Wednesday, August 7, 2013

A Thief called 'Christ'

Nineteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Have you ever been floored by something that changed your immediate circumstances and you never saw it coming?  I have.  It’s no fun. No fun at all. As many of you know, our parish office had been hit by not just one but two burglary break-ins within the last few months. I can’t possibly describe the cocktail of emotions that overwhelmed me, especially after the first break-in. I realised that much of what I was feeling came from the fact that this was unexpected and unforeseeable. I felt ashamed and helpless that I wasn’t able to prevent this from happening. The experience was educational, though. It taught me that although I could never see when the next attempt would happen, I could take additional security measures that could deter future attempts, or at least mitigate the loss. Then it happened again. But this time, thankfully, we were better prepared. We were better prepared because we didn’t take for granted that we were impregnable. There is humility in recognising that we are not.

In today’s gospel, Jesus uses a metaphor that you don’t normally hear. We readily associate him with the Good Shepherd or the Bread of Life. Although we don’t have the usual revelatory ‘I am’ statement that are often introduces the other titles and metaphors, Jesus practically speaks about his movements, especially about his future coming as a ‘thief in the night.’ What can a ‘thief’ teach us about Jesus? The element of surprise found in the metaphor is intended to shake us out of the stupour of complacency that often plagues so many of us when it comes to considering the whole uncertain matter of the future.  We are so ruled by the ‘now’ that our vision of the future is severely myopic. We tend to live in the land of critiquing the very recent past and a future that’s just a day or so away. When we stay here for too long, we trick ourselves into believing we’re making real progress or we sink into despair that we’ve not made any progress at all, thus condemning our endeavours as failures. This is the tyranny of NOW and it’s a dangerous place to live for more than a season.

Jesus is the ‘Thief’ who tells us he’s coming. No ordinary self-respecting burglar would announce the time of his arrival, but if he did he could count on being met by a reception committee. Not only does Christ warn us of his imminent visit, he also provides us with practical tips on how to prepare for his coming without being caught unawares. Christ is prepping us to be part of that welcoming party. The vivid imagery of thievery runs throughout today’s gospel passage and in the three tips he provides to prepare for his coming.

First tip, don’t be sitting ducks for thieves – don’t put out calling cards with expensive items attached to them; don’t flaunt your riches and make them appealing targets, don’t put your valuables in a place where it can easily be stolen. Rather store up treasures where “no thief can reach it and no moth can destroy.’ It is ironic that those who have valuables to protect are the most anxious on earth. The poor, on the other hand, have no need for fancy security seems. They risk losing nothing because they have nothing to lose. If we had been concerned with becoming rich in the sight of God as exhorted by Jesus in last week’s gospel, if we have been making the necessary spiritual investments for eternal life by corporal works of mercy, if we have been storing our treasures in heaven, then there is little to be frightened of when Christ comes as a thief in the night. In our efforts to store up treasures on earth, we forget that every soul who passes from this life becomes a "poor soul", regardless of how rich, or beautiful, or famous, or powerful they were in this world. The answer to the riddle: "How much money did Rockefeller leave behind?" is really quite easy: "Every penny of it." We cannot take anything with us, but we can ship it on ahead of ourselves by living a virtuous life. Our treasures are kept in the safest fortress ever known to man, heaven.

Second tip, don’t be caught off guard – always be ready and never assume that you can foresee how and when the end will happen. The tyranny of the ‘now’ has lured us into a false sense of security. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are an ‘indestructible.’ We live each day on the basis of business-as-usual. We put off our preparations for his imminent coming. We spend time addressing the urgent concerns of the ‘here’ and ‘now’. We count on tomorrow's sun to rise, on there being a future. We lay our plans on that basis. But Jesus says that all this will stop. When or how, we don’t know. But this does not detract from the truth that he is coming and that this is more certain than the most certain thing we know of. Thus, it becomes more urgent than ever to always “stand ready, because the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” Notice the argument put forward by Jesus here. He says that if the householder had known when the thief was coming he would have watched and prevented the robbery. That is, if a man knows he is to be robbed at night, and knows the very hour in which it will take place, he will be ready for the burglar when he comes. So, keep ready at all times. Christians should never let down their guard. There is no holiday or break from our Christian duties and responsibilities, a ‘time off’ from being Christian. Christ may decide to pay us a visit when we are ‘off on a holiday’.

The third tip answers the question – ‘How can we always be ready?’ Jesus tells us that we must be ‘wise and faithful’ stewards who do not shirk our responsibility or abuse our authority, and faithfully care for the goods and other members of the master’s household. Stewardship is a way of living that acknowledges that everything is derived from God and continues to belong to God. These things have merely been entrusted to us for the common good of humanity and for the glory of God. Stewardship rejects the claim to an absolute right that comes from ownership. We are accountable to God. Thus, violation of stewardship is a form of stealing. The irony becomes apparent, only ‘thieves’, bad stewards, have need to fear the master of the house, who alone can return unexpectedly to perform an audit like a ‘thief in the night.’ This last tip also reminds us that our waiting is not passive; we are to keep our belts tightened and our lamps burning like men awaiting their master’s return from a wedding. Waiting for Christ to return means working for the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Many Christians seem to feel that waiting for Christ's coming means that we must behave ourselves lest we should suddenly be caught short by his appearing and be ashamed of what we were doing. But Jesus is no policeman, waiting to surprise us in an unguarded moment. Jesus reassures us: “There is no need to be afraid, little flock, for it has pleased your Father to give you the kingdom.” Yes, Jesus is coming ‘like a thief in the night’ to unbelievers and those who are not prepared. But to the faithful, who have lived a life as a faithful and wise steward, his coming is not as a thief but as the Lord of Glory, he comes as our liberation and our salvation. The paradox of the Christian life is that though we look for him to come, yet all the while we are enjoying and experiencing his presence. He is coming, and yet he is with us now. What Jesus wants us to grasp is that these two activities are related. The intensity with which we love his coming is the revelation of the degree to which we are experiencing his presence. The hunger you may feel to see his face is directly proportionate to the present enjoyment you have of his presence. If, to you, the thought of his coming is a frightening thing, then you know little or nothing of his presence now. But if you do know what it means to live by Christ, if moment by moment with your whole being you are taking from him all that he makes available to you, you will find a longing, a yearning in your heart for his personal coming. Thus, we are called to face the future not in fear but to embrace the future in faith, as the second reading tells us, “only faith can guarantee the blessings that we hope for, or prove the existence of the realities that at present remain unseen.”

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