WHAT RETURN CAN YOU MAKE?

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
July 22, 2007

Genesis 18:1-10; Colossians 1:24-28; Luke 10:38-42

Today is one of those Sundays when the readings sort of converge on some common theme, when an attentive reader can easily discern a thread that seems to run through the warp and woof of the texture of the entire liturgy.

I would like to start right off by suggesting what this leitmotif appears to be - to me at least – and to many others as far as I can ascertain. I suggest that the term OPENNESS would not be such a bad word to capture this emerging leitmotif.

Abraham is featured in today’s first reading. He and his openness and welcoming attitude to three strangers occasioned a greater openness from the Lord, who would not be outdone in generosity – a reward of an offspring for him and Sarah, his wife. In the second reading, we see a slightly different form of openness, this time, in Paul’s ability to see beyond pain and suffering, and, despite all that, to be able to welcome those very same afflictions, and claim, as, indeed, Paul does: “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body.” The Gospel could not be clearer in terms of manifesting the same leitmotif. Christ was a welcome guest of Martha and Mary. The two sisters both welcomed the Lord, each in her own unique way. Martha showed hospitality in the traditional way. She was up and about, busy with so many chores attached to providing hospitality to an important guest. Mary did the unconventional. She warmed up to her guest, sat beside the Lord at his feet, and welcomed every word that he uttered, in her heart and mind.

Abraham, Sarah, Paul, Martha, and Mary … they all followed the same basic thread – the same fundamental story line … They all showed openness and a welcoming attitude.

And they all got more than what they originally offered. They all got copious returns of their “investment.” This we express so nicely and aptly in our response: “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord” (Responsorial Psalm).

Last Sunday (15th Week), we spoke of being near and being neighborly. To the lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor,” the Lord very definitely said that one’s neighbor is the person you seek to be far from, the person you would like to ignore, the person you would rather not have anything to do with, and the person who needs you at any given particular moment. People passed by and did not notice the man left for dead. They ignored him. They did not even draw near to him. They were not neighborly to him, with the exception of one who was culturally, religiously, and ritually “far” from him – one of the hated Samaritans!

He had the basic openness of heart to do what was supposed to be “near him, in his lips and his heart” – the great command of the Lord to love. We don’t have to repeat the story here, but we need to remind ourselves of what he did – everything possible to put him right back on his feet!

I would like to believe that the Lord adds on a little more to this story for our consideration today. He calls our attention to a basic expression of such love for God and neighbor. And that expression is hospitality, openness, and a deeply welcoming attitude, first of all, to the Lord, and secondarily, to all the gifts that He gives us … all of His gifts … not some. All … and not only those God-given gifts that we happen to like.

A curiously sad and contradictory trend is happening in our days and times. We have become too open, mass-media wise. We see and hear everything. We have witnessed the so-called “collapse of boundaries” brought about by globalization, postmodernity, and the New Information and Communications Technology (NICT). We live in a borderless world, understood in every imaginable meaning of the term. We appear to be open, but curiously, we are not. We erect different forms of barriers. We close in ourselves in different layers of “security” that pose as obstacles to genuine connectedness and openness to one another. We have more cell phones, but not necessarily greater understanding and communications with each other. We have more cars, but strangely enough, less places we are allowed to pass through to get to many places that have erected high walls and guarded entries to our so-called “gated neighborhoods.” We definitely have more airports, but less security and serenity as we go from one place to another.

The terroristic act done to that hapless traveler spoken of by last week’s gospel (Lk 10:25-37), has only escalated and worsened in our anxiety-ridden and increasingly unsafe world in our days. A perpetual game called “closed-open” is what we all play everywhere in this confusing world marred by so much violence. We open the cyberworld to a borderless reality. We close the real world to potential immigrants who, we are afraid, might turn out to be murderous doctors who go against the basic Hippocratic oath to “primum, non nocere,” that is, to first of all, do no harm to anyone! We open WINDOWS, and even transform it to a higher level and call it VISTA, but what we basically do is fence out entire peoples and races in a world now divided between the “information-rich” and the “information-poor.” We have SAFARI to cybersurf everywhere in this shrinking world, but we could hardly hope to see genuine savannahs of the blue cowered as we are in fear of violent terrorism and all forms of strife.

