APOSTOLIC ZEAL COMES FROM A SUFFICIENCY FOUNDED ON A DEEP EXPERIENCE OF GOD’S LOVE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ PHIL 3:3-8; LK 15:1-10]
Unlike Protestants, Catholics generally are not used to going on mission, especially in the work of direct evangelization. We do not mind going on mission trips, or rather mercy trips, to help the poor and the underprivileged in poor countries, but we usually fight shy of direct proclamation of the Good News for fear of rejection and even ridicule. Protestants, on the other hand, are ready to brace rejection and brazenly go out to share the Good News with strangers. At the bottom of this fear to reach out is our lack of control, because of uncertainties. We lack the faith to trust in the power of God. We seek security in ourselves.
I know of a young man who goes on mission trips, helping the underprivileged children in poor countries using his own resources. He considers his work for the poor as his apostolic mission in life. I asked him whether he had ever considered a priestly vocation. He replied that he finds the priesthood lacking challenges. In his view, such a life is too sedentary and comfortable. Everything is provided for, whether food, accommodation or medical attention. It looks like a life of security. Whereas for this young man, he told me that his life is full of dangers. Sometimes, there are no proper facilities in those remote places where he worked, not even electricity. He lives in faith, trusting in God to supply his needs.
Indeed, most of us seldom have the experience of living in uncertainty, unlike the poor man in the street who has to worry about his accommodation, his next meal or his medical needs. As a result of our sufficiency, we never really have to live in faith in such a way that we need to rely on Him alone. Even when sick, we turn to medical science for cure. Only when we have exhausted all means, then we turn to God out of desperation, not out of faith. If the world has lost faith in God and become secular, it is because the world thinks that all the problems can be solved through science and technology.
Indeed, there is a real danger of complacency when we do not experience our insufficiency. This was the situation of the Israelites and the Jews. Just because they were the chosen people, they began to believe that salvation was something owed to them and assured simply because of their race. So much so, they thought salvation was meant for them alone. Furthermore, they thought that just by following the laws of the Covenant, they would have earned merit before God. They failed to realize that they were initially nobody. They were slaves and God chose them. When they relied on their race or their own strength, they became a frozen people. Salvation by grace became salvation by merit.
St Paul himself was aware of this danger when he recognized that such privileges could become a liability in our lives. Indeed, he said, “If it came to relying on physical evidence, I should be fully qualified myself. Take any man who thinks he can rely in what is physical: I am even better qualified.” Truly, Paul was a Jew by birth. He was trained in scriptures and the tradition of his ancestors and was a rabbi. He was also a Roman citizen. Most of all, he said, “as for working for religion, I was a persecutor of the Church; as far as the Law can make you perfect, I was faultless.” When he relied on his credentials and physical merits, he became self-righteous, proud and judgmental like the Pharisees and scribes who complained when Jesus ate and drink with the tax collectors and the sinners, who “were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say.”
We, too, even whilst professing our faith in Christ, are in danger of self-sufficiency because in reality, we rely on the knowledge we have gained through study or the meticulous ways we prepare for our projects. We find our security from our talents and strength. There is a temptation to rely more on ourselves rather than on God. Catholics tend to be activists and functional in Church movements. We organize many activities in our parishes and we spend much time in planning and executing our projects. The reality is that we do not spend time praying for the success of our projects and even if we do, do we pray fervently and with faith or just in a perfunctorily manner? Because we never experience our nothingness, we never really turn to God in prayer and pray with faith. Only those who have experienced so much insecurity in life tend to pray with fervor and faith because they have come to realize that only God can be their sufficiency. False security makes us proud, complacent and even lazy.
Thus, it is important that we must know where the power of apostolic zeal is to be found. It is found in knowing Jesus. St Paul understood this need of finding total reliance on the Lord when he said, “But because of Christ, I have come to consider all the advantages that I had as disadvantages. Not only that, but I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” What is this knowledge that Paul speaks about? It is the knowledge of the death and resurrection of the Lord. In his death, Paul encountered the depths of God’s unconditional love and mercy in Christ. In his resurrection, Paul encountered the fidelity of the Father and the living personal presence of Christ in his life. It was this realization of his nothingness before God’s mercy and the new life empowered by the Risen Lord that gave him the strength of apostolic zeal.
When St Paul came to realize that conversion is not simply rhetoric and skills or qualifications but the power of God that comes from the Risen Christ, he considered all his human qualifications as insignificant. He recognized himself to be that lost sheep in today’s parable that was rescued by Christ. We are that lost sheep considered insignificant by others who are rich and strong, like the 99 sheep. That God would even go out of His way to rescue us shows how important we are to Him, even if we were only one among the 100 sheep. Thus, St Paul exclaimed, “we are the real people of the circumcision, we who worship in accordance with the Spirit of God; we have our own glory from Christ Jesus without having to rely on a physical operation.” In Christ, his heart was circumcised from pride and ambition. Instead, he relied on the Lord for everything. The joy of experiencing His love and mercy empowered him to share that unimaginable joy with others.
Yes, unless we experience God’s mercy we cannot know the power of His love and therefore unable to share the thirst of God for salvation of humankind. It is this experience that leads us to deep gratitude and appreciation. Otherwise, not only will we not bother about the lost sheep, since we have so many, but will be complacent even with only the few sheep that we have left under our care. Indeed, as is evidenced in many so-called Christian countries, we are not even interested in the ninety-nine that are lost!
We must avoid coming to this pathetic stage in our apostolic mission and zeal. We must be more evangelical minded, identifying with the mission of the Church in reaching out to as many as possible; and never parochial-minded, protecting our little kingdom. Yes, if we know the heart of Jesus, then we too will never be contented, never rest, always working, staying connected with our people, improving ourselves and seeking new ways to proclaim Christ and to find the lost sheep. Like the woman, we too would want to light up the lives of our people and search every place for the lost coin, and like the Good Shepherd for the lost sheep, for indeed, “there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one repentant sinner than over ninety-nine virtuous men who have no need of repentance.” The joy of bringing someone to Christ is unimaginable, both for us and for God. But we must never rely on our own strength. Let us take heed of the advice of the psalmist, “Consider the Lord and his strength; constantly seek his face. Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles, the judgements he spoke. Let the hearts that seek the Lord rejoice.”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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