Follow Me on Facebook

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

INTEGRITY, RIGHTEOUSNESS, FAITH, & LIFE



Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
27th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
October 3, 2010


Today is a day that speaks to all of us who have ever felt discouraged, dispirited, dejected and forlorn. That means all of us! But without denigrating your personal experience, I would like to suggest, as all three readings show, that today’s liturgy talks, in a special way, to leaders, to pastors, to people out there who have made it their lifetime option to serve others.

Today, the Lord talks to all the jaded Habbakuks of our time, pushed against the wall of uncertainty and undeserved suffering who cries out: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen!” The Lord, too, directs himself to all the weak-kneed, relatively youthful Timothys in our midst, overwhelmed and crumpled into “cowardice” on account of the seemingly more powerful forces of darkness that stalk the world. Ordained for service, for kingship, priesthood, and prophecy like unto Christ the Good Shepherd, they  cower in fear as the initial “flames” brought about by the gift of ordination (imposition of hands) are smothered by so much bad example, and so much bad will from friend and foe alike. The Lord talks to weary disciples depleted of their supply of faith who beg him: “Lord, increase our faith.”

The Lord does not simply talk to me today. He convicts me. Being rather naturally inclined towards pessimism, I spend lots of time (and sleepless hours) thinking (it is more like worrying) about the growing problem of terrorism, the countless problems in my country, so battered limp by so much corruption in and out of government. I worry myself sick about the seeming victory of “ruin, misery, destruction, and violence before me.”

I am reminded by what some writer said to the effect that God whispers to us in our joys, talks to us in our successes, and shouts at us in our pain.

He shouts at us today. He wants a hearing from us all who are lost in our own version of “clamorous discord.” He offers, not a quick fix answer, but a vision. To aid our eyes clouded over with tears, he offers a binocular, a telescope, a big  Powerpoint presentation of something that “will not disappoint.”“If it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” He bids us be patient.

We see this vision despite our tears. We see this unfolding reality because of our tears. Didn’t somebody say that “tears are the telescopes by which we see far into heaven?”

But wait. This surely is no mere pious talk. This surely is not one of those pietistic pie-in-the-sky kind of thing that fools no one and convinces nobody! This is good news. And this good news entails a good hard look at what we can do, what we ought to do, what we should invest, if we are going to reap the fruits of our waiting, and hoping, and believing.
This vision has a price tag. It demands a counterpart, some form of “earnest money” from our part, to show the Lord we are indeed listening, that we are indeed, doing our part.

Habakkuk demanded an answer to his “why” question. (Counselors are enjoined never to do that “why” question ever … don’t ask me why). God offered a vision, not a quick fix answer. The vision entailed some good all the impatient Habakkuks in our midst could do. The vision offers a way towards INTEGRITY, RIGHTEOUSNESS, & FAITH. “The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

Timothy, who was probably was pressured into timidity and cowardice by pressing difficulties was given a shot in the arm by being encouraged to cultivate power, love, and self-discipline with God’s grace, and to “take as [his] norm the sound words that [he] heard from [Paul], in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.”

The disciples asked for an increased dosage of faith. Their question was one of quantity. The Lord gave them a qualitative answer. They did not need an increased shot of morphine, figuratively speaking. What they needed was not more of what they already had, but something qualitatively new and different. They needed VISION. They needed to understand the power they already had. They needed VIRTUE. They needed that POWER that comes from what they already had – their faith. And that power does not come from the quantitatively more. Instead, it comes from the qualitatively more. Just a little of this qualitatively more genuine faith ought to be enough even to move mountains and do the impossible.

I would like to suggest that today’s liturgy leads us to reflect more on the power that virtuous living has in our lives as mission-partners of Christ and His Church. For far too long, our moral reflection, and thus, our spiritual theology, too, has been too much based on rules, norms, and commandments (commandment-based ethics). No wonder moral living sounds so unpalatable, so unappealing, so difficult. But moral living has to do primarily with relationships more than it has to do with rules.

Today’s readings offer us this VISION of a qualitatively more relationship with a God who is concerned with our total welfare. So concerned is He with our integral good and growth that He does not give us quick fix answers. He offers us a way we can follow on our own. He offers us a set of virtues to live. He counsels us INTEGRITY, RIGHTEOUSNESS, and FAITH. And all three virtues lead to life.

Even Paul, who surely could have patronized or paternalized his young protégé, did not offer to do for Timothy what he could have done on his own. He counseled power, love, and self-control. He reminded him not to “be ashamed of [his] testimony,” and “to bear [his] share of hardship for the gospel.” Instead of giving his disciples the much-coveted easy answer to discouragement, he offered them a set of virtues needed by those who have offered themselves in the service of others.

There are so many Christians in our midst who go through life sad, burdened not only by the vicissitudes and usual difficulties attached to daily living. (I am one of them. Welcome to the club!) But there are those of us who feel even more burdened because they look at Christian life as a never ending quest for obedience to rules and commandments alone. They go through life sour and dour at the mistaken belief that the world is going past them because they are tied up to minute rules of conduct, and that the rest of society is having a nice time after having done away with said rules.

I see no additional rules today to make life even sadder than it is already. I see and hear a VISION of something sure and certain, a vision of a God who cares, a vision of a God who serves others, who rewards discipleship with more than just worldly material perks and bonuses, and whose retirement benefits are simply out of this world! I also see and hear that the way towards the attainment of such vision is God’s work and ours to do. God’s work comes in the form of grace. Our work comes in the form of virtues. Virtues are our counterpart, our personal contribution and investment.

It would be good for us to start with some basic ones: integrity, righteousness, and faith. Throw in a dash of “power, love, and self-control.” Add in a measure of selfless service, patterned after that of Christ. “The rash one has integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.”

Monday, September 20, 2010

PURSUING RIGHTEOUSNESS


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflections
26th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
Sept. 26, 2010


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, so it seems in practice. 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 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, on the one hand, can give in to resignation and total dependence. The rich, on the other hand, 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.”

Friday, September 17, 2010

WHEN “WISDOM” GOES WRONG


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
25th Sunday in Ordinary Time –Year C
Sept.19, 2010


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.”

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

LOSSES, FINDINGS, & REJOICING

Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)
September 12, 2010


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 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?