25th Sunday in Ordinary Time -Year C Sept.18, 2016
WHEN "WISDOM" GOES WRONG
There is a contemporary "ring" to all the scenarios described by the first and third readings today. They sound so real and current they could as well be said of what goes on in people's lives, all over the world - the references to cheating on the side, to dishonesty, to a little manipulation with the figures, a minute adjustment with the scales, and putting to use one's foresight, practical wisdom, and abilities to get maximum advantage for oneself.
They sound so realistic and so contemporary that one is tempted to ask ... so what's wrong with being smart and using one's talents to gain personal advantage? One even feels affirmed when one realizes that in the gospel parable, the Lord recounts how the master even "commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently." One initially gets the impression that, for so long as one "prudently" thinks and plans ahead for one's future gain, one is simply putting to good use his business and managerial skills, and, therefore, is worthy of praise. "For the children of this world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of light."
But wait a second. As is true of all parables, the illustration does not constitute the fullness of the message. The message comes from the totality, and not from an isolated portion of the text. Placed alongside the condemnation of the prophet Amos on those "who trample upon the needy and destroy the poor of the land," - the mendacious and cheating merchants of his times, we have here in the Gospel a case of a steward who "squanders" his master's property, but who mobilizes all his inner resources including his practical wisdom (phronesis, translated in our text as "prudence") when his pocketbook and financial future was at stake.
The Gospel commends him for being smart and alert to conditions that may spell good or harm to his personal concerns. The same Gospel, however, condemns the smart-alecky, selfish, and insensitive steward who uses all his abilities only for his own sake, to the total disregard of others' benefit, including that of his master.
Now, this really sounds so contemporary and so real. Nay more, it sounds so personal and so true for each and every one of us. For in truth, in all honesty, in the secrecy of our own hearts alone with the God we claim we believe in, can we ever claim we have not acted at any given time in the past in a similar fashion as the dishonest steward? Can we honestly take exception to the rampant practice of using what we know and capitalizing on what others may not know to gain unfair advantage over others? How many unsuspecting clients have been victimized by the so-called "fine print" in which fair-sounding contracts hide veritable traps under legal gobbledygook? Even TV commercials portray the glorified cheating that takes place in the market place ... "Where's the catch here?" "There is a catch here somewhere." How many of us have not fallen to the temptation of not telling the whole truth when doing so would be favorable to us and our concerns? Examples abound ... examples of "wisdom" used for one's benefit ... examples of "prudence" and "wisdom" gone wrong.
Today's readings give us a context for the same wisdom used properly and well - the sort of wisdom that would merit total commendation instead of condemnation. They give a call, not to the surreptitious use of wisdom for one's dark and hidden motives, but that which is worthy of "children of the light." We are exhorted to use our talents and abilities, not only for self-serving interests, but also for the interests of others, of the common good, above all, that of God. Wisdom used surreptitiously for selfish ends is wisdom gone wrong, and is proper of those who prefer to live in the dark, and not in the light. Contemporary moral reflection has a word for this - the sin of manipulation. It is that sin - all too common in our days - that capitalizes on others' ignorance and one's own information-rich position to pull a fast one on others, and gain unfair advantage over others. This is practical wisdom used solely for one's own practical ends. The political and business landscape is dotted by such smart alecks who constantly feed on the blood of suckers. In their mind, a sucker is born every minute, and each one of them is fair game to the antics of these worldly-wise people of little conscience.
Today's readings also give us the wider context in which to put our practical wisdom to good use - the arena of the common good, the good of society, the good of everyone in the same society. St. Paul admonishes us: "I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity."
