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?


  1. As I belatedly read your blog, it evoke a feeling of injustice done to us when our property was acquired and subjected to the Land Acquisition Act years ago in the early eighties, which ruled that “compensation is based on current market value or prices prevailing in November 1973”, before this law was subsequently repealed.
    Our family was justifiably upset as the money we received could not even purchase a terrace house having been evicted from a bungalow of 11,000 sq. ft. It came at a time of rising prices and we were all distressed by this unwarranted circumstance.
    Your homily therefore caught me flat-footed. In particular:
    1) Unwritten law, which gives the poor a moral right to our belongings.
    2) The debt of mutual love.
    3) Our responsibility for others extends beyond those who are materially deprived to those who are morally impoverished
    The acquisition don’t rankle us anymore. Your exhortation sits better now than when the event took place. God has provided us with all that is needed in the ensuing years and we are now challenges to reach out, materially and morally for others.

  2. That the poor and disadvantaged have a moral claim on us is easier to accept than those short on virtue. When I see power-hungry, back-stabbers at the office, I seethe at the injustice of it all as they are often the ones who get ahead (unscrupulously) and gloat at the rest of us from above. Sometimes, I also think that those "lost souls" are really a lost cause. I find more fulfillment in helping the downtrodden. They deserve our help more.