Weekly Reflection (7 Nov 2021)

32nd Sunday Year B

1 Kings 17:10-16
Hebrews 9:24-28
Mark 12:38-44

Am I generous? Do I give out of my abundance; do I give out of my essentials; or do I give away myself?

My dear friends, let us ask ourselves: am I generous? When we attend church on a weekend, many of us would give some money to the church. Occasionally, there may be a charity asking us for donation, and we would give away some money. So for many of us, we would consider ourselves generous. But are we really? This week’s Scripture Readings challenge us with this question: Am I giving out of my abundance; am I giving out of my essentials; or am I giving away myself?

First, let us be clear of one thing. Giving out of our abundance is not a bad thing. In today’s world, there is such disparity between the haves and the have nots that what we give out of our abundance could be something a poor person needs to say alive. Thus, we can do a lot of good without even making a great sacrifice ourselves. As St Paul said to the Corinthians, “I do not mean that there should be relief for others and pressure on you, but it is a question of a fair balance between your present abundance and their need, so that their abundance may be for your need, in order that there may be a fair balance. As it is written, ‘The one who had much did not have too much, and the one who had little did not have too little.’” (2 Cor 8:13-15)

Of course, if we are honest about it, there are some of us who are misers. I may find it hard to give away my money, even if it is out of my abundance. And when I do give, I find it hard to give away anything more than the loose change in my pocket. In the parable of Lazarus and the Dives (which means “rich man”) (Lk 16:19-31), Lazarus was a poor stricken man languishing outside the door of Dives. While Dives was enjoying his life of luxury behind closed door, he was impervious to Lazarus’ languishing just outside. When they both died, Lazarus went to heaven but Dives went to hell. Why did Dives end up in hell? What wrong has he done? The parable did not suggest that the Dives’ wealth was acquired unlawfully, neither was there any suggestion that he was responsible for Lazarus’ misfortunate. All he did was being insensitive to Lazarus’ sufferings. Well, Dives must have seen Lazarus many times as he walked in and out of his house. He could have relieved Lazarus’ suffering by sharing some of his abundance, but he did not. My brothers and sisters, our wealth is a blessing from God. God bless us with wealth so than we may use it to serve our community, the society and the broader humanity. The truth is, in a society of the haves and have nots, both the rich man and the poor man need each other. The poor man needs the rich man to restore his dignity; the rich man needs the poor man to open his heart to goodness. But Dives in the parable could not do that. He has committed the sins of greed and gluttony. And here is the honest truth: there is a Dives in most of us.

So this is our Scripture challenge this week. If I find myself behaving like Dives, then I ought to learn to open my heart. I can start by giving out of my abundance. It is an easy way to start – for giving out of my abundance does not impose any real hardship on me or my loved ones. On the other hand, if I am already giving out of my abundance, let us learn to develop a sense of detachment to our wealth so that we may give out of our essentials. This was the same calling Jesus gave to the rich young man, “If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” (Mt 19:21) The man went away sad, as “he had many possessions” (Mt 19:22). The young man was not able to answer God’s call. On the other hand, the two widows in this week’s First Reading and the Gospel gave out of their essentials.

In Biblical times, widows are the deprived underclass of the society. The husband is the breadwinner and protector of the family. With no husband, the widow and her children have no financial or no physical security. In the First Reading, on being asked by Elijah, the widow of Zarephath used up her last remaining flour and oil to make the Elijah some bread. She gave out of her essentials without knowing where her next meal would come from. As a reward for her great generosity, “the jar of meal was not emptied, neither did the jug of oil fail” (verse 16). We don’t know how this came to be – whether the flour and oil were miraculously multiplied or someone show the widow kindness by replenishing them. But that is not important. The important lesson we draw from this story is that the widow gave out her essentials. As St Paul promised, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.” (1 Cor 10:13)

In the Gospel, we read of another poor widow who gave her last two copper coins to the temple. The two copper coins were everything she had (verse 44). She could have kept one coin for her own use but she gave both away – she gave out of her essentials. The Gospel did not tell us what happened to the widow. But we can be assured that her generosity did not go unanswered. As promised by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat, or about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. And do not keep striving for what you are to eat and what you are to drink, and do not keep worrying. For it is the nations of the world that strive after all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Instead, strive for his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.” (Luke 12:22-23,29-31) Indeed, my brothers and sisters, let us learn to be detached from our earthly wealth. Strive for God’s kingdom, and have trust and faith in God

While giving out of our essentials is noble, our Scripture challenge this week does not end here. As hard to believe as it is, giving out of our essentials is not the highest form of giving. The highest form of giving is giving away ourselves, in some cases, it involves even giving our lives. This is the highest form of giving. It is a sign of great love to be able to give ourselves away. But this is precisely the kind of generosity our Lord Jesus has shown us: “For you know the generous act of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.” (2 Cor 8:9) For the love of humanity, Jesus, though He is God, allowed Himself to be born as a lowly human. And we know His sacrifices did not end there. For at the appointed time, though He is Himself sinless, He took on all the sins of humanity and allowed Himself to be punished for all our inequities. As the Second Reading explains, “he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (verse 26). This form of giving is powerful and transforming – for both the giver and the recipients. In truth, watches giving away Himself can soften the most hardened of hearts. This is why the crucifix is a very powerful symbol of Christian love. For those of us with hardened hearts, who find it difficult to live a righteous life, if we let it, the crucifix will inspire us to give generously, to love reservingly, to forgive unconditionally. As St Paul bluntly put it, “Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Heb 12:3-4)

My brothers and sisters, may we always give generously – out of our abundance, out of our essentials, and even giving away ourselves. Let us end this week’s reflection by contemplating on the Generosity Prayer, given to us by St Ignatius of Loyola:

Lord Jesus, teach me to be generous.
Teach me to serve as you deserve,
To give and not to count the cost,
To fight and not to heed the wounds,
To labour and not to seek to rest,
To give of my self and not ask for a reward,
Except the reward of knowing that I am doing your will.


Weekly Reflection (31 Oct 2021)

31st Sunday Year B

Deuteronomy 6:2-6
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 12:28-34

Forming our children.

