Thursday, September 24, 2020

Every Saint has a past, Every Sinner a future

Twenty-Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A 

Remember when we were young, many of us played the silly game of ‘police-and-robbers' (another variation of this game would be ‘cowboys-and-Indians’, before it got cancelled by political correctness). Everyone knew that the police were the good guys and the robbers were the bad guys. Police were meant to catch robbers and put them in gaol and everyone would applaud their deeds – with criminals behind bars, our homes and streets are safe again. 

Well, this seems to be the prevalent view until recently. The Defund-the-Police movement in America has reversed our evaluation of their roles. The police are now considered the bad guys and the criminals who loot, who rape, who push drugs, who commit acts of violence are now hailed as the heroes; in fact, they are canonised in some sick parody of the religion of the “woke.” But this is just another facet of popular culture, who for decades had tried to rewrite history in schools, literature, movies and even religion by canonising the villains and vilifying its heroes and saints. 

Is that what we are seeing in today’s readings? On the contrary, the readings actually challenge this increasingly popular skewed world-view. Jesus is not congratulating and applauding the sinners because of their sin. He’s applauding their readiness to heed His life-changing message, and in response to that message, repent and change, to turn away from their sin, and correct the mistakes of the past. He is not applauding the “bad guys” for being “bad guys.” He’s applauding them for choosing to turn their lives around and become the “good guys.” 

In one of the celebrated homosexual playwright Oscar Wilde’s play, “A Woman of No Importance,” the hedonistic character Lord Illingworth (perhaps an echo of Oscar Wilde’s own wild life of debauchery) says, “every Saint has a past and every sinner a future.” 

The meaning is simple and edifying: No one is so good that he hasn’t failed at some point, and no one is so bad that he cannot be saved. All have sinned, and all can be saved by God’s grace. The only distinction is between those who have already received it and those to whom it is still available. God’s grace is readily available for the taking. We just have to embrace it. 

This is what happened in the parable of the two sons - the first son was initially unwilling but later changed his mind and did his father’s bidding; the second son who promised that he would do it without hesitation, turned out to be a disappointment. He did not keep his promise, and his words proved to be empty. Remember that talk is cheap but actions speak louder than words. As Benjamin Franklin noted “well done is better than well said.” 

Although this parable seeks to make a contrast between the two sons, just like the parable of the Prodigal Son in St Luke’s gospel, we should also pay attention to the father’s words and actions. The father’s instruction to his sons is an imperative command, “go”, with some translations saying, “go down.” “Go down” is a cue word for the Incarnation. In obedience to the Father’s command to “go down” and for us and for our salvation, the Word leapt down from heaven. Indeed, our Lord Jesus Christ is the Son who dutifully obeyed His Father’s command to “go down” to the vineyard of humanity, as St Paul tells us in the second reading - He is the one who “emptied Himself (of his divinity) ... and accepting death, death on a cross.” Unlike the first son in the parable who initially refused to “go” or the second son who said “yes, I will go” but did not keep his promise, our Lord did not refuse the Father’s commission, neither did He renege on His promise. 

It is true that none of us may be able to come close to the impeccable example of Christ. It is more likely that our answer to God’s call is “no”, rather than “yes, I will go.” But there is hope. Remember: every Saint has a past and every sinner can have a future. We may say “no” today or maybe even tomorrow. But one day, we may finally come round to acknowledge our mistakes, amend our ways, and say “yes.” As the prophet Ezekiel in the first reading assures us, “when the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live. He has chosen to renounce all his previous sins; he shall certainly live; he shall not die.’ For every person is not disqualified nor is he disadvantaged by his past, no matter how sordid or ugly it may be. But a man’s fate can and will be defined by how he chooses to end the story of his life. 

On his death bed, Wilde was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church and received Last Rites. Is it possible that a sinner with a horribly sordid past ends up in the company of the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels and saints in heaven? We are reassured today that it is possible. It is possible that the sinner with a dark past can become a saint and gain eternal life. Just like the game of police-and-robbers, the roles can be reversed. Today, you may be in the role of the “bad guy,” but tomorrow you have the opportunity to play the “good guy.” It would also be important to remember that we should not remain complacent, just because we see ourselves today as the “good guy.” Tomorrow, we may end up as the “bad guy.” For those who have chosen to do the will of the Father, let us remain faithful to our commitment. For those who had rejected the will of the Father, He gives us the opportunity to repent. For anyone who chooses to renounce all his previous sins; he shall certainly live, he shall not die. That is our hope for every person, for every sinner and for everyone struggling to do the will of the Father.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Should we be envious of God's generosity?

Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A
Throughout the world, bi-partisan politics in many countries can often be reduced to a contest of will between two economic systems – capitalism and socialism. The capitalist wants to support business growth by reducing taxes and the socialist would like to see a more equitable distribution of wealth by raising taxes for the rich to subsidise the poor. It seems like an easy choice for us Christians. The socialist option sounds pretty Christian. Didn’t Robin Hood steal from the rich to feed the poor? (Unfortunately, Robin Hood is not a Christian model for social justice) Is this what we are seeing in today’s gospel parable? 

 A shallow reading of the parable of the labourers in the vineyard may lead to a conclusion that our Lord was in favour of creating a socialist paradise. Everyone gets paid the same regardless of the work and time put in. Does that make our Lord a socialist? As we would see, our Lord is neither a socialist nor is he a capitalist. He is our Saviour and the salvation He offers is not just confined to having a political system where everyone is treated equally and where we have an economic and wage system that is equitable. In contrast, salvation reflects the abundant mercy of God shown to all, especially “more” for those in need. 

 Most of us would agree that the landowner in the parable is depicted as someone with a skewed idea of justice. For most people, it is intolerable to think that some people are paid much to do quite little, and others are paid quite little to do much. Ultimately, for many, fairness and consistency are the keys– if I work hard and do more than you do at the same job, I should get paid more, and you less. If we get paid the same, conventional wisdom says, I am being punished for doing more and you are rewarded for doing less. That is why communism has not worked out so well in practice. People would have no motivation to put in the extra effort since everyone gets paid the same regardless of the amount of effort, innovation and time put into the project. Hard work is not incentivised. 

It is quite easy to translate such thoughts and feelings to the spiritual realm. Many would like to think that there are levels of reward in eternity. Those who have done more should be more greatly rewarded, right? And those who do less should receive less, right? And yet our Lord overthrows this line of logic, just as He does with so many other expectations that humans have based upon how the world works. As the prophet Isaiah reminds us in the first reading that God’s thoughts are not your thoughts, and His ways are not your ways, as “the heavens are as high above the earth.” 

The logic of the Kingdom is found in the last line of today’s passage, “the last will be first, and the first, last.” This connects the parable with what came before– the story of the rich young man who wanted to do “more” to gain eternal life and our Lord challenged him to give up everything and follow Him. An incredible demand and a seemingly impossible feat! But our Lord then tells His disciples that such sacrifice which seems impossible with man is possible with God, and that those who follow Him will receive a hundredfold blessing and inherit eternal life. In choosing to become poor for the Kingdom, one actually becomes rich. 

This logic is illustrated in today’s parable. The sense of the story is easy to understand. Every single worker got the same pay - a denarius, the average day’s wage for a labourer - even though they all put in different hours of work and labour. It is no wonder that the first set of workers would grumble. They expected to be paid more for putting in more hours of work. 

Now comes the paradigm shift. The landowner declares that he has done them no wrong. In fact, he has done what he had promised - everyone had been promised a denarius and everyone, including the original labourers, had agreed to this amount. At the end of the day, the landowner has the prerogative to determine the amount to be paid out and if he wants to be generous toward those who worked less, who can tell him that he is wrong for doing so? At the end of the story, the landowner asked this question: “why be envious when I am generous?” The landowner is not on trial for being unjust. He is actually being generous. In fact, it is the workers who are on trial for being envious when they could have chosen to be more charitable. 

So, although socialists may rejoice over this parable by viewing it through their ideological lenses, the parable is both a critique of capitalism as well as socialism. To those who wish to view this story through the lenses of capitalism, the parable is a reminder that salvation offered by God is never based on our individual merit but dependent on the generosity of God’s Providence. To the socialist, the parable exposes what Winston Churchill had to say about socialism, “Socialism is the philosophy of failure, the creed of ignorance, and the gospel of envy.” The original group of labourers could not recognise the generosity and goodness of the landowner shown to the latecomers. They were just envious of their co-workers “good fortune.” 

The parable is clearly an allegory. The landowner of the vineyard is God. The vineyard is the Kingdom. The marketplace represents the world, and those in it waiting for work are those seeking truth which leads to salvation. Those entering the vineyard are those who respond to His call. Some begin serving the Lord from an early age, working many years in the Kingdom, and God has promised them the hundredfold inheritance and eternal life. Others enter at various stages of life. Some might even come to the faith at the end of their lives. But God does not discriminate. For anyone who heeds His call, no matter how late in life, God offers His gift of eternal life. Are we to begrudge Him for this benevolent gift shown even to the sinner who repents on his deathbed as he draws his final breath? This should be a cause for great rejoicing instead of complaining and grumbling. What greater joy can there be knowing that a sinner has repented, a soul has been saved? 

