21st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
August 26, 2007

Readings: Is 66:18-21 / Heb 12:5-7, 11-13 / Lk 13:22-30


Last week, I wrote about the difficult struggle of a climb I did with friends at Mt. Ugu in Northern Philippines 17 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 literally 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 is 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.

What sort of stars do you see?

Alternative Reflection

The readings today are very much apropos the much-awaited summer Olympics that will take place next year in Beijing, China.

Isaiah’s vision speaks of a great ingathering of people “from all nations” “of every language” who “shall come and see [God’s] glory.” The passage from the letter to the Hebrews speaks of “discipline” (the original meaning has to do more with “instruction”), and acknowledges said discipline to be a source, not so much of joy, as of pain, but which “brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.” Discipline, in other words, appears to come more easy and more acceptable for one who gets training. (The word for “training” has to do with the root-word for gymnastics). The Gospel, for its part, further affirms the overriding images of the first two readings, by alluding to the need for Christ’s followers “to strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many […] will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough.”

At a time in history when people go through all imaginable lengths to get what they want, what they dream of, and long for, above everything else … with top seeded athletes enduring hours-long stretches of “training” and rigorous “discipline” day after grueling day … when even terrorists spend years “casing” their targets carefully and meticulously … when a mass media-mediated culture of individualism, one-upmanship, and unbridled competition is the run of the day, it definitely sounds refreshing and reinvigorating to hear something that seems to reinforce that which we are already good at – competing, trying to get to the top of the heap, pushing, shoving, or otherwise clawing one’s way to the pinnacle of our earthly desires.

Ever since the philosopher Descartes, and his famous declaration “Cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore, I am!), which became the banner headline and war-cry of a movement called the “enlightenment,” “going for the gold,” “pulling one’s own strings,” “going out and grabbing for oneself,” and “being number one” became apparently the “right thing” to do, the foundation stones for “rugged individualism” pushed to the extreme.

So what is wrong with disciplining and training oneself in order to become top dog? Nothing in and of itself … Except that if it becomes the end in itself, if clawing one’s way to the top is the end all and be all of one’s existence, and if everything and everyone else is sacrificed on the altar of one’s search for the holy grail of individual and personal success and fulfillment, then all this becomes vanity … all is vanity … Today’s readings, furthermore, tell us we are off the mark … way, way off.

Let us unpack a bit the meaning of today’s readings. First, Isaiah tells us that the proper starting point is not our personal dream, but that of God’s. God’s vision, in addition, is one of a great ingathering of peoples and nations. This is not the language of individualism and narrow, personal concerns. Nor is this the language of exclusivity, but one of inclusivity. Second, the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that this search for the common good, this concern for others, and this drive to “go out to all the world [to] tell the good news” is fraught with a lot of trials and, therefore, needs “discipline.” Still more, this discipline may cause a lot of pain. Third, Jesus reminds us that discipleship entails hard work, and that those who are first now will not necessarily keep their title at the end of time. “For behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.”

It is very clear that the need for discipline and training is framed in the context of God’s vision for the world. It is clear that the Christian calling to discipleship is primarily a call to social relatedness, to social responsibility, in the context, not of individualism and a self-centered spirituality, but one that starts and ends with the idea of everyone’s belongingness to a community called and gathered by God Himself.

In our times, encouraged as we are by a techno-savvy individualistic culture, and by mainstream media and round-the-clock entertainment to “do our own thing,” and “look out for oneself,” at a time when the most coveted items are things like “personal computers,” “personal digital assistants,” “personal TV/video players,” and “personal entertainment centers like I-Pods and all, religion and spirituality become highly personal and private matters that need not be talked about in public. God becomes a personal commodity to be sought for on one’s own, at one’s own convenience, at one’s own style and pacing. For a great many, this translates to a God that is conveniently and effectively kept “at arm’s length,” in one’s closet, in the privacy of one’s home, to be consulted only as needed, when convenient, when strictly necessary. For those in the opposite extreme, who are very religious, but who subscribe to an idea of an equally personal and deeply private faith, “discipline” and “training” get reduced to “pietistic” practices and personal devotions. Their faith never gets beyond what at times may be deemed fanatical and misguided attachments to popular devotions, statues, and images. For the former, God is a personal commodity to be called on as needed. For the latter, God is an intensely private source of solace and consolation, and faith is nothing more, nothing less, and nothing else but private, personal devotion. For such people, personal holiness means spending all-night vigils, doing endless reparatory prayers for “sinners all over the world,” and trying to appease an angry God whose hands are poised to strike the world in punishment.

But today’s readings, and Biblical data as a whole, simply do not support such extremes of living one’s faith. At bottom, both approaches are extremely individualistic, and self-centered. Both are really based solely on individuals’ dreams for themselves. Both lose sight of God’s dream for the world, for all of humanity, including those from whom we might never expect much, at least initially – the foreigners, “people from the east and the west, and from the north and the south.”

Today, therefore, is a good time to be reminded of the Catholic Church’s “best-kept secret” – the catholic social teachings. In essence, following very clear Biblical data, said teachings remind us that we all are called to be holy, yes – but holiness in and through our relational selves, in and through our social selves. Holiness, thus, is not a mere pious endeavor, that reduces Christian life to personal prayers and personal devotions, and mere ritualistic attendance at Masses on Sundays. Holiness, in addition, is not mere personal sanctification, but a participation in God’s dream for humankind, for the world, for society. Holiness, is a participation in the mission of social transformation, in sharing in the “joys, the hopes, the anxieties and the griefs of modern men and women” (Gaudium et Spes) all over the world. It means being engaged and involved in an imperfect world trying to reach common fulfillment for all humanity.

For as Christians, we are all called, gathered, disciplined (instructed) by God, and sent to “all the world [to] tell the Good News.”


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