Wednesday, September 27, 2017

How you choose to end the story

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Many of you may be familiar with the proverbial anti-hero character of Hellboy, of both the comic and movie fame. Hellboy is a walking oxymoron, he’s what you would call a “good demon”… but in case you think all demons are actually quite ‘nice’ and ‘adorable, Hellboy’s the singular exception to the rule. In the story, the eponymous character was summoned during the last days of the Second World War by the Nazi forces in the hope that he would help them turn the tide against the Allied Forces. However, the ceremony is interrupted by a platoon of Allied Forces, and the infant demon is ‘saved’ by the kindly Professor Bruttenholm, who adopts him as his own son, and as both the comics and the movie would hint at, raised him as a Catholic. The religious and ‘Catholic’ undertones of the story are hardly subtle.

At the end of the movie, at a dramatic point of almost turning to the evil side, reverting back to his demonic nature, Hellboy is tossed the rosary that had belonged to his departed adopted father and is then reminded who he is and what he chose to be.   He then proceeds to rip the horns from his head and fight for good. The crucifix of the rosary seared its mark into the palm of Hellboy as he catches it. A kind of stigmata. The imagery is clear to us Christians, it is by the power of the Cross that we are saved, where even the greatest sinner is redeemed and a saint made. Eventually, Hellboy, who was originally summoned and sent to destroy the world would prove to be its saviour.
What? That’s ridiculous!’ you may protest. But that’s the meaning of redemption.

What’s the key of his redemption? It’s found in the answer given to a question that is raised at the beginning of the movie, “What makes a man a man?” The answer can only be found at the end of the movie. Before the closing credits, we hear another voice over narration which sums up the whole journey of Hellboy, from demon to perhaps, the most unlikely saint: “What Makes a Man a Man, A friend once wondered. Is it his origins, the way he comes to life? I don't think so. It’s the choices he makes; not how he starts things but how he decides to end.” Repentance is the key to redemption, the key that sets one on a different course in life.

This is what happened to the first son in our gospel parable. His story parallels that of the Prodigal Son in the Gospel of St Luke. Like the prodigal son, the first son displays an insolence that is unimaginable. When asked to go and work in his father’s vineyard, he replies curtly and defiantly, “I will not go!” At the time of Our Lord, no son would dream of speaking to his father in this way. Indeed, a son could be killed by his father for such insolence!

However, something amazing takes place. The parable tells us that he had a change of mind, he “thought better of it and went.” This is what repentance is all about. There are two words in Greek for 'repent.' The first one is the word “metanoeo” which means regret and forsaking the evil by a change of heart. This is the word that is associated with Our Lord’s initial call, “Repent and Believe!”  But the repentance expressed by the son here is a different word. It is the word “metamelomai.” It indicates a strong remorse for one’s actions, a certain disgust with one self. It entails changing one’s mind in such a deep and radical way which eventually leads to a different direction in life. It makes the man love what he once hated, and hate what he once loved. Ultimately true repentance results in a change of actions.

The example of the first son and the movie character Hellboy both portray a quintessential and remarkably Catholic Christian message: redemption even for the ostensibly irredeemable. Repentance is the key. Repentance is capable of turning our stories around and rewriting the ending. It reminds us that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future. Yes, we have a history, we have our respective baggages, skeletons in our closets, our past records of failures and a heap full of mistakes!  Yet through the mercy of God, we also have a present and a future. We Catholics, therefore, reject the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination. Man is not a hapless puppet of fate. He is an active player in this divine drama of his salvation. As much as everything depends on the grace of God, everything depends on the choices which we make. We can choose to turn the story around. “It’s the choices he makes, not how he starts things but how he decides to end.”

But we are not done with the parable. There is the matter of the second son. When contrasted with the first son, we see the dichotomy between talk and action. The lesson is simple: doing the will of the Father is more than simply a matter of words. It is primarily a matter of deeds. It is one thing to say one will do the will of the Father; it is another thing to actually do it. Words alone mean nothing. Sadly, many today suffer the same problem as the second son. How many young people said ‘yes’ to Christ at their confirmation, but are no longer practising their faith? How many parents, at their child’s baptism, said, “Yes, God, we will raise our child as a good Catholic?” But they didn’t follow through. How many couples have promised each other at the nuptial mass, “I promise to be true to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health. I will love you and honour you all the days of my life?” But at the earliest opportunity, walk out of a marriage when things turn sour.  We may have started on a promising and very good footing, but “it’s not how we start things but how we decide to end.”

