Monday, 9 September 2019

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

We often think that the act of choosing is exercised between an option that is good and an option that is bad. The truth is, there is no real “choosing” to be made as if both the options were equal and neutral. Between a good and a bad option, we always choose the good and reject the bad. Choosing only becomes more difficult when both or all the options are good. How does one choose and choose wisely?

The first reading speaks of wisdom. We are also keenly aware that life is difficult as it is and according to the author of the Book of Wisdom, our so-called perishable bodies weigh us down. We bear the inherited adamic burden which St Paul lamented as the good we reject and the evil we embrace. We seem incapable of doing the good we should but instead commit the evil we should not. We definitely need the wisdom that only the Lord can give to recognise the struggle for what it is. The Serenity Prayer is a good example of the gift of wisdom. One asks the Lord to grant the serenity to accept the things one cannot change, the courage to change the things one can and the wisdom to know the difference. In other words, we ask for the wisdom to choose the better fight. Some battles we cannot win and here I am not referring to fighting the Devil. That remains a life-long battle until the last nail is hammered into our coffin. Rather, you can never win an argument with a person who is emotional or unbalance. In an impossibility, it is pointless to waste your time.

What is wisdom? In this matter, our universe is our fingertips. Google is what I am referring to mostly. You can be speaking to a person who may be googling to check on what you are saying. Information is power and how much more powerful and subversive one can be when all that a person needs to know is available at his finger-tips. 

When it comes to information and knowledge, you must have heard this adage or proverb that a lie told one time too many, soon becomes the “truth”. Research today often propels a seeker into the universe of Wikipedia. Apparently, in “Wikiverse”, there is a democratisation of information in cyberspace because everyone is keeping everyone honest through shared editing. However, it is not impossible for someone to post inaccurate facts and when these inaccuracies are repeatedly quoted by others, a lie can easily be passed off as a truth. Fake news is basically “truth” unverified. 

According to Alvin Toffler, the futurist commentator of the digital revolution, information and knowledge have become the key to power in the 21st century. He who holds information and knowledge holds great power. But, TS Elliot’s question is rather apt for our consideration. He asked, “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”. 

Our digital natives have mistaken information and knowledge for wisdom. We believe that the more we know, the smarter we will be and implicitly, the wiser we are. Is that not how journalists today have become the purveyors of “truth”? They have information, facts, “inside source” and have set themselves up as guardians of truth. It may be so that they protect the grounds for truth but some of them cannot be further from the truth than they already are. In this post-truth world, I suppose, the teaching vocation is next to impossible because both “unvarnished” information and “narrative-free” knowledge are not easily available. Everyone is an expert and a critic. When everyone is as clever as the teacher, where is the future for teaching or of education? All you need is Wikipedia. And, who needs a doctor when one can self-medicate? 

Today the Gospel presents a truth which only wisdom can grasp. Jesus speaks a language that today’s Gospel of Nice would consider offensive, that is, hatred and renunciation. Some seem to think that this is the very vocabulary which Trump may have copied from. However, the context is important for the Semitic mentality has no notion of preference. A preference for one thing is equivalent to the hatred of another thing. Therefore, in a culture that is strongly familial, following Jesus comes with a cost that only the “stupid” would dare to embrace. It is not easy to follow the Lord for it would involve swimming against the currents of “cultural wisdom”.

Anyway, to speak of renunciation as a wise choice does sound quite desperate. In fact, it sounds rather forbidding. For example, to love Jesus and to follow Him, does one have to “hate” the family? Could it be expressed in another manner? In the context of foregoing possessions, the letting go in order to be a disciple of Jesus, the giving up should perhaps be viewed from the perspective that freedom is most gained not by accumulation but rather by divesting. To own a lot, it would require that we let go a lot. Remember the story of the Rich Young Man whom Jesus invited to go sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor so that he can follow the Lord? Our man turned away sad because he was unable to let go. 

To be fair, divesting or letting go is not to be valued for itself. Life’s goal is not renunciation per se. Within the framework of an autonomy-conscious culture, liberty is often considered as “freedom from”. What does it mean to be free from rules and regulations? Not many realise that we merely trade in one set of constraints for another and almost unwittingly. For example, at a certain age, a young person will begin to rebel against the rules and regulations at home. If the father is very strict, soon enough every rule that seemed to work in the regulating relationships will quickly be viewed as stifling freedom. Praying the rosary at 10pm every night is alright when a child is 10 years old. But, at 19, I am sure the teenager would consider this curfew a curb on his freedom to stay out late. Ironically, it would never occur to night owls to consider their cherished freedom as a form of slavery. To do what you want, when you want, how you want and where you want is slavery to your whims and fancies. Indiscipline is a debilitating form of slavery. Those of you who procrastinate a lot will know what this “freedom” or rather slavery means.

