30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: A NEW WAY OF SEEING

Increasingly our culture has become a visual culture where “image is everything.” Every day we are bombarded by visual and moving images—photos, bumper stickers, posters, billboards, newspapers and magazines not to mention youtube videos, facebook memes, and ads.

Yet, despite the thousands of images and videos we see daily in this hypervisual digital world, many times, we fail to see the true, good and beautiful. We continue to look but we do not see.

Seeing implies more than just physical eyesight. Many cultures use physical sight as a metaphor for understanding. We do that spontaneously when we suddenly catch on to an explanation and say, “Oh, now I see,” or even, paradoxically, “I see what you’re saying.”

Thus, even if we have eyes with 20/20 vision, we long to learn how to see. Ironically, the best persons who can teach us how to learn to truly see are the blind. I remember when I was assigned in Legaspi many years ago, we had a blind masseur whom we call often especially after coming from the missions for a much relaxing massage.  His name is Bert. Bert does not just give us a relaxing massage; while doing massage on us, he talks about a lot of people we commonly knew. It was amazing how despite his blindness he had a profound understanding of the character of people.

This calls to mind the life of Helen Keller, a famous American blind writer.  Helen Keller, who went blind and deaf at nineteenth months old, once narrated:

‘One day I asked a friend of mine who had just returned from a long walk in the forest what she had seen. She replied, “Nothing in particular.”

How was this possible? I asked myself, when I, who cannot hear or see, find hundreds of things to interest me through mere touch. I feel the delicate shape and design of a leaf.

I pass my hands lovingly over the rough bark of a pine tree. Occasionally, I place my hand quietly on a small tree, and if I’m lucky, feel the happy quiver of a bird in full song.

The greatest calamity that can befall people, is not that they should be born blind, but that they should have eyes, yet fail to see.’

Helen_Keller.jpg

This important truth is also demonstrated in the Gospel of today’s 30th Sunday of ordinary time. In the gospel, it was the blind Bartimaeus who saw Jesus for who he truly was. This beggar sitting beside the road shows immediately that he “sees” at least as much as Peter when he addresses Jesus with a Messianic title: “Son of David, have pity on me.”

To understand more fully the significance of this encounter between Jesus and the blind Bartimaeus we need to rewind a bit in the gospel of Mark. For two chapters prior to this account, Mark has been presenting Jesus on the road with his disciples. On the way, on three separate occasions, Jesus speaks of his approaching passion, death, and resurrection. Each time one or more of the disciples show some gross failure to comprehend what he has just said. And each time, Jesus takes them aside to teach that following him entails losing one’s life to find it, carrying a cross, becoming the servant of all. This is also sounded in the conversation in the boat, when Jesus asks, “Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear?” (Mk 8:18).  In other words, Mark presents us with a picture of the disciples as spiritually blind. They do not really see who Jesus is and what he is about.

In the gospel account today, the disciples who were traveling with Jesus look upon Bartimaeus as an interruption of their missionary journey. Jesus, on the other hand, sees Bartimaeus as the point of the journey. Bartimaeus was a manifestation of why Jesus came: to bring “sight” not only to Bartimaeus but to all.

All four gospels in the New Testament use sight as a symbol for Christian faith. Believing is the deepest kind of “seeing.” The early Church called baptism enlightenment. It is not incidental that the first word out of Jesus’ mouth in the Synoptic Gospels is the word “metanoia” which means a new way of thinking. Faith is believing which inaugurates a new way of seeing and thinking.

Thus, the way the evangelists treat Jesus’ healings from physical blindness are not simply narrations of cures as marvels of the past. In their narratives, the evangelists present these healing from blindness as images of a healing process that happens through interaction between the risen Christ and any Christian.

Jesus, Son of David, have pity on us, as you did blind Bartimaeus. Give us faith as you did blind Bartimaeus.

29TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE COUNTER-SYMBOL OF SERVICE

“I came to serve not to be served”

In the Philippines last week, in the midst of the pandemic we saw a fiesta or shall we say a circus throughout the country. Thousands of wannabes vying for the top national and local positions trooped to the office of the Commission of Elections (COMELEC) around the country, complete with each one’s colorful gimmick  and band of loyal followers, to file their candidacies for the National and Local elections come May 2022. It looked like a circus rather than an ordinary and formal submission of form for candidacy. As they say, only in the Philippines, election–its more fun in the Philippines!

And what was the buzzword of most of the candidates? You guessed it right–its service! Each candidate promised that they will serve up to the last breath of their lives. No, they are not after money, power, politics, influence or status, it’s all in the name of service. Can’t help but wonder, if it is really for service and not for the money, power and position, would you think there would be thousands filing their candidacies? I guess not.

In fairness, we cannot judge nor question the thousands of candidates’ desire to serve. There is probably a genuine desire in each of the candidates to serve. Unfortunately this genuine desire is tainted by the distorted and bankrupt values and standards of this world. 

The liturgical readings for today’s 29th Sunday in ordinary time talks about service–God’s way of service, that is. 

