Sunday, June 30, 2013

Let Freedom Ring! (Rerun)

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Tony Fischer

I have a dream… I have a dream…

Sisters and brothers, I think at least some of us will recognise these words from that famous speech delivered in 1963 by the late leader of the American Civil Rights Movement, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. In this speech, Rev. King was speaking of his hope–his dream–that all people, especially all those of his own Negro race, would one day enjoy freedom. Freedom from discrimination. Freedom from oppression. Rev. King’s dream was of a future in which all Americans would be treated equally, regardless of the colour of their skin.

Sisters and brothers, to be honest, I too have a dream. I too dream of freedom. But, sad to say, the freedom that I sometimes dream about is far less noble, far less honourable, far less selfless than Rev. King’s. I’ve had this dream for some time now. Though I can’t quite remember when it began. I’m not always aware of it. It seems to make its presence felt especially when things aren’t going so well for me. The shape of this dream has been shifting with the passing of the years. But, at its core, it has always remained the same dream.

As a child, for example, I sometimes found myself dreaming of a day when I would no longer have a naggy grownup breathing down my neck. Insisting that I take a bath when I didn’t want to. Or refusing to let me out of the house when I wanted to join the neighbourhood kids in their games. As a student, I dreamt of finally being free from the burden of mathematics exams and physics tutorials. In the army, I dreamt of no longer having to report to camp at some unearthly hour. Of no longer having to spend those seemingly senseless nights performing guard-duty. Trying to keep people out of a place where nobody really wanted to go anyway. At work, I dreamt of not having deadlines to meet, or a boss to answer to. And, to be honest, now that I’m a religious, there are days when I dream–dare I say it–of being free from one or other of my confreres in community. Or even from my superior.

In other words, what I dream of from time to time is not so much to be liberated from the burden of discrimination, as to be freed from the yoke of responsibility and accountability. My dream is to live the life of a free agent. One who can do whatever he wishes. One who is tied down by nothing. Answerable to no one. And aren’t there people who seem to already be living this kind of life today? Aren’t there people who seem rich enough and unattached enough to be burdened by no worries at all? To be able to do whatever they want?

To use an image from our readings today, my dream is to no longer have a field to plough. Of course, unlike Elisha, I’ve never actually ploughed behind an ox before. Let alone twelve. But I can imagine what a backbreaking job it must be. So there is a part of me that doesn’t quite understand the hesitation on the part of Elisha in the first reading. And also of those people in the gospel, who ask to follow Jesus. Jesus seems to be offering to take them away from it all. To set them free from all the burdens of life. Isn’t this the answer to all their prayers? To finally be liberated from the tiresome grind of their daily responsibilities? Why hesitate?

Thankfully, Saint Paul comes to my rescue. In the second reading, he clarifies for me the true meaning of freedom. You were called to liberty, he says, but be careful or this liberty will provide an opening for self-indulgence. St. Paul is drawing a distinction here between liberty and license. Between freedom and self-indulgence. And, not only that, but quite surprisingly, Paul sees self-indulgence or license as itself a yoke of slavery. Paul reminds me that my dream of freedom can quite easily turn into a nightmare of bondage. And actually, deep in my heart, I know that he speaks the truth.

I know, from experience, that simply doing whatever I want can make me a slave of some unseen force. Even of my own self. Isn’t this how our different addictions arise? Isn’t this how we end up being obsessed with food and drink? Or gambling? Or gaming? Or the Internet? Isn’t this also somehow connected to the violence that some of us do to ourselves? As for example, when some people starve themselves to death for the sake of keeping slim? Or when others cut themselves, so that the resulting physical pain will help to ease their deep emotional hurts? And aren’t the more respectable addictions no less dangerous? Addictions such as workaholism, perfectionism, and keeping up with the Jonsesism. If the neighbours change their car, shouldn’t we do the same? If our friends send their kids for ballet, violin, karate, swimming and art classes, shouldn’t we follow suit?

So, in light of today’s readings, my childhood dream is revealed for what it really is: wishful thinking. There is no such thing as a life of absolute freedom. At least not in the way I imagine it to be. The truth is that to live a fully human life in this world is to always be ploughing a field, to always be labouring under some yoke of responsibility. In the first reading, even though, Elisha slaughters his oxen and uses his plough as fuel for cooking them, we are told that he then rose, and followed Elijah and became his servant. Instead of escaping from all responsibility, Elisha traded one plough for another. A more meaningful one.

