Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Church is Political

Merdeka Day 2015

Today we celebrate our 58th Hari Merdeka, at least for the Peninsular side of Malaysia. We often tend to forget that Sabah and Sarawak achieved independence on different days and that the founding of our nation as a Federation only took place in the year 1963, and on a different date, 16th of September, to be exact. Let us never forget. For if we do, then we have fallen victim to those who wish to rewrite our history and re-define the meaning of our nationhood.

In the last week, the Catholic Church had been accused of being overly political when it was announced that three of the churches in downtown Kuala Lumpur would be open to participants of the weekend Bersih Rally. When did we begin to construe an act of charity and hospitality as political posturing? This, however, is not a new accusation. It is one that has come from politicians themselves, from governments, and even from Catholics in the pews. The premise of such accusation is simply this – one should not mix politics with religion.  The Archbishop’s assertion that the Church is not affiliated to any political party and has only opened its doors on humanitarian grounds, did not sufficiently satisfy the detractors. So the question we must ask ourselves today is, “Should the Catholic Church, or can the Catholic Church be political?”

The word “political” comes from the Greek word “polis” which means “people.” In this sense, the Church, which is certainly about God, is also very much about the people, namely the People of God, and in fact the Church serves to be a universal sacrament of salvation for the whole world. Therefore, the Church is and always will be political, because the beneficiaries of her mission, is inevitably the people. This is why the Church can speak out about anything and everything – whether it be the environment, or the economy, or about politics, in so much as these areas ultimately impact the people. The Church, the Body of Christ continues to be a prophetic voice that seeks to defend the truth of the gospel and its values, which includes the dignity of the human person, life and the freedom of religion. The Church not only has the authority to speak, it has to duty to do so.

Some may then proceed to admit that yes, the Church is political, but the Church is not partisan, it is not bias. There is some truth to this if we were to say that being partisan means aligning ourselves to a particular political party and its ideology. But then again, it is not true to say that the Church is never partisan, that the Church does not take sides. Today’s gospel reading places things in perspective. The Church is partisan, the Church is biased, the Church must take sides – she does so with the poor, the oppressed, the voiceless, the persecuted, the incarcerated and the marginalised. She must speak on their behalf, she must defend their rights, she must even be ready to lay down her life for them if necessary. This was the mission of Jesus and so it must also be the mission of the Church. She can do no less than her Master.

Why does the Church side with these categories of persons? Well, it is simple. These categories are often regarded by the larger society as invisible, thus not deserving its attention or time. The rich and the powerful have our ears, but not the poor. Thus, the cries of the poor are a great corrective to our self-importance, selfishness and pride. If man has turned a deaf ear to their appeals, God does not suffer from the same apathy. He draws close, nay, He “bends down to the broken hearted.” (Ps 34:18) If our heart’s desires are gifts from God, then listening to the cries of the poor reveals the demands these gifts make on us. Any Christian life which does not listen to the voice of the poor, to victims of injustice, persecution, corruption and abuse, effectively shuts out the voice of God. Today, the Church hears their cry. It would seem that the words of the prophet Isaiah ring true today, “So justice is driven back, and righteousness stands at a distance; truth has stumbled in the streets, honesty cannot enter.”

So, once again, the question, “Is the Church political?” begs a firm and unambiguous answer. Yes! The Church is in fact deeply, inherently, and inescapably political. Jesus’ ministry began with the proclamation of the good news of a coming kingdom, and ended with his execution at the hands of an empire threatened by his own quietly confident claim to kingship. Jesus’ life was about inaugurating a new kingdom, an alternative political order, to be embodied in the world by his church. Of course, Jesus was a different sort of king, and his kingdom was a different sort of kingdom. Likewise, it entailed a different form of politics—but it is unmistakably political. It has been, it is now, and it will always be a vying between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world. And we Christians would be wise to choose the winning side.

In his recent message for the local church in conjunction with Merdeka Day, our Archbishop reminds us that the “Church prompts her members to respond to the gospel mandate to be “the salt of the earth and light of the world” (Mt 5:13-14). Deeds rendered out of charity and mercy as well as championing the cause of truth and justice, can have a strong impact on the rejuvenation of our society.”

Christ’s powerful words spoken to us at Mass are meant to change things, to change us, to change the hearts and the lives of all who hear them. He not only speaks the Truth, He is the the Way, the Truth and the Life. And we who consume his body at communion become him, we must be so consumed by the Truth, we become Truth. More than ever, our nation needs to hear this reassuring voice. The Church becomes the medium for this voice.  In the midst of an unprecedented crisis of integrity and truth, where the Malaysian public are treated daily to massive doses of rumours, spurious speculations, half-truths, detractions and distractions, and outright lies, the Church must speak once again in a clear voice. When the Church does not speak out, evil can fill that void. Silence in the face of evil can signal assent. Evil’s voice would then have the floor. And so, we are called to speak out; to speak the Truth, defend it at all cost and be prepared to pay the heavy price for it. Let us boldly go forth to speak that truth in love, “for we cannot do anything against the truth but only for the truth” (2 Corinthians 13:8), for it is that same “truth that will set you free” (Jn 8:32). God bless all of you. God bless Malaysia.

Friday, August 28, 2015











Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Will the real Pharisee please stand up?

