Sunday, 28 October 2007

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

There are three things which a person ought to do in order to be considered virtuous. Virtue consists of praying, fasting and almsgiving—ties in very much with our Lenten observance, if you remember. So, on the one hand, we have the Pharisee who actually fulfils all these three conditions. He prays, he pays tithe and he fasts. And yet he is not held up by Jesus to be a model of virtue. On the other hand, we have the Tax-Collector. He belongs to the class which is traitorous because it colludes with the Roman invaders in taking advantage of the local population. In the parable, the table is turned because he who is seemingly “virtuous”, who does the right thing is not at right with God and instead the contrary is true. A reversal of roles made possible only because of the virtue of humility.

Today, it might be good then to dwell a little more on the long forgotten virtue of humility. We do so by taking a closer look at pride for our friend the Pharisee’s attitude may help us understand better what humility consists of. We are not as distracted as we are disturbed by the Pharisee’s action of gloating over the inability of the Tax-Collector to live up to his standard. He seems to be saying “I am better than this Tax-Collector”, but in reality, the tenor of his prayer is characterised by an attitude that says, “God, here I am doing you a favour”. The Pharisee was self-sufficient, so he wasn’t really comparing himself to the Tax-Collector as he was telling God this: “God, I am good enough to stand before you, before you as your equal”. We never think that we can be like that because we commonly or colloquially describe pride as “don’t action lah” and we have words like “arrogance, vanity, superiority or self-importance” and these words are applied to our relationship with others. We don’t like it when someone comes across as “arrogant”. But in reality, pride has to do with trying to stand equal before God. Lucifer is our perfect example. He was the most beautiful, the brightest and the most intelligent of all the angels. Beauty and light are synonymous with intelligence and truth and the name “Lucifer” means the “bearer of light”. But, Lucifer was blinded by his own light and he became the source of his own glory. He turned away from God as his source of inspiration and light and as a result, committed the sin of pride.

Pride affects us more than we dare to think. The history of mankind is a history of trying to be God. Let me give a couple of examples. The Tower of Babel is testimony to pride. It wasn’t just that we wanted to reach heaven but we wanted to tell God that we could do so with our own strength. Or, how many of you feel that going to confession is a waste of time? The usual comments I hear are “Why go for confession when I am going to sin again” and “I am confessing the same sin again and again”. Confession may seem to focus on our sins but really it is more a celebration of God’s merciful love for us. Therefore, to think only in terms of sin is perhaps to commit the sin of pride for the person who says, “Why go for confession when I am going to sin again” is actually saying, “God, let me come before you only when I am perfect. Only when I esteem myself as your equal will I stand before you”. [Lord, I am worthy to stand before you not because of You but I am worthy because of me]. When a person despairs of his sins, it could be a sign of false humility and a symptom of pride more than anything else. The unasked question: “Why can’t I be like God who does not sin?”

The point is, I go for confession and I confess the same sins too. In doing so, I express a trust that God’s mercy will shield me from His fierce judgement. The point is that we sin and acceptance of it is the beginning of humility. The Pharisee would have done himself a lot more good if he had stood there and said, “God, I am good only because you are good to me”. If pride makes one an equal of God, then humility makes one acknowledge God as the superior and accept His authority.

We are fascinated by those who came from India or China with nothing on their backs except their shirts. Now they are multimillionaires. We live in an era of the self-made man or woman. The rags-to-riches man is emblematic or a mascot of "having arrived". And we are guided by this philosophy that “to be” is to be self-made, self-taught, self-directed. In fact, Abraham Maslow, in the earlier days of his theory of human personality understood the fulfilment of human potential in terms of self-actualisation. To be is to be self-actualised.

While it is not bad to be self-made or self-actualised, what is required is that we grow in awareness of our dependence on God. When we refuse to accept our creaturely relationship with God, then we will, like Lucifer begin to look at ourselves, our achievements, our capabilities etc as the source of glory.

When we no longer acknowledge God, then we will find it hard to acknowledge what God intends to teach us through His Church—what can the Church teach us? Obedience fosters humility, but who needs to obey, who needs to listen to anyone else when one is the source of one’s own glory?

