Tuesday, September 26, 2023

The Second Plank after the Shipwreck

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Most folks would be familiar with the other parable involving two sons, though the focus in the Gospel of St Luke seems to be on the younger son who is a wastrel, but ironically called the Prodigal Son. The two sons in that famous parable are morally ambivalent - they are neither purely good nor purely bad. This is understandable since the focus is on the character of the father.

But here, in Matthew’s parable of two sons, the moral lines are clearly drawn between good and bad, light and darkness. And yet, Matthew acknowledges how someone good may end up bad and someone bad, may eventually turn good. Those in the light can fall into darkness as easily as those who are in the darkness can be redeemed and brought into the light.

The parable draws a contrast between the early response of the two sons to the father’s request to “go and work in the vineyard today” and their actual response at the end of the story. Don’t be too quick to judge either son. We need to stay around till the end to see the actual outcome and we will be surprised by the ending. The son who refused at the beginning, relents and then does the job. The other son acquiesces without any protest when first asked but then chooses to do nothing. Our Lord poses this question to His disciples, “Which of the two did the father’s will?” And just like the disciples, our answer would be “the first.”

The lesson in this parable is restated by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, ‘It is not anyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord” who will enter the kingdom of Heaven, but the person who does the will of my Father in Heaven’. It is no use simply saying that Christ is our ‘Lord’, we have to express it in our behaviour.

What is the difference between the first son and the second? The actions of both sons show that no position is written in stone and that they are subject to change - sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. The change that we are looking at as instrumental to our salvation is repentance. If sin is clearly demonstrated as disobedience, the first son, after open refusal, repents of his sin—better late than never—and goes to work for his father. He overcomes and changes from bad to good. After experiencing the negative results of sin, he yields to his father’s instruction, changing direction and does as his father commanded him—the fruit of his repentance.

Repentance can change the outcome of the story of every man or woman, even the greatest sinner. What is repentance? The Greek word we translate as “repentance” is metanoia (the verb “to repent” is metanoeo), and it means “to change your mind.” Metanoia’s Hebrew counterpart is tshuva, which means “to return.” So when the Lord says, “Repent and believe in the gospel,” He is basically saying: change your mind about sin and return to God by believing the good news! In order to be saved, we must repent. Repentance means not just running back to God, but running away from anything that would keep us from God. Our call to repentance is really our call to conversion. It is our call not just to change, but to become our most authentic selves as children of God.

For us Catholics, repentance is not just a private act of contrition where we confess our sins to God directly and hope for His forgiveness. Many often wonder whether God has truly forgiven their sins or continues to hold it against them. There seems to be no way of verifying except to rely on our gut feelings. But the good news is that we do not have to speculate as to whether our sins have really been forgiven or we remain entrapped. One of the most important sacraments, the sacrament of penance or popularly known as confession, provides a penitent with an objective confirmation. Through the ministry of the priest, the penitent will get a definitive answer when the words of absolution are pronounced over the person: “God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of his Son has reconciled the world to himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us for the forgiveness of sins; through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, + and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is a shame when this sacrament is so underappreciated and so underutilised for our growth in holiness. It is important to remember that long lines for holy communion is not the barometer for a spiritually vibrant church unless it is matched by long lines to the confessional.

I like the image found in the description of the early fathers of the Church when they call this sacrament “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” (CCC 1446). Imagine that: God throws us a plank after the shipwreck of sin which has caused us to lose saving grace. This sacrament is visible assurance that God has not abandoned us. He has not written us off as incorrigible. He has not dismissed us as irredeemable. Just like the first son, we too may have said “no” to His invitation to go into the vineyard and work, but He always keeps a door and window open for us to return and make up for lost time and opportunity. God throws us a plank after our lives and the lives of others have been shipwrecked by sin!

Most of us know what it means to live with regret. Lost opportunities may never be recovered. But not in the area of grace. God offers us countless opportunities before our death to repent, to amend our lives, to change our decision and remake our path before it is too late. But let us not live with the presumption that we will have more time which gives us cause to delay our repentance and return to do His will. Let us not think that we are secure just because we have got it right at the start. The challenge is to keep on the right path faithfully to the very end and to immediately repent, should we stray. As the prophet Ezekiel warns us in the first reading: “When the upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed. 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.”

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

The Economics of the Cross

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One of the most common vices which has taken a firm grip on us is our penchant to whine and complain. Who hasn’t complained, grumbled and ranted about others or a situation? We constantly complain about our parents, our children, our spouses, our leaders, our bosses, our subordinates, our fellow church members, our priests, and of course, God - no one has been spared from our list of complaints. What underlies our disgruntled feelings, unbeknownst to most of us, is our sense of entitlement. But here’s the irony. We feel entitled to respect from others, often without giving respect in return. And worse-yet? We feel that God owes us everything because we feel that we’ve either earned it or deserved it.

