Saturday, 26 September 2020

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020 (Migrant Sunday)

The context of today’s teaching is the exchange between Jesus and the powers that be. In questioning His authority, they have provided us a key to help us understand what it means to do the will of God. Of course, these religious elites, meaning the entitled Pharisees and Scribes, did not like Him for exposing their hypocrisy. Perhaps a Chinese proverb might help here. “Makers of idols rarely believe in them”. They, who were supposedly the closest to God, were the furthest from Him. Suffice to say their conducts do not commensurate with their proximity to God. To add insult to injury, the Lord reminded this entitled and privileged class that those marginalised from God, in other words, the prostitutes, tax collectors, or to use a modern term, the deplorables have better chances than them of securing a foothold in heaven.

As illustration, Jesus’ parable about the two sons highlights the discrepancy between what we profess and how we live. In short, there is a gap between word and deed. We all suffer this credibility deficit because we frequently fall short of our preaching. Call it sin or selfishness but this lapse between conviction and conduct is set within the context of who we are (or what we claim to be) and what we are supposed to do.

It is a contest in which coherence, consistency and constancy are at stake and it takes place on many levels. At the most basic, it is a matter of integrity or principles. If we cannot be trusted in our words, what else can we be trusted on? The present political impasse in our country is really a crisis of honesty, righteousness and virtue. Many who switch allegiance do not realise that they betray the principles of trustworthiness and self-sacrifice. While we may be appalled by this lack of honour amongst our politicians, right at the heart of this fight, as in every combat or conflict, there stands the will of God for humanity. What does it mean to be a creature in relationship with God and with others?

Everyone here is familiar with “Thy Kingdom come”. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. Perhaps we know it too well that it does not really register anymore. In embracing the will of God, what complicates the process is the sense of entitlement. Observe the ruling class in our country that during this pandemic how above they are to the law. For example, social distancing does not apply to Najib’s gatherings. Be that as it may, the focus is not about the “atas”or the privileged but rather about how entitlement just makes the attainment of the Kingdom a reality so much more difficult to come about.

In the last couple of weeks, the Gospel passages have depicted how the Kingdom is to look like. For example, the Sower and the seed demonstrates how God’s word should flourish in our hearts. Last Sunday, the first reading reminded us that God’s ways are not ours. Today, obedience to God’s will is expressed as having the mind of Christ.

What is this mind of Christ?

A saint who has the title Doctor of Prayer can help us to understand this better. He is St John of Avila who stated that “one act of thanksgiving when things go wrong with us is worth a thousand thanks when things are agreeable to our inclination”. Our natural disposition is to complain immediately when things do not go our way. Some would be quick to seek alternatives. “Bomohs” or the so-called “Catholic/Christian-claiming faith healers”.

To grow in the mind of Christ, a spirit of gratitude is a step in the right direction. Not entitlement. After all these months of the various shades of “lockdowns” and a close shave with the Bukit Tiram cluster, we are attempting a return to normalcy. Some people have grumbled about the procedures that have been imposed upon us. Others have lamented that these bilingual Masses are more than an hour long. Instead of griping my question is simply this: Where is the gratitude to God that we are able to have Mass? This merely reveals how entitled we have become as if God owes it to us to make life easy for us. Without gratitude to the Lord, the mind of Christ will very easily become our mind for Christ. It is not God’s will for us but rather our will for God.

In Luke’s account of the pivotal moment in Jesus’ ministry, we have the Lord asking the Apostles who they thought He was. Peter’s answer was unequivocal—the Christ of God. But, even then, Peter was wrong for he thought that the Christ of God was to be a glorious one. Whereas Jesus told them quite simply that the Christ was to suffer grievously at the hands of the Scribes and Pharisees and to be put to death. Thus, the mind of Christ and our obedience must include the Cross on Calvary before we can get to the glory of the Resurrection.

If we fail to recognise that the Cross is part of our Christian calling, we will struggle to do the will of God. St Joseph Pignatelli gave us a prayer for perfect resignation to the will of God. He prayed, “My God, I do not know what must come to me today. But I am certain that nothing can happen to me that you have not foreseen, decreed, and ordained from eternity. That is sufficient for me. I adore your impenetrable and eternal designs, to which I submit with all my heart. I desire, I accept them all, and I unite my sacrifice to that of Jesus Christ, my divine Saviour. I ask in his name and through his infinite merits, patience in my trials, and perfect and entire submission to all that comes to me by your good pleasure”.

