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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

SHORT IN STATURE, A GIANT IN GENEROSITY


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection on the Liturty
31st Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
October 31, 2010
 

Reversals and paradoxes are a fixture in Scripture. We saw an example of this just last week, when we saw the great paradox of humble prayer that was answered, and the proud prayer that was no prayer at all, and therefore, remained unanswered. The tax collector, we are told, “went home justified,” while the Pharisee was left with an empty bag, along with his equally empty boast.

Today, the liturgy presents us with another interesting figure of a tax collector… No … a “chief tax collector,” in fact … a big shot of sorts (pun intended) – Zacchaeus, whose height was the opposite of his “weight” – in GOLD! (For the sake of my Philippine readers, I am tempted to compare Zacchaeus with some equally interesting personages among the top brass of our men in uniform, but I thought this was unfair to Zacchaeus). Zacchaeus, for all his wealth and stature (no pun intended, this time), was really a hated man. Seen as a servile figure acting at the behest of foreign rulers (the Romans), Zacchaeus was the opposite of what every true-blooded Jew at that time valued – freedom from any form of servitude to any foreign, especially, gentile rulers. He was despised for his work. He was hated for his servile, sycophantic attitude to the Romans.

But for all this, Zacchaeus did have some sterling qualities to match the silver that he amassed. Let us look a bit at this sterling quality that may be good for us to mull over and consider as good news to be lived.

In the final analysis, this liturgy is really not all about Zacchaeus. It has to do with God whom the first reading from Wisdom rightly extols as one who “has mercy on all,” who “spares all things,” but who at the same time “rebukes offenders” for them to “abandon their wickedness.” Liturgy is all about God manifesting His presence in the “work” (leitourgia) and worship of His people. It is all about the serendipities and surprises God works on His beloved people – surprises and wonders of His manifestation that makes humankind mutter, as we did in response to the first reading: “I will praise your name for ever, my king and my God.”

Zacchaeus was witness to one such manifestation and surprise. What greater surprise could one ever expect than what Jesus did to him when he said: “Zacchaeus, come down quickly, for today I must stay at your house.” What greater favor could one ever have than this? The centurion, faced with a similar potential “surprise” visit from the Lord knew the staggering import of it all: “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my son will be healed.”

There is some urgency and definitiveness in the tone of the Lord. Here comes one of the tax collector’s sterling qualities. He “ran ahead.” Not only that, he risked making a comic character of himself by climbing a sycamore tree “in order to see Jesus.” The Gospel says more … In gratitude and ill-concealed glee, he promised to “give half of [his] possessions to the poor,” and pledged to pay all those he had extorted “four times over.” His generosity blossomed over into the much valued hospitality.

He who was surprised by joy, and gifted with a “divine manifestation” could not but be overcome with gratitude. And he who overflows in gratitude also knows how to give “gratis” – to give freely, that is, to be generous, and to offer that greatest virtue valued by Jews when it comes to treating foreigners and guests - hospitality. Indeed, God could not be outdone in generosity. Zacchaeus searched for Jesus. Jesus found him and declared to his newfound brother: “I must stay in your house.”

We have come full circle. Again, the liturgy points to God, by way of the example of one of His creatures, Zacchaeus. The first reading speaks of God’s gracious and generous mercy, a mercy that is as bountiful as His justice. The second reading shows us the generosity and graciousness of one who, like Jesus, offered his life for the sake of others. Paul, a minister to the Thessalonians, was praying for his flock, that “the Lord may be glorified in [them].

But this same liturgy that celebrates and enacts God “descending” on us, His people in the grace of Word and Sacrament, also makes possible our own “ascending” to Him in praise and gracious worship. We are called to the same generosity with which Zacchaeus welcomed His illustrious and much-awaited visitor. But there is something more important here – something that refers to our being priests like Christ, by virtue of our baptism, by virtue of our membership and incorporation into the Body of Christ, the Church. We are all called to respond to God’s Divine manifestation through ministry. We are all part of the missioning given to all the baptized, to serve the Lord in others, to do as Jesus did, to do as Paul did. This “visitation” from above is something we need to respond to much like Zacchaeus did. The Word, humbly listened to, occasions response, and gift received engenders a corresponding gracious generosity on the recipient’s part. Ministry is one such response – a response that has a tone of urgency in it (“I must stay at your house!), a response that is born of the missioning call from the Lord, a response that translates to concrete action. One is reminded by the synod of bishops declaration in 1971 that “action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us to be a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.”

