Monday, June 30, 2008
14th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
July 6, 2008
Readings: Zec 9:9-10 / Rom 8:9,11-13 / Mt 11:25-30
There is something absolutely disarming about children. We all love to have them around and we find endless joy in their presence. Being simple, unsophisticated, open, easy to please, children are always the center of attention at any gathering. How they amuse and entertain us! We may have so many reasons for loving children, but I am sure there is one reason that is shared by all of us. It is because they are truthfully candid. They mean what they say. They say exactly what they mean. They have no reason to resort to double-talk, to subterfuge, to deception. How very true are the words of the psalmist: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have drawn a defense against your foes, to silence enemy and avenger.(Psalm 8:3)
There is power in simplicity. There is an undefinable force attached to being what the world may consider weak, powerless and poor. In the first reading of today, Zephaniah envisions the awaited savior as “meek, riding on an ass.” It is most interesting to note that this same savior, riding on a lowly beast of burden, would put to rout chariots and horses and mighty bows, and shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion, adds the prophet, shall stretch from sea to shining sea.
The images conjured up by the first reading would make any boy’s, or any child’s adrenaline to shoot up in utter excitement. This is a classical battle picture of inferior forces battling it out with superior forces possessing the latest weaponry, as against a ragtag band of freedom fighters with nothing but light, and inferior hand weapons. This is much like the story of the weak, frail and nerdy looking Peter Parker, to all appearances the underdog in an epic struggle between good and evil forces, in the highly popular, box-office hit movie SPIDERMAN. The story of the underdog, the less powerful finally turning the tables against the mighty ones is a favorite theme since time immemorial.
But this is not just one more of those stories about “unexpected” heroes and heroines who win despite their obvious lack of means and lack of power. This is not a story of such a hero getting superhuman – if, magical – powers that he then puts at the service of the helpless and the downtrodden.
This is the story about God and his love of preference. This is a story of God’s predilection for the poor, the helpless, the less powerful, the simple. For this is a story of God’s love – a history that shows repeatedly in Scriptures, his preference for the weak. This is very clear in Paul’s statement: “Rather, God chose the foolish of the world to shame the wise, and God chose the weak of the world to shame the strong” (1COR 1:27).
This seems to be at work, too, in today’s Gospel passage where we hear the Lord saying:
“I give praise to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, for although you have hidden these things from the wise and the learned you have revealed them to little ones.” (Mt 11:25).
There seems to be no doubt as to where the Lord is calling us today. He calls us to simplicity. He reminds us that greatness does not lie on power, wealth, and authority. He leads us to what really matters. And what really counts as essential does not have to do with all three enumerated above. Just how are we faring in this regard?
Henry David Thoreau, in his extended essay Walden Pond, partly echoes what the Lord tells us today. Thoreau makes much of modern man’s tendency to fritter away his life on details…oodles of them. He went to the woods, he says, because he wanted to live life deliberately, to face the essentials, in order to “suck the marrow” out of life, as it were. His basic dictum: simplify, simplify, simplify. What does this say of us who are so concerned about so many things: career, reputation, job, dwellings, entertainment, promotion, success, more money, more leisure. The list is endless. Our lives now are a mad rush from one pressing concern to another. Our lives are literally torn apart by so many conflicting needs. What does this say about so many of us, who, after acquiring so much knowledge, have forgotten that wisdom is something that has to do more with heart than with mind; that it has to do less with skills and know-how than with attitudes. Attitudes of the heart…these are what really matter. Philosophy would rather call these attitudes virtues. Sometime in my philosophical training, we were told that there were basically two types of virtues: intellectual and moral virtues…habits of the mind, and habits of the heart (and hand). Habits also were either entitative or operative. Simply put, the latter habit of the heart has to do with daily life, with “operations.” It has to do with action, with doing, with behavior.
I suggest that, following today’s invitation from the Lord, we take the path of that one important habit of the heart called simplicity and ordinariness as our PAN DE LA SEMANA - our bread for the week. This simplicity and ordinariness springs from the important realization that deep inside, we are really insignificant creatures. This habit of the heart refers to the attitude of appreciating our true self, minus all the trimmings and the trappings that we use as props to our basically insecure self. This has to do with facing our self as God meant it to be, with all its richness of being and not of having. There is something painfully true in Margaret Mitchell’s statement that it is only when we lose our reputation that we become truly free (Gone with the Wind).
