Sunday, 26 October 2008

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

An attempt to entrap Jesus resulted in a profound synthesis of the Law in the Old Testament. Of the 613 laws in the rabbinical tradition, Jesus was asked which was the greatest of the laws and His response was to bring together two commandments—the love of God and the love of neighbour—in such a way that to love God would necessarily mean that one ought to love one’s neighbour. In short, love of neighbour is the fruit of one’s love for God.

The first commandment is lifted from the Book of Deuteronomy (6:5): The Shema is what every devout Jew should know and recite in the morning and evening. Leviticus (19:18) provides us with the second commandment to love our neighbour as ourselves.

However, the commandment that one should love God and neighbour is not revolutionary. In fact, to talk about love is perhaps redundant. Why? This is because we are by nature lovers. God created us with love and in love. It is natural that the creature should show the characteristics or features of the Creator. God is love and so are we created loving. Therefore, we should never be surprised that we love. In fact, when Backstreet Boys to Westlife sing of love, they are reminding us who we really are: Lovers.

The challenge we face is how to define love.

Almost everyone is an expert on love so much so that love has lost its currency or value. It is not what we think it is. Love is too lusty to the point that it has less to do with an ability—a faculty—and much more to do with our emotions. Love cannot be distinguished from lust. In fact, I like the song by Black Eyed Peas: Fools in lust could never get enough of love, love, love. If you are young and strapping or if you like, old and "gatal" (randy), you often cannot tell the difference between love and lust. I love you often means I lust for you.

But, love is to be more than lust. It may be passionate but it is more. Benedict XVI, in the first encyclical Deus caritas est, tells us that love must move beyond lust. He says that Eros which is associated with the wildness of passion (as in lust) in a Greek temple setting is enthusiastic. The root of the words “enthusiastic” or “enthusiasm” is “theos” meaning God. To be enthusiastic or to have enthusiasm means to be taken up by God. When one is taken up by God, one becomes more loving.

The catch, however, is this: Eros, which is one of the Greek words for love (the other two are philia and agape), takes us up into God—it is an ascent, a climb if you like. Lust must reach upwards towards God which for Jesus involves not just the heart but also the soul and the mind—the whole person. It involves an “acting person” because love is a verb—an action word—rather than a noun—a word which denotes a “feeling” or an “emotion”. Both the first reading and the second speaks in terms of love as a verb, an action word so much so that Paul tells the Thessalonians that they have become examples to believers in Macedonia and Achaia.

Love in action means that we often love even when not feeling it. To be taken up into God is “hard work” because it often takes us out of ourselves. Some mothers or fathers know that. Even when the marriage is over, they keep to their side of the bargain in bringing up the children. Couples who have been married for years, when all the fires have gone out, they keep faithful to each other. In other words, love is sacrifice. For priests or religious, the vow of obedience is a “love” word. It is “easy” to obey when you like the superior. But, love becomes an act of supreme self-sacrifice when you obey a superior even when he or she is disagreeable. In today’s world where one is so clever, it is even a greater sacrifice of love when you have to obey a superior whom you think is more stupid than you.

Love of God and neighbour takes a lot out of us. It took the life of Jesus, no less. He loved His father and His disciples to the point of laying down His life. Ever since Jesus, the saints provide us with great examples of what it means to love God and neighbour. Two great and more well-known contemporaries are Maximillian Kolbe and Teresa of Calcutta. Maximillian didn’t die for millions. He gave his life so that a father may see his wife and children again. Teresa didn’t die for millions but she loved many unloved and unwanted throughout her life.

We don’t need to be in Auschwitz or Calcutta to begin loving. The supreme sacrifice of love is to be found in such simple setting as the home, at work, at school or on the road. It is easy to love in general. It is more demanding to love in specific this or that person.

We do not always love as we ought to. In fact, everyone is bound to encounter the difficulty of loving. Of course, we may feel that some people have the vocation to irritate or annoy us, and etc. The fact is, often there will be people—wife, husband, a child, colleague, teacher, a catechist, a priest--who will fulfil the role of scapegoat in our lives. This only proves one thing: our failure to love is an indication that we ought to pray even more to discover and to fall in love with God.

