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Monday, September 24, 2007

SHOCK! REVIVE! (26th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Catholic Homily and Gospel Reflection for the
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
September 30, 2007

Selfish revelry and callous complacency hit us hard as we focus on the first and third readings of today. Amos, the great prophet of social justice, proclaims woe: “Woe to the complacent in Zion!” Such was the rich men’s complacency as to engage in behavior that could only be described as insensitive opulence in the midst of so much want … wallowing in beds inlaid with precious and expensive ivory … lolling around in couches as they dined on tender and choice cut meats that were supposed to be a very rare treat for ordinary mortals in his time … guzzling wine not in ordinary goblets, but in wide rimmed bowls that were designed to give maximum inebriation … sporting perfumed oils that presumably led to amorous, sensual liaisons with women after being satiated with food, wine and song … the list could go on. They all pointed to the ultimate in carrion comfort.

But there is more than just selfish revelry and callous complacency in the Gospel passage of today. The gospel seems to take up the cause a notch higher for our consideration. Christ, in a sense, ups the ante for us, to give maximum impact on a life-changing lesson that may fall on deaf ears then – and even more so – now, living as we are in a narcissistic and self-centered world of what Rolheiser refers to as a time of “unbridled restlessness” and unabated consumerism.

More than just selfishness is referred to in the gospel. But neither is the story reducible to callousness and complacency. It is not just one more “morality play” that capitalizes on the hapless plight of the poor and the wretched in our midst, and on how their lack of fortune clashes with that of the fortunate rich in our midst. No … the story of the Lord is not meant merely to shock us for a short while, only for us to go back to our merry uncaring ways soon after the initial shock of reality wears off.

Christ’s story is not meant to shock the hearers although there is more than just a little of a shock value for dramatic effect. As a good story teller, as a good teacher, Christ does have a way with some shocking and stunning stories like this one … like the story of the prodigal son and the resentful older brother.

The story that revolves around great reversals of fortune does shock and stun us – as it probably shocked and stunned the Pharisees. But the great value of Christ’s story of today lies not on whether we are shocked or stunned beyond belief.

Our mass media crazed world is filled with shocking and stunning news almost to the day. We see images of untold and unspeakable human tragedies regularly. We see human suffering of all shapes and sizes and magnitudes at predictable intervals … tsunamis, earthquakes, famine, wars, terroristic acts that hurt, maim, and kill innocent bystanders and people out in the streets to earn their honest daily bread.

But their shock value is all but gone. They have ceased to capture our naturally compassionate hearts, and all they do is to feed our endlessly curious minds with facts and figures that don’t move us to action. For all they do is show us. Beyond showing and telling, such gory images that fill our senses to satiety, don’t lead us to careful reflection that ought to lead us, in turn, to a process that could only be described as a process that softens the soul.

Softening of the soul … this is what the rich man of the gospel did not have … in life, as well as in death. One would think that in death, he would have looked at Lazarus in a less patronizing, less selfish, way. But no … old habits die hard. Selfishness and narcissistic self-centeredness, not necessarily an opulent and insensitive lifestyle, is what did the rich man in. It is what damned him to that wretched state. In death, like in life, the rich man continued to look down on Lazarus as someone who was there to meet his needs, and those of the persons he cared for. Never in the parable is it mentioned that the rich looked on Lazarus and considered him as more than somebody to be at their lowly service.

We are called today to go beyond mere shallow shock value to go by our Sunday reflection. We are certainly shocked that the Artic solid slabs of icy fortresses are now melting away to the glee of shippers who can now cut their travel time considerably as they can do away with the circuitous route via the Panama canal. We were more than just shocked at the “inconvenient truth” that Al Gore showed the whole world last year with his stunning news. We are shocked by what Alan Greenspan told America and the rest of the world – that American’s incursion into Iraq only had to do with oil plain and simple … period! We continue to be shocked everyday by new and fresh revelations of gross acts of massive graft and corruption that would put Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves to shame. In the Philippines context, right after the former President Estrada was convicted of the lower courts of plunder, we were shocked to wake up days after to the realization that Ali Baba might have been routed and banished, but not the Forty Thieves that still man all branches of government, especially the executive and legislative branches! News of a cloak and dagger operation of international proportions hatched not in smoke-filled backrooms but in the fairways of Wack-Wack (Manila) and Shenzen in China continue to shock us beyond belief.

