Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Good intentions are never enough

Twenty Sixth Ordinary Sunday Year A

A few months ago, I was out for lunch with a friend who “just happened to be in town.” The topic of conversation eventually led to a discussion about our current pope, Pope Francis. Like so many others, Catholics and non-Catholics alike, my friend expressed his profound fondness for the present pontiff and admired him for his casual, simple and down-to-earth manner. He remarked, “You know, He really makes me feel like going for mass everyday!” Now this was a surprised because I never imagined my friend to be the religious and pious type. And so I quipped, “Have you? Have you started attending mass daily?” His reply was unabashedly quick, “Of course not, but he still makes me feel like doing it.”

I guess that what often makes us tick these days. The thought that we might actually make changes in our lives, do something special, go out on a limb, seem quite like the real thing. But the truth of the matter is that good intentions are not enough. This reminds me of the riddle: Imagine, five seagulls are sitting on a dock. One of them decides to fly away. How many seagulls are left?
It seems like a no-brainer answer -“Well … four.”
You should know by now that riddles are never meant to be that simple, there’s always a catch. The actual answer is five. This is because deciding to fly away and actually flying away are two very different things. Despite popular belief to the contrary, there is absolutely no power in intention. The seagull may intend to fly away, may decide to do so, may talk with the other seagulls about how wonderful it is to fly, but until the seagull flaps his wings and takes to the air, he is still on the dock.

In today’s parable of the two sons, Jesus exposes the fallacy that merely good intentions are sufficient. They aren’t. Here, Jesus points to the gap that exists between lip service paid in public and the actions which should have followed our verbal avowals of goodness. The parable begins with a father who gives an order to his two sons to go out and work in his vineyard. The first son was a bit of a rebel. When his father asked him to help with the chores, he railed and ranted and refused. We can almost hear the voice of our teenager defiantly telling his father, “Dad, I have other plans. My friends are coming over. Doing chores is no fun. Just leave me alone.” But a funny thing happened. He changed his mind and did the work his father asked him to do. And then there was the second son who certainly had loads of good intentions. That should count for something. He didn’t rebel when his father asked him to work in the field. He didn’t talk back. He said all the right things. But his good intentions were never translated into action.

To the question of Jesus, “Which of the two did the father’s will?” the Pharisees answered correctly: “The first.” By means of his parable Jesus points to something essential for those who profess themselves as his disciples – in the matter of obedience to God’s will – it is better by far to move from bad intentions to positive action, than to remain locked into good intentions and no action. Really and truly, this parable is a powerful lesson in repentance. We evade, we fail, we fall, we slide, we slip, we stumble, we sin, but our loving Heavenly Father is always there, ready to pick us up…if only we open ourselves to repent, to change, to live in harmony with God’s way and will, to become what God has created and called us to be. Repentance takes us beyond good intentions. Repentance moves us beyond our historical baggage.

Just as Ezekiel proposed in the first reading that it is possible for a wicked person to turn from evil to good and vice versa, so the two sons in the parable are not irrevocably tethered by their past. Indeed, the son who said yes but did not go seems to be representative of all those people who possess a smug sense of self-righteousness and who are contented with their noble and good intentions, but never really lift a finger to make a difference. Whereas, the son who rebelled but then acquiesced is representative of people who acknowledge themselves as sinners, whose checkered past would seem to have left them closed to change but ultimately through a change of heart, through genuine repentance, become the actual recipients of grace. The story reminds us that our past background, our previous conditioning, and all the trouble that life has thrown at us and even past sinful habits are really not decisive in charting a course for the future. It is reminiscent of a voice-over commentary that appears at the beginning and at the end of the comic-book to movie character, Hell Boy, where in answer to the profoundly philosophical question of “what makes a man a man?” the answer is, “it’s not how you decide to begin but how you choose to end it.”