There was a time ministry was thought of solely in terms of “priestly power,” that is, the so-called “potestas ordinis,” and the “potestas jurisdictionis.” Both were the monopoly of the priest “ordained for ministry.” With the rise of such a dichotomized and unbalanced understanding of Church as comprising the “clergy” and the “laity,” with the latter possessing no such “potestas” or power, ministry came to be equated only with priests and bishops.

Today’s liturgy would have us appropriate a far different vision of Church. The whole Church is called to mission and ministry. As God loves all and has mercy on all, God calls and entrusts all to the work of serving others. Jesus definitely found Zacchaeus at least worthy enough of a surprise visit. And that surprise manifestation of God right in his wealthy abode, despite the protestations of those who could not open themselves to the big surprises and reversals and divine paradoxes unfolding in their midst, produced in Zacchaeus a minister of hospitality and generosity to the poor.

Paul, the minister to the gentiles, was not talking of “potestas” (power) in his letter to the Thessalonians. He was acting ministerially to them even in the distance. He was praying for them. He was admonishing them. It was not so much power he was drawing from, as love, the same love with which he exhorted them not to be easily misled by false teachings.

Most of my readers both in America and the Philippines are lay people. Sadly, many of them still see me as a priest as one who has the sole power to pray, the power to bless, the power to intercede, the power to do things they could do by themselves. In their false understanding of what ministry is, they have forgotten that they themselves, as baptized Christians, who share the common priesthood of the baptized, are also called, first to be open to God’s surprises, and be part of those sent to preach, teach, and work for the good of others in justice and solidarity, and to help in the transformation of society. Many times, they tell me they do not know enough. Many times they say,  they might make mistakes.

My friends, you would do well to dialogue with Zacchaeus today. He had every imaginable defect in a doctor’s and psychotherapist’s thesaurus. He was shrewd. He was servile to the Roman conquerors. He scrimped the last penny out of every unsuspecting Jew. Most of all, he was short. Short in stature … yes, but a giant in generosity.

You don’t have to have “potestas ordinis” and “potestas jurisdictionis” to minister to others. All you need is gracious openness to the God of surprises, and a great generosity to God and His people. “Come and hurry down! I must stay at your house today!”

Monday, October 18, 2010

BOASTING IN THE LORD VERSUS SIMPLY BOASTING

Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C
October 24, 2010


Last week, we reflected on persistent prayer. Prayer spelled the victory of God in Moses’ developing problem with the Amalekite marauders. Prayer, the persistent type, spelled too, fulfillment of the widow’s request from the unjust judge. This Sunday, we are back once more, at least initially, to the topic of constant prayer.

Sirach gives the opening salvo for us. He is our authority of the day. In prophetic fashion that accrues from the wisdom tradition, he declares unequivocally a double truth born out of his own and his people’s experience: the truth of God’s justice, on the one hand, and that of His mercy, on the other. “The Lord is a God of justice, who knows no favorites.” But wait … Sirach gives the thought a second look, and this time, he speaks from his people’s journey of faith. He declares once more, that God was not “unduly partial toward the weak, yet he HEARS the cry of the oppressed.” God hears. God listens. No, He does more … God obeys (eisakouo) the pleadings of the poor and the lowly.