It is interesting that Paul singles out especially "those in authority." Yes, we do need to pray for those who live "out in the open," as it were, those who live in glass cages, who, by their positions, are living their lives under the scrutiny of the public gaze. We do need to pray for political leaders. They are in a position either to use practical wisdom for themselves (corruption) or for the good of whom they claim to serve. In the Philippine context, with corruption institutionally built into the system at all levels, both local and national, it is most difficult not to be tainted by high profile crimes that are never prosecuted, and for which no one, at least openly, feels guilty of. We ought to pray for Church leaders, the men of the cloth, who, caught as they are in the trimmings and trappings of power and authority, may lose touch of the concerns of those whom the responsorial psalm refers to as the "lowly," and those in the "dunghill."
We ought to pray for ourselves, that in our legitimate quest for material prosperity and financial security, we may never lose sight of our sense of priorities. We pray for ourselves who are caught up in the concerns of daily life, that we may keep in mind that the dishonest steward's greatest mistake really had to do with not acknowledging who the real master was. He had a master who paid him his legitimate wages, who even praised him for his being smart and wise, who only had good words for him who knew exactly what to do in order to safeguard his financial future. He managed his affairs well. He was a darn good financial analyst and investor! Wall Street would look benignly and glowingly at him and his fearless - if selfish - forecasts! The Apprentice reality show would most likely hire him.
His mistake, though, was simply this. Ultimately, he did not work with his master's good in mind. He worked for himself. His master was his own welfare, his own gain. His master really was Mammon. He had practical wisdom. Kudos to that! But he missed the calling that transcended such worldly wisdom - the calling to be part of the children of light.
In the end, it was a case of "wisdom" gone wrong, priorities skewed, motives forked, and allegiance misplaced. For "you cannot serve God and mammon."
All three readings today refer to one salient theme: God's forgiveness. God is portrayed clearly for what He is - a compassionate Father, a God who is ready and willing to relent, for as long as sinful man repents and thinks better of his/her sins.
The first reading from Exodus reminds me of a carabao (Philippine water buffalo used as a beast of burden) that we had in our bucolic College-seminary in the first few years of my priesthood as a teacher and formator. The strong and self-willed carabao suffered from a torn nose right where the noose ought to have been --- all for one reason. He hemmed and hawed and protested continuously against his masters. At some point, the nose tissue that tethered him to the ground gave way. A gaping, open wound thus made it impossible to keep the animal on leash, making it impossible to further train him as a beast of burden to help us till the soil and plow the ground. He was literally a picture of that biblical metaphor of a "stiff-necked" people that the book of Exodus speaks of. Sadly, the seminary authorities had to dispose of the hapless beast, sold to interested parties who, we knew, would literally make minced meat out of him. It was the most natural and logical thing to do, as far as we were concerned then.
It sounds so counterintuitive, but this is what the biblical good news is all about. Like the stiff-necked carabao, sinful Israel (that is us) would have easily been given up by God as bad job. "I see how stiff-necked this people is. Let me alone, then, that my wrath may blaze up against them to consume them." Sinful disobedience does have a price tag ... "the wages of sin is death."
But, thankfully, the story does not end in tragedy. The theme of sinfulness that juts out repeatedly in the whole of Scripture, is more than amply balanced by the theme of forgiveness. Let us take a quick look at what the readings tell us on this.
First, we see the figure of an intercessor, a mediator - Moses, who "implored the Lord" and begged Him to reconsider by an act of remembrance: "Remember your servants Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, and how you swore to them by your own self..." We know the story all too well ... "The Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people."
Secondly, Paul, a self-confessed "blasphemer and a persecutor and arrogant [man]," was "mercifully treated" on account of Christ Jesus who "came into the world to save sinners." Paul was profuse with praise for this God, "the king of ages, incorruptible, invisible, the only God..." In this first and second instance, forgiveness comes to sinful men and women from God, but a forgiveness mediated and channeled through Christ and the man who foreshadowed him - Moses.
The Gospel takes the topic of divine forgiveness a notch higher, and clinches the nature and extent of this forgiveness from a loving, merciful God. The parable of the "prodigal father" shows us in no uncertain terms what the one, true mediator Jesus Christ has revealed His Father to be - a compassionate, loving, and forgiving God who, despite the protestations of an older brother who sensed some type of misplaced justice, declared: "Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found."
