All of us mortals long for the more, the better, the greater, and the ultimate! The history of the world, and our own personal histories reflect this timeless and ageless truth - we look
for fulfillment, for what satisfies, for everything that gives lasting
meaning to our existence. We even pine for immortality, for the
proverbial fountain of youth, physical prowess, and beauty. We hanker
for everything that lasts, and all things that lend perfection and
lasting dignity to our person.
All that we long for, and all that we look for are not bad in themselves. They are legitimate ends for men and women created by God with the natural tendency towards "self-transcendence." This includes our legitimate desire for material wealth and prosperity.
liturgy, though, offers some kind of a warning. Today's readings would
have us take a second look at what we consider as the "ultimate." The
Lord, today, would have us reflect a little bit deeper on the values we
hold dearly, on the priorities we have set for ourselves, on the targets
we have focused on, and on the bases of the happiness and
meaningfulness we have pegged ourselves and our lives on.
For, truth to tell, there is so much blindness in the world, so much lack of clarity, so much lack of perspective.
The view from Hollywood, for one, is an absolutist one. Entertainment and fun is the ultimate gauge of one's happiness and well-being. Everyday, we are bombarded by pictures of svelte, upbeat, and perpetually smiling actors and actresses, whose lives appear
to revolve around party upon glitzy party, their seemingly happy and
ever smiling faces paying tribute to the mantra of youthful life based
for the most part on the culture of fun.
So is the view from Wall Street. Wealth and fortune, and the examples of those who made
it, constantly hog the infotainment headlines. They act as the
modern-day prophets of the capitalist gospel of prosperity and financial
This absolutist culture is nowhere more visible as in the marriage of capitalism and entertainment
in the many shows that dot the prime time landscape: reality TV and
shows that consistently gravitate towards Hollywood, New York, Chicago,
and, of late, Las Vegas - all centers of commerce, entertainment, and
fun. In many other places all over the world, entertainment and shows
mostly revolve around the so-called "primate cities" which function as
hubs of development, wealth generation, and the place where to get the
"proverbial pot of gold."
Today, the Church goes counter-cultural, as usual. Today, I am afraid, many people, especially
the young, would find the Lord's good news as one that rather goes
against the grain. However, I would like to suggest that, more than
being a put-down, today's biblical readings are an invitation for
all of us to gain back perspective, to put back the horse before the
cart, and to regain our sense of clarity.
In a culture that has
co-opted our minds, our attitudes, and our hearts, and which has
gradually led us to absolutize and prioritize our "labor," "toil and
anxiety," and all "the part of [us] that are earthly," the Lord reminds
us today through Qoheleth that "all things are vanity." In essence, what
we are told is not that all the above is bad, but that they are simply
not the ultimate, for they are nothing but "vanity," that is, mere
"vapor," "breath," something that is merely transitory. They are useful
and important, true, but transitory, not permanent. Being transitory,
they are not to be considered the "end all and be all" of human
I had the fortune of meeting and being a friend to a
Filipino couple and their children over the past 30 years. When I got to
know them, I was doing pastoral work as a substitute pastor in a big
parish in Manila, while I was preparing myself to go to Rome for further
studies. At that time, they had a booming and lucrative business that
placed them among the more well-to-do members of the parish community.
The relative wealth they enjoyed, however, did not get to their heads.
They kept a low profile, while at the same time, gave generously to the
church, while anonymously helping a number of poorer members of the
parish. As I got to know them better over the subsequent years, I
realized that their lives had been some kind of a roller-coaster ride,
with the proverbial ups and downs, failures and successes, joys and
disappointments. Their wealth and financial status shot up and shot
down, in an unpredictable cycle that would have daunted people with
lesser faith. But through all this, the family remained steadfast. They
were happy when they lived in prosperity, but they were happy all the
same when there was precious little to spare.
They were a clear
example of persons who understood the relative importance of
wealth.Unfortunately, in my experience as a priest and an
educator/teacher for so many years, I have also encountered people who
showed exactly the opposite attitude. Already having more than they
could reasonably use to live decent lives, they still want more and
more. I have seen people whose drive for more seemed to be the all
important rule in their lives, with their families taking a back seat,
and values taking a still farther slot in their order of priorities. For
some of them, the unbridled drive for wealth and/or power have
gradually hardened their hearts, making them callous to the needs of
others, and the welfare of their competitors or opponents, as the case
And neither are Church personnel and religious priests immune to such a pervasive culture
that can also lead some of us to resort to manipulation and machination
in order to safeguard coveted, lucrative posts or hold on to power. To
our shame, there are posh parishes all over the country that have become
untouchable turfs of some well-connected clerics.
