Sunday, 23 September 2007

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The categories of rich and the poor can sometimes be unhelpful. Let me explain. In the first reading, we hear the Prophet Amos championing the poor. He criticises the rich and here the categories—rich and poor—become unhelpful because Amos criticises the rich not because they are rich but because they have unjustly treated the poor. When it comes to injustice, it is by no means the preserve or domain of the rich because the poor can also be equally unjust in their treatment of each other.

Let’s try to understand better why the Prophet criticises the rich. In the Gospel, Jesus seemingly speaks of “priority” when he says that we cannot serve two masters at the same time—one must come before the other. But, if you reflect further there are no two masters because there is just no basis for comparison between them, between God and wealth. One is creator and the other is created. There are no two equal “masters” competing for our loyalty because one is sovereign and the other is dependent. When we have grasped the fundamental difference between the Creator and the created, then, there is simply no “priority” because God always comes first in our lives and everything else is contingent; everything else is dependent. In this context, the Prophet’s criticism is directed against those who have forgotten the fundamental truth of the dependence of the creature upon the Creator. All we have is not ours. They come from God.

It is in the context of this fundamental dependent relationship—that everything comes from God—that we can now explore the idea of accountability. The basis for speaking of accountability is Genesis 1:26 where it tells us that God created Mankind to “have dominion” over all creation. This dominion is a reflexion of God’s authority over Creation—made in the image and likeness of God that we are—hence, we are to be accountable for the way we reflect God’s stewardship over creation. In light of our dependence on God, wealth becomes God’s loan to us and thus we must be accountable. Stewardship by its very nature entails accountability and here is the crux: the more you have, the more you will be held accountable. That’s the basis for the Prophet criticising those who have been blessed more but have not been more responsible. “Never will I forget a single thing you have done”. Amos does give a fair warning on accountability. In the Gospel, the rich man asks his steward to give an account of his stewardship. And the steward acts exactly as he is expected. He may not be right in his method but still he acts within the remit or the boundary of being accountable.

Today we are challenged to give an account of our stewardship. Amos is as relevant as he was in his time. How can we be accountable for the wealth that the Lord has entrusted us with. For example, the current climate of crime in our country is a topic very quickly brought up in polite conversation. We may point to the statistics to indicate that the crimes are committed by the foreigner. And our response is to buy the latest car protection system; instal the most up-to-date home security or live within a gated community. In short, we rightly do all we can to shield ourselves from the troubles brought about by the “foreigners” in our midst.

Here, I’d like to apologise to the migrant community present amongst us. It’s not about you but rather about us. We need scapegoats and “scapegoating” is an indication of a lack of accountability because it is always easier to blame than to look at ourselves. The Chinese in the country were scapegoats once and maybe still are with regard to the economic situation. Hence, instead of blaming, Amos challenges us to take a closer look at how the economic system worldwide is organised? How have we contributed to an economic system which is unjust in the treatment of people? In the newspapers, we read about the rising number of foreign workers coming to this country but working without just remuneration. What is the response of those who have a louder or stronger voice in a matter such as this? It is about accountability.

This is where our reflexion often stops. We cannot be responsible for the entire world. And that is a fact. As a consequence, this fact “cannot be responsible” is quickly translated to “we are not responsible”. If I can’t do anything about it, let me not sweat it. Does this explain apathy that we face today? Apathy is not because we are bad but rather a resignation in the face of a situation beyond our control. This explains why vandalism is a modern scourge. It’s this big something over which we have no control that makes us all frustrated and thus we strike out. Vandalism is a response to a situation in which a person has no control over and unfortunately, often at the expense of the innocent and the faceless.[1]

That is why accountability must start off with the personal, the individual—the “I” and not the “they”—a recognition that dependence is personal stewardship. And in the context of our greatest challenge—global warming, each individual must look at the way he or she consumes. I cannot be responsible for how others behave. But I can be responsible for how I behave. My choice together with others—personal and corporate stewardship—has an impact on the world. But it must start with a personal conviction. It does not begin with “when others do it, I’ll do it”.

Let me give an example: How the vow of poverty that every Jesuit takes is an exercise of stewardship. I lived in the Philippines for 6 years. I think the Philippine Bishops are really at the forefront of this environmental accountability. They were the first in the world to write a pastoral letter on the environment. When I went to Loyola House, Manila in 1988, we all use the ubiquitous jeepneys for their transportation—our jeepney really was a chimney more than a jeepney. It left a trail of black smoke. But, because we were so blinded by the vow of poverty we failed to see that poverty must protect a greater value—it was not about owning less but it was about lessening as much as possible the degradation of the environment. Yet, we drove that smoke belching jeepney and became part of the polluters rather than the solution to the environment degradation. As a body, we failed in our corporate accountability. The Jesuits are not poor in the Philippines.

