Sunday, February 20, 2011

Forbid the Vehicle to Drive in Wrong Direction
7th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Driving In Which Direction?
Picture: cc revolution cycle

Sisters and brothers, have you ever driven a strange car in a foreign country before? Those of us who have will know that it can take some getting used to. For one thing, the controls in the new vehicle will often not be where you expect them to be. You try to turn on the indicator lights, but the wipers may come on instead. And what about the traffic rules? It’s likely that these will be different too. For example, here in the States, when you stop at a traffic junction, the first one to get there has the right of way. But where I come from, it’s the vehicle on the right that should be allowed to go first. There’s also no right turn when the traffic lights are red. Get caught turning on red and you’ll be made to pay a fine. Different car, different controls. Different country, different rules.

Still, when driving in a foreign country, it's possible to get by even if you’re not that familiar with all the traffic rules. If you drive carefully, it’s possible to figure out the rules as you go along. All the rules, that is, except one. Before attempting to drive in a foreign country, it’s probably best that you first figure out on which side of the road you’re supposed to be driving. You see, where I come from, we drive on the other side – the left side – of the road. Can you imagine how dangerous it would be if I forgot that tiny little detail? I’d be driving against the flow of traffic! The moral of the story? Whatever you do, when driving in a new place, first be sure that you’re going in the right direction.

I bring this up because what Jesus is doing in the Sermon on the Mount is not unlike what a good driving instructor might be expected to do when teaching a bunch of foreigners who are used to driving under different rules. Since her students are already drivers, the instructor doesn’t have to go over the basics. She focuses only on the differences in the rules. She may say something like: Back in your country, you’re used to doing such and such, but over here, this is how you should drive. In the gospel today, Jesus says something very similar. His message is that the kingdom of Heaven is at hand. And, in his preaching, he teaches the people how they are live in this new kingdom. You have heard that it was said.… But I say to you. Different country, different rules. 

Even so, as we all know, driving is a practical skill. You don’t really learn it just by listening to a lecture. To really get a feel for how all the rules work, you have to get behind the wheel and onto the road. Although a good sermon may be helpful, it can still leave many details unclear. Take for example the first rule that Jesus talks about in the gospel – the rule against retaliation. According to the old way of doing things, we can give as good as we get. An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth. But things are different in the kingdom of God. Here, when someone attacks us, we are not to resist. Instead, we should turn the other cheek. If someone takes advantage of us, we are not to complain. Instead, we should give more than is requested of us. You want my tunic? Sure, here’s my cloak as well. Even if we may find this change in the rules surprising and difficult to follow, it does seem clear enough. Don’t resist evil. Just give in. But is that really all there is to it?

What at first sounds clear in theory, may turn out to be much more complicated in practice. For example, what does it mean for me to turn the other cheek, if I’m a woman married to a drunk, who beats me up everyday? Am I not allowed to stand up for myself, or to get help? Am I not allowed to leave my abusive husband? Or what if I’m someone who consistently gets picked up by the authorities for no reason other than the color of my skin? Should nothing be done about the injustice?

The rule that at first sounds unproblematic in the classroom, becomes much less clear when one gets onto the road of life. Already in our first reading, we find an indication that more can be done than simply giving in to evil and injustice. Here, in the book of Leviticus, God allows for the possibility that we may have to reprove our fellow citizen. What we should not do is to hate our brother or sister in our heart. Even Jesus himself seems to act differently from what he is telling us to do in today’s gospel. In John’s gospel, when one of the temple guards strikes him, rather than quietly turning the other cheek, Jesus responds by saying to the guard: If I have spoken wrongly, testify to the wrong; but if I have spoken rightly, why do you strike me? (18:23).

But still, even if it’s not absolutely clear to us what it might mean to turn the other cheek, this lack of clarity in the rule doesn’t mean that we should stay off the roads. And, more importantly, neither does it mean that we can simply drive in whichever way we want. While figuring things out as we go along, there’s one crucially important detail that we need to keep in mind. When in a foreign country, we need to take extra care to drive on the same side of the road as everyone else. So too, in the kingdom of Heaven, we need be sure that we are moving in the same direction as God. Isn’t this what Jesus means when he tells us to be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect. For he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and he causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust?

