Thursday, February 27, 2014

Don't Worry! Be Happy!

Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Those of you who had lived through the 80s or at least still live off a steady dose of music from that era will remember that catchy a cappella number, "Don't Worry, Be Happy," which became synonymous with Bobby McFerrin. For some, the feel good message of the song seems to cut through the pains, turmoil and problems of the day. On the other hand, the tune’s simplistic philosophy seems to betray a certain naiveté which denies the harsh realities of life. You’ve heard on countless occasions, well-intentioned people coming up to console you with the familiar epithet, ‘Don’t worry.’ The empty reassurance probably didn’t help in allaying your fears or reducing your anxiety. Easy words to say, but hard to put into practice.

Perhaps, we can forgive Bobby McFerrin for the lack of depth in proposing a simplistic answer to the world’s immensely complicated problems, in that it was just a song, not some masterplan to save the world. But what surprises us is that Jesus seems to have followed the same line of thought in his Sermon of the Mount. In today’s gospel, for example, Jesus tells his listeners, “So do not worry; do not say, “What are we to eat? What are we to drink? How are we to be clothed? … So do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself.” If you recall the beginning of the same Sermon, you would remember how Jesus lays out the beatitudes, occasions of happiness. If one were to use contemporary jargon to summarise the Sermon in a nutshell, it would sound like this, “Be Happy, Don’t Worry.”

Now before you conclude that Jesus has lost his mind in some drunken ecstasy brought on by binging on happy pills or smoking marijuana, or is insensitive to our present economic plight, let’s have a second look at this seemingly simple message. In the previous section, Jesus has been teaching His listeners about the uselessness of treasuring anything besides God Himself and all that He offers us. Jesus has just illustrated, in several ways, the barrenness, the impossibility of being able to put both God and others, or earthly treasures at the center of your life. One cannot serve both God and money! Since this is not possible, Jesus tells His listeners, “do not be anxious.” The connection between the two sections lie in the human experience of anxiety. Human anxiety springs from the unreasonable and false expectations we place on the things of the world.

It is interesting to note how man assesses progress and development, by resorting to economic figures rather than to the one thing which every human person desires – happiness. Of course, he sincerely believes that economic advancement will guarantee happiness. Thus it is universally accepted that we measure the well being of a country by using indices like GNP, Gross National Product or GDP, Gross Domestic Product, both measuring economic and material advancement whilst leaving out other factors.  The exception has been the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan.  The Bhutan government declared that the Gross National Happiness (GNH) index, not the Gross Domestic Product index, would be the measure of success in their country. For a long time, Bhutan prided themselves as one of the happiest countries on earth, albeit that they were certainly one of the poorest. Nevertheless, poverty was never a hindrance to their happiness. But when development and external influences in the form of media and technology slowly crept into this nation, it was discovered that the GNH, the Gross National Happiness, began to experience a severe decline. Analysts attributed this radical drop to a change in people’s expectations. All of a sudden, the Bhutanese people measured happiness based on the earthly treasures which they possessed. They began to compare their meagre existence with the materialistic lives of people in more developed nations. And the grass will always seem greener on the other side.
Jesus’ listeners knew they lived in an insecure world. Most of them had only the bare essentials of life, and all of them were dependent on the weather and the soil for the crops that were needed to sustain them. They were keenly aware of this dependence. It was this insecurity that led people to be anxious. What if there isn’t enough rain this year? What if the crops are diseased? What if I cannot provide food for my family? There were no guarantees in life and people were painfully reminded of that fact all the time. This anxiety tempted many of Jesus’ listeners to try to serve mammon as well as God. Mammon is concrete, wealth can be seen and used here. So it seems to offer a security against the capriciousness of life.

This is why Jesus now turns to the underlying issue of anxiety. He knows why the people are tempted by the appearance of security that accumulated wealth seems to offer. Jesus makes several points to help His listeners, and us, to combat the temptation to live out of anxiety. First Jesus asks His listeners to consider the truth that life is more than just food and clothing. By asking the question, Jesus is trying to get them, and us, to stop in our tracks and consider just what life is about. In our anxiety to obtain even basic things for ourselves, aren’t we beginning to live as if this is all that life is about, that this is the deepest and truest thing about life? If life consists only in the accumulation of stuff, then we are missing out on life in its deeper, truer sense.

