Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Grace, Risks taking and Gratitude

Thirty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

In today’s gospel, we encounter the literary genre called the folkloric threesome. Storytellers throughout the ages have discovered that three events, characters or issues in a story provide an importance access point for the hearer. There is often some emphasis, climax or concentration of attention directed to the last character of the series. And so we have the familiar fairytales of the three bears and Goldilocks, the three little pigs and the Big Bad Wolf, Cinderella and her two sisters plus stepmother. The twist in the story is that the last and third character, who is often depicted at the beginning to be the least likely to succeed, would eventually spring a surprise at the end of the story by emerging triumphant. Thus, the use of the folkloric threesome seeks to turn the perception and values of the audience upside down.

Jesus gives us the parable of the three servants who had been entrusted by their master with different levels of responsibility, one with five talents, another with two, and the last with only one. One would expect, that the story would follow the traditional folkloric threesome ending. The one entrusted with one talent, the least likely to succeed, would emerge champion and prove himself to be the most trustworthy servant of all. But the stories of Jesus do not necessarily have to follow the normal schema of things. In fact, this poor man, perhaps not thought of so highly by his master, which explains the entrusting of just one talent, would actually have to live out the self-fulfilling prophecy of being a loser.

This parable has often been used to illustrate the point that we must all use our God-given talents. This is certainly one of the points which Jesus wishes to make here. But there is something much more profound here – it speaks to us about what it means to be prepared, it speaks to us about how we should respond to the graces we have received especially in the sacraments, and finally it speaks to us of the importance of gratitude.

Today’s parable comes after last week’s parable of the ten bridesmaids, five who were wise and five who were foolish. Both these parables are eschatological parables – in other words, they both speak of the end times. Both these parables provide us with clues as to how we are to prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord. If last week’s parable spoke about keeping enough oil for the lamp to be burning, this week’s parable emphasises the need to invest our talents. The oil in last week’s gospel parable referred to something which was internal – our inner life, our spiritual life, our faith relationship with God which is nurtured by prayer, contemplation, the sacraments, devotion and sacrifices. However, the inner life would finally have to find expression in our external actions and behaviour. So, this week’s gospel reminds us that the inner life that we have cultivated must be translated into action – we must always be committed to the mission of Christ. Faithfulness to this mission, symbolised by the other two servants investing their talents and gaining more, will be rewarded. However, a lackadaisical or indifferent attitude to our mission will also be repaid at the end, as in the case of the third servant.

The parable of the talents also speak about the grace of God. One may judge the master as someone unjust who seems to favour some servants over the others. Another way of looking at it, is that it points to God’s gratuity, His abundant generosity – that he would even risk granting a boon, a grace to the third servant, even though he knew that this man would not amount to much. Thus, the real difficulty here is not that God had not given His graces to all three, He did, but to each according to his needs. God’s justice is not egalitarian – everyone is placed on a level playing field. Neither is God’s justice based on merit – to every man or woman what he or she deserves. No!  God's justice is this: to every man or woman what he or she needs. God still dispenses graces to those who don’t deserve it. But grace is both a gift and a response. God pours out His graces on us through the sacraments of the Church, but calls on us to respond to that gift by growing in personal sanctification or holiness.

But God’s graciousness should be matched by our willingness to take risks. This was the failing of the third servant. If we wish to be disciples of Christ, we must take risks. Why did the man go off and bury his one talent – why did he do that?  He wasn’t dishonest or unethical. He could have been lazy, but perhaps, the real reason was fear, as indicated by his excuse to the master.  He took what he felt was the safest way – no action. He felt safer to do nothing rather than take the risk of investing his talent and failing or losing it all.  His ostensible fear let him forget that the nature of the gifts entrusted to him is to produce more – it is a call to be fruitful. The real test of discipleship is fruitfulness. It is ironic, that he treats a “living” gift as if it were dead, by burying it. Each day we are faced with thousands of decisions and how often do we opt to do nothing rather than taking the risk of doing something.  We worry about what will happen, what others will think of us, if we will look stupid, or if we will fail.  When we are unprepared to take risks for Christ, our lives count for nothing.