The sense of entitlement rears its ugly head in today’s gospel parable. It is what transforms the initial sense of gratitude into a gnawing sense of resentment. The story is told by the Lord in response to Peter’s question. A modern rephrasing of Peter’s question would sound like this, “What’s in it for us?” Peter wanted to know what reward would be given to those who give up everything to follow Jesus. In a sense, Peter wanted to know what his entitlement is.

Yet there is something in Peter’s comparative attitude and his need for the assurance of reward that does not fit well with labouring in the Lord’s vineyard. If Peter is worrying about a poor payoff which does not match the sacrifice he is called to make, the Lord overwhelms him with vision of gratuitous abundance. To Peter’s self-serving motivations, our Lord proposes another paradigm, that of generosity – a generous heart is one filled with gratitude and sees everything as grace. A generous heart considers the struggles, difficulties, the welfare of others, instead of just focusing on the injustices that life has dished out to us.

The story starts out with a conventional plot, hiring day workers, which already suggests that they were unemployed till that moment. But it has an unconventional ending - people who worked the least got equal pay, and got paid first. The owner of the vineyard orders that all be equally paid a denarius, whether you had worked the entire 12 hours or less than an hour. Something immediately strikes us as wrong. Conventional social dealings would dictate that those who only worked one hour would receive a twelfth of what the first group agreed to. But there is a greater surprise. To add injury to the already incensed members of the first group of workers, the latecomers get paid first. The master’s generosity, which is a pleasant surprise to the latecomers, becomes a cruel disappointment to the early birds.

The dissatisfaction of the first group of workers is understandable. They had endured the unrelenting heat of the sun, the hot scorching desert winds throughout the whole day, while the others worked for far less during the cool of the evening. Economic justice would demand that “to every man (be given) what he deserves.” Weren’t these workers entitled to a larger pay-out and extra benefits for the time and effort which they had put in? Therefore, thinking in terms of standard social and economic conventions, they expected more. But was their complaint justified? Didn’t they get what they deserved, what they had agreed upon at the beginning, and even more than the prevailing market standards? The landowner’s offer of one denarius for a day’s work is indeed generous. They had accepted it happily at the beginning. Furthermore, where vineyard day workers were victims of an exploitive socio-economic system, the graciousness of the landowner to provide work opportunities to them at a wage that was unequal to their job, was not a sign of meagerness but rather generosity.

We, therefore, come to realise that the root of their indignation came not from an exploitive wage scale but from seeing the good fortune of others whom they felt were not deserving of the same. The landowner had not been unjust, he has every right to do what he wants with his money. The real problem is that the grumblers harbour envy. The master’s generosity is an expression of gracious freedom, not callous arbitrariness, while workers’ complaints are an expression of their loveleness, not of their unfair treatment.

It is here that we see the radical difference between their sense of justice and that of the landowner, who symbolises God. The parable thus shows that God’s justice is not according to man’s calculations. God’s justice bestows mercy on the hapless and rebuffs the proud claims of merit. In contrast to human justice which rewards “every man what he deserves,” the divine principle of justice accords “to every man what he needs.” This is the economics of the cross. Our Lord Jesus died on the cross for us not because we deserved it. He died for us because we needed His perfect sacrifice of love. Thus, the bestowal of grace is not correlated to the work done – the sacrifice made, the amount of prayers offered, the expanse of one’s missionary efforts. It flows from the nature of God who is good, loving and gracious. Grace operates on the basis of the free choice of God, who dispenses his gifts with generosity.

Our society has truly been infected by an epidemic of envy and complaints. Rather than blaming God for the injustices in the world, the parable calls for honest self-examination – have we truly allowed our obsession with self-interest to dampen our joy and blind us to the needs of our neighbours? Pope Francis rightly states the problem in the second paragraph of Evangelii Gaudium, “The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless.” (EG 2)

The generosity of God should always awaken us to greater mercy, compassion and generosity, rather than be a cause for complaint and grumbling. At the end of the day, for Christ’s disciples, all rewards are really “gifts” or expressions of divine favour and not earned “wages” or “mercy”. Don’t ask “what’s in it for me?” but rather, “What’s in it for the other guy?” That is a hard lesson to learn, because oftentimes when we go to God in prayer we think we deserve something from Him. We believe He owes us something. The same goes with service offered to the community of the Church. This parable is a painful but necessary reminder that what we receive from God is an undeserved gift. The Church owes us nothing. God owes us nothing. In fact, we owe the Church and God who works through the Church, everything.

