Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Lost, the Stranger, the Refugee, the Migrant

Twenty Fourth Ordinary Sunday Year C

The buzz word on every Malaysians’ lips these past few weeks is the recent and sudden hike in the prices of petrol. The irony is that it had to happen just two days after Independence Day, a sick or some would even say a malicious kind of a joke, a national gift to all Malaysians; one that is certainly not going to earn much patriotic endearment in these troubled times. Malaysians vented their anger in the usual manner, online and in social circles, believing that the pump price rise was just the beginning of a whole slew of bad news to come, including the implementation of the controversial goods and services tax (GST). The nation’ and individuals’ attention have been so focused on dealing with this big financial dent in everyone’s pocket that another set of happenings seem to be off our radar.

A day earlier, the Malaysian authorities began a massive crackdown on undocumented migrants and refugees, a process which entailed hunting down, arresting, detaining and deporting without due process tens of thousands of persons, including women and children.  News report state about 2,000 people were arrested within the first 24 hours, including children and asylum seekers. Some of our parishioners, migrants, have also fallen victim to this operation. There is an overwhelming fear and anxiety within the refugee and migrant community. Many have gone into hiding and others have gone missing. Migrants and refugees are understandably afraid to travel and leave their homes; which explains the major dip in Church attendance of migrants and refugees at our masses. Yet, these happenings seem to have little impact on most people. The petrol price hike seems to be a more pressing concern.

The hunt down and arrest of migrants and refugees is a sort of twisted parody of the parables we encounter in today’s gospel. Rather than an expression of warm hospitality and loving welcome, we see quite the reverse. The search for these peoples does not end well, at least not in reconciliation. The present crackdown on migrants is just symptomatic of the shameful culture of exploitation and victimisation which targets the weakest and most vulnerable, especially the migrant community in this country that have been subjected to institutional slavery and human trafficking legitimised by discriminatory immigration and labour policies. But there is a parallel between the painful story of migrants and migration and the stories we just heard in today’s gospel. It is found in the theme of displacement and alienation. But what the gospel introduces into this equation is something radically unexpected, it is the certain and joyful hope of reconciliation. 

Today’s gospel is intended to be a veritable celebration for those who are lost, sinners, displaced, marginalised, as it dramatises in triple parables the merciful love of God that seeks out the lost, moves him to repentance and rejoices at his coming home. This is bound to strike a chord with all of us, because there is no one who doesn’t feel lost or displaced, or an unworthy sinner or marginalised in some way or at some time in their lives. We are introduced to these three parables by a short note of how the tax collectors and sinners, the dredges of society, were drawn to Jesus; they were attracted by his mercy and concern for their welfare. But the scribes and Pharisees, who were also drawn to Jesus, albeit for different reasons, resented the fact that Jesus welcomed those whom they regarded as the pariahs of society. Religious professionals, schooled in the law and in observance, the scribes and Pharisees thought they knew the mind and heart of God concerning sinners. Jesus, by his words and works, confronted them with the shocking and ‘unseemly’ reality that God not only loves sinners; indeed, he seeks after them and welcomes them with joy!

All three of the lost items in the gospel were things the scribes and Pharisees would have judged not worth searching for. After all, what logical person would leave a herd of 99 sheep to search for a stray? And who would actually sweep clean a house to find one coin when they had nine others? And who would open him/herself to greater misery by seeking out a prodigal child who had disgraced the family name and disassociated himself from his sacred heritage when you had another fine and upright son at home? Most sensible people would have just counted their losses and moved on. The scenarios were just plain incredulous and outright scandalous! And this is what is so amazing about the point made by these parables – the amazing love of God, the extravagant love of God – the heart of God, so immense that it encloses everyone within its orbit, a heart which rejoices at the return of the sinner.

These stories are beautiful parables about the mercy of God, but they are also parables about the suffering the migrants and strangers often endure through discrimination, violence and indifference of the people around them. It’s true that we can’t be responsible for the physical needs of every person that we meet each day. But it is incumbent on us as Christians to open our hearts to those around us, especially those who are isolated, those who are suffering, those who are strangers, those from another country, those who are vulnerable in any way.

In his first trip outside Rome after his election, Pope Francis travelled to the southern Mediterranean island of Lampedusa, a major point of arrival for migrants from Africa and the Middle East seeking entry into Europe. He wanted to commemorate the roughly 20,000 people who have died trying to make the crossing and to show solidarity with the survivors. The open air mass turned out to be a parabolic act – He was the Good Shepherd in search of the lost sheep, the poor woman frantically looking for her lost coin, and the gentle Father who welcome the return of the lost son. The visuals were stunning: The pope celebrated Mass at an altar made from the wood of a boat used by migrants. He spoke from an ambo that displayed its rudder and carried a pastoral cross and used a chalice also made from the boat's wood. Francis stood with the immigrants and listened to their stories, at one point stopping under a banner that read, "You're one of us!" Who could not forget at that moment that this humble Pope was also born to Italian immigrants who migrated to Argentina. He said on the night of his election to the papacy that the cardinals had summoned him to Rome from the "end of the world," making him now something of an immigrant himself.

If he had words of comfort, hope and consolation for the migrants, he matched these with a harsh condemnation of the rest of society whom he accused of falling prey to the ‘globalisation of indifference.’ "We have become used to other people's suffering, it doesn't concern us, it doesn't interest us, it's none of our business!" "So many of us, and I include myself, are disoriented," the pope said. "We're no longer attentive to the world in which we live. We don't care about it; we don't take care of what God created for all; and we're no longer capable even of taking care of one another." "When this disorientation takes on the dimensions of the world, it leads to tragedies such as what we've seen (here)."

As we prepare to celebrate Migrant Sunday in another two weeks, let us not fall victim ourselves to the globalisation of indifference and finally become so detached and alienated from the pains, sufferings and plight of others till we no longer seem human. We are not called to deal with an abstract situation, we are called simply to meet the stranger, but a brother nonetheless. This unique person may be a lost sheep, an unknown neighbour, a migrant, or someone who has a father in a distant land. And this father may be praying that someone, somewhere – you or me – would speak to his dear child and welcome him with sensitivity and compassion.

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