Sunday, September 24, 2023

The Minding is for the Crossing

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

109th World Day of Migrants & Refugees

Readings: Isaiah 55:6-9; Psalm 144 (145):2-3, 8-9, 17-18; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16

Picture: By AXP Photography on Unsplash

Please mind the gap. My dear friends, do these words ring a bell? As many of us know, this friendly warning is usually heard on the MRT. Reminding commuters to take care when crossing between the platform and the train. Please mind the gap. In effect, this is also what our scriptures are telling us today. Warning us that there is a wide and easily forgotten gap between God’s point of view and ours. That the heavens are as high above earth, as God’s ways are above our ways.

Isn’t this what the gospel parable illustrates? By painting a scenario in which a bunch of labourers are given the same wage for different durations of work, the story stirs our indignation at the apparent unfairness of it all. How could the latecomers be paid the same as those who started first? Surely those who worked longer deserve more! And yet, doesn’t this objection mirror the angry reaction of the religious authorities, when they saw Jesus mixing with tax collectors and prostitutes? Could he be implying that God actually sees and treats those latecomers to the kingdom in the same way that God sees and treats pious and respectable people like us? But why be envious because God is generous?

Following the logic of the parable, what if we were to go a little further? What if the labourers were paid the same wage for playing different roles in the vineyard? The supervisor and the cleaner, the winemaker and the grape-picker, the general manager and the pantry lady… All paid the same. What if the women were paid the same as the men? The foreigners the same as the locals? Which is not to say that we should adopt such a pay-structure if we were to actually run a vineyard. After all, a parable is not meant to be taken literally.

What the parable does is highlight the real possibility that our first impression of any given situation might well be quite far from God’s take on it. And that’s not all. If the scriptures warn us to mind the gap between our perspective and God’s, it’s only to encourage us to cross over from the one to the other. To seek the Lord while he may be found. Just like St Paul is doing in the second reading. He who once persecuted Christians now centres his whole life on Christ. Such that he even feels torn between life and death, between remaining at work in the vineyard, and going to his eternal reward. For either way, he will be glorifying the Lord. Either way, he has safely crossed over into God’s kingdom.

Just like on the MRT, what the scriptures offer us is not just a warning to mind the gap, but also an invitation to cross over it. Which may explain the location of this parable in Matthew’s gospel, sandwiched between the call of the rich young man and Jesus’ third prediction of his Passion. As he did the rich young man (19:21), the Lord is calling us to leave the proud platform of our narrow worldly perspectives, and follow him on the humble and loving train to Calvary and beyond.

Sisters and brothers, how might we help one another to better mind the gap, so as to safely make the crossing today?

Sunday, September 17, 2023

Beyond the Frying Pan & the Fire

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Ecclesiasticus 27:30-28:9; Psalm 102 (103):1-4, 9-12; Romans 14:7-9; Matthew 18:21-35

Picture: By Yoav Aziz on Unsplash

My dear friends, what does it feel like to jump out of the frying pan and into the fire? To try to avoid a bad situation, only to end up in an even worse one. Such as when someone changes jobs on impulse, perhaps to spite an unreasonable boss, only to find that the new boss is much worse. Bad idea, right? But does this mean then that whenever I encounter a bad boss, I should just keep quiet and suck it up?

Jumping out of the frying pan, only to fall into the fire. Doesn’t this sound like what the scriptures are warning us against? The first reading tells us that resentment and anger… are foul things… On its own, of course, anger isn’t sinful. It’s our natural reaction to being hurt. Our way of coping with pain. Consciously or not, when someone or something hurts me or mine, rather than simply suffer the pain, I focus instead on the anger. But it’s possible to take this natural reaction too far. To nurse the anger, as I might a stiff drink. To cherish the resentment. To let them flow outward into vengeance, or inward into depression.

When I try to jump out of the frying pan of pain by clinging to my anger, the anger itself becomes a deadly fire that consumes me. For anger doesn’t just numb my pain, it also makes me forget some important truths, about myself and about God. I forget that I am not the almighty Creator, but only a fragile creature, for whom pain is an unavoidable part of being human. I also lose touch with the Lord, who is compassion and love, slow to anger and rich in mercy.

But does this mean then that whenever I or those I care about are hurt, I should just stay silent and suck it up? Simply try to forget the hurt? Is this what I should do if, for example, I suspect that my kids are being abused by their teacher? Certainly not. On the contrary, what the readings call us to do is not to forget, but to remember. To remember not just our own creaturely fragility, but also and especially, how tenderly our Creator looks at and treats us. Seeing fit even to take on our human condition, sharing our pain, even suffering death on the Cross for us. So that, whether we live or die, we now all belong to Christ. Who always remains present and accessible to us. And who, by his Dying and Rising, transforms our pain into a crucible of life in God’s kingdom.

Of course, in practice, for us to feel the effects of this transformation will usually take time. Which is what both the debtors in the gospel beg from their creditor. Give me time. But it will be time well spent. For to recall the mysteries of our faith in this way, as we do whenever we gather for Mass, is to let the Spirit heal and broaden the horizons of our hearts. Enabling us to gaze beyond the narrow options of retaliation and apathy, to consider what the Lord might be calling and empowering us to do, here and now, for the greater good.

Sisters and brothers, what shall we do to better allow our merciful God to transform the frying pan of our pain into a true crucible of eternal life today?

