Sunday, August 25, 2013

Spotting the Right Question

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc Naina Redhu

Sisters and brothers, imagine for a moment that you were a student preparing for a major examination. Maybe the ‘A’ or ‘O’ or ‘N’ levels. And imagine also that there was just too much material and too little time for you to study everything. What do you do? Well, very likely, you do what many students do. Instead of studying everything, you choose to focus on certain topics more than others. You try to make an educated guess as to what is more likely to be tested that year. You take a calculated risk. And, to help you to do this, you study closely the questions that were set in earlier years. You study the trend. You try to spot the right questions.

If done well, with the proper guidance, this kind of gamble usually pays off. At least some of the questions you’ve prepared will indeed be asked in the exam. And you end up doing much better than if you had tried to study everything. But then, sadly, there are also some students who, for one reason or other, end up spotting the wrong questions. Imagine for a moment that you were one of these students. You’ve prepared hard to answer a certain number of chosen questions. You enter the exam hall. You open the exam booklet. And, to your horror, none of the questions in the booklet are the ones you’ve studied. Imagine for a moment, what would be going through your mind and heart. Imagine the sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The sense of dread and despair. The feeling of wasted efforts. The terrible realisation, that you could have passed this examination, if only you had studied different topics. If only you’d chosen the right questions. But you didn’t. You spotted the wrong ones instead...

Not a pleasant feeling. Not an experience anyone would want to have. Or even to wish upon someone else. And yet, isn’t this very much like how the people are probably feeling in our gospel reading for today? In a sense, they too are undergoing a major examination. The mother of all examinations. Not just the ‘A’ or ‘O’ levels. But the test that determines who will be saved. The entrance examination for eternal life itself. And the reading makes it clear that this examination is decided on a single criterion. Notice what the master of the house says to those who knock on the door: I do not know where you come from. Which is another way of saying, I do not know you.  Quite clearly, entrance into eternal life is determined by how well the candidates know and are known by the master of the house, the Chief Examiner himself.

But how does one demonstrate this knowledge? What question or questions does one need to answer? Quite clearly, the people in the gospel have spotted certain questions. They have prepared certain answers. We once ate and drank in your company, they say, you taught in our streets. In other words, for these people, knowledge of the Chief Examiner is judged mainly by proximity. By having occupied and shared the same social and geographical spaces as the Chief Examiner. Perhaps they even pride themselves in being members of the same race or country as the Chief Examiner. But, to their shock and horror, these are not the questions that are being asked of them. Entrance to the kingdom does not depend on proximity. At least not the kind on which they rely. Nor does it depend on race or nationality. For, as we find in the first reading, God’s desire is to gather people from all nations. People from places far and wide. Even and especially foreigners. Those who do not belong to the Jewish race. I am coming to gather the nations of every language, says the Lord. And not only is the Lord gathering foreigners. God promises even to make some of these foreigners into priests and Levites. People chosen to help others come closer to God.

So if neither physical nor social proximity, if neither racial nor national identity gains one entrance into eternal life, then what does? How does one come to know and be known by the Chief Examiner? What question or questions does one need to study in order to show that one has acquired this knowledge? Try your best to enter by the narrow door, Jesus says. But what is this narrow door? The answer is not difficult to find. We discover it by recalling the experience of Jesus our Lord. He came for one reason. To lead us all through the Doorway of eternal life. And when we consider the Way that Jesus himself walked, we begin to see that although it may be hard to enter this narrow door, it is not difficult to spot it when we come across it. The door is easy to recognise, because it has a very distinctive shape. It bears the shape of the Cross.

To enter through the narrow door is to follow Jesus in walking the Way of the Cross. Which is also the Way of Love. It is to try continually to respond always in a loving way to the different challenges, the various trials and tribulations, that the world may place in our path. Forgiving those who hurt us... Trying to work for the good of others and not just ourselves... Ultimately, seeking to do only what God desires of us. This is what Jesus did. Jesus who humbled himself to become the Suffering Servant of all. Jesus who laid down his life for his friends. And it is not easy to do this. This is not usually our first response to challenging situations. It takes time and effort to learn it. To acquire it.

