32nd Sunday of Year A
Seeking true and lasting happiness.
This week’s Scripture passages reflect on a rather taboo topic in our culture – death. In the Second Reading, St Paul said, “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, … For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first.” (verse 14, 17) In the Bible, there are many such promises of what await us after death; and most of us are familiar with them. So familiar that they become cliques to us – to many of us they are just words whose inner meaning elude our consciousness. In truth, we seldom contemplate death, and flowing from that, we seldom contemplate life.
Modern medical science has improved health and extended life expectancy considerably. But in spite of that, death has and will always be inevitable. In spite of medical science extending life expectancy, in some cases by a decade or two, life is still short – even shorter if we exclude our childhood years and those years when we are too old or too sick. For all of us, we have but a few decades when we are matured, of sound mind and of reasonable bodily health – when we can consider matters, apply reasons and to undertake courses of action accordingly. It is during these short years when we are best placed to contemplate life and death. Psalm 90 gives us a good portrayal of the fragility of life:
“You turn us back to dust,
and say, ‘Turn back, you mortals.’
For a thousand years in your sight
are like yesterday when it is past,
or like a watch in the night.
You sweep them away; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning;
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.”
My brothers and sisters, let us reflect with the fragility of life in mind: What is the purpose of my life? What is my life all about? What are my priorities? In our materialistic modern world, many decide to devote their life to acquiring fame and fortune. Is life all about amassing wealth so that I may enjoy material pleasures and comfort? Or perhaps it is about attaining fame and recognition so that I may be admired and praised by others? And if fame and fortune are the purpose of my life, surely then, I should be truly happy when I have achieved these goals of my life? And not just me, surely the happiest people in this world would be the rich and famous people, right? But we know this is not the case. In fact, many rich and famous people are truly miserable. We see these real life tragedies play out in our news media all the time – rich and famous people undergoing divorces, drug overdose, mental issues, family feud, etc. So we ask ourselves, are there more to fame and fortune in life? In fact, the bottom-line question is, how I do find true and lasting happiness? Whatever my answer is to this question, therein lies my priorities. As Jesus said, “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Mt 6:21)
To attain true and lasting happiness, we must first understand that our earthly existence is transient in nature. Hence, lasting happiness cannot be just about our life on earth. For when our life on earth ends, we will have to leave this life behind. What become of all our earthly possessions and achievements then? All the fame and fortune we amass in this life will be left behind. And if these are the sources of my happiness – notwithstanding that they often are not – then my happiness is only as transient as my earthly life. So, how can I find true happiness, happiness that will persist beyond my earthly life? Jesus taught us how. It is to love God with all my heart, my soul and my mind (Mt 22:37); and to love my brothers and sisters the same way (Mt 22:39). Yes, a happy life is a life of love shared with my family, friends and community. A life lived in love is also a life lived in service and in sacrifice – to family, to society and to humanity. And this is ultimately how we develop deep loving relationships – with God, with self and with others.
Have you noticed that at funeral services, we do not usually hear about how famous or wealthy the person was? If fame and fortune is the source of our happiness, why don’t we hear more about them in eulogies? Instead, friends and family are more likely to speak about the good qualities of the person and the good relationships they share. In other words, instead of parading the fame and fortune the person amass, we rather speak about the love the decease person brought to those around him/her. Why? Because deep down in our hearts, we all know the truth. That we are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27); and because God is love (1 Jn 4:16), we are not truly happy until we live our life in fulfilment of love. This is the great hope of life, that we find love – in God, in self and in others. As St Paul said in the Second Reading, “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.” (verse 13) Or as the First Reading teaches us, to seek love in life is to discern wisdom (verse 12). In our materialistic society, there are many who seek fame and fortune to the detriment of love. For the sake of acquiring money, attaining recognition and attracting praises, some would sow seeds of division in society, in their families and even in church communities, alienating love ones and tearing families and communities apart. This is the warning of Jesus in the Parable of Rich Fool (Lk 12:16-21). In the parable, a man was engrossed with accumulating wealth, thinking his wealth will buy him happiness. Little does know that he would die that very night: “‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Lk 12:20-21)
In the Gospel this week, Jesus tells us the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids. This story is an insightful parable as we ponder on the afterlife. In the parable, ten bridesmaids were waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. As is the Jewish custom of the time, the bridegroom would arrive at an unexpected time of the night, often catching the bridesmaids by surprise. In the story, five of the bridesmaids were foolish, and did not bring enough oil to last the night. As they left their watch to buy more oil, the bridegroom arrived. When the foolish bridesmaids returned, they were locked out of the door. Notice that in the parable, all the bridesmaids were not exemplary in their conduct. In fact, while waiting for the bridegroom to arrive, all became sleepy and feel asleep. So it is with us. Even as we seek true happiness in love and in loving relationships, we often fail to live up to the ideals set down by God. In the parable, in spite of their failings, five of the bridesmaids were nevertheless received by the bridegroom. Such is the mercy of God. That we do not have to be perfect to enter the heavenly kingdom. Not so for the foolish bridesmaids who, as a conscious decision, did not bring the oil necessary to light up the world around them. The light represents the service and sacrifice we bring to humanity, fuelled by love, represented by the oil. That is why the lack of oil is such a serious matter in the parable. What about me and the priorities in my life? Am I like the foolish bridesmaids who made a conscious decision not to devote my life to love? For just as the wise bridesmaids were unable to share their oil with the foolish ones; so it will be with us. It is up to me and me alone to put on love in my life. No one can do it on my behalf.
Indeed, this week’s Scripture passage encourage us to put love back into our life. If you are hurt, put on love. If you are estranged from a family member, put on love. If you have a strained relationship with a friend, put on love. As St Paul said, “Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (Col 3:13-14) Celebrate the Sacrament of Reconciliation, receive forgiveness from God. Then, as we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, after we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses”, we extend the same grace to “forgive those who trespass against us”. We take that forgiveness we receive from God and spread it around. Tell someone “I am sorry”, tell someone “I forgive you.” Do not hold on to your hurt. Life is too short for that.
Encouraged by the First Reading, let us allow wisdom to enter our hearts and help us to pursue the only truly important thing in our life – to be in a communion of love – with God, with self and with others. Amen.