There is something humbling in what I am living through right now. From my ordination back in ’82, I have always been more or less in control. I held various offices. I worked for others all the time. I was called by various titles. I was sought after at meetings and gatherings. What a change it had been when both titles and offices disappeared! From caring for others, all of a sudden, I only had to care for myself, to go through some kind of fallow time – my own Walden Pond experience! This is not only humbling, but also liberating; not just liberating, but also enriching. The luxury to reflect, and become a little more wise for the reflection is something that cannot come to those who think they already know; those whose worth resides on what they do, how much they have; those who are too busy to really realize they are missing it all; those whose heads have been swollen by power, wealth, and a little authority. There is a word for all this: PRIDE. And the Bible tells us it was the cause of Lucifer’s downfall. Shakespeare declared in one of his plays: “Man, proud man, drest in a little brief authority, does such fantastic tricks before high heavens, as make the angels weep!”
I guess this, among other things, tells us that people who use authority and power and wealth and whatever, as props to their self-worth really do not know who they truly are. And so they resort to things external to them. But they really hold on to straw, nothing more, nothing less, nothing else. Simplicity and ordinariness are not their kind of game. Theirs is a game of one-upmanship, and before they realize it, they are using even other people as stepping stones toward more – more honor, more fame, more glory, more “success.” But the proud – the wise, and the learned – are failing miserably. Draw from your own personal experience. When you did something out of spite, when you did something to put down another, to prove your point and take some form of revenge over others, are you really happy? Only the mentally sick are! Kahlil Gibran’s words ring loud and clear to me at this point: “How vain it is to build a wall on one side, by destroying a fence on the other side!”
The first reading from Zephaniah makes a curious link between the promised savior riding on an ass who will “banish chariots, horses and bows,” and the proclamation that he has come to bring. Yes, “he shall proclaim peace to the nations. His dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth.” This is a link too precious to overlook. From a stance of simplicity, lowliness and humility, one gets power – the power to proclaim peace. What then do we make of this? Simple! Only the simple, the lowly, the poor, the weak, the less powerful, and less learned from this world’s viewpoint, shall know peace. The Lord chooses to reveal to them what He withholds from the wise and the learned. Wisdom is in no hurry to enter the minds and hearts of those who are too busy filling them up with trifles and non-essentials.
Nowhere is this mad rush for non-essentials so clear as in the lopsided concern people put now on their bodies and physical appearances. The care for the body has almost become a cult for millions and millions all over the world. Is this any clue as to why Avon has shifted most of its manufacturing and capital to the Philippines? Is this any clue as to why cosmetics in the Philippines is and has always been a very lucrative business, next to food? St. Paul in the second reading tells us to set our priorities right: “we are not debtors to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” Among other things, St. Paul reminds us to care for the essentials, to worry above everything else about our life in the spirit, and not life in the flesh. This is another way of talking about simplicity and ordinariness.
For all of us harried and hurried worrywarts and worldly competitors in the game of hiding our true selves, who find it hard to “resort to means otherwise available only to weaker parties” (Gaudium et Spes), for all of us who think that greatness resides in might, in power and position, and therefore feel so burdened by the compelling need to keep up with a culture that prizes all of the above, there is a standing invitation from the Lord: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light.”
There is peace and serenity awaiting us all. And it is not to be had by those who do not know nor accept their true selves; those who because they are wise and learned, already have all the answers. No, this type of peace and “rest” that the Lord speaks about is not for the wise and the learned, who do not ask, but for mere children who acknowledge their need and are honest and open with their want.
Monday, June 23, 2008
Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
Solemnity of Sts. Peter & Paul
June 29, 2008
The first reading, by all counts, should be rather depressing. King Herod was hell-bent on doing harm to the Church and its incipient leaders … James was ordered killed … and Peter, too, the head of the emerging “band of brothers,” presumably becoming, as days went by, some kind of a pain in the neck for ambitious Herod, was arrested … and imprisoned. Luke finds it significant enough to record that no less than “four squads of four soldiers each” had to be commissioned to guard him as he languished in prison. He was fettered with “double chains” and had to sleep “between two soldiers,” while more guards “kept watch outside the door.”
