Sunday, 26 July 2020

17th Sunday in ordinary Time Year A 2020

We are down to the last three parables of Matthew 13. The Kingdom is described as a hidden treasure in the field, a merchant searching for fine pearls and the net cast into the sea bringing in a haul of all kinds. For Matthew, the focus of these parables addresses a coming future. It is a horizon which also allows us to prioritise what is important for what is coming.

Without overview, we may lose track of where we are heading. It is like travelling in a bullet train staring out the window at the passing countryside but not recognising the landscape which whizzes by. Actually, one will soon develop a headache if one merely concentrates on the foreground. Only when one looks into the distance that one recovers a sense of perspective—that one might be moving, yes but not without a direction. This stability is important especially in a fast-changing world.

Solomon in the first reading, prayed for this wisdom of foresight. Amidst all the wonders that the world can afford, he asked for wisdom. Right after God granted his request, we hear Solomon exercising that wisdom in adjudicating between two woman who each claim that a baby is hers. From this episode, we can say wisdom is firstly teleological. It aims to for is right and good. Secondly, it is inherently tied to making choices in that direction. The image of wisdom as in a sage sitting down on top of a mountain doing nothing is a caricature because wisdom has a desire or a goal, that is teleological, as expressed by St Augustine: “O Lord, my heart is restless until it rests in You”. To be wise is to recognise that we have been made for God and that we ought to move in that direction, that is, to make the correct and proper choices in order to attain that goal.

But it is not easy.

It is extremely difficult considering that we are faced with countless choices. In this muddling myriad of available options, we mistakenly conflate freedom with choosing. For many of us, the notion of freedom means to be able to choose as I want, when I want, how I want. It may be true that freedom has a whimsical hint or notion to it. A good illustration is the family dynamic choosing a place and what to eat for a Sunday lunch. “Where do you want to eat? Anywhere. What would you like to eat? Anything”. Even though the choosing may be fickle or chancy, still, it highlights that by nature, to choose is to delimit. The minute we exercise the faculty to choose, the number of choices available would decrease. Marry this person, the others are no longer options. Live here, elsewhere does not come into play.

The difficulty of choosing is compounded because we are constantly led to believe that the freedom to choose is absolute with no other reference except to the person who makes the choice. You may have heard this chant: “My body my choice”. The irony of this absolute freedom is that a woman can choose to abort her baby in the womb but the baby is not afforded the same freedom to choose. Unqualified choice may sound like the ultimate expression of freedom but note that the treasure we desire is not always the treasure we get.

The suggestion that one simply selects does not highlight the sacrifice that is involved when one decides.

We have been rated as having the highest cases of obesity amongst adults in South East Asia. Let me stop here. I am not interested in fat-shaming. Our expanding waistlines are possibly a result of forgetting that there is constraint in choosing. I like ice-cream. I like chocolates. I like our fattening hawker food. I like to eat. I cannot possibly diet whilst at the same time eat as much as I like without bearing any consequences. Choosing one necessarily implies letting go of others. When you marry, you sacrifice all the other girls or guys with the desirable qualities you do not see in your present spouse. Accepting this limitation can be excruciating. This is just one example of the painful paradox of choices. Stay in an expensive hotel with 250 channels of movies or stay in a cheap hotel with 1 channel of movies to watch. The posh hotel is definitely more stressful because of the fear that you may not have chosen the best movie or as in the previous case, the best spouse.

Choosing the “best” movie itself is indicative of that the human heart instinctively acknowledges that it is infinitely restless because it is not made for the finite. Putting aside the natural contempt or distaste for someone labelled as rapacious or avaricious, like Rosmah or her Bossku, we can discern that greed is truly a function of this, albeit, misdirected longing for the eternal. Apple or Samsung and every consumer-oriented manufacturer have monetised or commercialised our desire by substituting it with the latest model which we buy and in a few months’ time would have left us dissatisfied and yearning for a “newer and better” model. The human heart yearns for so much of what the world cannot give, because what it aches for, only God can satisfy.

The Saints provide the best examples of this hunger for the infinite. St Ignatius of Loyola was described as man whose heart was made to contain the universe. His motto of “Ad maiorem, Dei gloriam”, that is, for the greater glory of God approximates this sempiternity. He was a man fired by a vision of God’s greater glory, not content with settling for the mediocre. His treasure was always to seek that which gives God greater glory.