This prayer expresses profound faith in God’s providence even if there is no inkling of how God’s will will unfold. It springs from a covenanted love which goes way beyond fear. Without this faith, we can be like the son who claims to do God’s will but lives otherwise through his selfish choice.

It is never easy to have the mind of Christ, to embrace God’s will if we are entitled like snowflakes or strawberries—easily bruised, hurt or victimised. If anything, it will be a lifetime of “failures” on our part because we will easily resort to wallowing in self-pity. We ought to remember that what is sublime always requires sacrifice. Without dying on our part, we cannot hope to rise above ourselves. Hence, to live the mind of Jesus Christ, He left us sacraments because He knows that we need His grace to get out of this self-defeating narcissism. We are not our own saviour. We need Jesus if we desire to heroically embrace the vocation to be His faithful followers. Thus, for the mind of Christ to radiate through us, the Eucharist must be our sustenance, our strength and our soul. With Jesus in the Eucharist, it is possible to embrace God’s will to climb up our Calvary so as to enter into His Resurrection.

Monday, 21 September 2020

25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

In adjudicating, we are told that there are always two sides to a story. Today, we get to hear from both sides—from the workers and the landowner. We learn from the labourers how disincentivising it can be. Especially for those who had worked from the beginning, slogging the entire day only to receive the same wage as those who came almost at the last minute. In other words, it does not pay to be hardworking. Just like this country, especially in the civil service. You work hard but because you have the wrong epidermal pigmentation, soon enough you will run into some unwritten barriers and you progress no further. The other side of the story flows from last week’s Gospel where we were taught to forgive in a manner which is outrageously disproportionate—not seven times but seventy times seven. This teaching provides a vista into God’s benevolence which brings us right to the point of the Gospel for today. God is incredibly generous. As the Landowner, He employs people to work in His vineyard but in terms of remuneration, he pays everyone equally.


While such an action might offend our sense of fair play, God has not been unjust. He actually paid those whom He had employed from the start of the day with the agreed sum of 1 Denarius. Yes, to put into perspective, one cannot be faulted for feeling resentful or victimised because prior to this parable, Peter did pose a question: “What about we who had left everything for you?”. To that question, Jesus promised the Apostles amazing rewards which suggests that those who have worked hard should expect better remuneration. Or if you were good, surely the reward should commensurate.


Sadly, this parable seems to shatter whatever notion we may have of what a just compensation should be.


Are we on the right track here? See, to think this passage is about justice or fairness is to miss the point. That God’s ways are not ours is not even the focus. The parable’s emphasis is the benevolence of God. The first truth to note about God’s generosity is how absurdly lenient it is. Pope Francis’ Iubilaeum Extraordinarium Misericordiae pinpointed this. However, bear in mind that God’s largesse is not in any way indulgent. This point that His compassion is not indulgent is vital simply because we are accustomed to entitlement.


Thus far, we can safely conclude that God’s benevolence has nothing to do with distributive justice—that is, it is not about God playing fair. Rather, God mercy is directed at the restoration of sinners. Hence, it is in fact even beyond retributive justice for we see how God readily admits into His kingdom those who sometimes enter by the skin of their teeth. In the parable, the workers employed last represent those who even at the last minute merited an admission into the Kingdom.


God’s generosity highlights an essential truth of our salvation. Firstly, nothing we do will ever merit an entrance into God’s Kingdom. Our Proddy brothers and sisters have reminded us time and again that our access into heaven has been merited by Jesus Christ alone. God owes us nothing whereas we owe Him everything. However, the fact that salvation is gratuitous does not remove culpability on our part and this leads me to the next point.


As stated earlier, God’s mercy is not indulgent because it requires cooperation on our part. The First Reading tells us to “seek the Lord while He may be found”. Whilst God is merciful, our search for Him is time-framed, if you like, because there will come a time when we will not be able to look for the Lord. Perhaps you begin to appreciate why Catholics offer Masses for the dead. Our ability to cooperate with God’s grace ends with our very last earthly breath. Rightly, the Catechism which quotes St Augustine states this: “’God created us without us: but He did not will to save us without us"[1]. To receive his mercy, we must admit our faults. "If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (CCC#1847).


