Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Man is wisest when he turns to God

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“So clever! So clever” so says the astute Fr Dominic. He is of course referring to how some people (priests included) are able to wrangle themselves out of work commitments by the flimsiest of excuses. What augments their “cleverness” is that they often push the buck to others, and poor Fr Dominic often ends up “covering” for them, which makes him lament his own condition, “So stupid! So stupid!”

The “cleverness” of the steward in today’s parable seems apparent and yet for us Christians, seem utterly disturbing and even scandalising. The steward who was called to account for having wasted his rich landlord’s property chooses fraud as the “clever” way out. He finds a way to extricate himself at the last minute from the mess – his clever and dubious calculations consist in ensuring that, when he loses his position, he will find refuge with those whom he had helped, those whose debts he had written off. We can imagine him congratulating himself, “So clever! So clever! I’m so clever!” Far from being inspiring, the behaviour of the steward may actually invoke disgust in many of us. But instead of cautioning His disciples to stay away from such unscrupulous behaviour, our Lord does the shocking and unthinkable; He commends the steward and offers him as a model for discipleship!

On the surface it looks like the Lord is extoling the dishonesty of the steward. Yet when we hear what follows we recognise that He is not using the dishonest servant to give the disciples an example to follow regarding dishonest wealth; rather, He is making a comparison and calling to greater commitment to discipleship.

He uses the parable and the character of the dishonest servant to demonstrate the great extent someone will go to, so that they may preserve their status or wealth or position. The dishonest servant goes to great effort, albeit dishonest and corrupt; to cover up his duplicity and greed, and thereby maintaining his job and ill-gained wealth. The dishonest servant, when he learns of his master’s intention, contemplates his situation, makes a plan then immediately acts to complete it. All this, just to maintain something that is not only ill gained but is fleeting and temporary. The point is, “bad” people are often “clever” people. Their cleverness helps them to see a goal and to go after it. Yet they are foiled because they are looking for something which is a pale imitation of the real good. Being clever isn’t clever enough if it brings us nowhere closer to our ultimate goal – eternal life and heaven.

Jesus uses the parable to have His disciples — that includes us — to reflect on the efforts we make not so much with wealth, position or status but the things that really matter in life. Survival was the driving force behind the servant’s life. For us, attaining salvation should be our primary motivation in every action, every decision, every planning and every enterprise of ours.

Being a good Christian does not mean that you have to be a bad manager, a bad worker, a poor student, or someone who “sucks” at managing your personal and worldly affairs. What Christians should learn from this dishonest steward is that their actions and decisions must be intentional and purposeful. Every action, deed, decision and word, should ultimately be geared towards winning a place in the “tents of eternity.”

The last four statements our Lord makes about money insist on trustworthiness in money matters even in the Church, for money entrusted to the Church for good purposes must be administered conscientiously. So it is not a case of 'God is good, money is bad'; in fact, not even of 'money is good, but God is better'. Rather, money is good, and God is the source of that goodness, the meaning and perfection of all goodness. That is why canon law stipulates that the temporal goods of the Church are to be used especially for the following in descending order: “the regulation of divine worship, the provision of fitting support for the clergy and other ministers, and the carrying out of works of the sacred apostolate and of charity, especially for the needy.”  

Yet money is tainted. Not in itself, but because of what we human beings have made of our world. We have made a world in which people can so easily become enslaved to money - to greed. Those who have enslaved themselves to money have thereby failed to put it to the good work for which it is intended, and instead drawn others into that terrible slavery. Even ministers of the Church have not been spared and thus today’s readings call us to practice good stewardship of the temporal goods of the Church. Ultimately, our Lord is giving us a powerful reminder: God and money cannot share dominion – where one is king, the other must become the subject. If God is king, then our material goods and possessions, money, ambition, cannot rule us. “No man can serve two masters……You cannot be slave both of God and money”. The Beatles, though hardly exemplary Christians, understood the wisdom of this when they sang, “I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love.”

To be “clever” is to be astute, and to be “astute” is to have foresight. Only fools do not see what’s coming and fail to plan and prepare for the eventuality of disaster. Foresight is the mark of wise discipleship. As the steward was forewarned that his service was about to be terminated, so are we forewarned that our death could come at any moment. A fool would think that “tomorrow” is guaranteed, he is deluded into thinking that he can live forever and so continues to waste every opportunity accorded to him to make amends of his life in order to avert the doom that comes with the Final Judgment. A fool aspires and plans for a more secure future, a better job, and more fulfilling relationships, yet he forgets that he can lose all these things in an instance. We should, therefore, wisely make decisions and plan not just for a better and more comfortable earthly life, but for the heavenly life which we hope for.

