Plastic – Jett Villarin, SJ

Matthew 23:1-12, 31st Sunday in Ordinary Time


Remember Archimedes? He was the guy who was asked to solve this problem of knowing whether a crown was made of true gold or not. (How timely indeed during this time of fake news and alternative facts. In truth, how do we know when gold is not gold?) He knew about the density of things (which was just mass over volume). And he knew that gold would have to be denser than most metals pretending to be gold. He could weigh the mass but there was no way he could measure the volume of a complicated object like a crown.

Until he took a bath, got into his tub and saw the water rise. Looking at the volume of displaced water, he found the answer. This was just the volume of whatever object was submerged in the water. There in the tub, he got his eureka moment. We know the story: he supposedly ran out to the streets, shouting “Eureka! Eureka!” (“I found it! I found it!”) in his birthday suit.

In a way, God is challenging us in the readings today to know when gold is not gold. And he is turning our gaze toward leaders, those who have a hold on our lives. He is daring us to discern what authenticity might mean for ourselves and to detect who these authentic leaders are in our midst. And he is asking us to lead others as well in the way of Christ, who humbled himself in the manner of a servant.

Interestingly, our Filipino word for a fake person is “plastik”. It is derived from plastic; something synthetic that can be molded into any shape. While plasticity is associated with being pliant and adaptable, “plastikan” is a party of hypocrites.

More interestingly (and this is my interpretation already), plastic is non-biodegradable, which suggests a certain survivability or obstinacy to dissolving, which hints that hypocrisy and hypocrites are here to stay for a long, long time. Such durability can often be seen in those persons and leaders who are known for their self-righteous arrogance, the kind that endures to this day, in those present-day Pharisees whose faces are, well, non-biodegradable.

Now before we fall into this them-vs-us self-righteous trap, we do well to confess that there are non-biodegradable items we ourselves store in our dusty heart. We have what it takes to pretend.

In fact, that is how we spot the plastic person or leader who is only after his or her own hide. By looking inside ourselves first, the masks we wear, the image we try to maintain to the outside world, those subtle desires that morph into dangerous addictions and ambitions, we discover that we have what it takes to deceive others and ourselves. We gaze at the mirror and we acknowledge the many ways we gravitate toward wealth or security or honor or power. We take those selfies and we realize we can be won over by titles, places of honor, dress (those “tassels and phylacteries”), and other marks of external privilege and piety.

Is there hope then for the plastic and Pharisee in us? Can we ever rid ourselves of this durable hypocrisy and fakery and delusion?

Yes, by looking at the same mirror that reflects us to ourselves, by looking at our face long enough to let some truth and honesty wash over us until we discover again that we are not rabbi or father or master of this universe. Stand before the looking glass long enough and we might see again that we are the ones being taught; we are not the teacher. We are children begotten from God; we did not father ourselves. And in truth, our place in this world is as trusted servants, not as lords or masters of the domain created for us.

There is hope for the plastic to dissolve itself if we turn to God, if we acknowledge the presence and place of God in our lives, and if we try our best to remember that we are not the center of the universe. Plasticity (or hypocrisy or even pride) is fabricated from our forgetfulness of God and ourselves.

“The greatest among you must be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled; but whoever humbles himself will be exalted.”

How then are we to know when gold is truly gold? The true person or leader is the one who is convinced that we are here in this life not to be served by others or to lord it over the rest. We find our true place when we learn to serve others, not just those who are close to us, but also and especially those at the margins who are far from us. We see our true joy wherever we offer our lives in the way of Christ, our true master, who humbled himself in the manner of a servant.

This humbling experience is akin to being thrown into the water. Perhaps there in the humbling we will see the water rise and we shall wake up to our true volume and real worth. There perhaps shall we know that we are only as worthy as the servant who serves out of humility. There in the water shall we discover that our worth in the universe is only as real and as dense as our love.

from God’s Word Today, Philippine Star

Image from the Internet

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