A wise priest once gave me this potent piece of advice, “in God’s business, rule number one is that no one works for himself. Everybody takes care of somebody; in that way, all our backs are covered. If you doubt this kingdom paradigm, you will never be happy… so instead of looking at your neighbour as a nuisance and a burden, pray that he be your opportunity and strength.”

Monday, September 11, 2023

Forgiveness and Generosity

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One of the hardest things for a priest to do is to ask his congregation for money. You may somewhat understand this if you acknowledge that it is extremely hard to beg and grovel. It is demeaning. It always seems that there are so many strings attached to any act of giving. I have to be prepared to return the favour in some way or another because when people give, they always expect something in return. Even when the favour is not called in immediately, it emerges whenever special requests are declined. Accepting a gift from someone ends up like owing the person a lifetime of favours which can never be satisfactorily repaid.

Why would I raise the issue of generosity when our readings speak of forgiveness? This is because generosity is necessary for forgiveness. “Giving” is the root word of “forgiving.” It’s almost safe to say they come from the same “root.” A popular Arab saying suggests that a forgiving person is “karim”, generous. Generosity and forgiveness come from one source: “compassion.” Forgiveness is a sign of largesse, an act of generosity. Unforgiveness, on the other hand, rises from a calculative attitude that is unable to let go of what is due or what we believe to be due to us. True forgiveness is basically an act of bestowing and receiving generosity from another. Lack of forgiveness is one manifestation of self-absorbed non-Christian living and the reading from Romans reminds us that we should not live for ourselves.

If you can’t see the connexion, our Lord’s parable in today’s Gospel passage perfectly illustrates this point. In the parable, we see two instances where a debt is owed. In the first case, the servant brought before the king owed a huge amount of money. In the second circumstance, the servant wanted to collect a paltry sum from a fellow servant. Looking simply at the amounts owed, one sum is gargantuan and the other is miniscule. If one were to find a suitable analogy, it’s like comparing a national debt with what you owe on a month’s unpaid utility bill.

When we hear this story, we have a reaction equal to the other servants concerning the injustice of the situation. The king acted generously while the wicked servant exacted what was his due even when he could and should have forgiven the small debt owed to him by a fellow servant. A sense of right and wrong cries out against the calculative attitude of the unjust servant. The issue is not so much about the incomparability of the money owed as it is the lack of generosity on the part of the first servant. He was forgiven so much, why did he forgive so little?

If the wicked servant had really understood this generosity he would have been willing to forgive the debt of his fellow servant. The Lord presents the two cases as if they were parallel. That is, the issue is not really about money but our willingness to forgive in the same manner in which we have been forgiven. What is our attitude when we have accepted forgiveness from another? Are we willing to do likewise when we need to forgive? One thing that is evident in the parable is that genuine forgiveness entails generosity on the part of the forgiver and the forgiven.

If we are able to understand the connexion between mercy and generosity, giving and forgiving, we will then understand that Peter’s question at the start of today’s passage is actually the wrong question: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me?” Peter thought that forgiving seven times was being sufficiently generous. Our Lord counters with His own number, “seventy-seven times”, or in some translations, “seventy times seven.” The number isn’t important. We are not witnessing a back-and-forth haggling between Master and disciple. Our Lord is merely reminding Peter and all of us that mercy is never a matter of accounting. Don’t look at our calculator, rather look at the blessing we’ve received from God and which we are now called to share with others. God’s blessings and mercy outpaces any calculator. Our forgiveness should be given in abundance – it’s one thing that’s truly free. It costs us nothing to give it away. And the supply is endless. In fact, the more you give, the more you receive. Perhaps nothing can better describe the faithfulness and mercy of God, and the depths of His love to send His only Son to sacrifice once and for all for the forgiveness of our sins.

Perhaps it is hard to forgive because we have been expecting in the human that which is found only in the divine. Admittedly, it is hard to forgive when the faults of our enemies are so clear to us and the pain of the injury we have suffered at their hands run deep. The parable tells us to focus elsewhere - not on the failings and limitations of man but on the immense mercy of God - the ocean of God’s mercy. The Lord made this promise through St Faustina “whole ocean of graces upon those souls who approach the Fount of My mercy.” The image of God’s mercy as big as an ocean is actually scriptural.