Salvation being offered to all is not a sign of disrespect to those who are early in the game or who put in more effort than others, but a reflexion of the magnanimity and generosity of God. This logic is offensive to the world but ought to be a source of joy to those in the Kingdom. It is not designed to damper our spiritual growth. It should not lead anyone to assume that they can just sneak into heaven without diligently seeking to serve God. Quite the contrary, this message is hope for the world. It does not matter whether you enter His vineyard at 9am or 5pm– the important thing is that you enter His vineyard, and once you are in it, to work diligently to serve the Master! Once you are in the vineyard, there is no time to laze around. 

Salvation can be had at any age– because salvation, ultimately, is more about what God has done for us and not about what we deserve - what we have done. Those who worked for a long time and those who worked for a short time will both receive it. Instead of making unhealthy comparisons and projecting our envy on the blessings others are receiving, let us praise God for the opportunity for salvation and eternal life, and let us all be active in His vineyard!

Thursday, September 10, 2020

Be grateful and learn to forgive

Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

When we have been wronged, our first instinct is usually to get angry. Our second instinct then is to hold onto our anger, because we somehow feel justified in doing so. It is as if because we can’t make the person actually pay for his offence, we do so mentally and emotionally, by punishing him over and over again in our minds. Forgiveness comes later, if at all. In contrast, the Psalmist tells us that “the Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger, and rich in mercy” (Psalm 102). Could this be the meaning of the adage, “to err is human, to forgive divine”?

The readings today remind us of the heavy price we pay for resentment, holding unto unforgiveness, and the incalculable reward we receive when we choose to forgive. The message of the sage ben Sirach in the first reading is simple and hard to miss but makes tough reading. His observance of our human behaviour is quite penetrating. “Resentment and anger, these are foul things, and both are found with the sinner.” Resentment is a sin. It is poisonous. It is like a cancer in a person’s soul.  Anyone who has felt it knows the experience St. Augustine described as “curvatus in se”—being “curved inward on oneself.” Clinging to anger and resentment may feed our egos and give us a sense of moral superiority, but ultimately it undermines love by leaving us disconnected from the source of all love.

The sage, therefore, counselled that those who wish to receive forgiveness from God must be aware that this forgiveness is conditioned upon our readiness to be forgiving toward others. He then proposes two meditations to help those who struggle with forgiveness - contemplating the Last Things, which is ‘death, judgment, heaven and hell’, and secondly, the commandments. How would this help? As much as we desire an accounting from those who have hurt us, it is crucial to remember that we must also give an accounting to God. The measure by which we use to treat others, will ultimately be used against us. So show mercy if you want mercy. “Forgive your neighbour the hurt he does you, and when you pray, your sins will be forgiven.” But if you want God to hold your sins against you, then, by all means, hold others’ sins against them. Remember, he who pulls the trigger, may end up shooting himself.

St Paul reminds the Romans in the second reading that the Church is not just a loose association of individuals whose lives have little effect on others. Rather, “the life and death of each of us has its influence on others” because we have been purchased by God with the blood of Christ. Church and community life cannot exist when its members continue to hold on to a culture of resentment, refusing to forgive when wronged, and resisting all attempts at reconciliation. Forgiveness is not just something that is necessary for each Christian individual for his or her survival but also essential for the life of the Church.

There is no denying that forgiveness may be the most difficult thing to do in life. We may be comforted to know that even St Peter struggled with it. The question he asked presumes there must be some limit to it, especially when it involves a repeat offender. But the answer given by the Lord stresses that no limit should be placed on the number of times we should forgive. The Greek word for “forgive” means literally to let go. Forgiveness is not “forgive and forget”; we can’t erase a terrible wrong from our memory, but we can let go of the resentment that continues to poison our lives. And so, our Lord uses a parable to illustrate His point.