We see the same thing in the gospel as well. Even though Jesus challenges the three men he meets to leave their old lives, it is only so that they might follow the Lord wholeheartedly. That they might lay their hands on the plough that Jesus will give them. Without looking back. Isn’t this what Jesus himself does? Isn’t Jesus himself also labouring under the yoke of responsibility? Isn’t he ploughing the field set apart for him by his heavenly Father? Isn’t this why he resolutely takes the road for Jerusalem? And aren’t we well aware of the significance of his resolution? Jesus knows that the field he is ploughing will soon be sown with the seed of his own body and blood. But only so that all of us might reap a harvest of life in its newness and fullness. Jesus journeys resolutely to Jerusalem so as to be lifted up on the Cross. And then to be raised from the dead on the Third Day.
Jesus’ journey is, for us who call ourselves his followers, the true image of freedom. It is not the freedom of my dream. It is not the freedom of those who bear no responsibilities. It is not the freedom of one who cares only for the self and the satisfaction of its endless cravings. Rather, it is the freedom of those empowered by the Spirit, of whom Paul writes in the second reading. It is the freedom of the One who loves God and neighbour even to the very last drop of his blood. It is the freedom of the One who is able, resolutely, to lay down his life, so that others might flourish. This is what true freedom looks like. This is the field in which we are all invited to labour. Indeed, the only field worth ploughing. Today we are being awakened from the dream of living as free agents. We are being invited to leave the dead to bury their dead, so that we might labour in the field that bears fruit unto eternal life.

Sisters and brothers, we began by recalling these words from Rev. King’s famous speech: I have a dream. Perhaps it’s only fitting that we end with three other words from that same speech. Let freedom ring! In the power of the Spirit. In the footsteps of Christ the Lord. Let freedom ring! In our world and in our country. In our parish communities and in our families. In each of our own individual lives. Let freedom ring! Let true freedom ring!

Sisters and brothers, what can we do to make this dream more of a reality today?

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Under the Durian Tree

Church of Ss. Peter and Paul
Day 2 of Triduum in Preparation for Patronal Feast

Picture: cc sj liew

Sisters and brothers, do you like durian? I remember, when I was still a full-time National Serviceman, there were times when our training took us to places where there were many durian trees. And, often, we would see people sitting very patiently under those trees. Do you know what they were doing? I’m sure you can guess. They were waiting for the durians to fall. As you know, it’s really quite easy to tell when durians ripen. They simply fall off the tree on their own. You don’t have to pluck them. All you have to do is to be at the right place at the right time, and you’ll enjoy a feast. For free. Ripe and tasty durians straight from the tree.

I mention this because, on this second day of our Triduum, our Mass readings are all about what happens when fruit ripens. And not just any kind of fruit. But fruit from the tree that we were describing on the first day of our Triduum. Those of us who were here yesterday will remember that we were talking about a special kind of knowledge. Not just the knowledge that makes us very smart. Or the kind that may help us to earn a lot of money. Or the knowledge that may win us many friends and fans, make us very famous and popular. What we were talking about yesterday was that special kind of knowledge that enables us to enter the kingdom of heaven. The knowledge that results from an intimate personal relationship with Jesus. The knowledge that comes from putting Jesus at the centre of our lives. Making Him the foundation of everything that we think and say and do.

If we were to think of this knowledge as a tree–maybe even a durian tree–what do you think the fruit of this tree looks like? And what do you think happens when this fruit ripens? These are the questions that our Mass readings help us to answer today. Notice, first, what this fruit looks like. Notice, for example, what happens to Peter in the gospel. You may remember that yesterday we were talking about what happened to Peter at the place called Caesarea Philippi. How he responded to Jesus’ question, Who do you say I am? We said that although Peter answered with the right words–you are the Messiah–he didn’t really understand their proper meaning. He couldn’t accept that Jesus was the kind of Messiah who would have to suffer, and die, before being raised to life on the Third Day.

In today’s gospel, Peter is once again questioned by Jesus. This time we are no longer at Caesarea Philippi. We are at a place called the Sea of Tiberias. And much has happened in between. Peter has witnessed the arrest, the torture, and the crucifixion of Christ. He has experienced his own shameful weakness. How he denied his beloved Master and Friend. Not just once, but three times. After all these experiences, Peter is finally getting to know Jesus a little better. In today’s gospel, Jesus deepens this knowledge by asking Peter another question: Do you love me? And notice what happens when Peter says yes. Jesus tells Peter to feed my lambs. To look after my sheep.

Not only that, Jesus also tells Peter what will happen if he truly loves the Lord. When you were young, Jesus says, you put on your own belt and walked where you liked; but when you grow old you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt round you and take you where you would rather not go. To love is to somehow hand over control of one’s life to the beloved. Isn’t this what parents do all the time? They may stay up all night, for example, caring for a sick child, even though they may have to go to work first thing the next morning. Or some parents may spend much valuable time volunteering at a primary school in the hope of securing a place for their child... who may still be only four years old. This is the result of love. When people allow the seed of the knowledge of Christ to be planted in their hearts and in their lives, the seed grows into a tree, which starts to bear fruit. And this is what the fruit looks like. When we truly love the Lord, we begin to care for others as well. Even to the extent of doing things we would rather not do. Or allowing ourselves to be led to places where we would rather not go.