In the case of the crafty steward in the parable, he was able to come to his senses before the end. This too is a lesson that we Christians and others can and should learn. We may have started on a wrong footing, just like the shrewd and crafty steward, but this need not be how our story ends. Repentance can help us rewrite the end of the story, all our stories. The road to redemption is always open for passage before we arrive at the end of our journey. Once, we’ve come to the “dead end” of our lives, there will be no more chances to repent, no more openings to change direction, no further opportunities to make a U-Turn. But until then, God, in His Mercy, offers us countless opportunities to make amends and change the course of our lives – to choose the road that leads to salvation instead of perdition. The most intelligent thing an intelligent human being can do is to turn to God, not away from Him. Wise men still seek Him, wiser men find Him, and the wisest come to worship Him.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

I once was lost but now I'm found

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Perhaps, one of Christianity’s best loved hymns and top ten choices for funerals is Amazing Grace. There is one particular line in this hymn that resonates with our readings today, “I once was lost but now I’m found.” In fact, the words of the hymn were a summary of the life of John Newton, the man who wrote those beautiful lyrics. Many would find his choice of wording strange and inappropriate. “Lost” is often regarded as an empty and hopeless word when used in reference to things or to animals, but it’s especially bleak when referring to people.

In one sense, the hymn declares that “lostness” is not just the condition of the author of the hymn, but also endemic to humanity, since Adam and Eve lost their way in the garden. Since then, the story of grace is the story of God’s relentless pursuit of the lost and wayward children. Lostness has many faces and creates many detours in our life. We are all lost. The Bible is full of stories of people lost and then found. The children of Israel were lost in Egypt until God found them. But even on their track to the Promised Land, this condition continued to plague them – they were lost in the wilderness for forty years; apparently Moses needed a compass more than a staff. And having finally found their way to the Promised Land, the new home which God had prepared for them, the Israelites, ironically, could even get lost here. Exile after exile, Israel continues to spend more time lost than found.

Getting lost does not seem too difficult for us to do. What does it mean to be “lost”? “Lostness” can be a deliberate choice but more than likely it is incidental to the human condition. We don’t mean to do it but we can’t help ourselves. We get lost in relationships, in our careers, in our life, in our faith, and some of the ways we get lost have not even been invented yet. It all begins because we think we know the way. “Me, lost? Of course not.” Being lost seems inevitable as it is often accompanied by personal pride which refuses to admit that one is lost and thus do not see the need to ask for directions or assistance. Maybe getting lost is natural because since Adam and Eve, pride has been man’s perennial condition. That is why the most common cause for getting “lost” without people even realising it, is “sin.” Sin always takes you farther than you want to go, keeps you longer than you want to stay, and costs you more than you want to pay. And, the most insidious power of sin is that it blinds you to its destructive effects.

But the good news is that we are not condemned to a perpetual condition of being lost, but we now have an opportunity to be found. The paradox of this is that we must recognise we are lost before we can allow ourselves to be found. Repentance is always the first step to being found. Unrepentant sinners remain lost until they realise that God has already found them. The Bible gives us this consoling picture of a God who is not contented with us staying lost. After the Fall, and Adam and Eve’s exile from Paradise, God did not condemn them to stay lost – He didn’t say, “Get lost” and “Don’t come back!” In fact, the whole of salvation history testifies to this amazing truth that God would not want us to be lost. On the contrary, He wants us to be found.

Lots of young people often protest against what they believe to be parental nagging and control:  “Mom give me some space I’ve got to find myself.” We hear that a lot these days. The problem is that most people remain lost even when they’ve grown out of adolescence. They still can’t find themselves even after having attempted to reinvent themselves over and over again. The result is that people use this as an excuse to live any way they please. But the truth is that it is hard to find ourselves, in fact, it is impossible. As much as we want to find ourselves, our Lord had to find us. Being found is not so much as us stumbling into God, as it is God pursuing us.

