Friday, September 20, 2019

Get the Hell out of here

Twenty Sixth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Hell is not a topic many people today are comfortable hearing about. Many modern folks, both religious and irreligious, find it unpalatable. In fact, of all the doctrines of the Catholic faith, hell is certainly one of the most neglected. Perhaps we have never, or hardly ever, heard a homily about hell. And the reason is simple: many struggle to understand how a God described as loving, merciful and forgiving can assign certain souls to Hell forever. No matter that the Doctrine of Hell is taught extensively in Scripture and quite a lot by our Lord Jesus Himself, the doctrine does not comport well with many modern notions and emphases of God, and, hence many think it has to go, and some even think that it has finally been buried by the Church.

Indeed, we live in a world which denies the existence of hell, a world which refuses to believe that eternal punishment is a real possibility. Perhaps we ourselves have fallen into this temptation at times. But notice the contradiction that often afflicts many of us. Even if we do not admit the reality of hell or if we do, we do not think that we will going there, we might still be inclined to reserve damnation to a select few, to those particularly horrible sinners – terrible murderers, war criminals, and our enemies. It’s easy to say to these kinds of people: “Go to hell!” Hell is for people like them, hell is for monsters, and if they don’t end up in hell for their crimes, then there is simply no justice. In doing this we separate ourselves from sinners, we exempt ourselves from God’s judgment but we make hell a place for “them”. But then we have a parable like in today’s Gospel. Lazarus goes to heaven and the rich man goes to hell.

In another fictional story set out in one of C.S. Lewis’s books, The Great Divorce, the souls of various people from hell take a bus ride to heaven.  In this fiction, the denizens of hell have the opportunity to turn away from the sins that led them to hell in the first place.  But they do not take advantage of this second chance because they have been shaped to the core of their being by ways of thinking and acting that turned them away from God, others, and their own true selves. Their damnation was not the result of an arbitrary judgment; instead, it was a reflexion of the reality of who they had become by their own choices. As C.S. Lewis said in the book: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, 'Thy will be done,' and those to whom God says, in the end, 'Thy will be done.' All that are in Hell, choose it.”

The rich man in today’s parable is such an example of a man who had chosen hell Now, nowhere is it suggested that he was a bad man by the world's accepted standards. For all purposes, he may not have gained his wealth in a dishonest manner nor deliberately mistreated poor Lazarus. What, then, were the sins that led to his damnation? It would appear that the rich man’s over absorption in self prevented him from seeing others. He was afflicted by the tragic disease of egocentrism which plagues so many unbeknownst to them. He passed Lazarus every day, but he never really saw him. He was too much absorbed in himself to be able to see. He was condemned because his selfishness caused him to lose the capacity to sympathise. There is nothing more tragic than to find a person who can look at the anguishing and deplorable circumstances of fellow human beings and not be moved. And when he called for mercy from Father Abraham, he made no confession and did no repentance.  He may have had second thoughts about wanting to warn his brothers, but it was too little and too late. The gulf that divided heaven and hell could not be crossed, because as Lewis suggested the gates of hell are locked on the inside. The rich man had done that by the decisions he made in life. He had shaped his “hell” decisively by his actions, decisions and omissions.

It must be remembered that the point of the parable is not that the rich will be damned and the poor will be saved.  There is nothing wrong with wealth, especially when it is shared with others and used for the common good. But, we may end up being tempted to focus on ourselves, and to allow our wealth, possessions, and successes in this world to keep us from our final goal. For if we love ourselves, our pleasures, and our status more than God and neighbour, no matter how much or little we have, we have already shut ourselves out of the kingdom. 

Neither is the point of this parable one which shows God delights in sending souls to hell. The parable is told by the Lord as a warning, precisely to keep His listeners from hell. The last thing on God’s mind is to keep us apart from Him. You see apart from the parable, there is another gulf - a gulf between God and man. This gulf originated in the man’s sin and not in God’s choice. Yes, God, is like the rich man in one sense, rich in grace, rich in love, rich in mercy. Humanity is the Lazarus, poor in spirit, covered with the sores of sin, lying at the gates of God's throne, begging for the crumbs of God's grace. Man, like Lazarus, was too weak to bridge the gap. Even the best among men could never hope to narrow that rift: no patriarch nor prophet nor priest nor animal sacrifices could close that gap. It was impossible and impassable. Only God could accomplish this. The beauty of the Christian gospel is that God, the divine Omnipotent One, rich in Mercy and Goodness, is not like the pathetic rich man of the parable. It had been His intention from the beginning to bridge the gulf and He did so by sending His only begotten Son into this world, to assume our human condition and finally to offer a sacrifice of His own life on the cross. That cross is the boundless and unbreakable bridge of God's love connecting time and eternity, a humanity poor in sin and a God, rich in graces.

