Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Old and New

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

For the past two Sundays we have been reading from the 13th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, which contains several of Jesus’ parables. Today, we come to the final set of parables and the lectionary surprises us with a bonus. We get three additional parables with a fourth one thrown in at the end. This Sunday, I would like to skip the first three and turn your attention to the bonus parable, or the often forgotten eighth parable. It is often said that there are seven parables in the 13th chapter.  Only a few scholars would treat this one-liner as a parable. This is the parable of the householder-scribe-like disciple. What a strange metaphor? It serves as an apt summary of all the other parables. It begins with a question posed by the Lord to His disciples, in reference to all the parables that He had just shared with them, “Have you understood all this?”   When I stand here, I am tempted to end each and every one of my homilies with this same question, but on second thought,  I better not, in case I only see blank faces staring back at me.

However, in response to the Lord’s question, the disciples gave a resounding ‘Yes,’ which is an overestimation of their insight since the disciples have no clue about the nature of the kingdom and the suffering it entails. For example, Peter will object to the Lord’s crucifixion and all the disciples flee upon Christ’s arrest in Gethsemane. These and many other such examples merely indicate that their comprehension was partial. It is at this point, that we are introduced to this cryptic saying cum parable, “every scribe who becomes a disciple of the kingdom of heaven is like a householder who brings out from his storeroom things both new and old.” What is unique about this parabolic saying is the combination of three different persons into a single metaphor – a scribe, a disciple, and a householder. They make strange bed-fellows.

First, let us consider the scribe. Among the Jews in the first century, a scribe was a technical position of one who had been educated formerly in the Law and Jewish tradition. We might think of him as a scholar, a serious student. He spent his life studying the Law, and stood before the people as a teacher. His primary duty was to expound and explain the Law to the common folks. A disciple of the Kingdom is entrusted with the same responsibility: to teach, to instruct, to catechise. It’s never to do so with one’s own ideas or opinions but only that which they had learnt from the Lord. At the end of Matthew’s gospel, Our Lord commissions His disciples in this manner, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” This commission is directed not just at the bishops, priests, deacons and religious but given to every baptised person. Parents are often reminded that they are the primary catechists of their children and that they have been entrusted with the responsibility of handing on the faith that they have received from the Apostles.

Perhaps, the reason why many within the Church suffer from a crisis of faith is because there is a lack of adequate catechesis. And the reason why there is poor catechesis is because so many of us are poor scribes, poor teachers. And if we were to connect the dots in the chain of causation, we could easily conclude that poor students make poor teachers. The Lord used a word in His saying to describe the scribe’s training – it was the verb form of “disciple.” The scribe had to be “disciple.” He had to be mentored, he had to become an apprentice of a teacher. Before he could become a teacher, he had to be a student. It was not enough to have an armchair book knowledge of the faith. A disciple-scribe is one who must study the truth, live it and he does so by imitating the Master. The disciple’s life is to be a mixture of both learning and living. He should never cease learning if he wishes to continue teaching.

The final image that is used in this parabolic statement is that of a householder, who is charged with the care of the treasures of the household. It is here, we finally see the role of the scribe-disciple-householder. He is entrusted not just with the task of safe-guarding the treasures but also dispensing them. What would these treasures look like? We are told that he must bring “out from his storeroom things both new and old.”

In an age of modernity and post-modernity, where the past and ‘old’ things are often scorned and discarded, the saying makes an essential point about the role of disciples. We cannot be selective about the teachings of the Church, about what we wish to adopt or discard at will. But rather we all have a duty, together with the Magisterium (the Teaching authority of the Church, i.e. the Pope and the bishops) to safeguard, preserve, defend and expound both “the old and the new.” In the context of Jesus’ days, He had already assured His listeners that He had not come to abolish the Old Law but rather to fulfil it, to bring it to perfection with the New Law. His teachings are revolutionary but they are also traditional. The old covenant is not abolished, it is judiciously integrated into the new.  Likewise, disciples are not to spurn the old for the sake of the new. Rather, they are to understand the new insights gleaned from Jesus’ parables in light of the old truths, and vice versa.  