We live in a morally challenged world. Today, many practices that were once considered immoral are widely accepted in the secular society – greed, materialism, self-centredness, pornography, promiscuity, divorces, homosexual acts, abortion, euthanasia, the list goes on. And it is not just the secular society, but many Christians accept these as normal as well. This is especially true for many of our young people. While many of them have grown up in the church, we have not spiritually formed them. As a family, the church is just a routine on a Sunday. Little attempt is made to build a relationship with God. Worship is something we say with our lips, almost like a robot, with nothing from our heart. In truth, many of us are believers in name only. We do not believe or practice the teachings of our Christian faith. We do not teach our children or show them good examples. Hence, many of our young people grew up in a moral vacuum. And as they reach the age of reason, helped by secular friends and social media, that moral vacuum is quickly filled with the secular values of the world. And as they grow older, as the church, we continue to fail them. Whether I am a priest, pastor, teacher, parent or grandparent, I continue to refrained from speaking God’s truth. Why do I stay silent? I stay silent in order to avoid conflicts; I stay silent so as not to offend; I stay silent so as to keep the peace. Meanwhile, with the values of the world unchallenged and often reenforced by secular friends and society, our children walk further and further away from God’s truth. Eventually, they leave the church and live their life in moral-free territories. My brothers and sisters, this is the inconvenient truth. For long before “cancel culture” become prevalent in our society, we the church have “cancelled” ourselves for many years. Let us ask ourselves: Does this de-evangelisation process happen in my family? If so, let this week’s Scripture be a wake-up call to me.

In Deuteronomy 5:6-21, God gave the people the Ten Commandments. The text of the First Reading follows shortly after that. In it, Moses summarised God’s Commandments as follows:

  1. “The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” (verse 4)
  2. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” (verse 5)

In the years that follow, the Pharisees expanded on God’s Commandment to 613 Mosaic Laws and preached strict adherence to them. By Jesus’ time, the scrupulous application of these 613 laws became a huge burden to the people. So much so that the original intent of the laws, which is the propagation of God’s truth, was lost. My brothers and sisters, we are no different from the Pharisees. We are doing the same with our church routines, our robotic prayers and practices. In the Gospel this week, in answering a question from a scribe, Jesus teaches us to shift our focus back onto God’s truth. The scribes asked, “Which commandment is the first of all?” (verse 28) The Gospel of Matthew has a similar account of this story (Mt 22:34-40) but with a Pharisee asking the same question. In this week’s Gospel, as in Matthew’s account, Jesus pointed the people to Moses’ teachings in the First Reading.

First, referring to Deut 6:4, Jesus said, “the Lord our God, the Lord is one.” (verse 29) In other words, the Lord is our God. We worship God and God alone. In our secular living, we violate this Commandment often, putting money, lust, individualism, and personal pleasure before God. Secondly, referring to Deut 6:5, Jesus commanded us to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.” (verse 30) But we do not do that. In our daily life, we devote all our heart, soul, mind and strength to secular vices. Only after we fulfill these pursuits that we devote our leftover attention to God. By our examples and our silence, we teach our children to do the same. Hence the great de-evangelisation begins. It is in this context that that we must pay special attention to the third commandment Jesus added to Moses’, that is, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” (verse 31). How does this commandment fit in?

Jesus is telling us that our love of God comes in three forms, with each in its proper order. First, we must recognise the Lord as our God above all else (verse 29). Secondly, we must devote all our energy to worshipping Him and Him alone (verse 30). Only then, can we love our fellow human beings properly (verse 31). The problem with many of us is that not only we love money, lust, individualism, and personal pleasure before God. We also love our friends, our children more than we love God. We flip the order of Jesus’ Commandments. So, we do not speak God’s truth to our children, and in acts of misguided love, we approve all the things that they do, no matter how immoral their actions are. So, when my children are obsessed with greed and materialism, I affirmed them as having healthy ambition. When my children are promiscuous or engage in unnatural sexual acts, I tacitly approve their behaviours by keeping silent. When my children’s disregard for God led them down the path of abortions and divorces, I implicitly supported their decision by saying nothing. When euthanasia law was being debated in our Parliaments, religious groups raised the danger of the law being abused by adult children to kill off their aging sick parents. My brothers and sisters, consider this – as this could happen to you and me. After a lifetime of silence on our children’s spiritual formation, if a time comes that we are lying unconscious on our bed and our children make the decision to euthanise us, it would be too late for us to speak out then! Do not blame our children. For to them, their decision to euthanise us might be one that is acted out of love. So we have only ourselves to blame, for we have not formed our children spiritually, so much so that they do not realise that euthanasia is not love.

My brothers and sisters, we need to realise that we are our children’s priest, pastor, teacher, parent or grandparent. We are not their social media friends clamouring for “likes”. For the formation of our children, we need to put on the heart of Jesus. Jesus was not concerned about being liked, He was more concerned about being right – right with our children, right with God. It is only when we are not afraid to teach our children the truth that we can be blameless ourselves. In Old Testament traditions, the head of the family is the family priest, responsible for the moral formation of the family. My brothers and sisters, take courage! Let us be that blameless priest of our family. Let us become more like Jesus. Like St Paul said in the Second Reading this week, “For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.” (verse 26) To compensate for our human weaknesses, we have the perfect high priest in Jesus Christ to model ourselves to. St Paul continues, “For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever.” (verse 28)

“But you, take courage! Do not let your hands be weak, for your work shall be rewarded.” (2 Chr 15:7) May the Holy Spirit guide us. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (24 Oct 2021)

30th Sunday Year B

Jeremiah 31:7-9
Hebrews 5:1-6
Mark 10:46-52

What do I want Jesus to do for me?

Am I totally contented with my life? For most of us, we would say no. This is in spite many of us living in a peaceful country, having a stable job, a roof over our head and food on the table. Why is that? Mostly, it is because we live in a materialistic and individualistic world. We are lured by the glitters of the secular world and we are ambitious. Hence, no matter how rich, how powerful or how successful I am, there is always the next thing I want – a bigger house, a flashier car, a promotion, more wealth, more power, more influence. Many spend their whole life chasing one quest after another, and yet never finding contentment even until the day they die. Without true contentment, we remained unfulfilled and unhappy all of our life. This is a great tragedy. So we ask ourselves: Why is my heart so restless? How do I find rest, contentment and true happiness? My brothers and sisters, this is precisely the reason Jesus came into the world. He promised us, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” To us Christians, these words are not foreign to us. But yet, why am I still not finding contentment? What am I missing?

