29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc UN Women Asia & the Pacific
My dear friends, if I were to ask you what is the secret to success, what would you say? Legend has it that when the Tang dynasty Chinese poet, Li Bai, was a boy, he was very playful and lazy. Often skipping school. One day, while out playing truant as usual, he met an old woman, sitting by a river, filing a large iron rod. What are you doing?, the boy asked. I’m turning this rod into a sewing needle, she replied. Li Bai laughed at her and said, Why waste your time? That will take forever! At which point, the woman said something so profound that it moved the boy to turn his life around. He began to take more interest in his studies. Eventually becoming one of the most famous poets in China. What did the woman say?
I think many of you know this better than I do. What she said has become a Chinese proverb: <只要功夫深，铁棒磨成针>;. As long as your gongfu is deep, you can file an iron rod into a needle. As long as your gongfu is deep… As you know, this is usually understood to mean consistent hard work. This is what we usually assume is the secret to success. Consistent hard work. This is what many children have no doubt been hearing from their parents especially in this time of exams. Consistent hard work. This is how we believe we can arrive at where we want to go. How we can become who we want to be. How we can mould our external environment according to our dreams and desires.
And yet, we also know that, in order for progress to be made, hard work needs to be more than just consistent. It must also be correct. Doing well in exams, for example, is not just about studying hard, but studying smart. Studying the correct things. And in the right way. This too is what gongfu means. Not just consistent effort. But also correct technique.
Even so, that is still not quite the whole story. It is said that true gongfu requires far more than just consistent effort and correct technique. It is, rather, something spiritual. It is about following the Dao (道). The Way inscribed in all of reality. The Way of the cosmos. The Way of nature. So that success becomes less about manipulating the environment according to our own way of doing things, to suit our own purposes, than it is about conforming our actions to the natural flow of the universe. It is only by doing this that we then tap into the energies of the cosmos. So that hard though the work may be, it can also feel somehow effortless. And even an old woman can file an iron rod into a needle. <只要功夫深...>; If only our gongfu is deep… If only we follow the Dao. If only we conform ourselves to the Way.
More than just consistent effort and correct technique, deep gongfu is really about conformity with the Way. This is the secret to true success. And I mention this because I believe it can help us penetrate the deeper meaning of our Mass texts today.
At one level, the readings seem to offer the same answer that we initially gave to the question what is the secret of success? And the answer is consistent hard work. In the gospel parable, the widow succeeds in convincing the unjust judge to rule in her favour. What is her secret? Consistent hard work. She keeps bugging him even after he refuses her request. And Jesus seems to say that, in the same way, if only we keep bugging God for what we want, we will eventually succeed in obtaining it.
In the first reading too, we find people eventually getting what they want. After a fierce battle, the Israelites win a great victory over their enemies, the Amalekites. And their secret? Again, the consistent hard work of Moses at the top of hill. The hard work of prayer. Except that the reading also describes the techniques that Moses uses. Techniques like the raising of his hands. And the reliance on the support of others. As well as the use of a stone on which to rest when he grows tired.
But, my dear friends, if we were simply to stop here, and to go no deeper, then it would seem that our readings are advocating nothing more than hard work. If only we pray persistently, and use the correct techniques, we will surely succeed in obtaining whatever we want from God. Consistent effort. Correct technique. That’s all there is to success. But, if this were true, then we can be forgiven for being sceptical. For, surely, even the most prayerful among us cannot honestly claim to always succeed in getting whatever we want. Isn’t it true that, however hard we study, and however persistently we pray, we may still fail to get the grades we desire? So are our readings wrong?
By no means. In order to discover their deeper meaning, we need to recall what we asked for in our opening prayer just now. We asked God to grant that we may always conform our will to God’s and to serve God in sincerity of heart. To conform our will to God’s. Instead of conforming God’s to ours. To humbly follow God’s Way. Instead of arrogantly expecting God to follow ours. Isn’t this what our Mass texts are really about? Just as deep gongfu involves submission to the Dao, the Way of the cosmos. So too does good prayer involve submission to the Will of God. This is the kind of success that our readings propose to us today.
So that, when we look at them afresh, through the lens of this new understanding of success, we begin to notice other things. In the gospel, for example, we realise that Jesus does not say that we will get whatever we want when we pray persistently. Instead he promises that God will see justice done. And to do justice, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is to render to each what is due to him/her. To engage in persistent prayer for justice. To work tirelessly on the side of justice. To speak out on behalf of those who daily suffer injustice. This is the kind of persistent hard work that Jesus promises will always be rewarded. For to do this is to conform ourselves to the just Will of a merciful God.
But what exactly does this look like? Very likely, the exact details will vary from person to person, and situation to situation. Even so, there is a discernible pattern. A pattern that we find when we ponder and pray over the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ. As we are doing now, in this Mass. The same Christ who describes himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The same Christ whom we encounter in sacred Scripture. Which St. Paul talks about in the second reading, when he says that all scripture is inspired by God and can profitably be used for teaching, for refuting error, for guiding people’s lives and teaching them to be holy. In other words, used correctly, all scripture can help to conform us to the Will of God. To reproduce in us the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Christ.
My dear friends, perhaps this is not the message that some of us are hoping to hear. Especially in this exam period. When many of us are hoping to hear the message that we only have to pray hard to get all we want from God. For ourselves and for our children. And yet, this is the Good News. News that energises us to embrace God’s Will in our lives. And to keep praying and working tirelessly for justice in our world.
<只要功夫深，铁棒磨成针>; As long as gongfu is deep, an iron rod can be filed into a needle. As long as we seek God’s Will, even an unjust world can be changed into the kingdom of God.
My dear friends, what must we do to deepen our gongfu today?