In conclusion, the 1st Reading and the Gospel are not really speaking of the rich-poor divide. They teach us the fundamental truth of our dependence on God. All else revolves around this truth. Once we have set our heart aright on this truth, we will begin to appreciate that everything we have is entrusted to us and our duty is to give an account of our stewardship but truth to tell, when we have set our hearts aright, stewardship will be more of love than of duty. It will be our joyful embrace and not an imposition. Let’s pray for that grace.

[1]We are outraged at the finding of a dead girl whose body had been stuffed into a bag. Sexual perversion might be too easy a reason to explain what had taken place. We think that there is really an increase in sexual depravity. But sexual depravity might mask a deeper symptom of frustration. Sexual aggression is often a symptom of a loss of control over one’s life and may be a possible reason for the compensation of this loss of control. When there is a loss of control, there is always an accompanying frustration. When people are angry they take it out on the weak and the defenceless… children are often the first targets.

Sunday, 16 September 2007

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The context of the parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin may help us understand better the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The Pharisees and the Scribes were complaining that Jesus consorted with tax collectors and sinners. Their complaint was actually a commentary on the social structure of their time. The parable of the Prodigal Son is set within the context of social exclusion. Jesus used for his central characters, a shepherd and a woman—two persons who belong to the category of the “excluded”. The basis of social exclusion is best measured by the phrase “not like us”. And being not like them has nothing to do with “action” or behaviour because the shepherd or the woman could never be like the Pharisees and scribes. In this context of social exclusion, no matter what the shepherd does or woman does, they can never be saved. In summary, it is not really what is done which determines salvation because there are people who [no matter how good they are or what they do] are clearly beyond the boundary of salvation. Thus, for Jesus, God is one who reaches beyond the saved to redeem the unsaved. We have this confirmed in the first reading where we hear of how God reached out to the stubborn Israelites. And also in the second reading, Paul was clearly beyond salvation for his role in the persecution of the Christians and yet God reached out to him.

The parable of the Prodigal Son, as told within the context of social exclusion is a commentary on God’s behaviour. What is thus left for us is to understand the conducts of the two brothers.
Both their behaviours may help to shed light on how we ought to respond to the God who is big-hearted in his desire to save. Their behaviours can be examined from the perspective of the control of one’s destiny or even the lack of. Both of them were calculative.

The younger son asked for his share of the wealth. In effect, he was wishing that his father had died.[1] He was under the illusion that his ultimate happiness and freedom lie in his autonomy from his father. As much as the parable chronicles the younger son’s journey of conversion it is also a record of his desire to be in control. He asked for his wealth, he recklessly squandered his share of the wealth. Even when he was down and out, he still wanted to be in control because he said, “I know what I’ll do… I’ll go and offer my service as a servant. In that way my father will take me back”. What is that but an exercise of trying to be in control?

The problem with his need to be in control was that he also began to limit his father’s love. He believed that his father, after his financial debacle, could only henceforth love him as much as a servant. It was actually a repudiation of the ability of a father to love beyond the “calculative”. He could not believe that his father’s love was beyond measure.

This is how we may relate with God too. Like this prodigal son, we measure God’s love for us by the size of our sins. A sense of unworthiness is a natural reaction to our sinfulness. But sometimes, instead of helping us to rely on God’s mercy, we begin to limit God’s love for us. Surely God cannot love me since I am that unworthy. This lack of trust of the Prodigal Son in God’s love is quite pervasive.

The elder brother, on the other hand, did not ask for his share of the father’s estate. But that was not because he was virtuous. He was also limiting the Father’s love in some way. “I have slaved for you”. He measured himself to a slave. Not quite different from his younger brother, was he? Furthermore, he complained that his father hadn’t even offered him a kid to celebrate with his friends. Again, the father’s response was rather telling. “All I have is yours. Use whatever you want. Enjoy my wealth because I have not stopped you. You have stopped yourself”. The sad truth was that the eldest son did not dare presume upon the love of the Father. In short, he also could not believe that his father could love him that much. He was dutiful but he was also cold-hearted. That was why he became jealous of his father’s treatment of his younger brother.

We too can be like the elder brother in our relationship with God. We dare not enjoy God’s love for us. We dare not believe that we may enjoy God’s favour. The Pharisees and the Scribes were like that. They believed that God only loved them because they kept the law dutifully. There is a big difference between, on the one hand: knowing that God loves you which then gives you the reason to keep his laws and on the other hand: keeping the laws so that God can love you. It is like trying to control God’s love by being obedient and dutiful. When we try that, out of the fear that we might lose God’s love, we will begin to limit ourselves because we project our limitation or fear onto God and at the same time we begin to put a limit on others too. Many a times, people are jealous because they have stopped living and thus, they do not want others to enjoy life.