Our culture today is obsessed with being nice, often believing that being nice, having good intentions is enough.  Comfortable and complacent, we too easily become very satisfied with the position we’ve settled into and focus on being nice people instead of doing all that is demanded of us in the gospel. We too easily substitute politeness for transformation. We too easily forget that the resurrection is still the defining force in our lives, and that things in our lives still need to die in order for the things of God to be brought to new life. We too easily think we’re just fine – “I’m OK, you are OK … actually that’s not OK”

People on the outside, however, those whose personal lives are in shambles, who are on the fringes, who are marginalised, know they need something. There is an emptiness, a thirst and a hunger in their lives. Those who recognise their neediness are in fact those who are most sensitive to their need for grace. It’s much easier to seek grace when you stand in desperate need of it. It’s much easier to seek radical transformation in your life when you realise how deeply you need it. The church is here to proclaim God’s grace. We need to remember that grace is still and always needed by those inside. And it is always available to those outside.

Every now and then, it’s good for us on this journey to sainthood to be reminded that we’re still pretty much sinners. We have feet of clay. Every time I’ve gotten just a little too comfortable with the correctness of my words, or the correctness of my deeds, it’s good to be reminded that my heart is always in need of transformation. Every time I’ve started to think it’s about me – about my words, and my deeds, and my efforts, and my intentions, I’m reminded that it’s about God – about what God is doing and how I need to make myself available to the ways God is working and moving through me. If it were all about me, I think the hope for the world would be slim indeed. What does most vital, however, is our personal openness to the grace and mercy of God. With such powerful help, even the most tawdry or sordid past can be forgotten and forgiven. For those of us who look back at countless failures and who labour under the heavy burden of a past littered with mistakes, this parable gives hope and encouragement.

And so we return to the parable once more: A man had two sons. One thought his words and good intentions would save him; the other thought his deeds would save him. In the end, it was the love and grace of their father that saved them, love and grace that can transform every human heart, including ones like ours.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

What's in it for the other guy?

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

One thing I think a lot of us think about when confronted with a decision or a choice is to ask the question: what’s in it for me? How will this benefit me? As self-serving as this may sound, this is what drives and motivates us. In fact, many good people who volunteer time, effort and energy to serve in the parish, often find themselves laboring under the same questions, though they may be honestly unaware of it. To be fair, thinking of one’s own welfare does not necessarily mean that we are selfish. Since, we spend all day, every day in our bodies and our lives, it is also pretty obvious that you would most likely think about your own life and problems a bit more than you think about other people or things. It’s also understandable that people have to “watch their backs” and make sure they are not taken advantage of.  

However, it’s easy to trap ourselves in our own little universe, where we have become insulated and removed from the rest of the world. This can be quite limiting at best, and at worst, develop into selfishness and narcissism. When we are too absorbed in our world, it’s quite easy to always feel that we are getting the raw end of the deal. Cynicism and resentment often trails closely behind. It’s really hard to be thinking about others when we are busy feeling sorry for ourselves. The good fortune of others, instead of being a reason for rejoicing, becomes another sore point leading to resentment. That is why doing something only because it’s beneficial to ourselves may not be enough. Often, we need to do something simply because it is the right thing to do. And sometimes, the right thing to do is more than just fulfilling the burning desire to satisfy our selfish interests.

Self-interest 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 parable of the workers at the vineyard must be read in the context of the verses that precedes it. The story is told by Jesus in response to Peter’s question. A modern rephrasing could 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’s concern matches ours. 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, Jesus overwhelms him with vision of gratuitous abundance. To Peter’s self-serving motivations, Jesus 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 honing in 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 turns at the end to what is totally unconventional, so that the people who worked the least got equal pay. The owner of the vineyard orders that all be equally paid a denarius, whether you had worked for the entire 12 hours or for less than an hour. Something immediately strikes us as wrong. Conventional social dealings would dictate the eleventh hour hired help would receive 1/12 of what the first hired 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.” Therefore thinking in terms of standard social 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 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.

The landowner had not been unjust, he has every right to do what he wants with his property. The real problem is that the grumblers harbour envy because their employer is generous towards those who do not merit such treatment. But his generosity rather is an expression of gracious freedom, not spiteful arbitrariness, while their complaints are an expression not of their unfair treatment but of their lovelessness.