Our young today face many challenges. One of them is the vision of life that does not go beyond the self. For example, these days when we organise camps, our kids are told to bring their own plates and cutlery and they are encouraged to wash up after their meals. All very “Laudato si-ish”. It is a good practice because away from their house-help, they are taught to be responsible. Unfortunately, this pedagogy does not deviate from a selfishness which is at the root of our environmental crisis. We continue to inculcate a vision does not go beyond the self. When our kids wash their plates, they can be meticulous about cleanliness but still they require another kind of “house-help” to clean up the clogged sink. I was at a camp the other day and we all use communal baths/toilets. Nobody stooped low enough to remove the debris clogging the sinkhole because it is so “Eww”. In itself, that is no proof of selfishness. Instead, their inability is indicative of our myopia, our short-sightedness whereby our children have not been inspired with a vision that goes beyond the self. 

The freedom in the Gospel that Jesus invites His disciples to, requires a love that ventures beyond the self. In other words, the freedom we aim for through the renunciation of possessions or family has a higher purpose. The life of grace is a conversion that seeks to be “free from” so that we can be “free for”. We forego a lesser love for a greater love—so that our heart can embrace an undertaking far greater than ourselves. St Augustine’s famous experience of his restless heart chronicles this endeavour. The heart is always looking to obey someone greater than inself. If we do not obey Him, we will languish in “obedience” to our stupidity and ultimately and unsuspectingly may become instruments in the hands of the Devil.

We need wisdom to choose the Lord. Only the greater, the higher, the nobler, and finally, God alone gives meaning to the laying down of one’s life. No information, no knowledge can lead us to take up His cross. Only the wisdom of God can. St Paul told the Corinthians that the Cross is certainly foolishness because the world does not know God through wisdom. To choose a greater love, we require His assistance. As the Collect from the 17th Sunday in Ordinary Time reminds us: Grant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure... So we ask the Lord for the wisdom to let go of lesser loves that tie us down so that we may hold on to the greater love that endures to the glory of God our Lord.

Sunday, 1 September 2019

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The First Reading details the gathering of all peoples by God. The calling within the context of the Gospel criterion of the narrow gate is challenging not least because we all breathe the rather vapid or sterilised air of a therapeutic mindset. Here in Luke’s Gospel, the Lord seems to be rather uncompromising. Firstly, the background is a Jesus on the resolute road to Jerusalem. He is on the move and given that time is of the essence, He zeroes in on decisive matters without beating around the bush. For example, to someone intending to follow Him, He decreed that anyone who puts his hands on the plough and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of Heaven. That is pretty harsh, is it not? And we are not used to such “judgemental rigidity”. We expect a kinder Jesus; one who is more “understanding” of human frailty.


Today, as mentioned at the beginning, we live in a therapeutic society because everything existential about us seems to require “fixing”. Instead of life presenting itself as a set struggles, in other words, life is unfair and we should deal with it to the best of our ability, sadly, we have grown accustomed to expecting life to be uncomplicated and free from angst and anxiety. Have you ever caught yourself saying “I don’t deserve this” when you encounter difficult people or situations? Since life is a struggle and stressful, apparently almost everyone is either neurotic or clinically depressed, manic or suffering from one of the new-fangled conditions like shopping addiction. But, worry thou not because we have a fix for every tic, if not a pill for every ill. Within this afflicted ecology, the new language to acquire is “self-esteem”. Everyone needs his or her ego to be massaged in order to feel good about himself or herself. Anything less is considered to be problematic and needs to be treated. The point is, it is not enough to be good. It is imperative that one should feel good.

Hence, the challenge of passing through the narrow gate. Coupled with the therapeutic society is a welfare state of mind. It means that both society as a whole and the Church in particular owe it to us to make us feel good. There do not seem to be enough gold stars to give out in kindergartens since every child needs to feel special. By the way, is it not ironical that we want to make people feel good and hence retarded has become “special”. If “special” is so special, how come nobody wants a “special” child? The kicker, however, is this: it does not take much to extend this therapeutic expectation to God Himself. If God owes us something, whether it be happiness or health, well-being or wealth, we will naturally feel cheated if our expectations are not met. If benefit and contentment have become the goals of life, then God and by extension, the Church and society exist only to facilitate these ends. Do you ever watch AGT or BGT or the Voice, etc? All one needs is “My brother is dying from cancer and one of his goals is to see through to the finals”. Then, the crowd goes “aaah” and whilst the contestant is singing, the camera pans to the tear streaming down a judge’s face!

People regularly believe in God until a tragedy strikes. If things or events do not go according to our plans, the problem is with God. Why is He unkind? In other words, God should bend to our will rather than we to His. If that be the case, how do we enter the narrow gate? For the entrance, meaning if it is a given, it demands that we make ourselves small enough to fit through rather than it enlarges itself to suit us. Here, I will use an analogy but I am not fat-shaming. If you want to look stunningly svelte in your chosen wedding dress, you have just got to squeeze a slimmer self into the gown. As an aside, kudos to those who are not ashamed of their shape or size.

