28TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: RETURN TO GRATITUDE

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Ever since the novena began in the Baclaran shrine, devotees have been writing letters of petitions and thanksgiving to Our Mother of Perpetual Help.

On any given year, the letters of petitions outnumber the letters of thanksgiving by a huge margin. Of the total letters received every year, 85% to 90% are letters of petitions while 10% to 15% are letters of thanksgiving. In 2016, for example, 136,819 letters of petitions were received which represents 87.83% of the total letters received while only 18,954 letters of thanksgiving were received which represents 12.17% of the total letters received.

In the gospel of today’s 28th Sunday in Ordinary Time, 10 lepers petitioned Jesus to cure them and Jesus cured them all. Only one of them, however, returned to give thanks. He happened to be a Samaritan. When he prostrated himself before Jesus and thanked him, Jesus remarked on the absence of the other nine. 

“Ten were cleansed, were they not?
Where are the other nine?
Has none but this foreigner returned to give thanks to God?”
Then he said to him, “Stand up and go;
your faith has saved you.”

In our lives today, despite the many ills and difficulties we experience everyday, there are so many wonderful things that we we can give thanks for. But we do not.

Why? Because, giving thanks is like slowing down or taking a step back in order to appreciate the good things in our lives. Unfortunately, we can’t be bothered to pause from our hectic schedules. We are always busy with so many things. We are busy with, of course, the basic necessities of life–earning a living, doing our daily chores, fulfilling our role as parents, wife, husband, children, and the duties and responsibilities we hold at work, organizations, church and society. But we are also busy with getting rich, with saving money to get a brand new car, with getting to the top of the ladder, with getting an award, with advancing our career.

I am not saying that these aren’t worthy aspirations. But our attention has been drawn more and more to things that we should accomplish, we should earn, we should accumulate. We become preoccupied with success, accomplishments that sometimes we fail to smell the flowers as it were. More is better and there can never be a moment when it is enough. 

In a world driven by profit, there is a price tag for almost all good things. Even love, happiness and peace have become commodities that we have to earn or buy. The saying that “the best things in life are free!” seems to be just an illusion. 

This commodified mindset is also present in our spiritual lives, unfortunately. The nine lepers who were cured by Jesus were more concerned with fulfilling the religious rituals of cleansing rather than  giving thanks to God. In the same way, many of us are more concerned with fulfilling and doing our religious duties and obligations but fail to give thanks to unconditional love of God.

Ever wondered why despite the affluence and comfort, the suicide rate is very high in wealthy countries. Ever wondered why in first world countries many are suffering from depression and loneliness. It seemed that in today’s existential reality, there is a profound alienation from the original goodness and giftedness of life. This has led to seeing life and the meaning of one’s identity in a materialistic way; every aspect of life is attached to commodity.

Today’s gospel calls for radical change not just simply a call to give thanks and become more mindful of the virtue of gratitude. Today’s gospel call us to confront the social structures and system that has alienated us from the original giftedness of life and the original blessing of God’s creation. It is a calling to truly live out the saying, “the best things in life are free” and to add to this “because we were created in the free and gratuitous love of God.”

God has blessed us with a wonderful earth and filled it with a beautiful family of brothers and sisters. As Christians, we are called to have thankful worship of God, expressed in care for the lepers and blind people of our day—the poor, hungry, and homeless, the victims of war and oppression, the suffering and dying.

This is what we celebrate every Sunday in the eucharist.  Every eucharist is a call to return to gratitude. Eucharist comes from the Greek word eucharistia, εὐχαριστία, which means thanksgiving. Eucharist is a celebration of thanksgiving to God for the original and gratuitous goodness that God has bestowed upon all life. In this way it is a counter-symbol to the prevalent culture of profit and greed which has led to the commodification of everyday life. The eucharist calls us to partake of the body and blood of Jesus by worshipping and returning to God and like Jesus, sharing our lives in service to others.

 

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27TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIMES: FAITH CAN MOVE MOUNTAINS

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Greta Thunberg Poster designed by machasgear, https://www.redbubble.com/people/machasgear/works/38452049-greta-thunberg?p=poster

One of the hottest figures on the news all around the globe during the past two weeks was not a head of state, nor a famous actor nor a sports star nor even an adult but a 16 year old girl by the name of Greta Thunberg. Greta is a Swedish environmental activist fighting for immediate action to address what she describes as the climate crisis.

A very tall order, indeed. After all, who would listen to a small high school autistic girl? Ordinarily, adults will just ignore such a seemingly childish babble coming from a girl who does not yet have much experience and knowledge about life and the world. And soon everything will be forgotten.

