Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Love is the Law

Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Those of you who had lived through the heydays of the Beatles in the 1970s, may or may not remember another American band called the Suburbs. The popularity of the Suburbs certainly came nowhere close to their legendary counterparts from across the Atlantic, but still had a considerable influence in the late 1970s through the 1980s. The Suburbs’ best-known song is easily “Love is the Law,” a single that was also the title track of their 1983 album. Though the popularity of “Love is the Law” endured long after the band’s activities died down, it wasn’t until last year that frontman and writer of that song, Chan Poling, revealed the inspiration behind the song. Those who had wished for a scriptural reference or inspiration would certainly be disappointed by this revelation. It was just a graffiti spray painted into an overpass during a time of sexual experimentation and liberation. It is no wonder that “Love is the Law” was used as the anthem for the same-sex marriage bill being signed into law into America last year, the song has more meaning now than ever.

Love is such a big word.  It covers a gamut of definitions and means something different to most everyone. But Christ brought an entirely new and radical meaning to the word. In him, we come to understand that love is more than an emotion, a choice, a commitment or an attitude. Love is a person. His name is Jesus Christ. If we want to know what love means, therefore, we must look at Jesus Christ. Love is not just sweet platitudes. Love is a person, not just any person, but God, who forsook his divinity in order to take on our humanity. Yes, love is a person who has laid down his life for us, and by doing so, demonstrates to us the true depths and most profound meaning of that love. This is how Paul describes Christ’s love. “For at the very time when we were still powerless, then Christ died for the wicked. Even for a just man one of us would hardly die, though perhaps for a good man one might actually brave death; but Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, and that is God’s own proof of his love towards us” (Rom. 5:6-8).

If you still remember, Jesus had survived last week’s trap set by the Jewish leaders concerning the legitimacy of paying taxes to the Roman Emperor. One of the scribes, having heard Jesus' responses, decides to offer a question of his own. Recognising the quality of Jesus' knowledge, he asks a question about a foremost matter, a major topic of rabbinical debates. “which is the greatest commandment of the Law?” Now this may seem like a silly kindie’ level question to many of us, but for the Jews of Jesus’ time, it was a real challenge to discern which of the supposed 613 (some would say 615, and still others would put the number in the thousands) laws or commandments was indeed the most important one. Any sense of direction had fallen victim to the maze of countless commandments and numerous enumerations. Now, Jesus restores the priorities in no uncertain terms.

Love of God before anything else, as the response of the entire person to God’s total self-giving covenant: love him with your mind, yes, but on a deeper level, with your heart, and incorporating both, with all your soul. In other words, it is loving God with our entire being. Nothing is to be held back. Love doesn’t allow for a compartmentalisation that reserves certain sections of our lives. Neither is this love compromised even in the face of the love we have to offer someone, for example, a wife’s love for her husband or a husband’s love for his wife, or their love for their children and vice versa. The love of neighbour can never take precedence over love of God. In all instances, love of God must come first in its totality.

If we have given everything to God, then how can we make sense of the second part of the Great Commandment, to love our neighbour as ourselves? Here, Jesus, who is both God and man, joins the love of God and the love of neighbour inseparably for eternity. Loving those around us is not competition for our undivided love of God. Rather loving our neighbour is evidence of our love for God. And no exceptional standard of ethics and morality can be valid without love of our neighbour.

But Jesus does not stop there. In what is probably the most striking part of his answer to the question, he makes all the other laws and the prophets’ explications of them dependent on this double commandment as the norm and standard for all morality. It is first and greatest in that it represents the heart-beat of all the commandments. Love moves the Christian beyond the letter of the law by doing “more”, and never “less.” Jesus here erects the fundamental structure for all Christian ethics. It’s not about being good, or neighbourly, or just being nice, it’s always about love. Love indeed is the Law. Some people make the mistake of pitting love against law, as if the two were mutually exclusive. You either have a religion of love or a religion of law. But such an equation is profoundly untenable as it finds no basis in Sacred Scripture. For starters, “love” is a command of the law. Conversely, if you tell them law doesn’t matter, then neither does love, which is the summary of the law. Furthermore, for Jesus there is no love for him apart from keeping the law. But he says even more than this. Jesus connects communion with God with keeping commandments. This is because God’s law is an expression of his loving grace.