This is how God wishes for each of our stories to end. To be enclosed not just in the bosom of Abraham, but to be embraced in His loving arms for eternity. But in order for the story to end this way, He has given us the freedom to choose, and so we must choose a life of compassion instead of indifference, a life of love instead of hatred, a life of gratitude instead of resentment, a life of mercy instead of unremitting judgment. We can choose to build the prison of “hell” in our lives, brick by brick, stone by stone, chink by chink, or we can choose to make our communion with God and others a lifetime’s project which will last for eternity.

In the end we have to be clear: Hell exists. It has to exist for we have a free choice to make, and God will respect that choice even if he does not prefer our choice. You and I are free to choose the Kingdom of God, or not. God loves us and does not want us to go to end up in hell but He also respects our freedom. The parable of Lazarus and the rich man makes it clear that our choices lead ultimately to a final and permanent choice wherein our decision is forever fixed.  We may be tempted to deny that hell exists, but our Saviour didn't. He lived proclaiming the truth of its existence and He died to make sure no one would ever have to go there. If we deny hell's reality, we trivialise His mission and jeopardise our own. If we fail to make use of the many opportunities accorded to us, we render the bridge that He has erected over that gulf meaningless. The time of being alive in the flesh, this is the time for repentance. This is the time for the doing of good works. You can’t do any more when you’re dead. You can’t change what your judgment will be.

To be sure, hell is a tricky subject. It's not something we should delight in or even enjoy talking about. It is, however, part of the reality we must face at the end. If we don't warn people about it, we may find ourselves in the very same position as the rich man – who thought only of warning his loved ones and others when it was too late, for ourselves and them.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Man is wisest when he turns to God

Twenty Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

“So clever! So clever” so says the astute Fr Dominic. He is of course referring to how some people (priests included) are able to wrangle themselves out of work commitments by the flimsiest of excuses. What augments their “cleverness” is that they often push the buck to others, and poor Fr Dominic often ends up “covering” for them, which makes him lament his own condition, “So stupid! So stupid!”

The “cleverness” of the steward in today’s parable seems apparent and yet for us Christians, seem utterly disturbing and even scandalising. The steward who was called to account for having wasted his rich landlord’s property chooses fraud as the “clever” way out. He finds a way to extricate himself at the last minute from the mess – his clever and dubious calculations consist in ensuring that, when he loses his position, he will find refuge with those whom he had helped, those whose debts he had written off. We can imagine him congratulating himself, “So clever! So clever! I’m so clever!” Far from being inspiring, the behaviour of the steward may actually invoke disgust in many of us. But instead of cautioning His disciples to stay away from such unscrupulous behaviour, our Lord does the shocking and unthinkable; He commends the steward and offers him as a model for discipleship!

On the surface it looks like the Lord is extoling the dishonesty of the steward. Yet when we hear what follows we recognise that He is not using the dishonest servant to give the disciples an example to follow regarding dishonest wealth; rather, He is making a comparison and calling to greater commitment to discipleship.

He uses the parable and the character of the dishonest servant to demonstrate the great extent someone will go to, so that they may preserve their status or wealth or position. The dishonest servant goes to great effort, albeit dishonest and corrupt; to cover up his duplicity and greed, and thereby maintaining his job and ill-gained wealth. The dishonest servant, when he learns of his master’s intention, contemplates his situation, makes a plan then immediately acts to complete it. All this, just to maintain something that is not only ill gained but is fleeting and temporary. The point is, “bad” people are often “clever” people. Their cleverness helps them to see a goal and to go after it. Yet they are foiled because they are looking for something which is a pale imitation of the real good. Being clever isn’t clever enough if it brings us nowhere closer to our ultimate goal – eternal life and heaven.

Jesus uses the parable to have His disciples — that includes us — to reflect on the efforts we make not so much with wealth, position or status but the things that really matter in life. Survival was the driving force behind the servant’s life. For us, attaining salvation should be our primary motivation in every action, every decision, every planning and every enterprise of ours.

Being a good Christian does not mean that you have to be a bad manager, a bad worker, a poor student, or someone who “sucks” at managing your personal and worldly affairs. What Christians should learn from this dishonest steward is that their actions and decisions must be intentional and purposeful. Every action, deed, decision and word, should ultimately be geared towards winning a place in the “tents of eternity.”