Celebration ... the readings seem to point to the not-so-obvious consequence of God's forgiveness. Wherefore celebrate? The younger "sinful" but repentant son in the parable offers us a clue ... "I am no longer worthy to be called your son." Herein is the clincher. Our sins separate us from God, but it is the same God whom we have offended that draws us near to Him, in His Son, Jesus Christ. Through no merit of our own, save that of His Son, we have been deemed worthy of forgiveness. We celebrate the character of God - His loving kindness, His mercy, His unparalleled love for His wayward creatures. We celebrate the nature of Christ His Son, whose grace "has been abundant, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus." He "came into the world to save sinners."
But celebration can only come after confession. Celebration can only happen after we realize just how far we have been from this loving, pursuing God, referred to by the poet Francis Thompson as the "hound of heaven," whom we try so hard to evade, elude, and escape. But just like the proverbial hound, God in and through Christ, continues to search for us, to go after us, and to be solicitous for our welfare. Celebration follows confession. Just look at how we do liturgy ... we begin with the Confiteor, the confessing of our sins at Mass. Only after that can we sing Glory to God. Only after the acknowledgment of our sins, can we sing the Alleluia, and be ready to break the bread of God's Word and the bread of the Eucharist. St. Paul gives us a perfect example as he acknowledges: "Of these (sinners) I am the foremost." The younger son could not have even dreamt of a party put up by his father until he sadly acknowledged before him: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers."
There is little celebration in the world everywhere. There is little trust between and among peoples. There is precious little harmony and love. In their stead, we see a whole lot of violence, terrorism, wars and everything that smacks of a culture of death. For many people, they take all this to mean that God does not care; that God is indifferent to what suffering humanity undergoes on a daily basis. People are prone to condemn God, and to lose faith in Him and in His love. If God really loves us, they say, how come He allows all these things to happen? Failures of men are attributed wrongly as failures of God.
Today's readings take exception to such a worldview. Today's readings unmask human sinfulness for what it really is - a form of slavery that God takes pains to deliver us from. Today's liturgy takes us away from a culture of blame - a tendency to deflect responsibility onto others, including God. Instead, the readings lead us to claim, and tame that which we so easily heap onto others outside of ourselves in the form of blame - our own sins.
There is little celebration in the world for people who do not invest in confession. There is little love in the heart of one who does not open his/her heart enough to feel the onrush of God's forgiving love. He who is forgiven much, loves much. He who is forgiven little, loves little. And forgiveness begins with claiming one's sins as one's very own.
The parables of the Lord that speak of losses and findings all end with a celebration ... the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son of today's gospel. Only those who acknowledge their loss in the first place are worthy of participating in the celebration. Only those who seek, find. And only those who acknowledge that they are lost, are found by God. Only those who repent can rejoice.
For once they were dead, but have come back to life again. Once they were lost and have been found. Losses, findings, and rejoicing ... this is the story of God's love in three short chapters. Man's sinfulness ... God's searching ... Mankind's repentance ... and great rejoicing in heaven.
Have you found enough reason to rejoice together with the Church today?
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) September 4, 2016
BORN TO BE FREE!
There is something heartwarming in today's readings, particularly in Paul's letter to Philemon (2nd reading). Paul, by then an old man in prison, waxes paternal and solicitous for the welfare of both Philemon and the runaway slave Onesimus. As the law would prescribe, Paul sends him right back to Philemon, but not before liberating both the master and the slave. Philemon may well have been a slave to the prevailing culture of that time that considered slavery normal. Onesimus, may well have been, not only a physical slave, but also - and more importantly - a slave to his own misconceptions about himself and his relationship with the rest of the world, including his master, Philemon.
Paul, an old man shackled in prison, bound by the dictates of an earthly law that he has spent so much time and effort enlightening people about, gives Philemon, Onesimus, and the whole believing world for posterity, a great lesson on personal deliverance, freedom, and total human liberation.