There is something about someone hearing that reminds us of somebody else speaking and pleading, and praying. God could not have “obeyed” had someone not interceded; had someone not prayed. Again, Scripture reminds us of the power of prayer. This, the psalmist tells us in his most convincing apologia: “I lift up my eyes toward the mountains; whence shall help come to me? My help is from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.” Scripture does not explain and expound. Scripture just simply reports the fact in a straightforward fashion. It is a two-pronged fact. One is the established fact of God’s justice. The other is the unfolding fact in His people’s history of His preferential option for the poor and the powerless. Diane Bergant, apropos this, puts it so well: “[Sirach] insists that God is concerned with justice, not favoritism; when God takes the side of the poor, it is for the sake of justice, not poverty.” And God does so, most especially because the orphan, the widow, and the lowly take resort to prayer. “The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds.”

Both the second and third readings offer us examples of prayerful people for whom God has become real and personal. This, the readings give us by way of contrast. St. Paul, knowing that his end was drawing nigh, gives in to grateful remembering. He sees himself as an offering being poured out on the altar of sacrifice. He sees himself taking leave of what he has gotten used to doing all his life, and, like a faithful soldier, just fading away slowly from the scene. His memories are well stocked, not with achievements, but with what God, in His power and mercy, has wrought in him. Grateful remembering gives way to humble boasting as only the really humble can do. In the utter simplicity of his childlike faith, he makes a “boast” to Timothy and his flock: “I have competed well; I have finished the race; I have kept the faith.” But this was not the inane boasting of a proud man who only wanted merit for himself. This was the humble boasting of a man who knew all along that, in his weakness, God had been his strength. “But the Lord stood by me and gave me strength, so that through me the proclamation might be completed and all the gentiles might hear it … To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen.”

In the Gospel, the Lord shocks us his hearers once again. In another story of “reversals,” we are presented with the image of a “good tax collector.” Since when did tax collectors who padded their collections many times over, been associated with “good”? But the Lord did not favor the publican as against the other because that other happened to be a Pharisee. The Lord did not condemn a Pharisee for being a Pharisee; nor did the Lord favor the publican for being one, as we shall see.

Seen in the backdrop of today’s readings and the theme of the liturgical celebration, the gospel presents us with something which, someone like Paul, like Sirach, could boast about. Two men entered the temple. One boasted of his “righteousness.” The other confessed his sinfulness. The former, certain and complacent in his pretended goodness, did nothing but enumerate his good acts. He worked his way through his list of good deeds, and felt smug about them. He came, not to pray, but to tell. He came, not to acknowledge, but to judge. “I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity.”

But it is the latter, the publican, who came mortified before the Lord. He came with sorrow in his heart, not praise for his good deeds. He came with humble acceptance of his sins, not defiant proclamation of his achievements. He came, not with a lame boast, but with a claim to his own sinfulness. He came, not with a press (or “praise”) release, but with a prayer for mercy: “O God, be merciful to me a sinner.”

Here we are with a story with immense shock value! What a story of reversals! What a story about Christian essentials! It is a story, not about class struggle between Pharisees and Publicans, nor is it a story about God’s favoritism. But it does have something to tell us smug and complacent people who feel happy and contented that “we are not like the rest of humanity.” It does have a message to people like us, who can be satisfied that we are not “terrorists,” that we are not “murderers” and “thieves;” that we are not given in to doing such dastardly acts as we read in the papers and see on TV on a daily basis. It does have something to say to that attitude of religious arrogance that we can have at times. It sure has something to say about our prayer, which, like that of the Pharisee, is often more like a monologue than anything else. It sure has something to say to us who are often given in to empty boasting, and to self-centered focusing, more on the evil that we have not done, and less on the good that we ought to have done.

The Pharisee, who came, not to pray, but to boast, got home feeling good about himself, but not justified before God, who “reads the heart” of people. What he said was not answered, for the simple reason that he did not make a prayer. He made a praise release. The Publican, who came with the humble request for mercy, got what he asked for – and more.

Today is a day for all of us to make a solid choice: simply boast and go home empty-handed, or boast humbly in the Lord, and go home filled. “For he who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Indeed, to quote an American author, “nothing is more simple than greatness; to be simple is to be great.”

