Wednesday, February 22, 2017

To be a "slave" of God is to be free

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I am faced with a choice between preaching the seemingly unrealistic, “Don’t worry” or preaching the perennially unpopular, “If you let money rule you, better worry.”  I believe you would agree, it is not much of a choice. So, I’m going with the second; better to be unpopular than sound unrealistic.

Our gospel passage starts off with this little saying from the Lord, “No one can be the slave of two masters: he will either hate the first and love the second, or treat the first with respect and the second with scorn.” And just in case some may speculate as to what He is referring to, the Lord nails it by adding, “You cannot be the slave both of God and of money.” No room for ambiguity or speculation here! The original “mammon,” a Semitic loan-word, is often left untranslated. But our text translates “mammon” as simply money.

To be fair, the original word does not have a negative connotation. Yes, it could refer to material possessions or to money.  There is nothing really bad about that. The word itself, however, has a more revealing history. Originally, it came from another root word which means “to entrust,” therefore, “mammon” was something entrusted to a bank, for example, or to a safe deposit box for sake-keeping. Eventually though, this meaning got twisted in a way to mean the reverse. “Mammon” came to mean, not that which is entrusted, but that in which a man puts his trust. The end of the process was that “mammon” came be to regarded as nothing less than God.

What this passage is definitely not saying is that material goods or money are bad things. On the contrary, money and security can be good. Most of us would like more of each –just in case. But, at the same time, most of us realise the limits of money and security. Money cannot secure you against death and by no means does it automatically bring happiness. Money is supposed to be our servant, not our master. We should use money instead of letting it use us. So “mammon” in itself, is not the enemy. If money is not the issue, then what is? This text is really reminding us of a choice we must all make and that simple choice is either to be a slave of God or to be a slave of mammon. Therefore, the danger to our hearts and to eternal life with God lies not in the values of this world, power, wealth, fame or pleasures, but in their potential risk for ensnarement. By setting our hearts on them, would mean that we are not setting our hearts on what is truly lasting and of great value.

The choice between Mammon and God, though always difficult, seems easy to comprehend. What seems less comprehensible is that we are asked to be “slaves” of God. There are several Greek words for “servant” but St Matthew deliberately chose the Greek word for “slave” – “doulos.” When we say “slave”, we have a rather distant historical revulsion to the word. That is because “slave” has become a dirty, evil word in our day. “Indentured worker” would have been a nicer word. If you think that’s a hard word for us to swallow, imagine how hard it was for those living in the midst of slavery to swallow that idea. Slavery reduced human beings to the state of animals and chattel, something and not someone to be owned by another, whose life and survival depended on the good will of the Master. Every rational person would logically and vehemently reject the idea of becoming someone’s slave. So, how could becoming a slave to even a most benevolent Master, God in this case, ever be a good thing?

Just like our times, the Greeks who lived during the time of the New Testament, saw citizenry and freedom as the pinnacles of life. Personal dignity was attached to freedom, being a doulos was the worst, it was the ultimate opposite. Slaves had no freedom. They had no rights. They had no legal recourse in the courts. They had no citizenship. They had no possibility of doing what they wanted to do. They weren’t asked their opinions. They had no choice about anything, not even personal issues like getting married or having children.  They owned nothing, not even the children they bore. They were totally dependent on whoever owned them. It is no wonder that free men had only scorn for slaves and slaves longed to be free.

So the idea of Jesus coming along in that world and announcing to people that they must become a slave of God, would have sounded incredulous and scandalous then, as it would now. Nobody is going to line up to become anybody’s slave. Slaves already had enough of slavery. Free men had nothing but disdain for slavery. And yet the New Testament holds back absolutely nothing. We’re called to be slaves. It is the ramifications of this status of being slaves which clarify our relationship with God. God possesses exclusive mastery over us. We are not in possession of anything which does not belong to God, not even our own lives. We have been redeemed by His Son, we have been bought with a price. We possess no status or identity apart from what is accorded to us by Him. And, that’s not really a bad thing. If being a mere slave in the household of Caesar carried great weight and prestige in ancient times, just imagine being part of the household of God – we are a royal priesthood, a holy a nation, we are God’s children.

More importantly, the slave had complete dependence on his master for everything, absolutely everything. It is here that we come to understand the rest of the passage.  Jesus presents the case for slavery to God. God will provide, so we will not need to worry about anything. Look at the beauty of nature. The birds do not sow or reap. The flowers do not work or spin cloth. Yet they are provided for by God. Human beings are worth much more than these. How could God not provide for us as well? All our needs are provided by God. This is the basis of Jesus telling us not to be anxious. But being a slave to mammon, we will have to labour and toil under the harsh whip of a taskmaster who would be constantly pulling our strings.