The parable takes the meaning of forgiveness to another level. Here it is not the number of times which is highlighted but the gravity of the offence which is stressed. The ten thousand talents owed by the wicked servant to the king is contrasted with the one hundred denarii owed to him by his colleague. The meaning of this contrast is often lost on modern readers as we are not familiar with the rate of conversion of these ancient currencies. But when we convert these two amounts to our current currency, we realise the enormous disparity. Ten thousand talents would be equivalent to the staggering national debt of a modern state, whereas one hundred denarii would be three months wages. The wicked servant could never repay what he owed the king in a thousand lifetimes, which highlights the magnanimous generosity and mercy shown by the King to him. But instead of emulating this example of generosity, the wicked servant demands reparation from his fellow servant who owes him a considerably smaller amount. The story does not only reveal the calculative and uncompromising attitude of this wicked servant but his abysmal lack of charity and gratitude.

One of the points of the parable is to drive home precisely what forgiveness is and is not. Forgiveness has nothing to do with erasing the blame. Rather it assumes a frank and realistic knowledge of wrongs committed. Everyone should be accountable for their sins. Furthermore, if we cannot recognise the wrong done to us, how can we begin to forgive? Mercy can only be shown to the undeserving. If someone deserves mercy, it wouldn’t be mercy. It would only be true mercy if the person deserves punishment.

The parable also reminds us that the key to forgiveness is gratitude. God wants to teach us gratitude so we can be forgiving and be forgiven! So, if you wish to be a forgiving person, cultivate gratitude in your life. Resentful people are often ungrateful people. This was the wicked servant’s greatest failure. He was ungrateful because he had forgotten how much he had been forgiven and therefore, was unable to show mercy to his companion. That is why forgiveness does not entail forgetting. In fact, to forgive, one must choose to remember. Remembering can be painful. Forgiveness can be difficult, if not impossible. But if we learn to be grateful by remembering how we have been shown unlimited mercy by God, we should also respond to others who have wronged us, with limitless forgiveness.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

If your brother sins, go and have it out with him

Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

It is fashionable nowadays to be “politically correct,” that is, to say nothing which may hurt the feelings of others, and to say everything which affirms their opinion, that is to say what they want to hear regardless of the Truth. Culturally we have become so wary of “judging” or of being labelled “judgmental” that we have become a society in which there is great moral confusion as to right and wrong. Therefore, we generally loath criticising anyone or express disapproval of anything. Everything else seems to matter; people’s opinions about anything and everything seems to matter; people’s feelings seems to matter; but with one exception - Truth doesn’t matter. In fact, truth is often seen as hurtful, violent and inconvenient.

In the midst of this inverted reality world-view, we have the readings for this Sunday which propose as an act of charity and mercy; what is traditionally known as fraternal correction – which is the duty to admonish sinners. In fact, our Lord gives explicit instructions, outlining specific steps for correcting a fellow Christian. To the politically correct mob, what He is suggesting seems totally out of step with modern sensibilities and people’s sensitivities. In fact, Jesus is saying that Truth matters! He is saying that truth is fundamental to love and to community life. Truth is not violence. In fact, it is those who refuse to accept the Truth who would violently choose to silence the voices of those who attempt to correct them.

Even if you believe that truth matters, many would think that minding our own business, and not criticising anyone is a Christian virtue and an expression of love. But is it? St Augustine questions this logic: “You do not care about the wounds of your brother?” You see when your brother and sinner is sinning, they are really hurting, because sin really hurts! So, when we choose to keep silent, that is being more hurtful than speaking the Truth in love. St Augustine says: “By keeping silent you are worse than he is by committing sin.”

Are there occasions when we sometimes hypocritically and sanctimoniously condemn and criticise others while failing to recognise our own faults? Certainly. But should this disqualify us or anyone from correcting our brother or sister out of genuine love for them? In these cases, St. Thomas Aquinas advises: “We do not condemn the other but together weep and help each other to repent.” Though we seldom think of it in this manner, St Thomas reminds us that correction is spiritual almsgiving, an external act of charity. Correcting sinners does not expose one’s lack of love. On the contrary, it is a serious responsibility of love. Individual fraternal correction is ordered to repentance, to lead a brother or sister back to the correct path which leads him or her to Christ. Fraternal correction is, being concerned for their salvation, and working for the salvation of souls should be every Christian’s primary responsibility. Keeping silent, on the other hand, is condemning them (and us) to eternal damnation.

But how should we admonish sinners properly? Before we start correcting everyone on every single thing, it’s good to reflect over these questions: Am I certain that this behaviour is morally wrong or is this merely a difference in opinion? Is there a real necessity for correction or is it one of those things which we can and we should just tolerate? This means that we should not just be “triggered” by everything and anything which annoys us. Perhaps, we need to examine our own predilection for flying off the handle over the slightest trivial matter and work to correct this before we assume that we have the right to correct others.