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. The divine principle of justice may be stated as follows, “to every man what he needs.” 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 and gracious. Here, we see how the limiting motivational mentality of the first group of workers actually exposes the true nature of their crime. Rather than be grateful for the grace that they themselves had received and for the abundant gratuitousness shown to others, they could only grumble. The workers should be pleased with what the landowner gives them, and not be concerned with what He gives others. Making comparisons ultimately spawns and fans an epidemic of grumbling and resentment.

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)

Many of us who have suffered similar injustice of the system, where merit does not guarantee reward, can share the indignation of the first class of workers who had sweated and slaved the whole day, unlike the others. But the parable seems to be telling us to go beyond that self-serving question “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 thinking 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. God owes us nothing. In fact, if God were to give us exactly what we do deserve, we would receive condemnation.

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,” “mercy” shown to the undeserving, rather than a “debt” owed by God to us for our good works. Don’t ask “what’s in it for me?” but merely be always grateful for the many graces we most certainly do not deserve. At my recent annual retreat, the Retreat Master reminded us, “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 neighbor as a nuisance and a burden, pray that he be your opportunity and strength.”

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Power and Powerlessness

Feast of Exaltation of the Cross

The Cross of Christ, the centre and pinnacle of God’s saving work, is also the centerpiece of our faith. The cross reveals the most profound depths of God’s love: “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI tells us that “the cross … is the definitive sign par excellence given to us so that we might understand the truth about man and the truth about God; we have all been created and redeemed by a God who sacrificed his only Son out of love. This is why the Crucifixion … is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he give himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form.” (Deus Caritas Est, 12)

Nevertheless, the cross remains a sign of contradiction – it is both an unthinkable disgrace and yet a potent source of grace. It has inspired confidence in armies to march into battle and others to sue for peace; it has been used as a palpable symbol of power as well as powerlessness. And so it is both despised as well as coveted by one human power or another – Constantine used it as a talisman of power in the civil war with his brother and the Persians claimed it as their greatest battle trophy over the Byzantines.

So, how is the cross a symbol of power and powerlessness? The symbolism of power hidden in the cross is often lost on us, and is only revealed as a mystery of revelation. The Cross represents the Sovereign authority of God and his providence. This is certainly difficult to comprehend. Yet, what seems to us to be failure is, in God’s eyes, the victory of sacrificial love. It is on the cross, that Christ receives the highest exaltation from God, ironically, at the moment he suffered the greatest humiliation at the hands of men. As Christ was lifted up on the Cross, now by means of the Cross, he lifts up humanity, and indeed all creation. As today’s gospel reminds us, “for God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved”. The Cross possesses the power to forgive sins which are hidden, the power to heal consciences and human hearts. It is there that we have been set free of the debt of sin and liberated from the clutches of death.

But paradoxically, the cross is also a symbol and an instrument of powerlessness. There are few things that can match the depravity of this instrument of torture and death. For a brief moment, where hours seem like eternity, the Son of God gave up His access to the powers of the universe so that He could die at our hands. On the wood of the cross, the most powerful being in the universe chose to be powerless. The Lutheran theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, describes the profound significance of this moment, “God allows himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross. God is weak and powerless in the world, and that is exactly the way, the only way, in which he can be with us and help us.” So what God has done is that He took an instrument of evil, an instrument that brings death and transformed it so that it gives life, brings goodness and healing, and that’s what we hear Jesus saying about himself, “When I am lifted up, as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, then I will give life.” The instrument of death becomes an instrument of healing, life and salvation.

The power and the powerlessness of the cross provide us with the necessary lens to view our own suffering, our daily crosses. St John Paul II, who prophetically wrote his first encyclical on Suffering, and would later suffer that fate in the last years of his pontificate, uses the cross to formulate his answer to man’s perennial dilemma – Why do we have to suffer. The saintly Pope stated, with piercing simplicity, that the answer has "been given by God to man in the cross of Jesus Christ." Each of us is called to "share in that suffering through which the Redemption was accomplished." Through his only-begotten Son, God "has confirmed His desire to act especially through suffering, which is man's weakness and emptying of self, and He wishes to make His power known precisely in this weakness and emptying of self." 

And this is the way we experience God’s power here on earth, sometimes to our great frustration, and this is the way that Jesus was deemed powerful during his lifetime. The Gospels make this clear. Jesus was born powerless, and he died helpless on a cross. Yet both his birth and his death show the kind of power on which we can ultimately build our lives. The cross of Christ, therefore, teaches us that we can find power in weakness, in that which makes us vulnerable and even seemingly powerless.

