Our “Yes”: Appearances vs Living the Faith

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings: Ez 18:25-28; Ps 24; Phil 2:1-11; Mt 21:28-32

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

JESUS said to the chief priests and elders of the people, ‘What is your opinion? A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, you go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the father’s will?’ ‘The first’ they said. Jesus said to them, ‘I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you, a pattern of true righteousness, but you did not believe him, and yet the tax collectors and prostitutes did. Even after seeing that, you refused to think better of it and believe in him.’

IN a conversation with the American bishop, Robert Barron, controversial Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson said that many of his critics usually try to pin him down or discredit him, especially to people of faith, on his belief in God. This is because he refuses to make a categorical answer when asked. According to him, he dislikes the question.

Jordan Peterson and Bishop Barron - Word on Fire

Click on the image to watch the podcast

The reason for this is that he believes that he does not have the moral right to claim belief in God. For him, proclaiming belief in God is not a trivial thing; not merely a matter of stating that he agree semantically with a set of doctrines. For Peterson, to say “I believe”—something we always do in the Mass—is a grave matter. Because this means one has to live by that claim—to commit to living a certain way, to behave in a certain way that is grounded to what one professes, and for him, he finds that claim “I believe” so demanding, stringent and all-consuming.

Unfortunately, much of our lives, behaviour and value system, especially in this era of self-affirmation, run on externals; where the operative but unspoken rule is ‘keeping up appearances,’ as Jesus in our Gospel today reminds us. In the parable, the second son has neither depth of conviction nor any sense of commitment except to himself. So he has no problem either in saying yes to his father or in refusing to follow up on his word, all in the same breath and quite matter-of-factly. He has no problem and even satisfied with doing nothing so long as he appears to comply with his father’s wishes and the artificial appearances of the father-son relationship are safeguarded, even if only superficially.

On the other hand, you have the first son who bluntly rejects the father’s request, maybe because he is not interested in appearances or self-righteousness—like Jordan Peterson—but has a sense of personal responsibility and his depth of commitment to the relationship drives him to repentance and ultimately follows his father’s wishes.

What the Gospel is trying to tell us is that what matters is personal integrity and a deep sense of commitment to our relationship with God. A commitment that translates into actions. This is why Jesus is so critical and reproachful to the religious and political leaders of his time to whom this parable is addressed. In Jesus’ words, prostitutes and tax collectors will be first in the kingdom of God. Despite their presumed unacceptable lifestyle, they do not operate out of pretence or performance but out of honesty—they are aware of their sinful actions but maybe can’t address them due to personal and social circumstances, yet they are always mindful that they need the mercy of God to be better. This is a clear contrast to those who, ignoring mercy, charity, justice, and human dignity, Parable of Pharisee and tax collector teaches us healthy autonomyare content and feel justified with lip service, empty rituals and judgemental self-righteousness.

It is relatively easy to be a yes-person of faith, living one’s claim by external practices—keeping up appearances, satisfied with rituals, self-centred prayer and devotions, but never allowing the depth of faith-relationship to touch us deeply and personally. Like the second son, our claim remains empty words peppering over an empty soul, with neither heart nor action.

On the other hand, to say “I believe” is, indeed, a demanding task, as Peterson puts it. It is painfully challenging to push beyond our “no’s” in life. And knowing fully well our weaknesses and brokenness allows the Father’s call to sink and impregnate our hearts and become actions for good and transformation. When this happens, when we, sinners, as Ezekiel said in the first reading, “renounce sin to become law-abiding and honest” then we truly take priority in God’s eyes ahead of any external, self-righteous “yes”, because the claim of such “no” people is an honest self-appraisal and commitment to a relationship of love.

The challenge is ours, brothers and sisters. As we proclaim publicly “I believe”, are we people who say “yes” to God, but then leave that yes the moment I say “Go” at the end of Mass, satisfied that we have done our part? Is the rest of our week fired by God’s presence or are we so self-righteous as to live merely keeping up appearances? Let us heed the words of St Paul in the second reading: “In your minds, you must be the same as Christ Jesus.” The same Christ who proves his faith in the Father through obedient actions and not mere promise. For the true mark of a Christian is obedient action graciously and courteously given. ###

NB. I do not claim that my homilies are original. I usually use the many resources our Catholic faith offers to break open the Word of the Lord. Among these resources are the works of scripture scholars and the videos of Bishop Robert Barron. For this particular Sunday, I recommend the works of Fr Peter Verengo, SDB  and the following videos of Bishop Barron that I used in my reflection — Deacon Chris

“As We Forgive those who Trespass Against Us”

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A) 2020

Readings: Sir 27:30 – 28:7; Ps 102; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35

A reading from the holy Gospel according to Matthew

Peter went up to Jesus and said, ‘Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?’ Jesus answered, ‘Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.