Having exposed the false promise of our material securities, Jesus now turns to the birds and the flowers and, in doing so, begins to deal with the deepest answer that He gives to our anxiety: the character of our heavenly Father. Jesus asks His listeners to look at the birds and flowers of the field.  If the birds are fed, it is because our heavenly Father feeds them. If, the flowers are clothed, it is the heavenly Father who clothes them. Jesus tells us that God doesn’t just provide food for them to find.  Jesus says that our Father’s involvement with His creation is so intimate that He can be said to be actively feeding the birds and clothing the flowers. God is not aloof and uninvolved in His world, as we may be tempted to believe. The point Jesus is making is that if our Father is this involved and good to the rest of His creation, then how much more will He be involved with us, who are His children. Therefore the reason we should not to be anxious is not only because our material securities would only bring with them more troubles but also because we are not alone or abandoned in the world. Rather, we are children of a watchful, active and most of all, a Loving Father.

Finally, Jesus gives us His positive command; His answer to what we are to do instead of being anxious. He tells His audience that they are to seek first the kingdom, and that, in doing so, their secondary needs, like food and clothing will be taken care of. So what does it mean to seek God’s kingdom? The kingdom is not some geographical location or nation state but it is where God’s good, life-giving will is done. We are to live as if we are the children of this God, and that He is actively present. When we participate in His will out of hope and trust, we are seeking the kingdom.

In a world, where many struggle for basic necessities and all seem to live in the uncertainties of the future, Jesus imparts to His listeners the secret of joy. He reminds us that the philosophy of life proposed by the Kingdom of God is the only way that ensures life-long happiness and happiness beyond the grave. When we live as true subjects of the Kingdom of God, our lives will be filled with joy and contentment even in the midst of economic, political and social uncertainties of the world. Our lives are truly in His hands. It isn’t that we are now guaranteed that we will never suffer economic disaster or some other misfortune. What this means is that our rock solid, true security is not in our ever changing circumstances, but in our heavenly Father. Our security is not in our ability to get and keep a good job, or obtain food and clothing for ourselves. When we lose our jobs, or face uncertainty about our present or future needs, even basic bodily needs, we continue to seek the kingdom because our security, the reality of where we really go to receive what we need, hasn’t changed.

So, the next time, you hear some well-intentioned person walk up to you with this somewhat clichéd advice, “Be Happy! Don’t Worry!,” don’t be too quick to dismiss him as naïve or simply insensitive to your troubles. There is truth in the statement. It lies in this – once you seek first the Kingdom of Heaven and God’s righteousness, all things will be added unto you. Once you begin to subject yourselves to the reign and authority of God, you will experience the freedom of a child of God, free from the crushing weight of sin, anxiety and troubles, because Jesus has taken all these upon himself. So why worry? Be Happy!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Between a Rock and a Hard Chair

Chair of St Peter
Much of Catholic custom, lore and traditions have been forgotten at best, or deliberately suppressed at worst in recent times because they seem to put us in a somewhat embarrassing light - incriminatingly making us the target of jokes and accusations of being out of touch with modern times, burying our heads in regressive reading of history. Certainly today’s feast, to the sensibilities of modern man - both Catholic and non, seems to be another oddity, if not occupying a place at the top of the list of strangest things about the Catholic Church. Today we celebrate a feast named after a chair. Now, the obvious question would be this – why would the Catholic Church ever bother to dedicate a feast, a first class feast for that matter, to an inanimate household furniture? Isn’t this idolatry gone all wrong, the stuff of some sick parody? It’s like putting your favourite sofa on the family altar, Right?