This is where St Luke comes in with three wonderful parables of lost and found. I’ve decided to read the shorter version which omits the third parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ve already considered the story of the Prodigal Son on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. The focus of each of these stories, the real protagonist, is not the lost sheep, the lost coin, or the lost son. Yes the sheep that wanders, the piece of silver that is lost, and the prodigal son who wastes his inheritance in riotous living makes good story-telling. But no, these are not the real protagonists of the three tales. The clue to understanding these parables is not that they are about losing something or someone, but all three parables are about finding. The parables would be pointless and each ending would remain a cliff-hanger if the shepherd did not go in search of the lost sheep in the wilderness until he found it, the woman did not sweep the house until she recovered it, and the forgiving father did not keep vigil, watching for his son’s return, and until he finally embraced him. Each of these three characters point to the real hero, which is and can only be God. It is He who takes the initiative, not us, the lost ones.

Yes, if “lostness” is facing our inadequacies, then being found is coming face to face with God’s sufficiency. We would always remain lost as long as we depend on ourselves. Trusting ourselves is a prescription for being lost. Only God can find us. You can be found but you just can’t find yourself, you just need to allow yourself to be found by God.

Getting lost is natural being found is supernatural. If you are saved, you know that it is not because you sought after God, but because God sought after you and kept seeking until He rescued you from your sin. He has, and He will continue to pursue you to the ends of the earth, the deepest depths of the ocean, the furthest corners of the universe. There is no place where you can hide from Him. There is effort and intentionality with God seeking us out; for the shepherd explores until He finds the sheep, the woman searches carefully until she recovers her coin, and the father waits until his son returns. This is the heart of the gospel – God goes to great lengths, sending us His Son, the eternal Word into our world in the flesh in order to seek us and save us. And finally, our Lord Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins so that our “lostness” may be exchanged with “foundness.” As Luke 19:10 tells us “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” St Augustine reminds us: “God loves every person as if there was no one else to love.” 

What is even more important is that God seeks us, finds us, and then “rejoices” over finding us. All three parables end with a party. If only finding God was as much a priority for us. If only we rejoiced over finding Jesus like He rejoices over finding us. Just like the three protagonists, many of us find no cause for celebration as long as something or someone remains missing. And just like them, it is only when we find what we want, that we are able to call in our friends and neighbours to rejoice with us. We rejoice not only because we have been found, but because we have found the answer to our deepest longing – we have found “the hidden treasure”, “the pearl of great price”, “the fatted calf.”  If that has been missing in your life, be assured, you have found Him. The last parable of the Prodigal Son tells us that the father instructs his servants to slaughter the “fatted calf” to celebrate his son’s return. Jesus is that fatted calf sacrificed for the sins of humanity so that we who are lost may be found. At every Mass, we dine once again in the heavenly banquet prepared for those who were once lost but now found, as we feast on the “fatted calf,” “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” “Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.”

Monday, September 2, 2019

Hate the less in order to love God more

Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Don’t look shock if you’ve just heard Jesus tell you that you need to hate your father, mother, wife, children, brother and sister. Let’s be honest! Many of us are ready to throw our father, our mother, our wife, our husband, our children and siblings under the bus and we don’t have to wait for Jesus to give us the cue. But just because He tells us, to “hate” this whole list of people doesn’t justify hostility. Now, if hostility is wrong, why did our Lord tell us to “hate”?

Admittedly, if the word “hate” here means what most modern people use the word to mean, then Jesus’ statement is indeed shocking - a form of hate speech that flies against decent family values. The word translated as “hate” does not always mean to despise, detest, and loathe. Nor is the word “hate” used here as the opposite of love. In Hebrew Scriptures, the contrast between “love” and “hatred” is sometimes used to communicate preference. For example, in dealing with inheritances in polygamous marriages, the Mosaic Law referred to “two wives, one beloved, and another hated” (Deuteronomy 21:15). The law was not indicating emotional hatred on the part of the husband, only preference. One wife was preferred over the other.

Therefore, the context of the conversation between our Lord and His disciples has very little to do with detestable hate and has everything to do with a choice, with preferences, priorities and even necessary sacrifices. When our Lord calls us to hate our families and even ourselves, what He's really talking about is the sacrifice that we must make when we follow Christ. The word “hate” used in this passage is the Greek word “misos” which means to love less. When faced with the decision of following what your parents or what you want for your life and what our Lord wants, He wants us to consider our desires and the desires of even our closest relations as inferior to what He desires. In order to be His disciple, we must be willing to give up everything for the Lord. He tells us, “none of you can be my disciple unless he gives up all his possessions.” And ‘possessions’ here do not just mean material wealth but also our most treasured and significant relationships. So, if and when we are faced with the painful choice of loyalty to family versus loyalty to Jesus, we must choose the Lord.