No matter what kind of people God encounters, no matter how heavy the traffic, no matter how terrible the conditions on the roads, God consistently moves in the same direction, the direction of love. As the psalmist says: Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.… As far as the east is from the west, so far has he put our transgressions from us. And it’s not just from the psalmist that we know this. We ourselves experience it daily. Especially here, in the Eucharist, we experience first hand the depth of God’s love and compassion toward us in Christ.

Sisters and brothers, as together we continue learning to drive in the kingdom of God, it’s very likely that we will encounter situations in which we are unsure exactly what we should do, how we should react. In deciding one way or another, what’s most important for us is that we continue trying to move in the direction of love. To be holy as God is holy. But that’s not all. There’s something else that we can do. In the second reading, we also find St. Paul speaking to the Corinthians about being holy. But instead of telling them to become holy, quite incredibly, Paul says that they already are holy. The temple of God, which you are, says Paul, is holy. The Corinthians are already holy because they are God’s temple, and the Spirit of God dwells in them. And if what Paul says about the Corinthians is true also of us, then perhaps more than simply learning to drive more carefully, what we need to learn is to hand the steering wheel of our lives over to God. Perhaps what we need to do most of all is to let the Spirit direct us to where we need to go.

Sisters and brothers, on which side of the road, in which direction, are we driving today?

Monday, February 14, 2011

Reach Out
6th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Reaching Out

Picture: cc Janielle Beh

Sisters and brothers, have you ever found yourself in a situation where you had to go out of your way to help someone? What was the experience like? Was it easy or difficult? I remember a story I once heard about a young man whose mother was always pestering him to help his little brother with his homework. But the guy was a busy college student. Where was he to find the time? He had so many other things to do. It was just too difficult.

Then, one day, he met a girl. And, suddenly, several nights a week, he was riding two buses across town just to get to her house to help her with her studies. He was quite obviously going out of his way for her. It was taking up a lot of his time. But he wasn’t complaining. Although it was far more inconvenient to help her than to help his own brother, it didn’t seem quite as hard to do.

So what do you think, sisters and brothers? Is it easy or difficult to go out of your way to help someone? Well, it all depends, doesn’t it? Sure. It depends on how far out of our way you have to go. But even more than that, it depends also on who the person is. It depends on the kind of relationship you have with him or her.

It may be helpful to keep this in mind today, because our readings seem to present us with a problem, a contradiction even. On the one hand, our first reading insists that it is possible for us to keep the commandments of God. In fact, the reading even makes it sound quite easy. We’re told that God has placed before us the choice between life and death, good and evil. All we have to do is to stretch forth our hands and choose. How much easier can it get?

But then, on the other hand, in the gospel, we find a rather different story. The reading begins with Jesus referring to the scribes and Pharisees. As we all know, these are experts in the Law. These are the guys who not only knew the Law like the backs of their hands. They also scrupulously kept it – every one of the more than 600 laws that were in force at the time. Yet, in the gospel, Jesus insists that if we don’t do better than these experts, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. According to Jesus, it’s not enough just to have expert knowledge of the Law. It’s not enough to know the Law in our heads. It’s not even enough to conform to the Law externally, to follow it with our hands. We need to go further. We need to do what the psalmist is praying for the strength to do in our responsorial psalm. We need to keep God’s law with all our heart. More than just refraining from killing someone, we mustn’t even wish for something bad to happen to him or her. More than simply not committing adultery, we shouldn’t even lust after someone in private. I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers. But to me, this sounds much harder than simply stretching forth your hand and choosing the good.

So which is it? Is keeping God’s law easy or difficult? And, even more important, how are we to go about doing it?