We see something similar in the second reading too. Here, the apostle Paul describes his own experience of meeting and falling in love with Christ. Notice the stark contrast between what Paul was like before and after he met the Crucified and Risen Christ. Before he met Christ, Paul was an enthusiastic persecutor of Christians. He went out of his way to arrest and imprison them. But after he met the Lord, after God chose to reveal his Son to him, Paul became the most famous and hardworking apostle of all. Going to great lengths, travelling to distant places, just to proclaim Christ to the pagans. To share with as many people as he could, the wonderful Good News that Jesus has saved us from our sins. This was Paul’s way of doing the same thing that Jesus had asked Peter to do. In telling the world about Jesus, Paul was caring for the Lord’s sheep. Feeding the Lord’s lambs. Even going to places where he would not otherwise have wanted to go.

But if this is what the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of Christ looks like, what happens when it ripens? We find the answer in our first reading today. And, strangely, it’s very much like what happens when durians ripen. Like the people I saw during National Service, in our first reading, we also find someone sitting and waiting. He’s sitting and waiting at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. And, although he may not know it, he’s longing to taste the fruit from the tree of knowledge. The fruit from the tree of love. He begs from Peter and John. Two of the Lord’s closest friends. Two of the people who have come to know Jesus best of all. And notice what happens. The fruit falls from the tree. And the hungry taste of it. The one who was a cripple from birth begins to walk again. And not just to walk, but even to jump and to praise God. And to lead others to marvel at the mighty works of God.

Sisters and brothers, this is what happens when the fruit of the knowledge of Christ ripens. It falls from the tree and it blesses people with its sweetness. So that the lame may walk, the blind may see, the deaf may hear, the dejected may rejoice, the lonely may find companionship… And this fruit is meant to grow not just in the lives of the first disciples. Not just in the time of the early church. It is meant to grow in our lives, and in our own time, as well. In yours and in mine. For isn’t it true that there are many around us who, whether they know it or not, are still sitting and waiting to taste of the sweetness of this fruit? There are many around us, both near and far, who have yet to experience the joy of knowing Christ. Who may only know the name of Jesus, without experiencing the power that comes from trusting in Him. In surrendering their lives into His gentle hands. People who are materially poor. Unable to find a proper roof over their heads, even in a place like Singapore. People who are socially poor. Unable to connect with others in a meaningful way. People who are spiritually poor. Who may have many possessions, or who may busy themselves with many activities, but whose hearts often remain so painfully empty. 

Sisters and brothers, there are many of such people all around us. People sitting and waiting at their own Beautiful Gate. We have only to open our eyes and to look. As followers of Christ, as those who have received the teachings of the great apostles, St. Peter and St. Paul, we too are called to offer the fruit of our love for Christ with all of those who need it.

My dear friends, there are many people still sitting and waiting under the durian tree. Will any fruit be falling from us for them today?

Knowledge and the Kingdom

Church of Ss. Peter and Paul
Day 1 of Triduum in Preparation for Patronal Feast

Picture: cc Ronald Peret

Sisters and brothers, what do you think would happen to me if I were to board an MRT train, or a public bus, or if I were to walk into a shopping mall, light up a cigarette and start smoking? You know what would happen to me, right? Very likely I’d get into plenty of trouble. Probably have to pay a hefty fine, because smoking is prohibited in all these public areas. And we all know why. It’s because smoking is bad for us. And not just for the smoker, but also for everyone around him or her. Today, we all know the dangers of second-hand smoke. We know that it can cause cancer and other lung diseases. We know all this. And yet, some of us still smoke, don’t we? Why do you think this is so?

I’m not sure. But I think it’s because we can know something, and still not really know it. There is someone, for example, who used to be a heavy smoker, who finally died of lung cancer. Just before he died, this person took the trouble to warn his friends not to smoke. At the end of his life, this person finally came to realise the danger of cigarettes. But don’t you think he already knew this even while he was still smoking? Of course he did. He knew it, the way I know it. The way most of us know it. He knew it in theory. Not so much in practice. He knew it, and he didn’t really know it.

It was only after he was actually stricken with cancer, that the dangers of smoking became real to him. Really real. Cancer meant that he was unable to sleep, because he was up all night coughing. Cancer meant that he had to struggle hard just to breathe, even while he was doing nothing but sitting up in bed. Cancer meant that he had to go through many rounds of chemotherapy. And suffer the terrible side-effects. Before cancer, he already knew that smoking was dangerous. But he also didn’t really know it. At least not enough to change his life. We can know something, and still not really know it.

And what is true of the dangers of smoking is also true of the promises of God. We can know them, and still not really know them. At least not enough to have them affect the way we live. Isn’t this what we see in our first reading today? The passage is taken from the 16th chapter of the book of Genesis. Earlier, in chapter 15–yesterday’s first reading–God had made several promises to Abram. God had promised Abram an heir. A son of his own flesh and blood. God had promised to make Abram’s descendants as many as the stars in the sky. And also to give him the land of Canaan. Abram knew all this. And yet, in today’s reading, it’s as though Abram did not know it. It’s as though he had not received any promises. Why else would he agree to the plan proposed by his wife, Sarai? Why bother to have a child with the slave-girl Hagar, if Abram really knew that God wanted to give him an heir? If he really trusted in God’s promises to him? Isn’t it true that Abram knew, but also didn’t really know?