This Sunday we catch a glimpse of a God who is always bountiful in His mercy. However, the ball is in our court. Entitlement and indulgence will not cut it. Entitled because we feel that God owes it to us to let us in without any cooperation on our part. Indulgent because we sometimes confuse being good with feeling good or having a good life. In the Second Reading, St Paul is caught in a dilemma. For him, a good life is not living it up but to be with Christ. Nevertheless, he also realises that he is needed here on earth for the sake of his brothers and sisters. Likewise, for many us, we can be distracted by trying to have a good life forgetting that our goal is to be good and not necessarily to feel good in life. It is natural that none of us wants to die. In some parishes, thankfully not for us, if attendance at Mass were any measure, it is testimony to our desperation to hold on to dear life. But, whatever our disposition, having a desire to be with Christ like St Paul or to be fearful of dying and therefore staying away from Mass, St Paul’s advice remains as valid then as now. “Avoid anything in your everyday life that would be unworthy of the Gospel of Christ”. This is how we cooperate with God’s grace.


It would be good, like St Paul, to desire eternal life with Christ but in the meantime, we have a life to live and the goal is truly living it up but not in the sense of over-indulgence or lapping up in luxury but rather it describes a life in which we never lose sight of our destination—heaven. What is clear from this parable is that God always want to let us in. However, we must be like the workers who have this yearning to labour: “Nobody has hired us yet”. God’s invitation stays open and our aspiration remains the one key necessary to unlock the gate of entry. We desire, Lord, so let us in.

[1] St. Augustine, Sermo 169, 11, 13: PL 38, 923. Another translation reads better. The God who created us without our consent cannot save us without our consent.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

Last week I used a word to refer to Peter’s misstep: He stumbled. To be a scandal is to be a stumbling block. Thus, a scandal is not primarily salacious, shocking and sordid but rather it describes being a hindrance, an impediment or an obstacle to belief. Both the first reading and the Gospel deal with the issue of forgiveness. The second reading centres on how we live has an impact on others’ faith. In the context of this reading, the lack of forgiveness can be a stumbling block to faith.  

Forgiveness is an exercise many struggle with. Why do we find it hard to forgive?


A feature of this pandemic can teach us what it means to forgive. What is it? People are trying so hard not to die from Covid-19 but the fact is, died they have. In a sense, an attempt to escape death’s hold is grasping at the last straw of the freedom of personal choice. I have the last say on when and how I should go. But, of course, death will not let us win. 


On the same note of “not winning”, have you ever gotten into a fight and feel that you need to say something more so that you feel justified? The operative word in wanting to have the last say is justice or fairness. As a virtue, justice is the constant and permanent determination to give everyone his or her rightful due. BLM, for example, is an effort to render justice to those wrongfully killed. But again, somehow an intense fight for justice may again hide this need to have the last say. If not, one feels unjustified and inadequate, feeling a loss which if unremedied will leave us poorer than we should be. 


Why is that so? Why is it that when there is no justice, we feel an acute sense of loss—like we have been cheated? This gnawing inadequacy is possibly a symptom of the loss of faith in the Resurrection. This loss of faith is most clearly reflected in our funeral services. 


In funerals, the last say comes in the form of giving a eulogy for a person’s life. George Floyd was somewhat lionised by his brother to the point of almost being canonised. The truth is that George was on drugs and his life was not as perfect as the white-washing was supposed to have made it so. There is no justification for the way he died but there has been no questioning if his life before his death should have any impact on the life after he died or supposed to have come into. Instead there was presumption that he would be in heaven, simply because his brother had eulogised him. But, more than that, the George Floyd’s unfortunate demise merely met the criteria necessary to promote a political narrative that Trump is a racist is therefore responsible for the poor man’s death. 


The question is this: What happened if a person we eulogised is not in heaven? We have no way of telling, have we? The best eulogy we need comes from God Himself. In Matthew 25, Jesus said, “Come all you who saw me naked, hungry, thirsty and in prison and you came to my aid. Come now and share in my Father’s kingdom”. Indeed, God has the last say and even in cases where injustice is brazenly blatant—like “Apa Malu Bossku”. In terms of a funeral, the Eucharist is that place where God speaks most clearly. But it is not restricted to funerals. If justice is not located within this world, God alone gives the assurance that it will be so in the next world for the likes of Najib or Rosmah or any one of our corrupt politicians. 