The last four statements our Lord makes about money insist on trustworthiness in money matters even in the Church, for money entrusted to the Church for good purposes must be administered conscientiously. So it is not a case of 'God is good, money is bad'; in fact, not even of 'money is good, but God is better'. Rather, money is good, and God is the source of that goodness, the meaning and perfection of all goodness. That is why canon law stipulates that the temporal goods of the Church are to be used especially for the following in descending order: “the regulation of divine worship, the provision of fitting support for the clergy and other ministers, and the carrying out of works of the sacred apostolate and of charity, especially for the needy.”  

Yet money is tainted. Not in itself, but because of what we human beings have made of our world. We have made a world in which people can so easily become enslaved to money - to greed. Those who have enslaved themselves to money have thereby failed to put it to the good work for which it is intended, and instead drawn others into that terrible slavery. Even ministers of the Church have not been spared and thus today’s readings call us to practice good stewardship of the temporal goods of the Church. Ultimately, our Lord is giving us a powerful reminder: God and money cannot share dominion – where one is king, the other must become the subject. If God is king, then our material goods and possessions, money, ambition, cannot rule us. “No man can serve two masters……You cannot be slave both of God and money”. The Beatles, though hardly exemplary Christians, understood the wisdom of this when they sang, “I don't care too much for money, money can't buy me love.”

To be “clever” is to be astute, and to be “astute” is to have foresight. Only fools do not see what’s coming and fail to plan and prepare for the eventuality of disaster. Foresight is the mark of wise discipleship. As the steward was forewarned that his service was about to be terminated, so are we forewarned that our death could come at any moment. A fool would think that “tomorrow” is guaranteed, he is deluded into thinking that he can live forever and so continues to waste every opportunity accorded to him to make amends of his life in order to avert the doom that comes with the Final Judgment. A fool aspires and plans for a more secure future, a better job, and more fulfilling relationships, yet he forgets that he can lose all these things in an instance. We should, therefore, wisely make decisions and plan not just for a better and more comfortable earthly life, but for the heavenly life which we hope for.

In the case of the crafty steward in the parable, he was able to come to his senses before the end. This too is a lesson that we Christians and others can and should learn. We may have started on a wrong footing, just like the shrewd and crafty steward, but this need not be how our story ends. Repentance can help us rewrite the end of the story, all our stories. The road to redemption is always open for passage before we arrive at the end of our journey. Once, we’ve come to the “dead end” of our lives, there will be no more chances to repent, no more openings to change direction, no further opportunities to make a U-Turn. But until then, God, in His Mercy, offers us countless opportunities to make amends and change the course of our lives – to choose the road that leads to salvation instead of perdition. The most intelligent thing an intelligent human being can do is to turn to God, not away from Him. Wise men still seek Him, wiser men find Him, and the wisest come to worship Him.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

I once was lost but now I'm found

Twenty Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C

Perhaps, one of Christianity’s best loved hymns and top ten choices for funerals is Amazing Grace. There is one particular line in this hymn that resonates with our readings today, “I once was lost but now I’m found.” In fact, the words of the hymn were a summary of the life of John Newton, the man who wrote those beautiful lyrics. Many would find his choice of wording strange and inappropriate. “Lost” is often regarded as an empty and hopeless word when used in reference to things or to animals, but it’s especially bleak when referring to people.

In one sense, the hymn declares that “lostness” is not just the condition of the author of the hymn, but also endemic to humanity, since Adam and Eve lost their way in the garden. Since then, the story of grace is the story of God’s relentless pursuit of the lost and wayward children. Lostness has many faces and creates many detours in our life. We are all lost. The Bible is full of stories of people lost and then found. The children of Israel were lost in Egypt until God found them. But even on their track to the Promised Land, this condition continued to plague them – they were lost in the wilderness for forty years; apparently Moses needed a compass more than a staff. And having finally found their way to the Promised Land, the new home which God had prepared for them, the Israelites, ironically, could even get lost here. Exile after exile, Israel continues to spend more time lost than found.