God greater glory is described in the 2nd Reading as a kind of “conformation”—a process whereby we are conformed into the image of the Risen Christ. That is our goal and hence we should beg for the wisdom to know how we can move in that direction. Many of us are like cars with engines not fully optimised. The Sacrament of Confession is akin to sending our car (soul) for servicing because to be Christ-like requires the grace for us to choose wisely. Our sins symbolise being lost in choosing wrongly. In the many choices available we must not forget that everything created for us should serve one purpose and one purpose only. At all times, everything on earth is to help us to return to God and if anything does not, we have to let it go. This involves grace and entails sacrifice. Only God can give us that grace and only we can make the renunciation.

Monday, 20 July 2020

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

The liturgy looks as if it is lingering in this agrarian homestay. The shorter Gospel of the wheat and the weed directs our attention to a matter which is relevant to us in these days. If the word “Pharisees” means “separated ones”, then these supposed moral, religious or political elite would have liked Jesus to be more discerning in His choices. In allowing the weed to coexist with the wheat, Jesus appears to send a modern message of tolerance and acceptance—an attitude resembling ours which apparently has ample space for imperfections to flourish. Imagine if Jesus were demanding. The short of it, we would not be Church—for the likes of Peter and his bumbling cohort would not have survived the stringent selection process for the ideal apostle or disciple. While Jesus may have displayed this modern sensitivity to diversity and inclusivity, the truth is, He is more dissimilar to us that He is similar with us. He is not ahistorical, and neither is He amoral.

Firstly, we pride ourselves that we embrace the tenets of tolerance yet what is clear is that our inclusion is rather exclusive. At least the Pharisees were unabashedly prejudiced. They make no pretence about their exclusivity. “I thank you God that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous, like the rest of mankind”. (Lk 18: 11) We, on the other hand, who endorse political correctness would chafe if someone were to call us bigoted, racist or judgemental. But we are exactly who we do not like to be because we gather in group think, for one. We troll and shout down those who do not think like us or hold different ideology from us. However, what is more subtle is that our exclusion hides a mind-set which is rather ahistorical as it is detached from history.

This view of the present that is removed from the past or this ahistoricity reveals itself through a kind of questioning which does not fully grasp the meaning that God is in history. At face value, the question is pretty legitimate. We struggle to reconcile the idea of a good God with the reality of evil and suffering. Hopefully, the lesson from the co-existence of wheat and weed can help us clarify this conflict that has confused modern man. Faced with a seeming irreconcilability between God’s active will (which desires good for man) and permissive will (which allows for evil to afflict us), there is a lot of frustration, disappointment, and anger. Anger arises when we watch innocent people die from the evil actions of people. More so these days when people suffer needlessly as in this pandemic. We live in a world where evil seems to triumph all the time. Look at how the corrupt seem to get away Scot-free. Faced with such evil, it is hard to believe that there is still a good God who is in charge of history.

This line of questioning shows that mankind suffers from a memory lapse. We have forgotten than mankind is always fallen mankind in need of redemption and salvation. Our amnesia tries to blot out or brush off Original Sin from the tainted canvas of humanity. Look at the current craze sweeping some countries, like trying to rename a football team, in this case, the Redskin. We used to call them Red Indians, remember? Today, they are known as Native Americans. While the Native Americans are not bothered by the name Redskin, the political, cultural and corporate elites are. These politically-correct thought-police enforce an ahistoricity that works itself out through a rejection of our chequered past—a denial that history is stained by Original Sin. On the one hand, we have a duty to right the wrongs that still exist. A good example would be the inherent racism that is systemic. Thus, the reform of authority (as in the practice of policing) is good so that the abuse of power might be stamped out. But the blatant beheading of statues or the deliberate defacing of monuments are examples of ahistoricty, that betray a forgetfulness that God is still in charge and that history is salvific.

Historicity, not the anachronistic destruction of history, is proof that God is in command. The issue which we need to struggle with is possibly found in the expression God’s permissive will. Why has God allowed something bad to happen? As long as we are caught in time, we may never grasp fully the extent of God’s mysterious ways.

A new movie has come up on Netflix: The Old Guard. It stars Charlize Theron. Within the storyline, there is a subtle canonisation of what is considered to be the “new normal”. Watch it and see if you can spot what this “new normal” is. My attention is not directed at this “new normal” but rather at this ancient “Immortal” and her cohort—her name is Andy (Charlize) short for Andromache of Scythia (in Greek mythology, the wife of Hector). She has lived for as long as history is and is somewhat discouraged by man’s record for self-destruction but the story goes that whatever these Immortals may have done that did not feel like it was much, somehow their deeds have a positive effect down the line. For example, a child saved from ethnic extermination later becomes a famous scientist who in turn pioneers a cure for a disease etc.