Without a perspective that God alone has the final say, sometimes in this life and a lot of times in the afterlife, we will be condemned to this putative search for a solution that will not fully satisfy us. It is like being chased by the “phantom” of things unsaid or situations unresolved. Thankfully, the Resurrection gives us an eternal frame of reference. Remember that Jesus Christ hung so shamefully on the Cross. There was no resolution to His most humiliating treatment and definitely there was no justice for His death. Perhaps this might jolt us to think a little bit more about how self-serving the narrative had been for George Floyd’s death. For if his death left us dissatisfied, then the same should be observed of all those who died unmourned, unnoticed, unknown. For example, the Iraqi or the Iranian soldiers rotting in the hot desert. Should that not concern us? The truth is that the sight of their decaying corpses does not even blip on our “justice” radar. 


The power of the Resurrection puts into perspective this need for the final resolution of any injustice that is suffered here. Without faith in the Resurrection, forgiveness of our enemies will somehow violate our sense of fairness. “Where is fairness when the one who wrongs me is not punished”? Firstly, this reveals that our ability to forgive is associated with the idea of just deserts. Does the person deserve forgiveness? It is not wrong but there is a perennial fear of being short-changed. Secondly, and more importantly, our notion of justice is temporal in the sense that we believe that injustice needs a resolution here and now, not realising that justice cannot be perfect in a fallen world. Thus, God is there to make just what is unresolved. 


Without the Resurrection our justice will somehow be vengeful—“I don’t get mad, I get even” which makes forgiveness almost impossible. The Psalmist reminds us that “Some boasts of chariots, some of horses, but we boast about the name of Yahweh our God”. The just man or woman depend on God for justice. We recognise that our justice if at all is only a token of God’s justice. Tokens are just that, poor copies. That means that if we fail here in justice, we can be sure that God’s justice will not fail. Thus, the need to have the last word does not really belong to us. We dare to forgive because we can leave the final say to God. 


Finally, life is short. Some of us carry with us the burden of unforgiveness and that itself is physically, psychologically and spiritually crippling. It is not worth carrying unforgiveness. Mahatma Gandhi says, “Forgiveness is an attribute of the strong. The weak can never forgive”. Today, the lesson we learn is that forgiveness is possible, even for the most difficult hurt and pain because God can be trusted to supply for whatever is lacking in the justice of forgiving. Let us trust the Lord.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 2020

This Sunday, we still operate within the boundary of leadership and servanthood. Two weeks ago, we charted the rise in Peter’s primacy and last week witnessed his misstep in interpreting the mission of Jesus. While the Lord corrected Peter, He did not invalidate the authority granted to him. So today, we grapple with the notion of fallibility as we enter into the ethical terrain that is derived from the authority of Peter and is also an expression of the service rendered by his office. In Church practice, this is termed as the spiritual works of mercy. 


Traditionally, there were 7 of them. Now Pope Francis has added the 8th which concerns the care for the environment. Broadly speaking, our spiritual duties include but are not exclusive to instructing the ignorant, counselling the doubtful and the focus of this week, admonishing the sinner. How to correct a sinner and on what authority does one do it? 


Firstly, one does it through credibility. Take the log out of your eye before you try to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye. All the more in a media-saturated society, integrity is identified with credibility. Ask Nancy Pelosi now made even more famous by her hairdo. Some people query how one could shut down the personal grooming industry in California yet insisted on having one’s hair done by a salon and not wearing a mask at that? She claimed it was a set-up, but many saw it as hypocritical. 


That being said, and despite the merits of clearing the log out of one’s eye, we need to acknowledge that credibility is more than believability or even integrity because it is linked to veracity or truth. Although, “street creds” is important before one makes a judgement, it does not mean that one needs to be a Snow White before calling out a truth. For even the Devil can state the truth. This so-called “hypocrisy” test, that is, the fear that one is not “pure enough” before correcting another may have contributed to the moral confusion and darkness of our time. 


Who am I to judge?” gives the impression that one has to achieve a Jesus-like aura of “non-judgementalism” before passing remarks, forgetting that whilst Jesus did not judge the woman of ill-repute, He did judge her sin. Moral truth is independent of how I feel, and it remains a fact that a truth is true even if nobody were living it. For example, Cosmas is unfaithful to his wife but advises Damian to treat his wife well. Cosmas’ infidelity does not nullify the truth that one should well-treat a spouse. 