The recently concluded Olympic games are a minefield, not only of gold medals, but also of golden opportunities to illustrate inner personal freedom and the liberating force of love for others. I have no idea whether those athletes who became clear icons of interior freedom have ever heard of the Christian gospel, but what some of them did in the playing fields are definitely supportive of the Christian good news that has to do essentially with liberation.
In a hotly contested arena that makes vying for the coveted gold, silver, or bronze medals a matter of both personal and national pride, it is so easy for any athlete to go for drugs as much as he/she goes for gold. Where everyone cheers and eggs them on to be "swifter, higher, stronger," athletes can really be tempted to fall slaves to dopes and drugs, slaves to the idea of victory at all costs, enslaved by lies, even as they bask under the glow of fame and - for some - fortune. But in this same arena awash in potential cheating of all kinds, there appear, time and time again, shining examples of values that proclaim the dazzling beauty of liberating truth, and the interior glow of honesty, good, clean, hard work, and the rare flash of magnanimity that comes from the most unexpected players.
In the 2004 Olympics, the Greek weightlifter named Dimas, in his fourth time as Olympic contender, given a standing and raucous ovation for tens of minutes, a brilliant example of one who refuses to go by the hidden rules of doping, older than most of his counterparts, tries one last time to lift that enormous weight over his shoulders. His Atlas-like prowess is long gone, as is obvious to everyone in the stands. His body all but crumpled under the weight, but Dimas came out a golden medalist in the hearts of everyone, not only in Greece, but all over the world. His wife and three children were there, crying for joy and sadness. The crowds at the Panathenaiko stadium were on their feet, cheering him on. The rest of the people in all the fabled motley islands of Greece must have been stomping their feet in honor of one who could no longer go "swifter, higher, and stronger," but who towered over everybody else due to his unflinching code of personal integrity, pristine honesty, and devotion to his family and adopted homeland. (He was a migrant from Albania, of Greek grandparents).
But there were others who stood out, not only because they won medals, but also because they showed the world and were never ashamed of their faith. Names like Usain Bolt, they gymnast named Simone Biles, and others stood out both for their prowess and their Catholic faith.
Who says interior freedom is no longer in vogue? Who says that the liberating power of moral truth is no longer relevant?
Can anyone say that freedom is not a value to those two women from Afghanistan, whose quest for gold ended after just 45 seconds of competition, reviled and hated like anything, for having gone to Greece to follow their heart, and share in the "glorious liberty of the children of God," despite a culture that is willing to kill them for doing the unthinkable? Can anyone fault the bemedalled and universally adored lanky 19-year old kid then from Baltimore, (Michael Phelps, dubbed the Baltimore Bullet) who gave up the chance to increase even more his stature, by giving his fellow team-mate the chance to compete in the 200 meter relay in swimming? The whole world took notice of him this time around in Rio for he came out a winner, not only of 25 gold medals, but also because he allowed faith to triumph over depression and suicidal tendencies. Can anyone fail to see the force of interior freedom shining in the hearts of contenders who simply have no chance, but who plodded on all the same, in quest, not so much for the gold, as for the golden opportunity to do one's best in the midst of the world's finest?
We live in a world dotted with Olympic-sized challenges all over. They may not have to do with material gold and glittering medallions. But these moral challenges have to do with what matters, what counts, and what is most important in the long run. They have to do with treasures which no moth or rust can destroy. And like the coveted Olympic gold, or the gospel's "pearl of great price," they call on us to give our best, to do our utmost, and to plan ahead.
On other occasions, I have repeatedly said that we live in the context of a morally complex world, at best. At worst, we find ourselves in a morally messy world. In a world that is ruled by conflicting and contrasting ideologies, extremes of thought that are, at bottom, based on the same materialistic philosophical grounds, it is so easy to join the morally relativistic bandwagon and live just like everybody does, just like all of Hollywood does, just like what mass media show us - a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art. In a country that considers graft and corruption the "normal thing to do," it is so easy to "join them, if you cannot beat them." And in this surging sea of relativism, all is alright, everything is OK, and sin is nothing more than a label to be done away with, an unhealthy guilt that must be banished from our neurotic minds.
