Sunday, July 10, 2016

Native Language Or Foreign Tongue?

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc TeachAgPSU

My dear friends, I once asked a Korean classmate of mine what I now know was a stupid question. At least from his point of view. I didn’t realise this at the time. I was only trying to be sociable. To make conversation. To break the ice… Korean is a very difficult language to speak, right? I asked. To which my friend quickly replied, with a very straight face, Actually, no, it’s very easy. Every morning, when I wake up, the words just come to me. I don’t even have to think about it.

I think I laughed out loud when I heard his reply. I laughed, because I was struck by the simple yet undeniable truth of what he had said. And I laughed also at how he had so easily uncovered the obvious stupidity of my question. Of course the Korean language was not difficult for him. Of course it came naturally. The words bubbling up effortlessly in his mind. And then flowing out smoothly through his lips. It was, after all, his native language! What a stupid question to ask a Korean!

Why then did I ask it in the first place? Was I really that dumb? I’d like to think not. When I asked the question I wasn’t thinking about it from my friend’s point of view. But from my own. And my own point of view was, of course, the point of view of a non-Korean. It was quite understandable that I should think that Korean is difficult. Because, for me, it is not a native language. But a foreign tongue.

The difference between speaking a native language and a foreign tongue. The first is easy. The second much more difficult. One comes naturally. The other only with great effort. My dear friends, I bring this difference to our attention because I think that it may help us make sense of something rather puzzling in our Mass readings today. Something that at first appears to be a contradiction.

As you may have noticed, the readings focus on the Law of the Lord. In the first reading, Moses reminds the people of Israel to obey the commandments of the Lord. To keep the Law of the Lord. But he also says something that may seem rather surprising. This Law that I enjoin on you today is not beyond your strength or beyond your reach… No, the Word is very near to you, it is in your mouth and in your heart for your observance. For Moses, the keeping of the Law of the Lord is something that should not be too difficult for the people to do. Something that comes naturally to them.

And yet, we don’t have to be experts in the Bible to know that throughout the Old Testament the people of Israel found it extremely difficult to keep the Law. Repeatedly, they broke the Covenant made between God and their ancestors. Consistently, they turned away from worship of the One True God, to bow down before foreign idols. False gods. Made in their own image and likeness. And this is true not just of the common people. But also, and especially, of their leaders. Kings and priests alike. People who should really have known better.

Isn’t this what we see happening in the gospel as well? Here, Jesus is questioned by an opponent. And not just any opponent. But a lawyer. A legal expert. And yet, in his conversation with Jesus, it becomes very clear that this expert, doesn’t really understand the Law at all. For although he is able to say quite rightly that what is central to the Law is love. You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbour as yourself. He acts quite differently. He questions Jesus about the Law only in order to disconcert him. The lawyer uses what should be an instrument of love and life as a weapon. To do violence and to destroy.

My dear friends, doesn’t there seem to be a contradiction here in our readings? How is it that Moses can insist that the Law is easy to keep. And yet, even an expert like that lawyer finds it so difficult to penetrate its meaning? What do you think, sisters and brothers? Is it easy or difficult to keep the Law? I’m not sure. But I think the answer is yes.

Yes, it is easy to keep the Law. And yes, it is also difficult. Just as it is both difficult and easy to speak Korean. Korean is easy when spoken as a native language. But it can be very difficult when treated like a foreign tongue. Perhaps love is the same. Isn’t this clearly illustrated in that parable that Jesus tells in the gospel? The one we all know so well. Or think we do. The one captured so vividly by Vincent van Gogh in that painting hanging in our Place of Gathering. The Parable of the Good Samaritan.

In the story, three people encounter someone in dire need and great distress. And this encounter becomes for them a test. A test of their understanding of the Law. Of how closely they follow its commands. The result is as surprising as it is clear. Although the first two people, the priest and the Levite, are professionals and experts in the law, they fail the test. Only the third person, the Samaritan, considered by Jews to be an outcaste and a heretic, only he passes.

And isn’t it striking that, although the Samaritan goes to great lengths to help the one in need, he seems to do everything without too much strain? Like a Korean speaking his native language, it all seems to come quite naturally to him. Beginning with his willingness to allow himself to be moved with pity. To feel compassion for his fellow human being who is suffering. To be moved interiorly to do the right thing. The loving thing. And so, to keep the Law.

What about the priest and the Levite? They too are actually trying to keep the Law. Very likely, they passed by on the other side of the road not out of disrespect for the Law. But for fear that they might break it. They are afraid that they would be made ritually unclean by contact with a dead body. And then be unable to fulfil their ritual duties. Yet, in struggling so hard to satisfy the letter of the Law, they fail so miserably to keep its spirit. Not unlike how I might struggle to master Korean grammar. While my classmate doesn’t even have to think about it.

Love is easy when spoken as a native language. And difficult, perhaps even impossible, to learn as a foreign tongue. But the good news is that love is actually our native language. For we believe that the love of Christ has already been hardwired deep within us. Deep within the whole of Creation. Isn’t this what the second reading tells us? Christ Jesus is the image of the unseen God and the first-born of all creation, for in him were created all things in heaven and on earth. All things were created through him, and with him and in him. All created things bear the mark of Christ. The mark of the Cross. The mark of love. Which means that the language of love is really already embedded deep within us. The capacity to feel compassion. To be moved to make a return of love to the God who has saved us in Christ. For we are that man who was left for dead. And Christ is the Samaritan who went out of his way to save us. By dying on the Cross and being raised to life, Christ has written the Law of Love deep within our hearts.

So that if we find love difficult it is only because we have forgotten our native language. And we try too hard to speak it as a foreign tongue. We focus too much on the rules and regulations. When what we need to do instead, is to deepen our knowledge of Christ. Whom we encounter here at Mass. In this gathering of his Body. In the proclamation of the Word. And in the breaking and sharing of the Bread. We experience Him in here, so that we may also find and serve Him out there. In our world. Filled as it is with broken people. Waiting by the side of the road for someone to help them.

My dear friends, what must we do continue living the Law of Love less as a foreign tongue and more as our native language today?

1 comment:

  1. O Lord, as I learn a foreign language, I often had to think in English and then switch over to speak/think in the other (foreign) language (like switching the frequency on a radio)

    Lord, in this Journey of my life, teach me to know how and when to switch over from my own foreign language of SELF and EGO to my native tongue - a LANGUAGE OF A DIVINE LOVE (which IS our native language as we are to live and move and have our being in You, our God of Love) -

    Guide me, Lord and show me how to switch tongues to adopt the native tongue of Your Divine Love always.

    May all traces of my foreign tongue melt and give way to the one language that matters in this life - the language of YOUR DIVINE LOVE.


    Seeing Is Believing
    13 July 2016