Sunday, October 06, 2019

Heart Lotion

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
Picture: cc Marco Verch

My dear friends, do you moisturise? I mean, do you apply creams and lotions to your skin to keep it soft and smooth and supple? Perhaps, for some of us, this is not so necessary here in Singapore, where it’s usually so humid. But if I were to travel to a foreign country, where the air is very dry, then I have to remember to moisturise my skin every day. Otherwise it will become so dry that it might even harden and crack. Has that ever happened to you?

And it’s not just the weather that can cause a person’s skin to harden like that. I once shook hands with someone who had spent many years hand-washing clothes for a living. And I was surprised by how hard and rough this person’s skin was. It was like shaking hands with sandpaper!

Actually this is something we all know very well. Whether it’s dry weather or strong detergent, harsh conditions can easily cause our skin to harden. But what we may not realise is that harsh conditions can harden not just our skin, but also our hearts as well. Isn’t this the danger that our Mass readings are teaching us how to avoid today?

In the first reading, the prophet complains to God about the extremely harsh conditions in his life. Oppression and injustice, tyranny and outrage, violence and contention and discord… These are the terrible things he sees everyday. And yet, God does not seem to care. How long, O Lord, am I to cry for help while you will not listen.… will not save?

Have you ever felt like that, my dear friends? Have you ever complained to God about the harsh conditions in your life – at the workplace, or in the family, or even in the world at large? Have you ever complained and complained, but received no answer? If you have, then you know the danger that the prophet faces. It’s the same danger that the people of Israel faced when they were wandering in the wilderness, and ran out of drinking water. These harsh conditions led them to harden their hearts. They rebelled. They refused to listen to Moses and to God. Isn’t this why the psalm says, O that today you would listen to his voice! “Harden not your hearts”?

To somehow be able to keep my heart soft and smooth and supple, even under harsh conditions. To continue listening to the Lord, as the prophet does in the first reading. To wait patiently and not to lose hope. To keep trusting that the Lord will not abandon me. Will not abandon us. That the Lord will eventually come to our rescue. All this is much easier said than done, isn’t it? Especially in times of trouble. To be able to do this, we need that spiritual moisturiser that we call faith.

Which probably explains why, in the gospel, the apostles ask Jesus to increase their faith. Scripture scholars remind us that this request the apostles make in verse 5 of chapter 17, should be seen as a response to what Jesus says in verse 4. Do you remember what Jesus says? If (your brother) wrongs you seven times a day and seven times comes back to you and says, “I am sorry”, you must forgive him.

In other words, in verse 4, Jesus tells me that I am not to harden my heart even towards someone who repeatedly makes my life difficult. On the contrary, the Lord expects me to somehow keep my heart soft and smooth and supple. Of course, this doesn’t mean I have to allow myself to be abused. No, I should take steps to protect myself as far as possible. But I should also be ready to forgive whenever the person apologises. Even if the person makes my life difficult as often as seven times a day! Is there someone like that in your life?

I’m not sure about you, my dear friends, but I do not find this easy to do. It requires faith. Which is why it is not surprising that the apostles ask Jesus for more faith. What is surprising is what the Lord says to them in reply. Jesus tells them that, when it comes to faith, it’s not really quantity that makes the difference. For even a word spoken with a tiny bit of faith – the size of a mustard seed – can cause a tree to be uprooted and planted in the sea!

But if faith does not depend on quantity for its effectiveness, then on what does it depend? The answer to this question is found in the words: When you have done all you have been told to do, say, ‘We are merely servants: we have done no more than our duty.’” To adopt the attitude of a servant. To be willing to wait on the Master. To be ready promptly to receive and to act on the Master’s every command. This is what makes faith effective. It’s not about quantity but receptivity.

How then to be receptive to God in this way? Isn’t it too difficult for us? Too difficult for me? Yes it is. Unless, of course, I follow the advice that St Paul gives to Timothy in the second reading. I am reminding you to fan into a flame the gift that God gave to you when I laid my hands on you… To be receptive to God’s commands, I need first to allow myself to be receptive to God’s gift. To unwrap the present that God has already given me at my baptism. The precious gift of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit of power, and love, and self-control. To unwrap this gift is to allow the Spirit to remind me of how Christ laid down his life for me on the Cross. So that, moved by this great gift, I may then allow my life to be shaped according to the pattern of the Lord’s loving self-sacrifice. Even to the extent of bearing hardship for the Good News.

To keep tapping into the Holy Spirit’s power. To keep remembering Christ’s sacrifice for me. To allow myself to continue unpacking the precious gift already given to me so generously by God. The same gift that we are gathered here at this Mass to celebrate. This what it means to have faith. This what I need to do to avoid hardening my heart under the  sometimes harsh conditions of daily life.

Sisters and brothers, it’s not just our skin that needs to be kept soft and smooth and supple. Our hearts do too. What steps are you taking to allow God to moisturise your heart today?

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