But as Peter Seeger of yore crooned so many years ago … “when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?” Where have all the money gone … long time passing? Where have all the money gone, long time ago. Where have all the money gone? Gone to the grafters everyone … when will they ever learn? When will they ever learn?

But we have learned to withstand and be callous to shocks like these. This is why I insist that today’s liturgy goes beyond shocking us. The Liturgy that makes us look back and revisit old stories about God’s saving interventions in the lives of his Chosen People is not just a backward glance to what is past. No … liturgically speaking, the past is the prologue to our present. We look back. We reclaim the story of God’s people, in order for us to look forward, to make sense of our unfolding story in the present, and the future. Like oarsmen, we row facing backward, in order to move forward.

The rich man’s story, in relation to the shocking story of reversals involving Lazarus and the erstwhile rich and complacent man, is the story too of our lives. And being shocked about it won’t clinch it for us. Being merely awed by it won’t make us better people.

We need more than just the element of shock. We need reflection that softens the soul and makes us part ways with rigid unbending categories that keep us enslaved to the glories of the past. The rich man had an abundance of such “glories of the past.” In death, he even thought he could still order Lazarus around to run him errands.

At this point, I am reminded of a funny – if, shallow – commercial ad for a brand of bath soap that was popular in the early 80s, when Unilever wasn’t yet the giant multinational company that it now is. Shock! …. Revive! Yes, it is OK for us to be shocked and stunned by this dramatic story of reversals. But initial shock should pave the way to our being revived … revived and re-energized enough to follow what St. Paul today counsels Timothy: “Pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
September 24, 2007 – 4:15 pm


PURSUING RIGHTEOUSNESS

[Dundalk, MD - September 26, 2004]

Old habits die hard. The unnamed rich man, used to opulence, comfort, and luxury, with a train of servants ever on the ready to do as bidden at any given time, could not shake off the supercilious and superior attitude of the selfish rich … no, not even in death: “Send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue … send him to my father’s house, for I have five brothers, so that he may warn them, lest they too come to this place of torment.” Even in death, he looked at Lazarus the poor man as someone who ought to serve his every wish.

Last Sunday, we were introduced to a selfish and insensitive, though undoubtedly smart, steward who used his abilities in pursuit of his personal ends. This Sunday, the liturgy confronts us with people of the same ilk – rich individuals whom both the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures condemn, not exactly for being rich, but for being “complacent,” for being so unconcerned at, and unmoved by, the pressing needs of others, especially those who have less in life. As usual, the feisty Amos minces no words as he thunders prophetically: “Woe to the complacent in Zion! … They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet, they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph! … their wanton revelry shall be done away with.”

Once more, Scriptures remind us of the inherent danger of riches, and the very real and proximate possibility for people who wallow in them, to be blinded, to be rendered insensitive, to become so callous to others’ needs as to merit such powerful words from the prophets of old, and the wake-up call of the Gospel account’s story of reversals of fortune for Lazarus and the rich man.

In fairness to the rich man, he most likely grew up not knowing any better. The field of the Sociology of Knowledge, among other things, tells us that our social status, our experience, the people we usually hang out with on a daily basis, the shows we watch, the restaurants we usually go to, the crowd we belong to – they all shape who we are, what we perceive, and what we think. They shape our “cognitive maps,” our mental maps of what we say is reality. “Tell me who your friends are and I will tell you who you are.” Reality is filtered by our social status, by our place up the ladder of wealth, social influence, and daily experience.

No wonder the unnamed rich man still saw Lazarus as a servant. Once a servant, always a servant. Talk about the rich man’s burden … being caught in such a narrow, self-centered perspective that sees one’s good and only one’s benefit as the ultimate value. Talk about being enslaved by “ignorance,” by one’s prejudices, one’s biases, and one’s self-serving concerns … “send him to my father’s house.”
Again, here we have a clear case of “what happened then” and “what happens now” – both arenas of human experience to which Scripture in the Liturgy is brought to bear so that God’s Word may shed light on our current experience here and now. This is what homily is all about. It is all about “breaking the bread of God’s Word” in such a way that Tradition (Scripture), human experience, and culture are put together in a meaningful way, through a method called “correlation,” for us to reflect and discern on God’s will for us in the current conditions of our times.

