Tuesday, January 29, 2019

The Job of a Prophet is to be hated

Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

A joke that I tell my priest friends who know Latin goes as follows:  If I ever get a dog I’ll call him ‘Anathema’ so that I can shout out regularly ‘Anathema –sit’!  The word “anathema”, which is actually Greek in origin, originally meant “an offering” or “something dedicated”, eventually came to be used as the ecclesiastical ‘curse’ or decree of excommunication used by the Church from the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century until Vatican II, to condemn erroneous or heretical teachings and those who promoted them. As harsh as this may sound, the anathema curse actually has scriptural origins and is used by St Paul against those who preach a false Gospel: “As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be ‘anathema’ (Gal 1:9).

St Paul uses such harsh language in his condemnation because he understood how utterly evil and incredibly damaging it is to the faith of the faithful to preach a false Gospel. There really is no issue more serious for a Christian. Yet so few Christians take this subject seriously. Few care in the least or bother to determine whether they are deliberately or inadvertently holding to or teaching a false or corrupted gospel. Personal preferences and sentiments often trump Truth. Ambiguity seems to be the rule of day. On the other hand, doctrinal certainty is often labelled as rigid and unbending. The irony today is that it is not those who spew heresies and false teachings from the pulpit who often get cursed in this manner, but rather, the ones who defend orthodox teaching and speak the truth who risk being thrown out of the pulpit either by an angry audience or by their more politically-correct superiors.

This was the fate of our Lord. Today’s passage follows immediately last week’s episode where our Lord after reading the passage from the Book of Isaiah was treated like the local hero. They marvelled at the wonderful things He said among them. He was one of their own, He grew up among them and they knew His background. Now He spoke with eloquence and graciousness and this “won the approval of all.” They felt proud that their town could produce such a man. He told them that the words of hope they treasured in the Scripture were being fulfilled in their hearing. He was basically telling them that “all is well,” because God has come to save the day. That wonderful warm fuzzy feeling – who could deny or reject this. Everything was going well, until our Lord began to challenge their expectations, perception and belief system.

Jesus takes up the attitude and role of a prophet and in so doing, begins to provoke His listeners. He ‘judgmentally’ tells His audience that His prophetic words will not be accepted or recognised “in his own country”, citing two examples of great prophets in the Old Testament who were also rejected by their own people. When the Lord shifted the tone of His sermon, the crowd’s response also moved from hospitality to hostility. We might well think Jesus was imprudent in the way He provoked His own relations and fellow townspeople. It is always wise to look for allies rather than make enemies. We may even be tempted to fault Him for being the cause of the people’s indignation and wanting to drag Him out of the town to murder him. Yet, later Christian teaching and preaching will imitate His method. The martyrs and confessors of the Church had to pay the price for it. One can tiptoe around diplomatically only for a short time before it leads to the point where one has to jump feet first into truth-telling.

This Gospel is like a microcosm of the whole story. As the Prologue to the Gospel of John says: “He came unto his own, and they that were his own received him not.” (John 1:11). He was one of their own, and they were more than happy to go along with him for a time. How often this happens in the life of Jesus – that people follow Him and then go off in a different direction when things don’t suit, when the gospel He preaches is no longer “nice” but has a sharp painful sting to it with a big price tag. There is no problem when you tell people what they want to hear. The man whose message is ‘repent’ sets himself against his age, and will be battered mercilessly by the age whose moral tone he challenges. There is but one end for such a man…either rejection or death!

The spiritual gift of a prophet is not so much foretelling, as it is forth-telling. The prophet sees a problem and addresses it. Such was the role of the prophets in Israel. The Old Testament prophets called God’s people to repentance, revival, and renewal. They could not and would not settle for status quo. Being a prophet was never an easy calling, then or now. A prophet’s uncompromising truthfulness was both utterly confronting and utterly ego-deflating. To be prophetic is to call sin, sin. It is to say, without apology or reservation, “The Lord says ...” and sometimes, He says things which are not very comforting or pleasing to the ear, especially when He is confronting our sinfulness.  He did so, not because He was intentionally mean and wanted to hurt His listeners. St Paul was right in the second reading. The prophet is motivated by love, never by spite. Love doesn’t seek to hide the truth. Love doesn’t lie. 

A priest friend once told me that the job of a Parish Priest is to be hated. I guess this includes someone who plays the “prophet.” If he is doing his job, and doing it right, there are bound to be people who would disagree with him or eventually hate him. I’m not sure if I have the thickness of his skin to endure this. Bishop Emeritus Anthony Selvanayagam once shared how the legendary late Monsignor Aloysius gave him this piece of advice, “A bishop must have the wisdom of Solomon, the patience of Job and the hide of a rhinoceros.” No wonder we have so few bishops and God forbid if any of us priest ever got chosen to be one.

