Sunday, September 22, 2019

Solving Spiritual Stickiness (Rerun)

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

My dear friends, have you ever tried cooking with a stainless steel frying pan? If you have, then you'll know that there is something you need to do to the pan before putting the food in it. Do you know what you need to do? Yes, you first need to heat up some cooking oil in it. Some people also recommend cooking some green onions in the pan first. Otherwise, the food will stick to the pan, and the dish will be ruined.

It’s quite interesting, isn’t it? A pan is made for the single purpose of cooking food to feed people. And yet, left on its own, the pan tends to cling stubbornly to the food, refusing to let it go. In order to fulfil its purpose, the pan must first be coated with hot oil or with some synthetic material, like teflon. In other words, something needs to come between the pan and the food. Otherwise the pan remains sticky, the food is ruined, and people end up going hungry.

But it’s not just frying pans that are naturally sticky. We human beings can be sticky too, right? We too tend to cling stubbornly to things that we are supposed to let go. And one of the things that many of us are prone to cling to is money. Isn’t this what we find in our Mass readings today?

In the first reading, God accuses certain people of oppressing the poor and the needy, by cheating them of their hard-earned money. By charging more for less. By swindling and tampering with the scales. And they do this while making a show of being pious. Much like how we may come for Mass every Sunday, the swindlers in the first reading take care to keep the  Sabbath. But their external religious observance doesn’t change them at all. Once the Sabbath is over, they quickly continue to cheat the poor!

And there are no prizes for guessing why they do this. The reason is simple. They are greedy. They cling to money. Money that is meant not to make them rich, but to enable others to survive. Much like a sticky frying pan, greedy people cling to things that they are supposed to serve to others. As a result, the food is ruined, and people go hungry.

But that’s not all. Whether they realise it or not, greedy people don’t just harm others, they also damage themselves. For, like a sticky frying pan, greedy people fail to fulfil the purpose for which they are created. To do that, they need to change. They have to stop being greedy. They have to learn to let go. Isn’t this what Jesus is teaching us in the gospel?

Why is the dishonest steward praised by his master? Not for his dishonesty, of course. But for his astuteness. For his willingness to let go of money when the time is right to do so. For his ability to use money to win friends, in order to secure his own future. This is what an astute child of the world must know how to do to survive. To suffer a short-term loss, in order to secure a long-term gain. And this is what Jesus wants the children of light to learn as well. To be astute like the dishonest steward. To learn to let go of money. To use money, and not to be used by it. But with one crucial difference.

Like the dishonest steward, the children of the world make friends by networking with the rich and the powerful. But we children of light are called to do the exact opposite. For us, to make friends is to do what God does in the responsorial psalm. The image described here is very striking. Although God is high above all nations, yet God stoops from the heights to look down. And not just to look down, God also carefully and compassionately lifts up the lowly from the dust, and raises up the poor from the dungheap.

What this shows us is that it is not the rich and powerful who are the friends of God, but the poor and the powerless. So that, in order to secure our future in the kingdom of God, we need to make friends with the poor. Much like how a frying pan is made to cook and serve food for the hungry, we children of light are called to use our resources, our gifts and talents, to serve those most in need. It is only by doing this that we attain our true purpose as followers of Christ. For this is what Jesus himself came to do. Though he was rich, yet for our sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (see 2 Cor 8:9).

And yet, we know that to do this is not easy for us. Like a frying pan, we all have a natural tendency to be sticky. To cling to the things that are meant for others. And, by doing this, we cause harm not just to others, but to ourselves as well. So what  can we do to become less greedy, less sticky?

Again like any frying pan we need to allow something else to come between us and the things to which we cling. Not hot oil or teflon, but the love of God. The same God whom the second reading says wants everyone to be saved and reach full knowledge of the truth. We need to allow ourselves to be coated by the steadfast love of our merciful God. How? One way is by heeding the advice of Paul: first of all, there should be prayers offered for everyone… Prayers that God might lubricate all hearts made sticky by greed. So that they may let go of the things to which they often cling so tightly. To let go and to share with those who need them more.

But that’s not all. For we know very well that people need more than just money and material things, important though these may be. In faith, we believe that what everyone needs most of all is to experience God’s love for them in Christ. And, as Christians, we also believe that this same love has been entrusted to us. We are stewards of God’s love. Called to share it with those who are hungry for it, often without even realising what they are hungry for. These people are, in a sense, poor too. And they are the ones we are called to feed with the Word of God and the Bread of Life. They are the ones to whom we need to proclaim the Good News.

But, in order for us to do this, we must again be willing to let go. To let go of our complacency and our apathy, our insecurity and our anxiety. To allow ourselves to be coated by the great Mystery that we celebrate at this and at every Mass. The merciful love of God poured out for us on the Cross.

Sisters and brothers, in Christ, God has prepared for all people delicious food that’s already sizzling in the pan. What must we do to keep generously and courageously serving this life-giving dish to those who need it most today?