The tale of the two sons provides us with both a message of hope as well as a warning. Those who labour under the weight of sin and past mistakes receive the hope that their final lot can be very different, as long as they are prepared to repent.  While those who regard themselves as virtuous and righteous, however, should not presume that their salvation is guaranteed, for they can easily lose their chance of being saved by making a big mistake in the end and die without making amends. This is what Prophet Ezekiel tells us in the First Reading, “When the upright man renounces his integrity to commit sin and dies because of this, he dies because of the evil that he himself has committed. When the sinner renounces sin to become law-abiding and honest, he deserves to live.”

There is still the matter of the Third Son in our story. The third Son says, “Yes, Father, I will go and work in your vineyard.” And, behold, he does what he said he would do. He has no need of repentance like the first son, because He has never gone against the will of the Father. He is the Son who pleases his Father in both word and deed. The third Son is the One who told this parable. He is Jesus Christ, the enfleshed Son of God, who was perfectly obedient to the will of his Father. This is the Son who said ‘yes’ to the Father and began His mission by situating Himself at the very centre of the history of those who were lost and in need of redemption. He weaved His own history into the history of sinners in order that He may redeem that history and chart a course for a new future. This is the Son who chose to end His story by that great sacrifice on the cross;  and by His death and resurrection, He has made all things new.

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, to give us another chance, if only we open ourselves to repent, to change, to live in harmony with His 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. What is 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. It’s not how you start things but how you decide to end the story that matters.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Justice is Merciful and Mercy is Just

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Many of you may be familiar with the storyline of Victor Hugo’s classic Les Miserables. For those who are not, Les Miserables is basically about an embittered ex-convict named Jean Valjean, who was imprisoned for the piddling crime of stealing bread for his hungry family; but after his escape, he steals from a bishop but is shown forgiveness. After the bishop intervenes to prevent him from going back to prison, a transformed Valjean spends the rest of his life serving God and others. The counter-protagonist is Inspector Javert, who was formerly Valjean’s prison guard, now promoted to be an Inspector of the Gendarme, who pursues our hero like a ferret, and is bent on bringing him to justice. That’s the story in a nut-shell.

The overarching theme of the story is a stand-off between justice and mercy. On one side, you have Bishop Myriel (and later Valjean) as the personification of ‘mercy’, constantly ready to give people a second chance, to expect and hope for the best, and to treat people according to their individual situation rather than according to some abstract rule. And then, on the other side, you have Inspector Javert and all the forces of law and justice—which, when you see how it's put into action, doesn't look nearly as just as it should. Justice according to Javert means rigidity, harshness, and inflexibility. It means applying the same standards to poor innocent Fantine and the unredeemable Thénardier. And it means relentlessly pursuing a good man, a repentant man, for a minor crime he committed decades ago.

Today’s familiar parable also evokes mixed reactions from listeners, inviting us to re-examine our notions of mercy and justice. Just like the story of Valjean and Javert, the parable gives the impression that it all boils down to a choice between mercy and justice; you either choose one or the other, you can’t have both. To some who identify with the late-comers, this parable is an affirmation of God’s boundless mercy: that even those who respond to His loving grace at the eleventh hour are not excluded from the rewards promised in His Kingdom. However, not everyone feels this way. The full-day workers are understandably resentful. Many of us would, of course, identify and even sympathise with these early birds, who had slogged, toiled and put in more effort and time, and still got the same seemingly raw deal as the late-comers. This seems to render all their efforts and sacrifices futile. From their perspective, the Landowner, who is a metaphor for God, doesn’t look that appealing or merciful. In fact, in not showing appreciation where it is due, God comes across as a mean unjust taskmaster. So, is God unjust by seemingly favouring the undeserving over the deserving? Or is that His mercy at work? How do we reconcile the God of Justice with the God of Mercy?

Yes, on the face of it, justice and mercy seems incompatible. So, how can we speak of a God that is both just and merciful? The problem here comes from a confusion about what is meant by the word “just.” To do justice to a person, in this context, means to give him at least what he deserves. This is what the landowner did. All the workers had agreed on a day’s wage of one denarius, and so therefore, the workers who had been hired earlier, have no cause to complain as they were not short-changed. They merely got what they had agreed upon and what they had deserved. The landowner did give the complaining workers exactly what he promised them. Thus if I owe a person a favour, it satisfies justice for me to repay him the favour, but this does not stop me from going beyond what justice alone requires and doing him an additional favour. And this is what the landowner did with the late-comers. To be just means to give someone what he deserve, but to be merciful means to give him better than he deserves. Given those definitions, a person could not be merciful without being unjust or be just without being unmerciful.