The second reading is no less saddening, in a way. Paul, too, was in prison kept under humiliating conditions. As if to say good-bye, he speaks of his impending “departure” very clearly referring to his death. Paul was writing his own version of a valedictory address to Timothy.
This forms part of the backdrop of today’s solemnity in honor of two great figures in the incipient Church, two towering pastors who shepherded and guided the early Church, “come hell or high water,” as it were. Such is the backdrop to a celebration that extolled the greatness of two men who shone “in their finest hour,” through thick and thin, whether in the “best of times,” or in the “worst of times.”
As a priest for these past 25 years, as a pastor, prophet, and teacher – and, erstwhile – leader of a community, seminary and school, I see promise, I see hope, I see challenge and a call to ongoing commitment in the shining examples of these two great men – Peter and Paul!
The two lived in the worst of times! The two showed their mettle in the best of times!
Peter was surrounded by guards and manacled like a common criminal. But with chains and all, guards or no guards to pin him down, the persecuted and emotionally pilloried Peter slept, as the Acts passage tells us. As the church “prayed fervently” for him, Peter slept the peaceful sleep of faith, trust and confidence in the power of God who was his saviour. The worst of times became Peter’s shining hour. It became the best of times for God to reveal what we so confidently proclaim in response to the first reading: “The angel of the Lord will rescue those who fear him.”
Paul, for his part, bidding good-bye to his beloved flock, feels confident enough to speak of his life as having been “poured out like a libation,” and like an accomplished and consummate athlete, who has “competed well,” “finished the race,” and “kept the faith,” stands ready to receive “a crown of righteousness” from the Lord, for He “stood by [him] and gave [him] strength, so that through [him] the proclamation might be completed and all the Gentiles might hear it,” for [he was] rescued from the lion’s mouth.” The worst of times for Paul in a painful moment of parting really became also his finest hour, his own moment of glorification from the Lord “who [rescues him] from every evil threat and [brings him] safe to his heavenly kingdom.”
I request the gentle reader (or hearer) to join me and my brother priests and bishops as we go through our own version of Peter and Paul’s “worst of times” experience. Needless to say, there is the equivalent of Peter’s “four squads of four soldiers each” and “double chains” and overzealous guards sandwiching us between them, as the mass media and the tide of public opinion send us to our own dark dungeons of condemnatory moral imprisonment, thus effectively “silencing” us and the whole Philippine Church on current matters that need moral clarification. The overbearing power of the mass media has been brought to bear on the hapless – if, unfortunate – clerics who happen to be brought to a humbling trial by publicity.
I ask the sympathetic and faith-filled and faith-inspired reader (or hearer) to pray for us as church, even as the early christians prayed for Peter in chains. I ask you to accompany us as we weather through these “worst of times!”
But I also ask you to pray that “our faith, like Peter’s, may not fail.” I also ask you to pray that like us, in imitation of Peter and Paul, you lay people may all sleep the peaceful sleep of one like Peter, who, confident of the prayer of the Church, rested peacefully in the God who “rescues us from the lion’s mouth,” to whom is due all “glory forever and ever.” I ask you to pray that the worst of times may indeed be transformed to the best of times. I ask you to help us deliver the great news, in season and out of season, that “everything works unto good for those who love him,” that ultimately, “all will be well; all will be well.”
I have it on the strength of Peter’s and Paul’s stolid faith that “in our weaknesses, God is our strength.” I have it, too, on the authority of Jesus the Christ, who once – and, definitively -- told Peter, “And so I say to you. You are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”
Ultimately, it was the faith and the prayer of the community (the church) that gave Peter that confident assurance of deliverance from his prison chains. The worst of times became the best of times to show the sinful world all about the power of one who destroyed both sin and death, and who was more powerful than hatred and envy and evil machinations – including the very sins, we your priests and pastors admittedly fell – and still, fall into!
Today’s solemnity is all about this meta-worldly and spiritual power that shone marvelously in the lives of two great men named Peter and Paul. More than any other, the two show us that, despite the darkness of this worldly existence and the apparent hopelessness that cloud the Church right now, Christ Himself, and not merely an angel, will come back to “snatch her finally and forever from the hands of all her enemies.” What we now pray for together as Church is what now we all are becoming … utterly confident of being in God’s hands!