But what is sauce for the goose ought to be sauce, too, for the gander. All of us Christians,
whether cleric or lay, would do well to reflect on the prayer that we
blurted out after the first reading: "If today, you hear his voice,
harden not your hearts." We would do well to remember the relative
nature of everything that we have on loan from the gracious generosity
of God. "Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain wisdom of
Indeed, all the parts of us that are earthly, all that we
consider important in this world, all that in our lack of clarity of
mind and heart, we believe to be the ultimate values; indeed everything
that in our shortsightedness, clouds our minds, and makes us lose
perspective and miss the forest for a tree, will all one day disappear,
for "the world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away." Sic
transit gloria mundi! That is simply the way of all earthly glory ...
like grass, they wither and die; they are here today, and gone tomorrow.
The little, the seemingly insignificant, the few, and the powerless ... those who don't seem to count; the perpetual underdogs; those whose lives don't make waves: the widows, the orphans, the poor, and the lowly ... these are those who can make a difference, those whose presence - and persistence - can mean life, fullness of life both for themselves and others, or the utter lack of it for everyone.
I refer to the "power of one." I speak of the riches behind the widow's mite, the force of puny David's stone that spelled defeat of the mighty Goliath. I point to the authority of the twelve - the Lord's "few, good men" whose conviction and faith, despite the onrush and crushing weight of the worldly power of kings, emperors, and tyrants over the past two thousand years.
The faith that we celebrate today is a testimony of the power of these "few good men" - and women - whose lives (and deaths) spelled life for all of us women and men of good will, life in all its fullness, as the good Lord would have us inherit.
Our faith, which we share with all brothers and sisters in the whole Christian world, deserves this weekly (daily for some) gathering of prayer, praise, worship, and thanksgiving. As we do Eucharist, though, we are all aware that the world we live in, is in a situation that, to be honest, leads us to ask this burning question: "Should not the judge of the world act justly?"
When we see what we are capable of doing; when we behold what we all are guilty of; when we are face to face with the reality of human depravity and sinfulness; when we acknowledge the fact that two thousand years after the coming of the promised One, the world is nowhere near being fully and definitively redeemed; when we cannot but stand as helpless witnesses to the ravages of war, terrorism, corruption, and the all-pervading signs of a "culture of death" in our midst, we are led to ask: "Should not the judge of the world act justly?" Should God not finally intervene in this messy world that everywhere seems to reek of personal, social, and structural evil?
Today stands out as a day of persistence. On the one hand, we see Abraham's consistent and constant pleadings before the Lord for the sake of "a few good people" in the city of Sodom and Gomorrah. On the other hand, we see also God's own brand of persistence in His answer that was as firm as it was gentle: "I will spare the whole place for their sake." "I will not destroy it, if I find forty-five there." "I will not destroy it, for the sake of the twenty." "For the sake of those ten, I will not destroy it."
Abraham's perseverance in prayer is matched by God's infinite justice. In a society and culture that prizes a kind of "corporate personality" and where "social responsibility" is highly valued, the presence of a "few good people" - along with the persistent and faith-filled intercessory prayer of one on behalf of the whole, occasions God's justice that then overflows in mercy. "I will not destroy it," says the Lord of mercy and justice.
This is definitely good news for us all. At a time when "hope grows grey hairs" and patience wears thin, when more bad than good news fills our TV screens and daily papers, when all we see seems to be the triumph of not a "few good people," but a whole lot of evildoers, when "all I endeavor in disappointment end," and faith almost becomes mere wishful thinking, the Church invites us to pray along with Abraham and the psalmist, "Lord, on the day I called for help, you answered me."
You answer us, O Lord God. You definitely do. But we know all too well, that your answer has to be matched by a call on our part. We do know that reciprocity is part and parcel of the dialogue of salvation that you have come to grant us in Christ, Your Son. We do realize that this gift of salvation is both a gift and a task - Your work and ours; Your grace and our cooperation. You have done justice to us, O Lord God. Even where we were dead in transgressions, you brought us to life along with Christ, Your Son. You forgave us all our transgressions; you obliterated the bonds against us, with its legal claims, and Christ, Your Son removed it from our midst, nailing it to the cross.
Today is a day of persistent prayer. Today is a day when the light of faith ought to overcome the darkness of hopelessness and cynicism. And the good news is ... the Lord Himself gives us THE model of persistence prayer - the Our Father. Persistence is the character of this prayer. Perseverance is etched in the very language of this prayer that asks, not for food for tomorrow and for the distant future, but only for "today," and only for what is strictly necessary to maintain oneself in "being" (epiousion).