We should also be prudent enough to choose a suitable opportunity to speak with the person, to listen to his point of view, to have a respectful dialogue with him, if that is possible, so that there is a real possibility that this correction would yield good results. If correction of another is going to be counterproductive or it could make things worse, then it is not prudent to do it. For this, Christian fraternal correction should never assume a patronising method of talking down to the other. Christian correction in order to be Christian should always remain charitable and done with patience, humility, prudence and discretion. That is why the correction must be done in the first place privately, as our Lord suggests because the person confronted has a right to a good name. Only when this fails, would we need to involve others in the community.

When all efforts have been exhausted to reason with the person to mend his ways and the person remains steadfastly arrogant and unrepentant, and weighing the effects of his sins on the larger community, the Church has a pastoral duty, which she exercises out of charity rather than a lack of it, to impose the penalty of excommunication. The purpose of excommunication is not to be a final punishment but rather a means to bring the person to the realisation of the alienating effects of sin and error. Sin cuts us off from God and the community. Excommunication merely makes visible what is actually happening. The purpose of excommunication, just like fraternal correction, is to lead the person to repentance and reconciliation with God and the Church.

Should we blame ourselves when persons do not wish to repent or be reconciled? Well, the first reading assures us that if we have done our job in admonishing the sinner and the person still refuses to repent, then we have fulfilled our obligation, and as the reading promises, we would have “saved our lives” as well as his, if he listens. But the first reading also warns us that if we fail in our duty to admonish the sinner when we have the opportunity to do so, God “will hold you responsible for his death.” We must fraternally correct, not only because Jesus instructs us to, but also because the very salvation of our souls depend upon it!

The best way to practise fraternal correction is by giving good examples and praying for the sinner in question. From our Lord’s last two comments in today’s gospel, we see how the community united in prayer, can really make a difference. Both promises are powerful. In the first promise, the Lord assures us of the power of the unity in prayer - that whatever two ask for, it will be granted. If we take His promise seriously, we will certainly witness amazing changes happening in the lives of individuals and communities, when we are united in prayer.

The second promise assures us of Christ presence when the community is united in His name - wherever two or three are assembled in Jesus’s name, He is in their midst. This is based on a rabbinic maxim: “If two sit side-by-side with the words of the Torah between them, then the Shekinah (God’s visible presence in the world) abides in their midst.” But in today’s text, prayer has replaced the sitting; Jesus Christ, the perfect fulfilment of the Law, takes the place of the Law; and instead of God’s Shekinah, we have the tangible, sacramental, real and substantial presence of our Lord in the Eucharist. For at every Mass, we find ourselves called to sit and dine at the Eucharistic Assembly of the reconciled and witness the final goal of fraternal correction, communion with God and with each other in the Body of Christ. And it is at every Mass, that the Lord challenges us to do this before we walk up to receive Him in Holy Communion, “If your brother does something wrong, go and have it out with him alone.”

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Choose Salvation and not just Safety

Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I will not lie to you. I will not paint a rosy picture of what’s in store for every Christian who desires to live up to his or her name. The truth is simply this: being a Christian is really hard. So much easier to go with the flow, to fit in, to accommodate and follow how the world thinks, and does things. Try to go against the flow, and you would most likely get hit or be thrown under the bus. It is Venerable Fulton Sheen who tells us, “Today the current is against us. And today the mood of the world is, ‘Go with the world, go with the spirit.’” But the good bishop reminds us that “dead bodies float downstream. Only live bodies resist the current.”

This is the dilemma faced by St Peter in the gospel. To choose safety over risking losing everything. To either flee from the cross or embrace it. Peter chose safety over risk, flight over fight, and he will repeat this mistake at the very end of the gospel story when his Master gets arrested. What made his cowardice more pronounced in today’s passage is that he is trying to convince the Lord to do the same.

Just last week, Peter identified Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God; and the Lord announced that God had revealed this truth to him. On that basis, our Lord called Peter a “rock”, and promised to use him as a foundation to build His Church. Jesus even conferred the keys of the kingdom, a symbol of His authority on Peter. But this week, the mood changes. Peter’s rock melts and becomes jelly. What happened? Our Lord predicts and discloses to His disciples that He must suffer greatly, be rejected by the religious authorities, and be killed before rising from the dead. There is no glory without the cross. It’s confounding and downright frightening.

