Sunday, 31 July 2011

18th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Recently, I preached a short homily that disturbed some parishioners. I shall repeat an edited version here because it might challenge our unquestioned assumptions about who Christ is and what God is capable of. In a way, I am engaging your “backgrounds” because our backgrounds/assumptions power how we behave and thus, they have implications for faith.

This is what I preached in relation to the miracle in today’s Gospel. There was really no miracle of the “multiplication”. It seemed that people had brought picnic baskets which they had somehow kept under their robes. The miracle, if it could be termed as such, was Christ convincing the crowd to pull out their “selfish” baskets and made them share their picnic with everyone. They all ate as much as they liked and then, the best part was, Christ taught them all to sing “Kumbayah” as they all swayed and twirled in this one big love-fest of dance on beds of flowers enveloped by a swirling haze of ganja smoke.

If it was really a miracle, it should be known as the miracle of shame and persuasion. Christ shamed those who had brought more than enough and persuaded them to share with those who did not make provision for a whole day spent in the remote location.

The question is why do we, especially priests, find it difficult believing that this miracle really took place?

We live an incredulous or unbelieving age today. Not only do we not believe in people’s kindness or goodness. There is always something insidious about people’s motivations. It is like we have a particular sort of lens which reads the worse into people’s intentions. That is understandable because the world seems to have become less friendly. Evil men have subverted the good for the own evil purposes and as such, the world is so much more a dangerous place. [1] An example of evil men perverting the good is people who come dressed as Telekom employees to rob houses.

But, that is not really the reason why we do not believe in the possibility of this miracle. We also seem to have an interpretative lens that denies the past what we cannot conceive of today. It means that miracles must be ruled out simply because that which cannot be replicated or repeated in the laboratory cannot be true.

It is a form of prejudice against the supernatural—a reductionism which demythologises anything that cannot be explained scientifically. Anything supernatural in the Bible, the Church, and the saints have to be re-formulated for the logical, rational and scientifically-minded people. For example, St Francis Xavier was said to have raised the dead. Today, we downplay that account of his holiness and attribute it to legendary embellishment.

This practice of demythologising can also be an expression of political correctedness that has gone rampantly wild. The fact that this miracle can take place proclaims clearly the divine origin of Christ. In a way, demythologising is a subtle denial of the incarnation. This person whom we called Jesus Christ has to be explained away as merely a man who was the best of men. He achieved the fullest potential of what a man could be and therefore was the best reflexion of divinity. In the context of religious intolerance and the need for sensitivity, we now have a Christ more palatable or acceptable to all religions. [2] The fact that Christ is God has a decisiveness to Him which can be threatening.

As they say, a fact lost in interpretation is that the multiplication of the loaves is the only miracle, apart from the Resurrection told by all four Gospels. If shame, persuasion and sharing were that important would they not have been recorded in at least one of the Gospels? Furthermore, the Gospel did not record any dialogue between Christ and the crowd. The only “conversation” recorded was between Christ and the disciples and from today’s Gospel we get simply this fact: Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish, gave thanks and said the blessing, broke the bread, and He handed them to His disciples. Where do you hear the echo of this? You hear this precisely in the Institution Narrative: “On the night he was betrayed, He took bread and gave you thanks and praise. He broke the bread, gave it to His disciples, and said”.

A miracle is a miracle. All the Gospels record many that Christ performed. But, do you know that only 7 of them are selectively recorded in John’s Gospel. The number 7 points to divine completeness as each miracle is only possible because the Man is also our Lord, Saviour and God.

Finally, the idea that the miracle that Christ performed was more about sharing highlights or emphasises something which is relevantly significant and perhaps necessary for us to hear; that there is enough food. If only we learn to share and not waste, the resources of the world would be enough for everyone. But, that misses the point. This miracle, even though it revolves around food, is not about sharing—noble as the idea may sound. Rather the miracle points to the stupendous power of God to effect that which is beyond our imagination and clearly beyond the narrow scope of our scientific expectation. This is not an entirely a negative statement because we subscribe to rationality. As such, we have difficulty suspending the laws of physics. But, the irony is we do suspend the laws of physics because we accept miracles of healing attested at Lourdes, for example. But, the multiplication of loaves, it is a bit too much of a suspension of the laws of physics.