Today, the liturgy teaches us that, whilst the Olympic games have ended, the moral challenges of daily life go on. The call to genuine interior liberation goes on. And examples both from Scriptures and daily life in our times are never wanting. These are examples of people, who, while physically challenged like Paul in prison, nevertheless come out interiorly free. These are examples of people who have chosen heavenly "wisdom" over earthly and material cunningness and skills. They have chosen mystery over mastery, ever ready and willing to be guided by the ineffable counsel from above: "Who can know God's counsel or who can conceive what the Lord intends? ... Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?"
Those great men and women who competed at the summer games did not go there without undergoing grueling training and preparations. Some of them got what they prepared for - medals of metal and adulation from adoring crowds.
In the greater and bigger arena that is the world and life in its fullness, victory lies, not so much on those who excel in physical powers, but on those who have understood that what counts in the long run, is the freedom that comes from above, the freedom that is both a test and a trust - a gift and a responsibility. This is the gift of Christian, interior freedom that comes with the very nature of our being human, created as we are unto God's image and likeness.
Born to be free, humans like us, are called to ever deeper, ever broader, and ever more liberating freedom. Onward, then, Christian soldiers to the fight of our lifetimes! Swifter, higher, stronger!
22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time -Year C August 28, 2016
Readings: Sir 3:17-18,20,28-29 / Heb 12:18-19,22-24a / Lk 14:1,7-14
GETTING BEYOND, NOT ABOVE, ONESELF
Today is a Sunday of highs and lows. Sirach counsels us to find meaning in being "low," a trait which he says, should be inversely proportional to our being "high" up there. "Humble yourself the more, the greater you are" (1st Reading). The letter to the Hebrews takes as a given our having "approached Mount Zion and the city of the living God." In and through Jesus, "the mediator of a new covenant," we have received the singular grace of being in the presence of the "ecclesia" - the gathering of "countless angels in heaven" (2nd reading).
At first blush, there seems to be something incongruous, if not contradictory, in the first two readings. The first extols lowliness and humility. The second proclaims the singular grace of Christians being able to go up the mountain of the Lord - Mount Zion. The first glorifies lowliness, and counsels us to seek not, and search not, for what is above our strength. The second simply declares the egregious fact of our having been made close to God. The two readings seem to be saying in effect: we are lowly, but we are exalted by no less than God in Jesus Christ, and thus, made worthy to approach the city of God.
This is definitely a day of lows and highs.
But more seeming contradictions are in the offing. The Alleluia verse, which comes right after the 2nd reading upgrades us, so to say, and lifts our morales up by speaking of our closeness to the living God who dwells in the highest heavens, puts us back down once again: "Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart" (Mt 11:29, Acclamation before the Gospel).
Indeed, today is a day of highs and lows.
But the Gospel passage seems to be the real clincher. Where society's usual tendency is to seek for places of honor, and for people to exalt themselves, the Lord does the exact opposite. By means of the parable, Jesus counsels us to seek for the lowest places. This is counterintuitive. In a world where "everybody loves Raymund" seems to be the centerpiece of our "self-promoting and narcissistic culture," Jesus tells us not to get above ourselves. He apparently tells us to avoid the "highs" and prefer the "lows." But the parable has a surprise, almost "fairy tale-like," ending, as if to tell us: "Don't get above yourself, so that God could set you beyond yourself."
So, is this Sunday's liturgy really one of highs and lows?
Yes ... God wants and wills to exalt us. This, the letter to the Hebrews declares matter-of-factly. We have drawn near to Mount Zion and the city of the living God. He has come to draw us up higher in and through Christ.
