“When Jesus heard this he was astonished and said to those following him, ‘I tell you solemnly, nowhere in Israel have I found faith like this. And I tell you that many will come from east and west to take their places with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob at the feast on the kingdom of heaven; but the subjects of the kingdom will be turned out into the dark, where there will be weeping and grinding of teeth.’” Such was the judgment of the faith of the Jews, especially the religious leaders. The remark of Jesus surely would have been a scandal to the Jews because they thought they were the chosen people of God and therefore guaranteed of a place in the Kingdom. To add salt to the wound, Jesus ventured further to declare that the sinners and gentiles from the four corners of the earth would find themselves in the kingdom of God, but the Jews would be left out. What is said of them is also applicable to us Catholics as well. Why is this warning so real for us?
The truth is that we Catholics, like the Jews, tend to take our faith for granted. Many of us are cradle Catholics, baptized when we were infants. Our parents made the act of faith on our behalf when we were still unable to make our personal profession of faith in Christ. Unfortunately, although we are supposed to make the faith of our parents our own personally over the years, sometimes it does not take place. We grow up in a Catholic milieu and we imbibe the faith like a culture, that is to say, we are conditioned into it without understanding what or why we are doing or what we do. Indeed, many of us never question our culture or the customs we practice because everyone else is doing it. But without understanding the value of the cultural practices, it becomes routine, perfunctory and sometimes even superstitious.
Indeed, the irony of life is that those who have to pay a price for what they believe in tend to make better citizens or committed faith believers. When faith is given to us on a platter, it ends up as cheap grace. When a gift is given freely without us realizing the cost, we do not really appreciate what we receive. This is true for the modern generation because they grow up with all the comforts of life, unlike those who were born 50 years ago when Singapore was then still poor. Some Singaporeans take their country for granted and hence they lack patriotism. As for faith, many Catholics do not treasure or cherish the faith that was brought to us by our forefathers and the French missionaries who paid a heavy price to travel to foreign lands and made much sacrifices for the local Church.
The gospel speaks of the faith of the Centurion. He did not take Jesus for granted. He was firstly a Roman, hated by the Jews. Secondly, he was of stature in terms of rank, power and wealth. Yet, he humbled himself to come to the Lord seeking His help. He was conscious of his position with respect to the Jews and also sensitive to their customs. This explains why he did not want to trouble the Lord to go to his house and be contaminated ritually. He had total faith in the Lord whom he believed could heal from afar, since He was a man of God. He was most grateful that Jesus would even consider his request and dared not ask for more.
When we take our faith for granted, like the Jews who thought they were the chosen people of God and, based on that promise, assured of salvation, we will become complacent in our relationship with God. We cannot depend and rely on heritage when it comes to faith because faith is a personal thing. Faith is not a thing but a personal relationship with God. We cannot depend simply on the fact that we are Catholic, or that we were baptized and therefore grace works without the need for our human cooperation. On the contrary, grace perfects nature, but does not work without the assistance of nature.
Many Catholics do not find their faith liberating and empowering, simply because of routine practices. Day in day out, Sunday after Sunday, year after year, they would go to Church and practise the faith like a ritual without personal conviction or understanding. They do not grow in relationship with the Lord. Often, what they do is done in a superstitious manner, either for fear of punishment or condemnation. No wonder a day would come when they suddenly awake from their ignorance because someone challenged them in their faith or because of a crisis in their life. When that happens, often it is too late to reach out to them because they have found God in another church or in another religion. If God is experienced outside the Catholic faith, they will leave the Church. The truth is not because the Catholic faith cannot mediate the presence and the love of God but simply because we allow our Catholics to live on a nominal, routine and superficial faith. We do not help them to deepen their faith and their relationship with Christ, either intellectually or personally.
What are the consequences of a ritualistic and mechanical faith? We will face the same tragic consequences as the first reading from the Book of Lamentations tells us. The prophet Jeremiah lamented over the state of Israel. Both the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah were destroyed and all were taken captives by the Assyrians and the Babylonians respectively. The responsorial psalm sums up the sentiments of the Israelites in their national tragedy when he cried out, “Why, O God, have you cast us off forever? Turn your steps to these places that are utterly ruined! The enemy has laid waste the whole of the sanctuary. Your foes have made uproar in your house of prayer: they have set up their emblems, their foreign emblems, high above the entrance to the sanctuary. Their axes have battered the wood of its doors. They have struck together with hatchet and pickaxe. O God, they have set your sanctuary on fire: they have razed and profaned the place where you dwell.”
Like the Israelites, we will suffer not just the loss of our faith but eventually our people will be destroyed due to moral and spiritual decadence. When a country loses her soul and sells herself to materialism, consumerism, power and glory, its people will end up with an impoverished soul, without strong ethical values of integrity, honesty, compassion and tolerance. This will surely lead to the country’s perdition. This is already happening all over the world. With the family institution weakened because of globalization and migration, coupled with the instability of marriages, our young people no longer come from loving, stable and good families. They lack models and mentors for faith and life. How shortsighted the world has become! We are only concerned with economic progress and technological advancement but we are not paying attention to the ethical values of our people. How can a nation ever sustain itself without moral integrity, justice and compassion, especially for the weak and the poor?
The cause is always a weak faith in God. Our religious practices are routine, external, and our doctrines empty, because our hearts are not with God. It is a dead faith. Such faith cannot give us life abundantly. History repeats itself but no one takes history seriously until it is too late to regret, like the Israelites. Unfortunately, like them, we are stubborn and incorrigible till we suffer the full consequences of our sins and negligence. Only then will we, like them, cry out to the Lord and return to Him. Jeremiah said, “Cry aloud, then, to the Lord, groan, daughter of Zion; let your tears flow like a torrent, day and night; give yourself no relief, grant your eyes no rest. Up, cry out in the night-time, in the early hours of darkness; pour your heart out like water before the Lord. Stretch out your hands to him for the lives of your children who faint with hunger at the entrance to every street.”
Still, the Lord never rejects us. He comes to forgive and heal. In the gospel, we read that He has come to carry our infirmities. “They bought him many who were possessed by devils. He cast out the spirits with a word and cured all who were sick. This was to fulfil the prophecy of Isaiah: He took our sicknesses away and carried our diseases for us.” So with faith and a humble heart, like the Centurion, let us turn to the Lord and beg for His mercy.
Most of all, imitating Peter’s mother-in-law who was healed by the Lord, we must now serve Him with all our heart. We must never forget that once healed and forgiven, we are restored for service to the Lord and His people. Health is never for ourselves but for the service of others. So, let us be grateful like Peter’s mother-in-law so that out of gratitude, we will not take our faith for granted but endeavour to deepen our faith in Christ and our relationship with Him. Only a personal faith in the authority and the person of Jesus could help us to live our lives meaningfully and courageously. We are called to cling to His word like the Centurion, believing that His word gives us life.