The First Reading is taken from the fourth servant song of Second Isaiah: the prophet sings of one who “gives his life as an offering”.  This suffering servant would be afflicted, would suffer, and would even bear guilt. No wonder these verses from the fourth Song of the Suffering Servant is also the reading on Good Friday.  It foreshadow the fullness of the servanthood accepted by Jesus on our behalf: he gave his life for us.

In the second reading. the Letter to the Hebrews declares that we have a “great” “high” priest in Jesus who was strangely compassionate, fragile, and subject to the very trials we abhor.

“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who was tempted in every way that we are, yet never sinned.”
(Hebrews 4:14)

In the Gospel, James and John wanted to sit alongside Jesus when he comes to his glory: “Grant that in your glory we may sit one at your right and the other at your left.” Jesus teaches them this lesson: “whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all” . “The Way” on which he is leading his disciples is not about earthly glory but about service, even suffering service. This way of relating to others is not the way of the world, where “those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them and make their authority over them felt.” The term “lord it over” is a vivid way of describing leadership as raw power.

Jesus’ words for describing service are conveyed by Mark in the humblest words in the Greek language for lowdown menial service. The term “servant,” diakonos, literally means “the one who waits on tables.”

“Whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant [dia-konos];
whoever wishes to be first among you will be the slave [doulos] of all.”

Jesus finally drives his point home by applying to himself the atonement language of Isaiah’s portrait of the Suffering Servant in the first reading

“For the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve
and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

In many ways we are like James and John and the other disciples. Just like James and John we behave as normal citizens of a world where the ordinary view of service is one who lord it over people and make their authority over them felt.

Service is not the normal way of the world. Authority, leadership, ambition is. Service is such a much spoken word but so much lacking in practice. Admit it, when you are in a position, leadership or honor, whether in government, church, business, civic organization, or non-profit organization, the normal tendency in the world is that you are not a servant. You are to be served, you are to be bestowed with honor, you are to be granted privileges. All those talk about servant-leadership, they are beautiful to the ears, but in the real world, whoever is in position, authority and power, their members and their subjects are the ones serving them.

Unless the dominant system of benefiting the rich and powerful prevails, service will remain antithetical to the Christian way of service.  To live the Christian way of service is to go against the strong tide of giving weight to power, authority and wealth in the world.

So how then can we practice service in a world that is antithetical to service? Just like the saying–to err is human, to forgive is divine–authority and leadership is human, service is divine. Service is the way of God towards us and towards God’s inner life.  Service is the relationship of God with each other in the Divine Trinity. Service, therefore, is God’s gift, God’s grace. We cannot do service, without divine grace. We cannot do service without following Jesus–the greatest example of one who came not to be served but to serve.  The cup that Jesus drank, we can drink, and the baptism with which Jesus was baptized, we were baptized, but we can only lived out true service, not on our own, but through Jesus, with Jesus, and in Jesus.

Service is the way of life in the kingdom of God. Service is a prerequisite to entering the kingdom.  We cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we learn how to serve. When we come to God’s kingdom, only then that we can experience the fullness of service. In God’s kingdom, we will be focused on the other, serving each other, just like God.

Despite that the fullness of service will only come at the end, we can already have a foretaste of its fullness here and now, even in a hostile world. In God’s grace.

28TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: IMAGINE THERE’S NO POSSESSIONS

In the popular song of John Lennon, Imagine, are words imagining a world without possessions; a world where people won’t seek wealth but no one will go hungry and discontented. As the song goes,

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man

The gospel of today’s 28th Sunday in ordinary time tells the story of a young man who went to Jesus seeking eternal life. The rich young man thought that he has all it takes to have eternal life: he is rich and he is a law-abiding religious Jew. Unfortunately for the young man, Jesus shatters his illusion. Jesus tells him that neither his riches nor all his good-doing ways will let him into eternal life. The only way he can possess eternal life is to sell all his riches, give it to the poor and come follow him. The rich man goes away very sad, finding Jesus’ words very hard to follow.

Jesus’ words must have also been earth shattering to his own disciples. The astonishment of the disciples shows that Jesus’ saying was indeed a shock.

They were exceedingly astonished and said among themselves,
“Then who can be saved?”

Part of the shock derives from the presumption during Jesus’ time that being rich was not a hindrance but rather an advantage for entering the kingdom of God. For wealthy people could build synagogues, help the needy, sponsor Temple sacrifices. If they could not be saved, who else could?

For Jesus, however, attachment to wealth and belonging to the Kingdom of God is diametrically opposite. Alas, the rich young man wants to have it both ways: he wants his possessions and he wants everlasting life. You can’t have both, Jesus says. As Jesus says, it is impossible for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.

“How hard it is for those who have wealth
to enter the kingdom of God!”
The disciples were amazed at his words.
So Jesus again said to them in reply,
“Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!
It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle
than for one who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

This opens the way for Jesus’ ultimate point: salvation is not about human achievement but an act of God. The problem with wealth is that wealth brings power and, often, the delusion that one has no need for others, even for God. If one is rich enough, one can begin to think of oneself as the center of the world.