Humility is the forgotten virtue. Humility comes from the Latin word “humus” meaning soil or earth. The humble person is one who stands before God with his or her feet firmly planted in the ground. It is easy to think that the Pharisee suffered from being self-righteous or judgemental. But it is more profound than being judgemental. The Tax-Collector stood there knowing that with God and before God, humility is the only posture possible a creature can take before his creator. He has come to the profound realisation that of his own, he was worth nothing but with God, he was worth everything.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

28th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Leprosy, a dreaded disease features prominently in both the 1st Reading and the Gospel. That being the case, I would like to speak on three seemingly unrelated points. First, I would like to start by taking a look at the phenomenon of leprosy, our reaction towards it and what implication that reaction has for us. Second, I would like to point out how both Naaman and the cured Samaritan are reminders of our responsibility to carry the grace of the Gospel to those who are waiting. Finally, how we ought to choose gratitude as a mode of behaviour.

First, leprosy is association with ostracisation—being cast out. Being cast out of the community comes under the purview of purity laws as required by Mosaic Law. But, purity laws are not maintained for the sake of themselves. They function to keep the smooth running of a society—for its viability. Every society must set up boundaries to guarantee its survival. For example, Sg. Buloh leprosarium was an effort at self-preservation.

Thus, a boundary is also measured by the extent to which the society will defend it. For example, we know that the virtue of virginity in a Middle Eastern setting is prized very highly because a violation of the boundary of virginity carries with it no less than death by stoning. We may be shocked by the barbarity of the punishments like the cutting off of hands or the stoning to death but our reaction may also be a symptom of how much we have lost our sense of value. [1]

We know that in this country, there is a growing sense of Puritanism especially in the public arena. Puritanism is boundary defining and thus, two questions may be asked in the face of this growing rigidity of the boundaries. First, who has the right to define boundaries? Should our boundaries be defined by one religion—specifically by a particular group of people dishing out fatwas as and when they like. The answer can be tricky because we can be reduced to just using “my warped sense of interpretation of scripture” as the standard of measure for everyone. If we are to avoid using “my personal standard writ large”, then, we are brought to a second and more challenging question: what are our boundaries and where do we derive them from? For serious Catholics, we know that conscience is absolutely crucial to the discernment of the boundaries which we are to keep. However, our conscience must be formed according to the teachings of Christ and His Church. Cardinal Newman once said: “Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” because it is the messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches us and rules us by his representatives. The experience of marginalisation or drawing of boundaries leads us to a deeper realisation of the need to form our conscience.

Secondly, there is a deeper and humbler meaning to both the readings than just curing because they both point to how two foreigners are able to recognise God. Naaman acknowledged Yahweh to be the one true God. The 10 Lepers calling out, “Jesus”! “Master”! “Take pity on us” is the beginning of the awareness of the divinity of Jesus. Finding himself cured, the Samaritan came back and threw himself at the feet of Jesus and thanked him because he acknowledges that healing can only come from God.

We can be too complacent but both Naaman and the Samaritan remind us of the heavy responsibility of bringing the Good News to those who are waiting anxiously for the grace of the Gospel. Paul confirms the seriousness of this responsibility in the 2nd Reading when he says that nobody can chain up God’s news. He also claims that on account of the Good News of Jesus Christ, he is able to bear all hardships and even to being chained like a criminal.

And this brings us to the 3rd point—of gratitude as a mode of behaviour. The stranger who came back to thank Jesus shamed those who should be the first to do so. The Jews… and now Christians should be living a life of gratitude. The Eucharist is our expression of gratitude which sometimes challenges us when we look at Sunday mass as an obligation. Gratitude is the memory of the heart. Paul who once relentlessly pursued and killed Christians and now is able to bear with grace his ill-treatment is a response of gratitude. He was a grave sinner who has now become a graced sinner. Gratitude powered Paul’s preaching.

In conclusion, the boundaries, the grace of the Gospel and gratitude are inter-related. Gratitude enables us to enter deeper into the formation of our conscience. A person with no gratitude will look at God’s laws as restriction of his or her personal freedom. Gratitude also frees us to embrace the hardship that will be involved in bringing the grace of the Gospel to people who are waiting hungrily for Christ.
[1] We need to be careful of how we judge communities which are, in our eyes, barbaric. The ancient world tried to protect its boundaries in order to survive. In a way, in trying to ensure the survival of the community, it also becomes systematically a ghetto. On the other hand, we would like to be inclusive. And yet, because we have lost our sense of value, what we have is not inclusiveness but rather a form of organisation in which like-minded people can gather to the exclusion of the others. In that way, we may not be better off than those “pre-modern” societies.