No ... God does not want nor will that we should get above ourselves. Today's liturgical readings are a reality check. We are wisely counseled to take care that we do not exalt ourselves unilaterally: "Everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted" (Gospel). The reality is that, being poor and lowly, powerless and small, we can only proclaim in profuse thanks the equally egregious reality that all we have is God's generous gift: "God, in your goodness, you have made a home for the poor" (Responsorial Psalm). And what is that place, according to the Bible? "Remember man that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return" (Gen 3:19).
Yes ... God does want us to go up higher. This much, the parable makes clear and sure. After putting oneself in the right place - the lowest, the least, and the last - the Lord tells us: "Amice, ascende superius" (Come on up, my friend, to a higher place, Lk 14:10). God tells us to follow not the ways of the world, which tends to always seek selfishly for endless self-promotion, but to follow his ways, for he "humbles the mighty, and exalts the lowly to high places." It is God who exalts. It is God who gives, and it is He who alone does for us according to what we all deserve.
Yes ... today is a day of highs and lows. We are all high in the estimation of God. "We all share in the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom 8:21). We have God-given dignity and freedom both of which are "inalienable," that is, things that cannot be forcibly and unjustly taken away from each one of us. This is a day that speaks rightly of "highs" as far as our dignity as human beings is concerned.
But today, too, is dedicated to our rightful "lows." Dignity does not give us a blanket permission to treat ourselves more than we really deserve. Pride is not to be taken as part of the package of God's gifts to us, for God's favorite virtue is humility.
Pride is to close oneself in on oneself. Pride is self-love pushed to the "highs." When one is proud, the thermostat of one's personhood "overheats" and the flames of self-promotion pushes the temperature through the roof. When something overheats, the whole system suffers a meltdown. The higher one goes, the lower one goes crashing down the lowest place of humiliation and embarrassment.
Yes ... today is a day of salvific and redemptive "lows." Jesus tells us to "take his yoke and learn from him," for he is "meek and humble of heart."
Yes ... there is something salutary and beneficial in being in the "lows" of self-estimation and self-aggrandizement. For when one is down there, there is no way but up. But when one has put oneself up there, there is no way but down. At this point, Jose Garcia Villa, the famous Filipino poet who wrote his poems in English, comes to mind. One of his more memorable lines says: "How high is low, if it resembles high yet not grows? ... It expires, as it aspires." Taking Christ's yoke is clearly a precondition to "learning." One can grow, only when one learns to be low. For what good is it even if it "resembles high, yet not grows?"
Humility is being in love with the reality of the lows of our human lives. Humility is truth and the truth is that it is not up to us as human beings to raise ourselves by our own bootstraps, but only up to God, who would tell us at the proper time: "Amice, ascende superius."
Josh Groban is right. We do not raise ourselves up. No ... only God deserves the accolade that he sings about: "You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains; you raise me up, to walk on stormy seas; I am strong, when I am on your shoulders; you raise me up to more than I can be."
This Sunday of highs and lows thus reminds us of one important thing. We ought not to get above ourselves but go beyond ourselves, beyond power, beyond position, beyond promotion that is shallow. In a word, God calls us to transcendence ... "Amice, ascende superius!"
21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C August 21, 2016
Readings: Is 66:18-21 / Heb 12:5-7, 11-13 / Lk 13:22-30
ROBUR AB ASTRIS (STRENGTH FROM THE STARS)!
Last week, I wrote about the difficult struggle of a climb I did with friends at Mt. Ugu in Northern Philippines 26 years back. The support of my own little version of my "cloud of witnesses" kept me going, until we all safely made it to the destination, where we were able to celebrate Mass. One thing beautiful about trekking up heights is the difference that is made when one keeps the goal in sight, when one sees the ultimate destination in the looming, but beckoning distance. The sight of the summit, as much forbidding as inviting, keeps one focused on the goal. The view of one's destination, though seemingly unreachable, keeps one pining for more, walking some more, putting in just a little bit more effort each time, at least to put one foot before the other, "one step at a time."