Today's good news includes a blanket authority for us to "pray without ceasing." Today's good news gives us the right to pelt God with prayers, for "we have received a Spirit of adoption, through which we cry, Abba, Father." Today's good news offers us the privilege of drawing near to God, for "[we] were buried with [Christ] in baptism, in which [we] were also raised with him through faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead." Today's celebration seals our right to "give thanks with all [our] heart," "because of His kindness and His truth," for "on the day [we] called for help, God answered us."
There are enough reasons for us to approach this loving, merciful, and just God. There are sufficient reasons to continue on believing, to go on hoping, even against hope - even if, alas, there are so "few good people" left on this earth.
A few good people ... These are the men and women who continue to show that God is alive and well, and working in our midst. These are the men and women who live unheralded lives of indomitable heroism and quiet faith. These are the men and women who pray fervently and faithfully behind closed doors, before flickering candles in dark and dingy churches. These are the men and women whose earthly lives may be surrounded by every imaginable type of darkness - the darkness of personal suffering, of poverty, powerlessness, and pain - but whose hearts are aglow with the resplendent assurance that can only come from a God who declares: "I will not destroy it."
A few good people ... a few good men and women ... a few persistent souls before a God of permanent love, justice and overflowing mercy. A few good people is all we need. For their sake, for the sake of those who seek, for the sake of those who knock, and for the sake of those who ask, God and His love will remain steadfast forever!
Can we be counted along with these "few good people?"
Abraham was not one to miss an opportunity. Seeing three men on their way towards some place else, Abraham saw the chance of a lifetime to offer some welcome and winsome service with a smile. And then some ... rolls and some meat; curds and some milk ... The guests surely were well provided.
Martha and Mary sure knew their places. Both did not pass off an opportunity as it came their way ... in the person of their friend Jesus, whom Martha, by the way, called Lord! The Lord merited some five-star quality service. This, Martha gave gratis et amore. The same Lord surely was worthy of some serious attention and personal care. This, Mary did, by sitting down right next to the Lord's ottoman chair, gracious and generous with her listening ears, as she was gracious and winsome in her heart.
Abraham and Sarah did their best to offer service and hospitality to the unexpected guests. Martha and Mary each had a way to make their guest feel important and needed, and definitely welcome. All four had a style. They pampered their guests with the best they had. Abraham had his tender, choice steer, curds and fresh milk to boot, and even waited on them under the tree while they ate. Martha showed her culinary and administrative skills, and lost no time putting her pots and pans to good use, and her long-lost recipes resurrected to life. Mary, on the other hand, lost precious time gracefully with the Lord, listening to Him intently, solely, with focus and passion - and, one more time - with feeling!
The three of them served with panache! And the fourth provided welcome with passion!
Who says the Lord can be approached and served in only one particular way? Who says that the Lord only wants service, and that He cares not much for anything that does not go beyond a five-star quality meal?
In our times, there are two extreme types of people ... those who say they believe in God and spend all their time doing godly things, good things, worthy things - ostensibly for God, yes, but not necessarily on account of a God they personally are related to. Yet, there, too, are those who spend all their time in religious things, those who do nothing but engage in holy things, pious stuff, spiritual concerns, but for whom all other-worldly concerns do not count for much. The former are definitely attuned to the world and contemporary reality, but never attached to a personal God. The latter, on the other hand, can be, and may be attached, but never attuned to the God they think they relate to.
I, too, can be an activist, and engage more than just pots and pans, and even fields and farms to do good. But if I am not attached to a personal God, all that activism is nothing more than a noisy gong and a clanging cymbal. I, too, can be a pietistic prayerful person, and boast about being attached, but if I have no love either that shows in action, I am equally what the other one is - another noisy gong and a clanging cymbal.
All four individuals in the readings did hospitality. But real welcome and hospitality is given by one who can recognize their guest for who he is ... who, then, does justice and who, then, can live in the presence of the Lord!
Abraham saw more in the three men. They were more than just lost and weary travellers expecting a bed for the night and food for sustenance of body and soul. They stood for someone higher, someone greater, someone as deeply mysterious as God who would later reveal Himself to be one in three - Triune God - Father, Son, and Holy Spirit!
This is the same God that Paul saw and knew first hand - God, the mystery hidden from ages and from generations past, now manifested to his holy ones ... the Christ in you, the hope for glory.
What does one do before a presence so august, so sublime, so real, so near and yet so far, so real, and so invisible to many? How does one behave in His presence, in His coming-in-flesh in our midst?