There may be another reason why the third servant failed to respond to his master’s gift. The answer can be found in his own defence of his actions. He saw the talent not as a gift but as a curse. The real reason for his inability to respond like the other two servants was his lack of gratitude. Gratitude or the lack of it shapes the way we view life. When we lack gratitude, then life seems to be a curse. We begin to see ourselves as victims of injustices, both real and imagined. For someone who lacks gratitude, life would always seem unfair. We refuse to take responsibility for our own lives and continuously find some reason or cause to blame someone else, even God. We eventually grow despondent and cynical. In many ways, we are digging a little hole for ourselves and calling it quits even before the end. Looking at life through the lenses of gratitude, however, changes everything. Every moment becomes an opportunity for growth rather than another obstacle to be avoided or a curse to be rid of. Gratitude helps us to appreciate what we have, rather than to gripe about what we lack.

When the master finally returns, there will be an accounting of His resources, of what He had entrusted to each servant. To each of us has been given a certain amount of time, a certain amount of opportunities, a certain amount of gifts and graces and a certain amount of talent. No point comparing our lot with that of the other guy. At the Final Judgment, God will hold each of us accountable for what we have received from Him. For the unfaithful who chose to take the safe path, who misused the time, resources and opportunities accorded to him and demonstrated unfaithfulness, who saw life as a curse and burden rather than as a gift, he will be thrown “out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.” For those who have faithfully served the Master, who chose to take the risk to follow Him even on the path that led to Calvary, who have used His gifts and graces for His glory, whose hearts swell with gratitude and are able to express that gratitude by sharing it with others, this passage reveals a most splendid promise, “come and join in your Master’s happiness.”

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

The Extra Jar of Oil

Thirty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

As many of you know, I just returned last month from a nineteen days long pilgrimage to Western Europe. As usual, I was bombarded by the same question countless of times, “How was it?” Without hesitation and unrehearsed, I replied, “It was very good, but challenging.” I then began to explain myself. Lost luggage right at the very start, pilgrims having to cut short the journey due to a family emergency and last, but not the least dramatic of all, lost passports on the eve of our return. It seemed that what could possibly go wrong, went wrong with this trip. And yet, despite all the unplanned emergencies and heart-stopping mishaps, most of us, including the ‘victims,’ emerged strengthened by the whole experience; in fact, doubly certain of God’s Providence and protection. In a way, the surprises were the value-added elements of our pilgrimage – a reminder to be constantly vigilant and be ready for the moment when the Lord decides to change our life’s itinerary. 

But in hindsight, no amount of careful preplanning or caution could have prevented the twist and turns in our itinerary. What then was needed to weather the unannounced storms and detours of life? This is where today’s parable becomes illuminating. Many have focused on the element of wakefulness in today’s parable. But it is important to take note that the passage records that “all became drowsy and fell asleep.” The wise slept as well as the foolish! But there is no hint of rebuke or disapproval from the Lord. It seemed perfectly natural, under the circumstances. This indicates that Christian vigilance does not mean continually peering up into the heavens like an air-raid sentry on duty. Reminders, like the Church’s annual season of Advent, are helpful and needed, but what our Lord is indicating is that watching also allows time for normal activities. Money must be earned, food must be cooked, laundry washed, school lessons learnt, weddings and funerals held, time for rest and leisure - life must go on.

So, the crucial difference between the wise and the foolish has to do not with staying awake but with having sufficient oil. In unraveling the mystery and the symbolism of the oil, we can perhaps begin to understand the depth and meaning of being prepared in the Christian context. Oil, in the Old Testament, is frequently used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Kings and priests were anointed with oil as a sign of their consecration (and, supposedly, Spirit-filled). Likewise, in the life of Christians, nothing good happens without the inspiration, the guidance and the strength afforded by the Holy Spirit. We are anointed with the oil of Sacred Chrism at baptism and Confirmation, signifying the gift of the Holy Spirit poured into our lives.

Notice that both the wise and foolish bridesmaids had oil to start with. The difference lay with the extra jar of oil. The vital point in the foolish bridesmaid’s ‘foolishness’ was not that they ‘slumbered and slept’ but that they had no oil in their vessels. They had oil in their ‘lamps’ to start with, a testimony of the sanctifying grace a person receives at baptism. But they failed to bring along an extra supply of oil – indicating the many souls who fail to grow in sanctity, making use of the channels of grace like Holy Communion and frequent confessions, failing to apply themselves to grow spiritually through study, devotion and prayer.