That’s the real irony that besets modern man. The more he seeks to be free and autonomous, the more he becomes enslaved to his own temporal desires and impulses. Let’s be honest, as much as many of us may claim that we are slaves to no one, there is a whole array of forces, both internally and externally, that shapes our decisions and our behaviour. There is always someone or something pulling our strings. Many in our time reject all authority, seeing it as an imposition on their freedom. They regard religion and God as obstacles and even enemies to their personal freedom. They plough ahead, enslaved by a flawed and unattainable notion of individual autonomy. But when we freely choose to submit ourselves to the sovereignty and authority of God, we become truly free. Only God, as a master, who respects our free will, accords us the dignity and the freedom to love Him without coercion or pressure.

There are so many whips working on us in our modern world, lashing tirelessly, desperate to prevent us from looking beyond creation to the Creator. So many people think of a relationship with God as a burden, a harsh and rigid enslavement. In order, to expose the fallacy of our thinking, it was not enough for us to be told. The Lord had to show it. He put off the regal air of His divinity and assumed the lowly and humiliating position of a slave in order to show us the liberating path of a true slave of God. This is also our journey today. It is a journey which takes us by way of the cross of Calvary, from death to life. So let us renounce our allegiance to “mammon.” Let us pledge ourselves to Christ. Let us cast off the yoke of our oppressors, whoever or whatever they are in our lives, and shoulder the load of Him whose ‘yoke is easy and whose burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). It is only in this gentle mastery of Christ, that we find true rest for our souls.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Love means going the extra mile

Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Once again, Jesus takes a common mentality of the Jews and their traditional teaching to a whole new level of discipleship. If faith is a journey, Jesus does not demand that His followers cross the finish line – He calls for a victory lap. When He calls His followers to emulate His example, He does not preface it with a statement like “try your best.” The Lord does not settle for mediocrity. He demands perfection. It is precisely here that we see four examples of that standard of perfection. Jesus demands that His followers go the extra mile and not just settle for the base line.

Primitive communities sometimes lived in virtual states of escalating retaliation, wherein the settling of each score, led to yet another response from one’s adversary or his family and friends. The earliest recorded attempt to limit retaliation to that which is “just” was established under Hammurabi. In Latin, it is called “Lex Talionis” — the law of “this for that” otherwise known as “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo.” Lex Talionis specified the maximum punishment allowable. It was, in fact, intended to be a merciful law. For example, you can’t demand a life as compensation for the loss of an eye. Thus, an “eye for eye, tooth for tooth.”

But Jesus goes one step farther when He states that there should be no retaliation at all. We have no right to exact justice on those who offend us. It is left to God alone, to judge or condemn. Justice belongs to God. In Deuteronomy, the Lord says “It is mine to avenge! I will repay!” Christ made it very clear that individual believers who are insulted for His Kingdom must bear it. In the beatitudes, those who are insulted and persecuted for the sake of righteousness and for Christ’s sake is rewarded with a blessing. There is no need for us to win every argument, to vindicate ourselves when we are wrongly accused, or to have the final word. God will have it! God will be our judge and it is He who will have the final word on the Last Day.

To further emphasise the point, Jesus communicates that there are always two ways to do something: 1) Doing the bare minimum, or 2) Doing what you are asked to do, and graciously and cheerfully do even more. The historical background to the situation of being asked to go a mile is the Roman law that required an individual from a conquered country to carry a load or pack up to one mile on foot if asked by a Roman. It was a compulsory service. It was not popular; it was hated; it was done grudgingly. The scribes and the Pharisees particularly despised these laws being used by the ruling powers. Remember Simon of Cyrene?  Here, however, the Lord tells us to go the extra mile.

Yes, the Lord Jesus turned the other cheek when He was slapped. He allowed Himself to be stripped naked, so that by His death and resurrection, He could now clothe us in His glory. Rather than paying back with evil, He offered mercy to all of us, including His persecutors and executioners. The Lord Jesus certainly went the extra mile!  He did what was required of Him. He left heaven, clothed Himself in human flesh and walked among men. He did not stop there, He went the second mile, all the way to the cross to bear our sins, so that we can walk the extra mile for His glory.

