Weekly Reflection (4 Oct 2020)

27th Sunday of Year A

Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 4:6-9
Matthew 21:33-43

Is my heart hardened to Lazarus at my doorstep?

Our world is becoming increasingly individualistic. We are constantly reminded to take care of just ourselves – what we buy, how we look, where we live. “It is all about you,” the advertisements often say. We make it seems like a virtue to care only for ourselves. In this age of individualism, many of us are like the rich man in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Lk 16:19-31). “And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, who longed to satisfy his hunger with what fell from the rich man’s table” (Lk 16:20-21). We harden our hearts and turn a blind eye to Lazarus suffering at our doorsteps.

This form of individualism leads to secularism. We cannot turn a blind eye to the poor and suffering at our door steps without also turning a deaf ear to the Lord’s teaching: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Mt 25:35-36) Individualistic and secular, we assume two very different and disconnected personalities. In church, I am pious and holy. I listen to sermons about being kind and loving. I am all smiles and friendly to my fellow churchgoers. Outside the church, I become a different person, my heart turns cold. I would walk past a homeless person without feeling his/her pain. As Phil Colins sang it, “He walks on, doesn’t look back. He pretends he can’t hear her. Starts to whistle as he crosses the street. Seems embarrassed to be there”.

Since ancient times, the Church has been depicted as a boat and Church members and the boat’s occupants. Like the accounts of Jesus and disciples in a boat (Mt 8:23-27, Mk 4:35-41, Lk 8:22-25), this boat and its occupants have been battering great storms through the ages. 17th Century Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn depicted this scene brilliantly in his work “The Storm on the Sea of Galilee”. In Rembrandt’s work, the disciples were responding to the storm differently. The experienced fishermen were trying their utmost to regain control of the boat; some did nothing; and a small few concentrated their gaze on Jesus in the boat.

My brother and sisters, in truth, many of us did not harden our hearts in a pre-meditated effort. Instead, we allowed ourselves to be conditioned gradually. But conditioned we certainly are. Like the disciples in the boat, each of us are in a different spiritual state. For some of us, our hearts were passively hardened. It was not a deliberate attempt but gradually and conveniently we became indifferent to Lazarus at our doorsteps. Some of us, however, have our hearts actively hardened. This is more serious. We have consciously hardened our hearts to our suffering brothers and sisters; and we reject any channel of grace God sends our way to help soften our hearts. Then of course, on the other end of the scale, there are a few of us who are so filled with the love of Christ that we cannot witness sufferings and not do something about it. It is no secret that many charitable organisations are Christian organisations – the St Vincent de Paul Society, the Caritas Foundation, Salvation Army, World Vision and many more. These Christians bring warmth and hope not just to the poor and suffering, but also to society in general, to help soften the actively and passively hardened hearts in our midst.

The Scripture Readings this week tell us two stories about two different vineyards. In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah spoke of a vineyard upon which God has showered great love and care (dug the soil, built a hedge and tower, put in choice vines – verse 2). In spite of God showering blessings upon the vineyard, it has not produced any good fruits (verse 2). The Old Testament prophet used the vineyard as an analogy of the Jewish people. For centuries, throughout the time of the divided kingdoms, the Jews had taken God’s blessings for granted by turning away from God and his teachings. Then God abandoned the vineyard; removed from it His love and care; and allowed it to be devoured and trampled (verse 5-6) In the historical context, God withdrew His protection from the Jewish people at the end of the period of divided kingdom. The northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians while the southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians. After the conquest of Judah, their brightest citizens were exiled to Babylon. The Jewish nation was removed from their homeland and scattered around the world. It was a very sad episode in Jewish history.

Isaiah’s vineyard is like our passively hardened hearts. There is no suggestion of any active neglect. Rather, we just drift along and become increasing indifferent to Lazarus at our doorsteps over time. My dear brothers and sisters, am I that vineyard? God has blessed me with a home, a job and stable finance. While in itself there is nothing wrong to use God’s blessings for the comfort of ourselves, God’s blessings are never just for our individualistic fulfilment. We need to use God’s blessings to bless others. God’s gifts are never just for us. The gifts are for us to serve community and humanity, to help spread God’s love. As St Teresa of Calcutta succinctly said, “At the end of life we will not be judged by how many diplomas we have received, how much money we have made, how many great things we have done. We will be judged by ‘I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat, I was naked and you clothed me. I was homeless, and you took me in.’”

Then we have the Parable of the Vineyard Owner in the Gospel. As in Isaiah’s vineyard, God blesses the vineyard abundantly – He “put a fence around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a watchtower” (verse 33). Unlike Isaiah’s case, this vineyard did produce good fruits. But in an active act of betrayal, the tenants not only refused to share the vineyard’s produce, but beat up the landowner’s servants (verse 35-36) and eventually even killed the landowner’s son (verse 39). Jesus’ vineyards are like our actively hardened hearts. Not only did I not share God’s blessings with others, I rejected all the mentors and preachers that God sent my way to help soften my hardened heart. Eventually, I rejected God Himself – I reject His Son Jesus. For individualism descends into secularism; secularism descends into agnosticism.

My dear brothers and sisters, am I one of these vineyards? Is my heart hardened? Do I genuinely feel the pains and sufferings of Lazarus at my doorstep, or do I give away some loose change so as to ease my conscience? For that too is a sign of a progressively and passively hardened heart. It is not true love when we give from our excess. True love is when our giving requires us to make a real sacrifice. Just think of how parents sacrifice and give the best to their children. Charity comes from the Latin word Caritas, which means love. Sacrificial love is the kind of charity God is calling us to.

It is not easy to make this kind of sacrifice to a stranger, but let us take as our examples great Saints like St Paul. As St Paul said in the Second Reading this week:

“Beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.” (verse 8-9)


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