The fact that priests have tried explaining away the miracle may indicate a crisis of faith. Even if we speak of faith, our faith in the supernatural is closer to the idea of God as a soft-drink dispensing machine. It is quite mechanical; the mechanics almost suggested by the 1st Reading. We pray, therefore God must answer. If God does not answer our prayer, we turn to Lilian Thoo and her world of fengshui or we turn to the ubiquitous or all-present “bomohs”. Our faith cannot stand up to the vicissitudes as poignantly described St Paul in the 2nd Reading. We struggle to come up to the faith of St Paul.

Ultimately, this miracle is linked to another miracle. In fact it is a prelude to the greatest of all miracles: bread will now become no less than the same substance that walked 2000 years ago. To explain it away reveals our schizophrenic faith. We believe in the Eucharist but have difficulty accepting the multiplication of loaves and fish. So, if you believe that the bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ, then as the colloquial Chinese would say, the multiplication of the loaves and the fish would be simply “sap sap sui le”. [No sweat]. In other words, Christ will not even break a sweat on His brow if he multiplied loaves and fish.
[1] It is ironical that the tagline for the Transformers is “more than meets the eye”. The Transformers are the logical expressions of a scientific and linear rationality—rationality which thinks logically in a linear way so much so that it excludes intuition. Thus, the tagline appears to preserve a certain degree of intuition that accepts what looks logically so might not be so. What we have is that our intuition cannot intuit beyond what we already presume reality to be… hostile and unfriendly. The fundamental position we take is that world is a cruel place and it cannot be trusted.
[2] In the same manner, the Resurrection is explained away by appealing to some “naturalistic” descriptions. For example, the Apostles underwent an intense spiritual experience after the death of Christ so much so that they began to believe what they wanted to believe.

Sunday, 17 July 2011

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Today should be dedicated as a “Don’t be judgemental” Sunday. This suggestion is premised on the idea of a God who is a merciful judge. We hear it in the first reading where God’s justice is juxtaposed with His leniency. What is more, the Gospel portrays a field where wheat and weed can grow side by side. In the light these two readings, what does it mean that one should not be judgemental?

If you take a moment to reflect on this, judging is not on trial here. We judge all the time. To say, “Do not judge”, is almost like saying, “Do not breathe”. It is inevitable that we adjudicate as long as we are breathing. If you were late, you would need to ascertain whether it was safe or not before you dash across Jalan Gasing in order to catch the first reading. At the petrol station, whilst filling up your tank, you decide if one of your car’s tyres has enough air. In the kitchen you check that your roast in the oven is already brown. And the appraising, evaluating and concluding goes on.

We automatically use our judgement because it is a faculty necessary for life to function. That being the case, then how we judge and the criteria we use to judge are on trial. Hence, “Do not be judgemental” refers to how and by what criteria we have arrived at our judgements.

How are we to use our faculty of judgement? In particular, how do we deal with the reality of sinners and sins?

Firstly, the Gospel provides a useful glimpse of how the early Church was guided by Her Lord in dealing with the reality of imperfection. The Pharisees believed in a kingdom meant for saints. In such a utopian ideal, sinners were supposed to be weeded out. But, in telling the parable of the wheat and weed, it became clear that up and until the time of judgement, the Church—the Kingdom in pilgrimage—would be made up of both saints and sinners. The Church should be big enough to embrace sinners.

Secondly, how we are to judge is helped by how Christ personally dealt with sinners. Remember the scene in John’s Gospel with Christ, the woman caught in adultery and the very “righteous” crowd. The crowd was insistent that the law should be applied because it was a clear-cut case—anyone caught in adultery should be stoned to death. Christ did not prohibit judging when He applied the rule that the sinless be the first to cast the stone. It was not a case of “Don’t be judgemental”. Instead, He proceeded to separate the sinner from the sin. He forgave her whilst commanding her to sin no more. When we say that God’s mercy is just, we mean that His mercy extends to the sinner whilst His judgement is against the sin. [1]

The distinction between the sinner and sin is crucial to how we are to judge. Without separating the two, what follows would be the attempt to weed out the sinner and not just the sin. We would like to think that we have progressed culturally, economically, politically and socially but the fact remains that many of us are unable to make this distinction. An example would be the recent beatification of John Paul II, when the enlightened and civilised world was aghast at the presence of Robert Mugabe, the President of Zimbabwe. How could the Holy See allow this man, considered to be evil, to be present? It would seem that the Church has condoned the evil that Mugabe had committed. [2] Enlightened though we may be, things have not changed since the time of our Lord. The Scribes and the Pharisees were aghast at how Jesus could mingle with tax-collectors, prostitutes and sinners.