Monday, 1 October 2007

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“May you bear witness to the love of God in this world so that the afflicted and the needy will find in you generous friends and welcome you into the joys of heaven”. Do you know where you get to hear this? At a wedding… and it is part of the final blessing at the end of the celebration. I am amazed and yet humbly thrilled by how scriptural Catholicism is because the blessing of a married couple makes a reference to our Gospel for today. Furthermore the blessing is contextualised because the reference arises presumably because it has something to do with the fact a wedding is associated with feasting and the context of today’s gospel is hunger in the midst of plenty.

Today we are called to reflect on how to be personally responsible in a situation of hunger in the midst of plenty. As long as there are hungry stomachs and there is food wastage, it is a scandal.

Last week I spoke about the unhelpful categories of rich and poor. Today this is somewhat confirmed because in the Gospel we have just heard, nowhere is it mentioned that Jesus condemned the Rich Man because he was rich. In fact he was condemned because he was blind. Thus, we are reminded of a blindness which is not amoral but deeply moral and deeply ethical. It is fascinating that the rich but blind man is not named except in some translations he’s known as “dives” which in Latin simply means rich whereas the starving man is named Lazarus which literally means God has helped.

The name itself shows where God’s preference is and how we cannot afford to be blind to God’s preference. In the first reading, our social justice prophet Amos is clearly pointing out that we should not be caught on the wrong side of God in the area of accountability and personal responsibility.

Accountability is the uncomfortable link between the unhelpful categories of the rich and the poor. The nature of our accountability is that the more you are blessed, the more accountable you will need to be. The discomfort we feel has something to do with our lack of trust and may also arise from our understanding that there is only so much that we can share—which is usually translated into there is never enough to be shared.

Take a moment to reflect: the scandal of hunger in the midst of plenty is not that there is not enough. In fact, the scandal is precisely because there is more than enough. Here, let’s make a shift. We are accustomed to think of sin from the perspective of weakness. We are accustomed to thinking that due to our weakness we fall into the sin of jealousy or envy, anger or grudges, disobedience and lies. As it were, sin is a manifestation of weakness.

But what is actually pointed out in the parable of Dives and Lazarus is that Dives sinned in the area of “his strength”. Dives could have done something for Lazarus but he did not. [In fact, the presence of dogs in the parable in a sense condemns Dives. Dogs along with pigs are considered to be animals of the lowest kind and thus to have dogs licking his wounds, indicates that Lazarus is nowhere to be found in the radar-screen of human dignity.] We often sin not out of weakness but out of the failure to act upon our strength. Instead of doing something because we can, what we do is to turn a blind eye to those in need.

We sin so much more when we do nothing. I confess to Almighty God and to you my brothers and sisters that I have sinned through my own fault—in what I have done and what I have failed to do. “Failed to do” indicates that we have failed to act when we can. Therefore, it is also a failure of accountability.

The world we live in has also shrunk. What may be thousands of miles away is now brought closer in a few seconds. [Case in point is the “Saffron” revolution in Burma which through the media has become so immediate]. And a consequence of immediacy is that our accountability is also widened. A way of understanding accountability is to look at our involvement. It is a fact that we will never be able to feed all of the hungry but the truth is that, no matter how circumscribed we are, no matter how constrained we are, we are never far from the demands of accountability. Even though we can’t feed all the hungry, we are still not powerless. What we can do is “not to over-eat” and not to waste food. These are two major sins we are guilty of, made even more scandalous because there are people who still go to bed hungry.

If you are rich, rest assured that you will never go to hell because you are rich. But you might go to hell because you are not sensitive to those who are hungry. In other words, make sure you are a poor man’s friend (or a hungry stomach’s friend). It is not a matter of condescension or a matter of patronising the hungry. As the blessing at the end of the marriage ceremony suggests, the welcoming party in heaven is made up of the poor. I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was naked and you clothed me, in prison and you came to visit me.

Our involvement with the hungry is important as a measure of our accountability. The hungry are our ticket to heaven. In the life of every saint, you will find some references to their friendship with those who are poor and are in need of food. It is not so much the avoidance of sin that will gain us to heaven. Rather it is the good that we can do (especially and as real as to feed the hungry) that will open the gate of heaven for us.