We find something similar in the gospel reading as well. We have already seen how important it is to know the dangers of smoking. It is a matter of life and death. Similarly, in the gospel, we find a kind of knowledge that is also a matter of life and death. Not just earthly life. And not just earthly death. But eternal life and death. In the gospel, Jesus invites us to meditate on an important question: How does one gain entrance into the kingdom of heaven? The answer is quite surprising. It is not those who say to me, “Lord, Lord,” who will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in heaven. In other words, we don’t get to heaven simply by calling upon the Lord Jesus. It’s not just a matter of lip service. We have to do the Father’s will. But this is not really so surprising. We know this already.

What is more surprising is how Jesus goes on to describe what these same people will say to him on the day of judgment. Did we not prophesy in your name, they will say, cast out demons in your name, work many miracles in your name? Notice how active all these people are. They prophesy, cast out demons, work miracles... They don’t just practice lip service. They are actually very busy people. And busy doing things in the Lord’s name. Yet, surprise surprise. When the day of judgment comes, Jesus rejects them. And notice what Jesus says, as he turns them away: I have never known you…

I have never known you. What this tells us, sisters and brothers, is that in order for us to get into the kingdom of heaven, in order for us to do the Father’s will, we have to somehow allow Jesus to get to know us. To somehow allow ourselves to get to know him. This is the crucially important kind of knowledge that we need. The kind that comes from an intimate personal relationship with the Lord. The kind that the people who say Lord, Lord do not have. They claim to know Jesus. They claim to do works in his name. But they don’t really know him. They know his name. But they don’t really know his person. They don’t really know how he feels. How he acts. What he values. What he loves.

Isn’t this also the experience of Simon Peter at Caesarea Philippi. You will, of course, remember how, at Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asks his disciples this question: Who do you say I am? In Mark’s gospel, Simon Peter replies by saying You are the Messiah (Mk 8:29). And, in a way, this is the right answer. Jesus is indeed the Messiah. The Anointed One. Peter knows the right words. But he doesn’t really know their proper meaning. He may be thinking the way many other Jews were thinking at the time. That the Messiah would be a mighty general, who would lead an army to fight against the Romans. So that when Jesus starts to tell his disciples about how he is going to have to suffer, and die, and then rise from the dead, Peter objects. And he gets scolded by Jesus. Get behind me, Satan! At Caesarea Philippi, Peter already knows Jesus. But he also doesn’t know Him. Not yet.

How then, sisters and brothers are we to know Jesus? To know him and to allow him to know us in a way that can gain us entrance into the kingdom of heaven? Jesus himself gives us the answer in today’s gospel. It’s not enough to know his name. It’s not enough even to do many many things for Him. What we need is to make Him the very foundation of our lives. To make Him the centre of everything we think and say and do. Everyone who listens to these words of mine and acts on them will be like a sensible man who built his house on rock. Rain came down, floods rose, gales blew and hurled themselves against that house, and it did not fall: it was founded on rock.

To make Jesus Himself the bedrock of our lives. Not just someone to whom we turn when we need something... And then forget when everything is well again. Not just someone we think about once a week, on a Sunday, because otherwise we might be in danger of committing a mortal sin. We need to make Jesus our everything. The reason why we get out of bed in the morning. Why we marry. Or stay married. Or remain single. The reason why we rejoice. The reason why our hearts are broken with sorrow. There are no half measures. We need to make Jesus our all. This is the only way we can truly get to know him. This the only way we can truly learn to do the Father’s will. By getting to know Jesus. By allowing ourselves to be known by Him.

This is not easy, of course. In fact, we could not do it on our own. The Good News is that Jesus Himself wants to help us. Jesus Himself wants to be close to us. And He wants it bad enough even to hang on the Cross for us. All we need to do is to ask Him. To call on Him for help.

Sisters and brothers, how does the Lord wish to get to know you better today?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Wake Mass for Joseph Yao, SJ
Vigil of the Solemnity of the Birth of John the Baptist
After the Solstice

Picture: cc shirley binn

Dear friends, I’d like to begin, if I may, by making a confession. I have an allergy. It’s not a food allergy. Or a drug allergy. It’s an allergy to eulogies. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against saying good things about someone. As you know, that’s the literal meaning of the word eulogy. Good word. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that sometimes, when I listen to certain eulogies, I can’t help but feel as though we’re already starting a process of canonisation. And there’s a part of me–you may call it the skeptical or even cynical part–that doesn’t feel all that comfortable doing that. I can understand the need to highlight certain qualities about someone for the rest of us to admire. But sometimes it sounds as though the person has already reached perfection. Has already achieved a state of spiritual advancement far beyond what most mere mortals can ever hope to attain in this life.

