Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Our Faith and Public Witness

Twenty Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

When I began writing this homily a month and a half ago, I wasn’t sure whether it would be preached before the National Elections or in the aftermath. It did seem at the time, that the timing and outcome of the elections would have a significant bearing on my homily. But since I am neither a prophet nor a political pundit, I felt inspired to write a homily that would transcend such specific alignments.  You see, it is not the gospel that must be accommodated to suit the political climate and contemporary situation of our country; on the contrary, it is society and us that must constantly seek to live up to the demands of the gospel.

I know that many suffer from a distaste of politics. Many of you are even tempted not to cast your ballot at all. The options are not very promising. It often feels like we are faced with an almost impossible decision, like having to choose between the devil and his henchman. And yet, we should take solace in God’s providence and His ability to write straight with crooked lines, but it still leaves us wanting. The word crooked has been used quite a bit to describe our political system and politicians in general. I am sure many of you may think that it is too mild a word to describe the present line up of candidates, politicians and parties in general.

How should we Christians view our role in politics today? If the Lord walked among us today, what would He say? Well, the Lord did walk among us when Caesar was the ruler of the Roman Empire. And the very subject that occasioned this discussion then remains the same issue that continues to trouble many of us today – taxation. Caesar presided over a corrupt and unjust system of government that exacted oppressive taxes and resources from colonised nations, including the Jewish people. These taxations made daily life almost unbearable.  There was the income tax: one percent of one’s income was to be given to Rome, and then, the ground tax or property tax: one tenth of all grain and one fifth of all oil and wine were to be paid in kind or in coinage to Rome.  Finally, to further humiliate the colonised, there was the poll tax: a denarius or a day’s wage was to be paid to Rome by all men ages 14-65 and all women ages 12-65, to remind of them of their subjugated status. The method of taxation alone had the extra twist of usurping money through the agency of the Jews’ own people, who were allowed to tack on additional amounts that were over and above that due to Caesar.

Ironically, the Pharisees and the Herodians, who were traditional enemies, ‘ganged up’ to set this trap for the Lord. This was the question posed to Him, “Master … Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” With a slight adjustment, this very question could easily be asked by any tax paying or I may add, tax evading Malaysian. A rejection by Jesus of the poll tax would have been reported as treason to Rome. On the other hand, if Jesus had agreed to pay it, the Pharisees would have accused Him of betraying His own people. Discerning a plot of entrapment, Our Lord cuts through the hypocrisy and political differences to the very heart of the matter, “Give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”

This saying does three crucial things. First, it acknowledges that Caesar does have rights; that a difference does exist between the concerns of God and the concerns of Caesar. But second, Jesus desacralises – in effect, he demotes – Caesar by suggesting that Caesar has no rights over those things that belong to God. Only God is God, which means that Caesar is not God. And thirdly, the Lord remains silent about what exactly belongs to either God or Caesar. Figuring all that out belongs to us.  Now, this can be hard work because no detailed map exists because while human nature doesn’t change, human circumstances change all the time.

This saying provides us with a framework for how we should think about religion and the state even today. The Lord reminds us that Caesar does have rights. Scripture tells us that we owe secular leaders our respect and prayers; respect for the law; obedience to proper authority; and service to the common good. But it’s a rather modest list of duties. And we need to remember that “respect” for Caesar does not mean subservience, or silence, or inaction, or excuse-making or acquiescence to grave evil. Sometimes, Christians suffer from a phony unwillingness to offend that poses as prudence and good manners, but in truth, this is only a guise for cowardice. It is true that human beings owe each other respect and appropriate courtesy, but, we also owe each other the truth!

In fact, the more we reflect on today’s passage, the more we realise that everything important about human life belongs not to Caesar but to God: our intellect, our talents, our free will, the people we love, Truth, the beauty and goodness in the world, our soul, our moral integrity and of course, our hope for eternal life. These are the things worth struggling to ennoble and defend, and none of them came from Caesar or anyone or any government who succeeded him. We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience. However, that obedience is limited by what belongs to God.  In reality, all belongs to God and nothing — at least nothing permanent and important — belongs to Caesar. Why? Because just as the coin bears the stamp of Caesar’s image, we bear the stamp of God’s image in baptism. We belong to God, and only to God. 