The short of the story is that God’s permissive will is such that He can and does turn evil into some good. But, when our worldview cancels out Original Sin, we are somehow condemned to “purify” our history as the case may be in the USA, especially with the iconoclasm taking place. More than that, when we “purify” our history, the only criterion we can apply is “perfection”. Weeds disgust us to the point that we must remove them to feel good about ourselves. So, when we look back through the prism of perfection, we will not stop there. In fact, when we are uncomfortable with our imperfect past, we will purge the present of any vestiges of imperfection. Is it any wonder why we willingly abort babies who are less than perfect and euthanise the elderly who have lost their utility?

To right the wrongs of the past by erasing history not only obliterates the past but it is ultimately a rage against a God who may be quiet but is actually hard at work throughout history. The idea of waiting for the wheat and the weed to mature carries with it a patience, a longing, but most of all, a trusting that God will reveal His mysterious ways.

To state that God’s ways are mysterious is not copping out. It is to trust in God. In allowing for weed and wheat to co-exist, Jesus may appear modern in His inclusivity. But He is dissimilar to us because He is not amoral the way we are. He does not condemn the sinner but neither does He condone the sin. We on the other hand condone the sin as long as it fits our political agenda. What Jesus has done is to allow for conversion to unfold. Without the possibility of conversion, we will deal with evil or the failure of imperfection the only way we know how, that is, lock and throw away the key. Yet, history is brimming with stories of conversion—St Peter is a prime example. So too many of our saints whose pasts are less than pristine. Funny that in our “Original Sinless” world, we are quick to condemn others but quicker still to excuse ourselves as “human”. In excusing our humanity, we recognise that we are often weed and wheat. Thus, the presence of our imperfect past is but a glaring proof of God’s benevolence and on our part, a cry for conversion, a hunger for liberating grace, a longing for God to save us. In His mercy, He has done exactly that. He has saved us and continues to save us through Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, 14 July 2020

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

Today we begin reading from chapter 13, almost halfway through the Gospel of Matthew. It is also the 3rd of 5 sermons given by Jesus, and it consists of 7 parables that have as their theme, the Kingdom of Heaven. This morning, the Kingdom is likened to a sower who goes out to sow his seeds. The parable is divided into three parts. The first, Jesus narrates the story of how the sower scatters the seeds generously. The second, Jesus answers the query of the Disciples on why He spoke in parables and thirdly, He explains the parable. 

What stands out of the three parts is the middle where Jesus “deliberately” chooses to muddle His message through the use of parables. A possible way to understand this is that He had encountered strong resistance to His message. The evangelist has to reconcile this wonder-worker with the fact that many rejected His teaching? It could be Matthew’s attempt to console the early Christian community that sacred scripture already foretold the rejection and that it was all part of God’s mysterious plan.

Still, as Jesus neatly unpacked the parable in the 3rd part, how can we link it to life as we know it today? Firstly, God is prodigious or extravagant in His sowing. He has never stopped being generous. Secondly, the problem may lie in the predisposition of our soil. It is true that Jesus speaks of the rocky grounds, pathways and the presence of thorns as harsh conditions that prevent the seeds from taking root, from being snatched away by birds or from being choked by thorny distractions. All things being equal, meaning that there being no rocky grounds, pathways or thorns, will the soil always produce the kind of abundance that Jesus has spelt out?

If not, then the question bids us to pay attention to the soil. Our soil could be fertile but not congenial for the seeds God sows. What do I mean by that? Two words perfectly capture the condition of our soil that is conducive to fertile growth. They are weaponise and monetise.

They come from the arenas of politics and economics, the main areas that organise or make life possible. Of these two, to monetise is as old as time itself as evidence by this joke about why Adam and Eve could not be Chinese. If they were, they would have eaten the snake and sold the apple. In these days of Black Lives Matter, such jocular stereotyping would have been weaponised to be a racist slight when it is told by someone who is not Chinese. As you know, apparently only Black people can use the N word.

That we monetise everything is not surprising. When Jesus says, “Man does not live on bread alone”, He is not condemning bread as unnecessary. In fact, to worship God, man needs bread. Without an economic life we will not have any life at all. If Jesus speaks of the thorns choking us as being distracted by the cares of the world, He means that we should not idolise economics to the point of crowding out the spiritual seeds that God wants to plant in our heart.