Dear friends, my aim tonight is not to canonise Fr. Joseph Yao. I do not have the power to do that. Joseph was a good man. A good priest. A good Jesuit. But, like me, he also had his weaknesses. And I feel it’s important for us to remember that, because only then can we better appreciate the power of God at work in him. Only then can we find the courage and inspiration not just to admire, but also to emulate what we see in him. What I suggest we do tonight is not to canonise. Not even to eulogise. But rather to meditate. To meditate on the Scriptures and on the Feast that we are celebrating today. So that we can see a little more clearly, the power of God at work in our beloved brother and priest.

Meditating on our readings today, I’m struck most of all by the kind of people that God calls. We may refer to it as the call of the unready. The choice of the unworthy. Consider the prophet Jeremiah, for example. When he receives God’s call in the first reading, he’s quite clearly unready. He obviously considers himself unworthy. Ah, Lord, he says, look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child! A prophet is called to proclaim God’s word to others. How to do that if you don’t even know how to speak? And yet, God still chooses Jeremiah. God calls him and qualifies him. God puts God’s word into his mouth, and gives him the courage to speak. In the gospel, Zechariah too is someone unready for God’s call. He and his wife Elizabeth are old and childless. Barren. Yet God still chooses them to be the parents of John the Baptist.

The call of the unready. The choice of the unworthy. Fr. Joe had this experience too. There may be those of us who think that responding to a religious vocation is a great gift that one can make to God and the Church. And it is. But Fr. Joe also looked at it rather differently. He thought of his vocation first of all as God’s tremendous gift to him. He never tired of talking about how God had saved him by calling him to the religious life. Fr. Joe had a deep sense of how God had called him in his unworthiness and sinfulness. I still remember a conversation I once had with him while we were both Jesuit novices. Joseph had just completed the long retreat of thirty days. I asked him how was it for him. He said that, for him, it all boiled down to one thing. One feeling. Gratitude. Gratitude for all that God had done for him in spite of his own unworthiness. The call of the unready. The choice of the unworthy. This too was Fr. Joe’s experience.

A second thing that I find striking in our readings today, is what we may refer to as the certainty of the unknowing. Consider what Peter says about the people to whom he is writing in the second reading: You did not see Jesus Christ, yet you love him… and you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls. You did not see, and yet you are sure. The certainty of the unknowing. I saw something like this too especially in the way in which Fr. Joe reacted to the news of his illness. Among the first things he did was to call a close priest-friend of his to make a good confession. And, after that, he would repeatedly say that he was ready to go. Ready to meet the Lord. He had not seen what was awaiting him in the next life. But he was so sure that it was something good. Something worth anticipating. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Fr. Joe did not find his illness a burden. I’m not saying that he did not flinch in the face of his suffering. He was, after all, human. Like you and me. But even though he suffered and struggled, there was a part of him that remained convinced that he was going to a better place. The certainty of the unknowing.

There is one more thing that’s important to highlight tonight. It’s something that’s perhaps not so obvious to us who live on the equator. But it’s no less significant. The date for the Solemn Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist is actually chosen to coincide with the summer solstice. And, as you know, the summer solstice is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. After the solstice, the days begin to get shorter and shorter, until we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. After Christmas, the days get longer again. What the choice of this date does is remind us of those words of John the Baptist. Those words with which we began Mass just now: Christ must increase, but I must decrease. And this too is what we see in the passing of our beloved brother and priest, Joseph Yao. Tonight, we witness Joseph decreasing. But only so that the love of Christ may continue to increase in the lives of those of us left behind. Until we meet with him again in the life to come.

Allowing Christ to increase, by letting ourselves decrease. This is the fruit of meditation. Meditation on our Scriptures and our Feast, as they shed light on the life of our dearly departed. My dear friends, how might we continue to deepen our meditation today?

Sunday, June 16, 2013

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Beyond Carrot & Stick

Sisters and brothers, I think you’re familiar with the phrase carrot and stick, right? You know that it refers to a way of motivating people. A way of getting people to do what we want them to do. And to stop doing what we don’t want them to do. The technique is simple. For the things we want people to do, we wave a carrot in front of them. An incentive of some kind. Like money, for example. Or a promotion. Or a prize. For the things that we don’t want people to do, we apply the stick to discourage them. A disincentive of some kind. Like a monetary penalty. No littering. Fine, a thousand dollars. Or a restriction of privileges. If you don’t do your homework, no computer games for a week. Or even imprisonment.

Carrot and stick. Incentive and disincentive. We use this approach everywhere. At home. At work. And even in our spiritual life. In our relationship with God. Don't some of us, for example, come to Church faithfully every Sunday, just because we wish to avoid having to go to confession? Or how many of us are really anxious to find out the answer to the following question: Exactly how late can we show up at Mass before we have to come again for the next one? Or how many of us gauge our spiritual health only in terms of our own performance? Only by how well or how poorly we may be keeping the rules. And how many of us keep the rules mainly because we fear punishment? Or only because we expect some kind of reward? If not here in this world, then later, in the hereafter. How many of us, for example, become shocked and angry when bad things happen to us even though we may have done nothing seriously wrong. Even though we may have kept all the rules?