Perhaps, what makes it so difficult to accept the good news of the cross, is that we are stubbornly hold on to power; we want to have a “sense of control.” Henri Nouwen writes, “What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible?  Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love.  It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life.” Most of us fear our powerlessness in the face of illness and death. We would like to retain an element of control, even though we realise that dying often involves the very opposite: a total loss of control, over our muscles, our emotions, our minds, our bowels and our very lives, as our human framework succumbs to powerful disintegrative forces.

Even when those disintegrative forces become extreme and our suffering may seem overwhelming, however, an important spiritual journey always remains open for us. This path is a "road less traveled," a path that, unexpectedly, enables us to achieve genuine control in the face of suffering and even death. The hallmark of this path is the personal decision to accept our sufferings, actively laying down our life on behalf of others by embracing the particular kind of death God has ordained for us, patterning our choice on the choice consciously made by Jesus Christ. As no one had ever done before, Jesus charted the path of love-driven sacrifice, choosing to lay down his life for his friends. He was no mere victim in the sense of being a passive and unwilling participant in his own suffering and death. He was in control. No one could possibly take his life from him, unless he chose to lay it down.

Jesus foresaw that his greatest work lay ahead as he ascended Calvary to embrace his own powerlessness and self-emptying. Paradoxically, it was when he most seemed powerless, that he was most powerful. The cross would prove victorious when meeting our ancient enemies on the battlefield – sin, death and evil would be defeated by the very sacrifice of Christ himself. Jesus' radical embracing of his Passion — and our radical embracing of our own — marks the supreme moment of a person, whose life seems otherwise spinning out of control or into chaos, as God assumed control of one’s life and destiny through our willing immersion into His hope-filled and redemptive designs.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Don't Spare the Rod

Twenty Third Ordinary Sunday Year A

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), which claims representation from more than 80% of American nuns, is being investigated by the doctrinal watchdog of Vatican, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, for “manifest problematic statements and serious theological, even doctrinal errors.” In April 2012, the Vatican appointed Archbishop Sartain of Seattle as the LCWR's "archbishop delegate" and gave him authority to revise its statutes and programmes. Of course, his appointment has been criticised as heavy-handed interference. For its part, the Holy See has maintained that this intervention is not to be regarded as a 'sanction,' but rather “a point of dialogue and discernment."

It is really difficult at this point to see how there is going to be a breakthrough, when the sisters persistently claim the right to “faithful dissent” and their own understandings of faith, ecclesial authority and religious obedience. There seems to be no backtracking from or lessening of or remorse felt for the frequently negative and critical position vis-a-vis Church doctrine and discipline and the Church’s teaching office. From both the speeches and actions taken by individual members as well as by the LCWR collectively, they seem to be conveying this clear message to the rest of the Church: “We are the Magisterium. The bishops know nothing. The bishops are backward, misogynist, heartless, fools who live in the past, useless old tyrants. If this means that the LCWR is no longer recognised by church authorities, so be it. Though we have given our lives to the church, we have not given our consciences to anyone but God. We renounce Rome’s authority, i.e., we have all authority.”

Perhaps, in the ensuing “battle royale” between this group of nuns and the Vatican, it is so much easier to depict the former as the powerless underdogs and the latter as the big bully, especially when the discussion is compounded by the gender-war hermeneutics of men trying to put defenseless women in their place. Many would certainly sympathise with the cause of LCWR, even though they may not be aware of the real issues at stake. So, should Vatican and the US Bishops leave this group of nuns alone? Should they even assume an Orwellian “Big Brother is watching you” stance with regards to the LCWR and similar groups of dissidents?  From the time Cain asked his evasive question, after conveniently murdering his brother, Abel, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” the answer has been an unequivocal and indisputable ‘Yes’! We are indeed “keepers” of one another in the Lord.