Monday, October 11, 2010

PRAYING WITH, PRAYING FOR, PRAYING PERSISTENTLY


Catholic Homily/Sunday Reflection
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
October 17, 2010


Four Sundays back, Luke’s Gospel had us speak about the unjust steward who was cunning, wily, and whose self-provident ways led him to selfishly prepare for his own future. Today, Luke would have us consider the figure of an unjust judge who capitulates to the importunings of a widow in need. These are story stuff that merit a second look from story-starved writers of “telenovelas” (soap operas) known now in the Philippines as “teleseryes.”

Yes, there is unfolding drama in the parables of the Lord. Parables are basically stories, but, used skillfully by the master story-teller and teacher that Jesus was, are more than just bedtime stories to tuck children in bed with. No, parables were meant to disturb; they were meant to be so surprising as to catch people off guard, as to make hearers gasp in disbelief, and react either positively or negatively to them, especially if hearers miss the real lesson behind the initially shocking story.

Today’s parable is no exception to this. But the first reading is no less shocking. It recounts what appears to be a strange, almost magical story about Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur, caught up in battle with Amalekites who “came and waged war against Israel.”

Taken in its right context, however, and pitted side by side with the other two readings, we see a totally different picture. We see, not magic, but a concrete portrayal of Moses and his companions, at prayer. We see a people in difficulty whose leaders show by their actions, how best to face a group of aggressors who are about to go against the plan of God for His beloved people. They do what they can. Moses sends Joshua to deal with the marauders. But they also take resort to prayer. By so doing, Moses prophetically tells his people, that ultimately, victory remains in God’s hands, and that in times of trial, prayer and faith in God are just as important as their feeble human efforts.

We live in equivalently difficult times. We live, too, in a world marred by conflictuality, tensions, and even by armed and, at times, violent, struggles. We reflect today on what today’s readings can teach us as we face the challenges of our times.

In the history of Christian spirituality, one of the images used to represent  the call to a personal relationship with God, is that of Christian life as a call to engage in some kind of spiritual warfare. Like Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur, we are continually face to face with forces that appear so formidable.

Our so-called “foes,” however, need not be external to us. Indeed, many times, our opponent resides in us, and comes from our very own person – our very own tendency to sin: “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am carnal, sold into slavery to sin. What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Romans 7:14-15). Indeed, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” as the Lord reminds us.

Moses knew this first hand. Moses, who “kept his hands raised up,” (a symbol of prayer), knew exhaustion at some point. The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak. He prayed. But he grew weary praying. And it was at such a time that others came to his support. Others came to pray with him. Others came to pray for him. And with others, persistent prayer spelled the difference between defeat and victory.

The times are indeed challenging, to say the least. All the trends, studies, and statistics do not sound good for institutionalized religion. Mainstream churches all over the world, including the catholic church all suffer from decline in memberships. Ironically, despite the mass exodus of people from organized religion, there is paradoxically so much hunger for spirituality, and for personal meaning in life today. But there is a strong and marked reaction against all forms of institutionalization, hierarchical structures, and authoritative pronouncements from leaders and pastors. Quick fix cults, and raucous evangelical groupings seem to be the favored menu of the day. Pastors like me, like Moses, can succumb to weariness and discouragement in the face of all this undeniable reality.

But today, I would like to think that we all are getting a shot in the arm, a much needed vaccine to guard us against the flu of despair and lack of faith. Our response to the first reading sums it all up: “Our help is from the Lord who made heaven and earth.”

The dramatic elements of the first reading show this much. Prayer is essential for the life of the serious leader like Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and Hur. Without prayer, the battle waged by the Amalekites in our midst, (which includes our own self-inflicted temptations) cannot be won. But the story makes it clear, that in the end, victory is God’s work. But the story also makes clear the pressing need for us not only to pray, but to pray with others, to pray for others. Aaron and Hur supporting Moses’ weary arms (and drooping spirit) represents this truth. At a time of weakness, pastors also need the prayer of those they work for and work with.