Well, the chair in this case refers to the Chair of St Peter, or in Latin, Cathedra Petri. The Latin name therefore suggests the wider significance of this object. It’s not just any chair. It’s not even its historical association with St Peter, the First of the Apostles and our First Pope. The name of the Chair in Latin provides the name of the principal church where the bishop sits. The Bishop’s chair, his cathedra, thus defines the church building, the Cathedral, and in fact, the Church itself. Just to further whet your appetite on Catholic trivia, the Latin word for ‘seat,’ the synonym we have for chair, gives rise to the title and name of the very government and state of Vatican, the Holy See. It is clear from these examples, that the Church is preoccupied with something more than a household furniture. We are speaking here not of the physical object, but the very authority that springs from it. It is the very symbolic significance of the Chair that must be the focus of our meditation today. In today’s gospel, we have the beautiful and powerful story of Peter’s confession. Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Son of God and the promised Messiah, is matched, or in fact, outdone by Jesus’ own confession, his pronouncement that Peter is the “rock” upon which the entire spiritual edifice of the Church is built. This new name of ‘rock’ again is not a reference to any geological boulder, neither is it even a reference to Peter’s personal character. The meaning of ‘rock’ can only be understood on the basis of a deeper mystery: through the office that Jesus confers upon him, Simon Peter will become something else that, in terms of “flesh and blood”, he is not. It comes not from man but from God – the authority of St Peter. Thus the authority conferred upon Peter and his successors is a gift from Jesus Christ to us.

The Jews believed that their Temple is built on a rock - the very spot where creation of man began; it is the rock upon which Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac; again it is the rock which formed the foundation stone for the Temple, God’s footstool on earth; and finally it will be the convergent point of a pilgrimage of nations that will mark the Messianic Age. The Syriac speaking Christians were so bold to assert that Jesus conferred upon Simon Peter, his very own title, the Rock of Salvation. Jesus gave his own name to Peter. Now, Simon Peter, the first to profess the faith in Jesus Christ and the first witness of the resurrection becomes the rock that is to prevail against the destructive forces of evil. But a rock can also serve as a chair or a seat. Therefore the symbolism of the rock has now been transferred to the Chair. Just as Peter is the Rock, so is he the Chair too, and all his successors who occupy that same office. His authority thus lies somewhere between the Rock and the Chair. It becomes the very symbol of Christ’s promise of indestructibility, it is the very symbol assuring us that though the Church may be rocked by scandal, hit by storms of persecution, infiltrated even by the forces of evil in the form of sin and heresy, the rock remains intact, the Chair remains indestructible, Christ’s promise of care and protection for the Church remains unbroken.

If you visit St Peter’s Basilica in Rome today, you would most likely see the Chair of St Peter, the Cathedra Petri, elegantly and beautifully encased in bronze and gold ornamentation artistically designed by the great Renaissance architect and artist, Bernini. It is set against the apsidal wall behind the high altar of the basilica, surrounded by angels, lifted up on the shoulders of the four great doctors of the Church, placed just beneath the only stain glass window in this church, the Holy Spirit Window, as if it was hovering in mid air. But it is not just its aesthetical beauty which we are invited to admire. We are asked as children of the Church, and sons and daughters of God, to contemplate once again the vision of the very essence of the Church and the place within the Church of the Petrine Office, the office and authority of the Pope.

Many in the world today as in the past would like to see a man, a Pope who presides in charity, in love. But the Feast of the Chair reminds us once again, that that love must always rests upon faith, faith based upon the Truth. When speaking objectively of Truth, we can clearly admit that this does not just refer to the faith of any individual, a faith which can be open to individual interpretations and thus open to misunderstanding and heresy. Neither can be a faith that can be supplanted and reinvented, though it always necessarily must be renewed. It must always be a faith built upon the firm foundation of the Rock of Peter, the Chair of Peter, interpreted by the Magisterium, the Teaching authority of the Church over the ages, providing it always with a stable foundation amid the vicissitudes of history.

Thus, even when much has been forgotten and still more has been suppressed, let us never forget the significance of the Chair of St Peter, the gift of the authority and power to serve of the cause of unity in charity based upon the Truth. For we can be certain of this, as Pope St Leo the Great, in expounding the meaning of today’s gospel, wrote: “The gates of hell shall not silence this confession of faith; the chains of death shall not bind it. Its words are the words of life. As they lift up to heaven those who profess them, so they send down to hell those who contradict them.” For those planning mischief and plotting destruction of the Church of Christ, you don’t want get in between the Rock and the Hard Chair!

