Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Don't expect to be paid back! Pay it Forward!

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Some of you may remember this inspirational movie that hit our silver screens over a decade ago. I believe you can catch the reruns on Astro. “Pay It Forward.” It is a movie about a seventh grader’s ingenious plan to make a difference in the world. On the first day of school, the protagonist and his classmates are challenged by their social studies teacher to change the world. Written on the blackboard; the challenge reads,  “Think of an idea to change our world—and put it into action.” While most children disinterestedly slouch in their desks, this young man is mesmerised by the possibility of changing the world. Given the fact that his life was way down the garbage heap, living with an alcoholic mother, a grandmother who lives on the streets, an abusive and absent father, the prospect of just getting off the dump pile was most appealing.

The little boy explains to his class his amazing project of changing the world, which he called, “paying it forward,” as opposed to “paying back.” To explain his plan, he draws a circle and exclaims, “That’s me.” Underneath it, he draws three other circles, saying, “Those are three other people. I’m going to help them, but it has to be something really big—something they can’t do for themselves. So I do it for them, and they do it for three other people. That’s nine people.” And nine lives turn into 27. There you have it, the catalyst of a pyramid system where good deeds are not meant to earn rewards or incur debts that need to be paid back, but targeted to change lives and the world.  Thus the tagline of the movie, “When someone does you a big favour, don't pay it back... PAY IT FORWARD!”

In today’s gospel reading, Our Lord Jesus Christ provides his audience with a similar advice, “When you give a lunch or a dinner, do not ask your friends, brothers, relations or rich neighbours, for fear they repay your courtesy by inviting you in return. No; when you have a party, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, that they cannot pay you back means that you are fortunate, because, repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again.”

The setting for today’s gospel is that of a Sabbath meal. As usual, the movements and speech of Our Lord were constantly being observed by both his fans, as well as his detractors. But in today’s gospel, Our Lord would turn the tables on them. He is the one who is the careful observer.  He makes a careful and poignant observation about the public behaviour of the Pharisees, who though wishing to be seen as self-effacing and altruistic, were actually quite ambitious and self-serving. After witnessing their jockeying around for the coveted seats, Our Lord began to teach.

Jesus raises two important points, one for the guests and another for the host. Firstly, he warns the guests against an undue sense of superiority. Similar to our East Asian society, the Jewish culture was pretty much shame driven. On the one level, the suggestion of Jesus was a simple and universal advice on etiquette, never presume to take places of honour less you suffer the embarrassment of being relegated to a lower position. But here, Our Lord was not merely concerned with good manners nor should His sayings be reduced to advice about social graces. Rather, it is clear from the subsequent verses that Our Lord was trying to lift the attention of his audience from etiquette to eschatology;  not just places at the dining table, but places in Heaven. More important than their social status in the eyes of others, was their good standing in the eyes of God.

The key to truly gaining honour and earning the pleasure of God lies in humility. As the first reading reminds us, “the greater you are, the more you should behave humbly, and then you will find favour with the Lord, for great though the power of the Lord is, he accepts the homage of the humble.” The person who asserts his or her own importance has already been rewarded with the fleeting and dubious dignity that self-assertion brings. But a single moment of limelight may cost one to suffer a lifetime or even worse, an eternity of derision. Once again, the sin of presumption is their undoing. Again, Ecclesiasticus warns us, that “there is no cure for the proud man’s malady, since an evil growth has taken root in him.” The honest person, however, who recognises the greatness of God as well as his or her own lowliness and needs, will one day share the honour of union with the Lord at the heavenly banquet that never ends.

After having admonished the guests, Our Lord turns his attention to the host. No one is spared, not even the good host who had just feted the Lord. Most likely, the Pharisee into whose home Jesus had been invited, had invited others like himself: friends, relatives and those with wealth who presence would reflect well on the host and his household. Nothing wrong with that. Moreover, all those invited would have been able, and indeed, would have been expected to reciprocate the favour by inviting the host to dine at their respective homes. In the light of this social give-and-take, Jesus’ advice must have seemed shocking and even ridiculous. To invite the beggars, the crippled, the blind and the lame would be to entertain those from whom one could expect no recompense or reciprocation. Such persons would not have brought prestige to the household by their presence. In fact, they would have brought shame to the host, who would be seen as associating himself with the dregs and outcasts of society. 

