Sunday, 28 September 2008

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

In the Parable of the Sower, some seeds fell on rocky ground, they sprang up quickly but because they had no roots they withered and died. You may be wondering what bearing the Parable of the Sower has on the Gospel today.

Firstly, the parable in today’s Gospel was addressed to the established religious authorities of the time—the chief priests and elders of the people. These so-called religious people took offence at Jesus fraternising with sinners and the Gentiles. In the parable, the sinners and the Gentiles were represented by the elder son, whereas the chief priests and elders of the people were represented by the younger son. The sinners and the Gentiles chose to go their own way but repented and thus gained an entry into the Kingdom. The first reading says this clearly: “When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live”. On the other hand, the established religious authorities were those who knew better but yet failed to act on their privileged knowledge and as a result they excluded themselves from the Kingdom of God [1]. Again, the first reading says: “When the upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed”.

This is where the connexion between the Parable of the Sower and the Two Sons may be established. The seeds falling upon rocky ground can be taken to represent the religious authorities who know better but do not live their better knowledge. There is a shallowness in their behaviour that can be described as “lip-service”. But, interestingly, that they paid lip-service to God is not actually our problem here. Why? Everyone pays lip-service to one thing or another. It is part and parcel of who we are as sinners.

What is problematic is when we begin to associate “religious” behaviour as the cause of our lip-service. It is as if being religious, like the chief priests and the elders, is an obstacle to a meaningful relationship with God. An example is the use of the term “holy”. So, many of us do not like to be labelled as the “holy” type because the holy type is the hypocritical type. Isn’t this a common answer when asked to “serve” the church or in an empty church to sit in front? [2] “I am not holy” may express a genuine and humble fear of failure to live up to the standard of holiness but it actually disguises the fear that “holiness” is very close to hypocrisy. This is because the “higher” you rise, the further or harder will your “fall” be and it probably explains why we are suspicious of the “holy” types, because we keep seeing those who claim themselves to be holy but in actual fact live unholy lives. That is why people stay away from church, because "church" is a gathering of hypocrites.

Furthermore, our problem with what we term as shallow or superficial religious behaviour is compounded or complicated by the dichotomy between “ritual” and spontaneity. Ritual does not give life, spontaneity, on the other hand, does. So we scorn or disparage the “ritualistic” or regular part of life. Is it any wonder why young people have a problem with the Mass? Because the celebration of the Mass is distinctly “regular”. We understand "regular" in the sense of occurring at fixed intervals but the Latin root of the word “regula” means being subjected to rule. Rules are expressed through rituals and rituals belong to “established” religion and "established" religion is peopled by the so-called "holy" hypocrites.

That is why the Parable of the Sower might be instructive. All religions must have clear moral guidelines and elaborate rituals to maintain the semblance of what they are and to prevent them from degenerating into arbitrariness or caprice. Nothing is more destructive of your worship than a priest arbitrarily “praying” the Pater Noster at one Mass and skipping it at another Mass.

In short, religious or regular practices cannot be reduced to just primarily keeping the rules or observing the rituals. This is where we need to be on guard. Keeping the rules and observing the rituals are good but in themselves they tend to render our religious observances shallow and superficial. In the chief priests and the elders, that superficiality turned them into self-righteous judges of characters.

Nowhere in the Gospels did Jesus say, “Do not follow the rules”. And He Himself observed the “rules” by keeping the Sabbath. The Parable of the Two Sons may teach us that there are three things necessary for entry into the Kingdom. They are (1) right thinking, (2) right worship and (3) right acting. The chief priests and the elders probably excelled in right thinking. They knew the law and they studied theology. They may even observe the rubrics of worship carefully—how to bow, how to genuflect, how to sign themselves. But they, like the younger son, failed in right acting. They didn’t know how to love. They only knew how to judge those who didn’t measure up to their “superficiality”.

People today are repelled by shallow behaviour. This is more so if our behaviour does not commensurate with what we teach and celebrate. It is important to note that bad behaviour does not make the religion bad. Bad behaviour just makes the religion harder to accept. This is probably the challenge of Islam and the Western World. In the 2nd Reading, St Paul asks of us to imitate the humility of Christ. So, humility is the way to go for us who are sinners to ensure that we become beacons rather than stumbling blocks for bending knees (worship) and acclaiming tongues (teach) in search of Christ the Lord.

Right thinking and right worship have their rightful place in the way we live our lives. The ideal is for us to go beyond superficiality in the observance of rituals and rules to bear fruit in the way we behave: justly and with mercy.

We had a vigil on Friday night to pray for the country. I am not saying that we were right in what we did but I am explaining why we did what we did. Right thinking (orthodoxy) and right worship (orthopoesis) leads to right action (orthopraxis). John Paul II is insistent that there is truth to be known and to be taught. You find this teaching in the encyclical Fides et ratio. So too Benedict XVI. His insistence on “worship” is telling us something as well. We are very much guided by what he said in Deus caritas est, 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”. This praying that we asked for, before the Blessed Sacrament, is important if we aim to act rightly. However, in order to act justly we need to convert a mindset. Firstly, hypocrisy affects everyone, not just the “holy” ones. Let not those who claim to be holy but are hypocritical deter us from seeking holiness. Holiness is a matter of personal responsibility and not dependent on whether or not the others are holy. Secondly, we must invert the order that “right acting” is proof of right thinking and right worship. Instead, right acting is fruit of right thinking and right worship. So, if you want justice, again I say, let’s search for the Truth (who is the Christ) and let’s worship Him.
[1] It does not follow that knowledge always leads to right action. Just because you know more does not mean you will behave according to what you know even though that would have been the ideal.
[2] This could probably be explained by the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. One a hypocrite and the other a sinner, who standing at the back of the temple went back justified with God.