Six years ago, I preached a retreat to a group of families out in Solomon’s Island, southern Maryland. Even if I was suffering from another bout of severe allergic reactions that made every part of my body itch and twitch, and my face all flared out in rashes, and my skin crackling and cracking in utter discomfort, I found joy, solace, and strength in the simple and searching faith of these families who attended the retreat. I prayed for them. I prayed with them. But they prayed for me and with me. Their marked spiritual hunger that led them to be very attentive and receptive to what I told them, eventually made me go through the retreat without any hitches. The flock, through their prayer and attentiveness, became my support, an erstwhile shepherd in their midst.

The words of St. Paul to his protégé, Timothy, cannot be more apt in this regard: “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching” (2 Tim 4:2).

The Lord has been leading me to a whole lot of realizations over the past few years. At a time when I can very well say to myself not without a little pride that I had “been there; done that” kind of thing, He still teaches me hard lessons to live by. And usually, His teachings come through the school of hard knocks – the school of suffering. Being sick for one who has always been healthy is most distressing. But it has led me to go back to the times when I thought that success depended on me; when I thought that the more than ten years I was in formation work owed a lot to my personal efforts and my pretended abilities. And the realization that not a few of those I wasted so much time for chose to follow a path different from the one I had hoped they would pursue, and that some of them might have just been going through the motions and taking advantage of the relative security provided by the seminary, was most disappointing.

I did so much. I planned so much. I did a whole lot more than what was expected of me. Or so, I thought. But there was one thing I sorely missed out on. I missed to give due emphasis to prayer. No, don’t get me wrong. I did pray. But the prayer the Lord teaches today is not that kind of prayer that attributes victory to the pray-er. The prayer that the Lord shows us today is the prayer that goes beyond disappointment, the prayer that is marked by persistence, by faith, and by communality. It is the prayer which guarantees victory, not for me, not on account of me, but guaranteed by God’s power and God’s love.

This means there is something more that the pray-er needs to do. He should give way, step aside, and while praying with faith, he or she ought to allow room for others to pray for him, pray with him, and – like Moses, Aaron, and Hur,  and  yes,  the widow in Jesus’ parable - pray persistently.


Thursday, October 7, 2010

GRATITUDE THAT GOES BEYOND “THANK YOU”


Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Year C
October 10, 2010


There is more than just following mere rules of civility and politeness that is at stake in today’s readings, as some might well normally imagine. Yes … Naaman the leper did well, not only because he returned to Elisha, retinue and all, but because of something far superior to mere thanks-giving, as we shall soon see.

Just as well, for we have gathered once again today, to do the eminently Christian communal activity on the day of the Lord – to give thanks to God, to do “Eucharist,” to celebrate our oneness, to extol our giftedness, and to proclaim our faith in an eminently giving and personal God. We have come back, like Naaman to give thanks. We have gathered together, to “remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, a descendant of David” (2 Tim 2:8). We have returned, hopefully like that lone leper, to “glorify God in a loud voice.”

Today, we are probing into the depths of what biblical “gratitude” is all about. We are plunging deep into the nature of “thanksgiving,” as shown by the brilliant examples of two lepers from both the Hebrew and the Christian Scriptures. We stand at the basis of the core, essential meaning of doing “Eucharist” as Christian believers.

They say gratitude is the remembrance of the heart. The heart is the repository of all good things received, good deeds done to us by another, great gifts showered from the largesse of other people. Rightly does St. Paul counsel Timothy in the second reading: “Remember Jesus Christ.” Paul sounds very much like one who, despite being physically in chains, had a heart that soared free … free to remember … free to see beyond shackles and temporary imprisonment, free enough to be able to declare from the bottom of his heart: “If we have died with him we shall also live with him; if we persevere we shall also reign with him.”  I say more. The heart goes further than merely remembering. The heart does more. The heart sees far ahead, and far beyond. A loving heart is a heart immersed in prophecy. It finds reasons for what it sees clearly, though veiled by current difficult predicaments. It finds reasons that, in the famous words of Pascal, reason itself might not know of. It finds enough reason to prophesy: “In all circumstances, give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim 2:13).