Unlike what the song “Love is the Law” suggests, love does not mean licentiousness, a celebration of anarchy, or a carefree plunging into sinful behaviour. Some people today understand “love” as merely a happy feeling of friendliness or good will.  They think that, provided they feel good about the idea of God, they may do as they please. Jesus’ teaching on the Great Commandment and his own demonstration by his sacrifice on the cross demolishes the myth. As anyone who serves others out of love knows, we can only love when we are prepared to undergo a death to the self, to the flesh. Those who indulge their own flesh are not the ones who tend to serve others. Thus, our freedom in Christ is not merely a freedom from the enslavement to the world, and certainly not freedom from the enslavement of the Law, but a call to a new type of service, the responsibility to serve others out of love. It is the opportunity to love God with our entire being, heart, soul, and mind, and our neighbour without hindrance, the possibility of creating human communities based on mutual self-giving rather than the quest for power and status. Licentiousness, on the other hand, perverts God’s grace by insisting that we can live without conscience or moral convictions.

Through this two-fold Great Commandment, Jesus provides us with wise directions to navigate between two dangerous pitfalls. On the one side, Jesus directs us beyond legalism, which always tries to settle for the minimal requirements of the law, by reminding us that true communion with God demands not just a portion of our attention and love, but everything. On the other side, he leads us beyond an irresponsible idea of freedom, a licentious permissiveness, by indicating that there is no contradiction between the Law of Christ and Love. If we say that we truly love God, then we must obey Him in every way and not just be contented with having good feelings or wishes.  And finally, loving God empowers us and frees us to love other people, without the usual strings attached. The demand of love reminds us that we should never settle for a minimum concern for neighbours, but instead go the extra mile, to give without expecting anything in return and finally even to emulate the example of Our Lord, to lay down of our lives for the other, for which there is no greater love.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Give back to God what belongs to God



Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Our Holy Father, Pope Francis may be the darling of the secular press, but he isn’t the only Pope that had engaged the secular media on their turf. In 2012, the year before his shocking resignation, Pope Benedict was approached by the Financial Times to write a Christmas piece. The Pope wrote about Christian life in the world. It is a life that did not begin in the agora, the public market place, the public forum of man, but rather a life that began in Bethlehem. The Pope began his article with the words of Jesus we just heard read from today’s gospel, “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”

That famously cryptic comment serves as a reminder of the question-mark that hangs over life, especially the relationship between religion or Church, and the State or government.  Over the centuries, many Christians have based their attitudes toward government on this passage. Some have thought that Jesus' statement establishes two separate realms, Caesar's and God's, and that people should render to each what they ask for in their respective realms. This interpretation strikes many modern persons as obviously correct, given the problems we witness when religion is subjugated by the State as a state ideology that colours every aspect of public life.  Yet in their historical context, these words of Jesus had little to do with taxation or political authority in general, what more of Church-State relation.

Jews in the first century paid several taxes: tithes to the Temple, customs taxes, and taxes on land. The people identified as Jesus' opponents were not questioning taxes in general. Their question was more specific: " Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?" The question could be seen in the light of a growing nationalism that resented the dominance of a foreign colonial power as well as the potential problem of idolatry. You have to understand that Caesar, the emperor of Rome, was not only the head of an imperial domination system, but also the principal deity of an official state promoted religion. Julius Caesar was the first historical Roman to be officially deified. He was posthumously granted the title Divus Iulius (the divine Julius or the deified Julius) by decree of the Roman Senate. Divus Iulius was not a secondary god, but was made equivalent to the highest God of the Roman Empire, Jove.

The gospel story begins with a Pharisee complimenting Jesus for his honesty, integrity and ability to communicate the message of God authentically. It doesn’t take a genius to realise that this is just an attempt to fatten the prize cow before the kill. The question that follows is a trap, “Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” The hated tax was a humiliating symbol of subjugation and where the Pharisees resisted it, the Herodians who were Roman collaborators, favoured the tax. If Jesus supported paying tribute to the colonial masters he would be discredited as a prophet, on two accounts, for being disloyal to the nationalist cause as well as idolatry. If however, he argued against paying the tax, it would be an act of sedition, and we know how this is effectively being used in this country to silence critics and detractors. It’s a Catch 22 situation, “damn if you do, damn if you don’t.”

