Monday, 19 July 2010

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

This Sunday’s readings, especially the 1st and the Gospel point us in the direction of hospitality. How should one be hospitable? In the 1st Reading—we read of Abraham and Sarah going out of their way to make sure their guests tasted their hospitality: it was at the warmest time of the day, Abraham saw them and he ran out to greet them with a bow to the ground. At their tent, both Abraham and Sarah offered the guests choice cuts and fine food. The Gospel too is a showcase of hospitality where Martha and Mary welcomed Jesus to their home. But, this comes with a twist. And it is this twist that fits into what we have been doing over this weekend at Maranatha Retreat House.

This twist is not found in “whom” Jesus seemed to have favoured in the Gospel. Over the centuries, when religious life was still appealing, this passage would be used to support the choice that one ought to make, that is, to embrace a contemplative life. And for the few of us who have come away from the hustle and bustle of parish activities in order to pray and be near the Lord, you can say that the Gospel suits us just fine. We are embracing what Mary embraced, the contemplative life.

Now, if the twist were not to be found in the choice that Jesus seemed to have favoured, then what? Perhaps, better than the choice one ought to make—contemplation or action—it would be good to see how both Martha and Mary are linked to a search that is human.

As human beings, we do not just search but we all search for the best. If you like, built into this search is a drive for excellence. Do you remember that our conversations at table were centred on food? All through the day, we search for the best vegetarian restaurant even if this search may be limited to one person in our group of retreatants. Others search for the best "pan-mee" [1] in town, etc. But, our search is not just limited to food. Even as we labour through our bowl of "pan-mee" or our vegetarian “charsiew”, the world of medical science is searching for the best cures to many genetic defects people inherit or how best to improve the recovery of a severely brain-damaged person. In the field of technology, the search continues for how much more information can be fitted into a smaller space, etc.

As we search to excel, what is the measure of this search? A measure most familiar with us is change. It is not that change is sought for in itself but rather change is a useful criterion to show that the search is alive. Talk to a person in a bank’s treasury department as he or she watches the screen. The most exciting thing is when the blip on the monitor is going up and down. When there is no change, it would seem that the search is dead. When there is no change, we associate the search to be somehow stagnant.

This is where we make a shift. Excellence is not just found in “destruction”, meaning, the measure of our search is not found in this constant drive to change. It is also found in “construction” or consolidation. It means that we can also excel at doing what we do always. Change is not the only tell-tale sign that we have made progress. [2]

And so, Martha and Mary typifies a problem that we encounter today. The usual interpretation to Mary choosing the better part serves to highlight that contemplation or being is better than action or doing. This interpretation does not serve us well. Should it not be a question of the balance between the two? But there is more to this act of balancing.

In our search for excellence we have lost touch with ourselves. We are driven by the search for solution to almost any imaginable problem we have. We are just driven. But, the search is hinged not on the solution sought only. It must be hinged on the truth and importantly, in our contemporary world, it must be hinged also on meaning. For example, the scientists in search of the secrets of the atom did not stop to think whether their pursuit of knowledge served the truth but were driven until after the explosion at Nevada. Then, only then, did they realise that they were guided not by the search for truth but only by this insatiable desire to test the limits of their knowledge.

The search for excellence must be guided by whether what we search for will lead us to truth… Is it true? Will I be a better person because of what I know?

Today, we lament that the Sacrament of Confession is “dead”. But, we are so much more “confessional” than we are conscious of. The whole “Why confess to a priest when I can confess to God directly” is unacceptable if you consider the many public confessions people make unconsciously. Reality TV is not the only form of “public confession”. Phones-in to reveal your spouse’s secrets is another form of public confession. In a sense, we are crying out to be heard. There is this incessant crying out to be heard, to be known, to be loved, to be embraced… “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do everything by myself”? [3] When the clamour to be heard is overwhelming, it is a tell-tale sign that we have become Martha. We cry out like Martha because we are too caught up with change. Our search for excellence is too characterised by “change” [4]. Perhaps this may explain why in the return to tradition that gives life, people often mistake “being unchanging” as tradition when in actual fact, tradition does change.