Getting lost does not seem too difficult for us to do. What does it mean to be “lost”? “Lostness” can be a deliberate choice but more than likely it is incidental to the human condition. We don’t mean to do it but we can’t help ourselves. We get lost in relationships, in our careers, in our life, in our faith, and some of the ways we get lost have not even been invented yet. It all begins because we think we know the way. “Me, lost? Of course not.” Being lost seems inevitable as it is often accompanied by personal pride which refuses to admit that one is lost and thus do not see the need to ask for directions or assistance. Maybe getting lost is natural because since Adam and Eve, pride has been man’s perennial condition. That is why the most common cause for getting “lost” without people even realising it, is “sin.” Sin always takes you farther than you want to go, keeps you longer than you want to stay, and costs you more than you want to pay. And, the most insidious power of sin is that it blinds you to its destructive effects.

But the good news is that we are not condemned to a perpetual condition of being lost, but we now have an opportunity to be found. The paradox of this is that we must recognise we are lost before we can allow ourselves to be found. Repentance is always the first step to being found. Unrepentant sinners remain lost until they realise that God has already found them. The Bible gives us this consoling picture of a God who is not contented with us staying lost. After the Fall, and Adam and Eve’s exile from Paradise, God did not condemn them to stay lost – He didn’t say, “Get lost” and “Don’t come back!” In fact, the whole of salvation history testifies to this amazing truth that God would not want us to be lost. On the contrary, He wants us to be found.

Lots of young people often protest against what they believe to be parental nagging and control:  “Mom give me some space I’ve got to find myself.” We hear that a lot these days. The problem is that most people remain lost even when they’ve grown out of adolescence. They still can’t find themselves even after having attempted to reinvent themselves over and over again. The result is that people use this as an excuse to live any way they please. But the truth is that it is hard to find ourselves, in fact, it is impossible. As much as we want to find ourselves, our Lord had to find us. Being found is not so much as us stumbling into God, as it is God pursuing us.

This is where St Luke comes in with three wonderful parables of lost and found. I’ve decided to read the shorter version which omits the third parable of the Prodigal Son. We’ve already considered the story of the Prodigal Son on the Fourth Sunday of Lent. The focus of each of these stories, the real protagonist, is not the lost sheep, the lost coin, or the lost son. Yes the sheep that wanders, the piece of silver that is lost, and the prodigal son who wastes his inheritance in riotous living makes good story-telling. But no, these are not the real protagonists of the three tales. The clue to understanding these parables is not that they are about losing something or someone, but all three parables are about finding. The parables would be pointless and each ending would remain a cliff-hanger if the shepherd did not go in search of the lost sheep in the wilderness until he found it, the woman did not sweep the house until she recovered it, and the forgiving father did not keep vigil, watching for his son’s return, and until he finally embraced him. Each of these three characters point to the real hero, which is and can only be God. It is He who takes the initiative, not us, the lost ones.

Yes, if “lostness” is facing our inadequacies, then being found is coming face to face with God’s sufficiency. We would always remain lost as long as we depend on ourselves. Trusting ourselves is a prescription for being lost. Only God can find us. You can be found but you just can’t find yourself, you just need to allow yourself to be found by God.

Getting lost is natural being found is supernatural. If you are saved, you know that it is not because you sought after God, but because God sought after you and kept seeking until He rescued you from your sin. He has, and He will continue to pursue you to the ends of the earth, the deepest depths of the ocean, the furthest corners of the universe. There is no place where you can hide from Him. There is effort and intentionality with God seeking us out; for the shepherd explores until He finds the sheep, the woman searches carefully until she recovers her coin, and the father waits until his son returns. This is the heart of the gospel – God goes to great lengths, sending us His Son, the eternal Word into our world in the flesh in order to seek us and save us. And finally, our Lord Jesus died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins so that our “lostness” may be exchanged with “foundness.” As Luke 19:10 tells us “for the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” St Augustine reminds us: “God loves every person as if there was no one else to love.” 

What is even more important is that God seeks us, finds us, and then “rejoices” over finding us. All three parables end with a party. If only finding God was as much a priority for us. If only we rejoiced over finding Jesus like He rejoices over finding us. Just like the three protagonists, many of us find no cause for celebration as long as something or someone remains missing. And just like them, it is only when we find what we want, that we are able to call in our friends and neighbours to rejoice with us. We rejoice not only because we have been found, but because we have found the answer to our deepest longing – we have found “the hidden treasure”, “the pearl of great price”, “the fatted calf.”  If that has been missing in your life, be assured, you have found Him. The last parable of the Prodigal Son tells us that the father instructs his servants to slaughter the “fatted calf” to celebrate his son’s return. Jesus is that fatted calf sacrificed for the sins of humanity so that we who are lost may be found. At every Mass, we dine once again in the heavenly banquet prepared for those who were once lost but now found, as we feast on the “fatted calf,” “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” “Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb.”