Power, status, fame, and position have the same effect as it makes ourselves the center and isolates us from God and others. They hinder us to give freely of ourselves, our gifts, our talents in service to the Lord. The problem with riches, power, status and fame is that we tend to accumulate them until they become us. They possess us until it is too late to detach from them. What are your riches? What are your attachments?

The renunciation of wealth, however, is not an end in itself but only a precondition for following Jesus. It is the life of discipleship, not the renunciation of wealth per se, that leads to eternal life. Following Jesus demands that we choose not to be possessed by things, but by Jesus himself. To be possessed by Jesus we must even give up our greatest possession of all: our very selves.

Following Jesus is greater than possessions. Such is the way of wisdom. In the first reading, the author of the book of Wisdom was also able to recognize that wisdom is greater than possessions. The author of the book of Wisdom presents rich King Solomon contemplating the human condition and praising the gift of God’s wisdom as greater than silver or gold. Here, wisdom is represented as feminine,

I preferred her [Wisdom] to scepter and throne,
and deemed riches nothing in comparison with her,
nor did I liken any priceless gem to her;
because all gold, in view of her, is a little sand,
and before her, silver is to be accounted mire.
Beyond health and comeliness I loved her,
and I chose to have her rather than the light,
because the splendor of her never yields to sleep.

Another earth-shattering truth Jesus told the crowd and disciples was the almost insignificant role of following the Mosaic Law towards gaining eternal life. This must have been a big shock to the disciples and the crowd who have grown up believing that obeying and doing the Mosaic Law is the sure and certain way to entering heaven. But for Jesus, this is not enough. Simply following the rules, being a good person can’t save you. You may be the nicest guy in the world. You don’t kill, you don’t steal yet you can still be drowned in wealth, power and fame which disables you to give freely of yourself to others and to God.

Lord, we pray, please look at us and love us. Grant us the grace to give freely to the poor everything you have poured upon us. In our giving, Lord let us receive a hundredfold: your life, now and in eternity.

27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE DIVINE NATURE OF MARRIAGE

Preserving the integrity of the family and nurturing the love between husband and wife is one of the biggest challenges that devotees bring to Our Mother of Perpetual Help at the shrine. Many families of devotees have experienced problems and crisis in the family and married life like Sylvia who wrote a thanksgiving letter in December 31, 2014:

Thank you very much for all the blessings that you have bestowed upon our whole family. Thank you God the Father for all the trials that we experienced as a whole family especially our marriage which I thought would collapse. From the bottom of my heart, thank you because you did not allow our marriage to break up. And because of the trials that we have experienced as a couple, we became stronger, our understanding for each other has deepened. Thank you that our family is still whole. It is indeed a big blessing that our family is still one until today.

Keeping the family close together is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century. Along with war, poverty, social injustice, violence and climate change, marriage and family breakdown contribute to one of the greatest heart aches of the human race today.  Almost, all of us have expereinced or have known someone who has experienced the pain and struggles of separation within a family. I myself have known a member of my family who experienced marriage breakdown.

Believe it or not, the breakdown of family due to the separation or divorce between husband and wife sadly had been around for centuries, even in ancient times.

In the gospel today,  the Pharisees came to Jesus to ask the question whether it is lawful for a husband to divorce his wife. Even during Moses’ time (1300–1200 BCE?), divorce was a common custom. The divorce statute is contained in the book of Deuteronomy:

When a man, after marrying a woman and having relations with her, is later displeased with her because he finds in her something indecent [erwath dabar], and therefore he writes out a bill of divorce and hands it to her, thus dismissing her from his house. … (Deut 24:1-4)

This statue, however, is heavily favorable to the husband and biased to the wife, understable in a predominantly patriarchal society. In Jewish law, a man could only commit adultery against another man, i.e., if he has relations with the other man’s wife.  He could not commit adultery against his own wife. Jesus, in responding to the Pharisees’ question, revolutionary for his times, explicitly declared that the man definitely has committed a sin “against her” when a man divorces his wife. By declaring this, Jesus elevates the woman to real equality with man.

“Whoever divorces his wife and marries another
commits adultery against her;

Jesus’ intention, however, went further beyond raising the dignity of women. Jesus went on to uphold the original dignity of marriage.  Jesus  recited the Genesis’ passage of creation to explain God’s original intention.

But from the beginning of creation, God made them male and female.
For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother
and be joined to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.

So they are no longer two but one flesh.
Therefore what God has joined together,
no human being must separate.”

Jesus’ reiteration of marriage as a permanent covenant com­mitment comes not as a new stricture but as an affirmation of a rela­tionship built into the original blessing of creation. Marriage is a reflection of God’s unconditional and unbounded love with each other and for us his people. The loving union of a married couple is founded on the love of God within God’s life–one God, three persons.

Despite that we live in a world today where a culture of divorce is prevalent, Jesus’ words in the gospel today can offer hope and inspiration especially to married couples undergoing trials and crisis. Despite that many countries in the world has made divorce legal, a plain admission of the common reality of separation of couples, Jesus’ words remain a valid and sublime vision of family and marriage.