We finally come to the last saying of Jesus, perhaps the most challenging of all.  Again, Jesus turns things on their head with a saying which many people would find quite unrealistic, if not downright stupid. He actually tells us to love our enemies and to pray for those who persecute us. How can we be asked to do such a thing? Preposterous to say the least! To understand what Jesus is saying we need to clarify two words, ‘love’ and ‘enemies’. Who are our enemies? They are persons whom we truly dislike, and whom we even despise. Or they may be the ones who dislike us, hate us or despise us even if we may not share the same degree of hostility which they have against us. These are our enemies.  Yet these are the ones whom we are called to love.

What does ‘love’ mean here? The word that the gospel uses is a verb from the noun agape (‘agaph). Agape is a unilateral way of loving by which, irrespective of the actions or attitudes of another person, I desire their well-being. It is the love which God extends to every one of His creatures, irrespective of how they respond to Him. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, in Caritas in Veritate, “To love someone is to desire that person’s good and to take effective steps to secure it.” Therefore, it is crucial to understand that love is not simply a feeling but is preeminently an act of the will. In essence, to love is to have the other person’s total welfare at heart: it is to will them good in all things, and evil in none. The point is that Christ does not command us to LIKE our enemies. He cannot. Love of this sort cannot be commanded. But, He does command us to exercise our freedom to intend the good of others, even though we have little affection for them.

Often, real love doesn’t feel good at all. Sometimes, real love doesn’t seem rewarding. Frequently, real love wounds us more than soothes our hurts and injuries. The epitome of this kind of love is found on the Cross, when Jesus asked the Father to forgive His enemies for their unwitting crime of deicide.

There is no denying, that for many of us, of all the teachings of Jesus, the mandate to love our enemies is the one that is most far reaching and difficult to live.  Jesus gives us a commandment, not a suggestion. Love for our enemies is not an ideal but rather a way of life. We cannot consider ourselves authentic disciples of Jesus unless we truly love our enemies. But loving our enemies would always be hard. Even humanly impossible. That is why prayer must always be at the heart of this very act of loving our enemies. For man it may be impossible but for God, nothing is impossible. The grace of God makes possible even this most impossible of human acts. Henri Nouwen once wrote: “There is probably no prayer as powerful as the prayer for our enemies.  But it is also the most difficult prayer since it is most contrary to our impulses.  This explains why some Saints consider prayer for our enemies the main criterion of holiness”

Yes, pray for your enemies. Not only for their conversion of heart so that they would make life easier for you. But pray for their well-being, for their happiness, for their salvation, even when there is no apparent change of behaviour.

Jesus, therefore sets apart the love of one’s enemies as the “acid test” for Christians. Yes, love your enemies. Do not seek retaliation. Turn the other cheek and give even when it isn’t asked of you. Walk the extra mile with your enemy whom you may eventually discover to be a friend.  Thus we must be constantly praying for the courage, the patience and the grace to do all these things and even more, as we remember the words of St Teresa of Kolkata, “To be able to love one another, we must pray much, for prayer gives a clean heart and a clean heart can see God in our neighbour. If now we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten how to see God in one another.”

Friday, February 10, 2017

Completing the Law

Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

“Rules are meant to be broken” – according to the first law of the “Teenage Creed.” One would imagine that as one approaches adulthood, such a creed would be cast aside and supplanted with a less libertine laced outlook. Yet, reality reveals otherwise. If there is any change, it is this, we have upped the ante.  “We break small rules when we are young. Now that we are older, we break bigger rules.” The rampant flouting of laws, ranging from traffic offenses to copyright infringements, avoidance of legitimate taxes to widespread corruption, seem to reinforce rather than refute the point that “rules are meant to be broken,” and that we, especially Malaysians, take special pleasure in breaking rules.

If you buy into this principle that rules are meant to be broken, I’m going to take equal pleasure in bursting your bubble. Today, Our Lord does it on my behalf: “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them but complete them.” To paraphrase, “Contrary to what people say about me, I’ve come not to break the rules but to keep them to the very last clause.” What does He mean by this?

When Jesus refers to “the Law or the Prophets,” it’s a kind of shorthand for the entire Old Testament. But the more problematic word is “complete.” What does Jesus mean when He tells us that He has come to “complete” the Law? The Greek word “complete” or in some translations ‘fulfil’ (pleromai) means to fill-up or to expand, to cause to reach fullness or perfection. It’s an unusual word to use when speaking of the law because you would most likely see it in the context of fulfilment of prophecy. But here it refers to the Law. We can speak of fulfilling the law in two ways: by doing everything that is asked or by completing that which is missing. Jesus does the latter. He completes that which was missing and raises it to another level. Jesus, the New Law, brings the Old Law to its perfection, to its fullness and completion – to the end for which it was promulgated by God in the first place.

