Sunday, October 25, 2020

Reviewing Reception

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; Psalm 17(18):2-4,47,51; 1 Thessalonians 1:5-10; Matthew 22:34-40

Picture: cc @englishinvader

My dear friends, do you know the difference between good and bad reception? Back in the early days of television, before the arrival of cable, the quality of reception could mean the difference between a powerful movie experience, and an annoying struggle with a screen-full of static. Nowadays we might say the same about wifi.

This contrast between good and bad reception is also what we find in our Mass readings today. For when Jesus teaches that the greatest commandment of the Law consists both in loving God with one’s whole being, and loving one’s neighbour as oneself, the Lord isn’t really saying anything new. The first part of his teaching is already found in the book of Deuteronomy, and the second in Leviticus.

So why then do the Lord’s enemies want to kill him? If they know the Law so well, why are they unable to keep it? Isn’t this a question that we could ask ourselves too? Don’t we know the Law well enough? Why then do we fail to make time in our busy routines for God, and for the many who are in need of our help? Also, some say that our world already knows what is needed to eradicate hunger, and to address the global ecological crisis? Why then are we so slow to act?

The readings help to answer these questions by presenting us with a contrast between good and bad reception. In the first reading, God doesn’t just tell the people to be kind to the foreigners, widows and orphans living in their midst. God also tells them how to find the motivation to do so. By following God’s example. For God allows the cries of the needy to move God to respond mercifully. If he cries to me, I will listen, for I am full of pity. Isn’t this an example of good reception? 

In the second reading we’re told that it was with the joy of the Holy Spirit that (the Thessalonians) took to the gospel. Or, in another translation, they received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit. And because the Thessalonians received the gospel in this way, it becomes for them more than just empty words, but an invigorating power, energising them to do what is right. Another example of good reception.

In contrast, the gospel says the Pharisees heard that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees… They heard about the power of the Lord’s teaching. But instead of welcoming the message, they choose to find fault with the messenger. An example of bad reception. And just as good reception brings not just knowledge of the Law, but also the power to keep it, bad reception leads to hypocrisy. The failure to practice what we preach. The inability to faithfully live what we claim to believe.

In the award-winning film, Scent of a Woman, a blind retired army colonel, played by Al Pacino, utters these poignant lines: Now I have come to the crossroads in my life. I always knew what the right path was. Without exception, I knew. But I never took it. You know why? It was too damn hard... Sisters and brothers, many are saying that our world too has come to a major crossroads. What must we do to improve our reception, so as to take the right path today?

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Avoiding The High-Beam

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

(World Mission Sunday)

Readings: Isaiah 45:1,4-6; Psalm 95(96):1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21

Picture: cc Rafiq Sarlie

My dear friends, do you know what you’re supposed to do, if you happen to be driving at night, and find yourself blinded by the high-beam headlights of an oncoming vehicle? Although the temptation is great to do so, the Highway Code suggests that you do not try to teach the inconsiderate driver a lesson by switching to high-beam yourself. Instead, the advice is to slow down, to turn your eyes away from the annoying lights in front of you, and to look instead at the kerb on the left. With the kerb as a guide, you can better keep safely to your own lane, and avoid an unnecessary collision.

I wonder if Jesus might not be doing something similar in the gospel today, to avoid falling into the trap that his enemies have set for him. The Pharisees and Herodians tempt him to say in public something that is possibly in the minds and mouths of many people at the time. They want him to advocate refusing to pay taxes to Rome. By doing this, Jesus would be acting like some leaders do, even in our world today. He would be setting popular power on a collision course with political power, and with explosive results.

But Jesus manages to resist this deadly temptation. Instead of being dazzled by the prospect of increasing his own popularity, he chooses to be guided instead by the truth. And the truth is that even a foreign power can have a place in God’s plan. Just as God can anoint the Persian king Cyrus to work for the benefit of the people, so too might God be using Caesar for the same purpose. Which is not to say that religious leaders should not speak out against unjust public policies. It’s just that we need to be clear that we’re doing it at the proper time and place, and for the right reasons.

By responding as he does, Jesus demonstrates the very thing that St Paul tells the Thessalonians in the second reading. The Good News that they have received – the same Good News we are gathered here to celebrate – is not just a matter of words to be bandied about. It is rather a power to be wielded in the Holy Spirit. A power that gives people both the brain and the backbone to avoid the trap of populism. A power that enables us to keep our eyes firmly focused on the Truth. Giving us the insight and courage, especially in times of crisis, to keep building bridges, rather than to erect walls.

And isn’t this the kind of power that needs to be wielded by leaders today? Not just in the national governments of our world, but also in homes and workplaces, in communities and parishes as well? Don’t we need leaders who are willing and able to do more than simply to say whatever different groups of people may want to hear? Pitting each one against the other for the leader’s own benefit? Don’t we need leaders who can, instead, do what we asked God to help us to do in the opening prayer just now? To always conform our will to yours and serve your majesty in sincerity of heart. Isn’t it also part of our mission to exercise and cultivate such leadership?

Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate World Mission Sunday, are there perhaps some blinding headlights in your life that you may need to deal with today?