In the previous week’s Gospel, we heard how James and John came to Jesus with a request. And Jesus asked them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” (Mk 10:36). In this week’s Gospel, in a story that follows immediately from last week’s, a blind man called Bartimaeus came to Jesus with a request. And Jesus asked him the same question, “What do you want me to do for you?” (verse 50). James, John and Bartimaeus are on a quest, and they wanted something from our Lord. My brothers and sisters, we too are on a quest. Let us ask ourselves, what would my answer be today if Jesus asks me this same question: “What do you want me to do for you?” Would I ask for more wealth, more power and more influence? In fact, these were what James and John asked for. They wanted to sit at the right and left side of Jesus in His glory (Mk 10:36). We may ask, what is wrong with a quest for heavenly glory? While the quest for heavenly glory may seem noble enough, but that was not James and John were asking for. Think about it, when we enter heaven as children of God, we become joint heirs with Jesus (Rom 8:16-17). At that time, we would be completely fulfilled. We cannot ask for anything more as we would be completely satisfied. The truth is, heavenly glory was not what James and John were really asking for. What they were asking for was something very earthly and secular – they wanted lordship over the rest of the heavenly citizens. That is why “when the ten heard this, they began to be angry with James and John.” (Mk 10:41)

In many ways, we are like James and John. They have been following Jesus for a while now, but they were unable to break free from their secular mind sets. Just like James and John, we have been coming to Church to worshipping God; and just like them, many of us are unable to break free from secularism. And just as James’ and John’s worldliness created division among the Apostles, many of us take our worldliness into our church communities, creating conflicts and power struggles. In truth, many of us are Christians in name only. While we say our prayers and are familiar with our Bible verses, these are but head knowledge to us. The words of God are not in our hearts. We are no different from the world.

So what must we do instead? In this week’s Gospel, in answer to the same question “What do you want me to do for you?”, Bartimaeus replied, “Let me see again” (verse 51). Bartimaeus did not ask for more wealth, more power or more influence. He simply asked for sight. My brothers and sisters, Jesus is asking us the same question now: “What do you want me to do for you?” Like Bartimaeus, let us ask for sight. But what is it that I want Jesus to help me see? Firstly, some of us habour hurt from the past and we are unable to see past that. For the person who hurt and betrayed us, we are unable to recognise that this person too is a son or daughter of God, loved by God. By His love, Jesus commanded us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us (Mt 5:44). If we are unable to see past our past hurt, we will find ourselves unable to forgive, unable to move on and continue to hurt. Secondly, some of us are unable to see past our own sins. May be we are not well-formed enough to know we are wrong; or more likely, too proud to admit we are wrong. As we continue to sin, we are unable to reconcile with others that we hurt. We are unable to reconcile with God. In this way, the Reconciliation Rite we celebrate with God become mere rituals, unable to transform us, unable to help us put on a heart like Jesus. Thirdly, some of us are unable to see past our shame. We did something we are shameful of; we hurt somebody; and we are unable to say sorry – not to the person we hurt and not even to ourselves. While God had forgiven us, we are unable to forgive ourselves. So we live in perpetual sorrow. We are stuck at the crucifixion on Good Friday, unable to move on to the joy of resurrection on Easter Sunday.

My brothers and sisters, in truth, a quest for sight is a quest to see the truth. It is the truth that we are all sinners and yet loved by God; that there is beauty in everyone of us, even our enemies; that all of us need God’s mercy. For what is God’s mercy but Jesus dying on the cross? In the Second Reading this week, St Paul describes how the earthly high priest “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness” (verse 2). Unlike the earthly high priest, Jesus our heavenly high priest is sinless. Yet as St Paul explained to the Corinthians, “for our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor 5:21) Like the earthly high priest, Jesus too deals gently with us sinners because He too is subject to weakness – except it is not His own weakness he is subject to but ours. This is mercy.

The First Reading takes place in the context of the Israelites’ exile to Babylon. Because of their sins, God allowed the Israelites to go into exile and to suffer in the hands of the Babylonians. In the context of the revelation of Jesus, the Israelites’ sufferings must not be seen as a vengeful God punishing the people for their sins. Rather the exile is a time of reflection and purification for Israelites, to help them turn away from sins and return to God. The First Reading foretold the return of the Israelites from their exile to return to the Promised Land. By their repentance and sufferings, the Israelites’ earlier disobedience was atoned. God showed His mercy and led the people back to their homeland. For those of us who cannot see past our worldly quest of wealth, power, influence, like the Israelites, we too are in exile. We too are in need of reflection and purification. Like Bartimaeus, let us ask Jesus for spiritual sight. For the Israelites, they need to see past their hurt, sins and shame before they can be restored to their homeland. So it is with us. We can only overcome our past hurt, our sins and our shame through repentance. “With weeping they shall come, and with consolations I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble” (verse 9).

My brothers and sisters. Let us embrace the truth. Let my heart be restless no more. As St Augustine said, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.” Amen.

Weekly Reflection (17 Oct 2021)

29th Sunday Year B

Isaiah 53:10-11
Hebrews 4:14-16
Mark 10:35-45

The virtue of redemptive sacrifice.

My brothers and sisters, what does the word “sacrifice” mean to us? In a narcissistic world, a world that champions a “me first” mentality, the concept of sacrifice is counter-cultural. For to sacrifice is to willingly accepts sufferings upon ourselves for the greater good of others. Most of us who are parents would understand the concept of sacrifice well. From the moment they conceive a baby, parents make sacrifices. Many put aside their lives, their careers, their leisure, their financial and physical well-being so as to give their children the best possible upbringing. Most do not do so expecting a reward, unlike what we do when we make a financial investment. For sacrifice is inexplicably tied to love. And even if some of our children become ungrateful to us in their adulthood, parents often remain faithful. We continue to love our children unconditionally. Jesus exalted sacrifices. He said, “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. If you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. If you lend to those from whom you hope to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to receive as much again. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Lk 6:32-35)

This week’s Gospel tells the story of the ambitious Zebedee brothers. They have no doubt made sacrifices to follow Jesus. But they expected rewards. They tried to make the best out of their discipleship to Jesus by asking for glorious positions in the afterlife. Jesus aptly rejected the request and preached to his disciples: “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptised, you will be baptised” (verse 39). The cup and baptism Jesus were referring to was his sacrifice, His impending Passion and baptism in blood. Jesus continued, “whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant” (verse 43). Becoming a servant means to be of service to others. In other words, the crowning trait of following Jesus is not to attain glory, but to follow in his footstep in servantship and sacrifice.

As Jesus explained in Lk 6:32-35, as Christians, we are called to not just serve those we love. We are to serve everyone, including our enemies. As Christians, we are called to serve our family, our community, our society and the whole of humanity. While we serve, we need to ask ourselves: Why do I serve? Do I perform acts of service and sacrifice with altruistic intentions? Or do I do them expecting reward, rewards such as glory, praise, recognition, influence and money? While service and sacrifice are virtuous acts, it is important that we serve with the heart of Jesus. And the true test of whether we are serving with the heart of Jesus is when we are faced with difficulties in our service. Difficulties come in many forms. Many of us have limited time and resources; and we are often called upon to go the extra mile to serve. At times, the people we serve are ungrateful to us. Sometimes, they criticise us unjustly. What do I do in the face of such difficulties? Do I walk away? Or I we reflect, improve, keep serving, keep sacrificing, and grow through that experience?