St. Thomas Aquinas said, “God acts mercifully, not indeed by going against his justice, but by doing something more than justice; thus a man who pays another two hundred pieces of money, though owing him only one hundred, does nothing against justice, but acts liberally or mercifully… Hence it is clear that mercy does not destroy justice, but in a sense is the fullness thereof. Thus it is said, “Mercy exalts itself above judgment” (Jas 2:13). (Summa Theologiae I:21:3)

I believe what irks most people about the rationale of today’s parable is that it seems to fly against a hallmark of human justice which is impartiality. “Justice is blind,” goes the saying, and the more impartial human justice is, the better. We cannot play favourites. Our human perception of unfairness in this story comes, not from the interaction between the landowner and the workers but, actually, from the comparison between the pay given the workers in relation to what they worked. Steeped in our flimsy human arrogance and presumption, we assume that the pay here is proportional to the work because that is our earthly measure. We arrogantly presume that this landowner must adhere to our perceptions of fairness and justice because, after all, aren’t those very same perceptions simply brimming with our wisdom and common sense? Our arrogance allows, even demands, that we measure the landowner’s actions by our measures of justice, with no regard to the fact that, at the end of the day, as the landowner reminds all the workers, it is his money to do as he wishes.

But we forget that God is not bound by our human limitations and His justice is different from ours. God’s justice and charity coincide in Him; there is no just action that is not also an act of mercy and pardon, and at the same time, there is no merciful action that is not perfectly just. He is both the God of Justice and the God of Mercy. He sees all and knows all. God is not a blind judge. He is not detached, but rather personally invested in each of us. He can no more judge impartially any more than a father can judge his children impartially. Love is not blind, love is bound. His mercy gives beyond what we deserve. He gives us what we need!

As long as we insist on equating “fairness” with “equality,” God’s generosity will never make sense to us. We need to get past our human tendency to interpret another’s gain as our loss before we can truly appreciate the magnificence of God’s gift to each of us. The fact is, no matter how long we work or how hard we try, we can never earn God’s love or His salvation through our own efforts. We would be fools to presume that we come anywhere near deserving the generous payment of eternal salvation offered us by our Eternal Landowner, as we are fond to compare ourselves to others in its attainment. Can you, and should you fault God for lovingly, generously, and mercifully offering us the gift of mercy which none of us deserve? God freely loves us; inviting both the Valjeans and the Javerts of this world to His Kingdom, and awaiting our response, even if some seem to delay in their response. That should be good news for us, rather than an occasion for envy and complain.

So, the next time you feel that God has been unfair, unjust, or ignored you, look to the great saints who lived to love and serve others, lived the idea that the last shall be first, and were too humbly content and grateful to be working in God’s vineyard, to be worrying about who was getting how much mercy and reward, for whatever they were doing!  Love and serve God by loving and serving others, put others ahead of yourself, rejoice at their good fortune and give thanks to God for His abundant generosity and mercies and faithfully believe that God will continue to love not just the Bishop Myriels or the Valjeans among us, but the Javerts too.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Forgiveness as a Habit of Life

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

Forgive – now that is easier said than done, right? We’ve all been there.  For most of us, it seems reasonable to turn the other cheek a few times, but there comes a time when we just have to say “Enough is enough!” If not, we are practically no better than a floor mat begging to be trampled upon. It is sometimes much easier to either ignore your hurt, or you can choose to hang on to it and let it boil over into self-justified bitterness. We reason that it is only human to hold a grudge. But here’s the thing – the Lord tells us to forgive, and so we try, “Fine. I’ll forgive you this time. But if you mess up again, that’s it.” As the old adage goes, “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

How many times do you forgive someone who’s offended you, and wilfully or maliciously caused you injury? When do you cut them off? Should there be limits on forgiveness, especially for repeat offenders? Today’s gospel addresses these very questions. St Peter approaches the Lord and asked how many times he has to forgive his brother. By proposing to forgive seven times, Peter thought he was being magnanimous. Many of us would have stopped with once or twice. Seven is a perfect number, implying completeness, a fullness, but still a definite number with a definite limit. It is also worth knowing that there is a rabbinical tradition prevalent during the time of Jesus that proposes the following, “If a man commits an offense, let him be pardoned a first, second, and a third time, but not the fourth.” In other words, the prevailing rate at that time was a maximum of three times. Considering this limit, St Peter’s offer certainly sounds so much more generous.

