Saturday, September 24, 2011

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Between Consistency and Change

Readings: Ezekiel 18:25-28; Psalm 24:4-9; Philippians 2:1-5; Matthew 21:28-32
Picture: cc USFWS/Southeast

Sisters and brothers, have you ever noticed how much we value consistency over change? If you were running for political office, for example, it would be important for you to show a certain constancy in your views. You wouldn’t want to seem to support the ISA at one moment, and then to call for its abolition at another. People generally don’t vote for a flip-flopper. Someone who keeps changing his/ her mind according to the prevailing political climate. And not just in politics, but also in religion too. In the official documents of our church, for example, we often find reminders that the teaching being presented has been and continues to be the constant position of the church. Consistency good. Change bad. Or so it seems.

This emphasis on consistency is perhaps most keenly felt when we are trying to acquire a skill of some sort. Whether we are learning to sing or to dance, to play a new game or to speak a foreign language, if we want to be any good at it, we need to train regularly. Practice makes perfect. So the saying goes.

But is this completely true? Is consistency always better than change? Does all practice make perfect? I’m reminded of something a martial arts instructor once said: It’s not just practice that makes perfect but correct practice. Makes a lot of sense, don’t you think? It’s only correct practice that truly makes perfect. Consistently wrong practice only makes you... perfectly wrong. And, if this is true, then perhaps change is not so bad after all. How else will we be able to engage consistently in correct practice, if we are not willing even to entertain the possibility that we may be wrong? And then, wherever necessary, to allow ourselves to change?

It is when we keep in mind this key tension between consistency and change that we begin to penetrate more deeply the meaning of the parable in our gospel today. At first glance, the story seems to be about two sons who both change their minds about working in their father’s vineyard. The first boy initially refuses, but then he goes. The second agrees, but then fails to follow through. Both appear to change their minds. The difference between them seems to be only that one finally goes and the other doesn’t.

And yet, it’s important also to note that the two sons in the parable are really meant to refer to two different groups of people in Jesus’ day. Notice how Jesus addresses the parable to the self-righteous chief priests and elders of the people. And notice too how, after telling the parable, Jesus highlights the good example of the repentant tax collectors and prostitutes. Penitent sinners on the one hand, versus stubborn priests on the other. This is the stark contrast that the two sons bring to our attention. And central to this contrast is the fact that, while the penitent sinners are open to acknowledging the error of their ways, and are willing to change their lives, the stubborn priests consistently refuse to do the same. They refuse even to entertain the thought that their religious practice might be nothing more than lip service. That they may not really be cultivating God’s vineyard, but their own. Unlike the prostitutes and tax collectors, who see clearly their own sinfulness, their own need for change, the priests and elders are firmly convinced that they are in the right. So convinced are they, that some of them will even go to the extent of plotting to have Jesus tortured and killed. All for the sake of remaining obstinately constant in their ways.

What do we learn from all this, sisters and brothers, if not that, contrary to popular belief, consistency, especially when it is erroneous, can result in great cruelty and grave injustice? Indeed, in certain cases, it can lead even to murder.

Still, we do need to appreciate that change is difficult. It’s difficult to acknowledge that we may be wrong. Especially for those of us who are Asians, change is difficult because it often entails a loss of face. And not only a loss of face. The process of change is difficult because it often feels as though a part of us is being hollowed out, that something deep within us is dying.

Which is why it is helpful to pay close attention to the rest of our Mass readings today. For here we find the resources we need to change. Our first reading is particularly helpful when we find ourselves reluctant to change for fear of losing face. For the prophet Ezekiel reminds us that God keeps no record of our mistakes. When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live. He has chosen to renounce all his previous sins; he shall certainly live; he shall not die. In the sight of God, there is no loss of face. Only a gaining of grace. The grace of experiencing the unfathomable depths God’s mercy and compassion. The incredible warmth of the Lord’s embrace.

And when we may find ourselves discouraged because of the pain that change often involves. When we may find ourselves reluctant to learn from others. The second reading offers both a helpful method and an inspiring model. First the method: Always consider the other person to be better than yourself. This may seem impractical. Even hypocritical. Surely there are some people who are worse than me. I’m not all that bad. True enough. And yet, isn’t it also true that no matter how much worse than me a person may be, God can still speak to me through him/ her? How open am I to receive God’s communication? And the prime example, the paramount model, of this kind of humble openness to the presence of God in others–this self-effacing willingness to change–is of course the Lord Jesus. He humbled himself even to the extent of accepting death, death on a cross.

