Most Reverend Vincent Long Van Nguyen OFM Conv DD STL, Bishop of Parramatta
Mass for the 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Parramatta
Readings: Wisdom 18:6-9; Hebrews 11:1-2, 8-19; Luke 12:32-48
Embracing the precarious and vulnerable path of discipleship
Dear sisters and brothers,
Some of you might have heard of the so-called “Prosperity Gospel”. It is a belief that physical well-being, wealth and financial success are signs of God’s favour. Conversely, sickness, poverty and calamity are viewed as curses. The purpose of one’s life as a Christian is to seek and acquire the blessings of God through these tangible and worldly barometers.
We may not easily fall prey to the preachers, especially smooth-talking tele-evangelists who broker the “Prosperity Gospel” in exchange for our donations. However, it is quite possible that we struggle with the notion that suffering -not blessing- is the ultimate authentic barometer of the Christian faith.
Scripture in the last few weeks teaches us about what it takes to be the true follower of Jesus. Last Sunday, Jesus cautioned us against accumulation and greed through the parable of the rich man who wanted to build bigger barns instead of sharing his resources. This week, the focus is on another dimension of costly discipleship. It involves letting go of our securities, embracing the risk of uncertainty and venturing into the unknown chaos. To be a disciple is to choose an alternative mode of thinking and living quite contrary to our default position of safety, security and comfort.
The first reading gives us a reflection on how to live with the wisdom of God as opposed to the conventional wisdom that sees success and power as the ultimate goal in life. Instead of saying, health and wealth are the rewards of faith, the Book of Wisdom takes us to a higher level of spiritual maturity. We are told to pursue integrity and righteousness even when we are cornered without a way out.
Today’s episode exhorts us to follow the example of our ancestors in faith. These put their trust in God and joyfully endured the “night that had been foretold to them”. The “night” here refers to the kind of trials and tribulations that are described in the Letter to the Hebrews in respect of Abraham and Sarah. They hoped against hope. They put their faith in God even when it cost them everything. They trusted even when the blessings promised to them remained mostly unseen and unfulfilled. It was a giant leap of faith to leave the security of the past and walk into the unknown.
In the Gospel, Jesus uses the parable of the faithful servant to remind his disciples of the need to be alert and responsive. It is a kind of spiritual sensitivity and vigilance that allows us to discern God’s presence and action in the world and to make a faithful response to it.
The parable warns us against complacency, apathy and resignation. The lack of visible signs or the delay of the Kingdom’s fulfilment should not cause us to lose our focus and passion for the Kingdom. In other words, Jesus is calling us not to expect deliverance passively but to engage actively in our discipleship and witness. It is a call to action in favour of the Kingdom. It is also a summons to a hope-filled interaction with the world redeemed and destined for transformation.
The Word of God today makes it clear that faith is not synonymous with certitude, satisfaction and fulfilment. Rather, it has to do with the rightly aligned heart, the dressed-for-action body, the lit lamp on a dark night. It is the humble willingness to care for a house we don’t possess until its rightful owner comes home. It is the patient ability to wait on a promise that has not yet been fulfilled.
Oscar Romero who died a martyr in the name of justice for the poor in his homeland expressed the sense of precarious and vulnerable discipleship as follows: “We may never see the end result, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker. We are workers, not master builders, ministers not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own.”
It is not in yearning for or holding onto the known and the familiar but in reimagining the future and venturing into the unknown chaos like the old exodus that we shall find new life. We can react with fear, despair or denial in these unsettling times. This was the way many Israelites reacted when faced with the barren desert. I suspect many of our contemporaries do the same with respect to the crisis in the Church. There is something hauntingly similar between the Israelites’ penchant for certitudes of Egypt and many of Pope Francis’ critics’ demands for dogmatic clarity.
May the teaching and example of Jesus guide us as we endeavour to build our lives, relationships and communities that mirror the Reign of God. Like the early Christians who formed an intentional, caring, inclusive and loving community aligned with God’s intent rather than the empire, may we learn to grow and become a more effective instrument and a sign of hope for the human family.