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.