The truth is that whether it be a priest, or a parent, or just an ordinary Christian, our job is not to be popular. Our job is to be faithful and that’s the hardest part of our calling. The litmus test of a true Christian is best measured not by how many bouquets that have been pinned on him, but rather by how many brickbats that have been pitched at him. Prophets have been on the receiving end of mud more than medals. I’ve personally experienced this truth - the preacher who jests and jokes with his people all week will soon find that he cannot stand in his pulpit on Sunday with power to reprove, rebuke, and exhort. He may be the life of the party but it will be the death of the prophet. Popularity has killed more prophets than persecution. I understand that my role as a true pastor must not only be to feed the flock, but also to warn the flock. To turn black and white into grey doesn’t honour God, it just makes sinners feel better about themselves.

The prophet’s calling is lonely, sometimes discouraging and usually misunderstood. People will either run from a prophet or try to destroy him – only the remnant minority receives the prophet and his message with gladness. But remember this - the only reason a true prophet speaks is because he is compelled by God and moved by Love, a love that “takes no pleasure in other people’s sins but delights in the truth.” The prophet may not be perfect. He often isn’t. He too is broken by sin but he desires God’s people to experience God’s best and experience what he has experienced – forgiveness and mercy at the point of repentance. And if we doubt whether we would have the gumption or the “hide of a rhinoceros” to do the job, let us be reminded that we have something far greater – the promise of the Lord to make us into “a fortified city, a pillar of iron, and a wall of bronze to confront all.” He assures you: “They will fight against you but shall not overcome you, for I am with you to deliver you – it is the Lord who speaks!”

Tuesday, January 22, 2019


Third Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Let me start off by stating what is obvious as well as seemingly contradictory – “Listening is one of the easiest things you’ll ever do, and also one of the hardest.” In a sense, listening or at least ‘hearing’ is easy – it does not demand the same amount of effort and energy required in speaking. No one would call you a fool unless you open your mouth. But despite this ease, or perhaps precisely because of it, we often fight against it. We would rather trust in our thoughts and opinions, amass our own righteousness than receive another’s, and speak our thoughts rather than listen to someone else. Oftentimes we falsely assume that having ears equates to listening. This is especially applicable to a modern culture that is saturated with headlines, texts, hashtags, posts, ear buds, and tweets. We are swimming in a sea of words while listening to very few of them.

Today’s readings remind us that Christians, following the tradition of the Jews and the Hebrews before them, are intentionally auditory. Israel was a nation of prophets, not philosophers. Prophets listen to God. Philosophers envision. For the Greek philosopher, intellectual understanding came through the eye. For the Hebrew prophet, it came through the ear. The eye sees and dissects. The ear, on the other hand, hears and obeys. The Hebrews began their scriptures by saying that God spoke and all came into existence. The most fundamental statement of the Law (Dt 6:4), begins with the Hebrew word, “Shema” translated as “Hear” or “Listen” or “paying attention.”  The logic of the Hebrew scriptures is the logic of revelation and in the logic of revelation, the most illogical thing is to refuse to listen to the Voice of God.

It is interesting to note that the etymology of the word ‘obedience’, which comes from the Latin ‘obedire’, means to listen. In fact, the word “shema” in the Old Testament means both to listen and to obey. Perhaps, this is one of the reasons why listening is so under-rated in today’s society that places ‘doing’ or activism as the benchmark of achievement. In a “just do it” culture, the whole notion of obedience seems absurd and even anachronistic. Everything in our culture resists obedience, because we are made to feel that any loss of control over self-fulfillment is a loss of self. It’s a culture where everyone wants to be heard, so few ready to listen. Which explains the deafening noise, the shouting, the incessant bombardment of social media postings that characterises our modern culture that glorifies self-expresison. Because of the emphasis placed on freedom, self-will, autonomy and personal determination, obedience does little to suggest a good life. Obedience seems to be a suffocation of life rather than the promotion of it.

Yet obedience is a core element of the story of creation as well as the story of salvation. The first lesson man learnt in the story of creation was obedience. And the first sin and every other sin thereafter, is about disobedience. Every covenant God sealed with His people, every message uttered by the prophets, were calls to obedience. And finally, obedience is also at the heart of the gospel, it was central to the life of Jesus and His relationship with the Father, but it also summarises what it means to be a Christian. Jesus not only listened and obeyed the word of God, He totally identified with it. Thus, at the end of today’s gospel, He could confidently announce that He is the fulfillment of the prophetic word. For many centuries the Jews strained to listen to the Word of God through their prophets, but then the Word came even closer. The Word became flesh. That is why the Catechism of the Catholic Church affirms that “the Christian faith is not a ‘religion of the book’. Christianity is the religion of the ‘Word’ of God, a word which is ‘not a written and mute word, but the Word is incarnate and living” (CCC 108).

