Sunday, August 18, 2019

Beyond Rats & Revolutionaries

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Benny Mazur

My dear friends, can any of you describe what it’s like to run in the rat race? You do remember what the rat race is, right? It’s a way of living my life that feels as though I’m a rat running on a wheel chasing after a piece of cheese that’s forever beyond my reach. And I’m not just running on my own, that would be bad enough, but what makes it worse is that I have to compete with others to get to the cheese first. Because more cheese for them means less for me. Or so I’m led to believe.

So, the rat race has its own process, which involves a constant obsession with getting more. More money, more possessions, more pleasure, more comfort, more followers on social media, more business contacts… more… And why more? Because there’s never enough. However much I already have, there’s always another piece of cheese waiting just beyond my grasp.

Of course, there are consequences to living my life in this way. There’s a price to be paid, measured not in money, but in brokenness. Brokenness of body, of mind and of relationships. Not only am I prone to stress and burnout – since I often fail to take good enough care of myself – but I also find it increasingly difficult to be patient and kind, not just to strangers, but even to family and friends, those whom I love.

All of which may make me wonder what drives me on. From where do I get the power to run this race? The answer is not too hard to find. The power to run this race comes from a deep hunger within me that keeps crying out to be filled. This hunger goes by different names, such as anxiety or envy or greed. Here in Singapore we also call it kiasuism.

And what is true of individuals like me, is true also of many countries the world over. These too are caught up in the rat race. These too are engaged in a process of constant cut-throat competition to consume more and more. These too have to pay the painful price in broken relationships, not just within themselves and with one another, but also with Mother Earth as well. These too are driven by the dubious power of anxiety and envy and greed.

But that’s not all. As you know, there are those in the world today, who think that the only way to stop living like rats is to choose to run the even deadlier race of violent revolution. Rather than continuing to engage in the process of constant consumption, these people substitute it with a process of cruel disruption. And yet, even if the process may be different, there is little actual change in the power that drives those who run this second race, and the price it exacts. For isn’t the hatred that drives the terrorist rooted also in anxiety and envy and greed? And what can we expect from violence if not even more brokenness?

So what then, my dear friends? If neither the rat race nor violent revolution is good for us, then what other alternative do we have? To be honest, I do not know the answer to this complex question. I cannot presume to understand its various social, political and economic implications. I can’t say for sure exactly what a viable alternative might look like in practical terms. But one thing I do know is that our Mass readings today point us in a helpful direction.

We see this most clearly in the second reading, which encourages us to run a race very different from the ones we have been discussing. A race run not by rats or revolutionaries, but by followers of Jesus, who leads us in our faith and brings it to perfection. A race that has its own distinct process and price and power.

In contrast to the processes of obsessive consumption on the one hand, and violent disruption on the other, the race of faith involves instead a process of trustful surrender, of letting go. Isn’t this what the prophet Jeremiah does in the first reading? At a time of national emergency, when the city of Jerusalem lies under the grave threat of a Babylonian invasion, obeying God’s instruction, Jeremiah tells the people not to resist but simply to submit, to allow themselves to be overrun. In response, to prevent the prophet from demoralising soldiers and civilians alike, the city’s leaders decide to kill him by throwing him into a well.

And yet, even in such dire straits, Jeremiah does not stop running the race of faith. He continues to entrust himself into the hands of God, even at the risk of paying the ultimate price. Thankfully, someone rescues him from what might have become for him a muddy tomb. Even so, doesn’t Jeremiah’s experience foreshadow that of Jesus, who obeyed his Father to the point of death, only to be raised to life on the third day?

And from where do Jesus and Jeremiah, and all the many witnesses who have run this race of faith before us, from where do they draw their power? What motivates them to submit to the process of self-surrender, such that they are willing even to pay the price with their very lives? Their power comes not from hatred or anxiety, envy or greed, but from the same thing that we prayed for earlier, when we asked God to fill our hearts… with the warmth of your love, so that, loving you in all things and above all things, we may attain your promises, which surpass every human desire…

To be filled with and empowered by that same fire of God’s love that Jesus wanted to bring to the earth with such great urgency. Isn’t this what sets Christians apart from rats and revolutionaries? And could this be the division that Jesus talks about in the gospel? For just as darkness is known by contrast to the light, so too are the divisions of our world uncovered by the fire of God’s love made manifest to us in Christ. The same love that we are gathered here this morning to celebrate. The same fire that impels us to keep running the race of faith, and to teach and encourage others to do the same.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that a race can be identified by its own particular process and price and power, then what kind of race are you running today?

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