Peter then takes our Lord aside and tries to remonstrate with Him. We would imagine that Peter is being respectful and does not wish to challenge the Lord in front of the others. But the phrase “taking Him aside” has a more profound nuance. The phrase is more accurately translated “took possession,” as in the case of a demoniac possession, taking control of a person’s will and rendering him powerless. This is the action of the diabolical. This is what Satan attempted to do at the beginning of the gospel when he took our Lord aside and tempted Him with various paths that will lead our Lord away from His mission and the Cross. Peter now stands in the place of Satan and does the same. Peter is an obstacle to our Lord’s mission and tries to convince Him to abandon the means by which our Lord will achieve His mission by proposing a safer way, one which requires little sacrifice, one which has nothing to do with the cross.

But our Lord clarifies, “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it.” It’s the cross which will define the disciple, not just the ability to do good deeds or spout correct doctrinal statements about Christ or God.

This is the lesson the apostles and all followers of Jesus would have to learn. When we cling tightly to life and comfort in this world, when we prioritise safety over salvation, we risk losing out on the real life God desires to give us. Peter, out of misguided love, proposed exactly that. Jesus had to correct him, out of true love, and call him back to allegiance to God’s way. As the apostles would soon learn, the path to glory, for Jesus and for us, must pass through Calvary, it cannot avoid the Cross. To avoid the cross would be to stand in the way of Jesus. Our place as His disciples, is to follow Him from behind, not stand in His way. And the crosses that we carry are not proof of God’s absence or powerlessness, but where God’s power can be found.

Real Christians embrace the cross. They don’t flee from it, give excuses for it, or find softer substitutes for it. Renouncing oneself and taking up one’s cross is more than giving up something. It’s not like your little Friday or Lenten sacrifice where you deny yourself chocolate or alcohol or sugar or coffee – basically anything that makes life pleasurable. Denying yourself isn’t an invitation to a private spirituality. It isn’t a form of spiritual masochism. No. It’s a call to live in God’s way, even at the cost of death. As our Holy Father, Pope Francis, reminds us, “There is no negotiating with the cross: one either embraces it or rejects it.”

Being a Christian is hard, but it has its rewards. In fact, the reward for being aligned to God’s ways instead of man’s ways, is far more precious and valuable than anything we can hope to possess and achieve in this life. When our Lord gives us a promise, better believe in it, especially when the going gets tough, when you feel all alone and alienated in your struggle to be faithful, when you are hit on all sides by those who will try to convince you that you are wrong. And this is what He promises, “For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and, when he does, he will reward each one according to his behaviour.”

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Between a Key and a Rock

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

A senior priest once told me that one of the most visible symbols of a parish priest’s authority and power is the number of keys which he possesses. One key to lock and unlock every door on the premises. Interestingly, I inherited a big set of keys when I came to Jesus Caritas. Some, I have absolutely no idea which door it opens. If keys make me an important person, the same could be said about St Peter. St Peter is often depicted as holding a single key or a pair of keys. One key (the gold one) symbolises his spiritual authority and the other, his temporal authority.

It should be noted that when Christ turned to St Peter and said, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven”, He was not speaking in a vacuum. At the start of the Bible, Man is placed in a garden and given the task of guarding it. But Adam was guilty of dereliction of duty. Caught off guard, he allowed the serpent to enter the garden and deceive his wife. In failing to guard the garden a chain reaction was triggered, resulting in the Fall. Man had been entrusted as the guardian and steward of Eden. By failing in his stewardship, the keys to the garden were taken from him and given to the angels. It was now the angels’ duty to lock the garden to intruders, as they brandish a sword of fire at the doorway of Eden. And it was they who were given the privilege of delivering the Law, a role originally reserved for Man. So, here in the gospel, our Lord returns the keys to St Peter, the very keys which Adam lost.

There is another reference to keys and it is found in Chapter 22 of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, which we just heard in the first reading. Here, it involves the story of Eliakim, who prefigures Peter, just as King David is a type of Christ. The previous steward, Shebna, just like Adam, had been removed from office for dereliction of duty. He is now to be replaced by the faithful Eliakim. The reading then provides us with a job description of the position of steward. His function was namely this: to reside “over the house” of the king (that is why he is known in Hebrew as “al-bayit”, which literally means the one in charge of the house/palace), ruling in the place of the king when the latter was absent. This sacred stewardship allowed the vicar of Judah’s king to open what others had shut and to close what had been opened. Additionally, the position of steward was an established royal office; it was to have successors.

This background is critical if we are to understand the role of St Peter. The gospel cannot be read in a vacuum. Neither can we understand the role of Peter without grasping the role of the chief steward and his keys. But the point of the story is not the keys, but Peter himself.