The prophet Micah cries out to God and implores His mercy on the people: “You will again have compassion on us; you will tread our sins underfoot and hurl all our iniquities into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:19). On Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, Jews according to their custom would cast breadcrumbs or empty whatever valuables they have in their pockets into a body of water, as a symbol of casting their sins into the ocean of God’s mercy. No matter what rubbish or emotional baggage or hurts or resentment we choose to cast into that sea, we know that we will never be able to plunge its depths or displace its waters. God’s mercy will always be bigger than my sins, than my emotional baggage, than my pains and hurts. If God can show such great incalculable mercy to me, though unworthy, could I not afford some level of mercy to my neighbour whose debt comes nowhere close to what I owe God?

It’s by the grace and providential hand of God our sins are cast into the depths of the sea. A sea of forgetfulness is akin to God’s memory of our wrongs. The world continues to live under the curse of sin. We continue to hurt each other and be hurt by others. We will never fully escape it, nor its effect on our ability to shake sin completely this side of heaven. One step, one confession, one day at a time, we will become more like the person God created us to be. It’s a change God makes in us because long before we breathed our first breath of earthly air, He chose us. In Him will we always find not only an ocean of mercy but an ocean of love.

Tuesday, September 5, 2023

Admonish the Sinner

Twenty Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Minding our own business seems to be a useful thing, a most basic survival skill. We’ve been taught since young: if you see a fight, walk away. If you see trouble brewing or coming over the horizon, walk away. If you see your colleague engaging in something illegal, walk away. If you hear someone spewing lies and untruths, walk away. Tell yourself: “it’s not your fight. Just walk away!” As pragmatic as this piece of advice may sound, is this really what we are supposed to do? Yes, in the name of self-preservation, it may be the best option. But in the name of Christ and our moral duty to our neighbour, walking away betrays a lack of charity. As the old adage erroneously attributed to the Irish philosopher Edmund Burke goes, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,”

Minding our own business or shirking our social responsibility is as old as Cain. When interrogated by God as to the whereabouts of his brother whom he had murdered, Cain’s answer has become a rallying cry of all those who sought to avoid sticking your nose into other people’s affairs: “am I my brother’s keeper?” This question is ludicrous since he was fully aware that he was responsible for his brother’s death. In the first reading, God gives this warning to Ezekiel: “If I say to a wicked man: Wicked wretch, you are to die, and you do not speak to warn the wicked man to renounce his ways, then he shall die for his sin, but I will hold you responsible for his death. If, however, you do warn a wicked man to renounce his ways and repent, and he does not repent, then he shall die for his sin, but you yourself will have saved your life.” In short, we would not be faulted if the other refuses to heed our warning but God would hold us accountable if we fail to issue that warning in the first place.

Our social responsibility to our neighbour is spelt out in the third spiritual work of mercy. It is one that few of us like to engage in: “admonish the sinner.” In fact, many today erroneously believe the opposite - that it is an act of mercy to bite our tongue and refrain from correcting others.

But our Lord in today’s Gospel passage lays down clear steps in engaging in fraternal correction. First, we do it privately instead of publicly. Something which is hard to do in an age of social media, public shaming and trolling. Second, if a private meeting fails to resolve the issue, bring in others for mediation. Lastly, if this still does not work, submit it to the adjudication of the community. When even this last step of reasoning and conciliation fails, that person should be treated like “a pagan or a tax collector.”

Many would construe this as a command to excommunicate the person. But let us consider how our Lord dealt with the pagans and tax collectors. He came to bring the gospel to them, heal them, reconcile and save them. Even should this last point be deemed a form of excommunication, the Church teaches that excommunication is not meant to be punitive but is regarded as an act of charity and a means of saving the soul of the person by demonstrating the eternal consequences of his action. Should a person die in mortal sin, he would be eternally separated from God. Excommunication gives a taste of this.

It is important to note that the Lord refers to the person as “your brother.” This highlights the fact that admonition is best done in the context of an established relationship. A person is much more likely to listen to a trusted friend or relative, rather than a street preacher holding a sign that says: “Repent! Sinners go to Hell!” While the message might be the same and true, it does not mean it will be effective. The question is not whether a billboard that says, “Hell is Real” is true (which it is); the question is, “what is the most effective method of ‘admonishing the sinner’ in the modern world?”

Saint Paul echoes these words when he writes, “If any one refuses to obey what we say in this letter, note that man, and have nothing to do with him, that he may be ashamed. Do not look on him as an enemy, but warn him as a brother” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). St Paul is reminding us that we need to look upon someone you admonish as a “brother” and not an “enemy.” Sometimes it is easy to see certain sinners inside and outside the Church as “enemies” and we make it our mission to “correct” them. We do not embark on our mission in a spirit of fraternal charity, but we do so as if we were going to war. To admonish the sinner is not to belittle or humiliate the person, but rather to alert him to the danger of a sinful course of action. It is rooted in love, not pride.