Sisters and brothers, it’s hard to deny that much of our religious practice has to do with being consistent. In prayer, as well as in the performance of good deeds. And this is as it should be. But consistency alone can lead also to complacency. Which is why it is helpful for us, at least from time to time, to make the following prayer our own:

Disturb us O Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves;
when our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little;
when we have arrived in safety because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us O Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess
we have lost our thirst for the water of life;
when having fallen in love with time,
we have ceased to dream of eternity;
and in our efforts to build a new earth
have allowed our vision of the New Heaven to grow dim.
Stir us O Lord, to dare more boldly,
to venture on wider seas,
where storms shall show Thy mastery,
where losing sight of land we shall find the stars.
In the name of Him who pushed back the horizons of our hopes

and invited the brave to follow Him.

Sisters and brothers, how is God disturbing our consistency? How might the Lord be challenging us to change today?

Sunday, September 18, 2011

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Between Heaven And Earth

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 144:2-3,8-9,17-18; Philippians 1:20-24,27; Matthew 20:1-16

Ooh baby, do you know what that’s worth?
Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.
They say in heaven love comes first.
We’ll make heaven a place on earth.

Sisters and brothers, are you familiar with these words? I suspect that at least some of you are. They’re the opening lines to the song, popularized by Belinda Carlisle in the 1980’s, entitled Heaven is a Place on Earth. It’s a very happy, a very optimistic song. A song bubbling with energy and enthusiasm. A woman has recently experienced a radical change in her life. She has fallen in love. And she sings of how love has transformed her:

In this world we’re just beginning
To understand the miracle of living.
Baby, I was afraid before.
I’m not afraid anymore.

Before, she was anxious and alone. But now, no longer. Now she’s filled with joy. She knows what it feels like when people allow love to take first place in their lives. Before, heaven was a million miles away. Now she feels as though it’s a place on earth.

Quite a striking change of perspective, isn’t it? And perhaps those of us who have ever fallen in love will be able to appreciate just how profound the change is.

A radical change in how one looks upon and lives one’s life. This too is what our Mass readings are inviting us to experience today. Seek the Lord while he is still to be found, the first reading tells us. Let the wicked man abandon his way, the evil man his thoughts. Instead, let them seek God, whose ways are as different from ours as the heavens are high above earth. At first glance, this invitation might appear to be nothing more than a call to live a more law-abiding life. A more Singaporean life. Be sure to go to Mass on Sundays. Say your prayers everyday. Be good. Don’t gossip. Marry young. Have more kids. Work harder. Spend less time on Facebook... Of course, all this is good and important. But it isn’t enough. Our readings are calling us to an even more radical change.

We begin to appreciate just how radical when we ponder more deeply the parable that Jesus tells in the gospel. Notice the surprising actions of the landowner. For one thing, when he wants workers, he doesn’t send his steward to hire them. He does it himself. He even takes the trouble of going to the market place, where he interviews everyone personally. He doesn't use an employment agency. He deals directly with each worker.

What’s even more surprising is the manner in which the landowner pays his employees. Instead of rewarding each one according to the amount of work that has been done, he chooses to pay the latecomers the same as those who started earlier. How very unfair, we may think. Surely, this is against the rules! But our protest is a good indicator to us of how radically different is our approach to things from that of the landowner.

Scripture scholars tell us that, in the original Greek, the word for landowner means something like the one in charge of a household. And it is from the root word household that we get the word economy. All of which helps us to see why we find the landowner’s actions so deeply disturbing. What we have here is a clash of radically different economies. Jesus begins the parable by saying that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like. So the landowner is managing his household according to a heavenly economy. An economy based on love and generosity. He owns everything. And he is very happy to give it all away, without insisting that the recipients be proven worthy to receive it.

But our earthly economy is very different. It’s based not on generosity but merit. To get something, we have to show that we deserve it. Through the qualifications we have attained, the work we have done, the money we have accumulated, or the connections we have made. Nothing is for free. Everything comes at a price. A price that is set by rules. To get something you have to follow the rules. You have to keep the law. And this earthly economy–based on rules determining each person’s worth– operates not just in secular affairs. It also influences how we relate to God. We treat God as someone before whom we need to prove our worth. Often desperately. But, of course, none of us can truly justify ourselves in the sight of God. We are far from perfect. As a result, we often feel guilty. We’re insecure. We even envy others for their gifts. Without realizing it, because we operate within an earthly economy, our religion often makes us very lonely and fearful people.