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

We can never have enough of Holiness

Seventh Ordinary Sunday Year A

Motivational literature abound with success stories of athletes, musicians, business personalities and others whose dedicated striving elevated them to new heights of achievement. Such a drive for excellence is not what troubles modern society; they applaud it. But what seems problematic is having too much of it – too much of excellence or too much of perfection may end up in the personality disorder called perfectionism. And so there has been a shift from what was culturally prized, to something which society now views as a kind of malignant disease. In fact, perfectionism has come to be regarded as the enemy of everything.

This growing aversion to and suspicion of perfection has led to a broader acceptance and tolerance, and sometimes even glorification, of imperfection. In the moral sphere, this paradigm shift has also led to a reversal of values. If in the past, sin was regarded as something shameful and scandalous; today, holiness and piety are regarded as anomalies, the result of shame-driven neurosis that needs to be contained and cured.  We frequently hear the following caution from well-intentioned persons, “Don’t try to be too holy” as if the condition of being too holy could even lead to either permanent brain damage or our damnation.  Both in secular media as well as among liberal theological circles, we witness a tendency to vilify saints matched by the canonisation of villains. Thus, the emergence of a new genre of the ‘anti-hero,’ the flawed, post-villainous figure, lacking in any of the traditional heroic characteristics, but nevertheless the new idol for emulation.

Holiness as a life-goal is no longer fashionable in our society, and perhaps, even within the ranks of the Church, and there are understandable reasons for this. First, holiness has often been associated with an otherworldly mysticism that supposedly leads people away from the crying needs and concerns of daily life. The holy person then appears to be a dropout from society. Holiness has also been confused with neurotic perfectionism—the illusion that one’s best is never good enough, thus filling us with a perpetual gnawing feeling of inadequacy. Finally, holiness has been confounded with a legalistic mentality that insists on rigorous adherence to moral codes often stated in negations—no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, no dancing, no card-playing, etc. Thus the preferred domain of wet-blankets and party-poopers.

For a culture that has grown weary and even intolerant of holiness and perfection, Jesus’ words at the end of today’s gospel must be a cause of confusion: “You shall be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” For many of us, the commandment to be perfect triggers feelings of anxiety and discomfort.  We are painfully aware of our weaknesses and inadequacies, yet we continue to drive ourselves to reach impossible goals.  Then, when we fall short, we label ourselves as failures and often feel hopelessness and ashame. To compound matters, Jesus seems to be advocating a new kind of evangelical perfectionism. Perhaps, the real problem is that many confuse the commandment of Jesus to be perfect with the call to perfectionism. “Perfect," in this context, means "complete, finished, fully developed.” Who doesn’t wish this?  Notice that the term does not mean "flawless!"  

People who struggle with perfectionism often believe that they could be doing better – for them it is always a personal struggle to outdo themselves. They are much too hard on themselves, expecting perfection from themselves and becoming bitter and even hating themselves for coming up short. They fail to understand God’s grace and the nature of His unconditional love.  They forget that perfection belongs to God alone, but the story doesn’t end there.  God sent His Son Jesus Christ to die as a perfect sacrifice for sin.  This is the glorious message of hope and grace in the gospel.  Though we sin, though we are flawed, we can be forgiven, saved, sanctified, and perfected.  St Paul assures the Philippians in Chapter 1 verse 6, “For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”  Christ completes us. Paul reminds us that perfection and the call to holiness isn’t a singular one-off event but a process of sanctification as we continue to learn to walk in the path of Christ.  Perfection is never possible by our own efforts, that’s the illusion posed by perfectionism. Perfectionism can indeed be an obstacle to perfection in holiness. This is because it prevents us from allowing God to perfect the good work he has begun in us. Thus, we should struggle against perfectionism, yes, but always be ready to embrace perfection, especially in the area of spiritual excellence.

For a Christian, the way to reach perfection is to strive for holiness. Perfection and Holiness are synonyms. What is true perfection? Christ's words are clear, sublime and disconcerting: "Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect." This passage plainly teaches that our attitudes toward other people must be the same as those of our Father in heaven. If not, we have no right to claim to be His children. It impresses upon us the necessity of conforming our lives to the qualities and standards of divinity. To have God as our model is a dizzying thought! Yet the Church reminds us that, all the faithful, whatever their condition or state in life, are called by the Lord to that perfect holiness. Holiness is always a call to every Christian of every age, a challenge for anyone who wants to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Mother Teresa of Calcutta wrote: "Holiness is not something for the extraordinary; it is not a luxury of the few. Holiness is the simple duty for each one of us."

