27 September 2014

THE ENDGAME MATTERS

XXVI SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
ezekiel 18:25-28; philippians 2:1-11; matthew 21:28-32

last sunday at the asian games, india’s jitu rai was on target for a gold in the 10m pistol event. after the tenth round, he was tied with kim cheongyong. then, while preparing for his next shot, the audience’s clapping distracted him; he scored just 7.8 points. rai, the world no. 1, finished only fifth. his near-perfect shooting in the previous rounds and the gold in the 50m pistol (won the previous day) counted for nothing. the endgame mattered, and rai did not deliver.
for kuwait’s abdullah al muzayen, it was the reverse. in the squash final, he was down two games and a few points away from defeat. he played brilliantly to win that game, the next two,  and the gold. the endgame mattered, and al muzayen came through.

what true of sport is true of life and the spiritual life: the endgame matters. 
in the gospel, after narrating the parable of the two sons, JESUS is explicit that tax collectors and prostitutes—those the religious leaders considered transgressors of the law—were entering the kingdom of GOD before themselves. JESUS compares these sinners to the first son; they rebelled initially but repented when they heard john’s exhortation. the chief priests and elders are like the second son; they committed themselves to do GOD’s will but did not. JESUS implies that if they fail to repent, they will be left out of the kingdom.
it might seem outrageous! but the first reading from ezekiel emphasises that, for GOD, what matters a person’s state at the end of his/her life: if a wicked person turns away «from all the sins that he has committed, he shall surely live.» 

GOD is concerned about our present relationship with him. as far as the past goes, GOD has a very short memory! no matter how far we have strayed from GOD, it is never too late to turn back to a no-questions-asked welcome. remember the thief crucified with JESUS! he repents in the last moments of his life; and JESUS promises him: «today, you will be with me in paradise.»
the kingdom of heaven is for those prepared to answer GOD’s call today, no matter what happened yesterday.

like which son am i? am i willing to repent and do GOD’s will despite past failings?
the challenge is to be like the third son—JESUS—who was always faithful.

20 September 2014

ALL IS FAIR IN LOVE... AND FAMILY

XXV SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
isaiah 55:6-9; philippians 1:20c-24, 27a; matthew 20:1-16a

robert de moor in «the banner» writes:
«back in ontario when the apples ripened, mom would sit all seven of us down… with pans and knives until the mountain of fruit was reduced to neat rows of filled canning jars. she never bothered keeping track of how many we did… when the job was done, the reward for everyone was the same: the largest chocolate-dipped cone money could buy. 
a stickler might argue it wasn’t quite fair... but i can’t remember anyone complaining about it. a family understands it operates under a different set of norms than a courtroom.»


when we understand the kingdom of GOD as a family—with a different yardstick of fairness and equality—we will cease «complaining» about the parable of the vineyard workers!
the landowner seems unfair. human justice says those who work a full-day should be paid more than those who work less. 
the landowner pays those who laboured the whole day the agreed-upon full-day’s wage. he generously pays the «late-comers» what he thinks is just: a full-day’s wage (the «usual daily wage» was enough only for «daily bread» for a worker’s family. were the owner not to pay the late-comers the full daily wage, their families would go hungry).

further, the parable is about GOD’s invitation to collaborate in the work of the kingdom. 
the kingdom is not something that can be earned/achieved through human effort. true, we must do all we can to receive it: keep sowing the word, keep launching the boat and casting the net, keep loving with all our strength. GOD’s offer is for all people… an offer that is repeated often and throughout the «day». each receives what each needs: «daily bread» and fullness of life. GOD does not partition grace into different amounts for different people; he gifts his grace abundantly and equally to all… regardless of what hour they accept his offer.
unfair? the first reading reminds us: «my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.»

will i do my part and allow GOD’s grace to do the rest? will i begrudge GOD’s fairness to the late-comer… forgetting that i am a late-comer, too, and don’t merit his grace?

an anecdote that highlights the importance of grace vis-à-vis the kingdom:
a man dies and goes to heaven. st peter meets him at the pearly gates and says: «here’s how it works. you need 100 points to make it into heaven. you tell me all the good things you’ve done; i give you points for each act depending on its goodness. when you reach 100, you get in.» the man starts: «i was married to the same women for 50 years and never cheated on her, even in my heart.» «wonderful!» says peter, «that’s worth three points.»
he says: «only three points?  i attended church all my life and supported its ministry.» «terrific!» says peter, «that’s worth a point.»
«one point? well i started a soup kitchen and worked in a shelter for homeless veterans.» «fantastic, that’s good for two more points,» peter says.
the man cries: «at this rate the only way to get into heaven is by GOD’s grace of god!» and peter smiled: «that’s 100 points! come on in!»