The Church is not a political organism and she has no interest in partisanship. Yes, our faith is never primarily about politics; but Catholic social action – including political action – is always a natural by-product of the Church’s moral teachings. The Catholic faith is always personal, but it’s never private. If our faith is real, then it will bear fruit in our public decisions and behaviours, including our political choices. Each of us has the vocation to be a missionary of Jesus Christ where we live and work and vote. Each of us is called to bring Christian truth to the public debate, to be vigorous and unembarrassed about our Catholic presence in society, and to be a leaven in our nation's public life. The “separation of Church and state” does not mean — and it can never mean — separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions. For to do so would mean denying who we are, “salt of the earth” and “light to the nations.”

In living out and exercising our public duties and rights, each of us needs to follow his or her own properly formed conscience. But the problem is that many people mistake their own preconceived ideas, opinions and prejudices as the voice of conscience. You see, conscience is not a matter of personal opinion or preference. It takes prayer, study and work. If our conscience has the habit of telling us what we want to hear on difficult issues, then we probably have a badly formed conscience. A healthy conscience is the voice of God’s truth in our hearts, and it should usually make us uncomfortable. The way we get a healthy conscience is by opening our hearts to the counsel and guidance of the Church that Jesus Christ left for us. As Catholics, if we find ourselves disagreeing with the teaching of our Catholic faith on a serious matter, it's probably not the Church that’s wrong. The problem is much more likely with us. The more authentically Catholic we are in our lives, our choices, our actions and our convictions, then will we contribute more truly to the moral and political life of our nation.

If you had participated in the last elections and went out to vote, kudos to you for having done your Christian duty. If the elections are just around the corner or still in the pipelines, I would like to strongly encourage you to go out and vote.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Hell exists because the invitation can never be forced

Twenty Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I’ve often joked that Catholics make easy targets for Protestant proselytising, because they just don’t seem to know how to give the right answers. Why aren’t Catholics able to give an answer? It’s not just a matter of shallowness of faith and ignorance of their catechism. Somethings are just beyond the radar of most Catholics. Salvation being one of them. When was the last time you heard a Catholic discuss salvation? Like ‘never’! It’s not because he doesn’t believe in it, but more precisely, because he believes that salvation is guaranteed for everyone, including himself. “All people would be saved!” “Anyone who dies would go to heaven” (we don’t even have to pass through Purgatory). And finally, “the Church no longer teaches nor believes in hell.”

The discussion of salvation has been largely rendered redundant in modern times because of the belief that everyone would, in the end, be saved. A notable proponent of this view in the early Church was the great Origen, who, in the third century, set forth a theologically and philosophically complex doctrine of “Apocatastasis” according to which all creatures, including the devil, will be saved. This belief, of course, was condemned but it continued to trigger the imagination of many over the centuries. Among theologians, there has been something of a rediscovery and re-appreciation of Origen in recent decades, we have  Hans Urs von Balthasar. To be fair, so as not to place Balthasar in the same heretical basket as Origen, it is important to note that Balthasar’s is a very careful argument, clearly distinguishing between universal salvation as a hope and universal salvation as a doctrine, or a certainty. He supports the former and rejects the latter. In sum: we do not know; only God knows; but we may hope.

The hope that all will be saved is precisely that, a hope. It is not a doctrine, not a statement of fact, nor something proven with certainty. It is one thing to say, when speaking of someone who has died, “Tommy is in heaven.” That’s a statement of fact, a certainty of belief. But the truth is that we will never know. We can, however, pray, “Let’s pray for Tommy, that God would forgive his sins and offer him a place in heaven.” That is why we Christians use the epitaph, R.I.P on our headstones and obituaries.  It is often mistakenly translated into English as “Rest in Peace,” whereas the actual abbreviation stands for “Requiescat in Pace,” (May He rest in peace). The former is a statement of fact, whereas the second is an invocation of hope.  The problem is we can never be certain that Tommy is indeed in heaven, but we can hold fast to the hope that he is. We can only pray and hope, but we do not know that that will be the case. That is also why millions of Catholics pray the rosary every day, adding at the end of each decade, the Fatima Prayer, “O my Jesus, forgive us our sins, save us from the fires of hell, lead all souls to heaven, especially those most in need of thy mercy.”

While Christ’s redemptive suffering makes salvation available to all, it does not follow that all men are saved. This is because our salvation is contingent upon us making the correct response to God’s invitation. The parable of the Wedding Banquet is the perfect illustration of this point. The Prophet Isaiah helps us to understand that this is the Feast of Judgment.