Lastly, today’s gospel reminds us that holiness is never theoretical, it is always ethical. The ethic of holiness does not lie in the strict observance of some external code or set of rules. Holiness is something deeper than morality. Since, it implies closeness to the Living God, it does not conform to the conventional standards of reason and wisdom. The ethic of holiness lies in the transforming experience of the new birth of a Christian. It is an ethic that does not repay injury with injury. It is an ethic that challenges us not just to settle for the minimal but always aspire for loftier goals. And finally, it is an ethic that is not just based on retributive justice, on fear of divine punishment, but one which must always be rooted in love, unconditional love. We are driven to service of our neighbor through the paradoxical love of the cross, the love that is demanding, sacrificial, and also unconditional, going out to all people regardless of whether they are friend or foe. 

For a world that has grown accustomed to sin, holiness does often seem outdated...old-fashioned. But, as Pope Benedict XVI has taught: "Holiness never goes out of fashion; on the contrary, with the passage of time it shines out ever more brightly, expressing man's perennial effort to reach God."  Make no mistake, holiness will cost something. Those who aspire to make holiness their priority in life must count it no strange thing to be mocked, ridiculed, slandered, persecuted, and even hated. And in a world where faith and religion is held up to scorn, holiness has now become the new scandal! A Christian who faithfully lives up the high calling of perfection must submit to the fate of being called fool, idealist, and a fanatic; to have his words perverted and his actions misrepresented. But this is his edge – this is what makes the Christian salt of the earth and light of world. This is also what makes his life witness paradoxically attractive to every soul thirsting for greater spiritual depth in a world that can only offer shallow lies. In all this we remember the world does not set the standards for us. In matters of spirituality, mediocrity is never an option. Only the highest standards of excellence is demanded. We follow only one standard – “to be perfect as your Heavenly Father is perfect.” As for holiness, we can never have enough of it.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Obeying the Law isn't Legalism

Sixth Ordinary Sunday

One of the most frequent justifications that is offered to explain the inconsistency we witness in the local Church between theory and practice, the law and its application, the rubrics of liturgy and its actual celebration, is to cite the uniqueness of “the Malaysian context.”  This reasoning, ironically, is not unique to the Church. When discussing the rampart flouting of laws, ranging from traffic regulations to copyright infringements, one would often hear the same argument. In Malaysia, it is argued, laws are merely meant to be ideals and recommendations; compliance, therefore, is not meant to be obligatory. In the political arena, many Asian leaders reject imposition of human rights according to Western standards and claim that Asia has a unique set of values. In making this assertion, regional leaders find that they have convenient tools to silence criticism and to fan anti-Western nationalist sentiments.

The frequent use of this justification has made me think – is there really such a thing as “the Malaysian Context” and if there is, what is it? If you honestly re-examine the various arguments, you will discover that there is no logical coherence among them. Perhaps, it simply means this – personal convenience and agenda outweighs other considerations. Decision makers can choose to say what they want to say and do what they want to do, they can choose to adopt or depart from a norm, simply by hiding behind this ambiguous catchphrase. Of course, I am not denying that there are matters which are culturally specific and would require adaptation. But, in many cases, there is really no genuine particular context which warrants a departure. In reality, the argument becomes a cover up for personal whims and fancies.

The truth of the matter is that the Malaysian context argument has often been wielded as an irrational lame excuse, a smoke screen, to justify abuse of power by those in authority and on the part of subjects, disobedience in favour of personal style and preference. The argument is often used hand in glove with the other argument that submission to rules and rubrics is a descent into legalism. The Catholic Church has often been tarred with the brush of legalism. But the reality is that the nominal rejection of legalism often reveals a new form of legalism – the new merely replaces the old, opinion steps in to replace dogma. In discarding rules written by others, one ends up writing one’s own set of rules and often imposing it on others. It’s like how Martin Luther, describes history, which he likens to “a drunk man on a horse. No sooner does he fall off on the left side, does he mount again and fall off on the right.”