We need to model ourselves to Jesus. What was Jesus’ attitude when he performed acts of service and sacrifice? Of course, Jesus did enjoy His share of admiration and praise. After Jesus cast out a demon, He earned the admiration of a woman who said to Him, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” (Lk 11:27) Jesus’ popularity reached fever high when came into Jerusalem on a donkey. “A very large crowd spread their cloaks on the road, and others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. The crowds that went ahead of him and that followed were shouting, ‘Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!’” (Mt 21:8-9) But Jesus did not let fame and popularity gets to his head. In fact, shortly after entering Jerusalem in triumph, He went to the temple, and seeing how the merchants had turned the temple into a “den of robbers” (Mt 21:13), “he overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves” (Mt 21:12). Jesus was not afraid to stand up for what is right and true, even as the act costed him public support and popularity. In fact, this act set off a chain of events that eventually costed Him his life. This was Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice.

Like Jesus, my acceptance of injustice is a worthy sacrifice in its own right. How so? For when I accept such suffering, it can bring about the redemption of others – possibly the redemption of that same difficult person that has caused me so much grief in the first place. In the beatitude, Jesus taught us, “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” (Mt 5:5-6) It can take time, but make no mistake, meekness in sacrifice touches hearts like nothing else. It can bring about conversion. In an individualistic world darkened by sin, for a soul that is wounded and broken by past hurt, my sacrifice can touch the most hardened of hearts. This is called redemptive sacrifice. It is a high call from God. For to accept our redemptive sacrifice is to follow in the footsteps of Christ to Calvary, when suffering from excruciating pain, he prayed to his Heavenly Father for the forgiveness of those who wronged him (Lk 23:34).

The sacrifice of the suffering servant in the First Reading mirrored that of Jesus. We read that the Lord allowed the Servant to be crushed with pain, so that “through him the will of the Lord shall prosper” (verse 10). Thus, if I am suffering pain in the midst of my service to the Lord, rest assured that my sacrifice is not without purpose. As God declared in the First Reading, “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.”

Sacrifice is not easy. That is why Jesus did it first, so that we may follow in His footsteps. As St Paul said in the Second Reading, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” (verse 15) And when my redemptive sacrifice touches hearts, when someone who has caused me grief in the past seeks to reconcile with me, I must once again put on the heart of Jesus. I might not receive an outright apology, but that is ok. Understand this, for a harden heart to reach out to me in friendship, it means that the Holy Spirit has already touched that heart. Do not demand an apology, do not condescend, do not reject the hand of friendship. Rather, remain meek and extend my hand of mercy just as Jesus extends His hand of mercy to me. Be merciful, “so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (verse 16).

My brothers and sisters, may the Lord grant us His peace, the peace that the world cannot give (Jn 14:27). Amen.

Weekly Reflection (10 Oct 2021)

28th Sunday Year B

Wisdom 7:7-11
Hebrews 4:12-13
Mark 10:17-30

For the words of God to touch my heart, I need the wisdom to forego my earthly attachment.

Is there a famous person in history that you admire? What does the world do when an admired person passes away? They compile the life stories and famous quotes from the person into books and web sites. They form societies promoting the beliefs and causes of that person. We do the same with an admired person in our families. We retell the stories and sayings of that person to younger generations, so that we can continue to grow in wisdom by the life, teachings and examples of the person.

It is the same with God. In Old Testament time, many holy men and women were inspired by God and recorded down His teachings and His deeds. In New Testament times, the disciples of Jesus did the same with Jesus’s teachings and deeds. Other disciples like St Paul, St Peter and St John authored letters that were passed down the generations. Hence, we call the Bible the written words of God. Like the words of a famous person in history, we ought to treasure these writings and grow in wisdom through them. Especially for us Christians, the Bible ought to be the most treasured book on our book shelves. But in truth, many of us do not treasure the Bible. We hear passages of Bible read out to us often, through church services, talks and sermons. But the irony is that, because we hear the text of Bible read out to us so often, we become numbed and accustomed. Indeed, familiarity breeds contempt.

But the Bible is more than just a historical recording of God’s teachings and deeds. It is in fact God’s living words. As St Paul said in the Second Reading, “the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart”. But most of us are not moved when we read the Bible, or when the Bible is read to us? Why? It is because we erect barriers, consciously or subconsciously, that while the words of the Bible can reach our eyes and our ears, it cannot reach our hearts. What are some of these barriers?

For some of us, it is familiarity. As mentioned earlier, familiarity breeds contempt. We are so used to the stories and teachings that the words do not draw our attention. We block the words from our consciousness whenever we encounter the Bible. So we ask ourselves: What is blocking the words of God from my heart? For some of us, it is sin. My sin of pride tells me that is a sign of weakness if I let the words of the Bible move me. I tell myself that others will see how inadequate I am if I let the words change me. Another manifestation of pride is when I so scrupulously study the theology of the Bible that it only feeds my head but not my heart. Head knowledge is but cerebral knowledge. It does not change my life. Taken to the extreme, I become so proud of my intellect that I close our heart to God’s transforming words. Then there is the sin of anger. Some of us harbour past hurt. My sin of anger is so overwhelming. I am angry at those who wronged me; and I am angry at God for letting bad things happen to me or my loved ones. So I turn away from His words in protest. Then there are those of us who are materialistic. I am so consumed by the sins of greed and envy that I prioritise all other earthly pursuits over God’s words. I do not make time for God. I am always too busy with work, studies, socialising, sports, entertainment, leisure, and so on. But Jesus said, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33).

This was what happen to the man in the Gospel this week. He was not a bad person. In fact, as he told Jesus, he has been a scrupulous follower of the Commandments since he was a young man (verse 19-20). However, in spite of him being a good person, a rich person and a follower of the Commandment, there is something missing in his life. He was not happy and he did not know what it is that he lacks. Like many of us, his secular pursuits became a barrier such that Jesus’ words could not enter his heart. Jesus’ instruction to the man was simple: he need to free himself of his attachment (verse 21). But alas, the man could not do that. So he “went away grieving” (verse 22). The story ends on a tragic note.

Jesus then went on to tell the disciples the parable of the camel and the eye of the needle. In ancient times, the eye of the needle is a small back opening in the city wall, used as a shortcut by merchants and their camels to enter the city. However, because of the relatively small size of opening, merchants often have to unload their camels before the animal could fit through the opening. Figuratively, the unloading of the camel is like us unloading the baggages we carry. These baggages are the barriers that prevent the Bible from touching our hearts. Like the man in the Gospel story, unless I can detach ourselves from these baggages, I too will go away grieving. My brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves: what is it that I have to unload in order for God’s words to touch my heart?