For ordinary life to go on, Martha is necessary because she represents the progress we need. Mary, however, typifies the one who sits before the Lord in order to listen. I often say I hear confessions but in reality, I listen to what is not being said in confession. Mary is important not because she is better than Martha but because Mary listens in order to become who she is supposed to be. Proper change must be marked by deliberate periods of listening. As we cross the cusp of the 50th Anniversary, there will be many activities. As we celebrate, take a look at the World Cup 2010 that has just concluded. It is over and the world is literally littered with excess memorabilia of the event. Some would not even wear their WC tee-shirts past 2010. The world seems fixated with “events” after “events” with the result that when they are over, we are left with a hang-over and an emptiness which only another event can fill. It would be good to know that like Martha, we can get lost in the things to do rather than remember like Mary, to become a people we are supposed to be. Listening allows our search for excellence to arrive at who God has called us to be.

In order to be that, so much more listening is called from us. And as leaders, we continue to make that call to our people so that what we hope for for the 50th anniversary will be fulfilled.

[1] Noodle made from flour mixed with water. It is either “pinched” from a bunch of dough and thrown into boiling soup stock. In the case of "pan-mee", the same dough is passed through a press that cuts the sheet of flour-dough into strips of noodle.
[2] For example, in celebrating a wedding yesterday, I told the marrying couple that the main quality of tradition was not because it was unchanging. We embrace tradition not because it is unchanging but because it can “hold” us together. When it holds us together, it gives us life and that is why we embrace it.
[3] The concern for change may just breed what is called activism.
[4] I am beginning to understand why the Church is often perceived as slow in a media-induced frenzy to “action”. How many of our “actions” are based on our reactions to media-controlled exposés? Look at the current exposé on homeless children and immediately it has become a national priority to solve child homelessness. On the other hand, the slow response on the part of the Church may be an imitation of the posture of Mary, of not rushing in but of listening to hear what more there is to hear.

Monday, 12 July 2010

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

We celebrate Family Day this weekend. Today’s gospel is on the Good Samaritan. Does the Good Samaritan have anything to say to our Family Day?

Let us begin by taking a glance at the First Reading. It is the farewell speech of Moses. In that speech, he encourages his people to commit themselves to the Lord through the observation of His commandments. A distinctive mark of the Lord’s commandments is that they are not found in heaven nor over the seas. Instead, they are weaved into every pulsating fibre of their hearts. This fact helps us to understand better the Samaritan for he embodied the commandment that the love of God must flow into the love for neighbour.

What makes for a Good Samaritan?

First, the parable lends itself to an anonymous interpretation of what it means to do good. We do not know who he was apart from the fact that he was a Samaritan. In a way, this restricts our thinking on doing good to some kind of anonymous applications. In the context of the family, often the result is we treat other people better. After all, that is one of the criteria of being a Samaritan—being kind to strangers. But, what about the spouse, the parents, the children or the siblings? We read a lot about violence in public places but we seldom hear of violence—usually the non-physical type—at home. Why? Familiarity. It makes us think nothing of what we do. When what we do becomes familiar, it has a way of receding into an unquestioned background. Thus, familiarity may make the practice of kindness a little more difficult because we generally become less tolerant of people whom we know or whom we take for granted. This is the basis for saying that a prophet is not accepted in his own country.

But, is the family not the primary place for the practice of love? The whole idea of doing good to strangers is quite appealing. It is certainly more glamorous to feed someone 10000 km away. The nameless soul who receives our aid is grateful and we get to feel good about what we have done. What is tougher is to feed the familiar good-for-nothing beggar who bugs us for the RM10 every Sunday. The “known” face becomes a challenge to our doing good because we have this idea that this “known” person can and should pull his or her life together. In a way, nameless charity is always easy but it is a challenge to do good when it is not appreciated, as in the known beggar who should appreciate that he is well-bodied and therefore should get a job and be less dependent. It takes a lot more out of us to be nice to an unappreciative person.

The whole idea of what makes for a Samaritan is now turned upside down. For Christ, when He described the Good Samaritan, He was speaking about love which was not restricted to just some nameless good deeds but instead challenged us in the way we think about doing good.