We live in a confusing world made even more crazy by so many real and imaginary barriers that are man-made. We claim openness, but all we can boast of is veritable closedness in all senses of the term.

But my job as a priest and preacher, as one who is duty-bound to “break the bread of God’s Word” is to offer Good News despite all these things that are really equivalent to Paul’s afflictions. My job is to follow the conceptual lead of Hans Gadamer who spoke abstrusely about the need for a “fusion of horizons.” God’s horizon is Good News in Christ. Man’s horizon is reality that may yet be far from this Good News. We may only see strangers like Abraham saw, and not angels. But Abraham showed them welcome and openness all the same. We may only see afflictions and problems quite unlike Paul who saw beyond the pain and saw possibility. We may, even at this very moment, act more like Martha whose every word is a rant and a complaint. “Lord, how could you allow evil to triumph?” “How could you spend your time instructing people to do good while evil people are having a heyday doing all kinds of shenanigans and foolishness that cry out to high heavens for justice?”

But like Mary, we sit today beside the Lord at his feet. We look at the Lord and we listen. And what we hear is really “near us, in our lips and in our heart.” He tells us to extend our openness, to allow that openness bloom into generosity. He tells us really not only to brood and sit. He tells us we have work to do, for “blessed are they who kept the word with a generous heart and yield a harvest through perseverance” (Alluluia verse).

And what, you may ask, is that which we ought to do? What return are you called to make to the Lord? After being filled with His gifts, what then are we called to do? Let our beginning prayer remind us of that: “Fill us with your gifts and make us always eager to serve you in faith, hope, and love.” (Opening Prayer). “Let the gift of your life continue to grow in us, drawing us from death to faith, hope, and love. Keep us alive in Christ Jesus. Keep us watchful in prayer and true to his teaching till your glory is revealed in us” (Alternative Opening Prayer).

Filled with his gifts, we are called to be open and eager … in faith, hope, and love.

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, Philippines – July 15, 2007 10:00 AM

DOING JUSTICE AND LIVING IN GOD’S PRESENCE

I take my cue for today’s reflection from our response after the first reading: “He who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.”

Traditional scholastic philosophy that reached its apex in the writings of St. Thomas speaks of justice as based on what is “due,” from the Latin word “debitum,” that is, what is “owed” to someone else.

Biblical tradition as a whole, and the readings today, in particular, going far beyond what the scholastic treatise on justice demands, show us what this “due” is all about, and to whom it is owed – to widows, to the poor, to strangers, and to orphans … everyone who has no one else to rely on. God’s justice shines best in His compassion, His mercy, His loving-kindness.

Today’s liturgy offers us a whole lot more on this issue of the “debitum.” It refers to a state of healthy tension between two seemingly irreconcilable polar realities. It refers to a delicate balance between giving too much attention on one, to the detriment of the other; between being present to oneself and one’s concerns, and being present to others, including, and, most of all, God Himself.

Thus, in the first reading, Abraham’s “attention” – his being meaningfully and actively present to three strangers who happened to pass by his dwelling; his hospitality and his giving “due” concern to weary and hungry travelers, was ultimately looked at kindly by God, who rewarded him and Sarah with a son.

Abraham’s generous and selfless act of “attending,” that is, his being fully present to his guests, occasioned more than just a visitation from above. He literally “lived in the presence of the Lord,” after giving what was “due” to his guest-messengers from God.

Good old Henri Nouwen years back, had already written about the need for us followers of Christ to cultivate this virtue of hospitality. He contrasts hospitality with hostility, and says that spirituality, among other things, ought to be a movement from hostility to hospitality. At the risk of misrepresenting his ideas, I would like to suggest that this virtue is basically what this “delicate balance” is all about. Hostility is to be so focused on oneself, and one’s concerns, on one’s needs and wants, as to be effectively against the same needs and concerns of others. Hostility, which comes from the Latin word for “enemy,” is to be turned against others, while hospitality, which comes from the Latin word for “guest,” connotes being turned towards others.