In our days, there are plenty of rich people. There, too, are even more poor people. “The poor you will always have with you.” As we have seen, rich people are not condemned for being rich. And poor people are not glorified just because they are poor. But Scripture does condemn people, rich and poor alike, who never go beyond their selfish concerns, who do not transcend their narrow, and enslaving ignorance, and who never grow beyond their fixations, prejudices, and biases. Take it from St. Paul who counsels Timothy, who by any standard, already has reached some level of “holiness.” “But you, man of God, pursue righteousness, devotion, faith, love, patience, and gentleness.”

We who belong to a sports-crazed culture (the people of Baltimore are simply grief-stricken at the defeat of the Ravens in the NFL season opening game against Cleveland’s Browns, while those who root for the Redskins are rejoicing at their victory against the Buccaneers) ought to understand St. Paul very well. What he says sounds like some watchwords we are familiar with …“No rest, till Everest!” “No pain, no gain!” … “Compete well for the faith,” St. Paul tells Timothy, using images of training and discipline reminiscent of athletes in the Olympiad.

I would like to suggest that the “training” that most of us need to do in the spiritual life is what the Bible calls “metanoia,” conversion, or more precisely, a change of mind and heart. In the Philippines, where the people are neatly divided in just two classes (the middle class have all but disappeared) – the rich and the poor, the crying need is for both to be able to “see” objective reality, a reality of a society that is imprisoned by so much structural evil and cultural evil that stand in the way of social transformation that the Gospels speak of. The rich need to see beyond their narrow concerns. The poor also need to know that certain cultural values and attitudes make for a specie of “cultural malaise” that also inhibits progress and social development. Both the rich and the poor need conversion. Both the rich and the poor need to work hand in hand to hasten the coming of the Kingdom of God. In the United States, and the rest of the first world cultures, the training most needed is that of opening up to the reality of the gross imbalances in the distribution of wealth and opportunities, the reality of a world that is bent down by the weight of so much demand for natural resources that are unreplenishable, resources that are, by and large, used and abused by the wasteful ways of people whose knowledge does not go beyond the level of what “everyone else does.” Perched comfortably atop the rung of world power, most individuals would not have the moral sophistication to think of the needs of their weaker counterparts. Used to a life of affluence, many first world people would not know how to react to a situation of abject want and utter misery. For many, the next best reaction is either to patronize or to ignore altogether and shrug one’s shoulders.

If we go by the evidence of the Scriptures, however, more responsibility is expected of those who have been given more. More is to be expected from those who have the greater means to effect change. But one thing is sure … all of us are called to this change of heart and mind. All are called to conversion, and all are expected to engage in the work of personal and social transformation.

What the Scriptures condemn is not riches. What they do condemn is the indifference, the nonchalance, the lack of commitment to causes, and the total disregard of others needs and concerns. What happened in Amos’ times, is what happens even now. For whether we find ourselves on the side of the rich man, or on the side of Lazarus, we do find our “comfort zones.” We do find our niches of indifference. The poor can give in to resignation and total dependence. The rich can just take resort to convenient blindness and blissful insouciance. Both can resort to the blaming game. One side blames the poor for being lazy. The other side blames the rich for being abusive and for flaunting their wealth. Both blame government. All blame the “system,” whatever that means. And, in the meantime, the corrupt politicians are laughing their way to the banks (in Switzerland or Lichtenstein). And everyone is mired in his or her own narrow, personal concerns.

Today’s liturgy would have no more of this. Today’s readings would have us all, rich and poor alike, take notice of that covenant responsibility to which we, as a people, have been called by God. When God called us to a relationship, He called people, plain and simple. He did not call rich and poor, but just persons without labels. He called you and I. And He still calls us and reminds us to “pursue righteousness.”


Monday, September 17, 2007

WHEN “WISDOM” GOES WRONG

Homily for the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year C

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.”