There is more to good than just being labelled a good Samaritan. Imagine he has been immortalised for this seemingly random act of kindness. In a way, his act of kindness is magnified when contrasted to the other two—the priest and the Levite, both men professionally associated with religion and naturally, they were expected to perform the obligated corporal act of mercy by coming to the aid of the injured man. While one would logically expect these two men to be the first to rush to the aid of the injured man, I believe that there is a loss in translation there.

Has it ever occurred to us, that the act of the Samaritan was good not because he attended to the injured man? Perhaps what he did was nothing compared to what he had been doing all his life. That, he had been a good man all his life and that was why he attended to the injured man.

Thus, we see that the goodness of the Samaritan knew no boundary. His goodness was not better or more magnanimous or generous because the Jews and the Samaritans were bitter enemies. He helped simply because the habit of a good man was to help. Some people fail to realise that goodness is a habitual discipline that requires practice.

So, we now enter the realm of the family. Why? The family is the playground of the good and as such, it is the basic unit of society for good. Now you understand why the Church stands so firmly on the definition of the family. Within the matrices of relationships at home, we learn what it means to be good and to embrace the good habitually. The Samaritan did not start his journey thinking about the good that he can do. We may think of him as a hero but to him, it was the right thing to do. A lot of times, people do good instinctively without giving it a second thought. And so, Moses was right in the First Reading. The commandments are not up in heaven nor are they over the seas but they are coded into the very DNA of the human heart. The family is the primary place for the commandments of God to be put into practice because the family is the natural home of the heart.

Our country is in such a dire strait and we lament the lack of good men and women. Where do good men and women come from? They certainly do not come from thin air nor do they grow out of trees. Remember 8th March when we were swept by the euphoria of change? But what have we now? Discouragement? The truth was we had frogs leaping from one camp to another and they brought with them their diseases. Should we be discouraged? No. But, it would be good to remind ourselves that good men and women usually [1] come from families where kindness is practised, respect is fostered, honesty is embraced and integrity is lived. Goodness comes from a long line of practice. And it has to start when we are young and from a good home. The anger we feel for our country going to the dogs will be misplaced if we do not look into the quality of our family life. The world is as imperilled as our families are… the more broken our families are, the more broken the world will be.

We understand the need for discipline when it comes to talents. In order to develop the talents of our young, we teach them to embrace sacrifices. Think of doing good as a talent. Teach our young to embrace the sacrifices that come with being good. There is no such thing as being good without sacrifices. Here, we need to make the distinction between feeling good and being good because they are not the same. Being good comes with practices and sacrifices and it usually does not feel good. So, if you think that Sunday School is the place for your children to learn to be good, then you will be disappointed. Today, the Good Samaritan invites us to re-look at our families and how we can make our home a potent place for good to come. The world is in serious need for this force of goodness.
FOOTNOTE: [1] I am careful with the choice of words. First, the word “good” does not mean that people who come from “broken” families cannot change. Second, the word “good” does not mean perfect… There is no perfect family. There are more or less dysfunctional families. In this spectrum, we hope to fall closer to the “functional” part of the continuum.

Monday, 5 July 2010

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

We are led to believe that Luke’s Gospel portrays a Christ who is gentle and inclusive; someone whose philosophy of life resembles ours. For example, women feature prominently in Christ’s life and ministry. Furthermore, for Luke, there is an emphasis on the humanity of Christ because He shows great compassion for sinners and for those who are suffering.

But, look at last week’s Gospel and again this week’s. You will encounter a stern picture of Christ. He sounded harsh last week and this week He tells His disciples not to carry any haversack, purse or sandals. Compare the same sending today found in Mark’s Gospel. In Mark’s Gospel, the sent disciples were afforded the luxury of a staff or a stick. Luke’s gentle Jesus does not look so gentle after all.

In order to understand Luke’s particular portrait of Christ we need to appreciate the numbered days of Christ. Last week, we heard that He resolutely set His face for Jerusalem. Luke’s theology of mission focuses on Jerusalem as the centre for the Acts of the Apostles. Without Jerusalem, there would be no Acts. Thus, this sending out of the 72 is a preamble to the future radiation of disciples from Jerusalem to the ends of the world.