Jesus reveals the original divine purpose of the Law through a series of what scholars call "six antitheses." He speaks with all authority, as One not only fit to comment on the Law, but as the only divinely inspired interpreter, the only One capable of explaining the meaning intended by God. A simple principle of interpretation is that the legislator is the best interpreter of the Law. Here, Christ is none other than that Divine Legislator.

Using a solemn formula: “You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors …” Jesus examines key moral codes of the old Law - those regarding murder, adultery, divorce, oath swearing, retaliation and love of neighbour. In each area, He reveals the values and motives hidden in the Law, values that make the Law even more radically demanding upon the whole person. Again, He does not abolish the Law but brings it to its natural fulfilment. In this, He reveals that the new Law transcends the old Law. No longer is the Law of God’s people to be a simple prescription for external behaviour. It is now an interior law, to be written in the hearts of believers. The secret of keeping the Law is this inner dynamism of freedom.

On freedom, the great Angelic Doctor, St Thomas Aquinas, writes, “A person is free when he belongs to himself; a slave, on the contrary, belongs to his master. In the same way, he acts freely, he who acts spontaneously, while he who receives his impulse from another does not act freely… Now it is precisely this that the Holy Spirit brings about, for he perfects our spirit interiorly, giving it a new dynamism, and thus, the person refrains from evil out of love, as if the divine law commanded it of him. He is free, therefore, not in the sense that the divine law no longer holds for him, but in the sense that his interior dynamism moves him to do what the divine law prescribes.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church clearly articulates the relation of the Old Law to the New Law (§1968): “The Law of the Gospel fulfills the commandments of the Law. The Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, far from abolishing or devaluing the moral prescriptions of the Old Law, releases their hidden potential and has new demands arise from them: it reveals their entire divine and human truth. It does not add new external precepts, but proceeds to reform the heart, the root of human acts, where man chooses between the pure and the impure, where faith, hope and charity are formed, and with them, the other virtues. The Gospel thus brings the Law to its fullness through imitation of the perfection of the heavenly Father, through forgiveness of enemies and prayer for persecutors, in emulation of the divine generosity.”

Thus, the Lord fulfils the law by bringing out its fullest and complete meaning. He fulfils it by radicalising the law’s demands by going to its heart and centre, which is, that we love God above all, and our neighbours as ourselves. Jesus says, “On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets.”

So, it’s time to debunk the myth that Jesus broke rules because He was simply against the law. What He really opposed was legalistic minimalism. Minimalism, as the name suggests, is basically just doing the bare minimum required by the law, which means that in most cases we would not really have to give a care about others. Minimalism has nothing to do with love. In fact, it is proof that we have little love whenever we try to either find a loophole to circumvent the Law or pay lip service to it by doing the bare minimum. As opposed to minimalism of the Pharisees and scribes, Jesus is clearly a maximalist. If the former were contented with keeping the Law, Jesus challenges us to go beyond the Law, to aim for the higher ideal of sacrificial love which demands so much more from us than the law. In a world, where the catchphrase is “why do more when you can do less?” Jesus counters with His version, “Why do less when you can do so much more?”

So there is absolutely no inconsistency between the Jesus of Love and the Jesus of the Law. For too long, we have been deceived into believing that there is an irreconcilable dichotomy between those who follow the law and those called to love. We were told that to follow the law is to be under a burden, to be compelled or to be constrained. To love, on the other hand, is to embrace the capacity to choose, to be creative and to be liberated. It is this way of thinking that has wrought catastrophic damage in the life of the Church. What happens when you take away the law or choose to ignore it? You would most likely find anarchy rather than love!

It’s good to remember the constant plea of Pope Francis to proclaim the gospel of salvation and not the gospel of small-minded rules. The Pope certainly did not wish to say that law and mercy were antithetical. What he wanted to stress is this - that we must never lose sight of the object of that law; that laws must not be ends in themselves. The end must always be Love, and to love is to desire the salvation of souls, which is the mission of Christ and His Church. Yes, we must avoid “legalism.” A smug sense of superiority and spiritual self-sufficiency will cause a person to be lost eternally. But salvation can also be lost by flagrantly choosing to ignore God’s laws. We must stake our lives upon the grace of God, to desire always our sanctification and our salvation, to love Him above all else. But to profess that we love Him, we must be ever ready to obey His commands.