[Dundalk, MD - Sept. 19, 2004
St. Rita Parish]
LEARNING FROM A STREET-SMART ECONOMIST!
[Alternative Reflection]

Reality is what today’s liturgical readings smack of. Amos could as well be writing to people of our times. In our dishonest world of business, entertainment, and politics, we hear Amos’ ominous reminder loud and clear … “never will I forget a thing they have done!” (1st Reading).

Paul’s letter to Timothy could very well also be directed to us all who are growing progressively sick and tired of traditional politicians whose seeming sole preoccupation is their own gain and nothing else besides: “I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority …” Reality is what this stuff rings of … reality that stares us in the face almost everyday as we hear the daily news of the daily shenanigans committed by our reigning “kings and queens” in our governments. Truth to tell, what St. Paul continues to say should be reason enough to go on praying – if not, to go on hoping – that “we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.”

I think it not an exaggeration to say that with such a dysfunctional and structural evil that local politics in the Philippines really is, a “quiet and tranquil life” that St. Paul speaks of is still an ongoing object of hope and fervent prayer for most of us Filipinos (and peoples in many other countries in the world!).

The street-smart “economist” (for that is the original word in Luke’s Greek gospel, oikonomos) – meaning a “steward” or “household administrator,” is another reality check for us. He who is close to the purse is close to power. He who holds money also holds great manipulative potentials. He who handles riches is rich with connections that can serve him in good stead when time comes. But he who dispenses wealth also deals with a wealth of opportunities to do good or do bad; to be tempted to dishonesty or to be tried, tested, and proven to be true to his moral convictions. Well, the facts of the story of the Lord make us touch base with all too real scenarios. Having squandered his master’s property, he is now called to task. The day of reckoning comes upon him, and when it does, all the tools in his economist’s tool box comes in handy for him. He buys people’s allegiances by writing off or condoning their debts. The machinery for all sorts of dishonesty goes churning for him, assuring him thus of precious “connections” to tide him over when the time comes.

And the surprising thing is that, as the story goes, “the master commended that dishonest steward for acting prudently.” The street-smart economist does not only go away scot-free. He also gets a gold medal for his manipulative and evasive tactics. He graduates with flying colors in the school of dishonesty and allied vices!

Or is this really the case in today’s readings? Does the Lord teach us to go the wily ways of the shrewd politicians in our midst who continue to rob, pillage, and plunder with impunity? Does the liturgy today extol and glorify manipulation, dishonesty, and shrewd prevarications? Is this world meant to be a world run by those who have the right know-how and the right connections never mind if they run counter to objective moral standards?

Hmm … this is one of those days when we absolutely need to heighten the text in its proper context.

Yes … we need to learn a lesson or two from the street-smart economist. No … the context does not teach us to do AS the economist does. The context does tell us to do LIKE the economist does. There is a world of a difference between doing as he did, and doing like he did.

So, then, what lessons ought we to learn from the shrewd economist?

The key word to remember today is another Greek word – phronesis. This is translated as practical wisdom. Some would put it as prudence, as our text in English today puts it. If we read the rest of the gospel account today, keeping in mind the meaning of this word and concept called practical wisdom, then we probe the seeming scandal of the apparent approval of the steward’s wiliness.

No … the Lord does not extol and glorify the dishonesty of the steward. But he does offer the practical wisdom that he had, as an example from which we need to learn.

The world is filled with too many smart alecks that continue to pull a fast one on every one of us everyday. Unless you look over your shoulder, there are street-smart people who can advance their own selfish agenda by taking advantage of the ignorance of people. One smart-alecky institution in our times that manipulate the masses, is the world of mass media. People are caught unawares all the time, led by the noose to value what mass media value, to espouse truths presented by powerful sound bytes, and major media moments. We live in media-crazed world, where values, attitudes, and behaviors are shaped by what the world of sounds and images focus on. The new cathedrals of commerce are the ones greatly responsible for the postmodern religion in which nothing is absolute, and everything is but relative. Universal objective truth does not exist, but only that brand of truth that is true for me, here and now.

The smart-alecky “economists” – the high priests of manipulation in our times – are definitely using their practical wisdom (prudence) to advance their cause. Be they in politics, in economics, or in commerce, they show a relentless focus and unwavering vision to push their products and accomplish their self-serving ends. “For the children of the world are more prudent in dealing with their own generation than are the children of the light.”