13 September 2014

THE PAIN THAT BRINGS GAIN

THE TRIUMPH OF THE CROSS
numbers 21:4b-9; philippians 2:6-11; john 3:13-17

some years ago, i read a real-life story about a little girl who had severe burn injuries. every day, the medical team would take her for debridement. she suffered excruciating pain but never complained. instead she often remarked: «i know you are doing this so that i can get well.» this amazing kid knew that the pain was an essential part of her recovery. 

«pain brings gain» is an unwritten law of life. surgery is painful; it saves. a child’s departure from home is painful for parents and child; the child needs it to become his/her own person.

«pain brings gain» is the thrust of this sunday’s liturgy. 
in the gospel, JESUS leads nicodemus to the heart of his messianic mission: «the son of man must be lifted up as moses lifted up the serpent in the desert.» nicodemus would recall the «serpent event» during the sojourn in the desert: the israelites’ ungratefulness brought on GOD’s displeasure; poisonous snakes bit them. moses asked GOD for a way to save them. GOD did not take away the serpents. instead he had the people gaze at a bronze serpent which symbolised their sin. the symbol of their pain became the instrument of their salvation. 
JESUS says that he must become like the bronze serpent; he must be «lifted up» so that all who gaze upon him on the cross will be saved.

the snake was the pain and the gain. the cross was the pain that brought gain. 
can the things that are hardest in our life be the vehicles that bring us closest to GOD? what are the crosses i need to accept… to experience wholeness?
in moments of suffering, let us look to JESUS on the cross. may he strengthen us to live through and accept our sufferings. amen.

06 September 2014

BUILD BRIDGES, NOT WALLS

XXIII SUNDAY OF THE YEAR
ezekiel 33:7-9; romans 13:8-10; matthew 18:15-20
http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/090714.cfm

in «the great divorce,» c. s. lewis writes that hell is like a vast city inhabited only at the periphery; it has rows and rows of empty houses in the middle… empty because those who lived there quarrelled with their neighbours and moved. then, they quarrelled with their new neighbours and moved again. this process of quarrel-move-quarrel slowly left the old neighbourhoods empty. hell has gotten so large because everyone chose distance instead of honest confrontation when dealing with relationships.

lewis’ picture is as true as it’s stark! when someone hurts us, it’s either fight or—more often than not—flight! «let it be» is the preferred course of action… which has one minor problem: we do not «let it be»! we build walls, not bridges.

JESUS sets out guidelines for conflict resolution! he challenges us to seek reconciliation… by talking to the person instead of about the person! 
the first step is dialogue: «if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault…» dialogue is not a fault-finding, finger-pointing venture; it is an honest and specific sharing of and listening to perspectives and feelings.
if/when dialogue fails… if the other refuses to see his/her fault or rebuffs my attempts at reconciliation, step two is diplomacy: if your brother «does not listen, take one or two others along with you…»
if/when diplomacy also fails, move to step three: «let him be to you as a gentile and a tax collector.» since the gentile and tax collector were not considered members of the community, is step three dissociation? that would be perfect… but JESUS loved the gentile and the tax collector, and never ceased to associate with them.
so step three is deep love… that wills the good of the other. this is what paul tells the romans in the first reading: «owe no one anything except to love one another… love does no wrong to a neighbour.»

we can’t always make peace with those who hurt us, but we can and must still love them… unless we want to live in hell.
will i resolve hurts through  dialogue, diplomacy and deep love… and be reconciled with the people who have hurt me? will i construct walls or build bridges??