Catholic Homily/ Sunday Reflection / Gospel Reflection
13th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
Catholic Homily/ Sunday Reflection / Gospel Reflection
There is something particularly striking in today’s response to the 1st reading. Profuse in its expression of joy, the response acclaims God’s faithfulness, his kindness, his justice, and exalts him for the favors he has given.
There is a note of definiteness to this profuse expression of thanksgiving and exultation in the Lord. Today’s readings give us enough reasons to join the psalmist in singing of the Lord’s goodness.
When was the last time you could honestly feel with the grateful psalmist? When was the last time you really knew you were overflowing with gratitude to the Lord? Tough question for many of us, huh?
Let me tell you how in my life I used to complain more than I thanked God – at least, as an initial reaction to something I never expected.
As an enthusiastic, 21-year old professed brother, fresh from College, I, together with my companions, was avidly waiting for our assignments, that summer of 1977. Each of us had made our own plans and dreamed about being assigned mostly to schools. I was among the last the Provincial spoke to. All I saw from everyone was a big smile on their faces as they received their first obedience. It was not to be the case with me. I was not being sent to any school, not even to the seminary in Canlubang (where I have stayed for 5 years as a student), neither to the minor seminary in Pampanga. I was told to go to forlorn Mayapa, to be assistant to the Parish Priest, whose fiery temperament and hurting ways were no secret to us. My first reaction was not to thank God, but to ask him, “Why me?” To Mayapa I went, reluctantly at first. I remember I cried the first night my companions were away…off to their “juicy” assignments. I stayed and lasted for two wonderful, grace-filled years! When the time came for me to leave and go for theological studies, I found it hard to leave. The people have been very good to me. The Lord had been very gracious to me. I learned so many things that otherwise I could not have learned if I had been sent elsewhere.
Soon after ordination, I was being assigned once more to Canlubang, that is to the seminary. I thought again, wrongly, that I was being given a raw deal. I did not thank God. I complained. I asked to be allowed to enjoy my priestly ministry in a parish at least for a few months. I was given all of summer to do that. By June, I reluctantly and sadly wended my way to Canlubang…back to barracks…back to the seminary. I was not happy. But soon, I was proven wrong. I was so happy doing a little teaching, a little preaching, doing farm work, (I planted scores of trees!), and doing some studies. Two years after, I was being sent back to Mayapa to act as Parochial Vicar. I complained again. I did not find it a lucrative post. But when the time came to leave both Mayapa and Canlubang, my heart was just about ready to burst. I have not been given a raw deal, after all. I was given what I needed at the time. The Lord has been very gracious to me. And when by a sudden twist of fate, brought about by profound historical changes associated with the 1986 snap elections, and I had to be whisked away from Mayapa, I complained to the Lord. Again. Like the stubborn Jews that only Moses and his endless patience can deal with. I was sent to Pampanga. I was not happy, initially. I was missing the active pastoral ministry in the parish. I missed the simple, ordinary people. I missed working with people who were on fire with zeal to build up the Church in the far-flung barrios of Calamba. And when I thought that I was settling down in Pampanga, after taking up once more the job of teaching religion to just about all the classes from Gr. 5 to 4th Year high school, I was told to go to Mandaluyong to be Principal of the Elementary and High School Departments. I was sad. Again, I did not thank God. I complained to him. I was afraid of that big school.
The pattern was to be repeated over and over again. The four years of stay in Mandaluyong proved to be fruitful and memorable. They made me grow in many ways. They made me see other aspects of the ministry that otherwise I could not have seen had I stayed where I wanted to stay. I climbed a dozen mountains. I became national chaplain to the Catholic Scouting movement. In the fourth year of my stay in Mandaluyong, I got wind that I would be given a transfer. I hid from the Provincial whenever he was around. But then I could not hide forever. My happy years in Mandaluyong came to an end as I was sent to
Today’s response to the readings strikes me personally. It convicts me. It reminds me of the so many times I could have been grateful and was not. Late have I realized how good and gracious He had been to me all these years. Some of them could have been years of pain. But they were also years of possibilities, of opportunities, and of growth. Today, I would like to confess to you all: too late have I learned to really be grateful. But today, I feel, perhaps, more than any other, at a time when I am in the throes of letting go, of grieving something I have “lost” recently, in this fallow time of mine, when I no longer primarily do things for others, but to focus more on myself, the need for me to make the words of the psalmist really my own: FOREVER I WILL SING THE GOODNESS OF THE LORD!