Our world is deeply mired in a culture of hostility, in what the Holy Father calls, the “culture of death.” Why, people cannot even be magnanimous enough to welcome new life into their busy, cluttered, and self-centered lives. People polarize themselves and align themselves with either the Pro-Life or Pro-Choice banners, reducing morality to a superficial choice between two political ideologies. Nations are preoccupied defining and safeguarding “borders” to prevent outsiders and strangers from coming in. Civilizations are at figurative loggerheads, trying to outdo each other, trying to be two steps ahead of one another, in a mad race to eradicate each other in a violence and hate-ridden world of terrorism and counter-terrorism. The so-called G-8 (industrialized) nations are aeons ahead of what I call the P-8 (most impoverished) nations of the world. In a very real sense, “east is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet.” A great social, economic, cultural, developmental, moral, and spiritual divide separates the so-called “lender” from the perpetually enslaved “debtor” countries. Within individual nations, divisions and distinctions abound between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”

Hostility, not hospitality, seems to be the name of the game.

The good Lord, today, offers us not a set of new rules for this vicious cycle of a political, economic, and ideological game. He offers us a different paradigm, a vision, a distinct way of looking at things. Instead of rules and prohibitions that many people mistakenly identify Christian morality with, He offers us a virtue, an interior attitude of heart and mind. He offers us a path that does not give quick and instant solutions, but which slowly leads to a gradual personal and social transformation.

The Lord offers us a path away from hostility to hospitality. He offers us a spirituality.

What, then, are the hallmarks and elements of this Christian spirituality? Abraham acts as the driving wedge that opens the way for us. He shows us how “doing justice,” that is, giving more to those who have less, indeed, can lead to “living in the Lord’s presence.” He shows us how being attentive to others’ needs, instead of being cooped up in one’s own, can give our lives that needed state of balance and spiritual equanimity. Indeed, as the old song goes, whilst there is enough for everyone’s need, there is never enough for everyone’s greed. Hospitality, in Abraham’s example, came into full bloom in charity.

This same spirituality that moulds us all into one body, the Church, also makes it possible for us, like St. Paul, to “rejoice in [our] sufferings,” in order to “fill up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the Church.” Hospitality becomes transformed to hopefulness. Hostility becomes replaced by gentility and gracious charity.

This is the same charity and love that led Martha and Mary to learn from each other as each showed their own version of sincere and effusive love for the Master. Mary “sat beside the Lord at his feet listening to him speak.” Martha was “burdened with much serving.” Both did what they did for they both sincerely loved the Lord. Different strokes for different folks, as they say, but motivated by the same love and devotion.

I would like to caution my readers to go easy on condemning Martha and facetiously favoring Mary. No. The Lord does not intend to make us choose to either “do a Martha,” or “do a Mary” act. He wants us to do both. The Lord leads us to a healthy balance between two extreme poles. Nay more, the Lord does not want us to get fixated at some point in an imaginary continuum, but wants us to be perpetually on the move, ever on the go, again, to quote Nouwen, from hostility to hospitality. Spirituality is not something we attain once and for all, but something we grow into. If this spirituality is genuine, there ought not to be tension between tasks and people. Both are important. Both need our attention. We need to serve, that is, engage in diakonia. But we also need to sit still and listen, and take care lest we forget the very people we serve. We need to be busy for the Lord, but never too busy as to be ultimately away from His presence, even as parents need to toil for their children, but never too much as to miss the very children they are toiling for.

Doing justice … giving others their due; giving God, too, His due … in a spirituality that integrates faith and life … all this will assure that biblical promise we have proclaimed: “He who does justice, will live in the presence of the Lord.”

Dundalk, MD July 18, 2004
Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

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