But “Jesus was aware of their malice” and denounced their hypocrisy. He then ingeniously asked them to produce a coin. Now this an embarrassing exposé – why were these sanctimonious puritans in possession of such a coin? They, who had denounce others for their idolatry and turn-coat collaboration with the colonial authorities, were themselves guilty of possessing a coin that was blasphemous – it possessed a graven image of a self-declared Emperor-God. It is here that we hear those classic words, “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar – and to God what belongs to God.”

According to Pope Emeritus Benedict, “Jesus’ answer deftly moves the argument to a higher plane, gently cautioning against both the politicisation of religion and the deification of temporal power, along with the relentless pursuit of wealth. His audience needed to be reminded that the Messiah was not Caesar, and Caesar was not God. The kingdom that Jesus came to establish was of an altogether higher order. As he told Pontius Pilate: “My kingship is not of this world.” Kings, Presidents, Prime Ministers, Cabinets and Sultans think they are sacral powers and claim divine attributes; Jesus demystifies this sacrility. God alone is Lord and earthly rulers at most receive a divine stewardship under which they are to ensure political order by God’s commission. For realising this Christians will pay a bloody price. Christians have faced and continue to face martyrdom, persecution and marginalisation for refusing to give to Caesar what belongs ultimately to God.

Thus, “(give) to God what belongs to God” is the answer to the first part of the riddle, “give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” Needless to say, everything belongs to God, because man is created according to God’s image, not Caesar’s, and because God is Ruler over all earthly kings. According to Pope Benedict, “if the image of Caesar was stamped on Roman coins which for this reason were to be rendered to him, the human heart bears the imprint of the Creator, the one Lord of our life,” and thus has to be rendered wholly to God.

Nevertheless, Caesar does have rights.  We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience.  But that obedience is limited by what belongs to God.  Caesar is not God.  Only God is God, and the state is subordinate and accountable to God for its treatment of human persons, all of whom were created by God.  This has implications of how Christians should view political life. First, all political leaders draw their authority from God.  We owe no leader any submission or cooperation in the pursuit of grave evil.  In fact, we have the duty to change bad laws and resist grave evil in our public life, both by our words and our non-violent actions.  The truest respect we can show to civil authority is the witness of our Catholic faith and our moral convictions, without excuses or apologies. Second, in democracies, we elect public servants, not messiahs. It’s quite clear from recent events in our country, that our political leaders all possess, without distinction, feet of clay.  Thus, no politician, policy or law should be above the critique of faith and morals.

The “separation of Church and state” does not mean – and it can never mean – separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions.  It is certainly a mistake to think that in his reply Jesus is dividing life into two spheres, the secular and the sacred, as so many people have supposed. That kind of separation would require Christians to deny who we are; to repudiate Jesus when he commands us to be “leaven in the world” and to “make disciples of all nations.”  That kind of radical separation privatises our faith and steals the moral content of a society. It would require us to live schizophrenic existence, as part-time Christians, which is wholly untenable.

In the last two months, the celebration of Hari Merdeka and Malaysia Day, are potent reminders of our citizenship in this country. But today, we are reminded by the gospel that we serve Caesar best by serving God first. We honour our nation best by living our Catholic faith honestly and vigorously, and bringing it without apology into the public square and its debates.  We are citizens of heaven first.  We are called to live in his world, but ultimately, we do not belong to the World. But just as God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so the glory and irony of the Christian life is this:  The more faithfully we love God, the more truly we serve the world.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Poured out ... For Many



Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Changes, especially when it affects us personally, are often difficult to accept. My entry into this parish coincided with a big change in the new translation of text of the Mass, largely affecting the English speaking world. I know personally of many priests who grumbled at the archaic sounding, long and clumsy sentences, often with hardly a punctuation to help us catch our breath, and others who eulogised the introduction of a new translation that was profoundly more theological and closer to the original Latin. The debate continues with bated breath, some resisting, some delaying, whilst others in open rebellion, simply refusing to use the new text. A significant change is the words of Christ in the institution narrative, while the Chalice is being lifted, from the former “shed for you and for all so that sins may be forgiven,” to the present “poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”

The most noticeable revision in these lines is the replacement of "for all" with "for many." It raises the controversial and troubling question, “Does that mean that the Church is saying that Christ did not die for all?” Certainly, this is not the intention of the Church, and certainly she has no desire to change scriptures, especially the belief that Christ is “the expiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 Jn 2:2). But perhaps, the real reason is not a matter of translation or semantics, but rather one of having one of our most popular beliefs exposed as a myth at best, and a lie at worst. Without a doubt, the new translation shakes the widespread belief, which is not confined to uncatechised laity but also of clerics and religious too, that salvation is virtually assured to all men and women, regardless of their religious faith. In other words, hell doesn’t exist, and “all” (and I would add “and sundry”) are assured a place in heaven. Being confident that we are assured of our salvation, despite our many failings and a mountain of sin, is delusional and presumptuous.