How different had been the response of the woman from Shunem! She and her husband received the prophet Elisha without complaint. She gave her best: food, bed, lamp, a small room up on the roof. She lost nothing. She gained, for she was given a prophet’s reward for having received Elisha the prophet. How stingy could we be when it comes to God! How selfish. And yet, “what do we have that we have not received?”
If we have died with Christ, we shall also live with him
Christ dies no more
Death no longer has power over him
He died to sin once for all
He lives for God
Therefore, he says, “you too, must think of yourselves as dead to sin and living for God in Christ Jesus.” (Rom 6: 8-11)
How does a people so privileged react to all this? What do people who have been shown the graciousness of God do? What do those who received so much give in return to the Lord? What do they get as reward? What more is in the offing for them?
The Gospel passage of today answers these questions point blank. As part of the missionary discourse of the Lord in Matthew’s gospel, we are told that there is more for those who have tasted the Lord’s goodness; more challenges, for one:
He who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.
He who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.
There go the reasons for my complaints! What right do I have to complain given these one-liners that are addressed to would-be missionaries? What, then, do I receive from the Lord? The above list tells us: what we really receive is the privilege to be like Christ, to suffer like Christ, “to fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ.” (
But in the same breath, the Lord himself tells us what else is in the offing for the would-be missionary:
Whoever receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever receives a righteous man because he is righteous will receive a righteous man’s reward.
Whoever gives only a cup of cold water to one of these little ones to drink because the little one is a disciple – amen, I say to you, he will surely not lose his reward.
As I look back over the past 33 years that I have been a Salesian, given these fresh readings that I have done on the liturgy of today, I am shamed and at the same time humbled by the realization that there are no reasons whatsoever for me to complain at all. The Lord has been very gracious to me. I have all the reasons in the world to be grateful. From the two years I spent in forlorn Mayapa, to the ten years I spent at Canlubang… they have all been one whole package of love from God: privileges to suffer with him, and rewards galore, as only those who follow him sincerely can ever get. Indeed, “what do I have that I have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7) With Teresa of Avila, I can honestly say: TODO ES VIDA; TODO ES GRACIA. FOREVER I WILL SING THE GOODNESS OF THE LORD!
Monday, June 16, 2008
Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection / Gospel Reflection
12th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
June 22, 2008
All three readings, on close examination, strike very, very close to home base. They all speak of struggle. And they all sound so reassuring. They all refer to a God who inspires so much confidence, so like the God we spoke of last Trinity Sunday: gracious and merciful; slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity.
To Him, we cry out today, led as much by human desperation, as by utter confidence and divine faith: LORD, IN YOUR GREAT LOVE, ANSWER ME.
Who among us, in those quiet, desperate moments, at some time or other in our lives, have not identified with the psalmist who cries out to the Lord almost desperately? The pleading itself reflects a struggle deep within. The plea speaks of a person torn between despairing, and claiming that which he or she knows God has the power to give, or withhold.
Who among us, in the midst of so many trials, caught between the Scylla and Charybdis of holding on, on the one hand, and letting go and giving up, on the other, have not given utterance to a prayer so passionate, so filled with deep, overwhelming – if, confusing - emotions?
Let us look at some of the struggles the readings speak of today. Take Jeremiah, for one…a person who current mass media would most likely play up as a “controversial” figure. No, he was not just caught up in controversy and that all-too-common “intrigue” we read almost daily about people in show biz. He was ensnared in deadly hostility! People plotted conspiracies against his life right in his own hometown (Anathoth)! He was confined in the stocks in the temple. He was tried for blasphemy…all on account of his telling the truth, his prophesying, his speaking on God’s behalf.
And then, there is Paul who speaks of the ultimate struggle. Sin – and death in its tow, on the one hand, and grace – and life in its fullness, on the other. Death came through one man, Adam. And grace that upturned the tables downright, grace that superabounded all the more, came through Jesus Christ, himself no stranger to struggle.
Indeed, from first-hand experience, the Lord talks about similar struggles in the Gospel passage of today. “And do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather, be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”(Mt 10:28) From the mouth of him who went through so much struggle, who suffered so much opposition, we hear reassuring words: “Even all the hairs of your head are counted.” (Mt 10:30)
Jeremiah certainly had a tough time as a prophet. He tells us so himself. The anguish and the pain that ooze out of every line he wrote are paralleled and surpassed only by the other Jeremiah the former foreshadowed – Jesus Christ.
