Sunday, November 09, 2014

Making Life Liveable...

Feast of The Dedication Of The Lateran Basilica

Picture: cc Don Shrimpton

Sisters and brothers, what do you think are the minimum conditions you need to live in a particular place? The essential elements that make a place fit for human habitation? The things that make life liveable. What are they? A roof over your head, perhaps? Running water? Modern sanitation? Your own room? A bed? An aircon? Wifi connection? What do you think?

Some years ago, as part of the final stage of Jesuit training, I was sent to live for a week in a slum. Fortunately for me, the two families, who took turns to host me, lived in houses with some access to electricity and modern sanitation. But, even then, the living conditions were quite deplorable. One house was barely half the size of a one-room HDB unit. And that tiny space was shared by 8-10 people. I couldn’t be sure exactly how many, because some came home after I’d gone to bed. And left before I woke up. The other house was slightly larger. But the toilet-cum-bathroom was so small that, once inside, you barely had room to move. And since the space had neither natural nor artificial light, everything had to be done in the dark.

Even so, to my surprise, despite the poor living conditions, my days in the slum were happy ones. This was largely because of the way I was treated. As an honoured guest. Given the very best that each family could offer. Little though that was. In one house, I was given an old couch to sleep on. It was so narrow, I didn’t have room to turn. And so short, I could hardly stretch out my legs. But it was where the head of the household usually slept. Everyone else just squeezed together, side by side, on the hard floor. In the other house, I was given a bed that was infested with bugs. But it was the only bed they had. Again, reserved for the head of the household.

Sure, the conditions were terrible. Especially to my Singaporean sensibilities. But I was welcomed and accepted. Treated with respect and honour. Even with great affection. And, much to my surprise, this was enough to make me happy. Enough to make that slum fit for me to live in. At least in that short but memorable week that I spent there. So that when the time was up, I actually found myself sad to leave. In spite of the horrible physical conditions, my hosts had somehow managed to make my life among them liveable. Even happy. Simply by treating me well.

I mention this, because I think it may help us to understand the reason why Jesus is so angry in the gospel today. He is upset at what he finds in the Temple in Jerusalem. The conditions there have become so bad as to make the place unfit for God to live in. But why? Is it because the space has become too small? Or because the paint is peeling from the walls? Or the furniture is too old? Not quite. The reason goes beyond the physical conditions. Important though these may be.

You have turned my Father’s house into a market, Jesus exclaims. But what does he mean? How does one turn a temple–a house of God–into a market? Is it simply by using the space to buy and sell things? Don’t we ourselves buy and sell books and religious articles in this church? Don’t we raise funds and reserve columbarium niches here? So are we also turning this church into a market? A place unfit for God to live in? Well, it all depends, doesn’t it?

A market is a market because its primary purpose is the buying and selling of things. You may have seen markets where, for example, one or more altars have been set up inside them. But the presence of those altars do not make the market a place of worship. They are set up so that the stallholders can pray for good business. That is their main purpose. And that is what makes the place a market rather than a temple. The primary concern is business. Not worship. Money. Not God.

In contrast, a church is a church because its primary purpose is worship. Even if buying and selling is carried out, this is fine, as long as it is done to facilitate worship. Not the other way around. In other words, what makes a place fit for God to live in, is the way we treat God there. Even if the physical conditions may be poor, our God will still be happy to live in the place. As long as we treat God well. Much like how I was treated in the slum. Giving God glory and honour. And all the very best that we have to offer. Instead of using God for our own profit. Or using our worship as an excuse for making money. Isn’t this why Jesus is so upset? The people have turned God’s house into a market. A place where business is the primary concern. Not God.

But God doesn’t live only in physical structures. Not just in buildings like the Temple in Jerusalem. Or the Lateran Basilica in Rome. Whose feast we celebrate today. Or even this little church of ours. More than holy places, God wishes to live in a holy people. In us. The people whom God has claimed as his own. As St. Paul reminds the Corinthians in the second reading: Didn’t you realise that you were God’s temple and that the Spirit of God was living among you? If this is true, then we need to ensure that, not just our churches, but we ourselves are fit for God to live in. How to do this? Again, by trying our best to treat God well. To give God glory and honour. And all the very best that we have to offer. Instead of using God to turn a profit. Or manipulating God to get what we want. Or confining God to a tiny space. In church. For one hour a week. On a Sunday.

And how will we know that we are actually living in this way? What are the signs that our lives are fit for God to live in? The answer is found in the first reading. Which gives us a description of what it looks like when God’s Presence fills the Temple. When this happens, the life-giving stream of God’s Presence gushes out powerfully from that holy place. And wherever it goes, the stream makes its surroundings liveable. Not just for God, but for all manner of living things. Human and otherwise.

The same can be said for us. If we are indeed the Temple of God. Then the powerful stream of God’s Presence will continue to gush out from us to the rest of world. Bringing abundant life wherever it flows. To all the people and situations that we encounter in the enormous marketplace that is our world today. To those who may live in deplorable conditions. Victims of the market. People who live in slums. And also those who, though they may live more comfortably, still can’t quite find true happiness. Because they don’t know how to relate to others. Except according to the rules of the market.

Sisters and brothers, this is how we know that we are providing conditions fit for God to live in and among us. When we continue to do what Jesus does in the gospel today. Contribute, each in our own way, towards making our world a better place to live in. For God. For us. And for the rest of Creation.

Sisters and brothers, what are you doing to make life more liveable in your world today?


  1. O Lord, when You lived on earth, You had shown us how to LIVE in YOUR LIGHT amidst all the darkness (sin and strife) .

    Teach us and show us how to live LIKE YOU, in our current contemporary society where Godlessness prevails in so many subtle ways - where the SELF and EGO are so much more valued over YOU and Your values.

    O Lord of Heaven and Earth, may You Reign Supreme all the time.

    May YOU who are the LIGHT OF THE WORLD, dispel all evil, sin and darkness.

    Lord, YOU ARE A LIGHT which no darkness can ever penetrate nor overcome

    YOU ARE THE FIRE which can never be extinguished.

    YOU ARE A GOD WHO IS LORD AND CREATOR over the entire human race and of the universe.

    Come, Lord, Jesus -
    Come and Save Us from all forms of darkness which draws us away from You.
    Come and Dwell in our hearts, the temples of Your Holy Spirit.


    Seeing Is Believing 11 November 2014

  2. I understand now why Pope Francis refused to live in the palace.....he knew the slams....


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