Tuesday, October 3, 2017

You are not special

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I really get annoyed when I am made to wait. Sometimes, I rush over to the hospital after receiving an urgent call to anoint someone, hoping to meet the relative or person who had called me to bring me into the ward, only to realise that the person had not even arrived. And so as I wait, I begin to fume, I begin to formulate some sarcastic thing to say to the person when he finally arrives. Recently, when I shared this with a priest friend of mine as we were exchanging notes on pastoral experiences, he told me something that I would never forget. “Michael, you are not special. The reason why you get upset is because you think you’re special, but you’re not. Other people wait for us. Everyone waits. So, why should we be any different?”

How often do we experience indignation whenever we seem to be “deprived” of something we believe we “deserve?” It’s called “entitlement.” Entitlement creates an inward, self-focused, self-centred person. The sheer nature of the message is the importance, rights and benefits YOU deserve. We become the focus and others become the means of attaining our personal fulfilment. How did we get here? I believe that one of the major factors for this over-sized delusional sense of entitlement is our upbringing. To be honest, many of us have grown up with this constant reminder from our parents, teachers, and even priests that we are “special.” Eventually, we come to believe that our parents owe us, our society owes us, the world owes us and even the Church owes us. Why should God be exempted from this list? In fact, we believe that God owes us big since He was responsible for bringing us into this world. That is why many abandon their faith because “God didn’t work,” “He failed to deliver.” But today’s parable is intended to burst our delusional bubble. The truth is that God owes us nothing, He never had and never will. The bigger truth is that we owe Him everything!

This was the problem of the wicked tenants in the parable. These arrogant and foolish fellows, representing a propensity in all of us, forgot their real place in the scheme of things. They became confused about who is the owner of the vineyard and who is the tenant.  They were so enamoured with their own prowess, their own self-importance, their entitlement, that they forgot they could do nothing were it not for the generosity of the one who supplied them with the potential to do it all. They had forgotten that it was the landowner who had planted the vineyard. He doesn’t just plant it; he does all the work to make the vineyard fruitful – builds walls, digs cisterns for water, everything. The landowner, and not the tenants, had done everything that he could to make it possible for the tenants to have excellent crops.

Though they worked the land, the tenants did not own it. They lived off the generosity and goodwill of the landowner. But the tenants evidently didn’t see it that way. Though they were well provided for, they wanted more. In their minds, they deserved a bigger piece of the pie for their labour. Never mind that there would have been no work at all for them except for the landowner. All the preliminary work that the landowner had done; that’s ancient history. What matters is now.

These tenants represent all of us. Sometimes, we become so blinded by our own propaganda and start to behave in self-destructive ways. We feel that we have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once our goals are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality.  How one gets there is totally irrelevant.

The parable, therefore, exposes a dirty little secret about us. We are constantly tempted to think that the vineyard, be it the world, the Church or even the Kingdom of God, is ours and we can do what we want with it and we can treat each other in any way that we want, and there is no holding us to account for it. But in the parable, that is all turned around. The vineyard that we treat as our own belongs to another who expects us to make good on our responsibilities. We are not owners in this vineyard, we are tenants; we are merely servants, not masters. God doesn’t owe us anything; on the contrary, it is we who owe Him everything.

So, how do we break out of this self-delusion? The remedy is to cultivate gratitude, to fold it into every aspect of daily life, to never forget the truth of who we are and what God has done for us and to realise that an account must be rendered to God one day.  It is so important to realise that all of life is a gift, not an entitlement. This is because the attitude of entitlement is only possible if you are able to forget or ignore any gifts that others have given to you. To the entitled soul, those things don’t count. The attitude of entitlement makes gratitude impossible. If the essence of gratitude is remembering, then the essence of ingratitude is forgetting.  Remembering expands our consciousness; forgetting contracts it!

Gratitude turns our attention from ourselves, who often behave like the selfish greedy Tenants, to God, the Divine Landowner. Notice that the landowner demonstrates great generosity in providing all the necessary amenities to his tenants, but he continues to exercise patience and mercy to these wicked men who had assaulted and killed his other servants. The landowner’s response defies all worldly wisdom, and it seems almost foolish. The reason is because God’s ways and thoughts are always above and beyond ours. God is crazy and so insanely in love with us that He will go to any lengths, even death on a cross and resurrected from the grave, to demonstrate that love to us. But there is a limit. The day will come when we would have to give an account of our actions, our decisions, our mistakes, and in fact, our entire lives. The parable of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants thus illustrate both the justice and mercy of God. God is merciful. He is patient and generous. But we should never mistake this for moral permissiveness. Grace is a free gift, but it also comes with an awesome responsibility.

Every now and then, it is good that something happens to shake our sense of entitlement and to remind us that we are not that special at all.  The painful truth is that life doesn’t owe us anything. Our parents don’t owe us an inheritance. The government doesn’t owe us a subsidy for every commodity. God doesn’t owe us a blessing or even an answer to our prayer. No one owes us kindness, love, recognition, empathy, apologies, or understanding. In fact, no one owes us anything at all. Let’s get it into our thick skulls, “We are not special!” These are hard truths, but with every truth lies a treasure.

The gift in acknowledging and accepting that life owes us nothing is that we realise that every single thing we have is a blessing. God owes us nothing, and yet look at all we’ve been given. Our lives are overflowing with treasures, if only we are prepared to recognise them. And when we can truly recognise this, then the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that we celebrate would no longer be a burden or a chore but truly a “Eucharist”, a thanksgiving from a heart that understands what it means to receive grace upon grace, even though we are undeserving.

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