At the most basic level, "for many" is a faithful translation of the original Latin phrase, “pro multis.” Moreover, scripture would lend support to use of “many” instead of “all. For example, the Prophet Isaiah (53:12) prophesied that the Messiah would take away "the sins of many," and Christ Himself also said His Blood would be shed for "many" (Mt 26:28, Mk 14:24). This does not mean that Christ did not die for the sake of all humanity, for that is indisputable from Scripture. Rather, it upholds the reality that each individual must also accept and abide in the grace won by Christ in order to attain eternal life. The recovery of the wording, "for many," affirms that salvation is not completely automatic. The words “for many” more accurately suggest that while Christ's redemptive suffering makes salvation available to all, it does not follow that all men are saved. Our salvation is contingent upon us making the correct respond to God’s invitation to the heavenly banquet.

In today’s parable of the Wedding Banquet, we have just heard the perfect illustration of this point. To understand the nature of the feast, we have to look at the first reading, where the Prophet Isaiah describes the feast of joy as one marking the End Times. It is the Feast of Judgment. Note that in the Isaian prophecy, not only Israel but all nations are invited to it. The veil of sadness that has covered the Gentiles is now lifted, indeed, all grounds for mourning, even death, have vanished. The Old Testament picture of this feast has no shadow. In contrast, the New Testament, or today’s gospel image, is covered with many shadows.

In the parable, the King, which is none other than God the Father, is holding a feast on the occasion of his Son’s wedding. The Book of Revelation (19:7) describes this as the Wedding of the Lamb, where the Son– Lamb-Bridegroom, who by means of his perfect sacrifice on the cross, brings about the marital union with the Church-Bride. We can see in this image our own Eucharistic celebration which is an anticipation of the Heavenly Banquet. And so the king sends out his servants to announce his invitation, “Come to the wedding!” But not all respond positively. And it is here that we see how the parable combines two stories. The first has to do with the original guests invited to the feast.  However, they offer an insult to the King and his heir by declining the invitation. They put their own interests above his.  The second part of the story focuses on those who would never have considered getting such an invitation.  When the first group rejected the invitation, the servants were asked to go out into the streets to collect the “good and the bad.” This is an invitation of grace - undeserved, unmerited favour and kindness!  But this invitation also contains a warning for those who approach the wedding feast unworthily.  You need to be appropriately “dressed.”

The parable points to two forms of scorning the invitation to accept the King’s invitation to the banquet, and thus God’s supreme gift of salvation. The first form is indifference: those invited care nothing for the grace offered them – they have better things to do, their earthly business is more pressing. How often have I heard the excuse that people have no time to come to Church, that they are tired, that their children have to be ferried to tuition, that they wanted to spend quality time in the shopping malls or were busy arranging for a holiday on a Sunday. The second form of unworthiness, contrasting with the indifference of the invited guests, is that of the man who strolls into the banquet, and perhaps in our context, coming for for the Eucharistic celebration, dressed as if entering a pub or going to the beach.

Some would protest on his behalf. Why should he get dressed up? Shouldn’t the King be happy that he had come at all? This is where we see the truth of that adage, “familiarity breeds contempt.” Rather than realising that we are coming into the presence of the King of Kings, the Ruler of the cosmos, we quite often witness the greatest contemptuous familiarity by our lackadaisical behaviour. But the story certainly points to more than mere church attire. The Church constantly cautions us that we should receive communion only in a state of grace; for to receive Christ unworthily in a state of serious or mortal sin would transform what was originally a blessing into a curse.