Which is why Belinda Carlisle’s song is so refreshing. It helps to remind us that God operates within a very different economy from the one we’re used to. It invites us to let go of our anxiety, to no longer be afraid, but to allow ourselves to fall in love with God. The same God who wants so desperately to bless us and to love us. The God who goes out everyday into the market places of our lives to gather us into the warm embrace of his generosity and compassion. Even though we may feel deeply unworthy.

But that’s also only half the story. For as helpful as the song is for pushing us into the arms of God, it still lacks something, doesn’t it? What it describes is, quite obviously, a honeymoon love. Here, everything is bright and cheery. Here, heaven is already a place on earth. And that is true. But not the whole truth. For, as those of us who have ever loved another know only too well, there’s more to love than that. Love doesn’t consist only in warm and tender feelings. Very often it also brings great tension. Not unlike the tension described by St. Paul in the second reading. From his prison in Rome, while awaiting his own execution, this great lover of Christ can’t decide whether he wishes to live or to die. I do not know what I should choose, he says. I am caught in this dilemma: I want to be gone and be with Christ... but for me to stay alive in this body is a more urgent need for your sake. Because of his love for the Lord, Paul is torn between heaven and earth. And his experience shows us that heaven is both already and also not yet a place on earth. Christ has already come. But we are also still waiting for him to come again. There's still much work to be done in his vineyard. Hungry mouths to feed. Broken hearts to mend...

And that’s the challenge for us, isn’t it? To have our hearts fixed on heaven, even as we keep our hands working, and our feet walking, upon this earth. This is the necessary tension that our readings are calling us to embrace today. A tension that is difficult but life-giving, because it is rooted and grounded in God's love.

Sisters and brothers, they say in heaven love comes first. How can we help to bring heaven a little closer to earth today?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Cholesterol Check

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:33-28:9; Psalm 102:1-4,9-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35
Picture: cc czarcats

Sisters and brothers, do you know your own cholesterol levels? To be honest, I don’t know mine. But I do realize that I’ve reached the age when it’s becoming necessary not only to have my cholesterol checked, but also to monitor it regularly. We all know why this is important. If we’re not careful, cholesterol can build up in our arteries. And, over time, if left unchecked, these deposits can clog up the blood vessels, blocking the flow of blood, and causing such dangerous conditions as strokes and heart attacks. Yes, cholesterol can be very dangerous.

Which is why it is important not just to monitor its buildup in our own bodies, but also to pay attention to how much of it is contained in the food we eat. This is, of course, much easier said than done. And not only because it often seems as though all the tastiest dishes are laden with the stuff. I’m thinking of char kway teow, oyster omelette, and laksa... Delicacies like that. What makes it even more difficult to watch our diet is the fact that the food experts often can’t seem to make up their minds over what exactly we should and should not eat. For example, some say we should stay away from eggs. Others say it’s OK. Some advocate a high protein, low (or even zero) carbohydrate diet. Others the reverse. Some argue for vegetarianism. Others go even further, insisting that being vegan is the way to go. In the midst of the resulting confusion, the sensible advice given in the cover article of a recent issue of Time magazine feels like a breath of fresh air: No one pretends that achieving and maintaining an ideal weight is an easy thing to do, but the list of rules to get you there is nonetheless simple: Eat in moderation; choose foods that look like they did when they came out of the ground... be an omnivore... and get some exercise. Notice that the advice is not to cut out all cholesterol. But to eat in moderation. For example, one egg with the yolk per day is considered OK for most people. All things in moderation. Avoid extremes. The key is balance.

Balance and moderation as a way to cope with the buildup of cholesterol in our arteries. That seems to be helpful advice for healthy living. But what does it have to do with our Mass readings today? Well, for one thing, our consideration of the effects of cholesterol accumulating dangerously in our bodies can help us to reconcile what looks like a blatant contradiction in the our readings. On the one hand, our responsorial psalm tells us that the Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.... As far as the east is from the west so far does he remove our sins. And yet, on the other hand, both the first reading and the gospel appear to suggest that there is a definite limit to God’s mercy. It seems like God is willing to pardon us only if we are ready to pardon others. In the first reading, we’re told that he who exacts vengeance will experience the vengeance of the Lord who keeps strict account of sin. And, in the gospel parable, although the master initially cancels the wicked servant’s immense debt, he eventually changes his mind. He orders the poor wretch to be handed over to the torturers till he has paid back every last cent. All because the fool refused to show mercy to his fellow servant. God’s mercy appears limited.

