Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Meanings of Life

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc georgereyes

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to imagine a bowl of rice, what image would come to your mind? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? When I think of rice, the image that I see is a bowl of fluffy white rice. Freshly cooked and recently scooped. With the steam still gently rising from it. Invitingly ready to eat. And I would be right. That is indeed what a bowl of rice looks like. But that is not the only possible image, right?

When asked to imagine rice, someone else might just as easily think of a bowl of uncooked rather than cooked rice. Or brown rice instead of white. Or rice porridge. Or even glutinous rice. The kind that’s used to make bak chang (meat dumplings). And that person would not be wrong. These are all correct ways of imagining a bowl of rice. For, in the English language, there’s really only one word that refers to all these different things. Rice.

In contrast, I’ve been told that Tagalog, the national language of the Philippines, has more than seven different words for rice. There’s one for white rice. One for unpolished rice. One for cooked rice. One for rice porridge. One for fried rice. Even one for burned rice. And one for left-over rice. These different words help Filipinos to speak more precisely. But, when speaking English, we have to be more careful. We have to remember that the same word can mean many different things. So that, if someone talks to us about rice, we really should ask them which kind they mean. Or risk being greatly mistaken.

And what is true of the word rice, is true of other English words as well. Another good example is the word that our Mass readings invite us to ponder today. Not the word rice. But the word life. As you may have noticed, our readings are all about life and death. In the first reading, we’re told that God takes no pleasure in the extinction of the living. God does not create human beings for death, but for life. Indeed, the reading goes so far as to say that God made human beings imperishable. Or indestructible. Immortal. And that it is the devil who brought death into the world. By successfully tempting us to sin.

The gospel focuses our attention on the same thing. Here Jesus brings back two people from death to life. One is a twelve-year-old girl who dies of a sudden illness. The other is a grown woman who, although still alive, is actually gradually losing her life. For she has been experiencing some sort of bleeding for twelve long years. And, as you know, the people of that time believed that a person’s life resided in the blood. So to keep bleeding in this way would be the same as to gradually be drained of one’s life. To be dragged, slowly but surely, into the jaws of death. Thankfully for these two people in the gospel, the touch of Jesus brings them both back from death to life.

But what does all this mean for us? At one level, the meaning seems quite obvious doesn’t it? God made us for life. We experience death only because of sin. Jesus comes to lead us out of sin and death, and into life. So, if we want to live forever, we have only to turn away from sin and believe in Jesus. That’s what our readings are telling us to do. Simple enough, right?

Well, if it really were all that simple, then why do we still celebrate Christian funerals? Why do even very devout and saintly Christians, people who have spent their lives following Christ, still suffer and die? Shouldn’t they live forever? Or are we to believe that they had some secret sin that we don’t know about? A sin serious enough for them to be condemned for it. Or was their faith simply not strong enough? Or, if they didn’t sin, and their faith was strong enough, then maybe the message in our readings is simply false? Belief in Jesus doesn’t really enable us to conquer death and to live forever. We’re being fooled.

Sisters and brothers, as you may have guessed, the problem doesn’t really lie with our readings. Nor does it lie with those who have died. The reason why we find it difficult to match what our readings are telling us with our own experiences of life, is because the life that our readings are talking about is not quite the same as what we often understand life to be.

When we hear the word life, we tend to think immediately of one, and only one, thing. Biological life. Physical life. Material life. Life that has to do with breathing in and breathing out. With eating and drinking. With buying and selling. But the scripture scholars tell us that the biblical understanding of life is quite different. They say that the New Testament talks about, not one, but three kinds of life. Each expressed by a different Greek word. The first kind is the one we are most familiar with. Biological or physical life (bīos). The second is psychological life (psychē). What we may consider the quality or meaningfulness of life. And, finally, the third and most important is divine or transcendent life (zoē). What the gospel of John calls eternal life. The life that God communicates to us. Not just after we are dead. But even now, while we are still physically and psychologically alive. The life that Jesus talks about when he tells us that he came to bring us life in abundance (John 10:10).

The reason why we find it difficult to match our readings with our experience is because we are thinking only of biological life. But our readings are really more concerned about eternal life. Transcendent life. Life in Christ. However saintly or sinful, however faithful or faithless we may be, our biological life will eventually come to an end. Death comes to us all. But if we cling to Christ. If we allow ourselves to be touched by Christ. If we live as Christ lived, then we are already living life in eternity. Life that does not end. Even if we may suffer a physical death.

But what does this third kind of life look like? And how do we know we are living it here and now? The second reading helps us to answer these questions by inviting us to think about how Christ lived his life on this earth. Remember how generous the Lord Jesus was: he was rich, but he became poor for your sake, to make you rich out of his poverty. Christ was rich in divinity. But out of love for us, he emptied himself to take on a physical and psychological life like our own. To become a human being like us. And then, having done that, he emptied himself even more. By laying down the same physical and psychological life he had taken up for us. By dying on the Cross. So that God raised him high. Gave him the name that is above all names. (Ph 2:6-11)

This is what eternal life looks like. Christ on the Cross. This is the image our readings are painting for us. This is God’s gift to us. A gift we receive by first remembering what Christ has done for us. As we are doing in this Mass. And then by being inspired and energised to do as Christ did. Laying down our lives for others. Especially by performing works of mercy for those most in need. And so to be raised up to life in its fullness.

Sisters and brothers, if I were to ask you to think of an image that best expresses your life right now? What would your image look like? What kind of life are you really living today?


  1. O Lord of Life Eternal,

    As I look at my life right now, I see myself as a bright yellow sunflower amidst a garden full of many other sunflowers blowing amidst a gentle constant breeze.

    GOD IS THE GENTLE BREEZE - blowing gently and yet blowing constantly..

    I am just a sunflower amidst many other sunflowers - I see my friends, buddies in my inner circle as the other sunflowers in this same garden - we are all growing happily and beautifully in God's love, basking in God's BRIGHT LIGHT & SUNSHINE.

    The gentle breeze symbolises GOD'S CONSTANT PRESENCE, as God is always present with us, all the time.

    In God, we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28) - this, let us never forget nor take for granted.

    Indeed, GOD IS MY LIFE ETERNAL - & " I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me. (Galatians 2:20)

    M--A--R--A--N--A--T--H--A Come, Lord Jesus.

    Sih Ying
    28 June 2015 Sunday

  2. I know 'eros', 'filios' and 'agape' but now 'bios', 'psyche' and 'zoe' {as in Zoe Tay}! Trust the Greeks to be precise in their thinking!

    May the latter day Greeks draw on the spiritual strength of their ancestors as they get their act together and get on with their lives.

    Thanks for breaking the word for us, Fr Chris.

    S G Lee