Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Divine Hospitality

Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“From Hostility to Hospitality”. A few years ago, our parish adopted this tagline as one of two focal projects for our parish transformation and renewal. When I first mooted it, I could sense the reticence and tension within the room. Should I even be surprised by this response if “hostility” were not an accurate assessment of our parish condition? How have we fared since then? Well, I jokingly tell Fr Dominic and some of the leaders, instead of growth in hospitality, after repeated goading and “instigation” from the Parish Priest, we seem to have made progress, “From Hostility to Greater Hostility.” I acknowledge that I must also take some blame for this, for either causing more hostility through my policies or words, or failing, through omission, to handle the hostility in a more expedient or prudent manner.

It is interesting how hospitality and hostility sound so much alike but yet are so different. Other than the first three letters, they are clearly opposites. “Hospitality” conjures up the context of guests, visitors, putting on meals for them, providing board and lodging, and making the stranger feel “at home.” Hostility, on the other hand, is about keeping the other at a safe distance and even putting up barriers and walls to keep them out. Yes, it is easy to be hospitable towards those who are being hospitable towards us. However, in these past few years as a priest, I have been reminded that being hospitable to those who are being hostile is difficult and challenging.

In today’s gospel scene, we see both hostility and hospitality. Martha is resentful. She is hostile towards her sister’s lackadaisical attitude for leaving her to do all the work. Most of us would emphatise with poor Martha. We can understand her resentment - some seem to be doing an unfair share of the work whilst others seem to be lazing around or are able to find all sorts of excuses to escape work. The irony of this story is that this tension or hostility arises between the two sisters as a result of their different ways of showing hospitality to the Lord who has come visiting. Martha shows it by her busy-ness in the kitchen whereas Mary displays her form of hospitality by sitting at the feet of the Lord. Sound of light banter and even cheerful laughter drifting into the kitchen where Martha was busy slaving over the stove, would have incensed even a saint.

Martha had not chosen anything bad. In fact, she had chosen something very good. But yet our Lord commended Mary for having made the better choice. Yes, serving others is a characteristic feature of being a disciple of Christ. But there is more to this. Listening to our Lord, being attentive to the saving words of the Lord, the Word Incarnate, being “served” by Him, is far more important. That is why the Lord chided Martha with these seemingly harsh words, “you worry and fret about so many things, and yet few are needed, indeed only one.” Only one thing that is needful and Mary had chosen that one crucial, absolutely necessary thing. She sat at His feet and listened with great eagerness, affection and pleasure. Mary chose to listen not just to the words of Jesus but to the life-giving, death defying, saving Incarnate Word of God. It is by sitting at Jesus' feet that we learn that He is the one who has come to serve and not be served. It is at His feet that we truly grasp His work of redemption – by taking our sins of inhospitality, by dying for the ones who rejected Him and refused hospitality to Him, He offered us the hospitality of heaven. It is at the feet of our Lord that we learn the real lesson of hospitality from the One who is the perfect host. To do other things at the expense of sitting at the Lord’s feet is to let good things get in the way of better things.

Here is the true paradox of the story – whilst Martha was asking what she could do for the Lord, Mary knew the correct question should be “what can the Lord do for her?” The host becomes the guest and the guest the host. It is interesting to note that the Italian word “ospite” can mean both “guest” and “host.” This certainly presents us English-speakers with some confusion. How can we make the distinction when we are talking about the host (the one who welcomes you in his home, the one who is busy in the kitchen as the rest of us sit at the table) and the guest (the one who rings the doorbell and waits for the door to be opened, the one who waits to be served, the one who needs directions to find the bathroom)? After all, don't we need a word that distinguishes the one who gives hospitality from the one who receives hospitality? But in this story, we are reminded that there should be such confusion. The author to the Hebrews tells us “let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it” (Heb 13:1-2). Hospitality flows both ways. No hosts, no guests, only “ospiti” - hospitality.

The host becomes the guest and the guest becomes the host. This is the power of biblical hospitality. God’s call to love the stranger is an invitation to experience God in a new way. It is a way that brings about radical transformation, changes lives and introduces surprises. People usually don't expect surprises. Yet biblical hospitality, the call to love the stranger, guarantees that a surprise is just around the corner. The guest becomes the host. Givers receive more than they give. This is the story of Abraham welcoming three guests, who turned out to be divine visitors. In return, God shows hospitality to Abraham by rewarding Sarah with a son.