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Between Yours & Mine...

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Catholic Education Sunday (in Singapore)
Picture: cc Gauthier Delacroix

My dear friends, have you ever heard parents talking about their children? Have you noticed the language they use? I’m not sure if its still done today, but there was a time when we might hear a parent refer proudly to a child who had done well in school, for example, as my son or my daughter? And then, later, if the child were to get into trouble – as children sometimes do – the same parent might be heard saying to the other parent, Aiyah, why is your son always like that?! Or, Can you please go and talk to your daughter?!

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how the same child, who was earlier claimed as mine, now suddenly becomes yours? And without any legal papers needing to be filed to effect the change! It’s as though the parent is willing to recognise the child as his or hers only in times of success, but not in times of failure.

I bring this up not to embarrass the parents among us, but because, surprising as it may be, God appears to do something similar in the first reading. As you’ve probably already noticed, the texts for today’s Mass are all about mercy. In the opening prayer, we asked God to grant that we may feel the working of your mercy… But what does mercy look like? How is it born? What fruit does it bear? These are among the questions our readings help us to ponder today.

The first reading gives us a clear description of what mercy looks like. At first, God wants to destroy the Israelites for their idolatry, their worship of the golden calf. But, by the end of the reading, we’re told that the Lord relented… God changes his mind, as it were, and decides to let them off the hook. Sparing those who deserve to be destroyed. This is what mercy looks like. But how does this come about? How is the almighty God led to eventually change his mind?

To answer this question, it’s helpful to pay attention to the language that is used in the reading. At the beginning, God tells Moses to go down the mountain. Why? Because your people whom you brought out of Egypt have apostasised. But we know very well that it wasn’t really Moses who brought the people out of Egypt, but God. Just as we know that the people do not really belong to Moses, but to God. So, at the start of the reading, God acts very much like an angry parent, who wants to have nothing more to do with a problematic child.

Fortunately for the Israelites, Moses decides to stay on the mountain, and to speak the truth to God. He refers to the Israelites as this people of yours whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with arm outstretched and mighty hand… He reminds God of the promises God had made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Promises by which God had, in effect, adopted them and their descendants as God’s own. So that by the end of the reading, we’re told that God did not bring on his people – notice the change: no longer Moses’ people, but God’s people – God did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened. God spares them, because God again recognises them as God’s own. No longer yours, but mine.

All of which shows us that mercy isn’t just about sparing those who deserve to be destroyed. More importantly, mercy is born of recognition. It’s about continuing to forge a familial connection to another, even when he or she gets into trouble. Isn’t this also Paul’s experience in the second reading? In spite of his own sinful state as a blasphemer and a persecutor of Christians, Paul is not disowned by Christ. Instead, he is called and strengthened to be the Lord’s faithful servant. Christ shows mercy to Paul by recognising him as his own. As a result, Paul is filled with gratitude, and he considers himself a living witness to the truth that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Sinners such as Paul himself.

Mercy born of recognition. Isn’t this also what we find in the parable of the lost sons? When the problematic younger son finally returns home, intending to ask his father to treat him as a hired hand, not only does the father continue to treat him as a son, he also keeps referring to him as such. This son of mine was dead and has come back to life…

Then, when it’s the older son’s turn to cause trouble, the father refuses to disown him either. He continues to call the boy my son, reassures him that all I have is yours, and invites him to imitate his father’s example. Begging him to show mercy to the younger boy, by recognising him as his own brother, and to join the joyful celebration in his father’s house.

Mercy born of recognition, bearing fruit in heartfelt gratitude and great rejoicing. This is what we find in our readings today. And this is also what we celebrate every time we gather for the Eucharist. Mercy born of recognition shown first, and especially, to sinners. To those who are problematic in some way. Those who, like that younger son, have failed to recognise in themselves their own dignity as daughters and sons of God, and who suffer greatly as a result.

And not just to them. Mercy born of recognition is shown also to those who, like the older son, fail or refuse to recognise others as their sisters and brothers. And by their failure or refusal, deprive themselves of the joy of being part of the heavenly Father’s household.

Mercy born of recognition, bearing fruit in heartfelt gratitude and great rejoicing… Now I am very far from being an expert in these matters, but could this also be the one thing that should distinguish a good Catholic education? More than simply the reciting of prayers at assembly, or the display of crucifixes in classrooms, or the celebration of the Sacraments in schools – important though all these may be – shouldn’t Catholic education be, above all else, an expression of, and a formation in, that mercy born of recognition, which we find in our readings today? Recognition shown to those who may be excluded by society for being problematic in some way? As well as recognition fostered in those who, with the abundance of privileges they enjoy, often fail to appreciate the struggles of the many others far less fortunate than themselves?

Sisters and brothers, I think we all want to believe that, whatever language they may sometimes use, most parents are merciful enough to keep recognising even the most problematic child as their own. What must we do to ensure the same is true of Catholic education in Singapore today?