I would like to suggest that Christian gratitude is precisely one that goes beyond remembering. It pierces through mere recall or “remembrances of things past.” It sees more. It recognizes the giver. And recognition gives way to acclaim, to prophetic proclamation, to doing thanks. (The Latin version of “to give thanks” is “gratias agere,” which is more akin to “doing.”)

We all have experienced being hurt after doing something really great in our eyes and not getting recognized for it. We all know what it means to go out of our way, bend over backwards, and all we get for our heroic efforts is an indifferent stare. Know why we get hurt? Know why we get so offended by people whom we, in disappointment, refer to as ingrates? It is for the simple reason that we were not recognized; our act was not acknowledged; and the beautiful aspect of our personhood was not seen. We have an idiomatic expression in Tagalog that epitomizes our pain: “Hindi man lang ako tinao!” (He or she did not even treat me as a living person.)

Ingratitude hurts for the simple reason that it is a callous form of bad-willed blindness to the good done. We all have our own stories to share about this. I, too, have my own. I, too, have felt bad that after pouring my heart out to my work over the past years, what I got, was silent indifference at best, and painful accusations, at worst, from people who stood to gain from my work. But lest you get me wrong, I, too, have caused others a lot of grief, by my own indifference to all the good, and to all the persons who did me good in the past. We have a name for this ingratitude, yours and mine … we call it sin. And this is part and parcel of the story of each one of us.

Today, I invite you to reclaim your stories. I invite you, first of all, to recall Naaman, the leper, who returned to Elisha and did a whole lot more by proclaiming for all to hear: “Now I know that there is no God in all the earth, except in Israel.” His gratitude bloomed and broadened into deeper recognition of the ultimate source of the gift of healing. He did much more … His recognition of the gifting God spilled over into action (remember “gratias agere”) … “I will no longer offer holocaust or sacrifice to any other God except the Lord.”

We have come together to “do Eucharist.” But before we could “break the bread and drink the cup of unity,” we needed to acknowledge our own brokenness. No wonder we opened the celebration with the Confiteor, (I confess) the acknowledgment of our sinfulness. But, as every liturgist worth his salt would tell us, the real focus of the Confiteor is not our human sinfulness, but the recognition of the merciful and forgiving God. The Liturgy of the Word opened with all of us flinging wide open our hearts to welcome God and acknowledge the “magnalia Dei,” the great things He has done for us. Only after the acknowledgment of sins could we acknowledge the God of glory, the God of compassion, the God who is giver of everything that is good … “Glory to God in the highest …”

The statistics of the Gospel passage is downright lopsided in favor of the ingrates. Only one out of ten came back. Only one of ten saw beyond the gift received and acknowledged the giver. Nine out  of ten were healed and all they  saw was some “good fortune” befalling them. Only one out of ten saw the “good God” doing wonders for them. All ten probably remembered their good fortune. The nine most likely went their way smiling and telling others of the fulfillment of something that went beyond their wildest dreams. But one out of ten went beyond remembering and resorted to doing thanks: “realizing that he had been healed, [he] returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.”
I am not in the best of health at this time of my life. Now that I feel bothered by a relative lack of health, I am reminded of the sobering reality about myself, and my lack of gratitude to God. It dawned on me that I have been taking the gift of health for granted. In many ways, I see the signs, not of Naaman, and the one leper out of ten who came back, but of the nine ungrateful lepers who ignored the one who gave them much more than just healing.

Today, as I lead you in the communal act of worship, I am not ashamed to acknowledge my sore lack of recognition of the God who remains faithful, despite my lack of perspective and vision. Even as I declare my blindness, I also proclaim the enlightenment and the hope which today’s liturgy, and your presence as fellow believers, offer me: “If we are unfaithful, he remains faithful, for he cannot deny himself.” I am convicted by what I see and hear today – God’s Word and your living examples. And the words of a favorite American author named Louis Evely whose book I read 32 years ago haunt me no end: “If you have nothing to thank God for, there is nothing Christian in you!”