Apart from this credibility test, we also face another kind of barrier. Currently, we are unwilling captives of this resounding echo-chamber of groupthink and thought policing. In this prison of approved narratives, everyone is corralled to think in a particular way that to behave otherwise invites censorship and ostracisation which is akin to social suicide. 


Nevertheless, in this season of woke awareness, cancel culture, hate speech, identity politics, how does one engage in fraternal correction? For example, if we accept our Judeo-Christian tradition, there are clearly sinful behaviours which are now viewed as lifestyle choices. There is a subtle but systematic sanctification of evil and vilification of good. Watch Lucifer, the Devil is godly. Or notice our current terminologies. For example, prostitutes are supposed to be called sex-workers—not hookers or sluts. In other words, the “abnormal” is touted as the “new normal”. Perhaps you understand why I have consistently described the present arrangement as the “new abnormal” because the phrase “new normal” carries with it an amoral connotation. The effect is to normalise what is abnormal. Needless to say, given that the “new normal” has become the acceptable narrative, fraternal correction will be labelled as hate speech. Anyone who dares to call out a “sin” will be marked as narrow minded, #bigoted. 


We need to break out of this prison of “if I am not perfect, I must shut up” or the fear of being tagged because fraternal correction belongs to the disposition of one’s love for the neighbour. It pertains to our common good because we are not solitary creature. Man is communitarian by nature, and admonishing a sinner has nothing to do with moral superiority. The love that is demanded of us is not emotional—the kind which is “touchy-feely”. In this therapeutic era, the word “love” may have lost its force because everything is reduced to feeling good. As indicated before, “I am good” and “I feel good” are not always synonymous. “I feel good” does not necessarily follow “I am good”. Does it ever feel good to admit that you were wrong, especially when you were so sure that you were right? If the word “love” has lost its meaning, maybe “charity” is more appropriate because it requires that one rolls up the sleeves. 


Charity or love belongs to the will and it requires us to speak up. We can certainly retreat into the trenches or security of groupthink. There, we will be condemned to shout above the din in order to confirm our own belief. Perhaps this was the warning of Benedict XVI that the poisonous fruit of relativism is the destruction of the moral order for humanity. Our moral order is not and cannot be of our making or determination. It must be based on revealed Truth who is ultimately a person, Jesus Christ. Since faith is not scientific, as it cannot hold up in the court of “reason”, consigning Him to the margins of “personal belief” will translate into “Don’t bring your faith into the public square”, “Keep your religion out of my womb” or “My body my choice”. That being said, our “new normal” is possibly one of the expressions of the long retreat into the bubble of “solitary” anti-social behaviour. 


The title of Benedict XVI’s encyclical can help us here: Caritas in veritate. Love in truth means that truth must always be spoken with love. It does not consist of “banging” people as if we own the truth. In this respect, the other spiritual works of mercy kick in for us. They entail patiently bearing those who wrong us and also to forgive offences. Here, this is not victim signalling but rather that anyone who wants to stand with the Son of God, he or she must be prepared to face rejection. 


In a painfully confusing world, Christians have a responsibility of proclaiming the Truth that goes beyond “I, me and myself”. Jesus Christ is more than my personal ideas, opinions and views. Our duty is not to be policemen or women but rather to point to Jesus, His discipleship and His mission in the world. As people of the Truth, we must recognise that the truth is not a possession but rather something which commands our loyalty to the point that we be willing to lay our lives for Him. 


To speak as truthfully as we can and know how to are both acts of charity as well as justice. Stating the truth is love because it aims at the good of the sinner. It is justice because it directed to highlighting the effects of sin on society. While charity and justice require that we speak with prudence and compassion, what is at the heart of fraternal correction is actually our integrity. It requires us to bridge the gap between what we say and what we do. In politics, that gap between word and deed is called BS. Integrity and holiness are two sides of a coin because the gap in holiness between speech and action is called? Sin—lying, cheating, dishonesty, etc. Thus, for the disciple, fraternal correction is a responsibility and is not about being right. The authority of Peter, as Pope St Gregory the Great signed himself, as the “Servant of the Servants of God”, is in the service of Truth, who is Jesus Christ. In fraternal correction, we help each other grow both in personal and communal holiness because our discipleship and mission are intended for a life in eternity with the Trinity of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Holiness is proclaiming the Truth as we engage in fraternal correction.