The story of Martha and Mary and Jesus therefore should be considered in this same light. Here, we are not celebrating the hospitality of a man (or a woman), but the very hospitality of God. In fact, St Luke portrays the life and ministry of Jesus as a divine “visitation” to the world, seeking hospitality. The One who comes as visitor and guest becomes host and offers a hospitality in which the entire world can become truly human, be at home, and know salvation in the depths of their hearts. Those in St Luke's Gospel who readily offer hospitality - chiefly the sinner, the marginalised and the poor - find themselves drawn into a much deeper sphere of hospitality, the hospitality of God. They may have welcomed the Lord into their homes and to their tables, but it is the Lord who has welcomed them into His heart as they opened their hearts to Him. They are challenged by the Lord to conversion so that no one may be left out of the banquet of life to which God calls all mankind.

In a culture of hectic schedules and the relentless pursuit of productivity, we are tempted to measure our worth by how busy we are, by how much we accomplish, or by how well we meet the expectations of others. Sometimes, we believe that we can earn God’s favour through the busyness of our devotion and service. Such activity often leaves us anxious and troubled and we end up with a kind of service that is devoid of love and joy and resentful of others. But then we are reminded once again by the story of Martha, Mary and our Lord that what is ultimately important is not what you can do for the Lord but, what can He do, or what has He done for you. And that is only possible when we are able to transcend our busy and distracted lives and enter into prayerful contemplation of His Word. We can never claim to be able to offer true hospitality to a stranger or even our neighbour or family member, if we continue to be aliens to the hospitality of God. God is always inviting, patiently waiting for us to sit at His feet.

At His feet, we are reassured once again that we are His children, we are renewed in faith and strengthened for service. God wants to play host to us. Our Lord offers us the hospitality of His grace. In Him, we find ourselves now to be, the enemy who has been forgiven, the sinner who is saved, the stranger who is welcomed, the alienated one who has found a home. In Him, and only in Him, can hostility become hospitality.  

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

What must I do to inherit eternal life?

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The famous parable of the Good Samaritan is the answer given to this question posed by a lawyer, a professional scholar of the Mosaic Law. Being an expert of the Law, he should have known the answer to his own question. So this is not a genuine enquiry by someone seeking new learning but a rhetorical one made by someone who already knows (or thinks he knows) the answer – a kind of a smart-alecky question hoping to trap the teacher and put him on the spot, and in a way, show off one’s own intelligence and knowledge. The passage confirms this motive as it states that the lawyer posed this question because he wished to “disconcert” our Lord. He had come to the Lord not to learn but to trap Him. But again we are thankful for his question because IT IS indeed life’s greatest question.

“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question gets to the heart of Christianity. We are Christians not only because our religion provides us with moral guidelines. We are Christians not only because it’s nice and wise to belong to some organised religion or a community of like-minded people. We are Christians because we appreciate or at least should appreciate that the goal of living is not just living well, but “inheriting eternal life.” If you haven’t thought about, or asked this question before, you should. It should be the principal guiding question of your life.

To this question our Lord replies with a question of His own, “What is written in the Law?” - testing his interlocutor’s knowledge of Scripture. Let’s be clear that it is not the Lord who is being tested or on trial, but this lawyer. The lawyer quotes the two great commandments from the Pentateuch:  “Love God” (Deut 6: 3) and “Love your neighbour as yourself” (Lev 19, 18). Our Lord agrees, commending him, then commanding him to “Go and do the same yourself.” Doing so, however, is not in some one-off act but, as the tense of the verb implies, in a continual and habitual way. But the lawyer does not wish to be out-maneuvered and attempts to make a comeback by posing an additional question, “And who is my neighbour?” This is the end-game of legalism. For the lawyer, his legal training has allowed him to see how narrow categories and definitions can often be the means of wrangling your way out of an obligation. Our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the parable of the Good Samaritan to silence the lawyer once and for all.

There is a tendency to reduce the parable to just another example given to us on how to be a do-gooder. Most would read this as the foundation for any ethical humanitarian action. A common and not entirely incorrect way of examining and interpreting this parable is to see our Lord wishing the lawyer and all of us to be generous in loving and moving beyond minimalistic legal requirements – to go beyond the call of duty. The lawyer seems contented that he had the answer and perhaps may even be living out the answer of fulfilling the dictates of the Law. But was that enough? Well, the Lord’s telling of the parable reminds him, that the Law of Love cannot just be confined to such narrow legal parameters and categories. Our Lord expands the definition of “neighbour” to encompass more than what the lawyer and other Jews were prepared to accept. Our Lord’s understanding of neighbour is from the perspective of divine mercy (“can you be a neighbour to this person”) while the lawyer’s original question was focused on himself (“Who is my neighbor?”). Thus we are given the example of the Good Samaritan, who had no obligation to help but he did.