If only for this honesty and steadfastness in the Lord despite the painful struggles, Jeremiah is worth emulating. He is one Old Testament saint that transcends time and really stands close to our daily experience, mine included. Back in the day, I had in my office a framed reproduction of a famous Dutch painter’s rendition of Jeremiah during his famous lamentations. When I saw the original at
My experience and yours, I am sure, show that present struggles, at least for the most part, do not disappear just because we join the league of Jeremiah, Paul and Jesus Christ. But I can tell you one sure thing. There is reason to sing, for connectivity with one who assures us of peace, even as he himself is deep into the same struggles, has given – and, indeed, gives meaning to the very struggles we are experiencing. “Are not two sparrows sold for a small coin? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father's knowledge. Even all the hairs of your head are counted. So do not be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” (Mt 10:29-31) This is the sort of peace that comes with the assurance you are never insignificant in God’s eyes. This is the kind of peace that accrues from the conviction that, no matter the seeming non-acceptance, the ungratefulness, and others’ unacknowledged negative emotions being dumped unfairly on you, the Lord, after all, is with you, like a mighty champion.
Jeremiah’s prophetic insight is a good one to keep constantly in mind. His saintly courage, persistence, patience and perseverance despite all the odds reflective of all that Jesus Himself underwent, who, “for my sake sufferedst nails and lance, mocked and marred countenance, sorrows passing number, sweat and care and cumber,” (Hopkins, O Deus, Ego Amo Te!) is enough to give rhyme and reason to it all. Ultimately, his love is behind all this newfound capacity for spiritual resiliency to suffering. I share with you Gerard Manley Hopkins’ translation of the hymn I partly quoted above:
O God, I love thee, I love thee –
Not out of hope of heaven for me
Nor fearing not to love and be
In the everlasting burning.
Thou, Thou, my Jesus, after me
Didst reach thine arms out dying,
For my sake sufferedst nails and lance,
Mocked and marred countenance,
Sorrows passing number,
Sweat and care and cumber,
Yea and death, and this for me,
And thou couldst see me sinning:
Then I, why should not I love thee,
Jesu so much in love with me?
Not for heaven’s sake; not to be
Out of hell by loving thee;
Not for any gains I see;
But just the way that thou didst me
I do love and I will love thee:
What must I love thee, Lord, for then? –
For being my king and God. Amen.
Tuesday, June 10, 2008
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A
June 15, 2008
It almost sounds like conditions are being set. If the Jews behave well, they stand to get handsome rewards. If only they would shape up, God would reciprocate accordingly. “Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. That is what you must tell the Israelites." Fair enough, isn’t it? A case of “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.”
Could God be making a deal with His people here? Doesn’t all this appear like following God is a case of tit for tat? Is this for real? Could God really be saying, “You will be my people…but only if you listen to me and toe the line…” Or so it seems to the unwary reader.
Of course, we know better than to take isolated passages of Scripture, and make dogma out of each and every line, taken apart from the totality of the truth and meaning of Scripture as a whole. Today’s readings are a clear case in point.
No, God does not make promises on condition that we do our part. God’s love is never conditional. Let’s see what the second reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans says: “But God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
This does not sound like a language of conditionality to me. He died for us, not because we decided at some point to be righteous, but precisely because we were deep in sinfulness. Helpless we were in our sinfulness. Does this not re-echo what we were told last Sunday? "Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.” Let us look at what we are told in today’s Gospel passage. “At the sight of the crowds, his heart was moved with pity for them because they were troubled and abandoned, like sheep without a shepherd.”
I say it again. God’s love never is conditional. It is not dependent on what we do, who we are, where we come from, and what our credentials are. St. John puts it so clearly: “In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as expiation for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10) In the Gospel, the Lord commissions the twelve to do their work without any precondition, not even that of potential remuneration. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons. Without cost you have received; without cost you are to give.”
