Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time(C)
August 22, 2010

The readings today are very much apropos the recently concluded World Cup that captured the world’s interest for a whole month.

Isaiah’s vision speaks of a great ingathering of people “from all nations” “of every language” who “shall come and see [God’s] glory.” The passage from the letter to the Hebrews speaks of “discipline”“brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Discipline, in other words, appears to come more easy and more acceptable for one who gets training. (The word for “training” has to do with the root-word for gymnastics). The Gospel, for its part, further affirms the overriding images of the first two readings, by alluding to the need for Christ’s followers “to strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many […] will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.” (the original meaning has to do more with “instruction”), and acknowledges said discipline to be a source, not so much of joy, as of pain, but which

At a time in history when people go through all imaginable lengths to get what they want, what they dream of, and long for, above everything else … with top seeded athletes enduring hours-long stretches of “training” and rigorous “discipline” day after grueling day … when even terrorists spend years “casing” their targets carefully and meticulously … when a mass media-mediated culture of individualism, one-upmanship, and unbridled competition is the run of the day, it definitely sounds refreshing and reinvigorating to hear something that seems to reinforce that which we are already good at – competing, trying to get to the top of the heap, pushing, shoving, or otherwise clawing one’s way to the pinnacle of our earthly desires.

Ever since the philosopher Descartes, and his famous declaration “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore, I am!), which became the banner headline and war-cry of a movement called the “enlightenment,” “going for the gold,” “pulling one’s own strings,” “going out and grabbing for oneself,” and “being number one” became apparently the “right thing” to do, the foundation stones for “rugged individualism” pushed to the extreme.

So what is wrong with disciplining and training oneself in order to become top dog? Nothing in and of itself … Except that if it becomes the end in itself, if clawing one’s way to the top is the end all and be all of one’s existence, and if everything and everyone else is sacrificed on the altar of one’s search for the holy grail of individual and personal success and fulfillment, then all this becomes vanity … all is vanity … Today’s readings, furthermore, tell us we are off the mark … way, way off.
Let us unpack a bit the meaning of today’s readings. First, Isaiah tells us that the proper starting point is not our personal dream, but that of God’s. God’s vision, in addition, is one of a great ingathering of peoples and nations. This is not the language of individualism and narrow, personal concerns. Nor is this the language of exclusivity, but one of inclusivity. Second, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that this search for the common good, this concern for others, and this drive to “go out to all the world [to] tell the good news” is fraught with a lot of trials and, therefore, needs “discipline.” Still more, this discipline may cause a lot of pain. Third, Jesus reminds us that discipleship entails hard work, and that those who are first now will not necessarily keep their title at the end of time. “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It is very clear that the need for discipline and training is framed in the context of God’s vision for the world. It is clear that the Christian calling to discipleship is primarily a call to social relatedness, to social responsibility, in the context, not of individualism and a self-centered spirituality, but one that starts and ends with the idea of everyone’s belongingness to a community called and gathered by God Himself.

In our times, encouraged as we are by a techno-savvy individualistic culture, and by mainstream media and round-the-clock entertainment to “do our own thing,” and “look out for oneself,” at a time when the most coveted items are things like “personal computers,” “personal digital assistants,” “personal TV/video players,” and “personal entertainment centers like IPods, IPads, and all, religion and spirituality become highly personal and private matters that need not be talked about in public. God becomes a personal commodity to be sought for on one’s own, at one’s own convenience, at one’s own style and pacing. For a great many, this translates to a God that is conveniently and effectively kept “at arm’s length,” in one’s closet, in the privacy of one’s home, to be consulted only as needed, when convenient, when strictly necessary. For those in the opposite extreme, who are very religious, but who subscribe to an idea of an equally personal and deeply private faith, “discipline” and “training” get reduced to “pietistic” practices and personal devotions. Their faith never gets beyond what at times may be deemed fanatical and misguided attachments to popular devotions, statues, and images. For the former, God is a personal commodity to be called on as needed. For the latter, God is an intensely private source of solace and consolation, and faith is nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but private, personal devotion. For such people, personal holiness means spending all-night vigils, doing endless reparatory prayers for “sinners all over the world,” and trying to appease an angry God whose hands are poised to strike the world in punishment.

But today’s readings, and Biblical data as a whole, simply do not support such extremes of living one’s faith. At bottom, both approaches are extremely individualistic, and self-centered. Both are really based solely on individuals’ dreams for themselves. Both lose sight of God’s dream for the world, for all of humanity, including those from whom we might never expect much, at least initially – the foreigners, “people from the east and the west, and from the north and the south.”

Today, therefore, is a good time to be reminded of the Catholic Church’s “best-kept secret” – the catholic social teachings. In essence, following very clear Biblical data, said teachings remind us that we all are called to be holy, yes – but holiness in and through our relational selves, in and through our social selves. Holiness, thus, is not a mere pious endeavor, that reduces Christian life to personal prayers and personal devotions, and mere ritualistic attendance at Masses on Sundays. Holiness, in addition, is not mere personal sanctification, but a participation in God’s dream for humankind, for the world, for society. Holiness, is a participation in the mission of social transformation, in sharing in the “joys, the hopes, the anxieties and the griefs of modern men and women” (Gaudium et Spes) all over the world. It means being engaged and involved in an imperfect world trying to reach common fulfillment for all humanity.

For as Christians, we are all called, gathered, disciplined (instructed) by God, and sent to “all the world [to] tell the Good News.”