We do need to learn a lesson or two from that street-smart economist of the gospel. That prudence, applied rightly, would then lead us to treat others, particularly the less-privileged ones, the poorer one in every respect, with fairness and justice. That same prudence or practical judgment would also lead us to deal realistically with “all in authority.” Whilst we respect them and pray for them, we need to be wily enough to that “we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity.” But above all, that practical wisdom will lead us to set our priorities right. It means being focused and intent on doing like the dishonest steward did … use all his talents and all the tools available in his tool box to work for treasures that last, riches that matter, and that, my dear friends, refers to reality that goes beyond here and now, “for you cannot serve God and mammon.”

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, September 17, 2007 (5 PM)

Monday, September 10, 2007

LOSSES, FINDINGS, & REJOICING

Catholic Homily on the Sunday Liturgy (24th Sunday Year C)

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?

[Dundalk, MD Sept.12, 2004]

PASSION, CLARITY, & COMPASSION

Today’s readings are a collective story that speaks of passion. God is portrayed as one so passionate about his love for his people as to be passionately involved with and affected on account of their sin of infidelity: “Go down at once to your people … for they have become depraved” (1st Reading). But the same story speaks of a corresponding compassion that the same involvement in the lives of God’s people leads Him to relent: “So the Lord relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict on his people.”

The same passion is discernible in the letter of Paul to Timothy. He makes a bold statement about God’s mercy to sinners. “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. Of these I am the foremost” (2nd Reading). This passionate attachment to Christ that arose out of God’s overwhelming compassion in and through Christ, leads Paul to pour out his heart in thanksgiving: “I am grateful to him who has strengthened me, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he considered me trustworthy in appointing me to the ministry.”

The Gospel passage from Luke is a set of stories that collectively speak of both passion and compassion. First, we are presented with a passionate shepherd, solicitous enough to be worried, and to go out in search of one sheep among a hundred that happens to stray. Passion gives way to celebration. What is lost – but found after a passionate search, becomes reason enough to celebrate. Second, the parable of the Lord would have us see a passionate woman who loses one coin out of the ten she had, and sets out on a passionate search. Again, passion blooms into celebration, when the object of her search is found. Both characters are presented as individuals whose passion is matched by a corresponding compassion that makes them both capable of rejoicing and celebrating, of being grateful for having found what was lost.

But the real clincher comes from the third vignette that the Lord recounts in today’s gospel – the parable of the prodigal son. From any angle, the younger son did wrong. There is no way the story could be manipulated to make it sound like what the younger son did was really inconsequential. He walked out, not only from his father’s household, but also – and worse – from his father’s life. It was the exact equivalent of the idolatrous and depraved act the Israelites did by worshiping a molten calf instead of God. But the more prodigal father, ever so passionately concerned and solicitous for his son’s welfare showed full and total compassion. After his dramatic homecoming, after passionately pleading to his father to take him back in, even as a paid worker, the Father did the unexpected. He did not just welcome him back. He reinstated him to his former status as a son who deserves to have all that the father and his other older son enjoyed, plus more!

Passion, coupled with compassion, that bloomed in total forgiveness, became compelling reasons for a grand celebration.

But hold on a second. This sounds like a fairy tale with a “they-lived-happily-ever-after” ending. Lest we romantically interpret these vignettes as a simply a matter of shallow passion cum compassion, we need to take a second look to all three readings.

I would like to suggest a third common element that juts out ever so subtly in all three readings. I suggest that we need to take a close look at what eventually made it possible for passion to become healthy compassion. I have it on the authority of Peter Kreeft that we need both passion and compassion. The first reading shows us how the two values shone out in an exemplary manner in God whose tender love for his people made him “relent” and forgive the people’s depravity. We see the two values in perfect balance, too, in Paul whose passionate love for God was rewarded with the grace of forgiveness that, in turn, became the foundation for his utter gratefulness. The same passionate love of the father for his younger son, led him to show absolute compassion despite the infidelity of his prodigal son.