As for the Christian, the ultimate question is not personal preferences of style, or whether something is old or avant garde.  Rather, it is whether or not it fits into the Kingdom of God, whether or not it is true. The remarkable thing about truth is that it has the quality of being both old and new at the same time. On the one hand, truth is not something that was invented yesterday. It is old because it has always existed. But if it were only old, then it cannot be truth. On the other hand, it is always new because the truth never ceases to be truth, no matter what time in history you live. It requires no updating.  But if it were only new, it wouldn't be truth because truth cannot be something that has just been discovered as if centuries of human beings before us were oblivious to it. It has always been the truth. Truth is eternal. The truth of God does not change. It can never go out of fashion. This is because God is Truth Himself. In the words of St Augustine, God is “Beauty ever Ancient ever New.” As a corollary, something false cannot become true just because it has now become fashionable. As the wise G.K. Chesterton once said, “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”

The Christian, who is a prudent scribe is neither a conservative prude, teaching what is old just because it is traditional or because he has sentimental attachments to it; nor is he a progressive revolutionary, throwing away all traditions and only teaching what is new. But the prudent scribe, the authentic Christian must teach, he must defend, and be even prepared to lay down his life for whatever the Church proposes in the deposit faith and which is found in both Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition, not because it is traditional  or novel but because it is the revealed Truth. He does so even though this may earn him ridicule and hatred in the eyes of the world. He cannot substitute the infallible divinely revealed Truths with his own fallible opinions. As the Catechism appropriately reminds us, “What moves us to believe is not the fact that revealed truths appear as true and intelligible in the light of our natural reason: we believe ‘because of the authority of God Himself who reveals them, who can neither deceive nor be deceived,” (CCC 156) because these truths are “guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself” (CCC 144). When these truths are accepted with love and fidelity, what seems old, will always appear new, because Christ can never be out of fashion! He makes all things NEW!

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Go to Sleep, Let God fix it

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year A

After listening to complaints from parishioners for over thirteen years, I’ve come to realise that the common request or suggestion is that I should summarily reprimand, remove or dismiss all the ‘troublemakers’ in the parish.  However, my usual reply is that if I were to act on every complaint, including the complains I get about the complainers; then I would end up sacking over 90% of the people in the parish! That answer is very unpopular, because many parishioners would expect me to be more pro-active and play tough (ironically, I must be tough only with the others, never with the complainers). But I guess this tendency goes beyond the parish. We seem to have a natural human desire to root out and destroy all that troubles us. We want to look for the final solution to all our problems. But in doing so, we end up devising greater suffering. Perhaps, the best example of this point is found in the Nazi’s Final Solution – millions of Jews and other nationalities and differently able persons had to die in this mad search for perfection. The very defenders of peace eventually turned into the greatest perpetrators of violence.

Strangely, it is not the Hitlers, the Pol Pots or the Lenins of this world that are solely guilty of such horrendous crimes. The trait is also present with many well-intentioned activists, visionaries who believe that it is incumbent upon them to fix the problem where they see fit, whether it be in society, the Church or the world. Some people just can’t stop themselves from meddling. We have to fix it; get rid of the undesirables. Do it our way. The problem with 'people with a cause', is that they often do more harm for their cause than if they did nothing at all. Trying to bend the world or reform the Church or shape others according to the way they see it. So they spend a great deal of effort and time trying to control what can’t be controlled. Even though their original motive may have been noble, they actually make things worse, whilst trying to make them better. Instead of building God’s kingdom, they end up building their own. They get in God’s way.

Today’s set of three parables are bent on frustrating these would-be Saviours of the world. They go against the grain because it seems to be soft on evil. In light of recent terrorist attacks, it seems not only naive, but it leaves us with few good options. Kill all the terrorists! We don’t have to look too far. There are the progressive-liberals within the Church who certainly believe that the Church would be much better off without all the conservative fuddy-duddies who seem to hold back the Church in her progress, and the defenders of Tradition who feel frustrated that God doesn’t seem to be doing anything about the liberal heretics who are ruining the Church and dragging her to hell. It even looks like God is either asleep on the job or His incompetent cousin is running things from the parlour. And we’re left to wonder who’s in charge out there? 

In the first parable, in response to the servants’ desire to root out the darnel, to fix the problem, the Master orders, “Let them both grow till the harvest.” This is a stunning proposal: Just leave the weeds alone? You mean, “Let them have their way?” On the surface, the parable seems to be calling for passivity in the face of evil or worse, the tolerance of evil. Why would the master say what he said to his servants?

The counsel of Jesus is prudent. It is a reminder that life can be messy and we need not and should not play God or vigilantes. Since this is God’s Kingdom, He should be in charge. He sets the agenda, He lays out the path, and He determines the deadline. The problem is that the difference between the wheat and darnel is not always going to be obvious, and that there is potential danger of mistaking the good for the bad, the will of man for that of the will of God. Furthermore, one may find both wheat and darnel mixed up within every person. Goodness and evil, love and hate, prosperity and adversity, joy and sorrow all are so intimately intertwined. We may risk getting rid of the good in our zealous desire to root out the bad. Destroy the possibility of evil and you also destroy the possibility of goodness.