It is important because when we love God, we can love our neighbour. We love our neighbour, that is, this or that specific person, not because he or she is attractive or agreeable. You know Jesus hanging on the Cross had every reason to curse the Roman centurions or guards for what they did to Him. But, He was able to forgive because He had known the love of the Father. Thus, we love, we forgive and we reach out because we have found love in God and God in love.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees can be described as being “caught between the devil and the deep blue sea”. If Jesus had said “NO”, then he would be charged with subversion. If Jesus had said “YES”, then he himself would be guilty of betraying his people, his religion and his God. It’s like “damned if you do and damned if you don’t”.

But, the answer Jesus gives is brilliant. He gives proper due to both God and Caesar. For Jesus, there is no conflict between God and Caesar or according to our more familiar formulation, there is no conflict between Church and State, between religion [which some see as the private sphere] and public life, as long as we are clear about the relationship between them. For Jesus, the clarity of the relationship is found in the priority given to God. The assumption is that there is someone who is in charge and to whom we ought to give our loyalty. It is when we acknowledge that God takes priority, only then can we render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. Why? Because Caesar or the State, even though it plays an important role in our lives, that role is limited and cannot take the place of God. We owe our loyalty to our King and country; we are citizens, we enjoy all the security that our country provides. But, our country is not God.

Thus, the question is how do we render to God what belongs to God first? Friedrich Nietzsche once said, “God is dead and what are these churches now if they are not the tombs and sepulchres of God”? However, if you think about it, Nietzsche’s reference to the death of God was a reference to Christianity as a spent-force. The reason for Nietzsche’s “God is dead” was because Christianity or Christians no longer made a difference in life. Christianity was no longer effective.

A logical response to Nietzsche’s critique against Christianity may be found in the realm of Caesar. In order to make a difference, that is, to testify that God is alive, we must venture into the realm of Caesar. We prove that God is alive by our mission in the world.

But, the first thing we need to do though is to get away from the idea of mission that has been glamourised. We think that mission is somewhat associated with political action on behalf of the poor, the marginalised, the excluded and the unjustly treated. These aspects of our mission are important because politicians are also telling us that God is dead and that they, the politicians are now in charge. Some of the problems we face in the country and in the world are because “politicians” have behaved like gods. The same is observed with the environmental crisis when “man” behaved as if they were gods and not stewards of creation.

So, our mission through the realm of Caesar is not restricted or confined to the glamour of political and social actions. In fact, it flows down to such simple tasks as found between your pots and pans in the kitchen. As it is not glamorous, it requires deep personal conviction as well as perseverance. It is tough to render to God what belongs to God without any promise of reward. And sadly, we often do things because we fear the possibility of punishment. And that leads me to my next point.

Often, our mission lacks power or credibility simply because our personal life lacks conviction. We may fantasise that our mission lies elsewhere and not in the “here and now”. As a result of this “dis-ease”, we live half-hearted lives as we do not see our present “situation” as husband, wife, children, parents, catechist etc as good enough to be offered to God.

In the 2nd Reading, St Paul affirms the Thessalonians that their faith in action, their love at work and their perseverance in hope are proofs of their utter conviction. The human spirit does not die from want or lack of courage. Look at fools rushing in where angels fear to tread. They may not be wise but they certainly do not lack courage. The human spirit does not die from lack of courage but it withers or dies from lack or want of conviction. Take a look at the life of St Thomas More. His philosophy of life was one of personal conviction: I die the King’s good servant but God’s first. In the midst of his predicament and despite his favourite daughter’s encouragement to give in to the King’s demand, Thomas was convinced that in order to remain faithful to his king, he must first remain faithful to God. This rendering to God first before all else is the conviction that we need to continue Christ’s mission in the world.

And we are somewhat supported by the first Reading. God chose Cyrus, a pagan king to achieve His purpose. The good news is that we are chosen by God and think how much more can God achieve because we are His and we belong to Him? But if we suffer a lack of conviction, then we will not be able “to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar”. It is said that “Indifference to evil is worse than evil itself, and in a free society, some are guilty, but all are responsible”. The trouble in an apathetic society, when we suffer from lack of conviction, is that all are guilty but only some are responsible. And these few responsible ones are the ones who pay the price for our guilt.[1]

Mission Sunday is a reminder that our mission is to follow Christ whose mission has been to lead the entire creation back to His Father. Give to God and to Caesar is a formula of conviction that we can continue Christ’s mission. When we give God our best, we will also want to make the world a better place.
[1] Ask RPK and the Hindraf Five who are detained at the “State’s” pleasure.

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.