What is the common denominator that links both advices, the first to the guests and the second to the host? Both humility and giving should take the focus off ourselves. It’s not about us. The focus should always be on the Lord. Therefore, to take the lowest place is never just to earn honour, respect or even praise from others. To take the lowest place, would be, to find ourselves in that very place where Christ had chosen to sit, He who is God, assumed the lowest position of a worthless slave. To give without expecting anything in return would mean that we do not serve, or give, to derive some earthly gain and benefit from our investment, but rather, be assured that what often seems to be a thankless job will receive its reward from God in heaven. Indeed, this is the one single idea that can not only change the world, but also save it.

The Kingdom of God does not follow the rules and logic of any culture. God’s ways cannot be understood in human terms. In the Kingdom which is one continuous wedding banquet, titles, positions and wealth do not count. What counts is fidelity to Jesus’ law of love that embraces even, and specially, the outcasts of society. They are the ones who will be exalted in the kingdom of God. Having nothing but their ability to trust in God, they will be rewarded in heaven, far above those who had position, honour and wealth in the earthly kingdom.

Our Lord, therefore, provides us with some good advice about ways to be a guest and ways to be a host. As God’s guests in this world, we should act humbly and remember that we are always in the presence of Someone greater than ourselves. As hosts of God's people, we should offer hospitality to those who cannot reward us. Surely, we do not have to leave out our friends and families. But neither should we leave out the poor and the marginalised, who though denied of human hospitality, are always beneficiaries of God’s Divine Providence. Finally, give when you aren’t asked. Offer a quid without expecting a pro quo. Pay it forward as opposed to pay it back. Give without expecting anything in return, give even when it seems to be a thankless job, “because repayment will be made to you when the virtuous rise again.”

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

No laughing matter

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“The idea that the Bible declares hell a real and literal place is no more valid than the toxic lie that the Bible condemns homosexuality,” was the opening line to a commentary published online and subsequently featured in Time Ideas. One would have expected this to have come from an atheist but it was actually written by a popular evangelical Christian blogger and author, John Shore. He claimed that Christianity without hell “would allow Christians to point upward to God’s love.” I believe that it is clear to many that the analogy which he uses to speak of the non-existence of hell is flawed. The author sloughs off compelling scriptural evidence. The bible, both the Old and the New Testament, doesn’t speak of homosexuality very often, but when it does, it unwaveringly and consistently condemns it as sin. So, by tying homosexuality and hell together as alleged false doctrines, he has committed a double fault.

If Shore’s statement merely questions whether the fires and darkness of hell are literal, he might have a point. Many scripture scholars and theologians would opine that the descriptive references to the conditions of hell are figurative, to explain the unbearable situation of the soul’s eternal separation from God. But clearly, this is not Shore’s point. He denies the very existence of hell, and he is not alone in his belief. Many, including Catholics and Protestants alike, reject the notion of hell. I’ve known of many priests and religious who are convinced in its non-existence and many others who are too embarrassed to mention it, what more preach about it. They believe that the threat of hell has been one of Christianity’s core assets in recruiting members. A kind of carrot and stick in reverse. This is known as Pascal’s Wager, defined thus by the Oxford dictionary: The argument that it is in one's own best interest to behave as if God exists, since the possibility of eternal punishment in hell outweighs any advantage of believing otherwise. Better safe than sorry.

So, does hell exist? If it does, how many of us would end up there? In the gospel today someone asked Jesus, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” This is a topic most Catholics are concerned about as well.  It is a difficult subject to think about and we would rather not think about it if we can.  Many Catholics believe everyone will go to heaven, and that there isn’t such a thing as hell.  They believe that God is loving, forgiving, merciful and would never send anyone to hell.  This view, however, is simply a personal opinion!  It is not based on the catechism or the scriptures, which is most evident in today’s gospel. In fact, this belief is called the sin of presumption, which is an enemy of the virtue of hope.

