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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

WHATEVER!



27th Sunday in Ordinary Time(A)
October 2, 1011


The passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians reminds me of what young people nowadays love to say often … “whatever!” – the quintessential postmodern expression, if ever there was one!

Whatever! … a cute way to wrap up everything said and unsaid … a semi-polite way to dismiss someone else’s idea without being too blatantly straightforward … a nice way to give closure to a discussion (or argument) that goes nowhere … a one-size-fits-all term to describe just about anything under the sun (including the sun itself, of course).

Whatever! … a flippant way to dismiss something as insignificant, valueless, as something of no major importance …

But the readings of today show the exact antithesis of this dismissive and flippant remark. The landowner of the gospel parable certainly does not think of his vineyard in a dismissive manner. No … he values his vineyard … he takes care of it and, in fact, entrusts it to someone who definitely he believed would not make light of it. He put a “hedge around it, dug a winepress in it, and built a tower” – the whole works associated with something a man loves and values!

This is the same reality that Isaiah seems to speak about. He talks about his friend who did pretty much the same as the gospel character did: “he spaded it, cleared it of stones, and planted the choices vines; within it he built a watchtower, and hewed out of wine press.”

This goes to show that the vineyard that we speak of today is not something to be lightly dismissed with an irresponsible remark as “whatever!”

Yes, the readings tell us that the ultimate treasure we work for and value are not of the “whatever” kind. This goes to show, too, that our great vine-grower and master of the vineyard, does not treat us like we were insignificant creatures. The great vineyard that God the Father has entrusted to him, is his much-valued and much-loved arena of responsibility.

And who is this vineyard that we refer to? Let our response to the first reading clinch it for us: “The vineyard of the Lord is the house of Israel.” That means US, you and I … all of us who both believe in Him and belong to His flock.

The postmodern world nowadays is awash in material goods. In this throw-away culture, people tend to value their stuff less and less. For one, they think they could always get a new one. Second, new models come out every six months and the whole machinery of desire and covetousness and envy begins to set in, when the latest model comes out. The old is treated as “whatever,” dismissed as “old” and therefore, not considered as of much value any longer. Old acquaintances, even old friends who no longer hover around our current valued “circles” are “unfriended” (in Facebook) or deleted from our digital address books, or lists of “contacts” that go the way of the rest of the digital world – constantly changing, constantly being updated, or upgraded, as the case may be!

The world, like never before, is being called to return to basics. This, among other things, is what today’s liturgy tells us. First, it teaches us to value what ought to be valued above all, like Christ valued his vineyard – the house of Israel!. Second, it tells us to hanker, not for just an undefined “whatever,” but something definite, definable, identifiable, and distinct.

Let St. Paul help us a little with what this is all about …

He tell us to worry, not about trifles, not about mere “whatevers” but about clearly defined values. And he takes pains to enumerate them: “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious” …

This is not just the indistinct and undefined “whatever” of postmoderns like us, but the distinct and direct values that ought to characterize our current and future vineyard – the house, not just of Israel, but the house of the Lord, which we believe in, and which we all strive to belong to.

I just did a memorable wine-tasting at Chateauneuf du Pape in the Rhone region of southeastern France last month. What impressed me was how much they cared for the vineyard, how much they tended the vines, and how much they valued their produce. Their product, red and white wines of sterling quality, is not just a “whatever” product that one could dismiss as something just like any other wine elsewhere in the world. They value it. They treasure it. They believe in it. And they market it as such all over the world.

This is exactly how we now are all called to value the kingdom and all the values associated with it. Whatsoever is true, good, honorable, just, lovely, and gracious, not just “whatever!”

Friday, September 23, 2011

NOT BY WORDS, BUT BY DEEDS


26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
September 26, 2011


Words are a dime a dozen. They come, not in mere jolting phrases, but in torrents in our days … via Facebook, Twitter, text, and broadcast. Columnists issue their daily columns, many of them full of venom; some full of honey, depending on who pays them more, or whose administration they want to build – or, in many cases – destroy!