26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: GOD’S LOVE BEYOND BORDERS

Not all who pray and venerate Our Mother of Perpetual Help are Catholics. In the Novena church in Singapore, for example, Singaporean Redemptorist Fr. Gerard Louis reports that 20 to 25% of those who attend the Novena to Our Mother of Perpetual Help are non-Catholics, people of other faiths—Hindus, Buddhists and Muslims.

Here in Baclaran, we have no exact figure or percentage of how many non-Catholics pray the novena. From time to time, though, we received some admiration from other Christian denomination. For example, Jullian Robin Sibi said that Baclaran is one of those spots where you have to go to even though you are not Catholic. Andy Dierickx, who identifies himself as a Protestant Christian, expressed admiration for the devotees’ dedication despite that he does not approve of every practice they do:

Let me preface my comment by saying as a ‘protestant Christian’ (for want of a better label) there are many things I don’t understand about the Roman Catholic church. Novenas, rosaries, praying to statuary and knee-walking are just some of the things I don’t comprehend. Lately I have been a bit outspoken on the subject and have offended loved ones in the process. On reflection I pray and ask forgiveness for that. I may never understand the rituals and practices, but I cannot question the devotion of the devotees of the Our Mother of Perpetual Help Church. They sit and sweat and kneel and sweat when they could be in SM or home in front of the aircon! If some of my fellow Christians could have half of that fervor it would be amazing. While I could never subscribe to the Catholic precepts and ideology I pay respect to the beautiful folk who gather at Baclaran each Wednesday. Next time I am in town I might just drop in and sweat with you

This shows that Mary Our Mother of Perpetual Help and God’s love appeal not only to Catholics but also to non-Catholics, even to atheists and those without religion.

God’s love and redemption is boundless; it goes even beyond the Catholic Church. This theme is reflected in today’s readings of the 26th Sunday in ordinary time.

In the first reading from the book of Numbers Joshua wanted Moses to stop Eldad and Medad from prophesying because they didn’t follow the rules. Moses makes it clear that prophecy, the carrying of God’s message to the world, is not the special task of only a few people:

Would that all the people of the LORD were prophets!
Would that the LORD might bestow his spirit on them all!”

Moses’ was also quick to point to Joshua’s attitude: “Are you jealous for my sake?”

In the gospel of Mark, John, one of the three in the inner circle of Jesus expressed dismay when they discover someone driving out demons in Jesus’ name even though they were not disciples of Jesus.

“Teacher, we saw someone driving out demons in your name,
and we tried to prevent him because he does not follow us.”

Jesus responds with an inclusive impulse,

“Do not prevent him.
There is no one who performs a mighty deed in my name
who can at the same time speak ill of me.”

Jesus defends the outsider and rebukes the tribalism of his apostles.

“Whoever is not against us is for us,”

In effect, Jesus’ response was throwing back the question to the disciples: Who doesn’t count as one of his own? Who actually is against Christ?

Jesus declares that those against him are those who draw children away from the Lord or who make the vulnerable and helpless worse than they otherwise would be. They would be better off being dropped into the sea.

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin,
it would be better for him if a great millstone
were put around his neck
and he were thrown into the sea.

Thus, instead of cutting people out of God’s love, Jesus points out that the disciples themselves may need some personal cutting to attend to.  Jesus re-echoes this in his farewell address to his disciples: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower … Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit” [John 15:1].

If your hand causes you to sin, cut it off.
It is better for you to enter into life maimed
than with two hands to go into Gehenna,
into the unquenchable fire.
And if your foot causes you to sin, cut if off.
It is better for you to enter into life crippled
than with two feet to be thrown into Gehenna.
And if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out.
Better for you to enter into the kingdom of God with one eye
than with two eyes to be thrown into Gehenna,

Jesus challenges us to “cut. . . off” from any manner of living, attitudes or behaviors that prevents us from recognizing God’s presence and work in the broadest classes of people especially the most excluded and oppressed in society. James, in the second reading, declares that we need to cut ourselves off from impeding God’s presence and love amongst the poor. James reserved his strongest rebuke to the rich who amassed great wealth at the expense of the poor.

Behold, the wages you withheld from the workers
who harvested your fields are crying aloud;
and the cries of the harvesters
have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.
You have lived on earth in luxury and pleasure;
you have fattened your hearts for the day of slaughter.
You have condemned;
you have murdered the righteous one;

This Sunday’s readings become highly relevant in the context of continuous religious conflicts and the rise of religious intolerance and fundamentalism in the world today. Despite the climate of pluralism, multiculturalism, and ecumenism, there are many who advocate for a return to exclusion, religious discrimination, religious fundamentalism and, religious extremism.

We will not stop proclaiming Jesus as savior of all humanity. As St. Paul said, “Woe to me, if I don’t proclaim the gospel” (I Cor 9: 16). Our readings for today, however, reminds us about the boundless nature of God’s love. The seeds of the Gospel go beyond even the Catholic Church. While Jesus invites us to follow him, he also invites us to embrace and participate in his love for the little ones and the lost sheep.  We need to discover God’s presence and action in the other–those who are different from us, the outsider, even our enemies. Jesus summons us today to welcome the refugees, shelter the homeless, care for the earth, feed the hungry, teach the ignorant, stand for justice, clothe the naked, in his name.

25TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: BECOMING GREAT IN GOD’S KINGDOM

One of the bad habits that we Filipinos often accuse ourselves of is so-called crab mentality. This habit is based on the behavior of the crabs in a bucket. Whenever one crab is on top, one pulls it down. Many crabs could have escaped from the bucket if nobody pulls it down or if the rest of the crabs helped the one on top to succeed in getting out of the bucket.

Of course, they are just crabs but often we behave like them or even worst. For example, how often have we pulled somebody on top or prevented somebody from achieving something? When somebody is doing good or experiencing success in life, instead of praising or offering support, how many times have we purposely tried to bring him/her down. Just because we are jealous or we try to justify our action by saying, “If I can’t have it, then you can’t have it as well.” Tragically, in the end, nobody ever succeed and nothing ever gets accomplished.

This mentality is nothing new as it may have been around ever since human interaction began. Talk about survival of the fittest!

In the gospel story today–the 25th Sunday in ordinary time–we read of a similar incident, an incident from about 2,000 years ago. Jesus and his disciples were walking to Capernaum. The disciples were following Jesus who was going from village to village preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God. The final destination of this missionary journey is Jerusalem. Along the way, the disciples were arguing with each other. When they reached Capernaum at the end of the day, Jesus asked them what they were arguing along the way:

They came to Capernaum and, once inside the house, [Jesus] began to ask them,
“What were you arguing about on the way?”
But they remained silent.
They had been discussing among themselves on the way
who was the greatest.

Along the journey, the disciples were trying to vie against each other about who will be on top when Jesus will finally reign once they reach Jerusalem. They all were trying to pull each other down in order to take the top spot.

The funny thing is that Jesus told them beforehand that what awaits him once they reach Jerusalem is anything but glory, power and fame. It was all about betrayal, suffering and death.

“The Son of Man is to be handed over to men
and they will kill him,
and three days after his death the Son of Man will rise.”

It seems that, pitifully, no one among the disciples heard what Jesus was saying. Either they did not understood him or they were overwhelmed by fear.

But they did not understand the saying,
and they were afraid to question him.

(They will eventually understand and banish all their fears, after the resurrection of Jesus).

But suppose the disciples fully understood then what Jesus was saying, would you think they would vie among each other about who would be the first in his kingdom? If they understood that to be part of Jesus kingdom entails suffering, sacrifice and even death, would the disciples still scramble for the top position? Probably not. Each one might say to the other, “You go ahead, you be the no. 1, I’ll be right behind you.” or “Its OK, i’ll be no. 2 or no. 3 even last, just not want to be the first.”

Nonetheless, even after Jesus’ own prediction of his suffering and death, the disciples remained steeped in their own world. Indeed, what was starkly demonstrated in this gospel story is the diametrical opposition between Jesus’ world and values and the disciples’ world and values and how the disciples’ values and Jesus values never met on the same level. The disciples’ values were worldly success measured in wealth, popularity, influence, status and power. Jesus’ values were godly success measured in service, sacrifice, love and humility. Within the disciples and Jesus’ world and values, lies each one’s concept of greatness. But each concept of greatness is utterly different from each other since their world and values are totally opposite each other

Since greatness was the disciples’ overriding agenda, Jesus did talk about greatness, albeit from his divine perspective. And in a powerful way. Jesus took a child and placed the child in their midst.

Taking a child, he placed it in their midst,
and putting his arms around it, he said to them,
“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

In most ancient Middle Eastern cultures the child would place last in social status and position. Within the family and the community, the child had next to no status. A minor child was considered almost equal to a slave. Only after reaching maturity did a child become a free person with rights to inherit the family estate. In other words, the child in Jesus’ time and society has no wealth, status, honor, position, influence and power in society. Expanding the image of child or children in society, the child are the poor, the anawim, the insignificant, powerless, the rejects, the sinners, the “little ones” in Jesus’ society. To be great in Jesus’ kingdom, therefore, is to welcome these little ones. Receiving and casting our lot with the poor, the least, the lowly and the most abandoned in society is receiving and welcoming Jesus himself and the Father who sent Jesus into the world.

“Whoever receives one child such as this in my name, receives me;
and whoever receives me,
receives not me but the One who sent me.”

By placing a child right in their midst, Jesus was making a very powerful statement against worldly values that contradict the Kingdom of God. A child who has no power, status and position taking center stage becomes a counter-symbol to power, domination, wealth, violence, pride, and injustice that is the cause of exploitation, inequality and poverty.

Don’t get Jesus wrong. Jesus wants his disciples to be great–in his kingdom. Jesus wanted his disciples to be great not so much in this world but in his kingdom. In order to be great in his kingdom, the disciples need to leave behind their worldly values and standards. They need conversion–metanoia–a change of heart and mind according to the heart and mind of Jesus. They need to change their view of what greatness is. (Again, this will finally occur to the disciples after the life-changing event of the resurrection of Jesus).