Carrot and stick. Incentive and disincentive. This approach can, of course, be very effective. Don’t many of us, for example, find ourselves buying many more things than we need, simply because they are on offer? Buy ten, get one free. But still, it’s important for us to remember that, as effective as it may be in certain situations, the carrot and stick approach does have its limitations. For one thing, it’s very task-oriented. It focuses mainly on performance. What it’s not so good at is building close relationships. This is because the technique is modelled on a particular kind of relationship. The relationship between a boss and a worker. A master and a slave. Or, what’s worse, between an animal and its owner. That is, after all, the image that the words carrot and stick bring to mind. Someone trying to get his or her mule to move by dangling a carrot in front of it. And by threatening to hit it with a stick if it doesn’t. In such a situation, even if the animal does obey. It’s not likely to have much love for the one wielding the carrot and the stick.

Carrot and stick. Incentive and disincentive. At first glance, this is also the kind of motivational technique that God seems to be using on King David in the first reading. What does God do after David commits adultery with a married woman and then kills her husband? It seems God reacts in two ways. First, by listing the incentives, the carrots, that God had dangled in front of David to gain his compliance: I anointed you king… I delivered you from Saul… I gave you the House of Israel and Judah... And, second, by brandishing a stick, a disincentive, for disobedience: So now the sword shall never be far from your House…

And yet, it also possible to read God’s reaction in a very different way. If we look more closely at the reading, it’s possible to see that God reacts to David’s sin, not so much as an angry Master, shaking a clenched fist. But more as a disappointed Friend, shedding tears of hurt and regret. I did all these things for you, God protests. I guided you. Showed you the way to peace and happiness. I treated you like my friend. But you have have rejected my help. You have spurned my friendship. And now you suffer the consequences of your wrongful actions. Angry Master? Or disappointed Friend? Which interpretation is the more accurate? At least one thing helps to convince us that it is friendship that is at work here. For instead of punishing David for his sin. Instead of applying the stick, as an angry master would. God forgives him. And the result? David’s relationship with God grows even deeper, even more intimate, than it was before. As we heard in the responsorial psalm, the one whom God forgives sees God no longer as a hard taskmaster, but as a safe refuge. A place in which to live the whole of one’s life. You are my hiding place, O Lord; you save me from distress. You surround me with cries of deliverance.

All of which should help us to understand a little better what is happening in each of the other two readings today. In the second reading, St. Paul tells us something rather shocking. He says that what makes a man righteous is not obedience to the Law, but faith in Jesus Christ. And what does the Law rely on, sisters and brothers, if not the approach of carrot and stick. The same approach that many of us rely on in the spiritual life. Whether we realise it or not. And yet, Paul is telling us that this is precisely the approach that does not work. For as Jesus himself says at the Last Supper, this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent (Jn 17:3). Eternal life is intimate knowledge of God in Christ. If this is true, then it stands to reason that the approach of carrot and stick, of incentive and disincentive, cannot save us. Even if it may motivate us to keep the rules. It cannot bring us into close relationship with God. It cannot enable us to say what Paul is able to say:  I live now not with my own life but with the life of Christ who lives in me. But what does it mean then to have faith in Jesus Christ? What does it mean to live the life of Christ? How does one enter this life, if not by carrot and stick?

The gospel provides us with a useful illustration of what Paul means. Here we find a stark contrast between two ways of relating to Jesus. The first is the way of the Pharisee. The way of the Law. The way of carrot and stick. The Pharisee is, of course, an expert at keeping the Law. And yet, even though Jesus enters his home as his guest, Simon the Pharisee fails to show Jesus the proper hospitality. For all his knowledge of the Law, Simon remains distant from the Lord. Probably because he does not recognise the presence of God in him. After all, even though Jesus may work miracles and speak eloquently, he doesn’t seem careful enough about keeping all the rules.

In contrast, the unnamed woman–the one with the bad name, the intruder, the one who gatecrashes the party–somehow manages to enter into a shockingly intimate relationship with Jesus. She sheds tears over him. Cleans his feet with her hair. Kisses him with her lips. Anoints him with ointment. And, what is most important to notice, is that this intimacy does not come from the application of carrot and stick. It is not the product of a craving for reward. Or of the fear of punishment. It is born, instead, of the same things that we find in the relationship between David and God in the first reading, and between Paul and Christ in the second. Intimacy with God in Christ springs from mercy and gratitude. The mercy of God symbolised by the Cross of Christ. And the gratitude of the people of God, expressed most fully every time we gather, as we do now, to listen to the Word of God, and to share in the Bread of Life.

For us who are Christian, this is the true motivation. This is the sure way to life. This is the reliable path to peace. Not so much carrot and stick, as mercy and gratitude. Not so much our performance, as the Lord’s sacrifice. Not so much the keeping of rules and regulations, as intimate friendship with Christ. A friendship for us to enjoy. And to live. And to share with others.

Sisters and brothers, the Lord continues to extend to us his hand of Friendship. How ready are we to go beyond carrot and stick today?