The same problematic of entitlement can be gleaned through the change in the translation that took place at Advent in 2011. Remember the Institution Narrative? “It will be shed for you and for all, for the forgiveness of sins”. In Latin, the wording is pro vobis et pro multis and thus, the literal translation we now hear is “poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins”.

The “many” created such a furore. There are priests who refused to use the word “many”. From the perspective of a God who owes it to us, “many” does come across that God is stingy with salvation. How dare God not want to save all? The profound truth is the Lord Jesus came to save all people. The reality is, however unappetising, some will be lost not because God is stingy with salvation but rather God cannot save us without our consent. St Augustine was right to remark that the God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent.

Thus, the man who asked Jesus on who can be saved is clarifying the issue for us. No one, not least, God, society or the Church owe it to us to make us happy. If anything, we owe it to God to make ourselves salvageable. Salvation as indicated in the Institution Narrative cannot be brought about mechanistically without our willing or participation. Through faith, we are invited to accept God’s gift of supernatural life and thus participate in it through a life which is in accord with the will of God, so that we can be numbered amongst the many whom Jesus has come to save. If the gate and the path to heaven are routinely described as narrow. It means that we must dispose ourselves for salvation. Our disposition is one way of saying to God, “No, you do not owe it to me to save me but I owe it to you since I desire your salvation”. It is consenting to God to save us. God does not condemn us to hell. We have the freedom to exclude ourselves from His generous mercy. The ball is not in God’s court; it is really in ours.

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

Do you remember a time when male fashion was inspired by prison attire? The sagging pants was supposedly worn to reveal one’s undergarment at best or one’s crack in the derrière at worse. At one time, some of our youths were also spotting this fashion. The need to blaze a fashion trail so as to stand out from the mediocre masses is understandable but in the end, the need to be different resulted in everyone sporting an exposed rear!

A famous 19th century French diplomat to the USA, Alexis de Tocqueville observing American democracy, remarked that individualism is ironically conforming. We have an innate or inborn desire to stand out and be an individual and yet, the paths we forge appear to be just like everyone’s else. Furthermore, he noted that to be different or to be an individual requires one to break free of imposed restrictions but eventually, one grows tired. What does it mean to be free and not be constrained by traditions? The reality is that after a while it becomes meaningless unless we have the very people whom we have rejected affirming us in our decision. If you are “free” and nobody notices you, what does it mean? Perhaps you understand the allure of Facebook or Twitter. These social media massage the loneliness of our individualism by affirming our choice to be different. If no one likes your posting, does it not feel pointless and lonely? The modern desire to stand out alone is predicated on the support provided by the undifferentiated masses. True individuality is “silent” because to say “I don’t need you” is really to assert the contrary. Meaning? I actually need you so that I may be able to voice aloud, “I don’t need you”. 

Our aspiration for individuality comes from a place of incompletion. It is God-given but it not an imperfection. Rather it is analogous to a homing device searching for fulfilment. Hence, there is a built-in loneliness that is implied by the drive for individuality and the readings today challenge individualism’s fear of loneliness. Firstly, the prophet stands alone against the accepted wisdom of the “wise”. Jerusalem was under siege by the Babylonian and somehow Jeremiah counselled surrender rather than fight in order to protect the city from destruction. He was opposed by the majority and he ended up suffering for his belief. It is hard to speak against conventional wisdom and one who can see more, will somehow have to pay the price of enlightenment. Secondly, how does reconcile Jesus as the Prince of Peace and the fate of those who choose to follow Him. Apparently the Prince of Peace is also the harbinger of divisive discord. What does it mean then to be a follower of Jesus if the result of loyalty is broken relationships? There appears to be a thread of commonality between the First Reading and the Gospel in that the path of the prophet leads to suffering as will those who choose to follow Jesus. Now, who in the right frame of mind wants this as a reward? 

It is natural to be afraid but apparently, the answer is also found in our individualism. But, with a twist. The misguided individualism that we crave actually requires that Christ comes down from the Cross. This individuality is at home with a Jesus who carries us when we are down but never challenges us in our comfort. However, the foundation of difference which we try so hard to establish is not to be found in a Jesus we fake. Firstly, it is not even found within us. Remember how Whitney Houston sang that the greatest love of all is inside of her? Sadly, that greatest love did not prevent her untimely death or even the death of her daughter. Secondly, this so-called basis of our individuality is not even found without as we realise how frighteningly lonely it is to depend on others to affirm us. When no one likes your posting and no traffic passes your blog, it can feel pretty lonely in cyberspace. 

The difference from the masses that grants us individuality is to be established only in God. Jesus stood in the waters of the Jordan and a voice was heard coming from heaven: “This is my Son, the beloved”. Thus, Jesus was right about Him being the cause of division. He charts a path which takes us away from the conforming crowd. To stand out in a world that wants to fit in, we need to follow Him and find our peace in Him. That is where we will pay the price. It is not so much as we want to suffer or we want to be against the world but the price for our righteousness will require that we stand out on principles. 