The point our Lord is making is that no commitment, however, sacred, can come before our commitment to God. We are to seek God first and to fulfil our commitments to people only in so far as these do not contradict our commitment to God. The ties of family are not absolute. They are important. They are even sacred, but not absolute. In Christ, our relationships are redefined. Through baptism, we, who are strangers without blood ties, are made brothers and sisters to each other. This is what happened between Philemon in the second reading and his slave Onesimus. St Paul reminds Philemon the master, that Onesimus is returned to him no longer as a slave but as a “blood brother as well as a brother in the Lord.”

Of course, it is right to love our family members. Elsewhere, the Lord confirmed the fourth commandment that we should honour our father and mother. And St Paul sternly warned that “anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever” (1 Timothy 5:8). Likewise, St John even tells us, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.” (1 John 4:20) Thus the Lord’s command is not to detest people, but simply to hold Him as preeminent in all things.

Additional light is thrown on this passage when our Lord relates His point to two metaphors. If we intend building a tower, we must make sure that we have the required materials and sufficient resources to complete it. If we are going to engage in battle, we need to ascertain our chances of victory. Both these illustrations help explain His difficult statement about hating our mother and father—namely, we must count the cost of being a disciple. If we want to be disciples of the Lord we must be ready to give up all our possessions. This demands the single-mindedness of the Shema, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Dt 6:5). 

Therefore “hating” (or “to love less”) one’s own family and one’s own life, merely means to be sufficiently detached to love God more and to give Him our best and our most. That is why the spiritual teachers and mystics have taught us the supreme value of spiritual detachment. Spiritual detachment is a process that frees us from whatever interferes with our spiritual growth. To be detached is to establish and maintain a relation to everything and everybody in one’s life according to which all things are valued by how much they help or hinder us in our relationship with God, the imitation of Christ, and the service of other people. Our Lord calls each of us to spiritual detachment when He says, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Mt 16:24). In other words, in order to follow Christ we must detach ourselves from all worldly attachments (deny yourself); and attach ourselves to His person and mission (take up your cross).

That is why our Lord teaches us to “hate” our relations in the sense of prioritising love of God over them. Even healthy relationships can be hindrances to our spiritual growth, not because they exist, but rather in how we view or treat them.  When we find ourselves longing for human companionship over God’s companionship; when we desire affirmation and acknowledgment from our comrades; when we hope to be included among our friends at social gatherings or in conversations, we inadvertently end up loving God less in favour of loving them more. Spiritual detachment does not mean that we have to refrain from or avoid loving anyone or anything. Rather it is a matter of being attached to people and to things in such a way that we are willing to let them go if and when we are called by God to do so.

When we read the hard sayings of Jesus, we may wonder if He is too severe in His call for us to be detached from the world. In an age that glorifies self-expression and self-affirmation, we may even think of self-denial and mortification as a rejection of the goodness of God’s creation. But this is not the case. Our Lord wants us to be free from the burden of attachments so that we might be happy and enjoy life to its fullest potential. We are asked not to “hate” life, but to love life, not just any life but eternal life. Ultimately, we will find in heaven the best of what we have laboured to realise on earth. It’s important to note that there is nothing wrong with having natural desires or loving someone or something. We must have desire in life or life will be colourless and empty. Some religions view desire as the root of all evil and so teach that one must empty oneself of desire. But this is not what our Catholic faith teaches. God hardwired us with desire when He created us, because all desires ultimately point to the desire for God.

St John of the Cross in his monumental spiritual treatise, the Ascent of Mount Carmel, notes that it makes little difference whether the leg of a bird is tied with a strong rope or with the tiniest thread. If anything is holding it, it cannot fly. Flight to God cannot occur till all attachments that cause us to resist the call of grace are broken, however apparently insignificant they may appear.  This single-minded whole-hearted commitment to God and to doing God’s will is what gives that special flavour to the life of a disciple of Christ. If this is lost, the life of the one who might claim to be a disciple loses all value.