Today’s readings remind us that obedience is more about an encounter with this Living Word, Jesus, than about merely following rules. It is more about effective listening than blind obedience to the dead letter of the law. It means getting in touch with the voice and life of the Spirit. The three readings provide us with different levels of listening.

In the first reading, we read about the reconstruction of the moral and religious fibre of a foundering nation that has lost not only its independence but also its integrity. The foundation of this reconstruction would be the Law, which is the name given by Jews to their scriptures. As they listened attentively to the words of their holy book being read by Ezra the scribe, the crowd was moved not only to tears but ultimately to worship. For them, the Law was not just a set of religious and moral rules and obligations, it was the voice of God, the God that had not abandoned them, the God who was now restoring their fortune. Thus the first level of listening is listening to God, a listening which inspires worship, a listening that inspires conversion, and a listening that demands obedience and surrender to the sovereignty of God. That is why at every mass, the Liturgy of the Word precedes, and eventually leads to and culminates in the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

The second reading proposes a second level of listening. In obedience we also listen to the voice of the Church, the Body of Christ. In the face of the human heart’s tendency towards narcissism, individualism and exclusiveness more than towards the needs of the other, obedience as attentive listening to the other members of the Body of Christ frees us to live for the other and become an integral part of the family, we call Church. Obedience can challenge our worldviews and prejudices which often filters our perception of God’s will.

Finally, the gospel speaks of the third level of listening – listening to the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalised. By citing a text from Isaiah, Luke attempts to explain Jesus’ mission as a proclamation of gladness for the poor, liberty for the captives, sight for the blind, release for prisoners and a year of favour for all. These categories are often regarded by the larger society as invisible, thus not deserving its attention or time. The rich and the powerful have our ears, but not the poor. Thus, the cries of the poor are a great corrective to our self-importance, selfishness and pride. If our heart’s desires are gifts from God, then listening to the cries of the poor reveals the demands these gifts make on us. Any Christian life which does not listen to the voice of the poor effectively shuts out the voice of God.

Christ’s powerful words spoken to us at Mass are meant to change things, to change us, to change the hearts and the lives of all who hear them. Every mass requires more than just our attention, it demands a total investment of ourselves, it demands obedience. Unless you are deaf or hard of hearing, you should put aside your missals (and smart phones). These are useful tools to prepare for holy mass, but when the mass begins, we should put these aside. This is because reading along and listening attentively are very different activities and have very different results. In a certain way, when we read the Word during the mass, we continue to assert mastery over the word by subjecting it to all forms of analyses. But we are a people called to ‘listen.’ Now, this is much harder than reading. Listening makes us uncomfortable because we strain to listen not just with our ears but also with our hearts. Listening treats the word in a personal way, rather than just a subject to be studied. Listening is relational. Thus, we listen to God, we do not read or study Him. In listening, we make no demands of the Word – we merely listen, embrace the Word and obey. We seek not to substitute the Word with our words. But rather we allow the Word to form, challenge, comfort and finally consume us.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Time to Speak, Time to be Silent

Second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Sometimes when we are presented with an opportunity to speak up, we would rather choose to remain silent. There are a myriad of reasons why we do so. Sometimes we tell ourselves, ‘We don’t have all the information to make an informed decision,’ or perhaps, we feel powerless to effect any change, or perhaps we fear rejection or risk being pulled beyond our comfort zone of anonymity. In any event, we think, ‘I’m not even on the committee – should I make this my business?’ The self-preserving spirit is constantly whispering in my ear – ‘Of what concern is this to me?’ We don’t speak up or get involved because we’ve been taught from a young age – ‘Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.’

In a world that chooses to silence any attempt at reminding us of our sins, what seems to have suffered more than the lack of cognizance of sins of commission, is that of, sins of omission. Catholics are very familiar with sins against charity by saying things we should not say: gossip, calumny, detraction and the like. But holding your tongue when you should say something is just as evil. Many people fail to understand that you can sin by omission as well as by commission. To not say what needs to be said when it should be said is a sin against justice and is a cooperation with evil.  Unfortunately, our indifference, our lack of positive action, and especially our silence doesn’t let us off the hook. The Civil Rights activist and preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote: “Not only will we have to repent for the sins of bad people; but we also will have to repent for the appalling silence of good people.”