The great danger is that so many have become contented with the mere fact that we are baptised and have done little more to grow in our personal faith life. This is the problem with the foolish bridesmaids. They had forgotten an important lesson in life, it’s not just how you begin the story but how you choose to end it. Our salvation depends on so much more than just being baptised. Our faith must go beyond the rudimentary catechism that was given to us when we were young. It demands that we live out the call to holiness that comes with being a Child of God.  That’s what’s so wrong about the fundamentalist evangelical idea of “once saved, always saved,” that you only have to believe and accept Christ as your Saviour once in your life to be automatically “saved” regardless of what you do the rest of your life. That is certainly not true. St Paul tells us that “he who endures to the end will be saved.” And if our light is to endure to the end, we need an extra reservoir of oil which continually feeds the flame of life, never letting it falter or gutter out in darkness, undergirding them in every hour of stress, of pressure or disaster, keeping them firm and steady in the midst of the buffeting pressures of life.

Holiness is that extra reservoir of oil. We begin on our path to holiness at Baptism. Through it, we become holy, sharers in the divine life. But that is only the start. In the Eucharist, our holiness is deepened, as we become one with the source of holiness, our Lord Jesus Christ. Confirmation strengthens us, and Reconciliation offers us forgiveness if we have strayed from the path of holiness. The Sacrament of the Sick consoles us in our weakness. Holy Orders and Matrimony give us the grace to sustain ourselves as we serve others in the states of ordained ministry and marriage. All the sacraments assist us on our way as we strive to live a holy life. We must never feel complacent that we have sufficient ‘oil’ of holiness. We must be constantly working at ensuring that we have an extra supply.

That is why the wise bridesmaids could not share their extra oil with the foolish ones. This is because the oil which the wise bridesmaids possess is not something external- like food or clothes or money. The oil which is used in this parable is a symbol of inner spirituality, virtue, and the faith life of a person that has been nurtured carefully with prayer, the sacraments, spiritual practices, devotions and a commitment to living the Word of God. It is product of personal sacrifice, devotion and discipline. Holiness is simply not transferable.

We may be secretly sympathetic of the plight of the five foolish bridesmaids. We too wish to step forward and hand them our oil and perhaps find ways to lighten their burdens. But the truth is, this is not possible. One of the important lessons that my last pilgrimage taught me and which coincides with the message of today’s parable is this: Holiness or even readiness cannot be shared or transferred to another. It is most personal for it is our lives that we are preparing. Some other pilgrims later shared with me how they would have been willing to exchange places with the couple who had lost their passports. God could not have chosen a more vulnerable pair. The thought that others were willing to take their place was inspiring. Unfortunately, this was not possible. No one could take their place when it came to lost passports. Likewise, no one would be able to make up for the insufficient oil that each of us needs to keep our lamps lit and burning.

As we continue to wait for the Divine Bridegroom, with many, if not all of us, feeling drowsy or perhaps even falling asleep, let us pay heed to the words of the gospel and the advice of that Great Doctor of the Church, St Augustine: “Watch with the heart, watch with faith, watch with love, watch with charity, watch with good works …; make ready the lamps, make sure they do not go out …, renew them with the inner oil of an upright conscience; then shall the Bridegroom enfold you in the embrace of His love and bring you into His banquet room, where your lamp can never be extinguished.”

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Are you a Pharisee?

Thirty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

It’s always hard for us priests to preach today’s gospel. Firstly, it sounds too much like us. Aren’t we the modern day usual suspects of the accusations laid against the Pharisees? Aren’t we guilty of holding court at every mass whilst sitting on the presidential chair? Aren’t we constantly pushing church rules down people’s throat while not lifting a finger to alleviate the laity’s burdens? Aren’t we reveling in being called “Father” and given seats of honour at dinner tables? Aren’t we all dressed up and dolled up in our colourful flashy vestments, with someone once telling me that the colours remind him of the Power Rangers? Secondly, even if I were to tell you that the Lord was not speaking about priests specifically but about the possibility of anyone who demonstrated those same vices as the Pharisees did, many of you sitting in the congregation would not be so easily convinced  and thus conclude that I am just being defensive, and that’s sufficient proof of my guilt. Case closed. That’s a Catch 22 for you.

Talk about name calling, Jesus holds nothing back! Who were the Pharisees? They were a sect of Jews who were very strict in their observance of the rituals, rules and regulations of their religion. The problem with the Pharisees was not their strict observance of religion nor even what they taught. It is their use of religion, the very thing that is meant to take us out of ourselves, as a means of aggrandising the ego. Therefore, the Law, custom, practice, religious dress, titles, all become ways of trumpeting the self. Rather than leading the people to God, these were used to draw greater attention to themselves. On the outside, the Pharisees seemed to fulfil the Law, but on the inside they were far from the love of God and the fulfilment of the Law. The Lord saw through the layer upon layer of self-deception, self-serving agenda, trickery and self-righteous posturing. Looks good on the outside but what about the inside?