To be a fashion setter is relatively easy. But, try being good or try being a just person. Try to be truthful for a change. These qualities stand us in our stead as followers of Jesus. Once you put on these qualities, you will soon face a world aligned against you because you do not submit to the approved strand of the reigning narrative. Let me illustrate how powerful this unspoken ideology is. Here, I am not agreeing with President Trump in what he says or does but to note how, rightly or wrongly, that he has the audacity to stand apart, again rightly or wrongly, from the received tradition of liberalism and when he does, the mainstream media are systematically arrayed against him. Without Trump, comedians will die from starvation. Of course, there are sycophantic voices backing Trump but the fact is how easily the “mainstream” media jumps at blaming him for anything and everything. 

In the same manner, the movie Unplanned which detailed the conversion of an abortionist has been characterised by Wikipedia as “factually incorrect anti-abortion propaganda”. It had limited release and virtually no access to advertising. It was described as “a wrong way to right some wrongs” by a website and “a gory mess” by a newspaper. Again, Unplanned is an example of the reigning strand of wisdom that demands our fealty. 

If these examples are too far away, closer to home, if you dare speak against the locus communis, that is, the kosher party-line that “balance” or “equality” is to be tilted, all in the name of racial harmony, the reprisal will be swift. And you will be forced to apologise etc. 

Try to do the right thing according to what is right and not what you think is right and you will be hated. However, the right thing is never about me but rather something far greater than me. The same Tocqueville said this about America and I think it opens a vista for us to consider how one can be an “individual”. It is a long quote but it is worth pondering upon. 

I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbours and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great

To be an individual is to be great in goodness. This will make us stand out because the world, as it is, struggles to apprehend the meaning of goodness. However, a slogan which is a homophonic play of words might be helpful here. You would have heard of “No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, know peace”. Jesus is truly the Prince of Peace and the peace we want is based on knowing Him. To truly know Him is to experience peace; a peace which allows one to undergo the suffering that comes from following Him. Once you have known Jesus, there is no taking away the peace you have from following Him, no matter where He goes. He is the true fulfilment of the individuality that we crave. In Him alone, can we find what we are truly searching for—the individuality prized by a craven world. 

Tuesday, 13 August 2019

19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

One of the themes of this Sunday is faith in God who will be there for us. In tandem with this faith is also our preparedness to meet Him when He comes. It is within the context of God’s fidelity that I would like to explore the phenomenon of the “dystopian future”.

Have you noticed the number of movies which offers a peek into the future that is darkly dystopian. If utopia means a good place, then dystopia is just the opposite meaning a “bad” place.

There could be an inherent flaw in the dystopian universe represented not least by books or movies like Maze Runner, Twilight, The Hunger Games and The Divergent Series. For example, the world is dark and destroyed and yet in the Divergent series, trains still run... These scenarios pose a pertinent question on where humanity might be heading to. They also highlight man’s anxiety about the future; a future where either God has failed, God is impotent or God is absent. For Nietzsche, God is dead.

A fear of the future is symptomatic of a crisis of faith. Put it in another way: we do not know where we are going. But that is not as bad as doubting if there is a future where we can be at home in. Our miscalculation is to mistake dystopia as a future reality because it is somewhat staring at us now because we do not recognise it.

The question on where humanity is going is both anthropological as well as theological. Anthropological because it is a question about man. In other words, what does it mean to be a human person. Theological because it is a question about God. Does He exist at all? Both these questions are closely related in the sense that the question of man is at the same time the question about God. Why? The locus for the connexion is that man is made in the image and likeness of God.

The first reading implicitly establishes this affiliation between man and God. The connexion is observed through civilisation which expresses mankind as a flourishing society. Dystopia, on the contrary, reveals the failure of civilisation. For any civilisation to flourish, we must make certain assumptions about the human person. Sadly, this anthropological question, that is the question of man, is being asked with God out of the picture.

Society today has been trying to determine what the human person is independently of God. A good example is the discussion whether gender can still be use to differentiate between a man and a woman. Gender binary or hetero-normativity are concepts which are challenged because they are considered to be restrictive and oppressive. Instead, we are moving in the general direction that a man is who he defines himself to be. Likewise the same for a woman. Who I am is merely a choice I can make.

This renders gender a fluid, flexible and nomadic reality. Such ambiguity is emblematic of the confusion that arises from a discussion on man’s identity that is autonomous from God. When God is absence, the future of man can only be bleak because the human person without God is merely “natural”. A good analogy for  man as “natural” is Plasticine or Play-Doh as it is called today. It means a person’s gender is mouldable subject to the buffeting winds of prevailing ideologies. When that happens, sexual differences are reduced to a social construct and they are not grounded in significant biological differentiation. It does not matter what physiology you have because one’s biology is not important. When a person is what one defines himself or herself to be, then it does not take long before gender re-alignment can be imposed on some young children. The question is if your child says he feels like a dog, do you begin to feed him dog food?