The naming of St Peter is a crucial part of this story. Peter’s original birth name is Simon, but our Lord gives him a new name (Peter in Greek or Cephas in Aramaic). The fact that he had his name changed by Christ is significant. A select number of individuals in the scriptures had their names changed by God, including Abraham and Jacob. These were individuals who were set apart for significant roles in redemptive history. Not only was the naming noteworthy, but the name itself was remarkable. Peter was given a name signifying an attribute almost exclusively attributed to God. “The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation. He is my stronghold, my refuge and my Saviour (2 Samuel 22:2-3). Peter was the first human person in scriptures to bear the name. And the name itself points us to a deeper meaning of Peter’s role. It is upon “this rock” that Christ will build His Church.

In the New Testament, we see the primacy of St Peter depicted in a number of passages. In Luke chapter 12, Christ tells a parable about a group of faithful servants. At the conclusion of the story it is Peter who asks the question of whether this parable is intended for the Apostles. Christ then states, “Who then is that faithful and wise steward, whom his master will make ruler over his household...” Peter is the “faithful and wise steward” made ruler of Christ’s household, the Church. In the gospel of St John, during the Last Supper the disciples argued over who was the greatest amongst them. Christ redefines greatness as measured through serving. He then calls on Peter to serve his brethren by strengthening them. Christ is expecting Peter to hold things together after His departure. And finally, in Acts of the Apostles, we see Peter’s role at the Council of Jerusalem. As the discussion wore on between the two rival camps, the debate became increasingly heated. The entire ruckus came to an abrupt end when Peter rose and rendered his decision. Peter put all the parties to silence when he judiciously administered the keys, making a binding, doctrinal declaration. The storm had come, the winds had blown, but the Church remained safely moored to the chair of Peter.

At the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Christ makes the statement that the wise man will build his house on the rock. There are multiple interpretations to the text. One application is that Christ is the Wise Man as He builds His house (the Church) on the rock, Peter. Remember, it is Christ that is doing the building when He states in the same gospel, “I will build My Church”. Building His Church on Peter does not contradict having the Church built on God (the ultimate Rock), on Christ, His Word, the Apostles or even Peter’s confession. Peter’s office, teaching, authority and confession are based in Christ and therefore have the authority of Christ. To knowingly reject Peter, is to reject Christ.

When conflicts arise from within or from without, many have often speculated that this would be the end of the Church. But as Catholics, to even consider this thought would be to doubt the promise of Christ to Peter. Rather, we should be confident that the Church, built by Christ on the rock, will weather the storm. The house that falls apart or slips from its foundation proves that it was a poorly built house, of poor workmanship and therefore never built by the Divine Carpenter. Such edifices are man-made. But the Church, built by Christ on the rock of St Peter and his successors, protected by the keys of the kingdom, is one that will last the test of time and will weather the inevitable storms “and the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.”

Friday, August 14, 2020

Racism is a Sin

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

The easiest way to disarm your sparring partner in any intellectual argument would be to rain down ad-hominem labels on him. Call him a racist, a chauvinist, a fascist, a homophobe, and you can unilaterally declare yourself the victor. Such labels do not attempt to get to the bottom of the truth, but merely seeks to delegitimise and invalidate your opponent’s arguments. The frightening trend is that many frequently use this method to silence other opinions and viewpoints. Recently in America, Jesus has fallen victim to this form of stigmatisation.  He has been accused of being “too white,” which is strange, since Jesus is actually a “brown” Jew.

Let’s be fair, reading today’s gospel through modern revisionist lenses could give the impression that Jesus is indeed a bigot, and only got “woke” because of this Canaanite woman. A modern interpretation would sound like this – Before His awakening, Jesus is wrestling with His own prejudices and a blinkered view of His mission. He was a racist and a chauvinist as evidenced by Him ignoring this woman from the outset and later uttering a racial slur. So, it takes a foreign woman to challenge the Son of David to shake off His prejudices and expand His sense of His mission to include her and her child. She saved the Saviour of the world by opening up His mind and taught Him a lesson or two about being inclusive and tolerant. Thank God for this woman.