But then, Our Lord says that even seven times would not be sufficient. Just like a trader haggling with his customer, the Lord counter proposes with another figure, not seven but seventy seven. Some translations even say seventy times seven. Do the math. That’s four hundred and ninety times! Either way, it’s an impossible figure; a number that is, for all practical purposes, beyond counting. It’s not that the Lord wants Peter to increase his forgiveness quota; He just wants him to stop counting altogether. He is saying, we are to forgive so often we will lose count of the number of times we have done it. The reason is simple - forgiveness is not a matter of law, or accounting, or keeping score, but rather a matter of love. To make love into a numbers game, of keeping a ledger, is self-defeating. Remember St Paul’s great ode to love, “Love … does not keep a record of wrongs.” Love simply can’t be quantified. We are to forgive with such regularity that it becomes the habit of our lives!

In both the First Reading and the gospel, the obligation of forgiveness is strengthened by an appeal to remember the lavishness and frequency with which God has forgiven each of us. In the gospel, the Lord tells a parable to illustrate this point. Few parables in the gospel have the overpowering force of this one. Almost no other parable confronts us so dramatically with the extent of our hypocritical double standards and loveless-ness: we demand incessantly from our fellow men what we think they owe us, without giving a moment’s thought to the immensity of the debt which God has forgiven us. The irony of our lack of integrity is captured so well in this rhetorical question found in the First Reading, “If man nurses anger against another, can he then demand compassion from the Lord?” See the double standards at work!

The debt owed by the wicked servant was impossible for him to repay. Perhaps, this little fact may be lost on us since we are unfamiliar with the value of ancient currencies. A talent is 130 pounds of silver. A year’s basic wages therefore would be about 4 lbs of silver. A single talent, 130 lbs of silver, therefore represents about 33 years’ worth of wages. This first servant owed a phenomenal 10,000 talents, which works out to be about 325,000 years of salary – a laughably, audaciously, impossibly large debt.  How did he get here, with a debt so large? One can only speculate, just like the 1MDB debacle. His fellow servant, on the other hand, only owed him 100 denarii, or 100 days’ wages, not insignificant, but a pittance in comparison to his own debt. Yet, the Master chose to forgive him totally. He was exonerated completely without having to pay even a fraction of that amount. The servant was undeserving and yet the kindness of his master was heaped upon him without limit, without measure.

In this aspect of the parable, we find our message. We who have been undeserving have been forgiven totally. Many of us deserve eternal damnation and no amount of merit or sacrifice on our part would have been sufficient to exonerate us. This debt, which was beyond our power to repay, has now been written off by Christ and with Christ we are allowed the glories and joys of eternal life and the blessings of the Father. What then, must our behaviour be toward others? With our hearts filled with the grace of forgiveness, must not the same quality of generosity by which God has redeemed us, colour and influence our dealings with one another?  So, whenever we are invited to look at the gift of the cross, we are also invited to look upon one another with a similar love and a limitless forgiveness.

Every time we protest that we have given too many chances to those who aggrieve us, it’s ironic that we seem to conveniently forget the numerous occasions God has forgiven us. Here lies our hypocrisy – we feel entitled to mercy from God but we demand that He metes out justice to our enemies. We live in grace and forgiveness but often we take this for granted. If we don’t want God to keep a grand tally of all the times we ask for His forgiveness, neither should we put limits on our forgiveness. When Jesus said to take up our crosses and follow Him, it was not in order for us to nail others to the crosses we carry. Rather the cross is the instrument by which Our Lord embraces the humanity in both offender and offended, it is the place where both are freed, healed and restored. The cross, therefore, is the meeting place of God’s justice and mercy. Because, ultimately, the scandal of God’s justice is His forgiveness.

As hard as it is to forgive, it is always good to remember the alternative because the only thing harder than forgiveness is the alternative, the toxic bitterness and debilitating paralysis that comes with un-forgiveness. When we choose to withhold forgiveness, the person who suffers most is not the other but ourselves. When we fail to forgive, the lack of letting go becomes an emotional cancer eating away our humanity, crippling our compassion and shriveling our love. However, the parable reminds us that there is something more damning when we refuse to forgive. In wanting to drag others to hell, we may end up there instead. So we may choose to hold on tightly to our resentment, but we must also be prepared to live (and die) with the consequences of refusing to forgive.

There is no denying that the wisdom of this teaching on forgiveness flies against our penchant for counting, calculating, and keeping track. But the truth of the matter is that love can’t be quantified or counted. To put a cap on it would mean signing our own death warrant. Christ died on the cross for our sins, He paid the greatest price with His own life, not because we deserved to be forgiven. Now that we have been forgiven, our Lord challenges us, “Now you go and do likewise!” Christ is asking us not to pay Him back, but to always pay it forward to others, because the mercy we’ve received is never just meant for ourselves but always meant to be shared with others! May we receive that mercy, when the fingers of the community are pointed at us. May we share it, when our fingers are pointed at others. This day and always. Amen.