In this dystopian future without hope, the present is no more than a prison of competing despotic whims and dictating fancies. One day it is the Paleo diet, the next the Atkins diet. Yesterday we studied grammar but today we focus on situational English. We buy into a regimen of Noni juice to prevent cancer but now we have changed it to Soursop.

Where we are heading to, that is, the resolution of this crisis of faith in the future, can only come about when we face God. 

As mentioned earlier, the anthropological question about man is also a theological question. This means the answer is found in trying to understand what God has intended for creation to be. It is significant that of all created reality, visible and invisible, man is the only creature who bears the image of God. This designation gives man such a personal privilege. It is not a privilege of entitlement or domination in the way we have rapaciously destroyed the environment. Rather, it reflects a truth that whilst the world was created for man, man was created for God. Therefore, God must enter into the discussion about who man is. The starting point is God’s love for us revealed in the human nature He gives to us in creation. It is the same human nature which, in the mystery of the Incarnation, God the Son took upon Himself when He became man. Therefore, who we are is cannot be our self-construction.

If there is anything useful about the dystopian genre, it can discern a common theme running through each movie or book. In this really messed up future, man is looking for salvation and the one who saves is either a hero or anti hero. Sadly, when push comes to shove, we prefer anti-heroes because they are like and so justify our poverty of heroism. At the same time, these anti-heroes possess a modicum of what a true hero is to perform what is necessary for salvation. Whereas, the Christian perspective, bears witness that the salvation of the whole human race comes not from a hero or anti-hero but from Jesus Christ—Son of God made man. In Him, we have hope because He is faithful and can be trusted. The author to the Hebrews reminds us: Faith is confident assurance concerning what we hope for, and conviction about things we do not see. What we cannot fully see is the future but it is not dystopian. Instead, we believe in the future because it belongs to God. Faith in God is the only cure we have against this dystopian depression and anxiety. Man must head into the future with faith in the present and hope for tomorrow. This is the preparedness that the Gospel speaks of. Instead of fearing for the future, we should live in the present as if we are ready for eternity because we know God will keep His promise as He did to Abraham and his descendants forever.

Thursday, 8 August 2019

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

The reconstruction of the burnt down Notre Dame de Paris has begun. There have been pledges from conglomerates for the funds needed to rebuild the Cathedral. However, recent reports indicated that money instead is coming from the small donors whilst the multinationals have yet to make good their promises. This is rather telling.

Here are some figures to further your reflexion. From 2017 to 2018, there was an 18% jump in wealth amongst the 2208 billionaires coming from 72 countries and territories giving them an aggregate worth of US$9.1 trillion. China, the supposedly great egalitarian country, hosts 373 billionaires and their wealth grew by 39% compared to the 12% increment of 585 billionaires living in the USA. (These statistics are gleaned from Forbes). Well, note that China is going to swarm all over the world. Like cockroaches.

Anyway, some of them have gotten rich on the back of their employees. An example is Jeff Bezos of Amazon. Amazingly, it pays the workers poverty-level salaries. What is glaringly unsettling is that many transnational companies also maintain a disproportionate scale of reward for the upper echelon of management. For example, what sort of philosophy undergirds such a corporate culture that in order to be sacked, a chief executive is paid £75m? Furthermore, many of these billionaires also know how to bankroll governments so that policies favouring them can be kept intact. Was this Dr M’s reference to the Deep State? Sadly, the chasm or divide between the rich and the poor is only going widen because automation makes it easier to discard the human labour force in favour of machines.

What do these depressing scenarios have to do with the Gospel this weekend?

One can read the Rich Man as a failure of stewardship. In general, the land that a person claims to own, it cannot be that it belongs to him absolutely. Since God is the creator, one may say that the occupants are merely tenants and whatever they possess is owned in the form of stewardship. A quotation attributed to so many sources might help us understand what this notion entails: “We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors. We borrow it from our children”.

Within the maxim, we recognise the transient or temporary nature of ownership echoing the First as well as the Second Reading. However, in a culture of victimhood and blame, it is easy to embrace an idea that being rich is somehow a curse whereas poverty is somewhat favoured. The Gospel lends itself to such a thinking because we keep hearing how the poor will be exalted and the rich brought down. However, in all His teachings, Jesus has never criticised the rich for being rich.

The sin of the rich man was not that he received a bountiful harvest. His sin was choosing to live without any reference to God. He toiled, as the author of the Ecclesiastes reminds us, in vanity of vanities. He has not sought things that are above as per the letter to the Colossians. Life for him was rather autonomous because he did not think further into the eternal but instead thought he could store up for himself the fat of the land.

What was his sin but blindness? It is a kind of blindness can lead to a calculativeness which in the example of the rebuilding of the Notre Dame is seen in “how much tax rebate can I get for my contribution?”. Measure that kind of consideration against those who give out of their pocket, thinking only of the God’s glory rather than their benefit.