Sunday, September 01, 2019

The Importance of Prepositions

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc TheeErin

My dear friends, do any of you still remember the late Fr John Wood? As you may recall, this much beloved Irish Jesuit was a former parish priest of St Ignatius Church. There is a story about him that is still sometimes told among us Jesuits. I don’t know if things happened exactly in this way, but according to the story, Fr Wood once had a fall on the third floor of Kingsmead Hall, which was where his room was located. Some concerned parishioners found out, and immediately began frantically calling the house, because they had heard that Fr Wood had fallen from the third floor.

There’s a big difference, isn’t there, between falling on and falling from the third floor? Possibly even a difference between life and death. So it’s no wonder that people panicked. Which goes to show the crucial importance of those little words to which we often fail to pay enough attention. Words like on and from and with. Words that we call prepositions. The importance of prepositions. I think this is also what our Mass readings show us today.

As you may have noticed, the readings help us to answer an important question. The first reading, for example, advises us to be gentle, to behave humbly, not to be proud. Why? For then you will find favour with the Lord… To find favour, to become God’s favourite. This is what we are being taught to do. But don’t we already know how to become someone’s favourite? If I want to become my boss’ favourite, or my teacher’s favourite, I know what I need to do, right? I need first to get myself noticed. According to the ways of the world, to become a favourite I must first be outstanding. I need to stand out from the crowd. This is our first preposition: from. 

At first glance, this also seems like what Jesus is helping his listeners to do in the gospel. Finding himself at a feast, the Lord notices that his fellow guests are picking the places of honour. They are trying to get themselves noticed. Trying to stand out from the crowd. So he shows them a better way. He tells them to take the lowest place instead. Why? For two practical reasons. First, so that they might not get demoted if somebody more important arrives. And, second, in the hope that they will be invited by their host to move higher.

But isn’t this just a subtler and more effective way to stand out from the crowd? Is this really what Jesus intends to teach us? Not quite. The scripture makes it clear that the Lord’s aim is not to teach his listeners how to attract attention at a feast. For the reading refers to the instruction as a parable. Meaning that it is not to be taken literally. It has a deeper spiritual meaning. It is less about how to chope a seat of honour at an earthly meal, and more about how to secure a surer place at the heavenly banquet. How to gain God’s eternal favour. But if this is true, then what does it mean to take the lowest place?

We find the answer in what Jesus tells his host immediately after the parable. When you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind… This is the spiritual meaning of taking the lowest place. This is how I find favour with God. Not so much by constantly struggling to stand out from the crowd. But rather by consistently choosing to stand together with the lowliest of all. And this is the second preposition. Not from, but with. The first is the strategy of the world. The second is the way of the Spirit.

To win God’s favour by standing together with others, especially those most in need. This is not easy for me to understand, let alone to practice. Especially because mine is such an attention-seeking and media-saturated society. Where even from a young age many are taught to dream of stardom. Where so-called media influencers measure their celebrity as much in advertising dollars as in the number of their followers. And where even preachers like me may be sorely tempted to draw undue attention to ourselves.

And yet, there is a reason why God’s favour is won not so much by standing out from the crowd, as by standing together with the lowly. For this is what God himself delights in doing. In the words of the first reading, great though the power of the Lord is, he accepts the homage of the humble.

We see this also in the very striking contrast described in the second reading. The contrast between two different appearances of God. The first appearance, on Mount Sinai, was so awesome and terrifying, that all who heard God’s voice begged that no more should be said to them. The second appearance, on Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, is far gentler and much more inviting. Comparing this second appearance to the first, it’s as though God were making allowances for the timid and fearful people to whom God wishes to draw close.

For here, in this heavenly place, no one is scared away, but everyone finds a welcome at the festival. Here, the  people of God stand shoulder to shoulder with the choirs of angels, and everyone is a “first-born son” and a citizen of heaven. Here, no one stands out from anyone else. But everyone stands together with one another. Here, everyone is a celebrity in God’s sight. For, through the Dying and Rising of the only Begotten Son, God has forever chosen to stand together with us, lowly though we all may be. In the words of the psalm, here God has prepared a home for the poor.

And isn’t this what we celebrate at this Eucharist? Here, even if some may be better dressed, or more famous, or earn more money, no one is meant to stand out from anyone else. For here, at this altar on earth, we joyfully anticipate the warm welcome we hope to receive at the heavenly table. And here too, we will courageously allow ourselves to be sent out into the world, to walk in some way with those most in need. Such as those for whom working beyond retirement age is not a choice but a necessity. Or those who may be sorely tempted to choose the dark jaws of death over the daily trials of life.

Sisters and brothers, just as there is a sharp contrast between falling on and falling from the third floor, so too is there a big difference between standing out from and standing together with others. A difference between life and death.

So which preposition will you choose to live today?