This hardened image of Christ can be explained by the urgency of the mission. To understand why the mission is urgent let us look at our understanding of time. Our conception of time is linear or sequential. According to the Greeks it is chronos. In general, life is governed by chronos. There is an inevitable and quantitative sequence to it. Time is measured by its passage—past, present and future. However, the mission for Christ is set in kairos which is qualitative rather than quantitative, meaning to say that it is not about the passage of time but rather about the decision to be made. Jerusalem represents the decision for salvation—ours and the world's. Christ embraces death there in Jerusalem and in that decision, salvation is won for us and for the world. The fruit of Christ’s decision is the Acts of the Apostles as it details the disciples bringing Christ’s salvation to the ends of the world.

The interplay between time experienced as chronos and time experienced as kairos may help us to understand the theme of discipleship according to Luke.

Ordinarily, we conceive of life in a chronological sense because we experience it as such. For example, there is a natural flow of life from beginning to the end. In fact, the pathway of life is often shaped like a roof—like an inverted V. You grow old and then you decline… Such a notion of life gives rise to the saying, “going downhill” meaning that there is a cut-off point where one grows up to and after that it is downhill all the way.

But, this is what I tell people at funerals. Thinking that life is solely chronological is falsely optimistic. Why? Every breath you take, takes you closer to your grave and therefore a baby born, full of life, full of future ahead, as you can witness its growth, etc. is already on the way to death. Heidegger says it quite well: “We are beings unto death”. This is where kairos becomes important. It is not the quantity of time but rather the quality of time because in kairos, there is an intersection between eternity and chronological time. Thus, the urgency of Jerusalem represents the Father’s will waiting to be done and the time is “now” and not later. Christ has to make the decision now for Jerusalem.

It is true that many of our decisions are made in chronological time but chronos gives us a false sense of invincibility—that we are in control of time. We seem to live forever. For example, the average life expectancy is 82 years. I am only 28 and according to the average, I have 54 years more to catch up with what I am supposed to do if I follow the quantitative passage of time. Remember the man with his barn? He had so much he tells himself that he will build a bigger barn to store his grains and then he will begin to enjoy himself. What was Christ’s response? “Tonight a reckoning is made for your life”. In the Gospel, when Christ asked the disciples to take no haversack, no purse and no sandals, He was asking them to live in readiness for kairos because kairos was possible only where there was vulnerability. How can we embrace the unexpected in life if we were not vulnerable? Conventional wisdom teaches that only when we are “secure” can we face the unexpected. But “to prepare myself so that I can face the difficulties of life” is thinking according to chronological time like the man and his barn. We assume that there is going to be a time when one will be ready. And today’s young people are like that. It explains why they marry late not just because they fear commitment but because there is this misguided notion that one has to have a condo, a car and a stash of cash before one can face life. There is a chronological sequence to this major decision called settling down. Unfortunately, that is not always the case. It is when we have too much that we become inflexible. Is that not true? If you have 13 handbags and 27 pairs of shoes, the permutation of handbags and shoes, that is, the combination increases and a lot more time is spent trying to match them. 1 bag can be paired with 27 pairs of shoes. Now you can see the practical implication of Christ’s command lived out in some religious sisters’ life. One type of habit and it is the same every day. No need to waste chronological time so that she may be open to kairos.

The thing about discipleship is that the more we have, the more encumbered we may be and the less will kairos be possible or the less attentive we will be to God’s will. God’s will has a greater difficulty in intersecting our time. It is harder to embrace God unexpectedly calling us in life if we continue to hang on to our securities.

The Gospel sounds like it is out of touch with our demography—many of us have more than two cars, sometimes a few houses, etc. and so the Gospel sounds like an impossibility. Read the Gospel to the end. The disciples came back rejoicing. Clinging on to our haversack, our purse and sandals may just postpone the joy that comes with the Gospel and the peace that comes with discipleship.

Finally, no haversack, no purse and no sandal is not a condemnation of possessions or status. Our Lord is indicating for us that discipleship requires that one’s life is hung between chronos and kairos. One lives in chronological time but one is opened to kairos. God’s kairos enters our lives better when we are less encumbered. Discipleship is easier when we have fewer attachments to carry.