29th Sunday of Year A
Open our hearts to God, such that our worship, prayers and good deeds become outward manifestations of God’s love in our hearts.
With COVID-19 sweeping through the world, one thing is evident. We take our health very seriously. For sake of our health, governments enacted draconian measures that restrict our movement and economic activities – quarantine, travel restrictions, gathering restrictions, COVID test regime, etc. As citizens, we dutifully comply, even if these measures severely impacted upon our economic well-being and limited our civil liberties. For the sake of our physical health, we are prepared to jump through hoops of fire, figuratively.
But what about our spiritual health? My brother and sisters, just as we take our physical health very seriously, we should be just as concern if not more concern about our spiritual health. Why? Because our physical health affects the quality of life of earth; whereas our spiritual health affects the quality of our afterlife in eternity. So let us ask ourselves: what is the state of my spiritual health?
The Pharisees of Jesus’ time took their spiritual health very seriously. They advocated strict adherence of the 613 Mosaic Laws, with rules covering worship rituals, ritualistic washing and many other aspects of religious and daily activities. The Pharisees treasured the special status God conferred upon the Jewish race as His chosen people. They believed this status of being God’s chosen people, coupled with adherence to the strict Mosaic Laws, guarantee them salvation in the Kingdom of God. Conversely, the Pharisees believed that Gentiles (non-Jews) and half-breed Jews like the Samaritans are condemned to Hell for just being who they are. The Pharisees despised the non-Jews and those who violate the Mosaic Laws, as they believe these people were not numbered among those destined for Heaven. This is one of the key reasons the Pharisees despised Jesus. In Mk 3:1-5, Jesus healed a man with a withered hand on a Sabbath Day. The Pharisees dissented Jesus for openly violating the Mosaic Law of not working on a Sabbath Day, even though the so-called “work” is in fact the healing of a sick and afflicted person. And that is not all, to the Pharisees’ further disgust, Jesus would render himself spiritually unclean by dining and socialising with Gentiles and sinners such as tax-collectors.
But the violation of strict Mosaic Laws was not the only reason the Pharisees hated Jesus. In truth, the Pharisees were also jealous of Jesus’ popularity and how effective Jesus was connecting with the people. The Pharisees were blinded by jealousy. Driven by pride, insecurity and jealousy, immediately after Jesus heal the man with the withered hand, “the Pharisees went out and immediately conspired with the Herodians against him, how to destroy him.” (Mk 3:6) So blinded by sins were the Pharisees that they decided to conspire with the Herodians. The Herodians were Jews who supported the Roman rulers, which made them natural enemies of the staunchly Jewish Pharisees. In this week’s Gospel, we hear of how the Pharisees and Herodians carried out their devious plan against Jesus. When asking Jesus whether it is permissible to pay tax, they trapped Jesus into either say “yes” or “no”. If he said “no”, he would run afoul of the Herodians and the Roman rulers. If he said “yes”, he would be deemed a traitor to his people. Cleverly, Jesus avoided the trap by commanding the people to give “to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (verse 21).
My dear brothers and sisters, while we may rightly condemn the actions of the Pharisees, we need to also pause and self-reflect. How is the state my my spiritual health? Am I in fact like the Pharisees? Do I believe that my baptism conferred me the special status of God’s chosen people? So much so that, like the Pharisee, do I believe that coming to church every week, participating on worship rituals, reciting the Church’s prayers, doing works of charity guarantee my salvation? Do I look down on non-believers and believers who do not practise the religious rituals or do good works like me, since I deem myself more holy than them? Am I jealous of others who do ministry work more effectively than I do; or are more popular than I am?
The truth is, while participating in worship rituals, reciting the Church’s prayers, doing good works are virtuous acts, they are not ends by themselves. For these acts to take on their intended spiritual meaning, they must be driven from a desire in our heart for love and intimacy with God. Looking ahead to next week’s Gospel passage, Jesus commands us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37). Otherwise, as St Paul tells us, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1 Cor 13:1). In a healthy spiritual life, the worship, words and works are in fact external manifestations of our deep love for God in our hearts. Otherwise, they are just empty gestures, like “a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal”.
If it is possible to participate in worship rituals, reciting verbal prayers and doing good works without a deep relationship with God in our hearts; then the reverse is also possible. Non-believers can come to an inner awareness of God while do not yet manifest that awareness in outward worship, prayers and good works. Sometimes, a non-believer can experience an inner peace and love; while not explicitly aware that God is the ultimate source of that peace and love. This is especially common among RCIA Inquirers who come to enquire about the Christian faith because of an inner urging they cannot comprehend; and are yet to become explicitly aware of God who is the source of that urging.
The First Reading this week spoke of another such person. Cyrus is the King of Persia who defeated the Babylonians; and in 539BC allowed the exiled Jews to return to their homeland. Cyrus assisted the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem by returning the sacred vessels taken by the Babylonians; and provided monetary support. Cyrus was a Gentile who did not know God explicitly (verse 4), yet he has demonstrated that he knows God implicitly through the good works that he did. In return, God anointed Cyrus with authority and power (verse 1). The use of the word “anointed” is rather unusual in this context. In those Old Testament days, “anointing” is normally used to confer authority on Jewish kings and priests, but not on a Gentile like Cyrus. This is a warning to us to never allowing pride to blind us into assuming a superior complex against a non-believer. God’s anointing of Cyrus the Gentile king tells us that salvation is not the exclusive rights of people of a certain race or creed. Salvation is God’s free gift to everyone, including those who does the will of God but do not know Him explicitly yet.
So how do we develop an intimacy with God, such that our worship, words and works come from our hearts? It is through opening our hearts and mind to God. In his first letter to the Corinthians, St Paul exalted the three theological virtue of faith, hope and love: “And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor 13:13) We all quest for the spiritual gifts of faith, hope and love. This applies even to non-believers. To maintain our spiritual well-being, we need to have faith in the divine and in humanity; we need hope to look forward to a better future; and most important of all, we need love to hold and sustain us. As we become believers, we become explicitly aware of the source of that faith, hope and love that is in our hearts. It is our loving God, calling us and drawing us closer to Him. Do I accept His invitation? Or do I turn a blind eye and let the sin of pride numb my heart as the Pharisees did? In the Second Reading passage, St Paul and his fellow missionaries sent God’s grace and peace to the converts in Thessalonica. The Thessalonians accepted God’s invitation and were developing deep personal relationship with God. The Thessalonians were manifesting the three theological virtues of faith, hope and love through good works – through “work of faith and labour of love and steadfastness of hope” (verse 3).
So in this week’s Scripture passages, we hear Cyrus did the will of God in spite of not knowing Him explicitly; and the Thessalonians manifested their faith, hope and love through good works. My brother and sisters, let us contemplate on these Scripture passages and ask ourselves: Am I prepared to open my heart to God? Am I prepared to experience love like I have never experienced before? May the Holy Spirit be with us as we contemplate. Emmanuel.