To be great in his kingdom is to be like a child–no wealth, status and power but a life full of service, sacrifice and humility.

“If anyone wishes to be first,
he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.”

How can one be great without wealth, status and power? This seems to be a daunting if not an impossible task in our world. Jesus is asking us to do great things without the need to anchor on wealth, status and power. Right! Good luck! This indeed goes against every practical rule in this world let alone every tissue of our body. But come to think of it, Jesus is hinting at a wonderful piece of wisdom here. Just think about who were the greatest people in history, in the bible, in the church and in our country. Think about the greatest saints in the church and the real heroes of our country. Many of them were not kings, princes and wealthy but ordinary, poor, even oppressed and rejected with no fame, honor and power in the time and society they lived. Many of them suffered greatly and gave up their lives in the end. Talk about Moses, David, Isaiah, Buddha, St. Francis, Gandhi, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Andres Bonifacio, to name only a few. Not to mention, the greatest of all–Mary, an ordinary peasant girl.

To be great in Jesus is to discover the real treasure within ourselves and the world around us. The real treasure is the kingdom of God which is like a mustard seed–the smallest of all seed but when it grows becomes the biggest of all trees. To discover the seed of God’s kingdom which God, the prodigal sower, has planted in every human’s heart is to have the mind and inquisitiveness of a child full of wonder and innocence.

In a staunchly competitive world where everybody wants to be first, Jesus wants us to be no. 1 in his kingdom. Everyone can become no. 1 in his kingdom without the need for wealth, power and status. We just have to be who we truly are–a child of God who is dependent on the grace and goodness of God and of one another.

In God’s kingdom, we don’t need to pull each other down as we will all be on top basking eternally in God’s blessings and presence.

24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: KNOWING JESUS

In today’s gospel of the 24th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus directly asked his disciples,

“Who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter said in reply,

“You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus said,

“And so I say to you, you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.”

Peter’s confession is the rock foundation of our Christian life. Without confessing Jesus the Christ as God of our lives, everything we say and do, all our rituals and sacraments will amount to nothing. Christianity is not just a set of obligation, religion or a list of commandments but, first and foremost, a relationship with Jesus. As Pope Benedict XVI said:

“Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.”[1]

To have a relationship with Jesus, however, is not just to have a friendly relationship or a sweet spiritual relationship with Jesus. Like Peter, what many Christians dread to know is that relationship with Jesus entails suffering and even denial of oneself.

“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself,
take up his cross, and follow me.
For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it,
but whoever loses his life for my sake
and that of the gospel will save it.”

Peter did not understand this at first, thinking that believing in Jesus as the Messiah could come without the need for suffering. Jesus has to correct him and teach him God’s standard: Christian life amounts to carrying one’s cross in the footsteps of Jesus.

The suffering demanded by our confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” is articulated in the First Reading by the prophet Isaiah. The first reading comes from the third song of the Servant of Yhwh, the “Suffering Servant.”

I have not rebelled, have not turned back.
I gave my back to those who beat me,
my cheeks to those who plucked my beard. …
The Lord God is my help; who will prove me wrong?

The suffering servant modeled Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession; explaining to Peter that to be the Christ means

“the Son of Man must suffer greatly
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed,
and rise after three days.”

The second reading from the letter of James explicate further that to have a relationship with Jesus is not just an exclusive and loving relationship with Jesus–me and my sweet Jesus but a loving relationship with others especially the poor and the most abandoned. Relationship with Jesus is not just professing faith in Jesus but also practising it. The practice of the faith is the performance of deeds that benefit those in need. As the letter of James expounds,

What good is it, my brothers and sisters,
if someone says he has faith but does not have works?
Can that faith save him?
If a brother or sister has nothing to wear
and has no food for the day,
and one of you says to them,
“Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well, ”
but you do not give them the necessities of the body,
what good is it?
So also faith of itself,
if it does not have works, is dead.

It took a while before Peter fully understood the true meaning of confessing Jesus as the Christ. When Jesus called Peter, Jesus was well aware of the many faults and flaws of Peter. Despite his weaknesses, Peter stayed with Jesus until the end. Indeed, he became a rock of faith. Peter’s being rock comes from the strength he received from God:

“Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah.
For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you,
but my heavenly Father.”

Like Peter, we fear, we vacillate, and we try to escape from the mission of Jesus. But like Peter, if we rely on God’s grace beyond our capacities, we can truly confess Jesus as the Christ, in word and in deed. Like Peter we will truly experience the fullness of life despite the suffering it entails.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (“God is Love”), 1.

23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: LORD, HEAL US

Image from https://www.greenbiz.com/article/covid-19-and-climate-change-healthy-dose-reality

Two years now into the pandemic, the paramount cry of all people in the world is healing. All over the world people are crying to the heavens for healing from the physical, mental, social and spiritual ailment caused by the covid-19 virus.

Today’s readings for the 23rd Sunday in ordinary time speaks about God’s healing.  Salvation from God is not just salvation from our sins but also healing and recovery from sickness. Salvation comes from the Latin word, salūs which means to be well and healthy. God’s healing, however, is holistic; it is not just physical but also emotional, mental and spiritual.