The parables wonderfully describe a God who dares to love us and as such they challenge us not to limit God’s love either by behaving like the younger son or elder brother. As younger son we do not believe that God can love us beyond our sin. As the elder brother when we dare not enjoy God’s favour we will see to it that no one else does.
Imagine your dad sitting in a wheelchair and you ask your dad to divide his wealth. You are actually saying, “Dad, you might as well be dead”.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

The reality doesn’t match the picture. The truth often falls short of the imagination. How often has it been that we saw a brochure or an advertisement of what we intended to buy, order or where we intended stay and when we have bought the item, ordered the food, or arrived at a hotel, we were disappointed? Nothing is like the disappointment of being short-changed.

Today, Jesus lays before us the reality of discipleship and not the imagined picture of it. Luke tells us that “great crowds accompanied Jesus and he turned and spoke to them: Anyone who does not carry his cross and come after me cannot be my disciple”. The cost of discipleship is measured in such practical terms as “unless a grain of wheat falls onto the ground and dies, it remains but a single grain”. In short, discipleship is sacrifice.

Take up your cross and follow Christ. But, the truth is that many of us are followers of Jesus from a distance. Why? The definition of discipleship is made more difficult by a certain caricature of it. In the 70s and 80s, it was customary to paint Jesus as a political revolutionary and therefore the idea of discipleship was perhaps more a reflexion of Che Guevara, the ideal political revolutionary than the historical Jesus ever had been. If discipleship were about political agitation, it marginalises a lot of people—who will fall within the category of the “politically useless”. From a psychological point of view, it doesn’t take a lot to move from feeling useless to being useless. Useless people give up hope in themselves.

The truth is that there is a cost to discipleship which we ought to reckon with. St Maximillian Kolbe, the Conventual Franciscan, who died in a WWII concentration camp was granted a vision of Our Lady and in that vision she offered him a choice between “White” or “Red” Martyrdom. He chose both. What is relevant to us is that the distinction between Red and White is a distinction between the forms, modes or types of martyrdom but not a distinction or a measure between good or better. The cost of discipleship is to be equally paid for by those who receive the Crown of Red Martyrdom or the Crown of White Martyrdom. If Che Guevara or any revolutionary form or political manner of discipleship which involves the shedding of blood or Red Martyrdom were promoted as the ideal mode of martyrdom, then, those who receive the crown of White Martyrdom might just feel less worthy before Christ. And, I suspect that accounts for a reason why the Church is marked by the lukewarm phenomenon of discipleship from a distance. When you don’t feel that your sacrifice is worthy of Christ, you tend to follow Him with a half-hearted resolve. Just like a wife/mother cooking for her husband/family. If no one appreciates her cooking, very quickly the cooking falls into a formulaic predictable pattern. You know what to expect for Tuesday dinners. Likewise, if you feel Christ doesn’t really appreciate what you can offer, you are less likely to give/offer Him your best. It’s human.

Discipleship is sacrifice, whether paid for by blood or otherwise. The reality is often we pay less with blood than with a life of constancy, consistency and commitment. In fact, faithfulness demands so much more than blood. It is easy to die in an instance—in a hail of bullets but much more difficult to die over a lifetime of faithfulness. [It’s easier to call out Viva Christo Rey than to undergo years of faithful labour]. Thus, Christian discipleship is not lived in the abstract and to think solely in terms of red martyrdom is to live somewhat in a vacuum. It also turns discipleship into something unattainable and thus keeps us at an uninvolved distance. But, discipleship is nearer than we think. All we need to do is to focus on where we are and we will find the answer to how best we can exercise our Christian discipleship.

For example: marriage. It is one of the best forms of discipleship today. Christ loves us so much that he gave his life for us. A man and woman bound by the bonds of marriage is the best reflexion of the union between Christ and the Church. We live in an era which tries to promote intimacy without complications. The reality is that there are no perfect couples just like there are no perfect disciples. There are a lot of struggling couples. It is in the struggles that discipleship is lived out and perfected. In fact, the prayer of blessing over couples celebrating their marriage anniversary acknowledges that “amid the joys and struggles of their life, God has preserved the union between them”. The trials or tribulations we face are rich grounds upon which the seeds of discipleship can take root.

In an earlier part of Luke’s Gospel Jesus said: “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross every day and follow me”. Thus, discipleship does not take us out of the ordinary. Instead, discipleship is exercised in the mundane everyday existence that we lead. A teacher is called to discipleship through faithful teaching. A harassed mother tending to her brood is answering to discipleship. An aged father or mother you are landed with is discipleship. When there is disability in the family, often when the parents are gone, you shall have to bear the burden of caring for an adult but disabled sibling; that is discipleship. In fact, nothing in the ordinary is outside the boundary of discipleship. Our Maximillian Kolbe was an ordinary priest who served ordinarily before he died extraordinarily.