We must pray for wisdom. We need wisdom to be able to let go of our barriers, so that we may invite God’s in. The First Reading is a hymn of King Solomon to God, in praise of wisdom. “I prayed, and understanding was given me; I called on God, and the spirit of wisdom came to me” (verse 7). When that happens, I will wonder why I did not get it before, when it is something so simple. To the author, God’s wisdom is more precious that gem, gold, silver, and yes, even health and beauty. It is only then we understand what true wealth is. As the Second Reading teaches us, “All good things came to me along with her, and in her hands uncounted wealth” (verse 11)

Is my heart ready to accept God’s word? As Jesus looked upon the rich man lovingly in the Gospel (verse 21), he is casting the same loving gaze upon you and me. Gaze back at Jesus lovingly. He is urging us to forego our earthly baggages and follow him. What is my response?

Weekly Reflection (3 Oct 2021)

27th Sunday Year B

Genesis 2:18-24
Hebrews 2:9-11
Mark 10:2-16

Disharmony in our marriage harms ourselves and our children. Let us seek healing from Jesus.

In our modern society, many marriages are in trouble – Christian marriages as well as non-Christian ones. Statistically, we know that one out of every two marriages ends in divorce. This is an alarming piece of statistics. As alarming as it is, what we do not see in this piece of statistics are two things:

  1. That many marriages which do not end in divorce are also in trouble.
  2. That all troubled marriages, divorced or not, bring great anguish to all parties concern.

On the first point, many husbands and wives live as strangers under the same roof. Many could not work out their differences but also decided not to end their marriage. This could be because of cultural taboo; or they are staying together “for the sake of the children”. In truth, the greatest gift the couple can give to their children is not merely staying together under one roof. As many children of disharmonious marriages would testify, the sheer act of the parents merely staying under one roof does not bring them happiness. The greatest gift a couple can give to their children is to live their marriage as God intended. Not only is this the greatest gift to the children, it is the greatest gift they can give to each other. A marriage lived by God’s original design is a source of great fulfilment and great joy, since God is original author of that marital union itself.

The First Reading tells the story of creation; and how God authored the marital union. After God created the man, God gifted him with possessions. God said to him, “You may freely eat of every tree of the garden” (Gen 2:16). God also gave him power and authority over all His creation. We saw the man exercising this authority by naming all the animals. So the man had great possessions, power and authority. Yet he is not fulfilled. What is our modern-day solution to this problem? We seek more possessions, more power and more authority. Think about this, if possessions, power and authority cannot satisfy me, why would more of it make any difference? Alas, many husbands and wives today are obsessed with materialistic pursuits. They thought possessions, power and authority will bring them happiness. And when they are still not happy, they seek to acquire even more possessions, even more power and even more authority. In the process, they work even harder and make even greater sacrifice to their family life. Often, they sacrifice the one thing that can bring them true fulfillment – their family union and through it their union with God. In the First Reading, we hear that this family-God-union is exactly what God prescribed as the solution to the man’s unfulfillment problem. The man needed a soulmate. So God made a perfect helper and companion for the man, by fashioning a woman out of his rib. But the woman was not a separate new creation. By fashioning the woman out of the man’s rib, God had in fact divided the original human into two separate beings. And that is not all, in addition to the possessions, power and authority God has gifted humankind, He shared with humankind His greatest gift of all – the power of creation. God summed up His gifts by this command: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it.” (Gen 1:28) This is why “a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh.” (verse 24)

But because of our sins and weaknesses, many husbands and wives have lost sight of God’s original design for our marriages. St Paul advised us, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” (1 Cor 13:4-7) But instead living these values in our marriages, we are often proud and unforgiving toward our spouses. And when our marriage breaks down, out of even more pride, we make a virtue out of it. We say that we did a noble thing by staying together for the children. Or if our marriage ends in divorce, we blame everyone else but ourselves. We say that the Church is heartless in refusing the Eucharist to the divorce and remarried. Wasn’t this what the Pharisees was doing in the Gospel this week? They asked Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” (verse 2) And just like us, they tried to make a virtue out of this line of questioning, disguising it as a quest for truth. They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” (verse 4) Not only were the Pharisees being self-righteous, they were in fact finding loop holes in the law to justify their lack in morality. My brothers and sisters, isn’t this what we do as well? But Jesus did not mince His words when he replied, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you” (verse 5). Jesus concluded his teaching on divorce with a simple command: what God has joined together, let no one separate (verse 9). Indeed, this is the foundation of the Church’s teaching on the indissoluble nature of marriage.

This brings us to the second point: a troubled marriage, divorced or not, causes great pains to all concerned – not just the couple. Friends and family of the couples are often dragged into the marital disharmony. The worst affected are the children. Young children do not know how to process the conflicts between the two people closest to them – their parents. What they cannot process, they bottle it up within them. Over time, while they may look fine from the outside, they built up a large deposit of latent anger within their hearts. This can manifest as behavioural problems for the child and often persist into their adulthood. It is thus not surprising many people who run foul with the law came from broken families. It is also not surprising many children from divorced family often end up being divorced themselves. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church taught us, “Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery – the preconditions of all true freedom. … Parents have a grave responsibility to give good example to their children. By knowing how to acknowledge their own failings to their children, parents will be better able to guide and correct them” (CCC 2223). My brothers and sisters, make no mistake, the disharmony in our family harm our children gravely, severely affecting not just their current happiness but likely their future happiness as well.

But what do I do if I am the offspring of a broken family? I might say, it is not my fault that I carry this great hurt and latent anger in me. So, should I simply resign myself to a lifetime of misery? The truth is, all our families are imperfect in some ways. To a greater or lesser extent, all of us carries baggages from our upbringing. We all need healing to shed ourselves of these baggages. Otherwise, these baggages will continue to torment our inner soul. We can sweep them under the carpet and pretend they are not there. But deep down we know they are always there, casting an over-bearing shadow on our life. This is the reason Jesus allowed Himself to suffer innocently. In the Second Reading, St Paul lamented that Jesus tasted death for sake of all of us (verse 9). Jesus took on our sufferings as our brother (verse 11). He suffered on my behalf so that I need not suffer anymore. This is why St Paul called Jesus’ suffering a grace of God (verse 9). He added, “It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings.” (verse 10) So if I am seeking healing from the baggages of my life, all I need to do is come to Jesus. I need to open my wounds to Him, and let Jesus the divine physician heal me. But this is not easy to approach Jesus like that. It takes courage, it takes trust; and most of all, it takes faith.

May the Holy Spirit gift us with courage, trust and faith. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (26 Sep 2021)

26th Sunday Year B

Numbers 11:25-29
James 5:1-6
Mark 9:38-43,45,47-48

Parochialism and envy.

