Sunday, 25 September 2011

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The Gospel and the 2nd Reading present us with contrasting pictures. The theme Christ obedient unto death is derived from the 2nd Reading. The great Christological hymn of St Paul’s letter to the Philippians describes the Incarnation, the act of Divine Condescension, as an act of obedience. Christ who willingly surrendered His divinity to assume the condition of a slave is held up as the supreme model of obedience.

The Gospel, on the other hand, lays bare a scenario closer to our reality. Our struggle with obedience is exemplified by the second son whose yes remains only in word and unrealised in deed. Whilst the 2nd Reading proposes an ideal, the Gospel reveals a painful truth of man’s struggle to match his actions with his words.

Why is there always a gap between what we say and what we do?

Ricoeur, a French philosopher tries to understand the source of the gap. To explain the gap, he turns to the three “Masters of Suspicion”—Frederic Nietzsche, Sigmund Freud and Karl Marx. These three thinkers were searching for authentic consciousness in the sense that they were interested to know the reason for the mismatch between word and deed. They suspected that the lapse between word and deed is caused by our passion for power, our infantile craving for sex and also insatiable desire for money. If that be the case, then we must adduce impure motives to people’s intention. No one can be trusted because there are always selfish reasons for one’s actions.

Sadly, this is confirmed in the fields of politics—abuse of authority; in the area of psychology—sexual satisfaction; and economy—selfish interest. Examples are a dime a dozen as they come to through electronic media. Daily we are fed a staple of how evil men have subverted the good for their own purposes. We are being warned every day not to trust someone who is “kind” because kindness is a prelude to some nefarious plan to rob or to rape.

Christ, in obedience to the Father’s will, proposes that the gaping chasm between word and action does not need to be filled by power, sex or money. Instead, our temptations actually reveal a craving for integrity. The more tempted we are by all these, the more we are crying out for integrity. What is integrity?

St Ignatius, when he speaks of love, says that love must be seen in deeds rather than in words. The way he speaks acknowledges that the gap is existential, that it is a given. It will always be there and the only way we can narrow the gap is to match our actions with our words. The word Purgatory may not mean much to Catholics these days. But, the basis for our belief in Purgatory rests on the gap which has to be narrowed. When we cannot, Purgatory does the trick for us in the afterlife. As such, in the context of presenting Christ as the ideal of obedience to the Father’s will, we begin with the most basic requirement of being true to our words. In short, the challenge of obedience in our context is to live lives of integrity.

This is where the blushing comes in. All of us have dirty secrets we keep from others. Tell me you don’t have and I call you Christ. In other words, we all are hypocrites; much like the second son who says yes but does not fulfil his promise. We all live double lives and it is a matter of degree. And here is the rub. The painful truth is this: the more we lament that our politicians are corrupt and that the country is in such dire political straits, the more we ought to look at ourselves. There is a correlation between how bad we perceive the country to be and where we are at the level of personal integrity. We speak of corruption at national level but we find little or no problem bribing a policeman for a traffic misdemeanour.

But, there is hope. The phenomenon of Reality TV is not just revelatory. Jerry Springer, Big Brother and Survivor, even though they follow a predictable pattern that dirty linen has to be publicly paraded, that predictable pattern may actually mask a deeper desire. The self-destructive drive to expose oneself may just be a cry for integrity. Reality TV, even if it were driven by a desire to come clean, cannot fulfil man’s desire for integrity, a desire which can be answered quite simply by Catholic Confession.

Christ as model of obedience challenges us to narrow the gap between our word and action. Where do I stand on the counter of integrity? Some of us mistakenly believe that as long as we do not cheat, steal or lie then we are OK. In short, we believe integrity to be merely a personal and private affair. But, the fact remains that evil abounds because “men of integrity” remain silent.

In summary, the path to obedience begins with faltering steps towards integrity. Obedience is not merely abnegating one’s will or surrendering one’s life. It grows with integrity. My word must become my bond. It is a struggle and it will always be and the path begins not with a grand vision, not found in self-help books, will not come about by thinking about it in the future. The ideal of obedience to God’s will can only be lived out by the reality of our integral lives. It begins with faltering steps and never without hope because regular Confessions and faithful attendance of Mass is our sure help and strength in this path towards integrity and finally, obedience to the Father’s will.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The theme says the “Generous love of God”. What does it mean when we speak of God’s generous love because the parable, if it were an illustration of it, is really an affront to our sense of justice? In fact, the Gospel passage finds a parallel in a current crisis afflicting the financial world. Take a look at the European Union. The citizens of Germany may be wondering why they should be punished for the fiscal delinquency of Greece.

We live in an age of rights… and it is not just "I am right all the time" but rights, as in merits and entitlements, that flow from principles of justice and equity. But, if you pause to think further, you would find, more than ever, the vocabulary of merits and entitlements spelt with the alphabets of the economy.

Today, we are invited to reflect, not on how the principles of justice are to be upheld but to fathom the depth of God’s generous love. Two points to be made here. Firstly, this exercise does not mean that the principles of justice and equity are abrogated. If they were, pretty much of the Gospels will not make sense. Secondly, the parable is indeed most challenging because we have laboured under an unjust system which does not recognise merit but instead rewards mediocrity. Many of you understand what it is like to work hard only to have your entitlement denied by nothing except the accident of a wrong skin colour.

In this context, to plumb the depth of God’s generous love, we need to get away from a calculative mode of thinking. Do you know how our heads are naturally wired to calculating or measuring? To say that one has understood, we sometimes speak in terms of “I have figured it out”. But, once we have moved away from trying to “figure” out God’s generosity, meaning, to limit Him with our measures, a bigger picture emerges as echoed in the First Reading—the heavens are as high above earth as my ways above your ways, my thoughts above your thoughts.

Once our mind is set free from limiting God’s generosity, we begin to appreciate better how God could send His Son to die for us. And here is the irony. Consider the protagonists in the parable in terms of Jews and Christians. Christians are the Johnnies-come-lately and yet we appear to enjoy the same benefits as the Jews. God made a covenant with Abraham and the people of Israel. And, He generously extends that same faithful covenant to the Apostles, the early Church and now to us.

The lesson we derive from appreciating God’s generous love is that He invites us to His standard. Our generosity is often determined by just deserts meaning that to every man, what he deserves. Thus, merit is an important criterion to determine what one deserves. A good example would be to hear the justification of 11th Sept… that the Americans deserved what they got. Our sense of revenge is actually built on this kind of deserts like the Cantonese would say: “Serves you right”. If that be our standard, then God’s generosity in the Gospel parable would seem perverse.

The truth is that God’s generosity is a response to our needs. To every man, what he needs. He really does not treat us according to what we deserve. If He did, where would we be? In fact, the reason so many people we do not like are still alive--rapists, robbers and the fat woman whose name is spelt with an R?—is testament to a God who does not treat us according to our sins. On the contrary, this God comes to save us according to our need because His justice hinges on unmerited grace.

This explains "in God, mercy and justice meet". His mercy is tempered by justice and His justice sets the limits of mercy. I use the phrase hesitatingly. It means the limit is not really set by God. He will stoop down to save us because He recognises our need to be saved. The gratuity and generosity of His love is limited not by God but by our response. It means that we must, as the first reading says, “Seek the Lord while He is still to be found”. God’s generous love is both a gratuitous gift as well as a task. He comes to us because we need Him whether we acknowledge it or not but His love can never violate our freedom. The ball is really in our court.