“GOOGLING” DISCIPLESHIP (4th Sunday of Ordinary Time - Year A)

Catholic Homily/Reflection
4th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Cycle A
February 3, 2008

Last week, the liturgy did for us a “google” on discipleship. What we found led us to one basic idea that stuck out very clearly … disciples had to be “free” enough to follow. Among others, entanglements and enmeshments, whether psychological or physical, are meant to be left behind. The two pairs of brothers strike us with their prompt, interior complex-free response. They “left immediately their boat and their father and followed [the Lord].”

Our google search this Sunday leads us to an additional, no less important, concept anent discipleship. Apart from being “free,” a would-be disciple, we are further reminded, has to be “light” enough, one who is not too heavily laden with stuff to start with, as to be sort of “needy,” one who is wanting in a certain way, one who can follow Zephaniah’s wise counsel: “Seek the Lord, all you humble of the earth … seek justice, seek humility.”

Our postmodern (and post-christian) world does not in any way fancy neediness and lowliness as values. We do not go running around googling humility. We do not usually fancy ourselves voluntarily aiming after a low-profile existence in a world that says wealth, fame, knowledge, and power are the ultimate and legitimate goals of everyone. The popular Google search engine is not exactly a mute witness to this drive to emulate the rich, the powerful, and the famous, if we are to judge by the most sought after personalities on the web. The sheer numbers of those who want to be the next “apprentice,” the next “American Idol” (star circle quest in the Philippines), or the next strapping “survivor” of reality TV and pop culture fame, show us that being “unknown” and being “nobody” are not exactly the most sought after dream of the average man, woman, or child of today.

Our search for discipleship may indeed be a letdown for most of us. But let us further refine our search and see what all this discipleship business entails for us reluctant disciples.

Apart from the fact that it has to do with “seeking” and “finding,” our ongoing google search focuses and hones on the need for disciples to “learn.” The lessons it teaches us go against the grain. They simply defy logic. They are hard lessons to learn. The first such lesson that is hard to swallow has to do with a humbling reality check. “Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.” Ooops! Now that hits me hard… what could be more blunt and real than this? … “God chose the foolish of the world to shame the strong, and God chose the lowly and despised of the world, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who are something.” The second lesson is even harder … no boasting! “What do you have that you have not received?” This is what St. Paul elsewhere in 1 Corinthians reminds us. That leaves us with little choice … as Paul counsels us today, if we are to boast, then we are to boast only in the Lord!

There is something in the disciple’s seeking, as counseled by Zephaniah, that opens itself to finding. There is something in the patient searching that leads to discovering, and there is something in the discovering that leads to happiness. People who are already full do not need to be looking and searching. Bloated egos care not too much for simple and basic essentials that add little to their public personal stature. But it is the hungry, the needy, the simple, and the lowly who find joy in the humble searching and the eventual finding of whatever it is they seek. Those who have a surfeit of goods don’t bother to seek, and those who don’t seek, never find.

I will never forget the moving account of a western journalist who reported the story of a little girl who, after one of the many natural calamities in the Philippines, waited for hours in line for food rations. Being small, and being weak, she could not make headway into the long line of more able bodied and quick bigger adults. When it was her turn to receive, the supply was gone. All she got was an over ripe banana. With grateful eyes nevertheless, she received what was given her and carefully carried the precious commodity to her younger brother. With joy and ill-concealed excitement, she carefully divided the banana and shared half to her equally hungry younger sibling.

That little girl obviously did her searching. Getting only an over ripe banana, but being happy and appreciative all the same, who is to say that she did not find the object of her search? With only a morsel to share, she found happiness – the happiness that is spoken of in today’s readings. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.” (Responsorial psalm)

My series of reflections before and after Christmas made much of the paradoxical nature of our Christian faith, and of the events that led to our salvation, all of which were full of paradoxical reversals. The ultimate story of reversal, of course, is the story of God becoming man like all of us, getting down to our level, dwelling in our midst, becoming human, so that we might become like unto God.

The call to discipleship counts among such paradoxical reversals. Disciples are called to do a google, not on power, fame, and riches, but on justice, humility, and on the Lord. Disciples are essentially “learners,” we are further reminded, and the first lesson worth learning is the secondary nature and the futility of what the world considers as the ultimate objects of everyone’s earthly desire.