Our Lord avoided a simple straightforward answer. And, this wasn’t because he felt uncomfortable with the topic as modern people would. Instead, he began to lay out the high demands of discipleship, which is a way of stating that we should never take salvation for granted. He answered the question by saying that we should strive to enter through the narrow gate and adds this sobering but significant footnote, “many will try to enter and will not succeed.”  The reason for this, would be that many would prefer the easier and more convenient path.  The master of the house will lock the door and there would be people who will knock on the door asking to be let in.  But the master will reply: “I do not know where you come from.” After repeating this statement a second time, Our Lord adds these disturbing words, “Away from me, all you wicked men.” It would be hard for those who deny hell to dismiss this passage or even give it a spin, unless they choose to reject the entire inspiration of Scripture, which seems to be the logical conclusion. When we choose to reject hell, we eventually choose to reject God and heaven, the antitheses of hell.

The clarity of Jesus’ words cannot be simply denied or pushed to the periphery but it has to be noted that our Lord did not provide an exact answer to the question, “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” Neither Scripture nor Tradition provides us with statistics. St. Thomas Aquinas says, it is better not to speculate about the number of those who are to be saved, for such is known to God alone. But then, the Angelic Doctor adds these comments which seem foreign to the modern ear, “from the words of Christ, however, we know that the elect who are saved are few in comparison with the majority who are damned.” Nevertheless, the real “possibility” of hell, being eternally separated from God, is clear from this text. The lesson we derive from this is certainly not fear, as if God or the Church wishes to scare us into submission, just like what our parents did when we were naïve children, with the frequent threat of calling the police to arrest us and throw us into prison.

Hell is real and it is everlasting. We may not hear much about Hell these days and we may not even like to, but silence on the subject does not make the reality of Hell go away. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) says this, “Following the example of Christ, the Church warns the faithful of the ‘sad and lamentable reality of eternal death’, also called ‘hell.’ Hell’s principal punishment consists of eternal separation from God in whom alone man can have the life and happiness for which he was created, and for which he longs. The Church prays that no one should be lost: ‘Lord, let me never be parted from you.’ If it is true that no one can save himself, it is also true that God ‘desires all men to be saved’ (1 Tim 2:4), and that for him ‘all things are possible’ (Mt 19:26).”  (CCC 1056-58). The Church has never definitively taught that anyone in particular is or is not in Hell.  But on the basis of revelation, we cannot deny the existence of Hell and the very real possibility that you or I might end up there.

More importantly, Our Lord lays out for us a choice between two paths in life. The first is the difficult path that leads to the narrow gate and ultimately to eternal life. The second is the broad and easy path which leads to the wide gate and a destructive end. It is a popular error of our time to believe that it does not matter which road one takes. What’s toxic about the denial of hell is that it suggests that God doesn’t much care what we do in this life as long as everyone’s enjoying it.  That’s not Christianity, that’s hedonism, the worship of enjoyment and fun. Others believe that all roads are like spokes on a wheel, all leading to the same place – Heaven. How often have we heard that common claim that all that matters are our good intentions? But there is also the expression, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”  Jesus uses the definite article when he speaks of Himself as "the Way, the Truth and the Life.” He is also the “Sheep Gate” and the “Door.” It is not love nor is it broad-mindedness, when we allow people to follow their own erroneous ways, paths that may ultimately lead them to destruction. It is always the loving thing to help people choose the narrow and hard path, which will remain unpopular, because the Cross will never be a popular option, but necessary for our salvation.

We are all living on borrowed time. The parable of the householder who gets up and locks the door impresses on us that time is of the essence. Providence has given us this time so that we may be busy at working out our salvation. This is certainly not the time to take it easy, loose ourselves in our complacency, and gain more points for hell instead of heaven. The shortness of our lives should remind us that our primary work is to work out our salvation. We must make our own salvation and the salvation of all those around us, our top priorities in this life. Nothing else ranks anywhere close in its importance – neither health, wealth, career, popularity, possessions nor acclaim by others. Know what you must do to be saved and work out that salvation in fear and trembling. In any event, better ‘saved’ than sorry.

Friday, August 12, 2016






在今天的读经一里,我们看到作者在默示录中的神视,那是两种不同势力对峙的神视。神视中的那个妇女代表着无助和软弱;她脆弱的处境变得更糟糕是因为她正在产痛中。 另一方面,我们有一个可怕大龙的画面,它居高临下,看来没有什么力量可以抵挡大龙,但天主介入了。天主救了那个女人,并让她把孩子带到这世界来 —— 这个平凡小孩将成为宇宙的真正君王,而不是那条龙。当一切看来好像都要失败时,或在遭受某种挫折的情形下,天主确保了胜利归于那些软弱和受创伤的人们。