Listening carefully to the majority of those who fling about the term “legalistic,” it is soon apparent that they understand the term to refer to too much attention to legal detail. This is really a reflection of the pervasive cultural phenomenon in our society, namely the predilection to be averse to law, restriction, and limitation. “Freedom” gradually has come to be conceptualised as freedom from restraint. Those who do not embrace a lax, casual, and open attitude toward moral value and ethical behaviour are labelled “intolerant.” Even within Christian circles, stressing the need to conform strictly to matters of faith and morals can cause one to be labelled as a “hard-liner”, a “fundamentalist” or “traditionalist”.

Today, we have a passage from the gospel that puts things in their proper perspective. Most critics of the Church’s perceived legalism often find it hard or impossible to reconcile this passage with the gospel of libertinism which they propound. And yet this is a text that none of us can choose to ignore. St Matthew the Evangelist records Jesus as saying this, “Do not imagine that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets. I have come not to abolish them but to complete them. I tell you solemnly, till heaven and earth disappear, not one dot, one little stroke, shall disappear from the Law until its purpose is achieved.” But Jesus does not stop here. He proceeds to issue this warning, “Therefore, the man who infringes even one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be considered the least in the kingdom of heaven; but the man who keeps them and teaches them will be considered great in the kingdom of heaven.” Doesn’t this make Jesus sound legalistic?

Most critics of the Church’s penchant for laws and rubrics would rather portray Jesus as an exemplary rebel, an anti-establishment instigator, a prophetic witness of libertinism, who came to undo the law, condemn the legalism of the Pharisees and set up a new relationship with God that was solely based on grace and freedom. For them, Jesus must always be a Jesus of Love, the anti-thesis of the Jesus of Law. It’s not hard to see how this ideological framework fits into today’s society with its suspicion of law and authority. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why Pope Francis is often portrayed in a similar light by the media – a champion of the rebels who has finally arrived to set things right within the Church. Of course, the parts where the Pope confirms traditional orthodox Church teachings are often ignored or omitted because these do not fit with the ‘larger picture’ they have of him.

What these critics and ideologues fail to realise is that there is no inconsistency between the Jesus of Love and the Jesus of the Law. The Church’s law merely follows the theological reality of things. For example, it isn’t canon law that forbids divorce, the faith does. Canon law merely translates this into juridical language. It merely articulates the law of love and most importantly, the law of salvation. For too long, we have been deceived into believing that there is an irreconcilable dichotomy between those who follow the law and those called to love. We were told that to follow the law is to be under a burden, to be compelled, to be constrained. To love, on the other hand, is to embrace the capacity to choose, to be creative, to be liberated. In an interview, the contents of which were compiled in a book entitled, Light of the World, Pope Emeritus Benedict considered this way of thinking as having wrought catastrophic damage in the life of the Church. What happens when you take away the law or choose to ignore it? You would most likely find anarchy rather than love!

Today, we often hear the familiar refrain that people are leaving the Church in droves because of the unbending laws that have been used to subjugate them. These claims are never backed up by any real research. As a pastor of a relatively large parish, and having also ministered in another larger parish for seven years, I can safely say that the Church’s laws are not the top reasons for people leaving. Very often, Catholics leave because they choose to do so, not because they have been compelled against their will. They leave because they have lost faith. They leave because they are unable to get along with their priests or their fellow parishioners. And finally, people leave because they are unable to live up to the high standards of the gospel, standards which were not established by any human hierarch but by Jesus Christ himself. “You have learnt how it was said to our ancestors: You must not kill, and if anyone does kill he must answer for it before the court. But I say this to you anyone who is angry with his brother will answer for it before the court…”  “It has also been said: Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a writ of dismissal. But I say this to you: everyone who divorces his wife, except for the case of fornication, makes her an adulteress; and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” And if you’re wondering which paragraph of Canon Law stipulates this, you don’t have to look very far. It was Jesus who said it in today’s gospel. Yes, Jesus the cold, self-righteous, legalistic, Pharisaic One!

