Monday, 6 October 2008

27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Whilst China attempts to come to grips with the economic damage of tainted milk, the rest of the world is deciding which brand of milk chocolate may be eaten or not. On Friday evening, we had the Blessing of Animals and Animal Lovers in conjunction with the Feast of St Francis Assisi, the patron of animals and the environment. What connects the Blessing of Animals, tainted milk and the Gospel?

To find the connexion, let’s firstly set the Gospel within the context of its time. In those days, the landlords commonly lived far away from their land-holdings. And it was customary to lease out the land for a fee, for a percentage of the produce. The trouble with this arrangement arose because the relationship between the landlords and their tenants often bordered on ruthless extortion. Given such a lop-sided deal, it was understandable that the tenants behaved the way they did: killed the landowner’s agents and finally the heir to the estate.

But in our case, the parable exceeded the “context” of its time when understood from the perspective of the Prophet Isaiah in the 1st Reading. Agricultural land was and still is scarce in the Middle East. Prime agricultural land was often reserved for other crops. Grapes were grown on hillsides. Thus, they necessitated the terracing of hilly terrain and removal of stones, rocks and boulders. And to protect the vineyard, the landlord had to build a watch-tower and plant hedges around it. In short, a lot of effort went into turning a hillside into a vineyard. From this perspective, the landlord was not an unfair one. In fact, he lovingly fashioned out of nothing a vineyard to be leased out.

This is where the Blessing of Animals, the Milk Scandal can be connected to the Gospel. The Vineyard could represent many things. In our case, let the Vineyard leased out be our natural environment. The Landlord in this case, is none other than God who created the heavens and the earth out of nothing. God has left the environment under our stewardship and care.

But, our living environment has become rather complex and also quite removed or detached, if you like, from reality. A few examples might help us appreciate the complexity of our living environment. We can create artificial environment to the point that it is not easy to differentiate between Reality and Virtual Reality. One of the most engaging pastimes and for some people, not a pastime but business, is the phenomenon called “Second Life”. It is a “place” [for want of a better word] or it exists in “cyber-space” where one can socialise through one’s avatar or onscreen graphic character. For some it is business because you can build an empire from scratch and then sell it to someone who wants to live your fantasies.1 But, if you haven’t had the chance to enter “Second Life” perhaps you might want to read the nutritional label of what you eat. It is safe to say that more than 50% what we eat is processed. It’s like someone has chewed the food, spat it out and packaged it. Processed food is eating what someone has chewed, spat out and packaged.

What I mean to say is, we are removed or somewhat detached from the natural environment that God has given us and in a way that makes the “care or stewardship” of the environment problematic. The more artificial life becomes, the less we are responsible for God’s creation. That is why the Blessing of Animals connects us with God’s creation. Our connexion with the natural environment is crucial because removed from the environment, we become less grateful to God for the gift of created reality. Parents who have children addicted to computer games—to virtual reality--will understand this. If you remove them from their games, they become less human in their response to you.

St Francis Assisi had a wolf for his pet. He could talk to the animals better than Dr Doolittle can. In a village somewhere in Central Italy, the inhabitants were having problems with a wolf. Francis asked the wolf why he attacked people in the village. The wolf’s response was “hunger”. The solution, according to Francis was to feed the wolf and the villagers did with the result that the wolf became the town pet. Is it any wonder why elephants rampaged through villagers’ plantations? Animals do not attack for fun.

St Francis and the taming of the hungry wolf show us the inter-connectedness of the whole world in such a way that we are a part of the environment and not set apart from the environment. In giving us the environment, God has made us co-creators with Him—we are to care for the environment the way God lovingly crafted for us. Tainted Milk has shown us how connected we are to each other. Through emails, I am receiving an ever-expanding list of products to avoid because they are tainted by melamine.

The 2nd Reading says that we ought to fill our minds with everything that is true, everything that is noble, everything that is good and pure, everything that we love and honour, and everything that can be thought virtuous or worthy of praise. Since we are tenants in the Lord’s vineyard, let this be translated into a greater sense of responsibility for the natural environment. We like to think that we are more environmentally conscious as we embrace recycling. But, do you know that the philosophy behind recycling must go beyond recycling for the sake of maintaining the same level of consumption? Consumption must give way to conservation. Otherwise, the wholesale degradation of the environment is a spit upon the face of the Creator.

In summary, we need to intersect with the natural world because no matter how much we long to remain in virtual reality, we can never get away from the “physical need” to use the toilet. No matter how long we cruise through cyber-space, we remain “embodied” spirits—tied to this world. Thus, the earth—the Lord’s vineyard—is not only a space for gratitude towards the God of all creation but it is also the only place where we become human. Without the environment, we cease to be human.

1.Before Mass, I asked the Altar Servers if they knew anything about “Second Life”... one of them said, “the everlasting life”. It actually refers to an alternate “universe”. Last year, an Italian Jesuit asked fellow Jesuits not to be afraid of this virtual universe because it could be a fertile ground for new converts wishing to better themselves. Soon enough, Jesuits will be saving virtual people from virtual sins.