In the aftermath of the deadly tsunami that snuffed out the lives of more than 165,000 people three years ago, the world saw the rise of so many “theologians” who all of a sudden had every kind of answer to the mystery of suffering, the mystery of God’s will, and who gave cut and dried answers to questions that are basically bigger than life and death itself. Fanatics had a heyday rehashing the old story line of the need for “blessed candles” to ward off “punishment” during the “three days of darkness,” for one. Capitalizing a whole lot on fear, they accommodate current events with basically symbolic (apocalyptic) statements from the Bible, and endlessly connect such “predictions” with all that goes on in the natural world of tectonic plates and changing weather patterns all over the planet. In their misguided desire to be helpful, they create a god in the image of sinful and fickle men and women – a god whose will can basically be twisted and changed with sufficient effort on the part of people. On the one hand, some such tin pan alley theologians simplistically declare such calamities as directly willed by God in order that good would come out of it all. Still others find no qualms about seeing the divine hand of punishment for people who have become hardened sinners, suggesting thereby that those who died deserved to die because they were sinners. These are those who uncharitably declare those who died as having died because of human sinfulness, both their own and those of other people in the world. Yet others, who seem to have a direct line to heaven, see it as God’s way of reminding people to shape up – or ship out to a watery grave. At the rate chain letters are being passed on through the web (or text messaging), all the internet service providers see a surge of frantic, guilty, and fearful forwarding of rehashed warnings about the forthcoming “three days of darkness” that can, for reasons that only their twisted, misguided theology can understand, can only be warded off by “blessed candles.”

A world that has forgotten to learn the lessons on discipleship that the Lord had given and still gives to his followers, is now at a loss for categorical, black and white answers to the complex problem of material and moral evil in the world of free human beings that our loving God has created. The shortest, easiest path is to go the way of oversimplified answers to basically complex problems.

Today’s lessons on discipleship, however, do not give such straightforward, off-the-cuff answers. There is no such thing as “shoot-from-the-hip” type of answers that come from people who see the world in terms of black and white with no shades of grey in between. And even if there were any, said answers would obviously be of little help and consolation to people who have lost their entire families, their sources of livelihood, and everything that gave their lives meaning and purpose all in a matter of a few minutes of rampaging waves. Discipleship itself does not guarantee that one’s life would be free from pain, from suffering, and disappointment.

But discipleship does offer us a program to live by. It is a program that is dotted with paradoxes and reversals, a program of life that sees value where the world usually does not, a program of life that puts postmodern man’s value system on its head. The Lord’s formation program would have us see blessedness (macarisms) and deep happiness in being “poor in spirit,” in “mourning,” in being “meek,” in one’s “hunger and thirst for righteousness,” in being “merciful,” in being “clean of heart,” in being “peacemakers,” and in being “persecuted for the sake of righteousness.”

Discipleship thus puts all of us into the heart of Christian paradox, in the heart of the Christian gospel. The follower’s openness to this world of paradox, ultimately, leads the believer to a world of meaning, blessedness, and purpose in life in a world, that, despite its messiness and unpredictableness, remains to be a world eminently loved and guided by God who sees what people in their shortsightedness, cannot usually see.

Googling discipleship, as you can tell by now, does not lead to quick and easy answers. Following the Lord in faith does not offer a detailed “map quest” to follow that leads to our earthly destination. Nor does it give definitive and final answers to all our questions. If anything it has led us to draw closer to him who once said, “he who seeks, finds; he who asks, receives.”

That little girl received not what she was expecting. But she did find something that no amount of goods and earthly treasures could give – the love and happiness that only the simple, the lowly, the humble and the “poor in spirit” can see despite their wants, despite their needs. If only for those few, fleeting moments that she and her little brother took to finish that forlorn banana, they saw – everyone saw just what evangelical blessedness really means in concrete. It goes beyond need, beyond want, beyond pain, beyond death!

I am reminded of a church song that I love to repeat in my head every time I am left holding an empty bag in my everyday life, in moments when I feel short-changed by the world, by others, and even by God, every time my pessimistic bent tells me to stop hoping and dreaming … “shepherd me O God, beyond my wants, beyond my fears, from death into life!”

I would like to invite you to go on googling, to go on dreaming, to go on hoping. For “the Lord keeps faith forever, secures justice for the oppressed, gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets captives free!”