Thursday, July 7, 2016

Asking the Right Question

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

I often begin my first session with RCIA candidates by encouraging them to ask questions, “Asking questions doesn’t mean that you are ignorant or it betrays your stupidity. Rather asking the right question may mean you have gained the right insight into an issue” Asking the right questions opens new vistas to our thinking and creates opportunities for learning.

Such a new and right question is asked of our Lord in today’s Gospel. A lawyer asked him “Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The perennial question posed by this man is indeed a question for which humanity has often sought an answer. It is not enough to know how we should live but the weightier question would be how do we live forever. This loaded question indeed shows that this lawyer has some insight into the teaching of Christ Jesus. For he understands that the promise and inheritance which Jesus speaks of is not just the Promised Land, as his ancestors would have believed, but rather unending life, and he wants to make sure he gets his share of this reward.

There is no denying that the lawyer had asked the right question. But his motives were far from pure. In fact, he had come to the Lord not to learn from Him, but as it says in the scripture, to “disconcert” him. This was another attempt to trap Jesus in order to accuse Him of not following the Law. There is a great irony in this story. The lawyer comes to Jesus fully recognising that the law commands him to love God and neighbour. Yet he approaches Jesus not with love but with hostile intent to trap Jesus. No wonder, after praising the lawyer’s answer which was quoted verbatim from the Law, Jesus then exhorts to him to “do this” and eternal life would be his. Mere knowledge of the divine commandments is of no benefit to anyone, but rather the practice in our daily lives. The law of love is not meant to be contemplated as if it was a legal or academic exercise. The law of love was meant to be lived out in a relational way. This is when faith becomes love.

The lawyer, unintentionally, was himself entrapped by his questioning. He pridefully thought of himself as a shining example of fulfilling the law, but is blinded by his own ego. Isn’t that the common malady of so many of us? We are quick to pass swift judgment on the motives and conduct of others failing to recognise our own misguided motives. Perhaps, the real problem of the lawyer was narcissism. He was too much in love with himself, with his own knowledge, his own sense of righteousness. He was proud of his own knowledge of the Law and his fidelity to it. But his ideas of God’s law were lost in pride and legalism. He tried to limit the law by asking for an exact definition of the word “neighbour.”  He is willing to love his neighbour as long as the definition of who one’s neighbour is fits his own limits of whom he is willing to love.  Love had been reduced to a technically legalistic exercise.

When the lawyer asks, “Who is my neighbour?” Jesus answered with the story of the Good Samaritan and turned the question on its head, saying the real question is how can I be a neighbour to everyone I see? The right question is not who is my neighbour but to whom can I show mercy?

The story of the Good Samaritan, therefore, is meant to illustrate that true love requires mercy for other people. True love does not end up focusing on the self and how good I am. To love our neighbours, means that we seek the good of our neighbours in the same way that we seek good for ourselves. Take all the zeal, all the ingenuity, all the perseverance which you use to get good for yourself, and seek your neighbour’s well-being. True love is not based on legal obligation to provide for one who deserves my love. Rather true love is pure gift giving, showing myself to be neighbour to others, even to those who don’t deserve it.

How troubling and shocking it is to see that those whom we would have expected to offer their assistance to the maimed traveller, namely the Priest and the Levite, passed by him without being affected or moved to pity. How extraordinary that the same individuals who worshipped God daily by offering prayers, singing hymns, and doing everything that was formally required of them and ordained, were truly destitute of kindness and of love, and failed miserably to practice philanthropy and charity. Their worship had become “self-referential.” It is a stark paradox that those who boasted to love God were doing so only in form and not in essence, for St John reminds us that “if someone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he has not seen?” (1 Jn 4:20)

“Who acted as the true neighbour?” Jesus asked.  The men who were “religious” in theory but not in action, or the “heretic” who came from a racially impure people, and yet who practiced mercy and love.  St John was right - we cannot say that we love God, if we do not have the same love for our neighbour.  St. John Chrysostom said “Remember brothers that you will have to give an account not only of your life, but of everyone.” The more one is united to his neighbour, the more he is united to God. The greatest lesson of our Christian faith is that our love for God cannot be separated from our love for every other person in the world. 

Yes, asking the right questions opens new vistas to our thinking and creates opportunities for learning. But in our context, asking the right question may lead us down the road of salvation, whereas the wrong question, down the path of perdition. It’s never “what would become of me, if I were to help him.” That would always be the wrong question. The right question would be “What would become of him if I did not help him?” That would be the right question to ask. The answer to our future lies with our neighbour’s well-being.

I conclude with another parable.  A wise old teacher was sitting around a fire with a number of young students.  As all sat in silence waiting for the wise man to speak, the teacher asked the question, “How can we know when the night has ended and the day has begun?” 
After some discussion among the students, one young man answered, “We know the night has ended and the day has begun when we can look in the distance and determine which animal is a dog and which animal is a sheep.”  “A good answer,” the teacher said, “But not the answer I’m looking for.”  After a period of time, another student suggested, “The night has ended and the day has come when light falls on the leaves, and we can tell whether the tree is a palm tree or a fig tree.”  “Another good answer,” he said, “but not the answer I seek.” 
After several more attempts, the students gave up and asked the elder, “What is the response you desire.”  The wise man softly answered, “You know that the night has ended and the day has begun when you are able to look into the eyes of every human being and see them as your brother and your sister.  If you cannot see a brother or sister in the other person, you will know that it will always be night.”

As Jesus told the lawyer, “You go and do likewise.”

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