Twenty Second Ordinary Sunday Year B

One of the most common methods used to summarily end discussions involving morality, would be to resort to the ad hominem label of calling your opponent a “Pharisee.” It’s a catch-all term that would include, though certainly not be restricted, to the following connotations - “hypocritical,” “self-righteous,” “judgmental,” “moralistic,” “small –minded,” “legalistic,” “anachronistic,” “caught up in pomp and pageantry and the externals!” The term has indeed been used to mock, ridicule and silence. Unfortunately, the term has often been used these days to attack Catholics who attempt to defend Tradition and the official teachings of the Church. By doing so, these persons, and by extension the Catholic Church, are ‘judged’ to have absolutely no basis to ‘judge’ or correct anyone whatsoever, since they are modern day versions of that most hated group.

But let’s now move away from myth to reality. Who were these Pharisees? And more importantly, why did Jesus condemn the Pharisees so often during his public ministry. Was it simply because they followed the rules and traditions? It’s not difficult to have this one dimensional and unflattering view of the Pharisees, as they are often lumped together with the rest of the groups. often portrayed as the bad guys, who resisted Jesus at almost every turn and conspired to have him killed. It is true that there were Pharisees who criticised Jesus and his disciples for not keeping the law and consorting with sinners. Jesus in reply called them hypocrites and accused them of leading people astray.

But there was another side to the Pharisees. During the reign of Herod, they opposed him to his face and the Roman occupiers too. On account of this, the Jews applauded them. In the eyes of the Jews of the time, these Pharisees were seen as the heroes of Jewish liberation, brave men, who helped to preserve the religious integrity of the people of God. Religiously, they accepted the scriptures as God-given, and not just the Torah, as the Sadducees selectively did, but the entire corpus of the Old Testament. Their names were derived from their desire to live pure, separated lives, (Pharisees – The Separated Ones) separating themselves from the world and all its corruption. They demanded radical commitment to the laws of purity and tithing. Lastly, their most important contribution was the preservation of the Jewish faith after the destruction of the Temple in A.D. 70.

If they are so commendable, why would Jesus then issue such harsh condemnations against them? Let’s look at what Jesus says in today’s gospel. The first accusation is this: Jesus, quoting Isaiah, calls them hypocrites who “honours me only with lip-service, while their hearts are far from me.” Therefore the first sin of the Pharisees was religious pretentiousness. In the Jewish Talmud, the first kind of Pharisee that was condemned was termed the “shoulder” Pharisee, who wore his good deeds on his shoulder for everyone to see. They were condemned not so much for their beliefs or their practices but for their lack of integrity, the lack of cohesion between expressed desires and true intentions. Jesus is bringing to light a common fault among many, that is the large separation between what we say or what we do. A religion that is pretentious, that is only a façade is a false sort of religion. It is no wonder when Jesus cautions his disciples about pious practices such as fasting, alms giving and prayer, he rails against a showy form of a religion, one which is intended not to please God but to earn man’s honour and praise.

The second accusation against the Pharisees was that they had substituted doctrines with human regulations, divine commandments for human traditions. The problem we face today is there is an unreflective risk of equating the Catholic Church and its Tradition to all that is man made: “human regulations” and “human traditions.” It follows that being man-made they can be revised and even cast aside. This is a serious failure to understand what Sacred Tradition constitutes and also what Jesus meant by his words.

Sacred Tradition is not a human addition to Sacred Scriptures. Rather, both Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture are derived from the same source, the Word of God, one oral and the other written. The word “tradition” comes from the Latin “tradere” which means to “hand over” what we have received from Jesus Christ and his Apostles. It is a call to a fidelity to the teachings of Christ and His Apostles, and certainly not a license for innovation. Whenever we seek to depart from the Tradition of the Church, whenever we seek to apply our own private interpretations to scriptural text rather than rely on the guiding light of the Magisterium, we risk substituting divinely instituted commandments and teachings for “human regulations” and “human traditions.”    Nothing exists in a vacuum, when you have thrown out Tradition and the Church’s laws, you merely substitute them with your own set of personal self-serving opinions, rules and policies.

It is therefore inaccurate to misrepresent the dispute between the Pharisees and Jesus as a dispute between the rigid, legalistic, close-minded Pharisees clinging to the letter of the law whereas the merciful Christ liberally went beyond the letter of the law. This is a widely held myth. Not only did Jesus have no intention of changing the Law or even of calling for a more lenient application; in contrast He came to require a “greater perfection” in observing them. Jesus came not to lower the bar but to raise it. The Pharisees did not oppose our Lord because he offered a more lenient or tolerant interpretation of the Law; it was the exact opposite. They sought to use sophistic interpretations to minimise compliance with the mind of the lawgiver. They were experts in looking for loopholes.

Finally, the Pharisees of Jesus’ time as well as modern-day Pharisees, often suffer from an acute self-righteousness that blinds them to their own faults. Have you not noticed that no one voluntarily admits that they are a Pharisee? It’s always someone else. In wanting to catch others with their pants down, they fail to recognise that they are sinners too. The moment we accuse someone else of being judgmental, we inevitably fall into the same trap. And finally those who believe themselves to be perfect will end up not needing Christ nor His salvation. They sentence themselves to damnation.

At the end of the day, the problem isn’t about rules or traditions themselves. Although it is common in today’s antinomian world to condemn anyone who supports Tradition, Church disciplines, liturgical laws and rubrics as “Pharisaical” this clearly was not the point of Christ’s warning. After all, Jesus himself came not to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill and perfect them (Mat 5:17). As the first reading affirms, the Law was a gift from God, not to constrict or inhibit His People, but to illuminate the path of their lives. The wisdom of the Church’s teachings ultimately lead us to aim much higher, to aspire heavenly virtues, to reach for the sky, to surrender all and to even offer our lives in humble sacrifice for the grand prize of eternal life.