It is not communism to regard wealth as a blessing to be shared. To be rich is more than a personal blessing. Remember the steward in Matt 24 or Luke 12 who was entrusted with feeding the household when the master had gone away. In place of rendering his stewardship conscientiously, he set about lording over those placed under his charge—beating and starving them whilst he himself enjoyed life. The Lord’s reappearance did not bode well for him. Of course, those who are blessed may not be doing anything of this sort but it invites us to think what it means to be a blessing for others who are not as blessed as we are.

If wealth is a blessing, then we must make a distinction between the equality of opportunity and the equality of outcome. In order for a society to be just, we need to ensure, as far as possible there be an equality of opportunity for every person although we can never guarantee the equality of outcome. In fact, this country squandered away that possibility of creating a just society. It had an affirmative programme which was designed to ensure that the economically deprived had equal access to opportunity. But, it was blatantly abused and when the equal outcome could not be attained, the corrupt government then devised even more asinine programmes or policies to force an equitable result with disastrous consequences. Just like the APs for the importation of cars. The point is, give every person an equal amount of capital and the outcome can be as different as the number of personalities involved in the exercise. We can never force a just ending.

Be that as it may, those who are able to make more, like the first two men of the parable of talents, whatever surplus is generated, consider it a blessing even though personal effort may have gone into it. Why? Even the best and the brightest sometimes do fail. For example, it was the best and the brightest, assembled under JFK that gave birth to the Vietnam War and also destroyed the presidency of Lyndon Johnson. Whatever success we can attribute to our prowess, it helps tremendously to recognise that it could have been a failure because nothing can be guaranteed. Thus, the rich man’s bountiful harvest was no more than a blessing. For, no success is ever our own if God Himself does not permit it. Without God’s permissive will, all successes could have been failures.

Accepting that may help to mitigate or ease one’s resentment at having to share one’s blessing. It is easy to look at a failed person which we have the obligation to share with, as someone who is lazy. It does not take much to make us resentful. Wealth is never a personal blessing even if it feels like it. Instead, God blesses a few so that they can reach out to the many.

We have generated unimaginable wealth the world has never witnessed before if you consider the wasteful lives of some of the rich and famous. Note that one’s future is not assured, as the rich man thought, by one’s effort and especially by the promise of storing up wealth. Our wealth can never buy us heaven and so our relationship to wealth must follow St Teresa Avila’s fabulous advice. The great saint tells us that “Money may be the Devil’s excreta, but it is certainly a good fertiliser”. Hence, wealth, when properly administered and judiciously used, may be a stepping stone to heaven although we must always rely on God’s grace and trust in Him and never our abilities or possessions for salvation.

Finally, you should not feel guilty if you were rich. You should celebrate being rich. However, be aware that there are the terms and conditions: When a man has a great deal given him, a great deal will be demanded of him; when a man has had a great deal given him on trust, even more will be expected of him (Lk 12:48). If I were a Proddy preacher, I would be guilt-tripping the congregation to putting more into the collection but I am not. I am merely want to state that this is a mortal reality with an immortal repercussion.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C 2019

You know the terrible twos. What they called a young child when he turns the corner of one? It seems that the cute little toddler has developed a Frankie’s complex and only wants to do things his way. I think this syndrome is not just restricted to a terrible two-year old child. Adults are frequently like that.

For we adults bring “my way” into our prayers too. The central theme of today’s Gospel and the first reading is prayer. Abraham pleaded with God to spare the lives of the people on account of what good the Lord can see in the few. Jesus taught the Disciples not a method of praying but rather the very Prayer itself which we devoutly termed as the Lord’s Prayer.

Unfortunately, a prayer such as the Our Father, locates it within the tradition of formulaic prayer. This type of prayer sounds like a mindless litany of repetitive chanting which in the context of today’s intentionality falls within the category of mumbo jumbo. Intentionality just means that we need the “head” to be in what we are doing in order for it to be meaningful. Curious that we are, we want to “understand” so that we can say that whatever we experience, it “means” something. Thus, if one were to do something mindlessly, it somehow slides down the scale of “meaningfulness”. Like household chores for example. Since the intellect is engaged in the search for meaning, it follows that any action one engages in has got to make sense. Interestingly, we associate understanding with the phrase “make sense” which then relegates the intellect to the realm of feeling. However, the intellect is primarily the organ of truth. It hones in on truth but when we subvert truth with meaning, it does not take far for truth to be tethered to feelings. How often is it that we define truth by how we feel? For example, when a marriage has no more “feelings”, does it drop off the scale of meaning? When there is no more excitement in the marriage, is the love less true? Our divorce rate seems to confirm that it is.