It is true that God bestows things on us without measure. It is true that He wishes the salvation of all. It is certainly the gospel truth that Christ died not just for a few but for all. But it is not true, that we can presume that such salvation is guaranteed without any effort on our part, without any true conversion of the heart, without any transformation, conversion and sacrifice that comes from the core of our being. God bestows the grace of salvation and offers it to all of us, but now we must be willing to give ourselves entirely to him, without calculating, without stinginess. With much grace comes greater responsibility.

The kingdom of God is a feast – and we are all bidden to come to the feast. But the invitation to the feast is never forced. The invite can be set aside and past over due to daily concerns and sin. The point is that though men suppose they highly prize the thought of sharing in God’s kingdom, they may in fact be rejecting appeals to enter it. But God continues to appeal to us to join in the feast. Day by day, week by week, and year by year, as we go through life, we are weaving the garment that we shall wear for this great Wedding Banquet. It is the garment that had been given to us at our baptism, where we, as St Paul reminds us, have “put on Christ.” It is the garment that is strengthened and fortified by the Sacraments of the Church. It is the garment that is knitted together with all the tears of sorrow for our sins and tears of joy at the reconciliation with our brethren. It is also the garment that is adorned with the jewels of virtue and good deeds. Are you ready to feast at the Lord's banquet table or have you come improperly dressed?

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Life Owes Us Nothing



Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

“If there is such a thing as a basic human quality: self-deception it is,” observed British anthropologist, Collin Turnball. You are most likely not going to agree with this statement. How could you? The beauty of self-deception is that you are never aware of your own delusions. We are so good at fooling ourselves that we do not recognise the lie. We find ourselves in the curious position of being both the deceiver and the deceived. Our penchant for self-deception often gets expressed in delusions of grandeur and a sense of entitlement. We feel that the world, and perhaps even God, should bow down before us and that everyone should accede to our request because it is our right – they owe it to us. Though most of us would be appalled at the wickedness of the initial group of tenants in today’s parable, and never see ourselves filling their shoes, we may be surprised that we actually share much in common, namely self-deception and a wicked sense of entitlement.

The Parable of the Vineyard or the Wicked Tenants must have been an important parable as this is attested by the fact that it appears in all three of the synoptic gospels, with St Matthew’s account being the most complete; it provides us with a clear ending whereas the other two versions leaves us guessing. The context of Matthew’s version is Jesus teaching in the temple. While He was teaching, the chief priest and elders confronted Him with a question regarding his authority. According to rabbinical norms, a teacher had to first establish his authority to teach, usually by demonstrating his rabbinical lineage – that he was a student of so-and-so, who was a student of so-and so and so forth. In his usual manner of taking charge in the face of opposition, Jesus answered their question by posing a question of his own. Jesus now questions their authority and ability to discern the nature and source of the authority of another contemporary and popular preacher, his cousin, St John the Baptist. Since they are unable (or rather refuse) to answer his question, it figures that Jesus is also not obliged to answer theirs. This exchange leads to the escalation of the tension between the religious leaders and Jesus, thus sealing the fate of the latter.  Jesus then narrates two parables: the Parable of the Two Sons, which we heard last week, and the Parable of the Vineyard, or the Wicked Tenants. Both parables point at their disobedience and its consequences.

The second parable, the parable of the Wicked Tenants finds inspiration in the prophecy of Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading. But, here, Jesus adds additional characters to thicken the plot. The parable falls within the category of an allegory and relates to the story of salvation history. God entrusted his kingdom to the Israelites during Old Testament times, here symbolised by the familiar image of the vineyard. When they steered off course, God did not immediately remove these wayward tenants but rather sent the prophets to try to correct them. Their failure to listen to the prophets seems inevitable. Finally, God decided to send his son Jesus to make clear God's message. But the leaders turned against Jesus and finally had him killed. Then the majority of the Jewish people refused to accept Christ. So the kingdom was given to a new people, the Church.

There you have it, the meaning of the parable in a nutshell. It seems so easy to now just bask in the knowledge that we are the good guys in the story. But the parable allows no self congratulation on the part of the New Israel, the members of the Church. The Christian community is now in the position of being the tenants, and the parable begins all over again. Now we Christians are subject to the scrutinising lens of the parable. It is we now who are responsible to God for the harvest of the vineyard; now the church is challenged to be “a people that produces the fruit of the kingdom.”