There are many people of goodwill in the world. In our churches, there are people in ministries spreading goodwill – in helping the poor, in teaching the Word of God, in simple act of services such as cleaning and gardening. Across the Christian churches and among all major religious groups, many are doing the same – helping, teaching, servicing. And acts of goodwill are not restricted to organised religions either. Beyond our churches, mosques, temples and synagogues, there many non-faith-based charities reaching out to the world in goodwill, e.g. the Red Cross, the Cancer Council, Oxfam, etc. But we don’t hear about these often. We live in a world where traditional and social media like to propagate news of conflicts rather than news of goodwill. We now have a generation of young people whose main source of news is the social media, a platform where anybody and anyone can propagate any information, even if the information is fake or is charged with negativity. It is no wonder that they world is getting more cynical by the day. This is why, more than ever, we need to promote goodwill. We need dialogues and collaboration among people of goodwill, irrespective of their faith background. In the Catholic Church, we champion inter-faith dialogues and collaborations through a movement called ecumenism. But sadly, for many reasons, ecumenism is often not promoted or championed.

Unity is often difficult to achieve. Because of human weaknesses, even as people of goodwill working together, we often fight against rather than work with each other – believers against unbelievers, one religion against another, and within the same religion one group against another. In truth, because of our human weaknesses, many of us are parochial in nature. We form cliques and adopt adversarial attitudes to everyone else outside our cliques. In the previous week’s reflection, we reflected on the Seven Deadly Sins of pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. The Church calls these the deadly sins because these are the root sin from which other sins spring from. As St James warned in the Second Reading the previous week, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (James 4:1-2) One of these deadly sins is envy. Again, St James told us, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” (James 3:16)

To counter “disorder and wickedness of every kind”, as people of goodwill, we have a duty to do our utmost best to showcase our goodwill to each other and to the world. We want to spread our love to the world. We want to inspire others to join us as people of love and goodwill. We want to grow our community of goodwill. In religion, we call this evangelisation. Contrary to what many might think, the main objective of evangelisation is not to make our religion bigger, richer and stronger than the other religions. In other words, we must not let parochialism and envy be the driven force of our evangelisation efforts. Rather, the main objective of evangelisation is to spread love and truth. For to live life in love and truth in to enjoy the fullness of life. Irrespectively of our religions, we are all brothers and sisters under the Fatherhood of God. In our love, we desire everyone to enjoy the fullness of life.

In the First Reading this week, God commanded Moses to choose seventy elders to be leaders of the people. The First Reading tells of how Eldad and Medad, even though they were not among the group chosen, were endowed with the gift of the Spirit and started to prophesise. On witnessing this, Joshua, filled with parochialism and envy, urged Moses to stop Eldad and Medad: “My lord Moses, stop them!” (verse 28). In the Gospel this week, we read of a similar situation. St John said to Jesus, “Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.” (verse 38) So you see, my brothers and sisters, even holy men like Joshua and St John are not immune from parochialism and envy.

So what must we do? How can we overcome our sin of pride and envy, which are the root sins of our parochialism? We need to form ourselves. We need to reflect on the word of God regularly and invite the Spirit to open our heart to God teachings. Because even while the Bible is not foreign to many of us, when we read the Bible, many of our hearts are not in the right disposition. When my hearts is closed, then God’s word cannot enter my heart. This is so even as I understanding the meaning of the words or even understand the profound theology behind the words. As Jesus warns us, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” (Jn 3:19) In response to Joshua’s complaint, Moses said, “Are you jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit on them!” (verse 29). Moses made it clear we should not be envious of others doing God’s work, even if the other person is from another ministry, another religion or another social group. In the Gospel, Jesus told St John, “for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterward to speak evil of me. Whoever is not against us is for us.” (verse 39-40)

In truth, if I am parochial and envious, my concern is not about building the kingdom of God in heaven. My concern is about building my own kingdom on earth. My brothers and sisters, our earthly kingdom is but temporary. Jesus taught us not to store up treasures on earth, “where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal”; but rather store up treasures in heaven, “where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Mt 6:19-20). All earthly treasures, no matter how glittering and majestic, will one day pass away. As St James warned us in the Second Reading, “Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted” (verse 2-3) Reflection upon these words for a moment. If I let my parochialism and envy drive my ministry work, I am in fact acting against other workers in the Lord’s vineyard; and in the process, sow division and disunity among God’s people. While I may think that I have stored up treasures in heaven through my ministry work, it is but an illusion. It is as St James accused us in the Second Reading, “You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you” (verse 6).

“For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:36) Let us cast away our parochialism and envy; and serve with true goodwill.

Weekly Reflection (19 Sep 2021)

25th Sunday Year B

Wisdom 2:12,17-20
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

Sin and conflicts.

We experience human conflicts all the time, whether it is in our families, our work places and yes, even in our faith communities. Conflicts are destructive. They strain human relationships and divide the community. Conflicts cause hurt and dissent. They often result in estranged relationships. These estrangements can be very long lasting, sometimes even for a lifetime. And the reason for these prolonged estrangements, even among loved ones, is because conflicts can create deep wounds. If a wounded heart is not healed, the relationship remained estranged. While the passage of time can bring about some level of superficial cordiality, without true healing of the heart, the estranged parties are unable to move on, to truly love each other again. This is a great tragedy – especially if the estrangement happens between loved ones or among members of a faith community.

My brothers and sisters. What are the unhealed wounds in your heart? Lets be honest, we all have them. They cause us anguish and we rather not think or talk about them. This is because talking and thinking about them brings back painful memories and unhappiness. And the reason it brings back pain is that my heart remained wounded. It has not been healed. I have merely swept the pain under the carpet and conceal it.

What is the cause of these human conflicts that cause us so much pain? It is sin – not just of one party, but often of all parties involved. The Church called the worst of these sins the Seven Deadly Sins, and list them in the following order: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. The world today does not like to talk about sin. They think sin makes people feel bad. Presumably, by not talking about them, it makes us feel better. This is not true – we are only deceiving ourselves. The truth is, we cannot overcome an evil if we are not prepared to even name it. This is escapism, and escapism in itself is a manifestation of one of the seven deadly sins – the sin of pride. And far from making us feel good, pride brings us more misery.

The First Reading is set in the city of Alexandria, where faithful Jews live among pagans and other Jews that have abandoned their faith. Like today, the unbelievers were spiteful of the believers. They said, “Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.” (verse 17-18). The unbelievers were not interested in whether what the believers believe is the truth. All they wanted to do is to inflict sufferings upon the believers. The want to see the believers react in a way that contradicts the teachings of the faith, so as to discredit them and the faith they profess. This is an extremely spiteful and destructive form of pride. It is not surprising that the Church lists pride as the first among the deadly sins. It is the same in our world today, unbelievers inflict sufferings on believers through words and action. In some cases, unbelievers even threaten the livelihood of unbelievers through the unhealthy practice of the “cancel culture”.

