Thursday, July 4, 2013

Your names are written in Heaven

Fourteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

The readings for the last two consecutive Sunday have been a potent reminder of the radical demands made of those who wish to follow Christ. We’ve been hearing the constant refrain that Christians must carry their cross, burn the bridges behind them and follow Jesus unto death; such is our fate. Perhaps, by modern standards, this would be the worst marketing campaign imaginable if you are planning to recruit new members. Today, we continue with the same theme. Some may protest that this is overkill, but the closing of today’s gospel provides the necessary incentive. There is the glorious promise of success, seventy of the disciples sent out have now returned to joyfully report their triumphant achievements. So, indeed it was worth all the sweat, pain, hardship and toil. However, I’m quite sure that the disciples didn’t see it that way from the beginning. We are no different.

The pain threshold of our present generation has dropped to abysmal levels. We are facing a society and culture that cannot tolerate pain, or even suffer inconvenience, hardship, disappointment, and setbacks. It’s a generation that constantly longs for all forms of panacea: constant affirmations, repeated motivations, and entertaining distractions. It’s no wonder why marriages break up so easily; people find the smallest excuse to leave their faith or church; this explains the high rate of unemployment among Malaysians who will not settle for anything less than a 9-5 white collar undemanding job with a fat salary. I guess one can say that we are generally conforming to the laws of physics – taking the path of least resistance.

What has happened with modern living is that we have substituted pleasure for the ‘good’. For many people, ‘good’ is really about “feelings” as in “it feels good”. Thus, love is not as much a matter of willing to sacrifice and give oneself to the other as it is a feeling of well-being, ‘feeling good’. It is a narcissistic answer because “I feel good” and “I am good” are worlds apart. Prayer is no longer a matter of worshipping and communing with God as it is a feeling that I felt moved and was touched by the experience. No wonder, testimonies at the end of children’s catechetical camps and youth rallies often sound like the assessment you would give after a day’s outing at Disneyland – ‘It was fun.’ Thus ‘fun’ or ‘feeling good’ often becomes the real benchmark and not only just any benchmark, but the goal and purpose of every activity, including that of life itself. So, ultimately, we are a generation that have grown weary of our lives, a generation that has a low pain threshold, a generation that cannot accept disappointment and setbacks, a generation that wants quick and easy results, precisely because the very purpose of our lives is no longer just the good, it is simply pleasure.

If hedonism is pandemic and generally descriptive of our generation and culture, then many would wish to see the Christian life as the gateway to all sorts of pleasures and rewards. The Christian life to them spells popularity, success, prosperity, fun and the absence of suffering. Following Christ is the way to the “good life” or rather the “feel good” life.  If you expect that Christian discipleship is like an exciting adventure in a theme park, if you expect everything to be served to you on a platter, if you are expecting an easy life free from troubles, if you have a weak stomach for hardship and opposition, if you are the sort who takes off the moment you get the hint of adversity or smell the sour stench of difficulty, then you are bound to be disappointed by the warnings and travel advisory given by Jesus to his disciples in today’s gospel. This instead would the lot of his disciples:
  •  “The harvest is rich but he labourers are few”, in other words, the task ahead will be enormous but your fellow workers will be few – it’s going to be a demanding job, a heavy job, an unpopular job!
  • You will be sent out like “lambs among wolves” – there will be danger, there will be risk. In fact, your life too may be at risk. St John Chrysostom reminds us that “as long as we remain sheep, we overcome. Even though we are surrounded by a thousand wolves, we overcome and are victorious. But as soon as we are wolves, we are beaten; for then we lose the support of the Shepherd, who feeds not wolves but only sheep.”
  • You are ask to take no extra provisions, discipleship means travelling light. A heavy baggage implies a lack of trust in God’s providence. You are asked to depend on God’s providential care rather than rely on your own devices, efforts and resources.
  • You can’t fuss about the conditions you would be working under, you have to accept whatever hospitality you receive, “taking what food and drink they have to offer”, whatever conditions that you may encounter – beggars can’t be choosy.
  • And finally, you will be facing rejection and even opposition. Even if your message is one of peace, be prepared to face violence at the hands of the enemies of peace, and there will be many because peace comes with a cost. But then, just “wipe off dust under your feet” and move on. There will be no room for self-pity, complain or dwelling on the setbacks you’ll encounter.

I believe that the apprehensions which the seventy must have had have much to do with the enthusiasm they reveal on their return. They come back jubilant. Their experience far surpassed their expectations. They acclaimed, “Even the devils submit to us when we use your name.”  For them, this was the epitome of success. For this moment, they were invincible, indestructible. This was the ultimate trophy as a disciple, or at least they thought so. Jesus’ response to the enthusiasm and joy of the seventy is most interesting. Jesus seeks to re-focus their joy, He first informed them that their ability to cast out demons was evidence of even greater issues than they had imagined. They saw their success only in terms of their having authority over the demons, but Jesus saw Satan as being defeated, and his power and authority as being overthrown. Jesus told His disciples that rather than to rejoice in their power over the demons, they should rejoice in their salvation. They should rejoice in that their names were written in heaven. Joy at the prospect of the termination of Satan’s opposition is nothing when compared to the certainty of an eternal relationship with God.

Thus we finally come to realise the ‘good’, in fact the ‘greatest good’ which man can hope to attain; the purpose for which he was created is his salvation. The old penny catechism reminds us that this is the reason for which God chose to create us: “to know Him, to love Him, to serve Him and be with Him in paradise forever.” St Ignatius provides a similar opening meditation to his Spiritual Exercises, “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” So far as men are concerned, there is nothing more important than this. Salvation is an urgent matter, a matter of the highest priority, a matter of the greatest import and value that far exceeds any other ‘goods’, which includes the alleviation of suffering, hardship and even poverty. In Christ, freedom does not mean escape from these conditions. Christians cannot be insulated from the troubles of the world. We have to wade in deep, into the muck and dirt that comes with following Christ. It means standing deep in faith. In Christ, freedom means having a purpose, a goal, a direction – it is Jesus himself who alone can restore us to this eternal relationship with God.

A Jesuit friend of mine once shared with me this piece of timeless wisdom, “The saints laugh not because life is good or pleasurable. Despite life being grim, they laugh because they know that whatever the outcome of this life, they have found their purpose, they have a direction, they have a destination: Jesus Christ.” They rejoice because they know that their “names are written in heaven”!

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