In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah describes the vision of the coming of God’s kingdom as opening the eyes of the blind, clearing the ears of the deaf, and even brightening up the environment.

Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing.
Streams will burst forth in the desert,
and rivers in the steppe.
The burning sands will become pools,
and the thirsty ground, springs of water.

The responsorial psalm, Psalm 146, is a psalm of praise for the healing power of God, especially for his opening of the eyes of the blind.

The second reading from the Letter of James, focuses not on the physical but spiritual blindness. James warns against taking people according to their physical appearance. The example James gives is that of giving a well-dressed visitor special treatment while neglecting a poorly dressed person, forgetting the beatitude about the poor. That, he implies, is a symptom of spiritual blindness.

For if a man with gold rings and fine clothes
comes into your assembly,
and a poor person in shabby clothes also comes in,
and you pay attention to the one wearing the fine clothes
and say, “Sit here, please, ”
while you say to the poor one, “Stand there, ” or “Sit at my feet, ”
have you not made distinctions among yourselves
and become judges with evil designs?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters.
Did not God choose those who are poor in the world
to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom
that he promised to those who love him?

In the Gospel, Mark presents Jesus as the kind of savior prophesied by Isaiah. Jesus did a miracle of healing: a man who was deaf and impaired in speech becomes able to hear and to speak plainly. What Isaiah communicates as vision through poetry, Jesus communicates through action in the here and now. We tend to think of salvation in terms of heaven and the hereafter. Jesus’ action open us to salvation as an event that is here and now.

And people brought to him a deaf man who had a speech impediment
and begged him to lay his hand on him.
He took him off by himself away from the crowd.
He put his finger into the man’s ears
and, spitting, touched his tongue;
then he looked up to heaven and groaned, and said to him,
“Ephphatha!”— that is, “Be opened!” —
And immediately the man’s ears were opened,
his speech impediment was removed,
and he spoke plainly.

Jesus command to the deaf-mute man, Aramaic, ephphatha “Be opened” is more than a just a matter of physical healing. It is also a spiritual healing: God’s superabundant life breaking open our closed human condition. What Jesus commands with respect to the deaf-mute man before, he commands with respect to us today. In the gospel, Jesus commands us, “Be opened!” If we listened well and hard, we too are healed: our ears are opened to hear the Good News and our tongues are loosened to proclaim it.

What sickness and disability do we need to be healed and liberated from? Let us ask Jesus to loosen our tongues, open our deaf ears and touch our blind eyes so we may truly hear, see and speak of the truth and peace of the Word who is Jesus.

22ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: FINDING GOD IN THE MIDST OF THE PANDEMIC

In the midst of the pandemic, several religious memes have been circulating around social media which raises some serious concerns. For example, “Why worry about delta when you have the Alpha and Omega.” Delta, as most of us have heard by now, is the more contagious and virulent variant of the covid 19 virus. Alpha and Omega is the Greek words referred to Jesus in Revelations 22:13, “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Thus, this meme encourages us not to be afraid of the much dreaded delta variant if we have a firm belief in Jesus.

Another religious meme circulating around social media, especially promoted by anti-vaccine Christian fundamentalists, is “Jesus is my vaccine”. There is no need to get the vaccine as we have Jesus in us who will protect us from the virus.

While we should not lose belief and trust in the power and guidance of God in the midst of the pandemic, nevertheless, these memes promote a dangerous religious belief in the midst of the pandemic. These memes promotes a separation between our firm belief in Jesus and God’s work and presence amidst the pandemic. In the midst of the pandemic, God is at work in all the people who daily confront the challenges of the pandemic which include frontline health workers–doctors, nurses, paramedics, contact tracers and even the scientists who are looking for a vaccine for the pandemic. We need to cooperate with God through the work of all the people who are finding solutions amidst the pandemic.

Pope Francis even encourages us to cooperate with God’s work by getting the vaccine. In a video message last August 18, he praised the work of researchers and scientists in producing safe and effective Covid-19 vaccines.

“Thanks to God’s grace and to the work of many, we now have vaccines to protect us from Covid-19.”

Pope Francis went on to say that getting a Covid jab that is “authorized by the respective authorities” is an “act of love.”

These memes, furthermore, presents a dysfunctional belief in God as while they honor God with their lips, their actions shows otherwise. Jesus emphasized during his public ministry on earth that our love for God cannot be separated from our love of others especially the poor and downtrodden. Getting vaccinated and maintaining safety protocols is the least we can do during these times of pandemic to show our love for the most vulnerable in our society.

In today’s Gospel of the 22nd Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus was angry at the Pharisees and Scribes because they manipulated exterior laws to feed their own egos. In the gospel, Jesus and the Pharisees had a public fight about the Jewish tradition of washing hands before meals. The Pharisees were complaining to Jesus why some of his disciples are not washing their hands before eating. This rule was “a tradition of the elders,” to preserve physical health, of course. But Jesus calls out the Pharisees’ obsession with the exterior observance of the law while disregarding the inner meaning of traditions and laws.