Ironically, I offer not much else as alternative. Preaching, evangelizing, teaching, passing on the Word of God, unfortunately, or fortunately, still all have to do with using the human word – the only way we humans know best to communicate, to connect, and to transform the world we are immersed in.

Words flood our waking days, hours, and minutes. Most are empty words, vacuous threats, and spineless promises often meant to be broken. And this, for one simple reason … words are used, for the most part, only to communicate, to inform, but not to educate or to form.

Words uttered and written no longer conform to the inner truth and reality of what they are used to stand for. They are bandied about, often solely to manipulate, to cajole, to twist people’s arms, and make them follow the official version of the spin-masters of our media saturated times.

Today, we hear of no such spin-masters, but about people who tell it like it is! Ezekiel, for one, minces no words, and speaks his heart and mind: “The Lord’s way is not fair!” But God does speak His mind and heart, too, and declares, sort of: “No, you got it all wrong … It is not I who is unfair, but you.” He tosses in for good measure a promise of a reality that awaits those whose words connect with truth: “But if he turns from the wickedness he has committed, and does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life … he shall surely live, he shall not die.”

Or take St. Paul for a second opinion … today, he uses words to encourage, heal, and energize … warm words of comfort for a people like us, so battered and bruised by many manipulative and lying words on a daily basis, from politicians who say one thing and do another; from leaders who lead by word and not by example, by media practitioners who practice nothing more than mere “envelopmental journalism.” St. Paul even offers the supreme example of one who preached, not by word alone, but by deeds – Jesus Christ the Lord, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to the point of death.”


I feel convicted by the words I now write. Oftentimes, I have behaved more like the other son in the gospel parable of today, who says a quick and emphatic “yes,” but who ends up not doing what he says.

I confess my weakness and sinfulness, for I know I have made promises, and uttered words that I know in my heart, I did not really mean to do, or mean to complete. Like everyone else I know, like all of us weak mortals, I confess I have sinned grievously, repeatedly, through what I did, and what I did not do – sins of commission, and sins of omission, so called.

Today, we are invited to do better. St. Paul exhorts us: “make my joy complete by being of the same mind, with the same love, united in heart, thinking one thing.” He tells us to find a connection between what we say and what we do … what comes out of our mouth, and what is really in our heart … a meeting point between what we say and what we really mean. He tells us to speak the truth, in love!

Let us face it … the Lord’s will is hard to follow. His ways, though by no means unfair, are a tough act to follow. It is not easy to be a disciple. But the other son of today’s parable is a picture of all of us. Our initial answer is always a “no!” Our natural tendency is to complain when the going gets rough and tough.

But the same other son, who utters a resounding “no” is one who shows himself capable of transcending himself, thinking better, and doing better. In the end, he followed his heart, not his mouth. He followed the inner voice of truth, the inner pull of the good, the voice of conscience that told him to “do good, and avoid evil.”

We all could choose to be one or the other. In the meantime, being the weak persons that we are, we beg the Lord, repeatedly: “Remember your mercies, O Lord” … “your ways, O Lord, make known to me”… “remember that your compassion and your love are from of old” …

And for us hard-hearted and disobedient spoiled brats, the encouraging words of the Lord should come in handy: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.”

In the final roundup, the dividing line between the saint or sinner, between the one who obeys and disobeys, is simply this: not by words, but by deeds!

Saturday, September 17, 2011

LOVE, NOT TIME, IS WHAT MATTERS!


25th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Sept 18, 2011


There is some urgency in the tone with which Isaiah writes. “Seek the Lord,” he says, “while he may be found.” At first blush, he seems to tell us, to lose no time and do the most important thing – to find God, and repent: “Let the scoundrel forsake his ways, and the wicked his thoughts.”

For Paul however, in his letter to the Philippians, time becomes secondary and takes a back seat to the same focus of Isaiah, and that is, finding the Lord, and being with Christ. When one finds Christ, everything, including earthly material time, takes the back seat. “For to me,” he writes, “life is Christ, and death is gain.”