The obligation remains for us both to admonish sinners and to accept admonishment ourselves. So remember, to admonish the sinner begins by admonishing oneself. After all, we are all sinners. Humility is the virtue by which we recognise our sinfulness and our weakness, thus realising that we ourselves depend upon God's mercy to forgive us our sins and upon His grace to strengthen us to resist sin in the future.

To admonish others effectively, there are two other points we must keep in mind. First, we must practice what we preach. In other words, we have to be working at striving for holiness and avoiding sin in our own lives if we expect others to do the same. Our words have little value if we are perceived as hypocrites – not matching words to action. The second point is to avoid the terrible attitude of self-righteousness with its judgmental view of others. Self-righteousness puts a person into the mindset of the Pharisees who were quick to condemn sin in others but overlooked it in themselves. To carry out this work of admonishing the sinner, a person must have a sense of compassion for human weakness, and we can only learn that by recognising our own weaknesses. This requires humility and honesty.

We must remember that the goal is not to tell others how terrible they are; this is, after all, a work of mercy. Neither is the goal to win an argument or to feel superior. Rather, the goal is to win the sinner back from a destructive path, to announce the forgiveness of sins available to all who repent. The goal is salvation. Even greater than all our bodily needs, is the spiritual need to be set free from sin and receive the life of God. This is why admonishing the sinner is so important. To admonish sinners is to call lovingly to those in danger and draw them back from the edge of the abyss. To avoid doing this would only betray our real intention - we cannot bear the backlash that sometimes comes when we warn people who do not want to be warned. But if we yield to this fear, we are showing that we love ourselves too much and do not love God and others enough.

Tuesday, August 29, 2023

Not on the Way, in the Way

Twenty Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Those who know me well would have heard me sing a parody of that famous song immortalised by Josh Groban, “You raised me up.” In my twisted version, the first line goes like this: “You raised me up and then you slammed me down.” This sounds much like what the Lord does to St Peter in today’s Gospel. Last week, our Lord gave Simon a new name, Peter, the Rock, on which He promised to build His new temple, the Church, and which will stand as a lasting and formidable bastion against the gates of the underworld. No greater honour could be paid to any of the apostles. That was his high point!

But this week, our Lord drastically changes His tune and utters one of the meanest put-downs and aims it like a knife at Peter. Peter’s fortune is reversed - in last week’s passage, he was raised up to the highest heavens and in this week’s episode he is cast down from the heights like Satan. St Peter is now the agent of Satan, the stumbling block to those who might come to profess the same faith. This unexpected transformation from building block to stumbling block, from an instrument to an obstacle, from a lieutenant of Christ to an adversary, comes quickly – so quickly, in fact, that the two passages occur back to back in one continuous narrative.

What brought about this reversal of fortune for Peter? Having been identified as the Messiah, the Lord in today’s passage begins to spell out how He is planning to accomplish His work of salvation. The nature of His mission would entail suffering, rejection and death. It was clear to the apostles that Jesus was the Messiah. The notion that He was the suffering Messiah was much harder to digest. It required frequent repetition from the Lord to make real to their minds the thought that He had to suffer and be killed. It is no wonder that St Peter, who had just confessed that our Lord was the long-awaited Messiah, now pleads with Him to cease His madness, “Heaven preserve you, Lord,” or “God forbids!” “This must not happen to you.” The disciple who is meant to listen to the Master, now seeks to command the Teacher. St Peter found the cross offensive because he could not bear the thought that the Messiah, from whom he expected national deliverance, should be killed.

What Peter failed to realise is that the death of Christ was necessary, as the text tells us that “He was destined to go to Jerusalem.” The words “destined to go” imply a constraint, an imperative, a divine necessity. His death had been planned and willed by God through all eternity. The prophets had predicted it and He must fulfil it. Pope Saint Paul VI wrote: “In a mysterious way, Christ Himself accepts death... on the Cross, in order to eradicate from man's heart the sins of self-sufficiency and to manifest to the Father a complete filial obedience” (Apostolic Exhortation Gaudete in Domino, 9 May 1975). By willingly accepting death, the Lord carries the cross of all human beings and becomes a source of salvation for the whole of humanity. Peter couldn’t quite get it. None of the disciples could at this stage.

Our Lord’s reaction to Peter’s attempt to give Him guidance was as sharp as it was instantaneous: He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God’s way but man’s!” The Lord notes that unlike last week’s passage, where our Lord affirms that Peter’s confession of faith was revealed by the Father, the source of this week’s statement was from Peter himself. What’s worse, is that this human opinion was being used by the devil to tempt the Lord to turn His back on the cross, to choose safety and honour, over suffering and sacrifice. This was the nature of the three temptations which Satan used on our Lord in the wilderness before He began His public ministry. Satan had returned to tempt our Lord in the person of Peter. Of course, our Lord will have none of it because He knew that glory comes only after sacrifice. As one of my seminary formators once told a group of us, “If you are not on the Way, you are in the way!”