Monday, June 10, 2013

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Raising the Living Dead

Sisters and brothers, have you noticed how popular dead people have become today? Not just any kind of dead people, but dead people who appear to still be alive in some way. I’m referring, of course, to the living dead. That’s what they’re called. Or zombies. As you know, a zombie is actually a corpse that has somehow been raised. It can stumble around, but it’s flesh remains quite dead. A zombie is basically a moving pile of rotting flesh. It can’t think or speak for itself like a normal person can. It’s driven by only one thing. It has a single obsession. It has an insatiable craving for human flesh. Preferably the brain.

I know this may seem bizarre to us, sisters and brothers. But I understand that, in some places, there’s actually a considerable market for zombie paraphernalia. Zombie costumes. Zombie make-up. Zombie novels. Zombie movies... I myself recently watched the trailer for a zombie movie, a romantic comedy, entitled Warm Bodies. Some of you might have watched the movie. The story intrigued me. It’s about a male zombie named R–he can’t remember the rest of his name–who is brought back to full human life after he meets and falls in love with a girl. As R’s relationship with his sweetheart deepens, his once cold rigid flesh gradually warms up and softens. Slowly, beginning with his heart, blood starts flowing again through his whole body...

But why, sisters and brothers? Why do you think there’s this immense interest in the living dead? I can’t be sure. But perhaps the reason is to be found in the way many of us modern city-dwellers live. Perhaps it’s got something to do with how so many of us seem to live very zombie-like lives. Lives driven by one obsession or another. Whether it be for money or success. For public recognition or personal achievement. Or simply for accumulating more and more possessions. All those different things, with which we furnish our homes, and clothe our bodies, and occupy our time…

Like zombies, much of our daily routines revolve around repetitive actions, whose deeper meaning we often fail to grasp. At least not in a way that gives us life. Or brings us joy. At daybreak we jerk awake to the screaming of an alarm. Then it’s off to work, or school, or wherever else we need to be. We spend the day performing the various mundane duties expected of us. And then collapse into bed, exhausted, long after the sun has gone down. Only to repeat the whole process when the alarm goes off again the next morning. And, of course, throughout each day, we’ll be fiddling with our little gadgets. Staring into our hi-res retina-display screens. Oblivious to whatever may be happening to those around us. According to the 19th century American poet, Henry David Thoreau, the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. A more contemporary, if less lyrical, translation might be this: Many of us live like zombies...

All of which should make us grateful for what our Mass readings are telling us today. For even if it is true that many of us live like zombies, perhaps it’s also true that we all still dream of a different, a much more meaningful, far less lonely and obsessive existence. A movie like Warm Bodies may well be testimony to this fact. The million dollar question is, of course, How? How do zombies get raised to life? This is the question that the scriptures address today.

In each of our readings, we find people being brought back to life. In the first reading, the prophet Elijah raises a Gentile widow’s son from the dead. And, after witnessing his incredible performance, the woman recognises Elijah for who he really is. Now I know, she says, you are a man of God and the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth itself. For the widow, only the Word of God could work such a miracle. So it comes as no surprise when we find Jesus–the Word of God Become Flesh–doing the very same thing in the gospel. Like Elijah before him, Jesus demonstrates his mastery over death itself. A mastery even more awe-inspiring than Elijah's. For Elijah had to stretch himself out over the dead boy three times in order to bring him to life. Jesus does it with far less effort. Moved with compassion by a widow’s grief at the loss of her only son, Jesus utters a single command, and restores the boy to his mother.

But, as incredible as these miracles may be, they would still seem rather far removed from our experience–when was the last time you saw a dead body being raised?–if not for what we find in the second reading. Here, St. Paul writes movingly about how his whole life was changed when he met Jesus. Paul, as you know, had been a fully trained, piously practising Jew. A zealous Pharisee. Someone who was obsessed enough about his faith to go about persecuting Christians. (We can get obsessed by many different things. Even very holy things.) People whom he considered heretics. But then, one day, everything changed. God called me through his grace, Paul writes, and chose to reveal his Son in me. In another of his letters, Paul likens this experience of encountering Jesus to that of a child born abnormally (1 Corinthians 15:8 NJB). For Paul, the experience of meeting the Crucified and Risen Christ was the beginning a new life. Not unlike the experience of R, the zombie in the movie. Who came to life only after meeting and falling in love with his girlfriend.

This then, sisters and brothers, is the power that we are celebrating today. The power of Christ to raise the dead to life. Not just the dead whose bodies lie in our cemetery plots. Or whose ashes fill our columbarium niches. But also the living dead. Those who continue to shuffle around on the face of this earth, leading lives–often very busy lives–filled with quiet desperation. Dreaming all the while of a day when someone might impart to them the power to enjoy a fuller, more meaningful, less lonely, less anxious existence. This, sisters and brothers, is the very thing that each of us has received at our Baptism. This is the very thing that we gather to celebrate at this Mass. The revelation of God’s unsurpassable love for us, made visible in Christ Jesus our Lord. The same power that we are reminded to cultivate, through daily interaction with the Lord. The same power that we will be sent to exercise and to impart to others, once our celebration is complete this evening. When we will once again hear those familiar words: Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord...