Thankfully, however, we do not have to do it alone. As the second reading reminds us, God trains us as a Father trains his sons and daughters. God trains us precisely by allowing us, from time to time, to undergo suffering. Suffering is part of your training, the reading tells us. God is treating you as his sons. So that when we do encounter trials in life, we are to try our best not to be discouraged. Not to give up. Rather, we are to try courageously to hold up our limp arms and steady our trembling knees and smooth out the path we tread. To look to Christ Jesus for strength and inspiration. For this is how we come to know our crucified and risen Lord and to be known by Him. This is part of our training. A crucial part of the preparation that helps us to pass the examination with flying colours. For it is intimacy, and not mere proximity, that gains us entrance into eternal life.

Sisters and brothers, it is of course no longer possible for us to share exactly the same physical and social spaces that Jesus of Nazareth occupied more than two thousand years ago. Nor is it likely that there are any Jews among us this morning. And yet, isn’t it true that it remains quite easy for us to assume too quickly that we already know the Lord? And are known by him? Just because we come and occupy a seat here every week? Isn’t it all too easy for us to think that simply by coming to Mass every Sunday we are already preparing adequately for entrance into eternal life? Don’t we sometimes think that repeated entrance through the wide doors of this church will automatically gain for us admittance through the narrow gate of God’s kingdom? And yet, how many of us are truly able to see and to make the connections between our comfortable presence here at Mass on a Sunday with the challenges that we may have to face over the course of the rest of the week? Or with the discomfort that others around us may be experiencing. The poor. The sick. The aged. The homeless. The depressed... What can we do, what must we do, to learn to better recognise and to respond ever more generously to the Lord? Who continually chooses to come to us in the difficult situations and the troubled people we may encounter when we leave this place? What are we doing to come to know and to be known by Christ ever more intimately?

Sisters and brothers, the knowledge that we need to excel in the Great Examination of eternal life has already been revealed to us. But are we really spotting the right questions today?

Sunday, August 04, 2013


18th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Picture: cc sue ssh

Sisters and brothers, do you speak Malay? I don’t. But, for some reason, I’m reminded today of a Malay word. It’s a word that I’m quite sure many of us are familiar with. It’s the word sayang. You’ve heard it before. You know what it means. The word is, after all, part of the title of a very famous Malay folk song. We’ve all heard of Rasa Sayang. So what does sayang mean? If I’m not wrong, when used as a noun, sayang is a term of endearment. It means something like darling or sweetheart. And, when used as a verb, the word means to love, or to show affection. Even to kiss. You probably already know this, but according to Wikipedia–and I’m not sure how accurate this is–the literal English translation of Rasa Sayang is I’ve got that loving feeling! So the word sayang has something to do with love and intimacy. With warmth and affection. With familiarity and relationship…

But not always.

As some of you may know, the word sayang actually has another meaning. A very different meaning. A meaning that, I believe, is very similar to that of the same word in Filipino. When used with this meaning in mind, the word is often uttered with a sigh and a shake of the head. As in (sigh) sayang lah! Which means something like, what a waste! Or what a pity! And I imagine this is what might be said, for example, by someone who, for some time, has been eyeing a very attractive and highly eligible young man, or young woman. And who suddenly discovers that that particular person has already tied the knot with someone else. Maybe someone who’s not even that good looking. Or that rich and successful. (Sigh) sayang lah! What a waste! What a pity!

But why, sisters and brothers, you may be wondering, are we discussing Malay vocabulary when we really should be meditating on the scriptures? The answer is quite simple. It seems to me that our Mass readings for today are really located somewhere in between these two meanings of the Malay word sayang. Or, to be more exact, I think that what our Mass readings help us to do is to move from one meaning to the other.