Let us all do an Abraham and a Sarah! Out with the best the house can offer! Choice meat, and the best curds and milk. Everything's on the house! This is hospitality at its best. Service galore to the utmost and the highest! Let us all do a Martha and offer service - five star excellent service! But let us all do a Mary, too, and offer that same service with a smile and some seriousness for the long haul - some spiritual nourishment, replenishment for the heart and soul as much for the body.
Service, yes! ... and a plus that is more than Google Plus+ --- service and a smile, service plus serious study and reflection that is worthy of a faith in Him that "comes from hearing!" Attunement, yes, and attachment, too! ... to a God with us, a God come-in-flesh, a God-wth-us.
We all suffer from some type of paralysis at some point. We are often petrified in our fears, in our uncertainties, in our mistrust, and in our lingering suspicions. We dare not lift a finger most times to help. What if the fellow is just pretending to be sick and needy? What if the beggar banging at my door is really a poseur who just wants to fleece me?
We all are potential good Samaritans. We all dream somehow of being like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, or any other great saint we hear about or read about. But, too sad, too bad, all we do oftentimes is resort to wishful thinking.
All three readings speak about possibilities. The first reading from Deuteronomy speaks about the word as being very near to us, that is, within reach, at arm's length, readily available to those who would simply reach out and not much more. The second reading speaks about a God so noble and lofty, whose image in Jesus Christ, became so close, so near, so within reach by everyone. In and through what theologians call high Christological language, this eminently transcendent God has become one with us, near us, through the same Jesus Christ, at one and the same time, glorious Lord, and compassionate Savior.
But the real clincher is the Gospel from Luke. In and through a simple parable, that same closeness between God and us, is not something we theorize upon, or reflect on in the abstract, but something we do ... something we perform ... something we live in concrete.
In our times, we are beset with so many pressing needs. There is a call for us to be active in socio-political matters, where most of the real action is. There, too, is the pressing need for believers to be actively present in the world of culture, where so much miseducation happens. There, too, on top of everything, is the even more urgent need for us to be present in social issues that stare us in the face ... the issue of massive poverty, the related issues of labor and matters associated with social justice.
The needs are many and the questions are real and pressing. For one like me who is also teaching theology, the ever present and nagging question is always this ... what do I do to walk the talk and put flesh to what I echo down as the official teachings of the Church? What do I do so that the orthodoxy that we preachers talk about, also becomes translated into orthopraxis?
Answers are not easy to come by. Nor is the practice wrinkle-free at all times. Idealism and activism seem to be the extreme poles that one is in danger always of falling into - either becoming an activist or an armchair idealist. And both poles seem to always end up in futility!
Today the readings appear to speak to me about not engaging further in more analysis that leads only to fruitless paralysis. All three readings tell me that we all have what it takes. We all have the seed of the word within us. We all have received sufficient grace for us to do what in our limitedness and finiteness and weakness each one of us can do.
But the tragedy does not lie here. We all have what is needed. The tragedy lies in the glaring fact that we don't do what we can. We remain paralyzed. We remain on the level of inaction, maybe at times, hoping against hope that the problems that menace us, and the problems that overwhelm us, might someday go away.
I have realized long ago I am not good at community organizing. I am not good at being out there in the front lines. I am more of a planner, a visionary, one who can help people envision a better and doable future. I am good at teaching. I am good at writing. Others may not be as good as me in this line, but they are good at being in the frontlines. They are best when they are executing what others have envisioned.
I aks my readers and hearers to define what they are best at. Not all could do a Peter or a Paul. Not all could be just like Apollos or the many women who worked simply in the background. But they all had one thing in common. They all knew that the word is near, already in their mouths and in their hearts.
Only one thing is left for them to do ... we all need to simply carry it out.
Jim Wallis says that many people simply follow the wet finger syndrome. They wet their fingers to see where the wind is blowing and follow accordingly. He suggests something radical, a little like what the Good Samaritan did ... not go with the flow, and do what is expected of us to do. He counsels us not to follow where the wind blows, but to change the wind. ... Change the way people think... Change the course of culture. Change the destiny of showbiz in the country. Become the change that you want, and dare to be different. Like Moses. Like Paul. Like Christ. Like Pope Benedict. Like Pope Francis.
I am a pilgrim. I am a learner. I journey with others in faith and life. In all I do, in my preaching, teaching, counseling, and writing, "all I want is to know Christ, and to experience the power of his resurrection" (Phil 3:10). By so doing, I humbly hope to make a difference in people's lives.