But let’s look a little more closely again at the stories. I would like to suggest that mere passion and compassion do not explain it all. I suggest a third element – clarity. Clarity means acceptance and acknowledgment. Clarity means knowing and confessing to one’s infidelity. Moses had clarity. He acknowledged the sins of his people. But his clarity led him to beseech the God of compassion. He implored God saying, “Why, O Lord, should your wrath blaze up against your own people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with such great power and with so strong a hand?”

Paul, too, had crystal-clear clarity. He entertained no illusions about himself: “I was once a blasphemer and persecutor and arrogant, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” Clarity is what led him to passionately claim the compassion of God!

The younger son, also had to pass through a moment of clarity. Before he could resolve to turn back to his father’s warm embrace, he had to clearly acknowledge what he was guilty of. He came to his senses. He realized what he had done. And his realization brought him to action. “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.” For the prodigal son, compassion and passion did not come free. There was a price to pay for it, and that was the way of clarity. The Father, too, did not just have one-sided compassion. Compassion alone would have been maudlin sentimentalism. Passion alone would have been cold and calculating retribution and payback time. But the Father had an intense clarity, coupled with passion and compassion. Such is the love of a father. Such is the love of God, who, like a father, would love intensely and passionately, a love that spills over into total compassion, but a love that is founded on pristine clarity. It is a love that demands a corresponding clarity from the younger son. And the younger son proved he had clarity when he acknowledged the gravity of his sin.

But, unfortunately, not everyone manifests that important element of clarity. The older son failed to see clearly. He was so focused on what he missed, so intent on licking his perceived wounds, that he missed seeing the bigger picture of a father who, after all, loved both his sons passionately. Lacking in clarity, the older son failed to show compassion. What one does not see clearly, one does not readily give away. What one does not understand, one cannot stand. He could not stand what appeared to him as an act of injustice. In his lack of understanding, he missed the more important reality that stared him in the face – the utmost passion and compassion from a father who, in his clarity, saw beyond the younger son’s failings and failures, and saw promise and possibility. In the older son’s blindness, he could not see the reason for rejoicing.

We Christians are called to be a community of the compassionate. But compassion can only be learned in the school of Christ’s passion, death, and resurrection. In the learning process that is called life, one essential element that we need to cultivate is what Kreeft calls aptly, the “hermeneutics of the heart.” It refers to clarity. It refers to having, not only conceptual knowledge, but, more importantly, evaluative knowledge – knowledge that grows out of a heart that sees, more than out of a mind that knows.

The prodigal father had clarity. He knew from the heart. And he loved passionately and dealt with his erring son compassionately – like God himself deals with us. And we all are prodigal children, many times over in our lifetimes.

I end with a good watchword to repeat often during this coming week: “I will rise and go to my father” (Responsorial Psalm).

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, Philippines
September 10, 2007 6:10 pm



Monday, September 3, 2007

DISCIPLESHIP, DECISIONS & SELF-DIFFERENTIATION

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
September 9, 2007

Readings: Wisdom 9:13-18b / Phlm 9-10, 12-17 / Lk 14:25-33


Our readings today smack of homeliness, tenderness, and at the same time, straightforwardness. The first reading refers to the limitations of human wisdom. “For the deliberations of mortals are timid, and unsure are our plans.” That’s straightforward. At the same time, the same reading ascribes to God what, despite human limitations, human beings can attain: “Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?” Now that’s a homely understanding of what God himself does for us and to us. His tender love comes out in the form of counsel that is effective: “And thus were the paths of those on earth made straight.”

The second reading is not only homely, but also tender. Intervening to settle some kind of a “domestic dispute” between a master and a slave, Paul’s closeness to both master and servant becomes an occasion for both to redefine their relationship according to the demands of discipleship. For the disciples of Christ, master-slave relationships ought to become tender and fraternal relationships: “Perhaps this is why he was away from you for a while, that you might have him back forever, no longer as a slave but more than a slave, a brother, beloved especially to me, but even more so to you, as a man and in the Lord.” Calling on Philemon and his natural tender-heartedness, Paul begs him on behalf of Onesimus to welcome him back no longer as a slave but a brother in the Lord.

Paul considers Philemon and Onesimus as disciples of the same Lord. To both, he was straightforward. He tells Onesimus to go back to his erstwhile Master Philemon. He also tells Philemon to welcome back the wayward runaway slave Onesimus, no longer as a slave, but as a brother in the Lord.