Consider what we find in the first reading today. Vanity of vanities, the preacher says. According to scripture commentators, in Hebrew, the word translated in English as vanity can also mean something like breath or vapour. In the first reading, the word is used to refer to the experience of someone who has worked very hard, very successfully, and accumulated much wealth. But, at the point of death, this person has to leave all possessions to someone else. For when one passes through the gates of death, all those material possessions, painstakingly accumulated over the years, are like the breath that passes through our nostrils. They slip through our fingers. There’s just no way for us to  hold on to them. No way for us to bring them along with us when we pass from this life to the next. Vanity of vanities. All is breath. All is vapour. Or, if the preacher were a Malay, we could very well imagine him saying, with a deep sigh and a sad shake of his head, (sigh) sayang lah! What a waste! What a pity!

And don’t we find something similar in the gospel? Here, Jesus warns us about the dangers of avarice. About the foolishness of striving constantly to accumulate material wealth, thinking that what is accumulated will actually make us secure. This is how the rich and successful man in Jesus’ parable thinks. But the Lord points out that no amount of money, or property, or financial investments, or business contacts can enable a person, any person, to escape the jaws of death. We all have to die. And then what becomes of all those things we have accumulated? Again, vanity of vanities. All is breath. All is vapour. What a waste! What a pity! (Sigh) sayang lah!

But the good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way. At the point of our death, when we look back on our lives, we don’t necessary have to be filled with regret. We are not all condemned to shake our heads, and to sigh, and say (sigh) sayang lah! According to Jesus, this particular reaction is not the fate of everyone. It is reserved only for a certain kind of person. The kind of person whom the Lord describes as one who stores up treasure for himself in place of making himself rich in the sight of God.

Storing up treasure for oneself versus making oneself rich in the sight of God. Here, sisters and brothers, we find the way out. Here, we find the means to avoid being filled with regret when we reach the end of our earthly life. What we need to do–what our readings are proposing to us–is to move. To move from selfishness to charity. From greed to compassion. Instead of simply working and accumulating wealth for ourselves and for our immediate family, or even for our country–as important as all that may be–we are called also to spare a thought for others. Especially for those who are most in need our help. Whether materially or otherwise. Those who are, in some way, entrusted to our care. It is in reaching out to help them, that we actually make ourselves rich in the sight of God.

The second reading describes this same shift in at least two ways. It speaks of the need to kill and to cultivate. To strip off and to put on. What we need to kill, what we need to strip off, is the kind of life that is centred only on the self and on all its superficial cravings. The self, who seeks gratification and security only in passing things. Only in vanity and in vapour. The self who, at the point of death, will have no choice but to look back on its life and see only a wasted opportunity. (Sigh) sayang lah!

In contrast, what we need to cultivate, what we need to put on, is a different kind of life, a different kind of self. A life and a self that we do not really build for ourselves. But rather, a life and a self that we receive from Christ. By gradually, and continually, allowing Him to be the centre of our earthly existence. By living according to His concerns. According to His values. Mercy and compassion. Forgiveness and love. Values and concerns that do not pass away. But that endure for all eternity.

This then is the movement that we are all called, by virtue of our baptism, to make. Not just from selfishness to charity. Or from greed to compassion. But, really, ultimately, a movement from being wrapped up only in ourselves to being engulfed in the warm embrace of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. The same embrace that we are celebrating at this Mass. It is this movement that will make all the difference for us when we die. At the point of our death, after having cultivated, through prayer and good works, an ever deepening relationship with Christ, we will no longer have to look back on our life and say regretfully, with a sigh and a shake of the head, (sigh) sayang lah! But rather, with a joyful smile, and a warm embrace, and perhaps even a kiss, we will be saying to the Lord, Rasa sayang! I’ve got that loving feeling! It’s so good to be home!

Sisters and brothers, the word sayang really has two very different meanings. At the point of death, which meaning would you rather be using? And what do you need to do to move from one meaning to the other today?