We live in a very commercialized world. Everything comes with a price tag. Everything is quantified. Spiritual writers and social ethicists speak of the phenomenon called the “commodification” of society. Culture itself is commodified. In such a situation, everything is seen as a commodity. Everything is reduced to quantifiable commodity. In such a state of affairs, human relationships become more like business transactions. A mentality of exchange takes the place of wholehearted, unconditional giving. No wonder that, for the unwary reader, the first reading is so easily taken as a normal situation of give-and-take. If you hearken to my voice, you will be my people… In a commodified cultural mind-set, that mentality seems to be the most natural thing on earth. How often have I heard people say things like, “I better be a good person, so God will bless me abundantly.” “I better not forget going to Sunday Mass. God has been very good to me.” Just this morning, as I was on my way to preside at Sunday Eucharist in a nearby community chapel, one man told me about what he suggests all businessmen should do: make a pilgrimage to some miraculous statue some place up north. The gesture, he claims, would assure the budding businessman a train of blessings from above. This is the language of commerce, not a loving relationship. Our God must be a little too petty to be engrossed in our little games of commerce and material exchange. A few rosaries in exchange for success in a business venture? Ridiculous, you say? But that’s exactly how some of us think. Notice how many statues of the Sto. Nino are found in many a business establishment all over the country? Some of them are even dressed in the most outlandish costumes imaginable.
Ours now is the singular opportunity and task to gradually purify this particular aspect of our faith. Today, our focus is directed towards a less selfish and commodified approach to our relationship with God. What then can we do to gradually attain this? The readings themselves tell us.
We are told how the people in Exodus answered in unison: "Everything the Lord has said, we will do." Everything the Lord has said. Now that’s the easier part. But the harder part is: we will do. And here is where the effort lies. Here is where we can give ourselves the assurance that our relationship with God is not a one-sided, selfish enterprise. There is something for us to do; something for us to contribute. In today’s Gospel, the Lord tells the apostles to ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers to his harvest. But he loses no time in taking them eventually to task themselves. “Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, drive out demons.” Isn’t this a case of prayer and action taking place side by side? Beg the Lord of the harvest; but roll up your sleeves and get to work in the meantime. I am reminded of a Russian saying which goes thus: “If you find yourself stranded in the middle of the sea, pray hard; but keep on rowing toward the shore.”
There are two sides to this seemingly simple statement. Everything the Lord has said… Doesn’t this refer to a certain sensivity on our part? Doesn’t this have to do with a needed listening stance to the will of the Lord? Everything that the Lord has said… not everything that we want to hear. Far too many of us tend to listen selectively to what the Lord says. We love the teachings that make us feel good about ourselves. We love to hear His promises of salvation. But we gloss over the hard teachings, or even go downright against them. In our times, what with so many reported scandals from churchmen, there seems to be so much anger from so many people. Rightly, some of them feel betrayed. They feel they deserved better examples from us. And whilst many claim they accept Christ, these same people find it hard to accept priests and bishops, even the Holy Father and his teachings. All who represent Church authority in any way are lumped into one mass. Many are even angry at priests and bishops. And the bigger tragedy is they do not even know they are angry, or what they are exactly angry about. Some even commit spiritual suicide by giving up on their faith and attachment to the Church altogether. In such cases, there seems to be a rethinking and a readjustment to many people’s response to God and His Church. It is now no longer exactly everything, but only some of the things that the Lord has said. A certain holding back; a certain mistrust clouds their view of the Church and her ministers, and the Church’s teachings as whole.
It is none of my business, of course, to blame them. I cannot. I will not. But as a priest and pastor, it behooves me to try to win them back; to do something in order to dispel somewhat this cloud of doubt, distrust and discouragement in their lives of faith and their attachment to the Church Christ has founded – and paid so dearly for by His death and resurrection!
The second aspect has to do with putting on flesh and bones to what we proclaim. Everything that the Lord has said, WE WILL DO… We will do; come what may; happen what might! The Israelites courageously decided right there and then to do as the Lord bid them. I am reminded of the plea from the Lord, when after having delivered his hard teachings about his body and blood, the disciples started going away one by one, till there was only a handful of disciples left. “And you, are you also going away?” Peter, the leader and spokesman of the tiny band of apostles, answered on everyone’s behalf: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You alone have the words of eternal life.”