These questions are not easy to answer. At least not for me. I don’t find them easy because – and I’m sorry to say this – all too often, I approach God’s law in the same way that that young man, in our story, responded to his mother’s request that he help his younger brother with his homework. I respond by paying close attention to the demands that God is making on me. I want to know exactly what I am being asked to do, how much of my time and energy it will take, how far out of my way I must go. I analyse and I calculate. I count the cost to myself. If I have to go to Mass on Sunday, for example, I may want to know how late I can arrive, and how early I can leave, before I’m required to go to another Mass. Then, even if I do finally decide to keep God’s law, my heart is not quite in it. It’s as if, just once or twice, the young man in our story were finally to decide to help his brother with his homework. But he does it only so that he won’t have to listen to his mother’s nagging. He does it very reluctantly. And he makes sure his brother knows how he feels about it.

How difficult, how burdensome it is to keep God’s law in this manner. But, thankfully, this is not the only way to do it, is it? As the young man in our story discovered, it becomes far less difficult – even surprisingly easy – to go out of your way when you’re doing it for someone with whom you’re in love. Then your attention is not focused any longer on the difficult demands that are being made on you. All you’re worried about is doing whatever it takes to be with the one you love.

So, is it easy or difficult to keep the God’s law? Well, it depends, doesn’t it? It depends upon how much we love God. And to grow in our love of God, there is something that we need even more than the kind of expert knowledge of the Law that the scribes and Pharisees had.

What we need is what Paul is talking about in the second reading. Paul tells the Corinthians that what he is imparting to them is not the wisdom of the world, but God’s wisdom.  What eye has not seen, and ear has not heard, but that which God has revealed to us through the Spirit. This is the same mysterious thing that we heard Paul speak about last week. This wisdom goes beyond the mere intellectual knowledge of the Law. It consists in the deep experience, the heartfelt appreciation, of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ our Lord. Without counting the cost, Christ gave his life for us by hanging on the Cross. And it is by continually renewing our experience of his love, it is by continually keeping the sacrifice of Christ in our minds and in our hearts, that we find the strength to keep God’s law. Even if we have to go out of our way to do it.

So perhaps what we find in the first reading is true after all. As difficult as it may be to keep God’s law, perhaps all that we really need to do is to stretch out our hands and to choose. But when we do this, it’s not really toward the law itself that we are reaching out. Rather, when we stretch out our hands, it is to place them in the powerful yet loving hands of the God of the universe. We stretch out our hands in order to place them in the rough yet gentle hands of the Carpenter of Nazareth, the same hands that were pierced by nails so that we might have life.

It seems fitting to end our meditation today with this prayer of St. Ignatius of Loyola:

Lord, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve you as you deserve.
To give and not to count the cost.
To fight and not to heed to wounds.
To toil and not to seek for rest.
To labor and not to seek reward.
Save that of knowing I do your will.

Sisters and brothers, to whose hands are you reaching out today?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

5th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Claiming Our Discount
Picture: cc Matt McGee

A few days ago, the local grocery store sent me some discount coupons for being a loyal customer. So, on Friday, I went to claim my discounts. As I walked around the store putting things into my cart, I tried my best not to forget anything, as I sometimes do. And when I finally brought all my items to the cashier, I was careful also to remember to hand her my reusable shopping bags, which I often forget to bring with me. The cashier rang me up, and I happily took my groceries home. It felt good to be getting a discount... Then, it dawned on me. Although I had remembered everything else, there was one crucial thing that I had forgotten... The discount coupons were still in my pocket. 

Sisters and brothers, do you ever have experiences like that? Do you ever find yourself in a room, for example, and forget why you went there in the first place? It’s very embarrassing to say it, but such things happen to me from time to time. I know. It sounds a lot like the early onset of dementia. But I think there’s another reason for my forgetfulness. For me, it’s usually because I’m too preoccupied with other incidental things that I forget the more important ones. For example, my main reason for going to the store was to claim my discount. But I was so preoccupied with other things – like not forgetting my reusable shopping bags – that I forgot the main reason why I was there – to claim my discount. The incidental things crowded out the one essential thing. I remembered the bags, but forgot the coupons. No discount for me. Better luck next time.