I write while on break together with my siblings (or what remains of us after both parents and others have all passed on) – a much awaited and, I should say, much deserved trip to Europe. We do this actually in honor and homage of both our parents whose hard work and vision made it possible for all six of us surviving siblings to actually spend this much on a European trip, given the dour economic conditions now all over the world. We are spending money both of our parents worked so hard and saved up for in their lifetime. They deprived themselves, and worked themselves raw, so that we may be able to get the best opportunities they themselves did not have, or did not get.

They both had a different vision of time than most young people nowadays, perhaps including us, now have. Their vision of time is one that transcended the here and the now, and covered the hereafter, the future, not the immediate future, but the future that includes God and His plan for humanity and the world.

They sought the Lord, even more than they sought after riches and material goods. They sought after our future, even before they looked after their own comfort and well-being. Not engaged in filling themselves up, they lived full lives, despite the absence of what we might now call material comfort and legitimate pleasure. With feet firmly planted on the ground, they had their sights focused up above, on Christ for whom they lived, and for whom they died, so to speak, in their own little ways. They did not follow the bandwagon of those who worked and readily spent all the fruits of their work on personal comfort and pleasure. They lived to the full, while loving truly and fully with the total gift of themselves, and the gift of their work to us whom they loved fully till the end.

Such was their story made of, and this is the story of most of the people I grew up knowing and admiring in my very little then sleepy town (read: modest and poor) of Mendez, Cavite. My parents’ story is just about the same story of everyone I knew while growing up in my hometown.

Such is the picture of generosity, the same generosity that today's gospel passage would have us reflect on. That generosity of God is the kind that does not put a premium on time and the length of service, but on the intensity with which whatever is done, is done. Such generosity is not the kind that counts minutes and hours, but counts the depths of one's love, the intensity of one's desire to be of service, to offer oneself to the Lord, who is, in the end, the only valid reason for whatever it is one likes to do.

I was told that in France, people now work only 35 hours a week. They have a fully paid vacation of 5 weeks a year. The same may be true in the rest of Western Europe. And people still complain. We complain for one simple reason... We count minutes and hours, and weeks and months. We count every service we give to others. We do things many times for the wrong reasons …

But God does not put a premium on the amount of time we put into anything. He counts on the most important thing with which we do what we are supposed to do – love and the intense desire behind what we do.

My parents represented perhaps a generation of people who espoused a different work ethic. They did not count hours. They worked while there was the possibility to work. They did all they could for us their children, filled with the intense desire to give us the best they could, from early morning to late at night.

I would like to think that the workers in the vineyard all had that intense desire to work for the vineyard. They were people who wanted sincerely to do something for the vineyard, and were willing to be hired at whatever time, for whatever need. It was not their fault to be seen jobless late in the day and hired later during the waning hours of the workday.

Man's thoughts and indeed not like God's thoughts. God hired even those who could only work part of the day, through no fault of their own. They could not find work, but they had a deep longing to work, and that was enough for a generous God, whose thoughts are definitely not like ours.

God's vision of time, is not like ours, too. He did not count the minutes, the hours, the days, and the weeks, but He counted on the intense desire and love that workers were willing to put into the job. A little like my parents who did not count the hours they worked so hard for us, so that one day, we could enjoy what we surviving siblings could do in these days, God looks at the heart, and sees the deep longing the jobless workers had, even in late afternoon. The vineyard owner hired them, and gave them what was due to every worker, at whatever point in time they started working.

Time stands still for us right now as we enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes of affluent Europe. At this point in time, even as we enjoy, I am filled with an intense longing, to do what many saints did, what my parents showed us, what the prophets and St. Paul, and the gospel passage reminds us of – to seek the Lord, while he may be found, and use the time available for us right now, to savor the truth that so many now forget – that “the Lord is near to all who call upon Him.”

And in the end, it is not a question to minutes, hours, days, and weeks … It is all matter, not so much of material physical time, as a question of one's intense longing and love with which one does what one is called to do, early in the day, at midday, or late in the day.

Opera Salesiana Testaccio
Via N. Zabaglia, N.2 00139
Roma, Italia
Il 17 Settembre 2011