The Israelites’ answer sounded pretty much similar: “Everything the Lord has said, we will do.” The Israelites of old can teach us some lessons here. For all their failures despite their promises to the Lord, it is still worth our while to really take to heart what they said and make it really our own: Everything the Lord has said, WE WILL DO! And this time around, it is not so much because God is dangling before our eyes a chain of handsome – if, earthly - rewards. This time, we are motivated not by what He promises to give us in return, but by what He is to us: the pledge, the guarantee Himself of eternal life. Everything that the Lord has said, we will do! How about that for a mid-year resolution?
Monday, June 2, 2008
June 8, 2008
Readings: Hosea 6:3-6 / Rom 4:18-25 / Mt 9:9-13
There is no mistaking it ... Hope oozes out of every reading today, hope that is not mere wishful thinking; hope that is not just equivalent to Dale Carnegie’s “how to win friends and influence people” type of mentality; hope that is not based on just any nameless god, as Pope Benedict XVI puts it, but hope that is ultimately grounded on a God with a name, a God who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ His Son.
Paul Tillich wrote about this in itself ungrounded grounding of our “ultimate concern” many years ago. His writings have touched me deeply, a non-philosopher though I am. But the readings today are more than just the philosophical gibberish that is all I could muster. They are existential declarations of believers who knew whereof they spoke: Hosea, for one, who saw troubles beyond imagination, whose unfaithful wife abandoned him for somebody else, who knew what it was to suffer - and - forgive! Paul, who experienced “sweat and care and cumber; sorrows passing number.”
Hosea, who saw suffering first hand, literally begs his fellow believers: “What else can I do for you Ephraim and Judah? Your piety vanishes like the morning dew.” He whose faith and attachment to God never vanished despite the heavy dew of trials and tribulations, was taking his own people to task, and reminding them the blaring truth that we now also declare with hope: “to the upright I will show the saving power of God” (Response).
Paul, who met with all sorts of trials and sufferings including imprisonment, shipwrecks, and flagellations, can now speak to the Romans with confidence, upholding Abraham as supreme model: “he did not doubt God’s promise in unbelief; rather, he was fully convinced that what he had promised he was also able to do.”
This, indeed, is what the Gospel tells us today - the fulfillment of God’s promises of old, taking place in and through Jesus. The Alleluia verse introduces it for us: “The Lord sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, and to proclaim liberty to captives.”
This, indeed, is what the Gospel passage shows us - the fulfillment of this salvific mission unfolding, taking place, and becoming reality in Jesus’ ministry. He came, he declares, not to call the righteous, but sinners!
Sinners ... that word sounds all too familiar. Sinners ... that is what you and I are ... more than just seven times a day, which is the record of just men. Unjust and scheming as we are, surely, there’s more to our sinfulness than just this cute magic number. At the rate we in the Philippines have to live with all sorts of graft and corruption, in and out of government, where 21 per cent cuts seem to be saintly and tame, sin is an all too present reality everywhere we go.
Sin and sinfulness breed one thing among many - hopelessness. It takes the form of cynicism. It also assumes the form of resignation. “There is nothing we can do about it. It is just something we all need to learn to live with. Join them if you cannot beat them.” These are the “contours of hopelessness” that Robinson (2004) loves to speak about.
Today, the Good News is not just philosophical abstractions. It is here with us in concrete. Jesus sits down with sinners and tax collectors. And he even called one of them to be his close-in follower - Levi, who became Matthew. He was seen by overzealous Pharisees to be dining with sinners like Levi. But that did not mean he was dancing paltsy waltsy with the dishonest, the scheming, and the fabulously wealthy. He called them, like he called Matthew to task. He got up and followed Jesus. We all know that he never went back to his shady deals. He got up and followed! And Jesus was not at all going to where the stacks of gold were. He was on his way towards Jerusalem, towards certain death, towards Calvary!
There is hope for us. There is hope for the Philippines and all countries of the world. There is hope because there is ongoing salvation taking place in our midst. There, indeed, is hope despite the limitations that abound in our lives. How true and realistic our prayer today is, a prayer that is worth repeating here, as I end my reflections: “Raise us beyond the limits this world imposes, so that we may be free to love as Christ teaches and find our joy in your glory.” Called beyond limits ... that is what we Christians are. Hope, we said, is not just wishful thinking. It is not just passive waiting. Hope is something we do, something we make real. It is not just informative, but performative. For it is not groundless hoping, but being truly grounded in Jesus, who came, not to save the righteous, but sinners! Ooops ... that’s you and me!