In the light of a momentous event to come this Monday; a meeting with implications for the Church in Malaysia, we need to make a distinction between the sinner and his sins because God’s grace works in mysterious ways. By saying that God’s grace is mysterious, it is not absolving the sinner of his responsibilities. Instead, it affirms that God’s mercy cannot be constrained by our limited sense of justice. But, if you think further, our inability or refusal to make this distinction actually points to our systematic despair. [3] We do not believe enough in God’s grace. We dare not trust God. When we fear to trust God, then we would need to forge a better world. In fact, we would need to force the world to conform to our image and likeness. [4] So, in our failure to belief, we begin to demand a world that is “either or”, forgetting that the world of grace is “both and”. Therefore, we want a Church which is made of either saints or not at all, forgetting that the Church is made up of both saints and sinners. The parable of the yeast reveals how good that can come despite evil. Yeast is a corrupting agent and yet it is able to make the dough rise. So, Christ draws the analogy that even evil can be subverted by God to be a catalyst for the good.

So, what will the headlines of our newspaper be on Tuesday? Will we be horrified, scandalised, and disgusted by front-page picture which will juxtapose what we consider to be good and evil? How will we judge in such a situation? The parable of the wheat and weed comes at an opportune Sunday to remind us, not so much as, not to judge but to make a distinction between the sinner and his sins and also to reassure us that what may seem like evil subverting the good for its own advancement may also be in the light of grace, God subverting evil in order to further His kingdom. For God’s mysterious grace to work, we need to trust Him and we need so much more prayers.
[1] Instead of focusing on the issue of sin, often we end up criticising the sinner. Therefore, it is not the fact that one has sinned that is problematic. The “how” is problematic in the sense that one may have point but how that point has been made would determine the “sinner’s” openness to change. A good example is trying to point out the fault of a server but in a moment of anger, the priest might blurt out “You stupid ah”. No lesson is learnt here. Instead, the server might be canonised in his fault to repeat it.
[2] In fact, both the sinner and his sins are fused in a way in which we see no difference between them. Our condemnation of a heinous crime often corresponds to our severe condemnation of the sinner. Thus, the punishment for crime must correspond in exactly an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.
[3] It is not helped because our personality-driven world is littered by the failures of our fallen icons. It is close to systematic failure because almost every one of our traditional icons for leadership—religious, political, social and cultural have been found wanting—priests, religious, politicians, industrialists. All have been found to betray our trusts. In a climate where all hopes are dashed, it is no wonder our hearts are hardened and we no longer can see between a sinner and his sins.
[4] A good example of this “force” is found in spousal relationships. When husband and wife dare not trust God, then they will want to force a solution to the problems that they have as a couple. In fact, much of our counselling relates to this lack of trust expressed as both desiring to “make” the relationship better.

Monday, 4 July 2011

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The Sunday theme and the Gospel seem to be at opposite ends of a spectrum. The theme, “The Lord is kind and full of compassion”, is taken from the Responsorial Psalm. For those who subscribe to the Gospel of Nice, a theme like this is reassuring. But note that there may be a correlation between the idea of a nice God and our definition of freedom. Lurking near our idea of a God who is kind and compassionate is a corresponding notion that He cannot help but forgive. Not far from the notion of a helpless but forgiving God is a concept of freedom that is almost absolute. [1]

Today’s Gospel passage, however, gives us another picture. We are invited to bear the yoke of Christ. The yoke is to corral and curtail the free movement of draught animals whose function is basically to do what they have been harnessed and trained to do. Thus, the yoke suggests of “slavery”.

So, on the one hand, the Sunday theme proposes a kind of freedom and on the other hand, the Gospel prescribes slavery. How are they related and are they really opposite ends of a spectrum? Is the opposite of freedom slavery? To answer these questions, we need to understand the difference between liberty and licence; between what is possible and what is permissible.