The patience of the farmer in letting the darnel grow on until harvest time, exemplifies the infinite mercy of God toward sinners. The parable reminds us that sinners are to be dealt with patiently, it offers us assurance that in the end God’s way will be victorious.  That one day “the virtuous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father”. The darnel could not change its nature, but the sinner can change his ways and God gives him every chance and every help to do this, up to his last moment of life. But in the end, there will be Judgment.

We must learn a double lesson of patience from this parable. First, to be patient with those who make our spiritual progress more difficult for us—they are actually helping us to be better Christians if we bear with patience the injuries they inflict on us. Second, we must try to imitate the patience God shows in His dealings with sinners. Such patience, however, can never be interpreted as mere passivity. I don’t think God wants us to wait ‘patiently,’ twiddle our thumbs and do nothing. We should never tire of striving against evil. While we must not approve of evil deeds or sins of others, we must still look on them as our brothers and sisters and do all in our power to put them back on the right road to heaven. We can do this by good example, and by fervent prayer for their conversion. We should also be rooting evil and sin within ourselves by making frequent confessions. Where it is opportune, to engage the other in fraternal correction, for it is an act of mercy to admonish the sinner and instruct the ignorant.

The additional two parables of the mustard seed and the leaven reinforce the message of the first. Rather than expecting smooth unhindered growth, we must accept that the growth of the Kingdom is always a messy affair and something beyond our perception. Don’t panic when you only perceive chaos. God remains in charge. Everything may seem to be getting completely out of control. But God remains in control. God does not only tolerate the messiness but in fact subverts the messiness and uses it as the raw material of His Kingdom. He often chooses and uses the defective, the rejects, the marginalised, the sinners, “the mustard seed(s)” and “leaven of this world” to be His instruments of grace.

We long for the time when the Kingdom will be complete, but that perfection would not be found in any earthly or human Utopia. For now we have to recognise that this is the way that God creates and works, and brings good life. God allows the mess. He demonstrates the value of the mess through the death of His Son on the cross. At the moment of the cross, it becomes clear that evil is utterly subverted for good. The Kingdom is built on the blood of martyrs, rather than on success stories. Persecution cannot destroy the Church, it can only make it stronger.

These parables provide enormous encouragement to all of us – God is in-charge! There is a story told about Pope St John XXIII, the architect of the Second Vatican Council, whose personal name was Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli. When he prayed, he had a habit of ending his lengthy prayers each night, by talking to himself. After a day of laborious church-work, he’d ask himself this question after struggling with insolvable church problems:  “So who governs the church? You or God?  Very well, then Angelo, go to sleep.”   He got it right. Let God be God and let Him take charge. It’s comforting to know that although we are not able to fix everything, solve every problem, find closure to every issue, there is someone who can.  Good to remember, “who governs the world, who governs the Church? You or God? Very well, go to sleep!”

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

For anyone who has, will be given more

Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Many a successful entrepreneur would not hesitate to share with you the secret of their success; if you want big returns, you must be willing to make bigger investments. “Money makes money”- as the saying goes! This pretty much sounds like the saying of Our Lord, sandwiched between the parable of the Sower and the Seed, and its explanation: “For anyone who has, will be given more, and he will have more than enough; but for anyone who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” Our most common response to this cryptic statement is that it simply is not fair “to give to him who has and take from him who has not”, seems like a perverse inversion of Robin Hood’s famous rationale for economic redistribution – ‘robbing the rich, to give to the poor.’

A second look at this enigmatic statement may reveal that it is anything but cruel. Rather, it may actually be an inescapable law of life. In every sphere of life more is given to the man who has, and what he has is taken away from the man who has not. Let me illustrate. In academia, everyone knows that the scholar who labours to amass knowledge is capable of acquiring more knowledge. It is to him that the funding, the research opportunities are given; and that is so because by his diligence and fidelity, he is more likely to succeed than any other candidate. On the other hand, the student who is lazy and refuses to work inevitably loses even the knowledge which he has. The same may be said of so many other examples. Many a person had some skill in a craft and lost it, because he neglected it.