No, this didn’t happen to Greta. On the contrary, it was the adults who behaved like children babbling about her message and Greta behaving like an adult brushing aside every insult and bashing hurled upon her. After she addressed the U.N.’s Climate Action Summit in New York last September 23, conservatives and other critics attacked her demeanor, her looks, her mental health, and above all her autonomy, claiming she is “brainwashed” or a victim of child abuse. Some even compared her speeches to Nazi propaganda. Never mind if she had a valid and urgent message.

Yet Greta is not just a girl with a loud mouth; she has demonstrated concrete, even if small, actions to back her words. At home, she convinced her parents to adopt several lifestyle choices to reduce their own carbon footprint, including giving up air travel and not eating meat. She sailed across the Atlantic Ocean to New York in a 60 ft racing yacht equipped with solar panels and underwater turbines.

In May 2019, Greta published a collection of her climate action speeches which she titled, No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference.

In the Gospel of today’s 27th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus said to his disciples,

“If you have faith the size of a mustard seed,
you would say to this mulberry tree,
‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Jesus tells the disciples that even the tiniest faith can achieve great things. Indeed, faith is a tiny force, yet it can transform our lives and the world. We don’t need to have superpowers to change the world. We don’t need strong men like Trump or Duterte or Putin to solve our problem for us. As Greta have showed us, we only need to have faith in our small efforts and the will to act to tackle this impending disaster that we now call climate change.

This is the kind of faith that Jesus has imparted to us, as St. Paul in the second reading told Timothy. Paul reminded Timothy to constantly enflame the faith he has received from Jesus–a faith that is not a spirit of cowardice but of power and love.

Beloved:
I remind you, to stir into flame
the gift of God that you have through the imposition of my hands.
For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice
but rather of power and love and self-control.

Indeed, faced with the insurmountable challenges of our lives in our world today, the temptation is to sulk into cowardice and summon an outside extra-ordinary force that will magically solve all our problems. Just like Habakkuk in the first reading who could no longer endure the violence, abuse and oppression in the world, became impatient with God and called upon God to intervene.

How long, O LORD?  I cry for help
but you do not listen!
I cry out to you, “Violence!”
but you do not intervene.
Why do you let me see ruin;
why must I look at misery?
Destruction and violence are before me;
there is strife, and clamorous discord.

Surprisingly, God answers, in a lengthy, encouraging but challenging reply.

For the vision still has its time,
presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint;
if it delays, wait for it,
it will surely come, it will not be late.
The rash one has no integrity;
but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

God assures Habakkuk that God will make things better, “For the vision still has its time.” But not yet, “if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late.” Perhaps like Habakkuk, we have, at one time or another, screamed at God: “Why don’t you help me right now? Why are you delaying and letting us suffer more?”

Faith! When you go to the churches on Sunday, you see a lot of faith. Yet, still a lot of people today re-echo the apostles’ plea to Jesus: “Increase our faith!” Jesus tells us, it’s not the size of faith that matters, but the character of our faith.  True faith is borne not out of the quantity of religious work we do but out of a constant trust and faithfulness in the power and goodness of God over our lives and our world. Furthermore, the parable, which forms the second half of the gospel reading, warns the disciples against supposing that faith, and the obedient service of the Lord in which faith is expressed, establishes a claim for reward.

When you have done all you have been commanded,
say, ‘We are unprofitable servants;
we have done what we were obliged to do.'”

faith-can-move-mountains

I end with a prayer by Anne Osdieck [1]

Lord,
make us your true servants
trusting that whatever
faith you give us
will surely
be enough.

 


 

[1] Anne Osdieck, “Praying toward Sunday,”  The Sunday Website
at Saint Louis University,  27th Sunday of Ordinary Time C, October 6, 2019 accessed at https://liturgy.slu.edu/27OrdC100619/prayerpathmain.html

26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE GREAT ABYSS BETWEEN THE RICH AND THE POOR

Economic inequality, the huge gap between the rich and the poor, is one of the most tragic reality of our times. Despite globalization and the height of capitalism which increased the wealth of the world to unimaginable levels, the gap between the rich and the poor is worst today than ever before. Michael Hunt, in his book, The World Transformed: 1945 to the Present, stated that in 1820, the ratio between the income of the top and bottom 20 percent of the world’s population was three to one. By 1991, it was eighty-six to one.[1]

Oxfam, a confederation of 20 independent charitable organizations founded in 1942 to focus on the alleviation of global poverty, reported that in 2017, 82% of global wealth generated went to the wealthiest 1%.[2] In 2019 ,Oxfam reported that the poorest half of the human population has been losing wealth (around 11%) at the same time that a billionaire is minted every two days. [3]

The gap between the rich and the poor will continue to rise in the years ahead just as the average temperature of the earth will keep rising over the next years. There is so much wealth in the world at the expense of 99% of the people and the degradation of mother nature.

The readings for today’s 26th Sunday in ordinary time also also talked about the “great abyss” between the rich and the poor.

