Thursday, March 7, 2013

Grace is not an entitlement

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C

Last month, I was down in a neighbouring diocese giving the monthly recollection to the clergy on the topic of interreligious dialogue. As it usually happens in all lively discussions, we got waylaid and took an unexpected detour into the region of liturgy. When it comes to interreligious dialogue, most clergy have practically no issues. For the most part, this area lies outside our competence as well as field of vision. But liturgy’s another matter all together – a potential minefield. Someone once said that if you were to put three liturgists in a room, they would most likely come up with five different liturgical interpretations. The debate in this case centred on the issue of whether the bereaving family members of the deceased could offer a eulogy at the end of the mass. Although there is no clear restriction, I proposed that it was not liturgically correct as the whole focus should be on the Eucharist, which is a re-enactment of God’s work of salvation. No amount of adulations and good words (‘eulogy’) could immortalise the deceased. It is God who saves. Thus the giving of a eulogy, praising the deeds of men, would therefore trivialise the significance of the Eucharist, which praises the works of God. In a way, eulogies are just another kind of narcissistic expression which seeks to take the limelight away from God. One priest strongly objected with the following exclamation, “But people have rights!” I couldn’t help but mischievously quip in reply, “How about God’s rights?” Another priest added, “People also have a right not to listen (to the eulogy).”

We are a society which has grown acutely sensitive of our rights and sense of entitlement. Older people feel entitled to certain benefits from the government. Middle-aged people feel entitled to generous health and retirement benefits from their employers. Younger adults feel entitled to immediately enjoy the same standard of living their parents took years to achieve. And young people feel entitled to whatever material luxuries they desire. It surely seems appropriate in our culture where we believe we are now entitled to a whole host of things in life. Some believe that they are entitled to kick-backs and bribes, thus the rampant corruption that plagues our system. Others believe that they are entitled to a responsibility-free existence, thus when something goes wrong, someone else is to blame. And still others think they are entitled to a sacrificially-free existence, so they object over having to give up for the sake of another. Church going people are no different. Many Catholics believe that they are entitled to a whole range of benefits just by being members of the parish.  Any perceived curtailment of any of these rights or the denial of entitlements and you may have a riot on your hands.

Both sons in today’s famous parable had the impression that their father’s inheritance was a sort of entitlement. The younger son's sense of entitlement is obvious: he demands his inheritance so he can live as he pleases. He is claiming his birth ‘right’ – his argument is based purely on the strength of lineage. But the older brother displays a similar sense of entitlement in his condemnation and rejection of his brother. He believes that his hard work and good behaviour had earned him the right to the economic benefits and stability of his father's love. Both felt that the father ‘owed’ it to them. Both were deeply flawed.

In the case of the younger son, he equated personal freedom with his right to do whatever he wished. He desired a life free from discipline, from the norms of God’s commandments, from his father’s orders. He wanted to be his own man without any reference to his father or even God.  He was concerned only with his own selfish interest, a heart which had no place for the other, certainly none for his father. Also note the attitude by which the older son lives his life by. His whole attitude is about what he should get from what he has done and not about ‘Who am I becoming in the process?’ He’s about ‘doing’ what a son does and forgot about ‘being’ who a son ought to be. Simply put, the older son was about the Father’s house, but completely missed the Father’s heart.

Competition, bitter rivalry, envy and destructive conflict often arises from this entitlement mentality, the mentality that believes the world or someone or something owes it to us. People often fail to recognise that whenever the discussion of any issue descends to the level of mere assertion of personal rights, we often find ourselves trapped in a selfish self-serving delusional world blind to the needs of others. It is literally saying that our needs are more important than those of others. Few people understand that when someone asserts a right to something, very often someone else’s right is infringed. For example, let’s say that you and I are neighbours. You lead a group of rock musicians who can practice only in the evenings; while I, on the other hand, enjoy nothing more than quiet evenings. Presumably, you have a right to pursue your musical career, and I have a right quietly to enjoy my property. The problem is that your right is incompatible with mine. As a priest in large parish with a multitude of parishioners with conflicting interests, I often find myself caught in endless debates about entitlement. The conversation often gets so wrapped up in the championing of rights and entitlements that we quickly lose sight of grace.

This leads us back to consider the beautiful parable of the Prodigal Son, and especially the character of the father. The father expresses the gratuitousness of grace – it is given to those who do not merit it nor earned it. It is wholly the gift of the father; he does not ‘owe’ it to his sons. The “Father” in this story is undoubtedly characteristic of our Heavenly Father who forgives and restores us back to relationship with Him. Thus the gospel helps us understand who God truly is. He is the Merciful Father who in Jesus loves us beyond all measure. To the world, the father seems like a foolish foggy old man madden with love for his two sons – one an ingrate wastrel and the other, a resentful and reluctant worker. The errors committed by his sons do not corrode the fidelity of the old man’s love for them. In this way, he provides for us the example of how to liberate ourselves from the entitlement trap. We do so whenever we begin to consider the needs of the other, apart from our own rights and entitlements. The father invites us to move from a ‘give me’ mentality to that of personal responsibility. While there's a time and place for discussing rights, what's most helpful is the reminder that we need to extend grace to others, even to those who don’t seem to deserve it.

Furthermore, this parable helps us to understand who the human being is: he is not a an isolated being who lives only for himself and must have life for himself alone. On the contrary, we live with others, we were created together with others and only in being with others, in giving ourselves to others, do we find life. This revelation throws light on the real meaning of freedom. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, “freedom... is a springboard from which to dive into the infinite sea of divine goodness, but it can also become a tilted plane on which to slide towards the abyss of sin and evil and thus also to lose freedom and our dignity.” He said that in modern times we have seen theories proposing that human beings should be, “free, autonomous, and nothing else.” This supposed freedom from everything, including freedom from the duty of obedience to God, is a lie because human being does not exist on its own, nor does it exist for itself. If God is not the point of reference, then man will descend to the level of hedonistic immorality or addictive servitude.

This coming week, we will be celebrating the Parish Penitential Service. The Father invites us to return home.  Let us make this inner pilgrimage freely and without reservation. Christ wishes to set us truly free from the bondage of sin, of selfishness, of material illusions and addictions. We come without pretences, acknowledging that we are undeserving, not entitled to the graces we ask from him. We come with humility recognising that only when we have returned to the Father, both inwardly and outwardly, can we experience true freedom of the soul. Let us come to him to celebrate the feast prepared for us, for the one who is lost is now found, the one who is dead is now alive once more.

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