Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Reach for the Sky

Twenty Eight Sunday in Ordinary Time Year B

Lots of things have been weighing on my mind lately. Not just issues regarding the direction of the parish, the interpersonal conflicts taking place between parishioners, the pains and aches of the individuals who come to me for counselling and direction, but also the present and future state of the Universal Church, wounded, traumatised, and scandalised by division and sin. The question I have for the Lord when I go into prayer somewhat reflects that of the rich young man in today’s gospel. “Good master, what must we do…?” I guess it would be the same question that many of you would ask the Lord if you had the chance.

Before going into the story, beware, the spoiler. The story, I’m afraid, ends on a sad note. We must not, however, be too quick or harsh to judge the rich young man. He was no ordinary frivolous youth lost in worldly pursuits. He sincerely desired eternal life and wanted to know the winning formula for salvation. The young man claimed to be a good observant Jew who faithfully kept the Law. He just wasn’t too sure whether he had missed anything. His persistence in pressing the Lord for an answer would eventually lead him to one that he did not bargain for. The answer would require a price too heavy to be paid; a cost he was unwilling to bear.

The reason for me introducing the story by going straight to the ending, is not meant to spoil your listening pleasure. It is meant to highlight one significant point – the failed story of the rich young man need not necessarily be ours. Our story could have an entirely different ending, provided we are prepared to learn from his mistakes.

The first mistake of the rich young man was that he failed to recognise Jesus as Lord. He could only manage at best a title of honour, “Good Teacher.” Jesus, perceiving the youth’s inability to move beyond human categories, answers with another question, "Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone.” The Lord was laying out a simple logic for the young man’s consideration - If Jesus is good, then He is God. He is no mere teacher, or philosopher or prophet. This would only make His teaching on par with other great teachers in history. But the Gospel that Jesus Christ came to reveal is not information about God, but rather God Himself in our midst. Pope Emeritus Benedict taught that “being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.” His teaching does not only make us better persons, it is the definitive way to salvation.

The second mistake of our protagonist was settling for less when he could have achieved so much more. This is best summed up by Yogi Bear’s philosophy, “Why do more when you can do less?” Many Catholics have grown quite complacent with their faith acquired during childhood.  We have become too comfortable with our present state of affairs. Instead of a Missionary Church, we have become a Maintenance Church. ‘Attending mass, sending the children to Sunday School, listening to enduring long services and homilies already seem to be a great deal demanded of me.’ We have become complacent of doing nothing and just maintaining the status quo. Complacency is faith’s worst enemy. When religion is so wrapped up in its single concern of ensuring its survival in a world grown cold to the sacred, and therefore, settles for the lowest standards to accommodate changing fads, it will finally and quickly bottom out and will not rise again, and only at a dreadful cost to souls.

Today, we see the rise of mediocrity in every sphere. Mediocrity today poses as democratisation, inclusiveness, populism, condescension, tolerance, broad-mindedness, optimism and even charity. Mediocrity provides our society the band-aid needed to shield it from the sting of suffering. In other words, mediocrity presents the promise of salvation without a cross, charity without needing to sacrifice. We try to make religion easier and more accessible in order to stem the steady decline in followers. But mediocrity is settling for cheap; it is selling a lie. The call to holiness, ultimately, is a call to perfection. Being average or just good when it comes to holiness, just doesn’t make it! The Church constantly calls us to walk the extra mile, to go out into the deep end, to make the greater sacrifice for faith. As Pope Francis tells us in his latest encyclical, “He wants us to be saints and not to settle for a bland and mediocre existence.” (Gaudete et Exsultate # 1)You will hear Jesus constantly prodding you, “Why do less when you can do more?” The law may simply set the minimum base line. But the maximum limit is literally the sky – heaven, in fact! We are all called to be saints!

The third mistake of the young man was that his deeds did not match his words when it came to faith. The young man had claimed that he had kept the Law perfectly. But the sincerity of this claim would be tested by the demand made by Jesus to follow Him. His face fell and he went away sad because he could never part with his great wealth, not even in exchange for a greater prize, eternal life. Many fail to see the discrepancy, the dissonance between words and deeds. By claiming he had kept the Law, the man was declaring that he had obeyed the first commandment to love the Lord supremely and above all things, including wealth. He was also saying he loved his neighbour more than himself. But if he loved God and fellow-creatures more than he did his property, it would hardly be difficult and should have been quite effortless on his part to give up his wealth for the service of God and of man. But that was not the case. Words not matched by deeds are simply hollow and insincere.

Finally, the young man’s last mistake that proved decisive in determining his fate was that he chose to walk away. Situations arise where we may need to walk away, but then again, there are moments which calls for us to stand our ground. The call of faith demands that we make such a stand. The young man walked away from the heavy cost of discipleship but he also walked away from its reward, eternal life. Ultimately, he walked away from Christ, the Way, the Truth and the Life. In choosing to walk away, he has chosen to close the door on the Lord. It is ironic and yet beautifully consoling that the Lord does not close the door on him. The Gospel of Mark records this little detail, that the Lord whilst looking at him, ‘loved him.’

Having faith in the Lord and following Him along the path of holiness is not going to be easy. Recognising Jesus as Lord shakes us from our complacent stupour, challenges us to match deeds to our words, and calls us to reject mediocrity in all its varied manifestations and to aim high for perfection. Not only does this mean embracing a completely different style of living; but it also calls us to stand against a world that has grown indifferent to the sacred. The temptation to walk away is great, and many have done so, especially when the zeal has run out, scandals abound, the sentiment no longer enjoyed, the theology distant and less relevant, faith has become boring and empty and God has been reduced to an abstract concept. But today, the Lord throws us the challenge once again, ‘sell everything, take up your cross and follow me!’ We must risk giving up every false security, our comfort zones, and our complacent self-satisfaction with the status quo. Will you choose to walk away like the rich young man or stand your ground and accept the challenge of the cross? This may seem to be a tall order, but remember, "For human beings it (may seem) impossible, but not for God. All things are possible for God."

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