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Old-Timer, Newcomer, Homemaker

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-10; Psalm 22(23); Philippians 4:12-14,19-20; Matthew 22:1-14

Picture: cc Tanmoy Kumar Roy

My dear friends, if you had a choice, which would you rather be, an old-timer or a newcomer? Which of these do you think is more likely to succeed? Does it matter? At the workplace, for example, while an old-timer may have more experience, he may also tend to be more stubborn, less willing to change. And although a newcomer may be more energetic and creative, she may also lack prudence and perseverance. So perhaps success at work doesn’t depend so much on seniority, as it does on other more important things.

But if this is true of the workplace, what about our faith? Does it make a difference whether I am a decades-old cradle-Catholic or a recently baptised convert? A new parishioner or a parish priest? Which of these is more likely to remain faithful? Which is more likely to fall away? What do you think?

At first glance, it may seem that the gospel is biased against the veterans. For the reading begins as it did last Sunday, by telling us that Jesus began to speak to the chief priests and elders of the people. Through his parable, the Lord issues a stern warning to these old-timers. If they do not change, not only will they be excluded from God’s Kingdom, they will be destroyed. And this will happen because they allow their obsession with money and popularity and power to blind them to what is good. They fail to recognise in Jesus the fulfilment of that beautiful promise in the first reading. Jesus is the mountain on which God will wipe away the tears from every cheek. But the leaders are too busy to climb this mountain, too blind to beg forgiveness for their sins.

Even so, it’s also important to see that, just as the parable begins by rebuking some veterans, it also ends with a caution to novices. For isn’t the one thrown out into the dark a newcomer? And what do we learn from his fate, if not that inclusion in God’s Kingdom doesn’t depend only on turning up at the banquet. Just as it’s not enough for us simply to show up here at Mass. Difficult though it may be, these days. No, our salvation depends ultimately on true discipleship of Jesus. And true discipleship involves more than mere lip service or empty ritual. True discipleship should also express itself in good works, symbolised by that wedding garment, which the unfortunate guest failed to wear.

Isn’t this why, in our opening prayer just now, we asked that God’s grace may at all times go before us and follow after and make us always determined to carry out good works? What we are seeking is the same grace that makes St Paul ready to face any challenge, because there is nothing I cannot master with the help of the One who gives me strength. Continually to seek and to rely on God’s guidance. Isn’t this what it means to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life?

So, my dear sisters and brothers, in order for us to get into heaven, perhaps it matters less whether we are old-timers or newcomers. What’s more important is that, through our daily decisions, we keep making our home in Christ. But, if this is true, then where exactly are you making your home today?

Saturday, October 03, 2020

Subtle Warnings

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 79(80):9,12-16,19-20; Philippians 4:6-9; Matthew 21:33-43

Picture: cc Scott Davidson

My dear friends, do you know what a warning looks and sounds like? Actually, warnings come in many different forms. Some are very obvious. Such as a noisy fire alarm, or a piercing police siren, or a stern letter from an angry boss. They leave no room for doubt as to what we need to do. Escape the fire. Make way for the police car. Satisfy the boss. But other warnings are more subtle. Such as an occasional tightness in the chest, or a child who seems much quieter than usual, or more frequent and stronger hurricanes. These warnings are sometimes easier to ignore.

The same might be said about the warnings in our readings today. They too are easy for us to miss, if we don’t pay close enough attention. They take the apparently harmless form of a story about a vineyard. In the first telling of the story, the focus is on a particular society, a people, the House of Israel and Judah. God had delivered them from slavery in Egypt to safety in the Promised Land, where they were meant to live in such a way as to bear witness to the justice and integrity of God. Instead, they oppressed the poor and vulnerable in their midst. And, as a result, disaster befalls them.

The second telling of the story also involves a vineyard, but the focus is different. Not the people as a whole, but the leaders, the chief priests and elders. Whereas good leaders are supposed to bring their followers closer to God, these men are concerned only about furthering their own interests, increasing their own popularity and power. As a result, they are eventually replaced.

Harmless though it may seem, this story serves as a crucial reminder to us of how a society and its leaders ought to conduct themselves. How we ought to relate to one another. How we ought to relate to the poor and vulnerable, including Mother Earth. How we ought to relate to God. They warn us of the dire consequences of falling short of such right relationship. And, subtle though it may be, this biblical warning still finds echoes in our world today. For example, hasn’t the current experience of Covid-19 highlighted the pitiful plight of the poor and vulnerable, even in a nation as affluent and efficient as our own?

Thankfully, more than just warnings, the Mass texts also offer us guidance for how to respond. We see this especially in the advice that Paul offers the Philippians. In times of trouble, they are told to first bring their concerns to God in prayer and thanksgiving. We may consider, for example, the prayer we offered at the start of this Mass, when we asked God to pour out your mercy upon us to pardon what conscience dreads and to give what prayer does not dare to ask. The Philippians are also told to fill their minds with noble thoughts, and their hands with charitable deeds. So prayer and thanksgiving, contemplation and action. This is Paul's recipe for finding the peace of God and the God of peace in a chaotic world.

Sisters and brothers, if it is true that our readings present us with a subtle but urgent warning, then what must we do to better heed the Lord’s call to conversion today?