So, do we actually suffer from legalism, the sort that was condemned by Jesus? Yes, we cannot deny that we can and sometimes do fall into the trap of legalism. But then the gospel story also presents the other end of the spectrum, minimalism. In fact both minimalism and legalism, which represent extreme attitudes when it comes to the law, are condemned by Jesus. Minimalism, as the name suggests, is basically just doing the bare minimum required by the law, which means that in most cases we would not really have to give a care about others. Legalism, on the other hand, refers to an attitude of strict observance of laws regardless of circumstances and possible harm to people involved. Minimalism and legalism, therefore, are deceptive partners in our attempts to lead moral lives, and Jesus does not agree with having either of the attitudes. Towards minimalism, Jesus encourages us to do more as in today’s gospel, and towards legalism, he encourages us to place concern for people and love of God over observance of law. He reminds us, as the Church often does, that the supreme law is the salvation of souls. This is and must always be the object of all laws!

The very idea that obedience to God’s laws would one day be viewed as negative by those who profess adherence to the faith, and then for this obedience to be denounced as ‘legalism,’ is utterly incomprehensible. But it is also equally incomprehensible and untenable for the precepts of the Church to be used as a kind of weapon to bludgeon its members into submission. It’s good to remember the constant plea of Pope Francis to proclaim the gospel of salvation and not the gospel of small-minded rules – “The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules. The most important thing is the first proclamation: Jesus Christ has saved you. And the ministers of the church must be ministers of mercy above all.”  Pope Francis certainly did not wish to say that law and mercy were antithetical. What he wanted to stress is this - that we must never lose sight of the object of that law; that laws cannot be the end in themselves. The end must always be our salvation.

Yes, we must avoid “legalism.” A smug sense of superiority and spiritual self-sufficiency will cause a person to be lost eternally. But salvation can also be lost by deliberately and flagrantly choosing to ignore God’s laws. We must stake our lives upon the grace of God, to desire always our sanctification and our salvation, to love Him above all else. But then let us never forget that love also demands that we obey and keep his commandments. Mercy and Love can never mean a licence to do whatever we want to do; most especially to go against the will of the One whom we profess to love!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Worth our Salt

Fifth Ordinary Sunday Year A

The theme of light has provided an ambient backdrop for our readings and liturgy these past two Sundays. Today, we continue with that theme of illumination but the Evangelist adds another element – ‘salt.’ I believe that everyone can appreciate that salt is an essential micronutrient for our bodies. Without a proper intake of salt, many of our body’s functions would be thrown into utter disarray. Our muscles would start cramping, and our ligaments and tendons would become brittle and lose their elasticity and strength. Eventually our bodies would begin to overheat and totally shut down due to a breakdown in our natural cooling process through perspiration.

But apart from its nutritional attributes, ‘salt’ has far deeper significance in our lives. Some of you may remember that English expression ‘worth his salt’. In our modern day context, the expression seems altogether unintelligible. What has ‘salt’ to do with the value or worth of a person? But in the ancient world, salt was a precious commodity meted out for pay, hence the word ‘salary’ is derived from ‘salarium’, the soldier’s pay in salt. Can you imagine, with the collapse of our national and world economy, everyone being paid in salt? Blood pressures skyrocketing!  Salt was also used to preserve food, to prevent its decay and deterioration. Because of the lack of refrigeration, salt was used to preserve food, especially meat which would quickly spoil in the desert environment. Salted foodstuffs would provide sufficient supplies during long winters and seasons of famine.

Salt is also used as a flavour enhancer. It enhances the most bland and tasteless of cooking. There are other customs connected with the use of salt. Newborn babies were rubbed with salt for what was thought medicinal purposes. Covenants of friendship were sealed by taking salt together (Numbers 18:19). If you have an opportunity, take a second look at Leonardo da Vinci’s painting, The Last Supper. Here, the scowling Judas is shown with an overturned saltcellar in front of him, thus identifying him as the betrayer, the one who has broken the covenant of friendship with Jesus. Finally, salt had a purifying quality, and thus was naturally seen as an important ingredient in exorcisms and rituals of cleansing and purification.