What’s wrong with the wicked tenants and why should we guard against repeating their mistake? Well the answer is that at some point the tenants got so used to running things their own way, imagining that there is no accountability at all, that they become confused about who is the owner of the vineyard and who is the tenant. If your sense of entitlement turns on yourself, then there is no accountability for what you do. The parable exposes a dirty little secret about us. We are constantly tempted to think that the vineyard, be it the world, the Church or even the Kingdom of God, is ours and we can do what we want with it and we can treat each other in any way that we want, and there is no holding us to account for it. But in the parable, that is all turned around. The vineyard that we treat as our own belongs to another who expects us to make good on our responsibilities. We are not owners in this vineyard, we are tenants; we are merely servants, not masters. God doesn’t owe us anything; on the contrary, it is we who owe God an account of our stewardship. That’s irony!

Most of us cannot imagine ourselves taking the path of the wicked Tenants. But here lies the power of self-deception. The parable, in fact, exposes the lie that we have sold ourselves. It is the cult of self that is killing our culture and society. We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once our goals are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. Most adults, and the overwhelming majority of today’s children and teens, feel entitled to having everything they’re taught to want. As a result, when they have a bad experience, lose a person or possession they value, fail to get the award, the increment, or position, or even just have to do something less than fun, they feel slighted—victimised by life. Anger and a “poor-me” pity-party ensues, and the structure for a miserable existence is reinforced. It repeats without end.

The painful truth is that life doesn’t owe us anything. Our parents don’t owe us an inheritance or even our future wellbeing. The government doesn’t owe us a subsidy for every commodity. God doesn’t owe us a blessing or even an answer to our prayer. No one owes us kindness, love, recognition, empathy, apologies, or understanding. In fact, no one owes us anything at all. These are hard truths, but with every truth lies a treasure. The gift in acknowledging and accepting that life owes us nothing is that we realise that every single thing we have is a blessing. God owes us nothing, and yet look at all we’ve been given. This is the point where people often only remember the tragedies of life and conveniently forget or discount the many blessings that have been rained on our lives. Our lives are overflowing with treasures, if we are only prepared to recognise them. God is not a demanding task master, but rather a patient, generous and kind deity who continues to reach out to us till all means are exhausted.

The parable of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants thus illustrate both the justice and mercy of God. God is merciful. He is patient and generous. But we should never mistake this for moral permissiveness nor should it be seen as negligent supervision of creation. Grace is a free gift, but it is also an awesome responsibility. In our petty pursuits for position, honour and recognition within the Church, we must never forget that Jesus, though he may be “the stone rejected by builders,” has always been and remains very much the “cornerstone.” And so we must not allow our sense of self-importance and entitlement to blind us to this truth and lead us to usurp the place of the rightful heir in whom all humanity’s destiny rests. Ultimately, it is Christ who is the chief corner stone that adorns, strengthens, knits, and keeps together, the whole building; in which saints and sinners in all ages and places are united together. Without Him, the whole edifice will crumble.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Good intentions are never enough



Twenty Sixth Ordinary Sunday Year A


A few months ago, I was out for lunch with a friend who “just happened to be in town.” The topic of conversation eventually led to a discussion about our current pope, Pope Francis. Like so many others, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, my friend expressed his profound fondness for the present pontiff and admired him for his casual, simple and down-to-earth manner. He remarked, “You know, He really makes me feel like going for mass everyday!” Now this was a surprised because I never imagined my friend to be the religious and pious type. And so I quipped, “Have you? Have you started attending mass daily?” His reply was unabashedly quick, “Of course not, but he still makes me feel like doing it.”

I guess that what often makes us tick these days. The thought that we might actually make changes in our lives, do something special, go out on a limb, seem quite like the real thing. But the truth of the matter is that good intentions are not enough. This reminds me of the riddle: Imagine, five seagulls are sitting on a dock. One of them decides to fly away. How many seagulls are left?
It seems like a no-brainer answer -“Well … four.”
You should know by now that riddles are never meant to be that simple, there’s always a catch. The actual answer is five. This is because deciding to fly away and actually flying away are two very different things. Despite popular belief to the contrary, there is absolutely no power in intention. The seagull may intend to fly away, may decide to do so, may talk with the other seagulls about how wonderful it is to fly, but until the seagull flaps his wings and takes to the air, he is still on the dock.

