Sunday, January 31, 2016

Between Rodents and Rambutan


4th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Peter Trimming

Sisters and brothers, some months ago, some time last year, the rambutan tree in the garden behind our church started bearing fruit. Have you ever seen ripe rambutan hanging from a tree. They’re quite enticing. Unfortunately, however, we didn’t get much of a chance to taste the fruit. Do you know why? The squirrels beat us to it.

Which is frustrating enough. But what made things worse was the way in which the squirrels did it. You see, they didn’t bother to pluck the fruit and carry them away. They simply hollowed out the juicy parts. And left the empty skins still hanging on the tree. So that, at a glance, it looked like the fruit was still there. Waiting for us to pluck them. Cheeky little devils! Those squirrels. Fooling us into mistaking empty skins for ripe rambutan.

Hollowed out husks, in place of juicy fruit. That’s the image that comes to mind as I reflect on our Mass readings today. Nice to look at on the outside. But completely empty on the inside. Isn’t this something like what the second reading is talking about? If I have the eloquence of men or of angels, but speak without love, I am simply a gong booming or a cymbal clashing. What do gongs and cymbals have in common? They’re both hollow. They can be very loud and noisy. But also utterly empty.

The same can be said of a human life without the love of God. I may go through the motions of busying myself with many things. Even with apparently pious and holy activities. I can even let them take my body to burn it. But without love, it will do me no good whatever. Like what those squirrels did with the rambutan, all my anxious activity, my frantic rushing about, often just leaves me hollow. It fills up my time. But not my heart. I remain terribly empty. Always craving to be filled.

Isn’t this why there are those of us who try so desperately to fill the emptiness with other things. Yet more busyness. More activity. Like shopping, or the internet. Perhaps even sinful habits. Which then makes us feel guilty. Bad about ourselves. Even more hollow. More empty. And the cycle continues. Outwardly, we may look fruitful. But inwardly, if we were to be honest with ourselves, we realise the sad truth. An empty skin. A hollowed-out husk. That’s all there is. And what a pity. Surely, this is no way live a human life.

But if just making myself busy doesn’t help, then what does? How and from where do I find the love to fill the empty space within my heart? The readings provide us with an answer by inviting us to ponder the experience of two people.

In the first reading, God calls the prophet Jeremiah for a difficult mission. At a time when the Babylonian empire is growing in strength. And posing a serious threat to the kingdom of Judah. At a time when many voices are calling for political alliances to be forged. And military action to be taken. Against Babylon. God sends Jeremiah to persuade the people to submit. To let themselves be conquered. Even to allow their precious Temple to be destroyed. And they themselves to be sent into exile.

A difficult mission, to say the least. Is it any wonder that the people refuse the message. And turn against the messenger. Yet God believes that Jeremiah is up to the task. Why? Because God will not leave Jeremiah empty, but full. Not hollow, but solid. I… will make you into a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze to confront all this land…. They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you… In calling him, God also fills Jeremiah. Giving him strength to face the trials to come.

We see something similar in the experience of Jesus in the gospel. Like Jeremiah, Jesus too is called by God, and sent on a difficult mission. We saw this already in the reading last week. The spirit of the Lord has been given to me, for he has anointed me. He has sent me to bring the good news to the poor… And this is the unpopular message that Jesus is called to proclaim. The news that God wishes to save not just Jews, but also gentiles. Not just an exclusive group. But everyone. Especially those most in need. Regardless of race, language, or religion.

And it is because Jesus stubbornly chooses to proclaim this message of universal salvation that the people in the synagogue suddenly turn against him. At first, the reading tells us that Jesus won the approval of all. But then, instead of keeping quiet. And going along with the people, Jesus chooses instead to uncover their prejudice. To talk about how no prophet is ever accepted in his own country… And the people react by becoming so enraged that they want to kill him.

Again, we may ask what it is that gives Jesus the courage to proclaim this unpopular message. Even in the face of stiff opposition. Clearly, like Jeremiah, Jesus is not hollow, but solid. Not empty, but full. Full of the power of the spirit poured out on him at his baptism. Full of the same purposeful love of God that Paul writes about in the second reading. Difficult though his mission is, like Jeremiah, Jesus lives an incredibly fruitful life. Because he is filled with God’s love. Empowered by God’s Spirit.

And isn’t this the same love that we need so much today? A love without which we remain only empty husks. Hollowed-out shells. Consuming and consuming. But forever remaining hungry. Doing and doing. But forever feeling unfulfilled. What we need is the love that God provides. A love that has the power to truly fill us. To give our hearts new courage. And our lives new purpose. A love that we can then be sent to share with others. Especially those most in need.

Sisters and brothers, whether we care to admit it or not, life in this modern world of ours is often infested with mischievous squirrels. Hyperactive little things, tempting us to allow ourselves to be hollowed out. To permit our lives to be emptied of meaning. The good news, however, is that, in the midst of all this, God continues to call us. To fill us. To send us out.

What must we do, my dear friends, to guard ourselves against the squirrels? And to open ourselves to God today?

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