Does this interpretation sound reasonable? It would be if the characters were indeed following some modern identity politics playbook. But this kind of interpretation is dangerous as it would be reading our own modern prejudices into the text. Could the Son of God really have been prejudiced? Did He need someone to change His mind or teach Him a lesson about His own mission? If we answer “yes” to these questions, we are effectively denying that Jesus was the sinless One, God-Incarnate, because any type of biasness and prejudice would be sinful. But we are told that He was like us in all things but sin (Hebrews 4:15). Although the Divine Word became flesh, He never ceased to be the eternal second person of the Holy Trinity. He never ceased to be perfect. Therefore, He did not need to learn how to be less racist from a Canaanite woman. There is no need for Him to alter His moral orientation because He is the foundation of all moral truths. 

So then, what exactly is the right way to read this passage? Instead of reading this text as an occasion where the Canaanite Woman schooled Jesus in how to become more inclusive and tolerant, it was our Lord who was teaching this woman and His disciples several important truths. Notice that it was the disciples who wanted to send her away; if anyone in the narrative has not yet understood Jesus’ wider vision for the inclusion of the Gentiles, it is the disciples, not Jesus.

First, there is a lesson of humility. Most of us are more concerned about defending our personal dignity, raising our defences, going on the offensive, than listening to the perspective of another. But here we witness the motherly love of this woman. She was prepared to humiliate herself, throw herself at the feet of our Lord, and be subjected to seemingly hurtful speech for the sake of her daughter. Her love for her daughter and her faith in our Lord’s ability to provide the solution overcame her need to defend her own pride and dignity. In this manner, she puts the disciples to shame. This woman epitomises the ideals of Christian discipleship – she is not ambitious for positions of power and honour, but is willing to place herself in a position of the lowliest servant, a servant who listens patiently and obediently to the Master’s bidding.

Second, there is a lesson of perseverance. The Canaanite woman was not daunted by our Lord’s initial silence and indifference. She did not fear being regarded as a nuisance. Just like the other parables in Luke’s gospel on the virtue of persevering in prayer (the widow and the wicked judge, seeking a neighbour’s help in the middle of the night), the story of the Canaanite woman is another demonstration of the power of perseverance. Faith is not just a one-off experience but grows in momentum and strength when fueled with determination and resilience.

Finally, there is the lesson of the priority of salvation over all other claims. The woman had come to our Lord asking Him to heal her daughter. But He gave her more than she bargained for. In exchange for her faith, He gave her the gift of salvation. The disciples, like the rest of the Jews believed that the Messiah’s mission is confined only to Jews. But here, our Lord reveals to all of them that He has come to seek out and save the lost. He had been sent by the Father for the salvation of souls. As we profess in the Creed, “For us and for our salvation, He came down from heaven.”

But this begs the question: How can we reconcile this with what our Lord says in this passage, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel”? If you read the entire gospel of St Matthew, you would come to recognise that He makes this important distinction between the false Israel and the true Israel.  Membership in the True Israel did not come from lineage or the purity of one’s bloodline, nor did it even come from rigorous and scrupulous observances of the Law. Ultimately, the most important criterion for membership in the True Israel, according to the Gospel of St Matthew, is that the person, the disciple, listens to, adheres and finally does whatever he has learnt from Jesus, and in observing all that has been taught by Jesus, does the will of the Father perfectly. So rather than being excluded by Jesus’ professed mission to the lost sheep of Israel, the Canaanite woman is revealed to be a member of the true Israel because of her faith.

Jesus recognises the woman’s wisdom, insight and faith; this is the only time that faith is described as ‘great’—something of a contrast to the ‘little faith’ of Peter when he gets out of the boat! At the end of the day, it is not racial identity, or one’s political beliefs or sexual orientation which can unite us, what more save us. It is faith. In fact, all this talk about “diversity” is actually a cover for division. At the end of the day, it is faith which unites us and saves us and helps us move beyond all these divisive categories. When St. Paul said that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal. 3:28), he was talking about how Christ brings unity based on religion, not race. Our Lord does not destroy our cultural and racial identity but redeems it and brings it to alignment with God’s will and purpose for all humanity.

Yes, we are bad at talking about race, in part, because we do not trust each other. Such a lack of trust is a barrier to honesty. And it is hard to have meaningful conversations without that. But our Lord teaches us that we must engage in such conversations, difficult as it may be. This is what evangelisation is all about. Evangelisation is having conversations with those who hold values which are at odds with the gospel. We do so by being both truthful and respectful. Such conversations can never take place without humility and perseverance. Humility is necessary for listening with an open heart rather than being on the defensive or offensive. Perseverance is also necessary because the path to conversion is never quick nor easy. But finally, the solution to racism is not just a human one. The solution to racism is just like a solution to every other problem which arises from sin. The solution is repentance and faith. Here alone is hope for racial reconciliation.