But how accurate, we may wonder, is this view of God? Does God really stop forgiving us just because we refuse to forgive others? Doesn’t Jesus tell us, in another part of the gospel (Mt 5:45), that ours is a God who makes his sun to rise and his rain to fall on both good and bad alike? Why then does God appear to restrict the flow of his mercy only to those who are merciful to others? Could it be that the problem doesn’t really lie with the flow of God’s mercy, which we believe is constant and unceasing? Could it be that the difficulty lies rather with those who refuse to forgive? Those unwilling to show mercy are really choosing to feed themselves on a diet of resentment and anger. And resentment and anger operate very much like cholesterol-laden junk food. When allowed to build up, they clog the arteries of our spiritual life, blocking the flow of God’s loving mercy and compassion. Left unchecked, a staple diet of resentment and anger can lead to conditions like a hardening of the arteries and shortness of breath, to strokes and even cardiac arrest.

But what then are we to eat? Should we go to the extreme of repressing our anger at all costs? Many of those who have tried it will tell us that this doesn’t make for a healthy diet either. Simply refusing to acknowledge the anger that naturally arises when a wrong is done to us doesn’t help the difficult emotions to go away. The anger just gets bottled up and buried deeper within us. It accumulates. Bubbling to the surface at unexpected moments, and in often surprising ways. Sometimes it even explodes in the faces of innocent bystanders. At other times, it causes us to oppress those around us in subtle, passive-aggressive, ways that remain hidden even from ourselves. At yet other times, the anger gets turned inwards, and we suffer from depression.

And that’s not all. Another important reason why we shouldn’t just turn away from our anger is because, in itself, anger can also be a very useful emotion. It can move us to address the evils and injustices that continue in our world today. When we hear of naive young village girls being tricked into the flesh trade, for example, should we not get angry? And should we not allow our anger to drive us to do something? Even when we ourselves may not be directly affected? After all, as our second reading reminds us, the life and death of each of us has its influence on others.

It is also clear that showing mercy to others doesn’t mean that we simply close our eyes to the evil that they do. As Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in his second book on Jesus of Nazareth: That which is wrong, the reality of evil, cannot simply be ignored; it cannot just be left to stand. It must be dealt with; it must be overcome. Only this counts as true mercy (p. 133). What we Christians need to bear in mind, however, is that our responses to evil must always be modeled on the response of Christ, who rejected the road of violence and vengeance, choosing instead the Way of the Cross. To address evil and injustice, we may need to tap into our anger. But we should not allow ourselves to feast on it, such that it hardens our arteries and arrests our hearts. The advice of the nutritionists is helpful here in the spiritual life as well. In all situations, balance and moderation are key.

And isn’t this advice something that we need to bear in mind especially on this 10th Anniversary of that terrible day when the Twin Towers fell in New York? It is hardly deniable that terrorism is a vicious evil that needs to be addressed. And yet, isn’t it true that, as an international community, we have still to find a way to deal with it effectively, without allowing our arteries to harden and our hearts to stop beating? And what is true of terrorism is true too of the other things in our world that make us justifiably angry.

Sisters and brothers, how do you plan to check your cholesterol levels today?

Saturday, September 03, 2011

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time
The Acquisition of Hearts

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 94:1-2,6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20
Picture: cc brixton

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that I’ve just paid up the mortgage on my house. After years of hard work, I’ve finally submitted the last installment. Imagine that this is a piece of freehold property. And now it’s all mine. Now no one else can contest my claim. Now I’m free to enjoy it without any worries. ... Or can I? Is my ownership of the property really absolute? Is it true that no one else has a claim on it?

What if, for example, this property of mine is located at Marymount Convent? Or Marymount Terrace? As you no doubt have heard, these are places that the Singapore government is in the process of acquiring, because it needs the land to build the proposed North-South Expressway. In such a situation, even if I were truly the legal owner of the property, the government can still acquire it in exchange for fair compensation. I can’t refuse. The government has a valid claim on the land even though I’m the legal owner. As you know, there’s a law in our statute books that gives the government this right. It’s called the Land Acquisition Act. It gives the government the right to acquire privately-owned land for the purposes of national development.