In today’s first reading, the prophet Ezekiel’s perception of his vocation as a prophet is more aptly described as that of a concerned brother watching out for his brothers and sisters in the faith. A prophet was considered to be the conscience of the nation, and we know from experience that the conscience often pricks and convicts. Ezekiel, therefore, compared his role to that of a sentinel or watchman who searches the moral horizon for impending disaster and then sounds the warning so that others take heed. He did not relish being thought of as a busy-body who waits to pounce on every fault of his wayward brethren. His vocation flowed from his love of God and his love for his people. He was willing to be the voice of reason and Truth, and even to be at the receiving end of hostility and misunderstanding, if only he could convince his brethren to cease following the route to self-destruction.  

St Paul, in the second reading, also waxes eloquently on the matter of love. St Paul too claimed that love was the basic principle on which hinged all the precepts of the law. He understood that love, however, did not just free one from the prescriptions and rigours of the law. Rather love demanded a much higher standard from us. St Paul emphasises that right living in all spheres of one’s life should be motivated by a higher imperative (and not just on the basic requirements of the law). He writes, “Love is the one thing that cannot hurt your neighbour; that is why it is the answer to every one of the commandments.” Most everyone would agree that love is the answer but to interpret love as inaction and silence is ludicrous.

In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus provides us with a concrete illustration of how love is translated into fraternal correction. He indicates the three escalating levels of fraternal correction. First, we are to correct the sinner privately. Then, if he refuses to listen, we bring one or two others. Finally, if necessary, the sinner must be brought to the Church. If he refuses even the correction of the Church, and if the matter is serious, he is to be excommunicated. The last stage seems harsh and even at odds with the first two, but a careful reading would reveal that all three stages serve one single purpose. In the verses immediately preceding today’s text, Jesus speaks of searching for the one lost sheep. In a sense, brotherly and sisterly correction should follow the same idea. Therefore, correction’s goal is not retaliation but reconciliation, that is to lead back into the sheepfold the one who has gone astray and who has gotten lost along the way. Fraternal correction, therefore, is not punitive but as St Thomas Aquinas teaches us, “fraternal correction is a work of mercy” and he cheekily adds, “Therefore even prelates ought to be corrected.”

Love isn’t something that makes us feel good. There are times when we are asked to love at a great cost. Our refusal to correct may have less to do with charity than to do with a self-serving motive. In all honesty, it’s always difficult to correct because we don’t want to appear as the bad guy. We don’t want to lose the friendship of the other. Silence and inaction is never the solution, and both definitely do not flow from the well-spring of love.  Love, by contrast, places a duty on us to confront the evil that our brother and sister has done. Ultimately, if we truly love them and others who may be hurt and misled by their actions, we must always wish and work for their salvation. Pope Benedict XVI had always emphasised the intimate connection between charity and the Truth. Charity is always at service to the Truth, it can never be a cover up for a lie. In one of his homilies, the erudite Pope refers to an important part of the regalia of the bishop, his pastoral staff, and uses this to speak of the Church’s authority to correct – the crosier now seen as a disciplinary rod. “The Church too must use the shepherd’s rod, the rod with which he protects the faith against those who falsify it, against currents which lead the flock astray.” One can imagine the Pope reminding us of that age old adage, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

At the end of the day, the chief issue in the LCWR interventions by Vatican is not a bunch of aged, authoritarian chauvinists using the Church’s power to bully innocent sisters into conformity, as some defenders of the LCWR are alleging. The obedient are never held captive by Holy Mother Church but it is the disobedient who are unknowingly enslaved by the world, and who must be freed. Such fraternal correction is about the Church’s desire to help sisters who are veering from the understanding and teaching of the Catholic faith to come back into doctrinal communion and to prevent their wounding the understanding of faith among others who look up to them. When the Church seeks to correct us, it is only because she wishes to inspire us to greater fidelity, not less. And when the Church extends the rod of authority, it is not to beat us into submission, but to gather us into the safety of the sheepfold. If the Church seeks to impose its sanction on us, it is only because she wishes to provide the moral parameters for our actions so that we may be guided back to the path of salvation. And that is why we should always be grateful that the Church continues to speak with the prophetic voice of Christ, and that is most certainly why we should always pray for those who deliberately choose to take their own path, that they be led back to the sheepfold and respond, not with the language of power, but with true Catholic faith.