With feeling as a canon for meaningfulness, then out goes the Hail Mary or Glory Be. Even the Lord’s Prayer will not be spared. There was a time when we used to give a patronising nod to those who come for Mass but ended up saying the rosary. Why? Because these people have no understanding of “active participation”—which translates to a necessity of the mind understanding in order to derive or elicit meaning. In effect, formulaic repetitive prayers are for the less clever and also for the less capable, namely older people. This is a category which does not amount to any significance in the larger schema of urgency. Let me be clear that I am not deriding or insulting people who pray the rosary or the chaplet of mercy even if it feels like I am.

No. Instead, let me jump to something which Pope Benedict in his first encyclical highlighted. He brought up the priority of prayer in the context of pressing needs—which is a catchphrase for the “larger schema of urgency”. He pointed out that “Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone. Piety does not undermine the struggle against the poverty of our neighbours, however extreme. In the example of Blessed (now Saint) Teresa of Calcutta we have a clear illustration of the fact that time devoted to God in prayer not only does not detract from effective and loving service to our neighbour but is in fact the inexhaustible source of that service. In her letter for Lent 1996, Blessed (now Saint) Teresa wrote to her lay co-workers: “We need this deep connexion with God in our daily life. How can we obtain it? By prayer”.[1]

To be fair, Benedict XVI did not make any distinction between mindful and mindless prayer. However, one may still detect a certain hubris amongst the learned, a kind of arrogance which we may not articulate and this pride considers prayer (especially the repetitive type) as being “mindless” when measured against what one can do and achieve. When praying we need an intention or we set a goal but when praying the Hail Mary over and again and nothing seems to happen, it does not take much to conclude that mindless prayers are ineffective.

Prayer, if anything, denotes a relationship with God. We would like to think of Abraham as shrewd in his negotiating skills to the point of human triumph over the divine where he almost twisted God’s arm into submission. But what Abraham did was no more than what Jesus tells us to do: Ask, knock and be persistent in seeking. However, the asking was not in any way a one-way street sort of “gimme, gimme, gimme”. There was reasoning in such a way that Abraham pleaded for the lives of those whom in God’s vision appeared less deserving of life. And if we consider the image given to us in the Apocalypse, that is, of the Lord knocking at our door, we can appreciate that God kept the conversation with Abraham because He too is searching for a relationship with us.

Asking is relational. In our case, it also expresses a relationship of dependence. If you give it a further thought, much of our praying is not relational in the deeper sense of the word. Apparently, I am told, the collection this weekend will drop. Why? Bukit Mertajam. If you cannot venture that far north, then perhaps Port Klang. If that is not possible, you might aim for Alor Gajah. If that is out of the way, you can settle for Pamol Estate. St Anne is the miracle. Shrines are popular because they are linked to asking and at first glance, it is a fulfilment of Jesus’ command to ask.

But, is there true dependence when we ask? In these hallowed and sacred places, it is often the case that people ask in desperation. There is nothing wrong with that. They should. However, when they are not in desperation, what happens? What sort of relationship do people, who are not desperate, have with God?

It is often the situation, that we ask, based not on our dependence on God, but only because we are incapable. I used to attend meetings of altar servers in the previous parish where they would start off with a prayer and I would laugh out loud at the end. It sounded something like this: “Dear Lord, we pray that our meeting will not be a failure and that we can proceed with what we have planned”. It is a prayer that exemplifies the reality that God is no more than a fail-safe “device” or entity. Why? We are self-sufficient and our relationship with Him is only as much as He could and we hope that He would, prevent us from suffering the fate of failure.

Prayer symbolises a relationship of dependence on God. In many instances, we enter into it with a sense of entitlement and God’s role in prayer is to answer and bow down to our will. Whereas, real prayer recognises our dependence on Him. But, for a society that is self-sufficient and technologically powerful, prayer merely stands in when we are impotent or incapacitated. We pray not because we dependent. Instead, we only turn to God when we cannot depend on ourselves. The point is, can or cannot, our relationship with God is always one of dependence.

In the same encyclical Benedict XVI reminds our self-surfeited society, “it is time to reaffirm the importance of prayer in the face of the activism and the growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work. Clearly, the Christian who prays does not claim to be able to change God's plans or correct what he has foreseen. Rather, he seeks an encounter with the Father of Jesus Christ, asking God to be present with the consolation of the Spirit to him and his work”.[2]

I am not mocking or demeaning anyone who turns to prayers in desperation or when in need. By all means do so because Jesus did tell us to ask, to seek and to knock. However, go deeper. Enter further into the relationship trust and reliance because we will always need God whether we want Him or not, whether in desperation or not. Our lives depend on Him whether we are aware or not. Prayer merely grounds this existential reality. So, let us never cease to pray.

[1] Deus caritas est, 36

[2] Deus caritas est, 37

Monday, 15 July 2019

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time 2019 Year C

It is the Sunday of the Good Samaritan. Jesus is still making His resolute way to Jerusalem when a meeting with a lawyer turned into a match of wits. This learned lawyer, instead of asking Jesus, as he did in both Mark and Matthew, what the greatest commandment is, he zeroed in on the yardstick for attaining eternal life. And not in a humble manner though.