Unfortunately, this kind of forgetfulness doesn’t just happen at the grocery store. In the spiritual life too, we can quite easily become so preoccupied with incidental things that we lose sight of the more essential ones. As Christians, we can quite easily forget who we are and why we are here. Which is why it’s important for us to pay attention to what Jesus tells us in the gospel today. According to the Lord, we Christians have a very particular reason for being here. Just as I went to the store for the specific purpose of claiming my discounts, the Lord has called us and sent us out for one reason: to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world. Like salt, we Christians are to preserve everything that is good in our world, and to enhance its flavor. Like light, we are to help others see more clearly the way that leads to life. And, as Jesus tells us in the gospel, we do this – we allow our light to shine for others – primarily through our good deeds.

But surely you don’t have to be a Christian to do good deeds, do you? Even an atheist can do them. What’s so special then about the good deeds of a Christian? Our readings today bring out three things that make our good deeds essentially Christian. First, our good deeds have a very specific target. Although we are to love all people, we are called to help especially those most in need. Share your bread with the hungry, the first reading tells us, shelter the oppressed and the homeless; clothe the naked when you see them. We might also add to this list. We might include, for example, those who are hungry not just for bread, but also for companionship. Or those who are oppressed not just by governments, but also by addictions of one kind or another. Or those have lost not just their clothes, but also their sense of right and wrong. Whoever is most in need. These are the targets of our good deeds. And what happens when we do this? The Lord says: then light shall rise for you in the darkness, and the gloom shall become for you like midday. As Christians, we are called to let our light shine especially upon those who are most in the dark.

But that’s not all. Not only do our good deeds have a specific target, in performing them, we Christians are also called to use a special technique. St. Paul talks about this in the second reading. When Paul performs the good deed of preaching the good news to others, what he relies upon most, is not the eloquent words and the worldly wisdom of secular thinkers and speakers. Although he is familiar with all these methods, and although he even uses them whenever circumstances call for it, Paul’s effectiveness as a preacher comes from something else, from something deeper, something more mysterious. I resolved to know nothing while I was with you, he tells the Corinthians, except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. In his preaching, Paul relies not on his own strength as a great speaker. Instead, he preaches in weakness, relying upon the power of the deep love of Christ. As we are told in John’s gospel, Christ loved his own in the world to the end (John 13:1), by washing their feet with his hands, and by cleansing their hearts with his blood. Isn’t this same love the reason why we are gathered here this morning? What Paul teaches us is that we don’t really have to be experts to perform good deeds. What we do need is to have experienced the love of the Crucified and Risen Christ. And to be willing to share it with others.

And, thirdly, because they are rooted in the Cross of Christ, the good deeds of a Christian should lead others onto a particular path, a specific trajectory. Our good deeds are meant not so much to attract people to ourselves, to win their admiration or their praise. Instead, our good deeds are meant to lead people, through the Cross of Christ, to the love of God the Father. As Jesus tells us in the gospel: Just so, your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father.

This then is what is most essential to being a follower of Christ: to be salt of the earth and light of the world by performing good deeds – deeds that target the needy, deeds that are rooted in the love of Christ, deeds that lead others to God. This is the main reason why we are here. This is the discount that we are called to claim as Christians. And yet, speaking for myself, it’s quite easy to forget all this, isn’t it?

I’m reminded of the story that is told of a very pious Catholic, who spent many hours in church and at prayer. Not only did she go to Mass everyday, but she also spent much time before the statue of Our Lady, praying the rosary. All of which should have impressed the other members of her parish, except that this woman wasn’t a very nice person. Not only was she often rude and inconsiderate, she was also a terrible gossip. One day, someone decided to play a trick on her. Coming to church early one morning, she found all the doors locked. And pinned to the front door was a note, on which these four words were written with an exclamation mark at the end: I am out there!

Sisters and brothers, if the main reason why we are here is indeed to be salt of the earth and light of the world, if this is the discount that we are called to claim as Christians, then isn’t it important that we ask ourselves whether this is what we are actually doing?

Are we actually claiming our discount?

Or are the coupons still stuck in our pockets today?