Discipleship is a life filled with tenderness, a life characterized by a deep and tender devotion to the one Master, Lord, and Savior. But, as the readings make clear today, discipleship does have its straightforward demands. Paul makes one such straightforward demand to Philemon today: “Welcome back Onesimus, for my sake and for the Lord.”

I am three months away from my 25th anniversary of ordination. I remember vividly the days, months, and years before that much awaited day back in 1982. I look back, too, with both joy and trembling at the years that followed. The years all went by so fast. They could all be compared to what I have learned to love doing when I still had the time and the stamina to do it – climbing up mountains! Going up heights entails blood, sweat, and tears. But being up there, along with going down the mountain, is always filled with exhilaration and excitement, warmth and wonder, grace and glory that always canceled out all the “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number” that went into the preparation and the climbing itself.

Discipleship, which I compare to climbing mountains, is a story filled as much with difficult decisions, as equally difficult demands that are straightforward. It takes wisdom from above to understand it. It takes the same gift of wisdom for disciples like us to be able to live it and fulfill it. But as in scaling heights, one has to love it to enjoy it, the same is true for discipleship. It has to be based on a tender, and deep personal relationship, like the close relationship between Paul and Philemon, that enabled both to navigate through the difficult demands of that discipleship.

It sure must not have been easy for Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave. It sure was not easy, too, for Onesimus to go back to a situation that he felt he had to run away from, if only for a while.

But there is more to these straightforward demands of discipleship …

First, one has to make decisions. One has to make choices. And such choices have to be clear and committed. One cannot straddle the road, nor zigzag one’s way through difficulties. And one’s choice must be clearer than Sprite: “if anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”

Without in any way taking the passage literally, as literally “hating” family, I would like to think that discipleship has to do with a great deal of healthy self-differentiation. Let me illustrate. Making choices is not enough. Making decisions for the Lord is not enough. That choice and decision must be clear and unalloyed, direct and straightforward. It cannot be a wishy-washy, touchy-feely kind of tenuous attachment to a vague idea and equally vague ideal. There has to be warmth and tenderness that are both based on a personal relationship, like the closeness and intimacy between Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus, and, of course, Christ their Master and Lord.

More than 15 years in formation work has convinced me of a few things. In retrospect, the problematic seminarians who just did not manage to navigate the polar tensions that abounded in the lengthy process of formation were either too enmeshed, or to disengaged with their families of origin. Those who were too emotionally fused with their families (with either father or mother figures) and those, on the other hand, who were too emotionally detached and disengaged from them, are eventually those who find difficulties adjusting. They were not sufficiently self-differentiated. Without healthy self-differentiation, they end up either being utterly dependent on them, or being too reactive to them. They were either too expecting and too demanding of their superiors, or too angry with them, or too reactive to them, projecting on them the parent-figure against whom and with whom they still have to disengage, or healthily self-differentiate. Discipleship that is not based on a healthy sense of tenderness and deep personal relationship is discipleship that is not open and ready for the demands that it entails. One is too bogged down by the need to either react to or being dependent on some key figures in the past, that one cannot decide fully to follow. One loses so much energy dealing with past issues, as to have no energy left for discipleship that makes straightforward demands.

25 years is a long time to get some further realizations along the way. Looking back, they have been years of unmatched joy and unparalleled sense of personal fulfillment for me. But there, too, have been times marked by disillusionment and disappointment. Like the desert experience of the Jews fresh out of the relative coziness of Egyptian bondage, one pined for home and longed for tenderness and intimacy. And, depending on what one does with the call to self-differentiation, depending on what sort of choice or decision one makes, one ends up discovering either desolation or devotion.

Discipleship is a call for us all to make choices and decisions. Commitment to Jesus, acceptance of the cross, and relinquishment of material possessions as signs of self-differentiation, could only lead to devotion. The opposite could only lead to desolation.

National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
September 3, 2007

BORN TO BE FREE!
[Alternative Reflection]

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 Olympic games of three years ago were 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.

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).

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 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? 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 are still a year away from now, 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!

August 24, 2007 - Dundalk, MD