Sunday, September 10, 2023

When The Child Doesn't Speak

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Ezekiel 33:7-9; Psalm 94 (95):1-2, 6-9; Romans 13:8-10; Matthew 18:15-20

Picture: By huanshi on Unsplash

My dear friends, what is it like for parents to hear their baby speak for the first time? I can imagine how delighted they must feel. Conversely, I can also imagine how worrying it must be, if a child doesn’t speak when it’s past the time to do so. It’s likely, then, for doctors to be consulted, and tests performed. Not just on the child’s power of speech, but also on its hearing. For we know that the two are closely linked.

Similarly, in the spiritual life too, our ability to speak in the Spirit depends upon our ability to listen to the Spirit. Which may explain a curious feature of our scriptures today. Although the focus is clearly on our responsibility, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to be caring and courageous enough to offer words of fraternal correction to each other, the one word that keeps recurring in the readings isn’t speak or talk, persuade or convince, but rather, listen. O that today, you would listen to his voice! “Harden not your hearts."

Indeed, the whole process of correction outlined by Jesus hinges upon the willingness of the one being corrected to listen. If he listens the matter is concluded. If he doesn’t listen, it is escalated. But isn’t it taken for granted that even the one offering correction needs to listen too? So that the process isn’t just a way of bending the other to my will and preferences, for my comfort and convenience, but is, instead, truly a sharing of God’s Word in the Spirit? Isn’t this what it means to meet in (the Lord’s) name?

And isn’t this dual power to both listen and speak in the Spirit what characterises a true prophet, like Ezekiel in the first reading, and Paul in the second? When you hear a word from my mouth, warn them in my name… Ezekiel’s authority to warn others flows from his ability to hear, his willingness to be instructed by God. And this is true not just for individual prophets, but also for the prophetic community, of which we are members. Just as the gift of binding and loosing is now bestowed upon the community, as it was on Peter (Mt 16:19), so too must the community be open to listen and to receive correction from the Lord, as Peter himself was (16:23).

All of this can have grave practical implications, which come into sharper focus when we allow ourselves to consider something like the sad reality of the abuse of children and vulnerable adults in the Church. A scandal that is, at least in part, the result of a failure of fraternal correction. For various reasons, there is a strong tendency among us to stay silent, even when faced with the danger and likelihood of abuse. Could it be that our failure to speak when we should is linked to a defect in our ability to listen? If so, doesn’t this defect need to be remedied, so that we might better heed the call to avoid getting into debt, except the debt of mutual love? 

Sisters and brothers, if parents take such pleasure in hearing their child’s first words, how delighted God must be when we, God’s adopted children, finally find the courage to both listen and speak in the Spirit. What must we do to keep practising and developing this gift together in the days ahead?

Sunday, September 03, 2023

Of Friction & Fire, Footsteps & Freedom

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Readings: Jeremiah 20:7-9; Psalm 62 (63):2-6,8-9; Romans 12:1-2; Matthew 16:21-27

Picture: By Jake Charles on Unsplash

My dear friends, if given a choice, which do you think I’d rather sleep on, satin sheets or sandpaper? The answer is obvious, right? Satin, of course! Actually, to be honest, my preference for the slick and smooth over the rough and uncomfortable, extends beyond my choice of bedding to all other areas of my life. And yet, much as I dislike friction, I also know that it’s somehow necessary. For without friction, how will I start a fire? How will I keep my footsteps firm?

It’s helpful to keep this in mind, since we find a similar tension in our scriptures today. On the one hand, the prophet Jeremiah complains pitifully to God about the painful friction he is experiencing. His proclamation of God’s word to an unreceptive people has not only brought him insult and derision, it has even landed him in prison. Yet, despite the suffering it causes him, the prophet still can’t bring himself to stop preaching the word. A fire burning in his heart, a deep thirst for God, urges him on.

This experience of Jeremiah’s foreshadows that of Jesus. As we know, from his prayer later at Gethsemane (26:39), given a choice, Jesus would very much prefer to avoid the friction of the Cross. Yet he accepts it as necessary. Not in the sense that it can’t be avoided, because it can. He can run away. Or simply comply. But to do so would be to ignore that inner fire, which both energises his mission, and gives his whole life its purpose and meaning. Making it all but impossible for Jesus to walk uprightly before God and neighbour.

Much as both Jeremiah and Jesus dislike friction, they are led to embrace it as necessary. And can’t we say the same about those who wish to follow the Lord? Isn’t this what Jesus is teaching Peter, and all of us, in the gospel? That unless we’re willing to accept friction, we will not be able either to worship God, or to lay down our lives in service of our neighbour. Indeed, we will not even have the freedom to truly encounter those who are different from us, let alone discern how God wishes us to love them. Which is why the second reading is so useful. To find the courage to offer our living bodies as a holy sacrifice to God, we need to keep on recalling God’s mercy shown to us in Christ Jesus. As we are doing now, at this and every celebration of the Eucharist.

Fire, footsteps and freedom. These defining characteristics of every Christian life–even every truly human life–depend for their existence upon a willingness to accept friction. An important reminder for us, especially today. For it has been observed that the slick, spotless, smooth, and spick-and-span is the hallmark of our times. From our standards of beauty, to the shape of our gadgets, even to our seduction by pornography, we are taking our preference for smoothness to ever greater lengths. And yet, what good will it do us, to keep laying our bodies on satin, if our hearts can find no proper rest?

Sisters and brothers, how might we help one another to keep following the Lord ever more closely today?