This dramatic exchange between our Lord and Peter would have been accentuated by the stunning backdrop. The town is Caesarea Philippi, a town built and named by an heir of Herod the Great in honour of Great Caesar and yet Philip the Tetrarch arrogantly attaches his name to the title - Caesarea Philippi - Philip’s City of Caesar. The vassal seeks to rule his liege. The arrogance of Philip, a minor ruler, is pretty rich. Similarly, Peter in remonstrating with the Lord, seeks to lord over Him. Instead of renouncing himself and follow the Lord’s lead, Simon Peter seeks to have the Lord follow his instructions and lead.

If you find this parallel coincidental, consider now the geographical location. Caesarea Philippi is in the foothills of Mount Hermon, in a region currently known as the Golan Heights, previously Syrian and then occupied and annexed by Israel after a series of wars. But what was most imposing about this region and city is the enormous rocky outcrop on which the city is built. At the foot of this rock was a natural spring which was considered to be a sacred shrine dedicated to the god Pan, who had the appearance of a satyr - a half goat and half man creature - almost demon-like. So, the words of our Lord spoken here take on another level of meaning when one has a view of the surroundings where He spoke. The rock on which He would build His Church would no longer be this geological rocky formation but a man, a seemingly weak one at that - Simon Peter; and when He subsequently called out Simon Peter as “Satan,” our Lord would not have been referring to the demon-like pagan god Pan, but the very same man whom He had named “rock” just a few minutes earlier.

The passage ends with our Lord spelling out what a disciple of His must do. The fate of the Master must now be the fate of the disciple, for this is what it means to “follow” Christ. “If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me.” You see, the cross was not only for Jesus. It is ours too. The cross of Christ means your death and my death.

In the midst of the many voices clamouring for our time, our money, our allegiance and our attention, we are called to choose the cross, we are called to choose Christ, to the complete dispossession of all else. In His call to authentic discipleship, Christ challenges our most precious loyalties. As there can be no other gods before the God of Israel, there can be no other loves before Christ. The life you long for, the changes you want, come only through the cross — no other way! If you will live at the cross, the cross will take care of the rest. This is a great challenge for each of us.

The Cure D’Ars, St John Vianney, leaves us with this wonderful wisdom: “On the Way of the Cross, you see, my children, only the first step is painful. Our greatest cross is the fear of crosses. . . We have not the courage to carry our cross, and we are very much mistaken; for, whatever we do, the cross holds us tight - we cannot escape from it. What, then, have we to lose? Why not love our crosses, and make use of them to take us to heaven?”

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

You are Peter

Twenty First Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

If you are an avid follower of the Catholic blogosphere, you would certainly get the impression that the Catholic Church is deeply polarised and is spiralling completely out of control. There was a time when you would dismiss all negative commentaries as conspiracy theories and that there is no reason to panic. But today, you would find it hard to allay their fears and anxiety. As many of you may know, we are heading into another critical moment with speculations and anxiety building up about the outcome of the greatly touted Synod on Synodality, with rumours that women ordination, married priesthood, same sex marriages are on their way in. The entire Synodal process, though praised by marginalised voices as allowing them to air their views, seems to have rendered our bishops impotent - with one commentator claiming that the bishops have been reduced to “note-takers, not teachers; recording secretaries, not guarantors of orthodoxy; messenger boys, not apostolic leaders.”

In the middle of this storm is the figure of Pope Francis. Borrowing the cliched line in the Spider-Man movie, with great power comes great responsibility. Shouldn’t he be assuming the bulk of responsibility for this seeming mess? Many today would like to see him take a more proactive role to clean up the mess they see in the Church.

For those who fall on either side of the divide, whether you are an avid Pope Francis fan or against his policies or those who sit at the sidelines watching the ensuing mayhem and internal conflict unfold, it is good to remember that the office of the Pope, who is the visible guarantor of unity within the Church, has always been a controversial and divisive one, especially during major crises in the Church’s long history. During tumultuous periods of the Church’s history, the great schism between the East and the West, during the time of the anti-popes, and in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation, the Pope has been at the very centre of controversy and division. Some see papal authority as an overreached while others view him as the anti-Christ. Has St Peter’s successor finally fallen on the wrong side of God’s plan of salvation?