Jesus says in the passage before us that we are the salt of the earth and we are the light of the world. What is most immediately obvious in this statement is the implication that there is some deficiency in the world that we live in. Jesus is implying that the world is tasteless. There is a rot setting in which is tearing our world apart. There is some deficiency in the world that we alone, uniquely as Christians, can supply. Just imagine feasting on bland tasteless food, day in, day out year after year, or even worse to feast on stale food. This is not the way God meant it to be. God meant for life to be rich and full, satisfying; a most excellent adventure that nourishes our souls. And the world has lost that. By its own choice the world has ripped the heart out of life, stripped it of its joys, created this monotone of tastelessness.

The truth of that has been somewhat masked in our society by the superficial trappings of development and wealth. But look under the surface, part the facades, and see the struggles of the heart. Relationships are superficial. It doesn’t take too much to see people grasping for significance, searching without much success for meaning, purpose, value, a sense of worth—all of which they lack in some measure. People are filling the void with stuff and senseless pleasures, countless things that do not satisfy. Life is tasteless for far too many. Also, with the image of light that Jesus introduces here, he tells us that we are the light of the world. The implication is that this world is a dark place. There is a deficiency here. The world is in need of refreshing light—life-giving light. People are wandering about, lost, unable to see, bumping into all kinds of hidden dangers in the dark, not knowing where to go or how to live life well.

This is where Christians, the salt of the earth and the light of the world come in. There is something about a Christian that doesn’t fit with the bigger picture – there is something about Christians that stand out. The metaphor of salt and light points precisely to this – Christians are different, they are counter-cultural, they swim against the tide, and they refuse to join the mad stampede of the masses. A Christian’s life has bite. Our very presence shakes the world from its complacent stupour, exposes the cover of lies under which it hides, and brings to the surface the deficiency of its barren soul. May we never flinch back from the true judgement we offer the world in the name of Christ, for we are the salt of the earth and light of the world.

Being salt and light, you have something the world direly needs. God has placed you in the world for a purpose. The world needs you. As salt and light, you give testimony to the profound pleasure of walking with God. We become salt and light when the world sees us turning ourselves to God rather than inwardly towards ourselves, when we touch lives for good, when we affirm rather than gossip and criticise, listen rather than judge, forgive rather than get even. We become salt to the world when the world discerns, through us, that greed, despair, and anxiety can be replaced by contentment, hope, and peace of heart and mind. It is deficient without you and without what you bring to it that God has placed in you. You have worth to the world, though the world doesn’t always see it that way. In fact, the world often perceives us as threat. Frequently, the world perceives the flavour we Christians bring to it a tad bit too salty and spicy. The Christian gospel is an acquired taste; it requires connoisseurs of Truth to savour its flavour. Very often, the world doesn’t like the light we shed. It prefers the darkness for it thinks in the darkness it can get away with things—that God won’t notice.

But the gospel also provides a potent warning, when our salt loses its taste or we keep our light hidden, that is we choose to blend into society and conform to its norms and morals, then we have no value to God – we become worthless. It is our distinctiveness and not our conformity which will serve to be the measure by which we will judged. We are to be salt not sugar. Many Christians are more concerned with sugar coating the Christian message than they are in delivering the hard truth of the Gospel. What good is a soldier who will not fight, a doctor who will not cure the sick, or a Christian who will not stand up against evil and its lies?

The option of living a sheltered secluded live is never open to us. The Lord does not need a Church that hides and isolates itself from the world. Even, those who reside in monasteries have an effective role to play as salt and light in the societies where they are planted. Rather, God needs Christians who live exemplary lives in the world and demonstrate that joy and fulfillment that come not of the world but through the life in the Spirit and the radical following of Christ. Being salt and light, as Pope Francis always takes great pain to remind us, means that we can no longer be self-referential, but always be determined to go beyond the confines of the Church, to push out into the periphery of life and society, to seek out the lost, the lonely, the confused, the disillusioned, and the unbeliever. God calls us into the darkness where our light will make a difference.  He calls us among those who find life utterly tasteless—to be salt. Like salt, our lives should create a spiritual thirst in those around us, our godly lifestyles serve as preservatives and healing agents in a society sickened by evil and sin; and our words serve to melt cold hearts and tenderise hearts that have hardened. Only then, could we truly live up to the honour of being ‘worth our salt.’