Many of us have probably heard of this law. We know about this constraint on our rights as property owners. What we perhaps do not realize is that this is not the only limit. For example, it has been the constant teaching of the Catholic Church that, not just the government, but also the poor have a claim on our property. Indeed, the 4th century saint, Basil the Great, went so far as to insist that the bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help. So whether we realize it or not, for us Catholics, in addition to the Land Acquisition Act–which gives the government a legal right over our property–we are also bound by an unwritten law, which gives the poor a moral right to our belongings.

Whether we like it or not, the poor have a moral claim on us. We are somehow responsible for their wellbeing. And it’s important that we keep this in mind as we begin our meditation today, because our Mass readings seek to extend this claim of the poor on us in two directions.

The first direction is inward. Our readings seek to deepen the claim that other people have on each of us. Consider what we heard in the second reading, where St. Paul speaks of something that he calls the debt of mutual love. We know of course that a financial debt can be paid with material things–either in money or in kind. But not a debt of love. For love has to do not just with things but with people, not just with external possessions, but also with the ones who possess and use them. The poor do not just have a claim on our belongings. They also enjoy a right of way through our very hearts. Isn’t this why our responsorial psalm is so appropriately chosen? O that today you would listen to his voice! ‘Harden not your hearts.’ O that today you would listen to the Lord’s voice crying out to you in the throats of the voiceless. Harden not your hearts...

More than just a Land Acquisition Act, our readings are reminding us that we Catholics are also bound by something like a Heart Acquisition Act. The first law lays on us a legal obligation, which we can satisfy simply by allowing the government to acquire our land. We don’t have to like it. Nor do we have to support the land acquisition policy. We can even do it while simultaneously cursing the ones who impose it on us. But we cannot satisfy our moral obligation to the poor in the same way. We are required not only to share our things with the poor. Not only to write them a check from time to time. We also have to allow ourselves to be moved by their plight. In Christ, we are called to love them as our sisters and brothers.

And that’s not all. Not only do our readings deepen the poor’s claim on us–from the external world of our possessions to the inner recesses of our hearts–they also widen the scope of what it means to be poor. Our readings remind us that our responsibility for others extends beyond those who are materially deprived to those who are morally impoverished. Consider what God tells Ezekiel in the first reading. Having appointed him to be a prophet, a sentry, for the people, God reminds him that he is responsible not just for the righteous but also for the wicked. Those who are poor in virtue. Such that if a wicked person loses his life because Ezekiel has failed in his duty to warn, then God will hold the prophet responsible for the wicked person’s spiritual death.

This same responsibility, which God places on the shoulders of the prophet in the first reading, Jesus places on the shoulders of his disciples–on you and me–in the gospel. The scenario that Jesus paints is one in which a Christian sees a brother or sister doing wrong. No other details are given. In such a situation–where those of us who dislike confrontation, those like me, would simply choose to remain quiet and do nothing–Jesus proposes a whole series of steps for helping the person who has gone astray. First you speak to him in private, then with witnesses, then in public, then, when all else fails, you exclude him from the community. It all sounds quite troublesome. Who has the time to do such things? And yet, even if we may not necessarily have to follow the Lord’s process in all its details, it’s important to see the motivation behind it. This is not just a method for conflict resolution. Its aim is not so much to seek redress or compensation for those who have been wronged, as much as it is to help the wrongdoer to repent and to turn back to the Lord. Why else is such care taken to help the wrongdoer to make a change without losing face? As Mary Poppins reminds us, a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.

Clearly, then, it is not just the people in financial need who have a legitimate claim on us. Those who are short on virtue do too. Those who might still be ignorant of the ways of God. Those who have not experienced God’s love. Those who might have been fooled into thinking that happiness has to do only with enjoying the pleasures of the flesh. Those who are stressed out by the rat race, but can’t quite find a way to stop running.

Sisters and brothers, isn’t it true that, even in a place like Singapore, there is no shortage of either type of poor people? Neither the materially poor nor the morally challenged? They are all around us. Perhaps just beside us. Perhaps even within us. And they both have a claim on us. They both cry out for our attention.

Sisters and brothers, how might the Lord be seeking to acquire your heart on their behalf today?