It is good to return to what our Lord said in today’s passage. “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth shall be considered bound in heaven; whatever you loose on earth shall be considered loosed in heaven.” Earlier, Peter had made a definitive declaration that Jesus is the Messiah of Jewish expectation and the Son of the Living God. In return, Jesus issues His own declaration that Peter is to be the foundation of a new and messianic temple known as the Church.

The dialogue begins with our Lord asking for a public poll: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” Isn’t that often the way we define ourselves or rate personalities? Modern politicians often believe that the polls hold the truth. But are any of these polls conclusive? Just like real life, the opinion polls about the Lord are divided. There is no consensus as to the identity of Jesus, because His identity is the subject of revelation and not public opinion: “it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.” It is good to remember this when we wish to make an assessment about the papacy.

Our Lord then puts His own disciples on the spot and calls them to give a direct answer rather than relying on third party polls. This is a risky thing for both our Lord and His disciples. The disciples may not wish to end up offending our Lord by giving the wrong answer, and they could always hide behind the opinion of others. But St Peter makes this firm declaration of faith: “You are the Christ … the Son of the living God.” Peter did not only risk being humiliated by our Lord for giving the wrong answer but far more grievously, he risked being accused of blasphemy for calling Jesus “the Son of God.” But the response of Peter stands out amid the cacophony of conflicting opinions.

Just as Peter declares Jesus to be the “Messiah” and the “son of the Living God,” Jesus now returns the favour and declares Simon to be Peter, in Greek “Petros” or “Petra.” The title announces Peter’s unique role in God’s plan: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven…” The Jewish expectation of the messiah was that he, like the original son of David (Solomon), would rebuild the Temple of the Lord. Rabbinical Judaism also believed that the foundation stone of the Temple capped off the shaft leading down to the netherworld. So, Peter is now given a comparable role in the living temple built by the Messiah, the Church, as the capstone or “rock” which seals off the forces of evil. Our Lord also entrusts Peter with the keys of the Kingdom. In the first reading, the possessor of the keys was the chief steward of the king; he was the senior official who held the most powerful government position in Israel under the king.

So, Peter and his successors were meant to be impregnable bulwark against the forces of evil and the gatekeeper who will ensure who gets into or is excluded, from the Kingdom. So, does our current crisis warrant that we question the words and promises of our Lord in today’s passage? Should the words of our Lord be read in a contingent way? Our answer must be a definite no and this answer is deeply rooted in our faith in Jesus Christ. Papal flaws are an opportunity to understand what the papacy really means, not to abandon it (or the Church).

What most Catholics fail to recognise is that throughout its 2000 years history, the Catholic Church has always been threatened with the risk of capsizing and many popes in the past and in present times have been subject to scrutiny and criticisms, some unfounded while others have some basis in reality. And yet, with all the odds stacked against these two institutions, both have somehow miraculously remained afloat! Saint Ambrose said: “The Church is like the moon; it may wane, but never be destroyed; it may be darkened, but it can never disappear.” When the Church is in greatest need, Christ comes to its help by miracles, or by raising up saintly men to strengthen and purify it. Yes, the Lord does not, and will not abandon His Church because the Lord always keeps His promises.

This is the meaning of the doctrine of “indefectibility”, a term which does not speak of the Church’s lack of defects but confesses that, despite all its many weaknesses and failures, Christ is faithful to His promise that the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. The Church's indefectibility, therefore, means that she now is and will always remain the institution of salvation, founded by Christ.

So please, my fellow Catholics, the proper response when reading headlines about the corruption or destruction of the Church due to the mismanagement by her leaders is not panic or rage or despair. Rather, we should never cease or slack in praying for our Holy Father, the successor of St Peter, and for the unity of the episcopate, the successors of the Apostles. Let us continue to hold firm to the promise of our Lord: “You are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church. And the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.”

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

The Lost Sheep of Israel

Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel.” These words are striking in their context because of the obvious persistence of the Gentile lady pleading with the Lord and the apparent perplexity of the disciples who were privy to the conversation. But it is striking also because it echoes directly what the Lord had already said to the disciples when He sent them out to preach the Gospel of the kingdom (Matthew 10:6). Two questions that arise in both instances are ‘Why did the Lord put this restriction on His mission, as shared with His disciples?’ and ‘What did he mean by “the lost sheep of Israel”?’ And, flowing from both, ‘What relevance, if any, does this have for the Church and her mission through the ages?’