Sisters and brothers, even if many people do live like zombies, as Christians, we believe that we hold the power to raise them to life. The power that comes from meeting, falling and remaining in love with Christ Jesus our Lord.

What more can we do to enjoy this power? What more can we do to share it with those who need it most today?

Wedding Mass of Eujin & Mizuho
Minutes of a Marriage

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 26:1-4, 13-16; Psalm 127; 1 John 4:7-12; Mark 10:6-9
Picture: cc Arvid Bux

Eujin and Mizuho, dear friends. Have you ever read the minutes of a meeting? You’re familiar with how, especially at official meetings, there’s usually someone who records the proceedings. Someone who takes minutes. And you know what most minutes of meetings look like, right? Typically, each page is divided into two columns. The column on the left contains the points that were discussed. The decisions that were made. And the column on the right is usually labelled action. This is where you find the names of all the people who have to carry out whatever has been discussed. To put it into action.

I know it may sound a little strange, but imagine for a moment that this wedding is a meeting, at which minutes are being taken. What do you think these minutes would look like? What will we find in the respective columns on left and right?

It’s probably not too difficult to agree on what belongs to the column on the left. Today, we are gathered here to witness Eujin and Mizuho pledging their love for each other. Committing their lives one to the other. And we offer them our best wishes. We hope and pray that they may have a happy and fulfilling marriage for the rest of their years. That they may continue to love and care for each other. And for the children with whom they may be blessed. All this is beyond dispute. But what about the column on the right? The action column? Whose name or names should we record there?

At first glance, our scripture readings for today give us a rather disturbing–if a little amusing–answer to this question. These readings, by the way, were not chosen by me. They were chosen by you, Eujin and Mizuho. And they are very appropriate. But we need to pay close attention to what they are really saying to us. For the first reading seems, at first, to focus all our attention on one party to this marriage. On the wife. On you, Mizuho. The readings sing the praises of a certain kind of wife. The kind of wife that one finds in a well-kept house. What are the impressive characteristics of this kind of wife? Well, she’s perfect and graceful. Beautiful yet modest. And, perhaps most important, she is silent.

Dear friends, if we were to leave our reflections here, then it would seem that there is really only one name to record in the action column of our minutes today. Yours, Mizuho. But that’s just plain wrong. You see, the first reading is not really meant to be a list of actions for a spouse to perform. Whether it be the husband, or the wife. The person with the amazing qualities described in the reading is, before all else, a gift from God. And this gift is reserved for certain kinds of people. Such a wife is the reward given by God to a certain type of husband. The type of husband described in the responsorial psalm. The type of husband who fears the Lord. The kind of person who puts God first in everything that he thinks and says and does. Who always tries to consider what it is that God wants of him, in any given situation. Blessed are those who fear the Lord… Your wife will be a fruitful vine in the heart of your house… And what is said of the husband can just as easily be said of the wife. For God does not favour one gender over the other.

At this point in our reflection, it becomes clear that at least two names must be recorded in that action column of our minutes. Mizuho’s and Eujin’s. But that’s not all. That would still be incomplete. For the rest of our readings go on to remind us that the couple to be wed are not the only ones involved in a marriage. In the gospel, Jesus states quite emphatically that what God has united, man must not divide. And this is our profound belief. That even though it is you, Eujin and Mizuho, who have freely chosen to be married to each other. Even though various circumstances and people may have conspired to bring you together. We believe that behind all this, God has been, and continues to be, at work. Not only joining you together civilly, legally, as husband and wife. But, more importantly, binding you, fusing you, into one body through the love that exists between the two of you.

What is more, we also believe that this love between you did not originate from you. As much as you have to continue to expend effort at nurturing your relationship–at bearing with the spouse who may forget to take out the trash, or who may leave the toilet seat up (or down), or who may snore at night–we believe that the love you have for one another originates ultimately from God. As the second reading reminds us, this is the love that we mean: not our love for God, but God’s love for us when he sent his Son to be the sacrifice that takes our sins away. We grow in love for one another only to the extent that we continue to receive and to accept the love that God ceaselessly pours into us in Jesus our Lord.

So, three names. Eujin’s, Mizuho’s, and God’s. Is that all we need to record in our minutes today? Not quite. Many more names are required. And those of us here who are already married know this for a fact. In addition to the efforts of the married couple, and to the blessings of God, a happy marriage relies also on the support of family and friends. People willing to lend a listening ear, when burdens may become heavy. When hearts may get broken. When tears may well up and fall. People willing to offer a helping hand, when children may need care. When finances may become tight. When work may get too stressful. People willing to get involved in some way. To be present to the couple. In mind and in body. In work and in prayer.

My dear friends, Eujin and Mizuho, it takes many names to make a marriage work. How ready are we to put these minutes of ours into action today?