Wednesday, July 8, 2015

We were not meant to "Fit In"

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

In many parts of the world, Christianity is often deemed a foreign imported religion of European origin. This has often been the basis for discrimination, state control and even persecution. Discrimination and persecution is conveniently easier when you are a foreigner, because foreigners have fewer civil rights, if any. Many have attempted to resist this unflattering label by attempts to create a more indigenous Church through efforts of social and cultural accommodation, assimilation and mainstreaming. But whether we like it or not, the label has stuck. Perhaps, there is greater truth to it than we would care to admit.

You see Christians are not meant to fit. In fact, we should naturally feel out of place in any larger society. Christians are like immigrants, foreigners, and refugees. We do not belong. We do not have the rights of citizens. We are outsiders. We are living on the edge of the culture. Therefore, we were never meant to “fit into” society. We were meant to shine as lights in the darkness. And being lights, the world would often feel the discomfort of being around us, as lights tend to reveal the cobwebs and dusty corners that are in need of cleaning. We are called to be prophetic witnesses swimming against the current, denouncing deception and false prophets. This is where we belong – right where God has placed us – fitting into God’s plans rather than that of man.

In case of prophetic ministry, being a foreigner isn’t a disqualifying factor, as we can see in the example of the Prophet Amos in the first reading. In fact, it may be an essential credential. The Prophet Amos lived and exercised his prophetic ministry in the Northern Kingdom of Israel during the long reign of King Jeroboam II. There was one slight problem. Amos was a Southerner. The prophet hailed from Tekoa, a small town about thirteen miles south of Jerusalem in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Relationship between the North and the South was anything but harmonious. The North held members of the Royal family of Judah as hostages to ensure that the southern neighbour would make no trouble. Not only was the South subservient and a vassal to the North, but also was economically poorer and less sophisticated than their northern counterpart.

Under the reign of Jeroboam II, the northern Kingdom of Israel enjoyed one of its most happy and prosperous periods. He recovered lands lost by his forerunners. He subdued neighbouring nations. Together with success on the battlefields came economic prosperity. Israelites became very wealthy and began living luxurious and comfortable lives. Unfortunately, this prosperity was not matched by a growth in moral standards. On the contrary, Israel was in the moral gutter, wallowing in the filth of her sins. Ignored were the great ideals and commandments of the Torah to help the poor, and to practice justice and loving kindness. Hand in hand with this degeneration of the morals of the people went growing interest in idolatry. People built many altars on mountains to serve the Canaanite gods. The cult surrounding the Golden Calves, which Jeroboam I set up in the north and south of the country to rival the Temple cult in Jerusalem, were promoted with greater fervour. Indeed the prosperity and power of Israel had led them to a false sense of security.

After a while of living in the midst of sin or having been exposed to immorality for too long, we no longer feel outraged—the unthinkable becomes commonplace. This is the consequence of the process of normalisation, naturalisation, and “fitting in.” While the Israelites accepted their lifestyle as normal, the prophet Amos, a foreigner, recognised it as a perversion and an abomination to God. “Amos” means “burden-bearer,” and his message to Israel, one of continuous judgment and denunciation, was indeed a heavy burden.

Amos, of course, faced certain rejection and persecution for his message, yet he denounced the Israelites from the beginning to the end of his book. His lack of credentials did not help - he was not a professional prophet or belong to the school of prophecy called “brotherhood of prophets,” neither was he a priest or religious scholar. To compound matters, he was a foreigner. At a time, when prudent people were afraid to speak up for fear of retribution, Amos unflinchingly didn’t turn away from his ministry, for he feared no one but God. Even when confronted by Amaziah, the priest of Israel, Amos refused and continued to describe the sins of the people. The prophet, undaunted by Amaziah's threats, declares that he does not practise prophesying as a profession or to gain a livelihood, but in obedience to the voice of God. Tradition holds that Amos finally died a violent death at the hands of Jeroboam II. In censuring Israel, Amos would have been misunderstood as a bitter merciless pessimist. Nothing could be further from the truth. Amos was truly a compassionate shepherd who cared enough to confront, one who did not compromise the truth for the sake of preserving his own reputation and livelihood. He reminds us that a prophet’s duty is not always to infuse people with confidence and optimism. He has a greater responsibility to raise his voice, with courage and hope, to denounce sin, falsehood, lies and deception. In this he shows true mercy.

Likewise, we see in the gospel, the Twelve being sent out on mission and called to live a prophetic life that would ultimately lead to their estrangement from society. Being his followers would mean that they would now be at the margins of society. The dispossession and missionary poverty that they were to observe did not merely point to the believer’s transitory life on this earth, but also defined the relationship between a Christian and the unbelieving society. It was going to be prophetically counter-cultural. If our materialistic society preaches that possessions are necessary for security and guaranteeing one’s future, the Christian way of life points to something altogether different – radical dependence on God.

The conditions imposed by Jesus on travelling lightly stresses the importance of always being on the move. We are to steer away from the temptation of growing roots, hanging on to what we possess, holding onto relationships we have established, keeping a firm hold to positions we have acquired. Christians need to be always on the move because we are a missionary people called to proclaim the kingdom of God to furthest ends of the earth. When Christians choose to “fit in” and accommodate to the larger culture, they not only become overly parochial and insular, but also end up losing their missionary edge. Radical dependence means freedom from enslavement to sin, material possessions, false securities, self-sufficiency and pride. Interestingly, the four items required of the Twelve in today’s gospel are identical to that which God told the Hebrews to take on their flight from Egypt in the Exodus (Ex. 12:11). The Hebrews were rescued by God from their condition of slavery in Egypt. But eventually, they found themselves enslaved to new masters – to the things which they brought as additional security. This radical rejection of those items point to a second Exodus which all Christians must take. In order to be free, one must not only be free from external masters but also from the tyranny of self.

We are foreigners and exiles because we have been born anew into a new homeland. We are prophets who are tasked to provide a vision that goes beyond the horizon of this world. But being members of another kingdom makes us outsiders here on earth. We have become strangers because we have become strange. Our values, lifestyle, and priorities will always be radically different from the surrounding culture. Our faith makes us strangers in our own land. We do not fit in. We are not meant to. We are on the margins, just like the poor and the weak. But that will be our redemption!

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