In today’s parable of the two sons, Jesus exposes the fallacy that merely good intentions are sufficient. They aren’t. Here, Jesus points to the gap that exists between lip service paid in public and the actions which should have followed our verbal avowals of goodness. The parable begins with a father who gives an order to his two sons to go out and work in his vineyard. The first son was a bit of a rebel. When his father asked him to help with the chores, he railed and ranted and refused. We can almost hear the voice of our teenager defiantly telling his father, “Dad, I have other plans. My friends are coming over. Doing chores is no fun. Just leave me alone.” But a funny thing happened. He changed his mind and did the work his father asked him to do. And then there was the second son who certainly had loads of good intentions. That should count for something. He didn’t rebel when his father asked him to work in the field. He didn’t talk back. He said all the right things. But his good intentions were never translated into action.

To the question of Jesus, “Which of the two did the father’s will?” the Pharisees answered correctly: “The first.” By means of his parable Jesus points to something essential for those who profess themselves as his disciples – in the matter of obedience to God’s will – it is better by far to move from bad intentions to positive action, than to remain locked into good intentions and no action. Really and truly, this parable is a powerful lesson in repentance. We evade, we fail, we fall, we slide, we slip, we stumble, we sin, but our loving Heavenly Father is always there, ready to pick us up…if only we open ourselves to repent, to change, to live in harmony with God’s way and will, to become what God has created and called us to be. Repentance takes us beyond good intentions. Repentance moves us beyond our historical baggage.

Just as Ezekiel proposed in the first reading that it is possible for a wicked person to turn from evil to good and vice versa, so the two sons in the parable are not irrevocably tethered by their past. Indeed, the son who said yes but did not go seems to be representative of all those people who possess a smug sense of self-righteousness and who are contented with their noble and good intentions, but never really lift a finger to make a difference. Whereas, the son who rebelled but then acquiesced is representative of people who acknowledge themselves as sinners, whose checkered past would seem to have left them closed to change but ultimately through a change of heart, through genuine repentance, become the actual recipients of grace. The story reminds us that our past background, our previous conditioning, and all the trouble that life has thrown at us and even past sinful habits are really not decisive in charting a course for the future. It is reminiscent of a voice-over commentary that appears at the beginning and at the end of the comic-book to movie character, Hell Boy, where in answer to the profoundly philosophical question of “what makes a man a man?” the answer is, “it’s not how you decide to begin but how you choose to end it.”

Our culture today is obsessed with being nice, often believing that being nice, having good intentions is enough.  Comfortable and complacent, we too easily become very satisfied with the position we’ve settled into and focus on being nice people instead of doing all that is demanded of us in the gospel. We too easily substitute politeness for transformation. We too easily forget that the resurrection is still the defining force in our lives, and that things in our lives still need to die in order for the things of God to be brought to new life. We too easily think we’re just fine – “I’m OK, you are OK … actually that’s not OK”

People on the outside, however, those whose personal lives are in shambles, who are on the fringes, who are marginalised, know they need something. There is an emptiness, a thirst and a hunger in their lives. Those who recognise their neediness are in fact those who are most sensitive to their need for grace. It’s much easier to seek grace when you stand in desperate need of it. It’s much easier to seek radical transformation in your life when you realise how deeply you need it. The church is here to proclaim God’s grace. We need to remember that grace is still and always needed by those inside. And it is always available to those outside.

Every now and then, it’s good for us on this journey to sainthood to be reminded that we’re still pretty much sinners. We have feet of clay. Every time I’ve gotten just a little too comfortable with the correctness of my words, or the correctness of my deeds, it’s good to be reminded that my heart is always in need of transformation. Every time I’ve started to think it’s about me – about my words, and my deeds, and my efforts, and my intentions, I’m reminded that it’s about God – about what God is doing and how I need to make myself available to the ways God is working and moving through me. If it were all about me, I think the hope for the world would be slim indeed. What does most vital, however, is our personal openness to the grace and mercy of God. With such powerful help, even the most tawdry or sordid past can be forgotten and forgiven. For those of us who look back at countless failures and who labour under the heavy burden of a past littered with mistakes, this parable gives hope and encouragement.

And so we return to the parable once more: A man had two sons. One thought his words and good intentions would save him; the other thought his deeds would save him. In the end, it was the love and grace of their father that saved them, love and grace that can transform every human heart, including ones like ours.