To help the wrongdoer to repent and to turn back to the Lord. Why else is such care taken to help the wrongdoer to change without losing face? As Mary Poppins would say, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down...

Clearly, then, it is not just the people in financial need who have a legitimate claim on us. Those who are short on virtue do too. Those who might still be ignorant of the ways of God. Those who have yet to experience God’s love. Those who might still be fooled into thinking that happiness has to do only with the enjoyment of worldly pleasures. Those who are stressed out by the rat race, but can’t quite find a way to stop running...

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that, even in a place like Singapore, there is no shortage of either type of poor people? Neither the materially poor nor the morally challenged? They are all around us. Just beside us. Perhaps even within us. And they all have a claim on us. They all cry out for our attention. We who are spiritually rich because Christ became poor for our sakes.

Sisters and brothers, when the government acquires our land for the country we cannot but comply. The Lord seeks to acquire our hearts for the poor. How shall we respond today?

1 comment:

  1. As the Lord seeks to acquire our hearts for His poor - let us learn from the saints who had selflessly given themselves, their lives and their wealth to the poor, in whom the Lord is also present.

    Like St Francis of Assisi who reached out to the poor and St Claire of Assisi who fed the lepers, St Elizabeth of Hungary and many other wealthy ladies of their time and age, who gave up their wealth and provided for the sick and the poor.

    Like St Vincent de Paul and many other saints - who in and through their own shining examples, have shown us how to care for the poor... let us dare to become poor in order to be rich in God.

    In our contemporary world where affluence and wealth is a sign of power and prestige, do we dare to become poor for God?

    Would anyone who owns a luxury car would ever dream of selling the car, and giving the money to the poor? this may seem a far fetched idea yet is there any possibility to make it a reality, one day?

    Besides the usual donations to the poor (where we sometimes give our loose change only), is there anything else we feel challenged to do for the poor, out of pure love of God, as HE is most present in the poor ?

    Christ said " whatever you had done to the least of my brothers, you had done unto Me"...:

    let's look into the depths of our hearts and hear the call of God from within us.

    Sih Ying
    8 September 2014


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