The big difference is made by one's ability to keep the goal in sight, both physically and figuratively. One gains strength by merely focusing on the ultimate goal. This happened to me the first time I climbed Mt. Kanlaon in Negros island in southern Philippines. The smoldering, smoking crater, that sharply jutted out of the relative flatness of Margaha valley, was something one saw for a long, long while, as one inched his or her way toward the smoke-smothered summit.
Our readings today continue the theme of difficulty taken up last week. But this Sunday, the focus in on one having the strength to face that very difficulty. Where last week, we read that Jeremiah suffered and paid a very high price for his "prophetic criticizing" and for preaching the truth, this Sunday, we get a glimpse of the hopeful imagination of Isaiah, and his "prophetic energizing" as he speaks of a vision of a great "ingathering" of peoples from all corners of the world.
What Isaiah sees ... his vision, his reporting - in God's name - of God's dream, is what energized, not only him, but the people he was - and still is - speaking to. Strength comes from what one sees. When one has a vision of what's coming up ahead, one gets the necessary push to go on. The ability to face difficulties has to do a lot with what one sees, and where one is going to.
The letter to the Hebrews (2nd reading) takes up the same thematic as it reframes the issue of suffering as discipline that comes from God himself. Discipline of all kinds, is ordinary cause for "pain, not joy." But in the same breath, the letter declares, that "later, it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it." Whether it will all turn out for "joy or pain" depends a whole lot on how one sees it all. It is all a matter of vision.
I have it on the authority of schema therapists, that many of our problems can be attributed to what they call false schemas or "cognitive distortions." What one sees is what one gets. False belief systems that remain embedded in one's psyche dictate one's feelings, and both cognition and emotion then influence greatly what one does. Healing, according to the same therapists, could only take place when one heals one's sight, and makes one capable once more of seeing wholes and not disparate parts.
We all have the tendency to see the pain and never the gain that can accrue from it. We all can very easily look at life as represented by a narrow door that the gospel speaks about. We can get so focused on the reality of the "narrow door" that we fail to notice the other side of that narrow door - a path that leads straight to glory, a straight road that leads direct to God.
I have reported to my readers on several occasions my recent experiences of deep pain and personal suffering. One in pain is hurting in many more senses that just one. One can feel abandoned, rejected, unwanted, and uncared for - rightly or wrongly. But the deepest hurt takes place in one's ability to see rightly. One's tears can truly cover one's eyesight literally and figuratively, on the one hand. But on the other hand, these same tears could become the "telescopes by which we can see far into heaven" as one writer has said many years ago.
It is all a matter of vision ...
What then would offer us the strength to be able to enter through the gospel's "narrow door?" What would it take us to gain strength to squeeze oneself through our own "cistern" experiences of rejection and personal suffering?
The readings today seem to offer us a clear answer. They counsel us to change eyeglasses, to change the way we look at things, to see beyond, and see things that most people do not see, do not want to see, or cannot see, for one reason or another. They tell us to see rightly, to see more, not less, given the eyes of faith that have been given us as gift.
Superstitious Roman pagans of old can teach us a lesson or two. Believing in fate and the positioning of stars, in the pseudo-science of astrology, they found solace and strength in the stars up in the firmament. Robur ab astris ... they would say. ... strength from the stars.
Ironically enough, this is exactly what I suggest the readings tell us today. They counsel us to see more not less. Pain is not mere earthly suffering. Pain is reframed by God's Word as "discipline," as a stepping stone towards greatness and holiness. "So strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees. Make straight paths for your feet, that what is lame may not be disjointed but healed" (2nd reading).
The star of our faith is worth giving a second look to. It helps us see the whole instead of parts. The whole does not consist of that "narrow door" alone, but what lies behind that narrow door. But we need eyes to see. We need to set our sights on the goal.
What or who then is our goal? ... no less than the Lord who reproves us because He loves us, who, on account of that same love, disciplines us, and who scourges every son or daughter he acknowledges.
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.