Sunday, July 19, 2015

Flexible Fingers

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

Picture: cc Veronica Foale

Sisters and brothers, do you know what is meant when a Cantonese-speaking person tells you that someone has fingers that bend outwards and not in? The expression is used to describe (and criticise) the tendency to favour outsiders over one’s own people. Just as our fingers naturally tend to bend inwards, so too are we expected to side with our own family and friends. Our own countrymen and women. So someone whose fingers bend outwards and not in may be considered unnatural. Even dangerous. For we all know what happens when fingers are bent too far outwards. They get dislocated. In extreme cases, even disconnected from the hand.

And this is a danger that we face not just as individuals, but also as a nation. As you know, in a recent public lecture, the Prime Minister of Singapore listed identity as one of three key challenges that Singapore faces in the next 50 years. The worry is that the experience of globalisation will make Singaporeans feel so comfortable in the world that they will no longer see Singapore as their home. The fingers will bend so far outward that they will be dislocated. Even disconnected from the hand. The worry is that the nation of Singapore may disintegrate.

Which is precisely what has happened to the people of Judah in the first reading. As a nation, they have disintegrated. They have been conquered by the Babylonians. Sent into exile. And this political disintegration is the result of a deeper spiritual dislocation. Judah had turned away from the One True God to worship foreign gods. And God lays the blame for this idolatry squarely on the shoulders of the leaders. The shepherds that God had appointed to care for the people. You have let my flock be scattered and go wandering and have not taken care of them. The leaders have let the fingers bend so far outward that they have become dislocated. Disconnected from God.

Thankfully, all is not lost. For God promises to replace the bad shepherds with a good one. The lazy leaders with a caring king. I will raise a virtuous Branch for David, who will reign as true king and be wise, practising honesty and integrity in the land. Wise and virtuous leadership. This is God’s solution to the problem of disintegration. But we need to consider carefully just what this kind of leadership looks like. For it is tempting for us to think that the way to address the problem of dislocation and disintegration lies in a simple reversal of direction. If dislocation is caused by fingers bending outwards, then just focus on bending them back inwards instead.

And yet, it doesn’t take much reflection to see that such a solution gives rise to serious problems of its own. For when fingers are turned inward to the extreme, what they form is a hardened tightly clenched fist. Something that inflicts violence on others. Causes hurt to outsiders. And isn’t this the underlying cause of much of the conflict and division we see in our world today? People trying to build up their own identity at the expense of others. By inflicting pain and suffering on those different from themselves. Isn’t this what radical groups like ISIS are doing, for example?

In contrast, the leadership that we find in our readings is very different. As Christians we believe that the promise made by God in the first reading finds its fulfilment in the person of Jesus in the gospel. Jesus is the promised good shepherd. He is the virtuous king. The one who gathers together the scattered and disintegrated people of God. But notice how this king operates. On the one hand, it is clear that Jesus cares deeply for his apostles. The insiders. Upon their return from a mission, the Lord quickly invites them to come away to some lonely place to rest for a while. To replenish their strength. To reconnect with themselves. And with their God.

But notice also that this care and concern for the insiders doesn’t come at the expense of compassion for outsiders. For even when his vacation plans are interrupted by a large crowd, the Lord doesn’t turn these people away. Instead, we’re told that he took pity on them because they were like sheep without a shepherd, and he set himself to teach them at some length. The leadership exercised by Jesus is not an exclusive turning inward. But an inclusive embrace of all who find themselves dislocated and disconnected. All who are lost and searching for direction.

As the second reading tells us, this is a leadership that unites rather than divides. A kingship that tears down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. Between insider and outsider. Transforming hostility into hospitality. Suspicion into friendship. Enmity into reconciliation. And the reading spells out just how this transformation comes about. By the blood of Christ and through the cross. Jesus reverses our dislocation and disintegration not by anxiously turning us inward toward ourselves. But by humbly bending downward toward all who are in need. By courageously letting his own body be lifted upward on the Cross. By generously allowing his own blood to be poured outward for the salvation of the world.

Bent down. Lifted up. And poured out. This is what the leadership of Christ looks like. This is how God reverses the dislocation and disconnection that results from selfishness and sin. Not by clenching fingers together to form a violent fist. But by spreading them out onto the wood of a cross. So that all might be led into the fullness of life.

And this is also the kind of leadership that we are all called, by virtue of our baptism, to exercise in our world today. This is the kind of shepherding we are called to do. In our families and communities. In church and in society. This is what our world most urgently requires of us. To share with it the only way to lasting joy and peace. A joy and a peace that the world cannot give.

Sisters and brothers, in a society where identity is becoming so much of a challenge. At a time when many are resorting to the violence of clenched fists. God continues to call us to reach out especially to those most in need. To those who may be different from us. To bear witness to a leadership of sacrifice and of service. In this lies our true identity. This is what it means to follow Christ. This is what it means to be truly Christian.

Sisters and brothers, in what direction will you be bending your fingers today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord, Our Good Shepherd,

    Bend my stubborn heart and will to obey You and to do Your will.

    Lead me and guide me in Your Love and Ways.

    Teach me to be humble and train me to be docile to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.

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

    Sih Ying
    19 July 2015


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