Though the above may be true, the traditional interpretation given to this parable takes us beyond this ethical question. In fact, they see this story as a parable of salvation history. The clue to its interpretation is found in the first question of the lawyer, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” The question shows that the lawyer saw his salvation as based on human actions and merits obtained by observance of the Mosaic Law. The question for him presupposes that eternal life can be inherited based on human actions; and that there is a set checklist of the sorts of actions that one must fulfill, in order to achieve this desired outcome. This is the heresy of Pelagianism condemned by the Church which basically reduces our religion to one where we can earn salvation by just doing good. Today, Pelagianism is an all pervasive ideology. Modern man prides himself as the architect of his own destiny and is deluded into believing that he can create his own earthly utopia, a failed project as can be seen in the political and economic disasters wrought by National Socialism (Nazism) and communism. 

But the truth of the matter is that we cannot save ourselves. We do not have the resources to obtain eternal life. No amount of human effort or power could even come close to gaining salvation. We do not have a rocket ship powerful enough to fly to heaven. We have no ladder tall enough to climb there. We can never hope to “inherit eternal life” without a Saviour. And this is what our faith professes - that if we are to inherit eternal life at all, it is only by way of the freely-given mercy of God, through the work and action of the Son of God who became man, our Saviour and Redeemer who redeemed us through the sacrifice of the cross and opened the gates of eternal salvation to us. Did we earn this? Certainly not. Keeping the commandments of God, offering up acts of service to a loved one, are only expressions of our accepting that gift. Not ways to earn it.

So, therefore the parable of the Good Samaritan is not just merely an exemplary story of doing good beyond the call of duty, it is a summary of salvation history, beginning with the Fall of Adam and continuing through the founding of the Church even until the Second Coming of our Saviour and the Day of Judgment. The Good Samaritan was no mere hypothetical straw man. Jesus Christ is the Good Samaritan. Just like the Samaritan in the eyes of the Jews, our Lord was hated, and yet He came to us and found us in our hopeless condition and wounded by the diabolical powers of sin. Rather than judgment, He showed us mercy. Yes, it is Jesus Christ who enters this world in mercy and love, to bring healing and to carry us to the Church (“the inn”) and His Father’s house; healing our wounds through His precious blood and by paying the price for our redemption through His death, and lifting us to the Father in His resurrection, and promising to return one day to make good what is still lacking in us.

So, the next time you encounter this parable, remember that this beautiful story is about more than caring for the poor or doing good. It is also about the absolute need for grace. It is about us needing a Saviour. Only with tons of grace and mercy do we even stand a chance in coming close to loving God and neighbour. Only God can really give God, the love He deserves. Only God can really love our neighbour as they ought to be loved. That is why we have to die to our self and allow Jesus Christ to live His life in us. He does this through the sacramental grace that flows through the Church. Those who faithfully attend Mass and regularly receive communion worthily, those who confess their sins frequently and fruitfully receive the graces of that sacrament, those who faithfully and thoughtfully meditate on God’s Word, begin to experience a transformation that enables them to love. The Church is the “inn” where wounds are healed, the weak are made strong, and the sick recover. Those who find comfort and solace within, will receive a new heart and a new mind, the heart and mind of Christ. It is here that they begin to truly love God above all things and their neighbour as their very self. And it is not they who do it. Let us never forget this. It is Christ who does it in them.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A Charter for Mission

Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

You may have noticed that the readings for these past weeks have been deliberately pointing to mission. Call it coincidence or providential, our liturgical readings provide us with a blueprint of sorts on how to become a missionary. Today, our gospel gives us the story of our Lord choosing and sending the seventy two on mission. The story of commissioning is not unique and can be found in all the Synoptic gospels. But what is unique to the Gospel of St Luke is that he records two missions: sending the Twelve (Luke 9:1-6) and sending the Seventy-two (Luke 10:1-12, 16). The two sending accounts in St Luke share nearly the same form and similar content, but vary considerably with respect to wording. What is more, each account ascribes the mission to a different group of disciples – Twelve and the Seventy two.

Ancient manuscripts are split regarding the number actually chosen and sent by the Lord – whether it is seventy-two as we’ve just heard in the version found in the Lectionary or seventy, they both have traditional symbolic meaning.  In the Old Testament, Moses chose 70 elders to assist him in rendering legal judgments (Numbers 11:24).  Seventy patriarchs went down to Egypt (Deut. 10:22).  Seventy-two, on the other hand, is the traditional number of translators who produced the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures).  Seventy or Seventy-two is also the traditional number of nations descended from Noah (Gen 10; Hebrew text has 70 names, the Septuagint 72).  It has been suggested that the Lord’s choice of 12 and 72(or 70) for the size of the two missions is symbolic of the mission to the twelve tribes and to the nations of the world respectively. 

Exegetes can fight over the accuracy of the actual number or its symbolic significance, but one thing that is certain is that these 72 were not made up of the Apostles. They were made up of ordinary folk, anonymous persons involved in various trades and work, different walks of life, and certainly not professional missionaries. In a way, we can say that we are the 72 - ordinary labourers chosen by the Lord to undertake His mission because the harvest of souls is plentiful, but labourers are few. Just like them, we receive the Lord’s marching orders today. At the end of every Mass, we are sent forth. One of the formulas which the priest uses is quite explicit, “Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord.” But even in the traditional formula “Go forth, the Mass is ended,” the sending is implicit. In fact, the origin of the word “Mass” is said to have come from the traditional Latin formula “ite missa est” – which literally means – “it is sent”. This is what it means to be a Christian: we have been sent out to work the harvest, to make disciples for Christ, to save souls through the preaching of the gospel. We are called to be missionaries.

If one wonders what it means to be missionary some of the answers to this question are presented to us in today's Gospel.

First of all, we would need to know that this is a big job, and that it’s going to take more than 12 of us, even more than 72 (or 70) of us.  Those are nice, symbolic numbers but if we are going to reach the whole world with the good news, it’s going to take all of us—every baptised individual will have to become a missionary.  And it is not enough that we offer ourselves to be His emissaries. We must also work and pray for more missionaries, “so ask the Lord of the harvest to send labourers to His harvest.” We cannot accomplish this work alone. Without the Lord of the Harvest, our efforts would be futile – unless “the Lord builds the house, those who build, labour in vain.” (Ps 127:1) Without His grace there would be no harvest needing labourers. It is His planting in the souls of the faithful that alone produces the fruit of any mission. But generously He makes the harvest to be ours too. He associates us with what is His. How amazing that the Lord should give us, His still imperfect creatures a share in His recreating work!

This collaborative work between God and man and between man and others is seen in how the Lord sends them out in pairs. The sending out in twos mirrors the fact that God has sent his Son and his Spirit to reveal Himself to us. A missionary community is a powerful sign not only through its words or works but also through the way that the members of the community relate to each other, through divinely-inspired love. In a sense, love is the proper language of mission for it is the language of God. When we live in the world as members of the body of Christ we are cemented together by the Spirit of love. It is living out Christ’s commandment of love which makes us recognisable as Christ's disciples because it exhibits the love of Christ Himself. “By this love you have for one another, everyone will know that you are my disciples.” 

Secondly, the mission will encounter persecution, misunderstanding, rejection and hostility. Our Lord did not promise us an easy mission.  “I am sending you out like lambs among wolves.” The reason for this is because as His missionaries, we have chosen to side with Him against the world. If the world has chosen to reject Him, can we His disciples expect any less?  Christians will often be misunderstood and will seem to be out of step with the trajectory of society. We will appear to be on the wrong side of history. We will be rejected for refusing to embrace the changing ethics of our day. But though hated by the world, our consolation is knowing that we will share the same fate as our Lord and Master. St John Chrysostom reminds us that “as long as we remain sheep, we overcome. Even though we are surrounded by a thousand wolves, we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves, we are beaten; for then we lose the support of the Shepherd, who feeds not wolves but only sheep.”
Thirdly, the 72 are asked to take no extra provisions, discipleship means travelling light. A heavy baggage implies a lack of trust in God’s providence. You are asked to depend on God’s providential care rather than rely on your own devices, efforts and resources. Simple living itself is a powerful form of witnessing. Big cars and big houses may impress those who are of the world, but they lead us no closer to the treasures of the Kingdom. Likewise, you can’t fuss about the conditions you would be working under, you have to accept whatever hospitality you receive, “taking what food and drink they have to offer”, whatever conditions that you may encounter – beggars can’t be choosy.

Fourthly, and finally, don’t get discouraged.  Even if your message is one of peace, be prepared to face violence at the hands of the enemies of peace, and there will be many because peace comes with a cost. Opposition and hostility will be inevitable. But don’t take it personally because our Lord didn’t. Just “wipe off the dust under your feet” and move on. There will be no room for self-pity, complaints or dwelling on your setbacks. Christians cannot be insulated from the troubles of the world. We have to wade in the deep, into the muck and dirt that comes with proclaiming the gospel of Christ and working for the salvation of souls.

So, if you’ve got a simple formula for mission, this is what you need to do: Realise that mission is a big job that requires God’s grace and other’s help. You can’t do it alone and you always need prayer, lots of it.  Though urgent, mission will not be easy but be assured of the protection of the Good Shepherd. Travel lightly and depend on God’s providence instead of your own resources. And finally don’t get discouraged; it’s not personal. They’re not rejecting you, they’re rejecting God.  Got it?  Good.  Now go!