But many of us believers are not much better. Some believers also engage in radical rivalries among ourselves and against the unbelievers. Many of us experience conflicts with people who supposedly have much in common with us – people of the same family, people of the same faith. Instead of cherishing our common belief and common heritage, we emphasise our differences and create rivalries among ourselves. In the Second Reading, St Paul warned us, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” (verse 3:16) In the family, family members fight each other over money and influence. In the church, ministry members fight each other over prominence and recognition. In Gospel times, afraid of losing prominence and influence, the religious leaders nailed Jesus on the cross. Some of us would secretly or even openly rejoice when misfortune fall upon our adversaries. We justify our sinful acts and sinful thoughts as efforts to defend our faith, our rights or our dignity, but in truth, the sin of pride is our main driving force. We want to prove we are right at all cost. This is pride. It is not love. That is why St Paul said in the Second Reading, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (verse 4:1-2)

Jesus knew the temptation of pride all too well. To avoid unnecessary rivalry and jealousy, in the Gospel this week, as He passed through His home region of Galilee, “He did not want anyone to know it” (verse 30). He explained his action by cautioning the Apostles on the danger of the sin of pride, saying “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (verse 31). But did the Apostle heed our Lord’s message? No they did not. For almost immediately, they started arguing among themselves, they “argued with one another who was the greatest” (verse 34). The sin of pride has taken hold of them.

It was the sin of pride that crucified Jesus. Within our families and communities, where the sin of pride spurns conflicts, we too are crucifying each other. As we crucify each other, we bring pain and sufferings upon the whole family and the whole community. As Church members, we are the Body of Christ. As we crucify each other, we are also crucifying Jesus, just as the chief priests and the religious leaders did at Calvary. When church members fight each other, we are distracted from our common work of promoting love and justice. So, instead of being Jesus’ hands and feet to reach out to the world, we immobilise Him by crucifying Him on the cross.

So, what do I do if I am engaged in conflicts? The first step is to examine my words, actions and motivations honestly and truthfully. Am I been being controlled by the sin of pride, and with it the other deadly sins of greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth? The second step is to contemplate Jesus on the cross. He died out of love for me. Let me invite His love into my hearts and let His love heal me. It is only with the love of Jesus that I can love our enemies, so that they too can be healed. It is only then that I may go forth to truly serve – not for the sake of pride, but for the sake of love. It is only then that I can serve the way Jesus teaches us in the Gospel this week, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (verse 35)

Let us break free from the sin of pride, go forth to love and to serve. Peace be with you, my dear brothers and sisters.

Weekly Reflection (12 Sep 2021

24th Sunday Year B

Isaiah 50:5-9
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

Do I possess true faith of the heart? Or is my faith a superficial intellectual faith?

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus asked His disciples a question: “Who do people say that I am?” (verse 27). They answered, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (verse 28). Then, seeking a personal answer from the disciples, Jesus asked again, “But who do you say that I am?” Indeed, my brothers and sisters, Jesus is asking us the same question, “Who do you say that I am?” So we ask ourselves: Who is Jesus to me? Like Peter, we might answer, “You are the Messiah.” (verse 29). Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning “the Anointed One”, translated to Christo in Greek, from which we derive the English word “Christ”. Indeed, Jesus is the Anointed One of God. In Matthew’s account of the story, Peter provided a more vivid answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16) These text-book answers are not new to most of us. For us Christians, we proclaim Jesus as the Christ all the time – at our church services, in prayers, through songs, etc. The question is: As we proclaim with our lips, do we mean it in our hearts?

They say that words are cheap. This is certainly in the case with Peter. He proclaimed Jesus as “Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Later, at the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “You will all become deserters because of me this night” (Mt 26:31), Peter boldly declared, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:35). And denied Jesus he did, not once, not twice but three times (Mt 26:69-74). Why did Peter deny Jesus? Did he not understand what he said when he proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”? Did he not mean what he said when he declared, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you”? In truth, Peter understood what he was proclaiming; he meant what he declared. The problem with Peter was that his faith was an intellectual faith, and intellectual faith is superficial.

What about us, my brothers and sisters? Let us ask ourselves: Am I like Peter? Do I mean what I say yet my faith is weak? Is my faith merely an intellectual faith? Is my faith superficial? We know that faith in Jesus is the gateway to our salvation. Before his conversion, St Paul was a Pharisees who believe that we can earn our salvation through scrupulous observation of the religious laws. Later, he realised his mistake and said, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16) Yet simply knowing that we are justified by faith is but an intellectual exercise. And as we can see from St Peter’s experience, intellectual faith is shallow. So like the young man who came to Jesus, we asked our Lord the same question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mt 10:17)

Some of us believe that proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah is all that is necessary. We believe in the “prosperity Gospel” – not just monetary prosperity but earthly prosperity in all forms, that God will grant all that we desire on earth if we simply believe in Him. That as we proclaim our faith verbally, God will grant us wealth, protect us from harm, hold our enemies at bay; and on the last day, receive us into heaven. Such faith is not only superficial, but dangerous. It opens itself to the devil’s deception. For what happens when God does not grant us our wishes and we become disenchanted? This was Peter’s problem in the Gospel this week. Peter wanted salvation without the cross. That is why Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (verse 33) Sadly, many Christians have stopped practising their faith for exactly this reason.

My brothers and sisters, the Christian faith does not guarantee us earthly fulfilment. It grants us heavenly fulfilment. And heavenly fulfilment is not just fulfilment when we go to heaven. Our heavenly fulfilment starts on earth by us leading a fulfilled life – by giving ourselves in service to others; by sacrificing for sake of love; by forgiving and loving those who wronged us; and by enjoying life-giving, loving relationships with our loved ones. A fulfilled life in faith manifests spiritual fruits. As St Paul said, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

But, how do we learn to do that? In truth, there is no instruction manual for faith. We must learn through mistakes, through experience, and through following others’ example. The greatest example of this of course is our Lord Jesus Himself. He literally loved us to His death: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) Of course, there are also the examples of the great Saints in our history. St Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1987), better known as Mother Teresa, gave up her physical comfort to attended to the poor and dying on the streets of Calcutta. St Lawrence (225-258) called the poor people of Rome the treasures of the Church and was martyred by being roasted alive. The truth is, living a fulfilling life in faith does not mean living a comfortable life. Living a life in faith is not a passive state. It does not mean that we just verbalise that Jesus is the Messiah and expect good things to happen to us. True faith calls for action, true faith requires a response. In the Second Reading, St Paul said, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (verse 14) True faith will always drive us to act – to sacrifice, to serve and to love. It is through our faith that we touch hearts, that these hearts too will in turn be moved by faith and prompted to act. Otherwise, if we simply verbalise our faith and urge others to do the same, then all we are doing is spreading an intellectual understanding of faith, we are not spreading faith itself. Hence, St Paul said, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (verse 17-18)