Apart from the monetisation of life, there is also a process of weaponisation taking place. In this country race and religion have been effectively and systematically weaponised to exclude and intimidate. Can you tell me that the so-called “Social Contract” has never been used to silence people from questioning the inherent injustice of positive discrimination? In fact, we do not even question why when buying a house only certain people automatically qualify for a discount whether they needed it or not.

Nowadays, anything and everything can be weaponised. The human body together with the aircraft were weaponised on 11th Sept. Identity, intelligence and social media have become weapons of choice. Social media played a pivotal role in the election of PH in 2018 as well as its demise in 2020. Elsewhere, the alleged Russian interference in the US election became a weapon to discredit the presidency of Trump. At present, anyone, benevolent or malicious, can viralise their ideas through a mix of “likes”, deceptions and network algorithms.

This comment is not an attack on any standard operating procedure put in place for during pandemic. Instead my comment is directed at the word “normal” which has been weaponised. There is a chasm of difference between “normal” and “abnormal” with the latter carrying with it a moral connotation. If we accept the present condition as normative and not abnormal, we would be canonising certain unquestioned assumptions—children below 12 are not human enough. Worse still, they do not need salvation. Those above 70 should be euthanised because they have outlived their usefulness. It sounds terrible when put this way. Perhaps it should give us pause to reflect on how “abnormal” we have become.

Both the illustrations of monetisation and power weaponisation merely highlight what seems to grow well in the soil of our hearts. Today is Bible Sunday. While money and power are necessary to the flourishing of human life, so too the word of God is important for the salvation of the human soul. Our human heart needs spiritual nourishment so that God’s word can take root in our hearts. For that to happen, we need to cultivate our soil or prepare it to receive God’s word. In an era of fake news and disinformation, all the more that the soil of our heart should be primed for the seed of God’s truth—about who God is, who we are and where we are meant to be.

If God’s seed is truth, then faith is the fertiliser that allows the seeds sown to penetrate deep into the spiritual soil of the heart. In the first sermon of Jesus, He spoke to the crowd about having faith in God who even clothes the lilies of the field and feeds the birds of the air. In these post-pandemic days of uncertainty where political loyalties shift more than drifting sand and instead of surging ahead, the economic recovery falters, we can be so choked by our immediate problems as to forget that God alone is our Saviour. Without Him, nothing is possible. Thus, faith is indispensable if we want to grow spiritually.

This brings us to the Sacraments given by Christ. “The purpose of the Sacraments is to sanctify men, to build up the body of Christ, and finally, to give worship to God. Because they are signs, they also instruct. They not only presuppose faith, but by words and objects they also nourish, strengthen, and express it; that is why they are called ‘Sacraments of Faith.’ They do indeed impart grace, but, in addition, the very act of celebrating them disposes the faithful most effectively to receive this grace in a fruitful manner, to worship God duly, and to practise charity” (Sacred Constitution on the Liturgy, 59).

Both money and power are God’s blessing given for the good of life, but they are always our servants never idols to be worshipped. They are to assist us on this saving pilgrimage never to enslave us. It is appropriate that on Bible Sunday we return to the public worship of God with the first public celebration of the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Pope Francis asked that one Sunday each year to be celebrated as “Bible Sunday”. According to the Pope, “through Sacred Scripture, kept alive by the faith of the Church, the Lord continues to speak to his Bride, showing her the path she must take to enable the Gospel of salvation to reach all mankind”. With thanksgiving at this Mass, we pray that the seeds that God has sown may take deeper roots in the soil of our hearts so that in turn we can be His sowers because there is a world waiting for His message of truth and salvation.

Sunday, 5 July 2020

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

In today’s Gospel Jesus sends out 3 invitations. He says, (1) Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened and I will give you rest. (2) Shoulder my yoke because it is easy and my burden is light and finally (3) learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.

The overtures of Jesus sound reassuring but how hard it must have been for us to embrace them. The initial period of the near-total lockdown would have given us so many chances to do just exactly that. But the reality is that many were depressed. Why? It is not easy to hand over our lives because autonomy is an important component of our individuality. We define our individuality through self-determination and to give that up is almost tantamount to suicide. To shoulder a yoke rubs against every fibre of the business of making life easier and more convenient. As soon as mass mobility was curtailed, online shopping took off. Our “normal” was reduced to a button click. Food was just a Grab or a Panda away and courier companies devised the new criterion of contactless delivery. Finally, even before we entered this recovery period, road congestion returned with a vengeance whilst the malls cramped up despite the new queueing up.