In the parable, the King, which is none other than God the Father, is holding a feast on the occasion of his Son’s wedding. And so the king sends out his servants to announce his invitation, “Come to the wedding!” But not all respond positively. And it is here that we see how the parable combines two stories. The first has to do with the original guests invited to the feast.  However, they offer an insult to the King and his heir by declining the invitation. They put their own interests above his.  The second part of the story focuses on those who would never have considered getting such an invitation.  When the first group rejected the invitation, the servants were asked to go out into the streets to collect "the good and the bad.” This is an invitation of grace - undeserved, unmerited favour and kindness!  But this invitation also contains a warning for those who approach the wedding feast unworthily.  You need to be appropriately “dressed.”

The parable points to two forms of scorning God’s supreme gift of salvation. The first form is indifference: those invited care nothing for the grace offered them – they have better things to do, their earthly business is more pressing. How often have I heard the excuse that people have no time to come to Church, that they are tired, that their children have to be ferried to tuition, that they wanted to spend quality time in the shopping malls or were busy arranging for a holiday on a Sunday. The second form of rejection comes from the over familiarity with the sacred which ultimately leads to contempt. Rather than realising that we are coming into the presence of the King of Kings, the Ruler of the cosmos, we quite often witness the greatest contemptuous familiarity by our lackadaisical behaviour. But the story certainly points to more than mere church attire. The attire symbolises a person’s state of grace. The Church constantly cautions us that we should receive communion only in a state of grace; for to receive Christ unworthily in a state of serious or mortal sin would transform what was originally a blessing into a curse.

It is quite clear from the parable that God wishes the salvation of all since He makes the invitation to everyone. And we do know that some are saved, on the basis of infallible teaching, for example, the Blessed Virgin Mary, the mother of the Lord, and the saints.  But the parable also provides us with a warning too. Make no mistake: Hell is real and we should treat it with the utmost seriousness. Just like the invited guests who spurned the king’s invitation, some may never make their way to the heavenly banquet because they had unknowingly chosen hell. This is what the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches, “God predestines no one to go to hell; for this, a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end… the Church implores the mercy of God, who does not want ‘any to perish, but all to come to repentance’” (1037).  It’s good to remember that the joy of our salvation is not contingent upon the misery of damned souls.

It is true that God bestows things on us without measure. It is true that He wishes the salvation of all. It is certainly the gospel truth that Christ died not just for a few but for all. But it is not true, that we can presume that such salvation is guaranteed without any effort on our part, without any true conversion of the heart, without any transformation, rather, by conversion and sacrifice that comes from the core of our being. God bestows the grace of salvation and offers it to all of us, but now we must be willing to give ourselves entirely to Him without hesitation.

We are all bidden to come to this Great Banquet. But the invitation is never forced. The invite can be set aside and past over due to daily concerns and sin. But God continues to appeal to us to join in the feast. Day by day, week by week, and year by year, as we go through life, we should be weaving the garment that we shall wear for this great Wedding Banquet. It is the garment that had been given to us at our baptism, where we, as St Paul reminds us, have “put on Christ.” It is the garment that is strengthened and fortified by the Sacraments. It is the garment that is knitted together with all the tears of sorrow for our sins and tears of joy at the reconciliation with our brethren, adorned with the jewels of virtue and good deeds. When the day of that Great Banquet arrives, let us be dressed, not just for the kill, or to the nines, but to be presentable before the King of Kings. Let’s start with honouring God by dressing well. 

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

You are not special

Twenty Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

I really get annoyed when I am made to wait. Sometimes, I rush over to the hospital after receiving an urgent call to anoint someone, hoping to meet the relative or person who had called me to bring me into the ward, only to realise that the person had not even arrived. And so as I wait, I begin to fume, I begin to formulate some sarcastic thing to say to the person when he finally arrives. Recently, when I shared this with a priest friend of mine as we were exchanging notes on pastoral experiences, he told me something that I would never forget. “Michael, you are not special. The reason why you get upset is because you think you’re special, but you’re not. Other people wait for us. Everyone waits. So, why should we be any different?”

How often do we experience indignation whenever we seem to be “deprived” of something we believe we “deserve?” It’s called “entitlement.” Entitlement creates an inward, self-focused, self-centred person. The sheer nature of the message is the importance, rights and benefits YOU deserve. We become the focus and others become the means of attaining our personal fulfilment. How did we get here? I believe that one of the major factors for this over-sized delusional sense of entitlement is our upbringing. To be honest, many of us have grown up with this constant reminder from our parents, teachers, and even priests that we are “special.” Eventually, we come to believe that our parents owe us, our society owes us, the world owes us and even the Church owes us. Why should God be exempted from this list? In fact, we believe that God owes us big since He was responsible for bringing us into this world. That is why many abandon their faith because “God didn’t work,” “He failed to deliver.” But today’s parable is intended to burst our delusional bubble. The truth is that God owes us nothing, He never had and never will. The bigger truth is that we owe Him everything!