This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.

In the eyes of Jesus, a pure heart is more important than clean hands. The observance of the Law and tradition is not an end in itself but an indication of where the heart lies. Jesus called the people to the true purpose of the Law: a heart centered on God.

To drive his point home with his disciples, Jesus dares to draw an earthy analogy from their experience of digestion and defecation. The food that comes inside one’s body is clean but when it comes out it is dirty as in feces.

Nothing that enters one from outside can defile that person;
but the things that come out from within are what defile.
From within people, from their hearts,
come evil thoughts, unchastity, theft, murder,
adultery, greed, malice, deceit,
licentiousness, envy, blasphemy, arrogance, folly.
All these evils come from within and they defile.

The theme of the law of God as planted in the hearts of the people is articulated in the other readings today. In the First Reading: Moses’ teaching about the wisdom of the Law reminds the people where the heart of God lies: close to them. The purpose of our observance of the Law is to keep our hearts close to God.

In the second reading, James says the law is planted in each one of us.

Humbly welcome the word that has been planted in you
and is able to save your souls.

James understood the meaning of the law of God is not just in devotion and worship but also in caring for the poor and most abandoned,

Religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this:
to care for orphans and widows in their affliction
and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The responsorial psalm also expresses James’ social dimension of the law. Observing the Law is not a matter of clinging to what is human tradition but rather of practicing justice:

The one who does justice will live in the presence of the Lord.

Any law of the Kingdom of God must emerge from love or else be empty. We don’t ignore the laws and have just inner devotion. But we need pure heart in order to truly observe the laws. A pure heart is a heart centered not on self-preservation but on loving God and loving God in one’s neighbor.

Lord, dwell in our hearts. Let the world know we are your disciples not because our hands are clean but because our hearts are sincere and dedicated in service to God and fellowmen and women.

21ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: TO WHOM ELSE SHALL WE GO?

During these times of pandemic, in the face of utter misery and depression, many found themselves scraping through their resource of faith, even questioning their faith in God. Many felt like God is not at work in the world right now, that God has abandoned us to our sufferings and torments. But if God has abandoned us, to whom else shall we go? Earthly and religious leaders who present themselves as modern day messiahs even in the midst of the pandemic? The politicians who promise to liberate us from all our ills? The economic system and its promise of prosperity and wealth for everyone? Science and its promise to give an explanation for everything that we need to know?

In today’s gospel of the 21st Sunday in ordinary time, many of the followers of Jesus found it difficult to believe in Jesus. They found Jesus’ statement (which we have been hearing in the past few Sundays’ gospels) about himself as the bread who came down from heaven and will give them eternal life if they eat of his bread and drink of his blood, as too abstract, hard to understand let alone accept.

“This saying is hard; who can accept it?”

As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.  Jesus then turned to the Twelve and asked them,

“Do you also want to leave?”

Simon Peter, speaking in behalf of the other disciples, answered him,

“Master, to whom shall we go?
You have the words of eternal life.”

The same situation confronted Joshua in the first Reading today. Joshua challenged the people of Israel to make a choice. Addressing the assembly of all the tribes at Shechem he says,

“If it does not please you to serve the LORD,
decide today whom you will serve,
the gods your fathers served beyond the River
or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling.”

The decision that Joshua challenged the people to make at Shechem has parallel with the choice confronting the disciples after the discourse of Jesus in John 6. The challenge “Choose this day whom you will serve” parallels “Will you also go away?” and the response “We will serve the Lord, for he is our God” parallels Peter’s response, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

In today’s world where everyone seemed to want an easy life and instant solution to their problems, many find Christianity a difficult and sometimes unrealistic religion. Many could not understand and accept a lot of Jesus’ words especially his sermon on the mount, the words of the beatitudes and his new law of love even loving one’s enemies. Many see these teachings of Jesus as impractical and defeatist.

Indeed, following Christ is hard and costly. Becoming true Christian will cost us everything, even our dear life. Following Jesus demands self-denial and taking up of one’s cross. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Lutheran pastor and theologian who was killed by the German dictator Hitler, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”[1] Christ gives us grace but it is not “cheap grace,” Bonhoeffer adds. God’s grace is not a “grace without price; grace without cost,” or “grace without discipleship.” God’s grace is “costly grace.”

But God’s costly grace will give us the most precious reward–eternal life. No other person or thing in this world can grant us this. This is what Peter realized early in his journey of following Jesus: Jesus is the only one who can give meaning to his life. “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Where else can we go? To whom else shall we go? Many in history have tried to find the meaning and fulfilment in life in following kings, dictator; in seeking position, power, and prestige; in possessing wealth and luxury and in experiencing pleasure and instant gratification. But many of them are now forgotten and led a life without experiencing true peace, joy and meaning in life.

In the Eucharist, we celebrate our faith in Jesus who is the only one who can give us fulfilment and peace.  In the Eucharist, we celebrate our eternal life in Jesus which we already experience here and now even if its full realization will be experienced in God’s kingdom at the end of time.


[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship