Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Where Justice and Mercy meet

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year C

The parable of the prodigal son is perhaps the most moving of all parables in the gospels. The experiences and life of the two sons serve solely to reveal the heart of the Father. He is the true protagonist of the story. Nowhere else does our Lord portray His Heavenly Father more vividly or plainly. Most people would of course look to the conclusion of the story to see its climax and no one can deny the magnanimity of the father in welcoming back that ingrate of a son.

But actually, the impressiveness of the story begins already at the very start, with the fact that the father grants the son’s request and hands over to him his portion of the inheritance, an inheritance he did not earn, nor an inheritance that was due to him. Being the younger son, he would have just received one third of his father’s wealth. But the troubling thing is that all inheritances get passed on to the next of kin only after the death of the one who bequeaths it. The request seems to suggest that the younger son wishes his father dead. And yet here we see the father offers this most generous gift to the younger son, even though it was not his legal right.

For us a portion of God’s inheritance is our existence, our freedom, our intellect, our immortal soul, and saving grace – all of these are the most sublime goods imaginable, goods that only God could give us. That we waste it all and end up in distress like the younger son in our story, is not really as significant as the father’s vigil, compassion, extravagant greeting, refurbishing of the prodigal, and the feast announced in his honour. He had already squandered his inheritance, now the father does the unimaginable, accords him more with the risk of losing everything.

But the magnanimity of the father is not confined to the younger wayward child, but also to the seemingly dutiful older boy who chose not to leave home. His reaction to the father’s seeming lunacy suggests envy and still the father does not have a harsh word for him – he is merely reminding him of this simple truth: whoever sticks by the father possesses everything in common with the father. The elder son who believes that he is denied his inheritance because it had been squandered by his younger brother and his father’s misguided sense of love, is himself actually the misguided one. You see, our inheritance is never diminished, when God chooses to share it with others. God does not withhold our inheritance from us, not even when we are undeserving, not even if we have squandered the portion that had been allotted to us. We are meant to be ‘at home’ in the Father’s house, all He has is ours, and He shares this with us without holding anything back. “My son, you are with me always and all I have is yours.”

What is today’s Gospel parable really about? This story isn’t just about the generosity of God the Father, but there is a far more profound message which our Lord wishes to convey to His audience. The clue is to be found in the first three verses of the Gospel. The Pharisees were appalled at our Lord’s actions for eating with tax collectors and sinners. The strict Pharisees would not eat with sinners for this would bring about ritual contamination. And thus our Lord begins to tell a series of parables, this being the first. Mercy is clearly the central theme in this parable. The father is lavish in His mercy. The younger son receives more mercy than he expects. The elder son is guilty for thinking that the mercy shown is excessive and unfair on him. The parable expresses this maxim ‘Be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.’

But the parable also teaches about the relationship of mercy to justice. It reveals the true face or rather, the heart of the Father. Putting the focus on God will allow us to discover the truth about ourselves. God makes change possible, more than we sometimes dare to hope for.

The first dimension of God is that He is a righteous God, a God of justice; a point too often forgotten when we over emphasise His mercy to the exclusion of justice. If God is good and powerful, then God simply cannot overlook evil and injustice. To do so, is to fail to be good. God is so good that scripture speaks of Him as full of wrath, wrath for sin, wrath for everything that keeps us away from Him. In other words, God’s passion for justice and to overcome evil is such that in His wrath, which is His passion against sin, evil and injustice, will burn up sin, evil and wipe out injustice, and reward the just. The wrath of God arouses fear but also hope in those who thirst after justice.

But God’s goodness also means that He is merciful. This is the second important lesson from the parable. God, in His abundant Providence provides us with all we need. His is our inheritance. And this is not lost even when we lost our original innocence, when we fell. This means that God in His mercy for what He has made, continues to bind Himself to us with a faithful and ongoing concern, like that of a father for a child, even a wayward child. His mercy leads Him to keep helping us in our plight. He keeps waiting for us to repent and to return to Him. His mercy prompts Him to forgive and offer grace to help us to be righteous again. Forgiveness is like a fresh start. And then God gives us the ultimate fresh start. God does not merely restore the old Creation marred by sin. God makes a New Creation by the gift of His Eternal Son, who took on our human nature. Christ assumed our human nature so that we may now share in His divine nature. He did this to begin a new humanity, a new creation, as shown clearly in His resurrection. Paul has explained this wonderfully in our second reading.

So, the Justice of God is not opposed to His Mercy, and neither is His Mercy a cancelling out of His Justice. Mercy is the means by which the goodness and wisdom of God establish justice and wipe out evil and injustice. We see this in the parable. The younger son receives mercy, far more than he thinks he deserves or that even an indulgent and kind father can exercise without making a mockery of his justice. He is restored as a son, not just a slave or a house servant. But he then has to act as a son should, working justly for his father in his company. The elder son is challenged by his father to see how justice is not compromised by mercy. He has not lost out on his reward and inheritance for being just. He needs to remember that his inheritance is not due to his hard work but due to the generosity and goodness the father has shown to him. The father takes all the credit, not him. And because the inheritance that both the younger son and the older received is wholly due to the father’s generosity, no one could claim entitlement. It was the father’s right to give to whomever he chooses.

Both sons were surprised by the mercy of their father. We should be too. Let us never take God’s grace and mercy for granted. We, like the two sons, are invited “to taste and see that the Lord is good”, immeasurably more good than any earthly parent could ever be. And rather than begrudge God’s goodness, patience and mercy shown to others whom we personally feel are undeserving, this should be an invitation to “celebrate and rejoice” at their good fortune. Let us never forget that we too are undeserving of those graces and mercy; none of us are. Whatever we have received, none of us have earned it, none of us are deserving, and it is all due to the merciful gratuitousness of God. Yes, the story is always about the Father, never about us. And the Father shows His love through His only begotten Son. So therefore, let us always rejoice in this truth and in the wonderful saving work of Christ, knowing that it is by the gift of His life on the cross, the one who is dead, has come to life, the one who is lost is found.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Those who cannot see even when shown

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year A (Mass with Scrutiny)

I recently came across an article which featured a letter from a distraught Singaporean mother addressed to the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the Singaporean equivalent of our Employees Provident Fund. Her request to withdraw S$70,000 to fund her family’s living expenses and treatment for her mentally ill son was rejected. In response to their decision, she wrote a lengthy letter which went viral. What caught my attention was this insightful paragraph:  “There are three classes of people in society. One, those who can see. Two, those who can see when shown and Three, those who cannot see even when shown. Which class do you belong to?” 

“Which class do you belong to?” A good question to begin our reflexion for today’s gospel. We seem to find samplings of the last category in the various characters of today’s gospel. At the beginning of the story, everyone claims to be able to see except the man born blind. But as the story unfolds, we would soon discover that almost all the characters, with the exception of our Lord, suffers from some blindness or other.

First, we have the disciples of the Lord. They have been the privileged recipients of the mysteries of the Kingdom and witnessed first-hand the Lord’s miracles. They, like so many others, truly believe that they can “see.” It is with this presumed sight that they pose what appears to be a clever theological question with regards to the disability of the man born blind, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, for him to have been born blind?” Addressing the Lord as “Rabbi” is the first evidence of their blindness. The blind man’s sight at the end of the gospel is so much more penetrating. The disciples also presumed that since the man has suffered such a fate, it must be on account of some sin, either his or that of his parents. It is assumed that people reap what they sow; that ‘bad luck’ is a result of ‘bad karma’; wicked folks get what is coming to them. Our Lord corrects them: “Your assumptions are flawed.”  “He was born blind so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”

The next group are his neighbours and people who knew him as a blind beggar. The sight of the blind man being able to see should have inspired awe at seeing the wonders of God, but instead what arose was incredulity. Then we have the man’s own parents who are summoned as witnesses. They recognise their son and they also recognise the amazing transformation, if not miracle, that has taken place – their son born blind, can now see. And yet, they refuse to acknowledge this out of fear of being implicated in this whole sordid affair.

Finally, we have the Jews and the Pharisees who were scandalised by the fact that the Lord had performed a miracle on a Sabbath in violation of their ritual prohibitions. They have heard the testimonies of the blind man, his neighbours and family members, but still refuse to see. The long story culminates in this parting shot of the Lord aimed at the Pharisees: “Blind? If you were, you would not be guilty, but since you say, “We see”, your guilt remains.”

Yes, all these characters claim to be able to see, but can they really? For our Lord, the real question is whether the lack of seeing is voluntary or involuntary. While, the blind man couldn’t help being blind, the others, who could have seen, chose not to see. Therefore, their guilt remains. At the heart of this fascinating narrative is a simple but powerful contrast: the man who is blind from birth who sees nothing, but upon encountering the healing Saviour, the Light of the World, sees clearly. On the other hand, the other characters who all claim to be able to see clearly, but at the end of the story expose themselves to be truly blind. That is the tragedy!

By now, you would realise that the healing of the man born blind serves to display more than just the power of Christ to perform miracles. Our Lord uses physical sight as a metaphor for something of even greater importance, spiritual sight, to see with the eyes of faith. In John’s gospel, seeing is synonymous with believing.

So, the only character that finally sees, is ironically the man born blind. The gift of sight eventually leads him along a journey of discovery, a path that will lead to a deepened faith. It takes a while before he completely comes to believe. Initially, he obeys without understanding. In the beginning he thinks of Jesus as merely a “man” among others, then when he is questioned, he speaks of the Lord as being a “prophet” and finally his eyes are opened and he proclaims Him “Lord” and falls down in worship. From hopeless darkness he grows into the purest light of faith, entirely through the power of a gift of grace he never asked for; a faith whose logic he follows obediently; a faith that, like a mustard seed, grows in him until it becomes a huge tree.

This is the reason why this gospel reading is chosen for the Second Rite of Scrutiny. St Ambrose of Milan saw in our Lord’s instructions to wash in the waters of Siloam, the call to wash in the waters of Baptism. Pope Emeritus Benedict tells us, “Because of Adam’s sin we too are born “blind” but in the baptismal font we are illumined by the grace of Christ. Sin wounded humanity and destined it to the darkness of death, but the newness of life shines out in Christ, as well as the destination to which we are called. In him, reinvigorated by the Holy Spirit, we receive the strength to defeat evil and to do good.” My dear elect, this is what that will happen to you at your baptism: the washing in the waters of Baptism will give you new sight.

But we too can see ourselves in the man born blind. Like the man born blind, we too enter this world fundamentally blind, blind to what matters most, unless we allow Christ to enlighten the eyes of our hearts (cf. Eph 1:18). Saint Augustine, commenting on the spiritual sense or meaning of the man’s blindness, simply stated, “This blind man is the human race.” This state of blindness is the Original Sin which we have inherited from our father Adam. And we continue to remain in the state of blindness whenever we choose to sin. Someone wisely said that the one thing which is worse than sin is the refusal to acknowledge it. The story would have turned out differently if only Adam had confessed his sin, but he didn’t. Unless we first recognise our blindness, we can never seek the Lord’s healing forgiveness, then our blindness remains, or as the Lord would put it, our “guilt remains.”

Today, it’s good to be reminded by St Paul that: “You were in darkness once, but now you are light in the Lord; be like children of light, for the effects of the light are seen in complete goodness and right living and truth.” Being children of light is a journey. This is your journey. This is our journey, moving in stages to more perfectly know Jesus, to love Him and serve Him. We admit that our vision remains blurred because of sin. In order that our vision may be restored and made clearer, we need to constantly wash it, not in the Pool of Siloam but in the confessional, receiving the healing grace of reconciliation through the Sacrament of Penance. We know that as we persevere, one day we will see our Lord face to face.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

I Thirst

Third Sunday of Lent Year A (Mass with First Scrutiny)

In the oratories of the Missionaries of Charity, the religious congregation founded by “Mother” St Teresa of Kolkata, you would see over the main crucifix two words “I thirst,” the last two words of our Lord on the cross before He expired. Many have wondered why she had chosen these words and sought to immortalise them in her chapel. Mother often said it was because Jesus was thirsting for souls. But, it seemed in her countenance every morning, that Mother was the thirsty one, like the Samaritan woman in today’s gospel, thirsting for the only One who could quench her thirst and offer her the life-giving Water of Life.

Today, as we celebrate the First Scrutiny for our Elect, let us consider the experience of the Samaritan woman as she moved from incredulity to faith. According to St Augustine, the Samaritan woman is a symbol of the Church, “She is a symbol of the Church not yet made righteous. Righteousness follows from the conversation.” In our Lord’s conversation with the Samaritan woman we can hear, as St Augustine observes, one of Christ’s most attractive and tender invitations: “Come to me, all you who labour and find life burdensome, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). This invitation never fails to touch our hearts, because there is not one among us who does not find life heavy and burdensome from time to time. But it is also supposed to change our hearts—in the same way that it changed the Samaritan woman. The invitation itself provokes the discovery that only in Jesus does our soul find rest, that only in Him is our hunger and thirst for love satisfied: “In God alone be at rest my soul” (Ps 62:1).

Thus, the Samaritan woman epitomises the deep thirst that all of us are born with. Like her we thirst for something we cannot immediately identify. We cannot give it a name. And like her, we must learn that nothing will satisfy it except the One for whom the thirst was made. St Josemaria Escrivas tells us that, in fact, our Lord “encourages” this feeling of emptiness in us, so that “our hunger and thirst will increase to the point that we desire God really to inhabit our soul and never to take His light and warmth away from us.” Our Lord’s desire for us is that we have life and have it more abundantly. This means in union with Him always. Thirst of the body is not quenched all at once, nor is the thirst of the spirit. Our cistern is very, very deep. Our Lord wants us to realise that our thirst for Him, our need for Him, is permanent. There will never come a day when we do not need Christ to save us from something, to console us, to enlighten us, to refresh us, to challenge us: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (Jn 15:5).

The Samaritan woman wanted something that she could not identify. If you asked her why she had come to the well, she would have answered with the same kind of abruptness that she initially used to address our Lord in conversation: “Isn’t it obvious? I have come for water.” But there is a Stranger sitting at the well who sees right through her, unmasks her desire—which is for the eternal. And our Lord helps her to give it a name: “I who am speaking to you, I am He” (cf. Jn 4:26). She had come to the well seeking life-quenching, life-sustaining water. Our Lord offered her something better. He offered her what no one else or nothing else could - living water that sustains life eternally. No rope or leather bucket or pipe or tap was necessary for His promised water. He alone supplies the gift.

In Christ, we come to recognise our thirst for Him. And not only do we need help to recognise our own thirst, we need help to see those around us who are thirsty. It is not just to the poor, the physically hungry, the stranger in our land who needs to be quenched, but also the spiritually destitute. The recognition of this thirst is what impels us to share the life-giving Word with others. Thus the story provides us with a beautiful model of evangelisation.

First, the Saviour meets us where we are. Our Lord came without condemnation and judgment but recognised her deep longing, her thirst and hunger. He pursued this otherwise unacceptable relationship, a woman who thirsted for love and acceptance and found none satisfying. He pursued this woman, who was rejected not only by the Jews but by her own people. He began to woo her for His own because He meant to have her in heaven. This is because “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the World might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). Likewise, the salvation of souls should be our ultimate concern. We should not just “preach to the choir” but reach out generously and lovingly to those who are unconvinced. We should reach out not only to the good, the righteous, the responsive, but also to those who are seemingly wicked, sinful and even dismissive of the message we bring.

Secondly, the Saviour helps us to see our weaknesses. Once we see the Lord’s offer of a priceless gift that endures forever, we can face sins, shortcomings, and weaknesses that prevent us from wholly partaking of His offer. The call to drink from the Font of Living Water must be accompanied by the call to repentance. A gospel that excludes the call to repentance is a false gospel. The gospel of nice which avoids calling out sin eventually does greater injustice to the sinner. It serves as a comforting echo chamber but brings us nowhere closer to the source of eternal life. Our intention is not to shame but to liberate. We are motivated by love, not hate.

Thirdly, the Saviour leads us to recognise Him. There is no way we can offer others the water of life, if we fail to name its source. Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. And if we are embarrassed to proclaim this, then we are denying others the right to that life-giving, life-liberating, life-resurrecting truth.

Fourthly, the Saviour invites us to leave our sins behind and bear testimony of Him to others. Those who have been evangelised are eventually called to be evangelisers. St John Paul II taught in Redemptoris Missio 2, that “missionary activity renews the Church, revitalises faith and Christian identity, and offers fresh enthusiasm and new incentive. Faith is strengthened when it is given to others!”

Finally, we should not just merely consider our own thirst and the thirst of others. We should also think about the Lord’s. When we look at the crucifix, it is good to remember what Mother Teresa wanted her nuns to remember, the Lord’s words: I thirst. What specifically is Jesus thirsting for in us? He longs for our love, our attention, our devotion, the total entrusting of our lives to Him. He is thirsty for our salvation, thirsty for our faith and our love. God is thirsting for us to come forward to satiate His thirst by giving Him our love and by spreading the love of His heart to others who need to be quenched too. God is thirsty for souls and so should we.

Lent is a time for us to quench our thirst and that of others. This is a special time to encounter our Lord like the Samaritan woman, and to be transformed by our encounter with Him, like she was. The Lord wants to give us living water, His life in abundance. Sin is an obstacle to that full life in Christ, so we have this time of Lent for our deeper conversion to the Lord. The Church invites us to drink from the living waters of the Holy Spirit. Then, like the Samaritan woman, we are no longer thirsty. In fact, we are transformed into missionary disciples, who go forth to bring the Good News to others; like the Samaritan woman did and like Mother Teresa did, going forth then to spread the love of Christ and remind those who are thirsting, that there is only One who says to us, “I Thirst (for you)”.