Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Between Presumption and Despair

Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“Hope” is a word often on our lips. “I hope this happens in the future.” “I hope my friend feels better soon.” There is a reason for this.  The world today is full of innumerable uncertainties plaguing humanity. There seems to be a growing concern for the future of the world. Economic upheaval and widespread unemployment has heightened our insecurity. Though, medical science seems to have developed rapidly in the last few decades, it doesn’t seem to match the pandemic rise of new diseases. Suffering arising from political and sectarian unrest, religious persecution and strife is on the rise. In the midst of these uncertainties hope becomes the only sine-qua-non and the panacea for survival and continued existence.

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his second encyclical Spes Salvi, writes, “Day by day, man experiences many greater or lesser hopes, different in kind according to the different periods of his life… When these hopes are fulfilled, however, it becomes clear that they were not, in reality, the whole. It becomes evident that man has need of a hope that goes further. It becomes clear that only something infinite will suffice for him, something that will always be more than he can ever attain.” (SS 30) All of our small hopes are geared to a bigger hope, the hope of happiness, and not just any transient feeling but lasting happiness.  The Pope gives a name and face to this ultimate hope, “Man’s great true hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments, can only be God – God who has loved us and continues to love us: ‘till the end, until all is accomplished.’”  Man’s ultimate hope lies in God’s promise of salvation.

This is what hope is all about? It isn’t just wishful thinking or false optimism that things would get better. We have no way of being certain that it would, and if there is some truth to Murphy’s Law, things often get from bad to worse. Hope has little to do with luck, chance or good fortune. Rather, God is the core of hope. The living God is the firm, indestructible and ever-reliable basis for hope. He never fails.

Hope, therefore, not only makes our sufferings bearable but also worthwhile. The problem is that we are living in an age in which we’ve stuffed ourselves with so many lesser goals, (education, work, relationships, economic security) that the great goal and hope of the Christian life, our salvation, has for many faded into the unconscious background. Modern man seems to oscillate between two extremes, futility and skepticism on the one hand, optimism and wishful thinking on the other. Though they may seem to be on opposite ends of a spectrum, they both lead to the same result – hopelessness.

These are the two primary enemies of hope - presumption and despair, two opposites that are so far apart that they actually resemble one another. If despair is the act of giving up the fight, then I guess presumption is the act of losing the fight because you take winning for granted. The sin of despair is losing hope in our salvation by failing to trust God. The sin of presumption is losing hope by either relying on ourselves for our salvation instead of God or taking God's mercy for granted without fear. Both presumption and despair contradict authentic hope. Salvation is always possible with God’s help. But make no mistake. Salvation is not automatic. With presumption, a person assumes that he will be saved. This is reflected in the Protestant dictum, “once saved, always saved”, but we Catholics are equally guilty whenever we repeat the mantra, “God is All Merciful, He always forgives,” a mantra that may be true but becomes a distortion when the sinner has no intention to repent.

Despair is undoubtedly a widespread malady in today’s society but perhaps far more prevalent and insidious, is the problem of presumption. Today, so many Catholics take salvation for granted. So many no longer believe in hell. So many see no need for conversion or repentance or for turning away from their immoral lifestyles, because they presume and take for granted that God is always forgiving and would not hold them accountable for their actions. Evidence of this attitude can be seen in the phenomenon of short lines leading to the confessional, eulogies at funerals which sound more like canonisation, the normalisation of immoral lifestyles and finally, the erasure of the notion of sin. The rise in the disbelief in the existence of God and religion stems from this trend. When one doesn’t see the need for salvation, one doesn’t see a need for a saviour. Indeed man doesn’t seem to need God.

In today’s gospel, Jesus warns against the sin of presumption by using the example of the unfaithful steward who grows complacent as a result of a delay in his master’s return. He presumes that all would be fine, that there would be no or little consequence to his actions. He behaves like the master because he has forgotten that there is a Master, whom he is accountable to. But the parable ends with a stern judgment from Our Lord, “the master will cut him off and send him to the same fate as the unfaithful.” Certainly, God wants all of us to be saved from hell and come to know the truth. That is the reason for telling the parable in today’s gospel, as a warning, less we grow complacent and presumptuous. It is a potent reminder that as sinners we are not assured of our salvation. After receiving God’s redeeming grace in baptism, we must continue to “work out (our) own salvation with fear and trembling.” (Phil 2:12) Christians, who faithfully use the Sacraments - channels of God's saving grace - without giving up, can certainly HOPE for salvation.

The story of Abraham helps us to distinguish the sin of presumption from a healthy sense of abandonment that we should always cultivate. Presumption leaves everything to God or to fate without one doing anything. The foolish steward in today’s gospel is an example of such presumption. He humours himself that since the master was taking his time returning, he could do as he pleased. A healthy sense of abandonment leaves everything to God but also doing everything he can to resolve whatever issue is at hand. This is the faithful and wise servant whose master would find him “busy at his employment.” Abraham’s confident expectation in God exemplifies this spirit of abandonment. He hoped in God and allowed God to direct his path, his choices, including the ultimate sacrifice of his only son and heir.

Hope should be laborious because we must work at our salvation, first of all, to preserve in ourselves a living hope and not a vain presumption. We must work in the spirit of humility to preserve a keen desire for eternal life, for God. Grace is given to us not as a substitute of work. Without doubt, we need grace to attain salvation; but grace is given to us, says St. Augustine, not that we may do nothing, but that we may work with continually increasing generosity until the end.

Finally, the story of Abraham also reminds us that hope is ultimately a call to look beyond our earthly hopes to that great hope of salvation. Hope looks away from man, his technological progress, his human projects and achievements, to the promise of God. Hope in God ultimately entails hope in God’s new world. Abraham and other persons of faith “were longing for a better homeland, their heavenly homeland,” they “looked forward to a city founded, designed and built by God.” because they realised that they were “only strangers and nomads on earth.” This is a hope despite and beyond the collapse of earthly certainties. This is a hope beyond the grasp of man but has become attainable through the mercy and grace of God.

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