Today, in a world which exalts the exciting, the glamorous and the sensational, there is a grave need to reclaim discipleship from the amazing, extraordinary and the unusual. Discipleship is not the preserve of a few but the arena for the many. We don’t need to hate our family because ordinary life provides enough opportunities for abnegation, renunciation and sacrifice in the exercise of discipleship. Hating mother or father is not the measure of discipleship because Jesus is not concerned by the size of our sacrifice. Instead, the depth of discipleship is measured by the size of the heart that makes the offering. Let us ask Christ in the Eucharist to give us hearts big enough so that we may dare embrace his discipleship with heroic courage and quiet fortitude.

Monday, 3 September 2007

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Catholics are often criticised for not knowing the Bible. But, really they do. It’s just that they are not show-offs. Otherwise, how do we explain the universal [Catholic] behaviour of coming to Church but seating at the back of the Church? Isn’t that what the Gospel tells us to do? “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take your seat in the place of honour. If someone else more important has been invited, you would surely be asked to take a lower place”. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that Catholics don’t know the bible. We are obedient, even unconsciously so.

But, what Catholics may need to know about not taking the place of honour is what true humility consists in. Jesus, if you read the Gospel is not against “honour” per se. If he were against honour, then he would not have accepted the invitation to the feast given by the Pharisees. The Pharisees apparently considered Jesus to be of their status which explains why they invited him in the first place. Honour, in the context of the Gospel, is a cultural phenomenon translated into the ever familiar “face”. The fear of losing face is very ingrained in some cultures so much so that honour is valued over and above family relationships. For example, brothers have been known to kill their sister, for daring to fall in love with an outsider, all in the name of upholding the honour of the family.

Since honour is about maintaining the status quo, then Jesus is against the wall of “exclusivity” or status quo erected by honour. Honour prevents people from reaching out. Honour prevents people from coming in. For example, one of the reasons why some BECs are not functioning as well as they should has something to do with honour. In the Gospel, Jesus mentions about inviting people who can repay the courtesy. What happens is that because we feel that our home, our humble abode is below the dignity of our more well-to-do brothers and sisters, we shy away from BECs because to be part of the BEC means that we might be forced to open our homes to others thus exposing our humble abode to the possibility of a loss of honour.

This wall of “exclusivity” can only be broken down by humility. Shying away from BECs or sitting at the back or outside is not really humility. If you think about it, honour and humility are not two poles apart. But in fact, true honour is synonymous with humility. St Teresa Avila says that humility is truth and true humility means accepting who we really are. Have you encountered people whom when you praise them are far too modest to accept your praise? A person who suffers from inferiority complex or has poor self-esteem may seem to be humble but he/she is not because humility is born of an inner certitude that you possess an intrinsic value that matters to God. It takes a lot more humility to accept the truth about us. There was this girl with the ugliest face you have ever seen. Once, as I was distributing Holy Communion, she came up and as I looked up to give communion, I nearly let out a gasp. But, she on the other hand, was not self-conscious about her “ugly” look. Whatever others may think of her, she had already come to terms with the truth of how she looked. When we have come to accept the truth of who we are, we begin to let go of the things that we use to make us bigger than who we are. True humility liberates or brings freedom from the need to prove oneself.

Otherwise, life would be like what Jesus described: jostling for the first place of honour. Once, the mayor of a town invited all the people of the town to a banquet. Among those who showed up was John, a man of scholarly wisdom. The mayor invited him to sit at the main table but John refused, thanking the major and insisting to sit where the poor sat. One after another the guests arrived. The more distinguished ones naturally chose to sit at the main table—nearer to the stage, more in the limelight, etc. Soon, all seats were taken except the one table at the fringe where John sat. There was only one empty seat. And as it was fashionable, one very distinguished guest arrived. The mayor had no choice but to show him to the marginal table at the fringe. The distinguished guest protested: This table is too far from the centre of action. It’s a fringe table. “No,” said the mayor, “this is the main table”. “I don’t understand it” answered the man. “Wherever John sits is the main table”, the mayor replied.

And exactly where can we find this main table? Here at this Eucharist. At this table we can be who we are because it is a celebration of humility. We encounter Jesus our host. But he is a host unlike the Pharisee. Here at our celebration, there are no special places. You sit where you want because before Jesus we are all equal. With Jesus, every place is an honoured place.

The Gospel tells us very much that it is not our station in life that makes us honourable—not what we possess, not what rank we have achieved that makes us honourable. Rather it’s who we are inside that makes us honourable. Furthermore, the more honoured one is, the more one must be at the service of others. The 1st Reading says “the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly”. Jesus our host is the perfect model and example: His state was divine yet he did not cling to his equality with God but emptied himself to assume the condition of a slave and became as men are, and being as all men are, he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a Cross.

He was God but be became slave for all of us.