And one of the great works of faith is the docility to accept sufferings as God wills it, as Jesus and the Saints showed us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of Jesus’ suffering and death, He prayed to the Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42) In the First Reading, a passage we often hear leading up to Easter, the suffering servant said, “I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (verse 6-7) Often, it is through our docility to accept the sufferings, especially sufferings unjustly inflicted upon us, that we soften those hardened offending hearts and convert them to faith. It is our docility in accepting sufferings that we may look beyond the creature comfort of our flesh and look to our eternal destiny. St Paul said, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24) As Jesus concluded in the Gospel this week, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (verse 34)

There is no truer faith than faith manifested in works of charity, sacrifice, service and docility. May the Holy Spirit guide us in our faith. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (5 Sep 2021)

23rd Sunday Year B

Isaiah 35:4-7
James 2:1-5
Mark 7:31-37

Approach Jesus with our spiritual impairments, let Him declare on us Ephphatha, which means “Be open”. Then we can be truly free.

What is freedom to you? The world defines freedom as the ability to do whatever one like. If that is the definition of freedom, then none of us is truly free. For a start, in our society, there are civil laws that governs our behaviours. Under our civil laws, we are not free to do whatever we like – we are not free to jaywalk, to damage public property or to hold mass gathering without a permit. At a personal level, the freedom of one person to act in whatever way he/she likes often would deprive another person of his/her freedom. In this way, the two persons cannot be both free. From example, my freedom to cause harm to another person would deny that person the freedom to live safely; my freedom to detain another person against his/her will would deprive that person of freedom of movement.

In spite of the illusive nature of worldly freedom, freedom has often been quoted by advocacy groups as their reason for wanting social changes. For example, I should be free to spent my money anyway I want, even if it involves vices such as pornography, prostitution or drugs; I should have the freedom to do what I want with my body, even if it means ending the life of the baby in my womb; I should be free do what I want with my life, including ending my own life; I should be free to marry whoever I want, even if it is a person of the same sex. As in the case of the earlier examples, worldly freedom is often a zero-sum game – one party’s win is another party’s loss. If I spend my money on vices, I am depriving others of their greater need of that money, e.g. my family and charitable causes. If I am free to end the life of a baby in my womb, I am depriving my child the freedom to live. If I am free to end my life, I am depriving others the joy and richness my life brings to them, especially my loved ones. If I am free to redefine marriage to include the union of a same-sex couple, I am depriving those with a traditional view of marriage their time-honoured definition of marriage. With the arrival of COVID-19, we continued to be obsessed with the concept of worldly freedom, even among Christians and people of faith. We have the anti-lockdowns, the anti-vaxxers and the conspiracy theorists. Everybody wants their freedom – freedom of movement, freedom to travel, freedom not to be vaccinated, freedom from catching COVID, freedom to enter any establishment we like, including hospitals and aged-care homes. And just like all other previous examples, the absolute freedom of one group deprives the freedom of another group. This inevitably leads to chaos and conflicts. But what is the real underlying reason for the chaos and conflicts we are witnessing in our society? In truth, as much as it is often quoted as the reason, the lack of freedom is not the reason. Rather it is because too many are deprived of their spiritual senses – our spiritual sight, spiritual hearing and the ability to speak spiritual truth.

The First Reading was written during a period when, as a consequence of their defeat by the Babylonians, the Jews lived in exile in a foreign land. The passage was written to give hope to the Jews that the exile was coming to an end. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you” (verse 4). At that time, their enslavement, sufferings and oppression will be no more, signified by the healing of the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute. Notice that prophet Isaiah associated freedom from exile with the regaining of sight, hearing, mobility and speech. So we ask ourselves: Am I free? Am I blind, deaf, lame or mute? My brothers and sisters, in truth, many of us live self-centred, selfish and narcissistic life. True sacrifice is rare. We often think of our own interest first and what we want for ourselves before we consider the other person. We only think of the other person’s needs when our own needs are satisfied. When I give to the poor, I give them my leftover loose change. When I work as a volunteer, I do so only in my spare time. Like the Jews under Babylonian bondage, we too are under bondage. Our bondage is the bondage to our sins of self-centredness, selfishness and narcissism. Under the bondage of sin, like the Jews under the bondage of their human oppressors, we too become blind, deaf, lame and mute – blind to the Grace of God; deaf to his teachings; too lame to give a helping hand; and too mute to proclaim God’s truth.

St Paul gave us an example of spiritual blindness in the Second Reading: “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’” (verse 2-3) My brothers and sisters, I invite you to play out St Paul’s scenario in your mind. Has St Paul described our reactions, if these same two persons walk into our church on a Sunday morning? Do we not see both of these persons are son and daughter of God, with the same dignity as us, loved by God just as He loves us?

So what should we do? Jesus teaches us, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3) The truth is, we are all sinners. To a greater or lesser extent, we all suffer from deprived spiritual senses. On the cross, Jesus the truly sinless one, did not look down on the deprived spiritual state of his tormentors. Instead he pleaded with His Father, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) To one who is addicted to pornography, prostitution or drugs, let me speak the words of counsel to him, not in a derogatory manner but speak the words of love. To one who has ended the life of her baby in her womb, let me hear the despair that had led her to that decision; and let me speak consoling words to her. To one whose physical ailment becomes so painful that he is contemplating euthanasia, let me see the pain and let my hands be that of God’s as I lend a helping hand. To one who is confused about his sexuality that he yearns for a person of the same sex for connection and sexual intimacy, let me see and hear the yearning of his heart and let me speak courageous words of counsel. Of course, not all of us are in the position to speak words of counsel, at least not all the time. And even when we are, we are often not in a position to bring about immediate changes to that person’s life. As sometimes, these issues stem from long-running trauma and wounds in that person’s life. It is in times like these that I need a discerning heart. I need to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I need the wisdom to know when to act. And at the right opportunity, I need the courage to act with spiritual sight, hearing and speech. And above all else, I need to convey my love and the love of God.

Finally, in those areas of my own life where I have been spiritually blind, deaf, lame or mute, I need to approach Jesus in humility. I need to try not to justify my sins. Rather, like the deaf man in this week’s Gospel, I need to beg Jesus to lay His healing hand on me (verse 32). Let Him declare to me as He declared to the deaf man, “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (verse 34) Then, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (First Reading, verse 5-6) It is then that I am truly free.

May our Lord Jesus grant us true freedom. Amen.