‘And so the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who decided to settle his accounts with his servants. When the reckoning began, they brought him a man who owed ten thousand talents; but he had no means of paying, so his master gave orders that he should be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, to meet the debt. At this, the servant threw himself down at his master’s feet. “Give me time,” he said “and I will pay the whole sum.” And the servant’s master felt so sorry for him that he let him go and cancelled the debt. Now as this servant went out, he happened to meet a fellow servant who owed him one hundred denarii; and he seized him by the throat and began to throttle him. “Pay what you owe me”, he said. His fellow servant fell at his feet and implored him, saying, “Give me time and I will pay you.” But the other would not agree; on the contrary, he had him thrown into prison till he should pay the debt. His fellow servants were deeply distressed when they saw what had happened, and they went to their master and reported the whole affair to him. Then the master sent for him. “You wicked servant,” he said. “I cancelled all that debt of yours when you appealed to me. Were you not bound, then, to have pity on your fellow servant just as I had pity on you?” And in his anger the master handed him over to the torturers till he should pay all his debt. And that is how my heavenly Father will deal with you unless you each forgive your brother from your heart.’

Forgiveness - Oakhill Drive Public School - A Positive Education SchoolWHAT I like running the RCIA process is that learning something about the faith is not limited to those who are undertaking the spiritual journey of becoming Catholics. As companions to the inquirers and candidates, we too, learn from them. Several years ago, I discussed with a catechumen and his sponsors about the Lord’s Prayer and I was trying to explain to them the meaning and significance of the prayer in our lives as Catholics.

When we came to that line in the Lord’s Prayer that says “… and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” one of the participants suddenly exclaimed following with the question: “So will I only be forgiven if I forgive? What if one does not ask for forgiveness or even refuse to acknowledge his or her wrongdoings against me? That would not be fair.”

A valid question. Most of us will probably struggle with this question. Indeed, it is hard to forgive. Because what is involved is not just a notion that something was broken or being betrayed; that something unfair has been committed.

It is not just a “head” thing. More importantly, it is hard to forgive because it involves emotion; feelings of anger and hurt. Oftentimes, it is hard for us to forgive because we are angry and hurt. But maybe our anger and our hurt are also manifestations of our love to that person “who trespass against us.” The more anger, the more hurt we feel may correspond to how we bond with that person. That is why it is harder to forgive those we consider close friends. Even harder with family members. Why? Because we naturally bond closer with our friends; because we love family more than any other person. Indeed, anger and hurt are part of our lives because relationships are part of our existence.

However, forgiveness does not mean we should forget about justice–that sense of fairness or giving “what is due to God and neighbour.” For we are all called “to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good (Catechism, 1807).” True, Jesus told the adulterous woman that she was forgiven in the gospel accounts (Jn 7:53-8:11). But he did not let the woman off the hook either. Instead, he said, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

We are all given the gift of forgiveness but we are also called to make restitution and to conversion. For forgiveness or pardon without repentance or restitution negates the notion of fairness and the very sense of justice. As heard last week, Jesus wants the Church to care about tolerance, unity, and mercy, but he wants to care even more about the truth.

To the question: “Will I only be forgiven if I forgive first?” My answer was that we were already given that gift when Jesus became a man like us, died on the cross and rose from the dead.Wednesday's Encouraging Word - Forgiveness

The thing is, we can only feel that grace if we truly repent for our sins and if we experience how it feels to forgive. Think about the feeling of being forgiven whether after going to the sacrament of reconciliation or after reconciling with somebody. How palpable it is; as if something heavy has been lifted off our shoulders. I know. I feel it every time I receive absolution and it always brings tears of gratitude towards our God and Father.

Yes, it is hard to forgive. And sometimes it takes time. But maybe the first step is to try freeing ourselves of the hurt; let the actions or the event that injured our feelings not hurt us anymore. Then when the hurt is gone, anger will also fade away until such a time that we can open our hearts once again and be ready to forgive when forgiveness is sought to restore harmony and relationships once again.

The lesson of the Good Thief - District of AsiaMay also suggest, that while we are in this process, let us reflect on the words of the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Let us also be constantly reminded of our Lord’s response to Peter when asked: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother if he wrongs me? As often as seven times?” NO, Jesus said, “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times.”