25th Sunday in Ordinary Time -Year C Sept.18, 2016
WHEN "WISDOM" GOES WRONG
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."
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/her 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?
23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C) September 4, 2016
BORN TO BE FREE!
There is something heartwarming in today's readings, particularly in Paul's letter to Philemon (2nd reading). Paul, by then an old man in prison, waxes paternal and solicitous for the welfare of both Philemon and the runaway slave Onesimus. As the law would prescribe, Paul sends him right back to Philemon, but not before liberating both the master and the slave. Philemon may well have been a slave to the prevailing culture of that time that considered slavery normal. Onesimus, may well have been, not only a physical slave, but also - and more importantly - a slave to his own misconceptions about himself and his relationship with the rest of the world, including his master, Philemon.
Paul, an old man shackled in prison, bound by the dictates of an earthly law that he has spent so much time and effort enlightening people about, gives Philemon, Onesimus, and the whole believing world for posterity, a great lesson on personal deliverance, freedom, and total human liberation.
The recently concluded Olympic games are a minefield, not only of gold medals, but also of golden opportunities to illustrate inner personal freedom and the liberating force of love for others. I have no idea whether those athletes who became clear icons of interior freedom have ever heard of the Christian gospel, but what some of them did in the playing fields are definitely supportive of the Christian good news that has to do essentially with liberation.
In a hotly contested arena that makes vying for the coveted gold, silver, or bronze medals a matter of both personal and national pride, it is so easy for any athlete to go for drugs as much as he/she goes for gold. Where everyone cheers and eggs them on to be "swifter, higher, stronger," athletes can really be tempted to fall slaves to dopes and drugs, slaves to the idea of victory at all costs, enslaved by lies, even as they bask under the glow of fame and - for some - fortune. But in this same arena awash in potential cheating of all kinds, there appear, time and time again, shining examples of values that proclaim the dazzling beauty of liberating truth, and the interior glow of honesty, good, clean, hard work, and the rare flash of magnanimity that comes from the most unexpected players.
In the 2004 Olympics, the Greek weightlifter named Dimas, in his fourth time as Olympic contender, given a standing and raucous ovation for tens of minutes, a brilliant example of one who refuses to go by the hidden rules of doping, older than most of his counterparts, tries one last time to lift that enormous weight over his shoulders. His Atlas-like prowess is long gone, as is obvious to everyone in the stands. His body all but crumpled under the weight, but Dimas came out a golden medalist in the hearts of everyone, not only in Greece, but all over the world. His wife and three children were there, crying for joy and sadness. The crowds at the Panathenaiko stadium were on their feet, cheering him on. The rest of the people in all the fabled motley islands of Greece must have been stomping their feet in honor of one who could no longer go "swifter, higher, and stronger," but who towered over everybody else due to his unflinching code of personal integrity, pristine honesty, and devotion to his family and adopted homeland. (He was a migrant from Albania, of Greek grandparents).
But there were others who stood out, not only because they won medals, but also because they showed the world and were never ashamed of their faith. Names like Usain Bolt, they gymnast named Simone Biles, and others stood out both for their prowess and their Catholic faith.
Who says interior freedom is no longer in vogue? Who says that the liberating power of moral truth is no longer relevant?
Can anyone say that freedom is not a value to those two women from Afghanistan, whose quest for gold ended after just 45 seconds of competition, reviled and hated like anything, for having gone to Greece to follow their heart, and share in the "glorious liberty of the children of God," despite a culture that is willing to kill them for doing the unthinkable? Can anyone fault the bemedalled and universally adored lanky 19-year old kid then from Baltimore, (Michael Phelps, dubbed the Baltimore Bullet) who gave up the chance to increase even more his stature, by giving his fellow team-mate the chance to compete in the 200 meter relay in swimming? The whole world took notice of him this time around in Rio for he came out a winner, not only of 25 gold medals, but also because he allowed faith to triumph over depression and suicidal tendencies. Can anyone fail to see the force of interior freedom shining in the hearts of contenders who simply have no chance, but who plodded on all the same, in quest, not so much for the gold, as for the golden opportunity to do one's best in the midst of the world's finest?
We live in a world dotted with Olympic-sized challenges all over. They may not have to do with material gold and glittering medallions. But these moral challenges have to do with what matters, what counts, and what is most important in the long run. They have to do with treasures which no moth or rust can destroy. And like the coveted Olympic gold, or the gospel's "pearl of great price," they call on us to give our best, to do our utmost, and to plan ahead.
On other occasions, I have repeatedly said that we live in the context of a morally complex world, at best. At worst, we find ourselves in a morally messy world. In a world that is ruled by conflicting and contrasting ideologies, extremes of thought that are, at bottom, based on the same materialistic philosophical grounds, it is so easy to join the morally relativistic bandwagon and live just like everybody does, just like all of Hollywood does, just like what mass media show us - a case of art imitating life, or life imitating art. In a country that considers graft and corruption the "normal thing to do," it is so easy to "join them, if you cannot beat them." And in this surging sea of relativism, all is alright, everything is OK, and sin is nothing more than a label to be done away with, an unhealthy guilt that must be banished from our neurotic minds.
Today, the liturgy teaches us that, whilst the Olympic games have ended, the moral challenges of daily life go on. The call to genuine interior liberation goes on. And examples both from Scriptures and daily life in our times are never wanting. These are examples of people, who, while physically challenged like Paul in prison, nevertheless come out interiorly free. These are examples of people who have chosen heavenly "wisdom" over earthly and material cunningness and skills. They have chosen mystery over mastery, ever ready and willing to be guided by the ineffable counsel from above: "Who can know God's counsel or who can conceive what the Lord intends? ... Or who ever knew your counsel, except you had given wisdom and sent your holy spirit from on high?"
Those great men and women who competed at the summer games did not go there without undergoing grueling training and preparations. Some of them got what they prepared for - medals of metal and adulation from adoring crowds.
In the greater and bigger arena that is the world and life in its fullness, victory lies, not so much on those who excel in physical powers, but on those who have understood that what counts in the long run, is the freedom that comes from above, the freedom that is both a test and a trust - a gift and a responsibility. This is the gift of Christian, interior freedom that comes with the very nature of our being human, created as we are unto God's image and likeness.
Born to be free, humans like us, are called to ever deeper, ever broader, and ever more liberating freedom. Onward, then, Christian soldiers to the fight of our lifetimes! Swifter, higher, stronger!
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.