Monday, 16 June 2008

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Last week, the Gospel passage gave us details of the calling of Matthew. This Sunday, the Gospel tells us that Jesus selected the Twelve, amongst whom is the same Matthew from last week’s Gospel. To understand this week’s Gospel, we must read it in the context of the other two readings. In the first reading, God shows his love for the Israelites by choosing them to be his very own people on condition that they hold fast to him. The 2nd Reading shows how loving God is because Christ died for us even though we were still sinners. And finally, the context for the naming of the Twelve is the masses of people whom Christ saw as harassed and dejected like sheep without a shepherd. He was filled with compassion for these people and for that he asked that the disciples pray that God may send more labourers to the harvest field.

The theme that runs through the three readings is simply that God takes the initiatives on our behalf. He formed a covenant with the People of Israel. He lovingly died for sinners. Finally, Christ (1) sees the crowd, (2) summons the Twelve and (3) sends them out to minister to the people on His behalf.

At one level, the call of the Twelve can be interpreted as the call to the vocation of the priesthood because exorcism and curing of diseases belong properly to the ministry of the ordained priesthood. However, at another level, it is less restrictive than what we think. What we observe is that Christ takes the initiative to make us partake in His compassionate love for humanity.
In this enterprise or venture, the choice of the Twelve is an incentive for us to respond to Christ’s call. They were called not because of who they were. The Twelve were ordinary people. Some were fishermen. Two were hot-headed. One of them would betray him, one denied him and one doubted him. Despite their obvious weaknesses, still Christ called them. He did so not because they were clever or capable but because He believed that they could bring His compassion to the world. And through baptism, the ministry of the Twelve becomes ours. No one here is exempted from this ministry.

Every Christian is called because the world needs to hear the good news that they are loved and that they can be loved. Every day, we are bombarded with bad news. Each time I attend a meeting, I come away heavy because of challenges that need to be looked into and solutions that must be found. I suspect that this must be the same for each one of you who has to struggle with work, with home or with school. Now this is even more acute as we struggle to come to terms with inflation and the mounting cost of living. Battle-scarred, we need the assurance that Christ our Lord is concerned for us. He is there for us and He cares for us.

But, for many of us, Christ’s compassion and his redeeming love is not palpably present. Thus, the harvest is great and the labourers are called to make present Christ’s compassion in the Daily struggles of life. Christ said to the Twelve: Do not turn your steps to pagan territory, and do not enter any Samaritan town; go rather to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. And proclaim that the kingdom of Heaven is near. In other words, Christ’s counsel is meaningful when we consider that charity begins at home.

Where you are, not where you should be but where you are, people are to hear the Good News, people are to experience our help and encounter the compassion of Christ. Today is Father’s Day. The restaurants are laughing their way to the bank. We are told to remember our fathers. Last month we were told to remember our mothers. The point is, it is better to be remembered ordinarily rather to be feted extraordinarily once a year. People need to know that they are loved, not because they can perform, not because they can function but simply because they are loved by God.

Christ’s counsel not to go to pagan territory was not an absolute prohibition. It was a conditional prohibition simply because to announce the Good News everywhere does not really make sense if we cannot first announce it where we are. The call remains. The truth is, we can’t do everything. But, the fact is, we can do something.

Monday, 9 June 2008

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The Call of Matthew serves as a reminder that Jesus loves sinners. But, what does it mean that Jesus loves sinners? Has this phrase lost its currency? The reason I ask this question because we do live the era of “Jesus loves sinners” Christianity. So when I hear “Jesus loves you”, my reaction is “so what”? It may be a case of familiarity that breeds contempt but our loss of appreciation for “Jesus loving sinners” may account for a deficient notion or understanding of discipleship. In other words, not appreciating that Jesus loves sinners makes for poor discipleship.

What is the connexion between being a sinner and discipleship?

If the “Call of Matthew” is a call to discipleship, then discipleship must have a connexion with the knowledge of one’s sins; or better still, awareness of one’s sinfulness. Unless we know that we are sinners, then we cannot fully embrace the call to be a disciple. In the Gospel, we hear the Call of Matthew presented with such simplicity. It was as simple as Matthew just got up and followed Jesus. But, consider this fact: The tax collectors were hated because they were perceived to be collaborators with an occupying force; they were seen to be traitors to their own people. Nothing is more despicable than to have your own people betray you. So, it was to this hated class of people that Jesus said: “I have not come to call the virtuous, but sinners”.

Matthew couldn’t have sat in the customs house day in and day out without feeling the glares or stares of those whom he taxed. He would have been a man acutely aware of his despised state of life. So, when Jesus called, Matthew found a way out of his wretched life. He did not just get up and followed Jesus. He actually left behind a way of life. Discipleship means leaving behind a way of life for another way of life.

Many of us do live wretched lives. If life were not wretched, then explain why we need to be who we are not? If we were that happy with whom we are, then many of the cosmetic companies would be out of commission. But, we are not that concerned with wretched lives coming as they were from having not enough food to eat or not feeling good about ourselves etc. What we are concerned with is that one of the most wretched states in life is to be in sin. For many of us, we suffer the humiliating embarrassment of failure that no matter how hard we try to overcome our sins, we never seem to overcome them. Isn’t that one reason why people fear confession? People despair that they are unable to overcome their habitual sins.

But, look at the life the Saints, notably St Ignatius. His vision of discipleship was founded on his acute awareness of his sinfulness and how Christ had saved him from sin. That knowledge accounts for the Jesuit motto: Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam... for the greater glory of God. He strove for God’s greater glory simply in grateful response for the salvation that he had received. Here is where we part ways with the Saints.

Our contemporary experience of sin is that we believe ourselves to be more or less “integrated”. If we accept that we are more re less “whole”, then we do not really need God. In which case, the result is often a lukewarm response discipleship. Before Mass, I heard confession and was slightly delayed starting Mass. As I was walking towards the central aisle to begin our entrance procession, I made a joke to a group of women: “So many sins lah”... They laughed and one of them replied jokingly, “That’s why we don’t go because we have no sins”. When we have no sins, then our desire to serve may not be far from a notion of doing God or the community a favour. It does not take much to move from “I am volunteering my service” to “doing God a favour”. If one has no sins, or rather no awareness of sin and forgiveness, then it is easy to forget that serving God is a response in thanksgiving to being saved. So, discipleship is not just leaving one state of life for another. A greater awareness of one’s sinfulness leads to a deeper gratitude for God’s salvation and that will bear fruit in giving the best of oneself to God. That is the meaning of ad maiorem Dei gloriam. In this sense, discipleship is an expression of sorrow for one’s sin and gratitude for God’s love. Otherwise, one can be led to a sense that one stands as a disciple before Christ on one’s own merit.

Matthew recognised his wretched sinful life. Thus, he knows that Christ called him not for anything outstanding in him. Perhaps, he would be the last person Christ would call. But, Christ came for sinners, for those who are sick. Many of us are far from this necessary awareness of unworthiness. Our challenge is to grow in the awareness that one is a sinner and unworthy yet called to be an Apostle for Christ, a Disciple of Christ.