30 January, Sunday – Battling Selection Bias

4th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Jer 1:4-5,17-19
1 Cor 12:31-13:13
Lk 4:21-30

They said, ”This is Joseph’s son, surely?”

The gospel today speaks about Jesus’ return to Nazareth after performing miraculous works in Capernaum. The news of his ministry must have undoubtedly spread across the land, to the extent that the Nazarenes were eager to question his credibility upon his return. These neighbours of Jesus had probably witnessed Jesus’ upbringing as a son of their town’s carpenter; they were keen to critique and slow to believe in his greatness from the rumours that they had heard. While this reading summarizes the situation that the Lord himself faced, being rejected by the folks in his hometown, it also highlights a basic truth about the struggles we often encounter in our own communities — or at times, the struggles we have caused to occur to others.

There is a tendency to relate to Jesus’ experience when we are at the receiving end of the critics, when our ‘well-intended’ advice to a family member or friend falls on deaf ears or ends up in a rebuff. However, the reflection of today’s gospel concerns the other party in the equation – the critics who are rejecting the message.

The Catholic200SG festival concluded recently in late 2021 with a slew of interesting programmes, art exhibitions and talks to commemorate the 200th anniversary of Catholicism in Singapore. The scale of celebrations and variety of programs on offer were unprecedented, especially in light of the pandemic. Many of us had felt a certain level of disengagement when it came to maintaining our spiritual connection, hence the festival celebrations came at an opportune time. On one of the talks which I attended, admittedly I could relate to the Nazarene critics in today’s gospel. Perhaps this is God’s way of exposing my own inadequacies and biasness, as the speakers for the talk that I’d signed up for were not revealed at the point of registration. If I had known who the speakers were beforehand, I might have skipped the session as a result of my selection bias perception. Due to previous encounters in the workshops conducted by the same speaker, I’d already formed a certain judgement on the credibility of the Messenger. This, perhaps, is one of the most well-known examples of confirmation bias — whereby people tend to recall only examples that confirm their previous experiences and beliefs. The selective perception inadvertently affected my ability to listen to the speaker objectively. While seated in the classroom even before the start of the session, I could sense my mind rejecting any possible teachings that could come from the speaker. Throughout the talk, it was a constant uphill battle between objectively assessing the contents versus giving in to my preconceived notions of the speaker. I’m glad I made it through the session without leaving halfway, perhaps stemming from an eagerness to have more fodder to nitpick on. I’m sure many of us have encountered such scenarios in our church community, especially in tiny Singapore, where we are bound to cross paths with fellow active Christians within the parish or archdiocese setting. Despite our negative perceptions, it is important to remember that most who have contributed tirelessly to our church community do so on a voluntary basis and have little to gain from it.

As it is often quoted, sin blinds us to all things. Whenever our soul is obscured in a mist of self-will and self-regard, sight fails. Although the speaker in this context is incomparable to a prophet, we must not forget that God doesn’t just speak to us through scriptures and the ordained, but also via our fellow brothers and sisters in the church community. That is where discernment comes into play — the ability to judge well and identify the true nature of things instead of allowing oneself to be clouded by our emotions. Even though the Nazarenes were awed by the truth of Jesus’ preaching in the synagogue, they let the incipient movement of their hearts be arrested by the carping question of “Isn’t this the son of Joseph?”. The enthusiasm they held in the beginning chilled into indignation and, by the end of sermon, they were filled with fury to the point of wanting to hurl Jesus from the hill. All of us, at some point in time, will be faced with a dilemma – either we guard our emotions onto a path of union with Christ, or we allow our emotions to carry us into the desert. God is love and has commanded us to love others. It transcends beyond how we feel, although feelings, when matched with our will, makes the process of loving so much easier. With love being the backdrop of our faith, we are all invited to cast aside our biased judgements and accept that each one of us is created uniquely; not just in the way we look, but our beliefs as well.

(Today’s OXYGEN by Dylan Tan)

Prayer:  Heavenly Father, we pray for the communities in our archidocese for the gift of volunteers and servers. We pray that everyone will find the support and encouragement they need to help them with the struggles of being misunderstood, so that they can experience the love that is truly unconditional. Give us the will and strength to accept the differences in opinions and heal us from the misgivings that bind us. May you shower your comfort upon us and give us the peace that transcends all understanding. Amen.      

Thanksgiving: Thank you Father, for being with us every single moment of our lives and guiding us on the path of reconciliation.

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