What seems logical in life, is equally applicable in our spiritual lives. Faith is a verb, it must be exercised. Just like muscles in our body, faith can suffer atrophy when we fail to exercise it. Like muscles that tend to atrophy in zero gravity space, faith which is not challenged, also suffers the same fate. Every temptation we conquer makes us more able to conquer the next and every temptation to which we fall makes us less able to withstand the next attack. Every good thing we do, every act of self-discipline, every prayer said and sacrament received, makes us better able for the next; and every time we fail to use such an opportunity, we make ourselves less able to seize the next when it comes. Life is always a process of gaining more or losing more. If “money makes money,” then "having faith, practising our faith, leads to greater faith".

This is the key to understand the Parable of the Sower and the Seeds. The seed that is sown is the message of the kingdom. The soils are the people, the human hearts, who make the decision about the message. Though God is exceedingly generous and refuses to discriminate in His sowing, the soil of the human heart has the freedom to receive or reject it. There are many reasons why people do not respond by faith to the Word. Some might be hardened in unbelief, only superficially happy about the message, or too entangled with the cares of this world. Out of the four types of soils, only one proves fertile. “For anyone who has will be given more.”

Therefore, rather than exposing the weakness of God or His message, the parable here enables and compels a man to discover the truth about himself. Christ tells us that “the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven are revealed to you (who are His disciples), but they are not revealed to them.” In other words, the parable conceals truth from those who are either too lazy to think or too blinded by prejudice to see. It puts the responsibility fairly and squarely on the individual. It reveals truth to him who desires truth; it conceals truth from him who does not wish to see the truth. The latter is what we call the sin of incredulity.

Incredulity is more than just experiencing difficulty in understanding. Incredulity is, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church (2089) puts it, “the neglect of revealed truth or the wilful refusal to assent to it.” It is something deliberate. The first three types of soil illustrate this. To say that the Catholic faith is so simple that one would never experience difficulty in understanding it, would be a na├»ve claim. There is nothing wrong with experiencing difficulties in understanding, but there is a problem with incredulity. Here’s the difference:  The person with a difficulty says, “How can that be so?” whereas a person who is incredulous says, “That can’t be so!” The first statement expresses difficulty, but willingness to believe. The second statement expresses cynicism and unwillingness to submit to both reason and the Church’s teachings. The person with difficulties says, “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief!” The person with incredulity says, “I don’t believe Lord, and don’t bother to help my unbelief!”

The person with difficulties may be struggling, but he is struggling because he desires to understand fully and completely. There is hope here. This story, therefore, shows the relationship between faith and understanding. As St Anselm so rightly puts it, “faith seeks understanding" and understanding brings joy.  Faith always attempts to plunge into the depths of the mysteries of God. When we have faith in God, we will want a better relationship with Him, and it causes us to want to know God better. The two support each other.

Incredulity, on the other hand, is never the product of reason but rather the refusal to submit to reason. You can provide the best rational arguments to support revelation, and there would be those who would wilfully choose to disobey and reject what they secretly know to be true. That is why incredulity is not just merely a position taken, because there is a lack of proof. Incredulity is a sin, since it rejects the very grace of God that comes from His Living Word. By choosing not to believe, people who possess the first three kinds of soils, have cut themselves off from grace, cut themselves off from God, and finally cut themselves off from salvation.

What sets the last type of soil apart from the other three? What is the necessary condition of the heart to receive the Word of God? The answer is obedience. Venerable Cardinal Newman tells us, “To those who are perplexed in any way, for those who seek the light but cannot find it, one precept must be given — obey. It is obedience which brings a man into the right path. It is obedience which keeps him there and strengthens him in it.” The obedient heart is one which already possesses much and this predisposes it to receive much more.

At the end of the day, despite the widespread incredulity to the message of the gospel, this parable provides us with needed encouragement. Basically, the Lord is reminding us that no matter how good you are at sowing, and no matter how good the seed is, you won’t get a 100% germination rate. So we should not be overly grieved when not everyone receives the message. Our words go whistling down the wind; our message meets the impenetrable barrier of men's indifference; the result of all our work seems less than nothing. We may often wonder;  what kindles a fire in our bones leaves others stone cold, similarly, what thrills and moves our hearts leaves them icily indifferent. There’s more to sowing than the sower and the seed, there is the reception that the seed finds when it is planted. But our comfort is in knowing that nothing in this world happens outside the will of God. Everything has its place in the purpose of God and that somehow God is constantly weaving together success and failure, good and evil in a web of His designing. In spite of all the bad and unyielding heart soils, there will be those who would accept the life giving Word, take it to heart, and produce a great yield. Ultimately, there are no failures and there are no loose ends in the ultimate plan of God. So keep sowing!