Sunday, September 24, 2017

Deep Cleansing

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

My dear friends, I hope you don’t mind me asking you a personal question. But do you follow a particular skincare routine? How do you usually clean your face everyday? Are you satisfied with simply rubbing it with a dry towel? Or do you use soap and water? Or do you go even further? Do you, for example, invest in one of those facial cleansers that are sometimes advertised on TV? You know, the kind that boast about how deeply they clean your face? Not just scrubbing the surface of the skin, but penetrating deep down into the pores. Removing not just dirt and grime, but even germs and hidden toxins as well… Dry rubbing, soap washing, or deep facial cleansing? Which of these methods do you use to clean your face?

As you might expect, sisters and brothers, I ask this question not because I’m actually interested in your daily skincare routine. But to highlight the fact that cleaning can be done to varying degrees. And this is true not just of our facial skin, but also of our spiritual lives as well. Just as our faces need cleaning, so too do our lives. And just as our skin can be cleaned to different depths, so too can our spirits.

Strange as it may sound, this is what I think we find in the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel today. The Lord’s purpose in telling the story is to show us what the kingdom of heaven is like. Or what it takes to enter and live in the presence of God. To dwell continually in the love of the Lord. According to the parable, this process can be compared to a landowner going out to hire labourers for his vineyard. And when we examine the story more closely, we find at least three distinct steps to this process. Steps for cleaning, if you like, people’s lives thoroughly enough so that they can enter and live in God’s presence. Like the three methods for cleaning our faces, each of these spirit-cleansing steps penetrates more deeply than the previous one. Can you identify these steps?

The first is a change of location. In the story, what the landowner does first is to go to a particular place and invite the people he finds there to follow him to another place. The landowner, we’re told, goes out into the market place, where he invites people to enter his vineyard. So a change of location. This is the first step. On its own, however, like rubbing one’s face with a dry towel, this first step doesn’t get us very far. It doesn’t clean deeply enough. A second step is needed. Not just a change of location, but also a change in occupation. The people whom the landowner finds on his excursions are asked not just to move from one place to another, but also to act in a way different from how they have been acting. To change from simply standing idle to working hard in the landowner’s vineyard. Labouring on their master’s behalf. Furthering their employer’s best interests. This second step clearly goes deeper than the first. Not unlike how washing with soap and water cleans our faces more effectively than just rubbing with a dry towel.

And yet, the whole point of the story seems to be that this second step, this change from idleness to work, still doesn’t penetrate deeply enough. For even the ones who have been working in the vineyard for the whole day, seem to still fall short of what is expected of them. They fail to match their employer’s generosity. They become envious when they see the latecomers receiving the same wage as them. What does this show, if not that entrance into the presence of God requires a third step? Not just a change of location. And not just a change in occupation. But also, and above all, a change in disposition. A shift from envy to generosity. From competition to compassion. From selfishness to love. Not unlike how facial cleansers clean out the pores of our skin, so too does this third step cleanse the interior depths of our hearts. But how does this happen? What must we do? What is the spiritual equivalent of a deep facial cleanser? The answer is found in the other readings.

In the first reading, the prophet issues a call to profound conversion. An invitation to deep spiritual cleansing. A summons to change not just one’s actions, but one’s attitudes as well. Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts. A call to change not just one’s usual location and one’s habitual actions, but also one’s deepest dispositions. To abandon those thoughts and ways that may at first seem to come so naturally. To be so full of common sense. But which are, in reality, nothing short of selfish and sinful. To abandon our earthly ways, and instead to turn back to God. To seek the Lord while he is still to be found. What does this look like?

For us Christians, it looks like what we find Paul doing in the second reading. He struggles with a dilemma. He can’t quite decide whether he prefers to die or to go on living. But the exact option Paul finally chooses is less important than the main reason, the central criterion, by which he makes his choice. For Paul, there is only one valid reason for choosing one way or the other. And that reason is Christ. Paul wants to choose only the option that will bring him closer to Christ. And that’s precisely why he finds himself in a dilemma. For departing in death will bring him into the Lord’s heavenly presence. But remaining alive will enable Paul to imitate Christ more closely, by serving the Lord’s body more effectively, on earth.

In whatever we may choose to think or say or do, and wherever we may choose to go, to choose always only according to the mind of Christ. Isn’t this what it means to have the right disposition? Isn’t this what it looks like to be cleansed at the deepest core of our being? By putting on the mind and heart of Christ? Allowing Christ to be for us that deep spiritual cleanser, which alone is capable of ushering us into the presence of God.

If this is true, then perhaps it’s not so important how much time we spend in church. Or how many ministries we join. More important than the location and the occupation of our bodies, is the particular disposition of our hearts. For the Lord can be found not just here in church, but also out there in the world. Waiting for me to meet and to serve him in generosity of heart and singleness of purpose. In the words of the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, Christ plays in ten thousand places, lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his to the Father through the features of men's faces.

My dear friends, many people take the trouble to go through a rigorous skin-care routine everyday. What does your soul-care routine look like today?

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