When we think of freedom, we think of liberty. Our working understanding of liberty is basically licence; licence to do what we want. But, liberty is not a licence to do what we want. Consider this: We are at liberty to choose good or evil. This liberty accords with the definition of who we are—created in the image and likeness of God. Whilst we are at liberty to choose good or evil, we have no licence to do evil. Let me rephrase. We have the freedom to choose good or evil but we have no right to do evil and licence seems to suggest that. When we cannot tell the difference between liberty and licence, then our definition of liberty is the licence/right to do anything and everything.

This brings me to my next point which is the difference between what is possible and what is permissible. There is an infinite array of possibilities in all our lives. Science, with its attendant applications, technology, has made life liveable. Through technological progress we have achieved an enviable standard of living and we will continue to improve in the quality of life. With such improvement, we also widen our possibilities. What has also happened is that we have equated possibility with permissibility. The possibility of splitting the atom has been translated into the permissible use of nuclear fission in bombs, for example. This example highlights the difference between what is possible and what is permissible and instinctively we know that they are not the same. Possibility describes our capacity but permissibility prescribes our moral responsibility. In a way, Japan’s Fukushima has brought this distinction to the fore. Europe certainly possesses the technology and yet her citizens are debating the permissibility of building nuclear power stations. [2] There are lines beyond which possibility will not cross even if it can. What is possible for us to do is not always permissible. Therefore, I may have the liberty to terminate a person’s life but I do not have the licence to do so.

Here you begin to realise that the liberty that we have been socialised to believe we ought to have is a kind which is invested solely in the individual, meaning that it is a liberty that is unfettered and absolute. You watch the “Pursuit of Happyness” and you hear the main character Christopher Gardner, played by Will Smith, mouthing the same philosophy: “Hey. Don't ever let somebody tell you... You can't do something. Not even me. All right?” That philosophy seems to permeate every stratum of our society especially young people who are daily fed this fallacy that “nobody can limit them”. Let me clarify, on one level Christopher Gardner was correct but to remain at that level would be to set an individual’s unfettered liberty as the sole criterion for a person’s self-expression. [3]

However, apply that unlimited capacity for self-expression to the act of suicide. A man who jumps off the 21st story of a hotel appears to behave according to the dictate of absolute liberty in the sense that he is in charge of his life. However, place that single act of “individual and unfettered liberty” against the actions of the detectives who need to investigate the circumstances that led to the jumping, the personnel from CSI who need to examine a mangled body, and worse, the poor Indonesian contract workers who have to scrape off body parts, wash the blood off the pavement and scrub clean the wall of the hotel, etc.

There is no such thing as unencumbered liberty. Our liberty is always set in relation to others. Doing what we want is not always an expression of freedom. What is ironical is that the very exercise of “personal” liberty, in many cases, is also an expression of our slavery. The liberty to watch pornography is actually a form of slavery. [4] The same goes for playing computer games endlessly, drinking excessively and gambling thoughtlessly. These are addictions. They enslave.

The opposite of freedom is not slavery as if the presence of one necessitates the absence of the other. You are either free or not free. True freedom is not the absence of slavery. True freedom is only found when we are bound—according to the second reading: “Your interests are not in the unspiritual, but in the spiritual because the Spirit of God has made His home in us”. In the Gospel, Christ tells us that true freedom is to be bound under His yoke. The meaning of being bound under His yoke is spelt out by the Catechism: Human freedom is a force for growth and maturity in truth and goodness; it attains its perfection when directed toward God, our beatitude. The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. Our greatest freedom comes not because we are free from slavery to addiction but from being yoked to Christ. Only when we freely accept the yoke of Christ do we come to realise that He is not our “captor” but our liberator. He stands not behind us as a task master but beside us bearing the full weight of our yoke. So, the more we are bound to Him, the more we will know true freedom. In Him, we live, we move and have our greatest freedom.

[1] When we have a God on our side, we gain greater confidence and thus, freedom. Here, we are not too far from a God who cannot help but forgive…
[2] Maybe we do need to go to Europe. Here in our backyard if only our government understand this difference with respect to the issue of the “rare earth” facility of Lynas.
[3] It is true that no one can limit our dreams but our dreams are circumscribed by the curtains of permissibility.
[4] Recognising the difference between liberty and licence, what is possible and what is permissible may help us understand where the Church is coming from. In the area of contraception, the Church based her teaching on what she considers to be permissible whereas many Catholics reaction would come from what is possible. Clearly we do have the means and yet we are not permitted.