While we cannot wait to regain control of our lives, the Gospel invites us to slow down and to ponder on the relationship with God which in an otherwise busy world we might have difficulty discovering or resting in.

Right at the start of the Gospel, Jesus revealed the close relationship He has with His Father. Like a child, Jesus knows and trusts His Father. The Scribes and Pharisees prided themselves in the knowledge of the Torah and for them, the more extensive one’s knowledge is, the more one is considered wise. Jesus blessed His Father for hiding true wisdom from those who thought they knew everything. We are not that different from the Scribes and the Pharisees. Many regard wisdom as synonymous with Google. In these days of data analytics, we deal with knowledge not only from the perspective of information but also of power. You must have heard it bandied about that knowledge is power. Right now, with all the contact tracing, there is big data to be mined about individuals which pertain to their habits, patterns or trends in behaviours and interactions. Each time you scan the App for contact tracing, you are tracked; all in the name of health safety and precaution, of course.

However, this instinctive fear of the invasion of privacy affirms that knowledge is more than just data or information. It is also about intimacy. In the Gospel, Jesus allowed us to enter into that intimacy He had with His Father. To know the Father, like Jesus did, means going further than books written about the Father. Relationship with the Father for Jesus is not a measure of how much one knows but how intimate one is with the Father.

Intimacy is time.

I am sure you must have encountered lags in customer service. When work is outsourced, it can become detached for the employee. Added to that, you have the phenomenon of staff turnover. In the end, you have an employee with no loyalty to the work to be done which results in a lag in customer service. Have you ever felt that you have been pushed from pillar to post when you called in for service? Imagine your satisfaction when you get a staff who knows what he is doing intimately. He has been there long enough to know the subtleties and the nuances of this or that operation—such intimacy does not come with studying but with real-time experience. Like a mah-jong kaki—no need to look at the tile. All he or she needs is to feel the face-down tile. Such a skill can only be honed through hours of swimming on tabletops. That is where the similarity stops. That much time spent on mah-jong will not save your soul. On the other hand, time spent with God will ensure your salvation.

Intimacy takes time. For without intimacy in a relationship, how can we take on the yoke suggested by Jesus? Or lay our burdens onto Him?

Note that there is nothing restful about the yoke because it is a contraption designed for work. If you have worked in a farm, you would know how hard and heavy that work is. However, consider that the yoke is often used for a pair draught animals and an experienced farmer would yoke an older/stronger animal with a younger one so that the younger one can train with the mature partner. All the younger animal needs to do is to keep pace. In other words, if it struggles to go ahead or slows down to lag, the ploughing will become harder.

In the struggles of life, Jesus’ yoke is a promise that He will be the stronger animal to carry the weight of the ploughing. All we need is to keep in pace with Him. The myopic or short-sighted fact about us is that it always feels like my burden is the only burden there is and that everyone else’s burden is not as heavy as mine. Perhaps it is inevitable that we should feel that way because we bask in our victim mentality. Why me?

What we may not realise is that each one of us carries with himself or herself burdens which only he or she can carry be it financial, divorce, marital troubles, loneliness, age, sickness, family or death. It does not feel like it but whatever problem we may have, only we can bear it because if Jesus were the farmer, He would never lay upon us an ill-fitting yoke. We will never know that unless we spend time with Him. We will never know we have this strength that only comes from walking close to Him and there is no short cut this to intimacy with the Lord.

Finally, a gem we have forgotten in our active do-it-yourself world is sitting in silence before the Blessed Sacrament. For a long time, maybe too long, we were content or happy to settle with knowing about Jesus. Covid-19, the pandemic, opened a path from knowing about Jesus to knowing Jesus. Nothing compares to spending time with Him in adoration for there it is that we will recognise that His grace is enough for us.

His yoke will always fit our shoulders. It is not easy to hear that. Bear in mind that carrying His burden is not about bravery nor about us being stoical about our pains but it is about the Man. His promise to each one of us is steadfast for He poured out His life to ransom us from eternal death. While it is not always comfortable, we hear through St Paul, Jesus reassuring us: “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12: 9). In the rush to return to normalcy, let us not forget the lesson we have learnt during the lockdown, that is, of slowing down so that we may recognise that in all circumstances, the Lord wishes to accompany us because He is humble of heart and He is always there for us. To know Him is to know that He will be there with us. No matter what.