Whatever the manner he did, this question becomes for us a truly magisterial moment and more. I am interested in the more and will address it later.

The question about the greatest commandment is easily answered by both the Shema of Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18. One should love the Lord with the whole heart, soul, mind and strength and also to love one’s neighbour as oneself. However, the question on the benchmark for eternal life gave Jesus the opportunity to enlighten the lawyer on how to love the Lord and neighbour. So, this question is not really to establish the guideline of who our neighbours are but rather to rethink how we can be neighbours to others.

This definitely enlarges our notion of what it means to extend help to others. Human that we are, we are often limited by our categories. Often and unwittingly, we perceive through the lens of our prejudices. I have heard of people who will not rent a house to a person of a particular colour, for example. Hence, in a way, to describe the Samaritan as good is to expand the concept of neighbourliness because a good Samaritan is oxymoronic. Nothing good can come from him as good and Samaritan are both mutually exclusive. In fact, the Levite possibly crossed the road because in the Old Testament, God thought poorly of the Samaritans who live in Shechem (Eccl 50: 25-26). Therefore, in using the term, perhaps Jesus is teaching us that neighbourliness must cuts through the thickets of bias stereotyping. The Samaritan depicted as good helps us appreciate that assistance can come in the most unexpected form.

In a way, we are accustomed to viewing the notion of the Samaritan through the lens of sociability. How so? Can you name the one scourge in this country which is perhaps the embodiment of anti-social behaviour? You could shout corruption but I would say snatch theft. We read horror stories about them leaving their victims for dead. Would it not be nice to be rid of this affliction? Sociability is a measure of how we all can get along with each other no matter what. It coincides with our intuition that society has to be a place of human flourishing. Nobody wants to live in a dysfunctional society. Does it explain why so many of our compatriots have chosen to give up their citizenship for Australia, UK, US, Canada, NZ and Singapore? A functioning society is a profoundly powerful symbol of civilisation. In light of this sociability and human flourishing, to be civilised requires that we care deeply about the inequalities that exist in human societies and must strive to make right all that is wrong. Therefore, the Good Samaritan may be an icon of Man’s attempt to rid society of all kinds of prejudices in order to create a better world.

However, it is easy to miss the subtlety of this parable because we can be caught up with being neighbours to others. We all know and not just feel that something is amiss in our world which in turn becomes an impetus to do something about it. This drive is definitely augmented by our technological capabilities. We believe we have the wherewithal to make the necessary adjustments to transform the world so that being a “good” neighbour is the set standard of what a civilised society is supposed to be. In other words, the transformation we long for is another word for becoming a better human. Think about it, right? All the mod-cons have for their goal an enlargement of the space that makes human flourishing possible. We would want machines to take over our tedium of work so that we can have the chance to live leisurely. In fact, the word “scholar” is derived from the Greek “scholastes” which translates as “one who lives at ease”. So, a scholar is really a gentlemen of true leisure.

Earlier on, I mentioned about the magisterial moment and more. The more is when this Gospel of Nice we buy into might blind us to a deeper reading of the Good Samaritan. What is this Gospel of Nice? A better human being is by definition a nice person as in “Why can we not just get along with everyone and be nice”? It is a moralistic programme but the more that we might miss out is that the Good Samaritan is also a commentary on the fallen state of humanity. According to the Christological and soteriological allegory of Church Fathers like St Augustine, Jesus is the true, Good Samaritan who restores fallen mankind to the right relationship with God which the old dispensation could never do. Humanity is represented by the wounded victim after he was attacked by Satan. The Devil and his minions are personified by the thieves. The old dispensation is symbolised by the priest and the Levite. They stood for the best of what mankind had to offer but in themselves, they were unable to do anything for the victim.

It is left to the outsider and the rejected, the Samaritan who stands for Jesus Christ, to come to the rescue of wounded humanity. How much more sacramental can we get when the Samaritan uses oil and wine to salve the effects of sin on mankind. He brings the man to the inn which is a metaphor for the Church and even provided for further healing by giving power to the innkeeper, meaning the Apostles and their successors, who carry the ministry of healing through the sacrament of reconciliation.

Steeped in poverty, struggling with choking inequalities and in a world that is often mean, it is no wonder that being a neighbour—a good one, ranks highly in the modern valuation of discipleship. Christians are indeed called to be neighbours to the world. But, in the mission to better the world, the danger is to reduce it to just a human project. The parable, even though it challenges us to be good, clearly has soteriological significance—“What must I do to gain eternal life”?. Thus, the parable of the Good Samaritan has two goals. Firstly, it exhorts us to build a better world by being the good neighbour that Jesus was to the wounded. Secondly, it is to recall that we need God who in the person of Jesus has come to redeem us. We cannot do it ourselves no matter how powerful our technology is. Finally, the figure of the Good Samaritan bid us to remember that ultimately our goal is to be saved for eternal life. Nothing comes close to this objective.