This was the problem of the wicked tenants in the parable. These arrogant and foolish fellows, representing a propensity in all of us, forgot their real place in the scheme of things. They became confused about who is the owner of the vineyard and who is the tenant.  They were so enamoured with their own prowess, their own self-importance, their entitlement, that they forgot they could do nothing were it not for the generosity of the one who supplied them with the potential to do it all. They had forgotten that it was the landowner who had planted the vineyard. He doesn’t just plant it; he does all the work to make the vineyard fruitful – builds walls, digs cisterns for water, everything. The landowner, and not the tenants, had done everything that he could to make it possible for the tenants to have excellent crops.

Though they worked the land, the tenants did not own it. They lived off the generosity and goodwill of the landowner. But the tenants evidently didn’t see it that way. Though they were well provided for, they wanted more. In their minds, they deserved a bigger piece of the pie for their labour. Never mind that there would have been no work at all for them except for the landowner. All the preliminary work that the landowner had done; that’s ancient history. What matters is now.

These tenants represent all of us. Sometimes, we become so blinded by our own propaganda and start to behave in self-destructive ways. We feel that we have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once our goals are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality.  How one gets there is totally irrelevant.

The parable, therefore, exposes a dirty little secret about us. We are constantly tempted to think that the vineyard, be it the world, the Church or even the Kingdom of God, is ours and we can do what we want with it and we can treat each other in any way that we want, and there is no holding us to account for it. But in the parable, that is all turned around. The vineyard that we treat as our own belongs to another who expects us to make good on our responsibilities. We are not owners in this vineyard, we are tenants; we are merely servants, not masters. God doesn’t owe us anything; on the contrary, it is we who owe Him everything.

So, how do we break out of this self-delusion? The remedy is to cultivate gratitude, to fold it into every aspect of daily life, to never forget the truth of who we are and what God has done for us and to realise that an account must be rendered to God one day.  It is so important to realise that all of life is a gift, not an entitlement. This is because the attitude of entitlement is only possible if you are able to forget or ignore any gifts that others have given to you. To the entitled soul, those things don’t count. The attitude of entitlement makes gratitude impossible. If the essence of gratitude is remembering, then the essence of ingratitude is forgetting.  Remembering expands our consciousness; forgetting contracts it!

Gratitude turns our attention from ourselves, who often behave like the selfish greedy Tenants, to God, the Divine Landowner. Notice that the landowner demonstrates great generosity in providing all the necessary amenities to his tenants, but he continues to exercise patience and mercy to these wicked men who had assaulted and killed his other servants. The landowner’s response defies all worldly wisdom, and it seems almost foolish. The reason is because God’s ways and thoughts are always above and beyond ours. God is crazy and so insanely in love with us that He will go to any lengths, even death on a cross and resurrected from the grave, to demonstrate that love to us. But there is a limit. The day will come when we would have to give an account of our actions, our decisions, our mistakes, and in fact, our entire lives. The parable of the Vineyard and the Wicked Tenants thus illustrate both the justice and mercy of God. God is merciful. He is patient and generous. But we should never mistake this for moral permissiveness. Grace is a free gift, but it also comes with an awesome responsibility.

Every now and then, it is good that something happens to shake our sense of entitlement and to remind us that we are not that special at all.  The painful truth is that life doesn’t owe us anything. Our parents don’t owe us an inheritance. The government doesn’t owe us a subsidy for every commodity. God doesn’t owe us a blessing or even an answer to our prayer. No one owes us kindness, love, recognition, empathy, apologies, or understanding. In fact, no one owes us anything at all. Let’s get it into our thick skulls, “We are not special!” These are hard truths, but with every truth lies a treasure.

The gift in acknowledging and accepting that life owes us nothing is that we realise that every single thing we have is a blessing. God owes us nothing, and yet look at all we’ve been given. Our lives are overflowing with treasures, if only we are prepared to recognise them. And when we can truly recognise this, then the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass that we celebrate would no longer be a burden or a chore but truly a “Eucharist”, a thanksgiving from a heart that understands what it means to receive grace upon grace, even though we are undeserving.