A cursory reading of this passage may lead to an uncomfortable shallow interpretation. Our Lord Jesus seems to have been led by a pagan, a Canaanite woman, to revisit some of His prejudiced and preconceived notions of His mission - from a narrow vision which focused only on the “lost sheep of the House of Israel” to a broader vision which encompasses the Gentiles too. Based on such a humanistic interpretation, it would seem that the woman was more broad-minded than the Lord Himself and was responsible for leading Him to a personal epiphany and turning point in His ministry. By confining His mission to a particular group of people whilst excluding others seems very un-Jesus like. But was this a eureka moment for the Lord, the Word Incarnate, who came to reveal the Father’s loving will to the world? Or is the Lord the One who is trying to reveal something about His mission and that of the Church to us?

To get to the bottom of this mystery, let us consider the category of persons mentioned by the Lord - “the lost sheep of the House of Israel”. Who were they? This is not the first time the Lord made reference to this group of persons. Earlier in Chapter 10, as the Lord was sending out the Twelve, He specifically defined their mission as being confined to this same category of persons: “Do not go in the way of the Gentiles, and do not enter any city of the Samaritans; but rather go to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matthew 10:6).

The reference to the House of Israel is strange. Israel no longer exists as a political entity during the time of Jesus. Its denizens are now living in the diaspora. The former kingdom of Israel had been divided, then conquered and now redistributed into various client states of the Roman Empire. These states look nothing like the Israel of old. In fact, Israel has been exiled from the land that was promised to them. Under the dominion of pagan empires, some Israelites have somewhat sort of returned to the land, but she is also scattered across the nations. While Jerusalem is still the centre of her identity, Israel does not rule the land or in possession of it, either. In a way, one could rightly describe the people of the House of Israel as “lost”, they had lost their homeland, yearning to return to it and see it being restored to her past glory.

But there is also a spiritual sense to the description of being “lost sheep.” These people once belonged to God, and He to them. But now the nation that is supposed to be a shining beacon to all the others, showing to the nations of the earth what it looks like to be a new creation of people serving the God who made the heavens and the earth, had become just like everyone else. God’s treasured possession had been lost. The image of the common people of Israel as “lost sheep” is a big part of the Old Testament prophetic indictment. The image is especially common in Jeremiah, reaching a fever pitch in Jeremiah 23.

In a sense, all of us are lost. “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way.” (Isaiah 53:6). Yet in another sense, there were also lost sheep that were abused and neglected by their spiritual shepherds, the scribes, priests, and Pharisees. This is the sense of Jeremiah: 50:6 “My people have been lost sheep. Their shepherds have led them astray”. In the third book of the prophet Isaiah, which we had just heard in the first reading, the hope and desire of every “lost sheep” is that God would come in search of them and bring them home. But God will not only confine His action of restoration and reunification to the House of Israel. Even in the Old Testament, we see a fervent expectation that He will lead all nations to His Holy Mountain so that they can offer worship to Him in His “house of prayer” which is to be a “house of prayer for all the peoples” and not just for the Israelites.

So, the words of our Lord to the Canaanite woman is not meant to limit His mission to a particular group nor are they intended to exclude her and others. Rather, our Lord is actually telling her that He is fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah and that this Canaanite woman is going to be one of the first beneficiaries of His mission because she fits the criteria set out by Isaiah in the first reading: “Foreigners who have attached themselves to the Lord to serve him and to love his name and be his servants – all who observe the sabbath, not profaning it, and cling to my covenant – these I will bring to my holy mountain.” Her reverence for the Lord is expressed by her action - she alone is recorded as “kneeling at His feet.”

Instead of seeing Jesus’ messianic mindset in terms of either or, one ought to see His mission as to Israel on behalf of the nations. In other words, in narrowing His focus to Israel, our Lord Jesus does the work necessary for the entire world to be blessed. That is why He specifically called twelve disciples to be with Him and to share in His mission. The number twelve is not accidental. It is deliberate. Our Lord is reconstituting Israel in the form of the Church built on the foundation of these twelve men as how God had made Israel a nation through the foundation of the twelve tribes. But then our Lord is reminding His Church, the new Israel, as well as the old, that they have been constituted not for some exclusive self-serving purpose. Israel is meant to draw all nations to God and to lead them to worship Him on His Holy Mountain.

The mission to the Gentiles was not at the expense of the mission to Israel, nor was it merely an extension. Instead, Israel was to be the catalyst through which God would accomplish His promises to the world. Mission to the nations depends upon Jesus’ accomplishment of His mission to Israel. This was the conviction of St Paul which we heard in the second reading. He tells the Romans that He is an apostle to the pagans so that the Jews may grow envious of this mission and be the catalyst of bringing some of them to embrace this new faith. The faith of the nations will in time convince Israel that the God of all peoples has been revealed in Jesus Christ. The mission inaugurated by Christ will then come full circle.