And so the Lord began to unmask the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. The word hypocrisy comes from the Greek word HUPOKRITES which means an actor on a stage. It means saying one thing but really living another. It is looking like an angel in church on Sunday but living like the devil the rest of the week. If a person does not pretend to be perfect, then he is not a hypocrite. It is when we put on a righteous act for others to see in public but then do the opposite in secret. This leads us to the point of this passage. Rather than trying to unmask the hypocritical Pharisees in today’s modern context, it would be much more logical and honest to admit that anyone of us could easily fall into the same trap.

Thus, the stern warning of Christ is for us today. The Church needs witnesses more than it needs teachers, but certainly not actors. It’s easy to remind others how things should be done; it is much harder to give witness of an authentic Christian life. One thing is content, and the other is a personal example. In his epistle to the Romans, St. Ignatius of Antioch stated the importance of truly being Christian, not just being called one: “Only request in my behalf both inward and outward strength, that I may not only speak but truly will; and that I may not merely be called a Christian, but actually found to be one. For if I am truly found a Christian, I may also be called one, and be deemed faithful.”

This is what happens at the Rite of Ordination of a priest; he is called, he is challenged to live authentically with these words in the ritual: “Agnoscite quod agitis; imitamini quod tractatis,” which in the present English translation reads as “Know what you are doing, imitate the mystery you celebrate.” That’s ultimately the challenge: It is not enough to simply know and preach the truth, you must live it as well. We must practice what we preach

This lack of authenticity and integrity is what marks out our modern day Pharisee. It’s not their obsession with rules, but rather, their penchant to be selective in the application of the rules that betrays their self-serving true form. I’ve often given this definition to a modern day Pharisee. “A Pharisee sees a rule when there is none and breaks the rule where there is one.” In our libertine society, many use the excuse that they do not follow rules because they do not wish to be like the rigid Pharisees. As appealing as this argument may sound, it is actually flawed as well as dishonest. We do not and cannot live in a vacuum of lawlessness. When we choose not to obey a rule, we start making our own rules and eventually end up becoming the rule. We are always under some rule or law. If it is not God’s or the Church’s, then most likely it’s ours! But this is only the beginning of the problem. People who flaunt rules often begin imposing their personal standards of discipline and practice onto others.  Proper rules and laws actually place limits on this form of arbitrariness and self-legislating. Rules and laws actually protect us from the whims and fancies of authoritarian modern ‘Pharisees.’

The problem is not rules or traditions themselves. After all, the Lord Himself said, “I have come not to abolish [the law and the prophets] but to fulfil them” (Matthew 5:17). In addition, He told His followers, “Whoever then relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but he who does them and teaches them shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:19). Although it is common in today’s antinomian world to condemn anyone who supports a tradition or rule as “Pharisaical,” this clearly was not the point of Christ’s warning. Instead, He condemned only those who support traditions that lead people away from a relationship with God. In fact, the new Pharisees of today downplay Catholic doctrine, minimise the importance of the Sacraments, ridicule traditional Catholic devotions, scoff at Catholic moral teachings, and blatantly break laws that are meant to keep their ego in check.

When we actually turn to the authentic Tradition of the Church and rely on the wisdom of her teachings and discipline, it is not because we are attempting to be holier-than-thou. In fact, quite the opposite. Being obedient to liturgical rubrics, Church teachings and discipline, are acts of humility. It is acknowledgement that the collective wisdom of the Church is so much wiser than our puny wisdom. It is only arrogance that seeks to discard these things and presume that we are entitled and even mandated by Christ to alter and change things to fit with our notion of what is correct or in line with the spirit of this age.

It’s good to note that if the words of the Lord were spoken today, any one of us could easily be lumped into the same category. Whenever we choose not to practice what we preach, “we are the Pharisees;” whenever we insist that others should follow the rules that we set and yet seem to be exempt from those same rules, “we are the Pharisees;” whenever we choose to point the finger at others and call them Pharisees, “we are the Pharisees;” whenever we feel smug over our own spiritual superiority and look at others with contempt, “we are the Pharisees;”  whenever we aspire to positions of honour or seek to be praised by others, “we are the Pharisees.” Ultimately, we must deal with our own inner Pharisee. When we do, the whole world begins to look different. Realising that, we may not stand on the outside like spectators, looking in at the gospel. Rather, we must find ourselves within it and let the living Word speak to us, judge us, purify us, strengthen and impel us as it did centuries ago, as it does today and as it will for all eternity.