In today’s familiar gospel story of the Wedding at Cana, Mary, the Mother of Jesus, saves the day by breaking her silence and then refuses to be silenced by what seems to be a rude rebuke from her son. Our Blessed Mother’s role in this First Miracle should not be trivialised. Instead of saying “Jesus and His Blessed Mother show up to the wedding”, it might be more accurate to say, “His Blessed Mother was invited to the wedding, and therefore He also was there”. The Blessed Mother is mentioned first. Jesus seems to be there because of Mary’s relationship to the couple being married. Furthermore, our Lord’s miracle was instigated by Our Lady’s charity, and she showed her charity not by keeping silent, but through her keenness of perception to know that there was a problem and her turning to Christ who could solve it.

The story highlights two essential points. The wedding needed Jesus. Without Jesus, the wedding would truly have been a disaster when the wine ran out. With Him in the picture, there is no need to press the panic button. But it is important to note that Jesus also needed Mary. In her compassion and empathy for others, she sees the coming disaster for the party and shame looming for the bridal family. Now, she doesn’t have a solution for the scarcity, but she notices when no one else does, not even the steward of the feast. Mary has the courage and tenacity to speak up. Mary alone sees the need and she sees the solution, it is her own Son.

You probably noticed that the name of the couple being married is not even mentioned. Pretty odd, isn't it? It seems to be the Holy Spirit’s way of showing that the events that took place at this marriage symbolise something much more for the whole of mankind.... beyond this particular couple. This is setting the stage for what happens between the Divine Bridegroom and His Bride. The Divine Bridegroom, of course, is Jesus. And the Church is represented by the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is the first of all mankind to be born again in Jesus. Then the members of the Church, Mary’s children are represented by the others who receive Mary's instructions at the wedding: “Do whatever he tells you.”

It was St. Augustine who suggested that the Cana wedding somehow represents a much larger marriage between the Son of God and the Church, a marriage which is completed at Calvary. Calvary is the height of the marital commitment. Then we can understand why Jesus would address His own mother as “Woman.” This happens twice in the Fourth Gospel. The first time, at the Wedding at Cana and the second occasion, when He speaks to her from the cross. When He calls Mary “Woman”, it is because, what she is doing, she is doing on behalf of all of humanity. She is the new Eve. The Blessed Virgin Mary, the New Eve, begs the New Adam, Jesus, to hasten the “hour” that will restore humanity to its fullness, bring humanity eventually back to glory. Therefore, in both the story of the Wedding at Cana and the crucifixion scene, we see the pivotal role of Our Blessed Mother in the story of salvation.

Let’s come back to those last words of Mary to the servers, “Do whatever he tells you.” She doesn't tell Jesus, “They have a problem, fix it.” She does not insist or demand. She doesn’t chart out a course of action for Jesus, much less specify the manner in which Jesus must resolve the problem.  She leaves everything to the Lord’s judgment. Our Lady responds in obedience to the Son’s total obedience. Obedience to God’s will is a necessary condition for speech. She tells the servants to do what she herself would willingly do, “Do whatever he tells you.” These words carry much weight and significance because they are the last recorded words of Mary in the gospels. Thereafter, she observes a “vow of silence” throughout the gospel narrative and doesn’t even break it at the foot of the cross. Her last words would be her defining moment. It would mark her entire life’s mission – obedience to the will of God.

So, the readings today set us on two complementary, rather than contradictory, paths. One where we must raise our voices and another, where we must keep silent. In respect of the injustices and evil and the need for reform that we see around us, we must not be quelled into silence. Just like the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading, we must “not be silent.” When it comes to the gospel, we must shout from the rooftops. All of us are called to give witness, to preach the good news of Our Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of souls. Even St. Paul tells us "Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel!" (1 Cor. 9:16). Like Mary, we must choose to speak out even when we risk inconvenience or embarrassment. We need to understand the great peril we are all in by keeping quiet about the Truth and about the Faith.

But then, Mary also shows us the value of silence. Mary's silence is not only moderation in speech, but it is especially, a wise capacity for remembering and embracing in a single gaze of faith the mystery of the Word made flesh. It is this silence as acceptance of the Word, this ability to meditate on the mystery of Christ, that Mary passes on to believers. In a noisy world filled with messages of all kinds, her witness enables us to appreciate a spiritually rich silence and fosters a contemplative spirit. Mary witnesses to the value of a humble and hidden life. Everyone usually demands, and sometimes almost claims, to have his or her entitlement fulfilled. Everyone expects esteem and honour. Mary, on the contrary, never sought honour or the advantages of a privileged position; she always tried to fulfil God's will, leading a life according to the Father's plan of salvation. Instead of saying “Do whatever I tell you, “ she teaches us that the most important words we must share with others is “Do whatever he tells you.”