Saturday, November 04, 2017

Between Sponge & Stone

31st Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Picture: cc Speshul Ted

My dear friends, can you tell me the differences between a sponge and a stone? It’s not too difficult right? A sponge is soft and empty. Hollow. Made up of many little pockets of air. A stone, on the other hand, is hard and solid. Packed with its own stuff. And this difference in composition accounts for a sharp contrast in how sponges and stones receive and give. When we pour water onto a dry sponge, for example, the liquid is soaked up. The sponge receives the water quite readily. But when we do the same with a stone, the water simply splashes off. The stone resists the gift. And if we fill a bag with sponges, and give it to someone to carry. The person can do it without much difficulty. Whereas a bagful of stones becomes a heavy burden. Also a wet sponge can be used to moisten the lips or cool the forehead of a sick person. To soothe and to give comfort. But we wouldn’t use a stone that way. It may do more harm than good.

Sponges give comfort. Stones tend to burden. Sponges are receptive to a gift of water. But stones resist. And these differences in how sponges and stones give and receive result from a deeper difference in their respective composition. Sponges are empty. Stones are full. I mention all this, because we find a similar contrast in our Mass readings today. Not exactly a contrast between sponges and stones, but between two kinds of people.

On the one hand, the second reading gives us an inspiring description of how Paul and his companions have given of themselves to the Christians in Thessalonica. Like a mother feeding and looking after her own children… eager to hand over… not only the Good News but their whole lives as well… slaving night and day so as not to be a burden on any one. On the other hand, in the gospel, Jesus criticises the scribes and the Pharisees for tying up heavy burdens and laying them on people’s shoulders. Imposing arbitrary and impractical human rules more for their own benefit than for the good of those entrusted to their care. Similarly, in the first reading, God accuses the priests of burdening people. Causing many to stumble by their false teaching. While Paul and his companions soothe and comfort others like wet sponges. The priests and scribes and Pharisees burden people like heavy stones.

Clearly, what we find in our readings today is a sharp contrast between two ways of giving. Between generous support and burdensome imposition. But what accounts for this difference? How is it that some can give comfort and support like sponges, while the others only burden like stones? It may not be so obvious, sisters and brothers, but this difference in giving is related to a difference in receiving. For, in addition to Paul’s generosity in giving, the second reading also describes the Thessalonians’ openness in receiving. Their receptiveness to the Good News. Accepting it for what it really is, God’s message and not some human thinking. And, as a result, the Good News has become a living power among them. Motivating them to give generously to others. As Christ first gave of himself to them.

Isn’t this the secret to every Christian’s ability to give? Doesn’t generosity in giving flow from openness in receiving? And could it be that, if the priests and scribes and Pharisees are such poor givers of themselves to others, it is only because they are first poor receivers from God? But if this is true, then how does one become a good receiver in order to be a better giver? The answer is found in the psalm. Here, like Paul and his companions in the second reading, God is likened to a mother feeding and looking after her child. Except that our attention is drawn more to the child. To its attitude as it looks at its mother. The description is quite striking and moving. My heart is not proud nor haughty my eyes… I have set my soul in silence and peace… Hope in the Lord both now and for ever. Unlike a stone, the psalmist is filled not with his own concerns, but only with what God wishes to give. Like a dry sponge, his heart is empty and waiting. Open and receptive to God’s gracious presence.

In sharp contrast, consider the dire warning that God issues to the priests in the first reading: if you do not find it in your heart to glorify my name… I will… curse your very blessing. In other words, if your hearts are too full of the self to make space to receive the gift of God’s presence. Then all your attempts at giving to others, at serving and blessing them, will be transformed instead into a burdensome curse. Not unlike sponges and stones, the people in our readings are able to give well only because they first receive well. And they receive well, only because they are empty of themselves. Open to receive the power and inspirations of God’s Spirit.

But if all this is true, then what about us? We who routinely pray our Prayer of Generosity at Mass every week. We who aspire to give of ourselves to others. To our family and friends. To our parish community and our wider society. How well do we actually give? To what extent do our attempts at giving really help people? To what extent do they become a burden to them instead? As the Chinese saying goes, yue bang yue mang (越帮越忙). The more you help, the busier we become. Could it be that, in order to give effectively to others, we need to first examine how well we receive from God? How attentive and receptive are we, for example, to the graces that God is offering to us at this very Mass? How open are we to receive the nourishing spiritual food served at the twin tables of the Word of God and the Body of Christ? And could it be that to do this, to be more receptive to God’s gifts, we need to be less full of ourselves? Less obsessed and preoccupied with many things.

Not that we should ignore our legitimate needs and desires. Nor should we shut out our worries and anxieties. On the contrary, what we need to do is instead to get in touch more deeply with them. With those areas where we feel most keenly our own weakness and helplessness. Our misery and poverty. Our utter and inescapable dependence on God. To go to those places in our hearts that we so often do our best to avoid, because they make us so uncomfortable. Avoid by busying ourselves with other things. Even apparently godly things. And yet, could it be that it is precisely at these places of discomfort that we are more likely to experience God? Fortifying us in our weakness. Feeding us in our hunger. Filling us in our emptiness. 

For us Christians, generosity in giving flows from that openness in receiving born of poverty of spirit. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Sister and brothers, what must we do to be more like sponges and less like stones today?

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