In the first reading, the prophet Amos depicts the scandalous luxury of the rich at the expense of the poor, 500 years before Jesus’ times

Lying upon beds of ivory,
stretched comfortably on their couches,
they eat lambs taken from the flock,
and calves from the stall!
Improvising to the music of the harp,
like David, they devise their own accompaniment.
They drink wine from bowls
and anoint themselves with the best oils;

In the gospel Jesus tells the story of Lazarus and a rich man. Jesus illustrates graphically the scandalous gap between the life of  Lazarus and the rich man.

There was a rich man who dressed in purple garments and fine linen
and dined sumptuously each day.
And lying at his door was a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores,
who would gladly have eaten his fill of the scraps
that fell from the rich man’s table.

Ironically, the rich man goes nameless, whereas Jesus told us at the outset that the beggar is named Lazarus. The irony is that while it is a preoccupation of the “great ones” of this world to be remembered, it is one of the “nameless ones”—the beggar, who gets named in the story.

The huge gap between Lazarus and the rich man did not just happen on earth but continued in heaven.

Between us and you a great chasm is established
to prevent anyone from crossing who might wish to go
from our side to yours or from your side to ours.’

In heaven, however, the wheel of fortune are overturned.

When the poor man died,
he was carried away by angels to the bosom of Abraham.
The rich man also died and was buried,
and from the netherworld, where he was in torment,
he raised his eyes and saw Abraham far off
and Lazarus at his side.

Indeed the story illustrates Luke’s version of the Beatitudes and “Woes” proclaimed earlier in his gospel: “Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied (Lk 6:21). “But woe to you who are filled now, for you will be hungry” (Lk 6:25).

The rich man’s problem in the gospel and the problem of the rich in Amos’ first reading is not their wealth but their complacency.  Amos proclaims the woe of the Lord upon the complacency of the rich: Woe to the complacent in Zion! Amos satirizes the self-indulgent wealthy who have become oblivious to the decline of their society (“the collapse of Joseph”). Like the “complacent in Zion” who “are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph,” the rich man in the Gospel can neither see nor hear: he does not see Lazarus in need at his door; he does not listen to Moses and the prophets who guide him in right ways. The rich man is not in “the netherworld, where he was in torment” simply because of the good he received during his lifetime, but because his self-contained, self-satisfied lifestyle was not faithful to the teaching and practice of the Mosaic covenant.

The Gospel and First Reading proclaims prophetic warning to the rich.  The letter to Timothy in the second reading adds its own wake-up call:

I charge you before God, who gives life to all things,
and before Christ Jesus, …
to keep the commandment without stain or reproach
until the appearance of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Pope Francis in his General Audience on May 18, 2016 says that Lazarus represents the silent cry of the poor of all times and the contradictions of a world where vast wealth and resources are in the hands of few.

The problem of shocking inequality may tempt us, especially from 1st world countries, to shrug off any responsibility for our personal part in it. But we reap the fruits from the prosperity of the developed world that began with products that were looted from the colonies. This exploitation continues today. We get primary resources from developing countries for a relative pittance, like the tea and coffee we drink, or our year-long supply of fruit from tropical countries. We can buy clothes of quality brands because a woman in El Salvador makes clothes for 56 cents an hour. We can enjoy lots of chocolates at the expense of widespread use of child labor, and in some cases slavery, on cocoa farms in Western Africa.

Added to that, 1st world countries still look to poorer countries to accept their toxic waste. After feeding and clothing ourselves with their resources, we want to return our rubbish to them. Almost all of us are contributing to climate change, yet we don’t relish the lifestyle changes that must happen, to reverse those abuses.

We who live today have even a further revelation beyond Moses and the prophets: we are to hear and put into practice the truth of the Gospel affirmed by Jesus who rose from the dead.

We need to learn from the ultimate fates of Dives and Lazarus. Our world is too small to bear such inequalities as our greedy complacency allows to continue. Unless we share our surplus and care for our world, we will end up in a hell of our own making. By so doing, we choose now on which side of the chasm we will be in the next life.

 


 

[1] Hunt, Michael (2004). The World Transformed: 1945 to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s. p. 442.

[2] Elliott, Larry (January 21, 2018). “Inequality gap widens as 42 people hold same wealth as 3.7bn poorest”. The Guardian. Retrieved January 23, 2018.

[3] Picchi, Aimee (January 20, 2019). “A new billionaire is minted every 2 days as the poor lose wealth”. CBS News. Retrieved January 21, 2019.

25TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: OPPORTUNISTS FOR THE KINGDOM OF GOD

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Last Friday, we saw the biggest planetary gathering for climate change. Millions of mostly young people flooded the streets around the world Friday to take part in the Global Climate Strike and pressure world leaders to confront the ecological crisis. According to 350.org, over 4 million people took part in the collective demonstrations worldwide. In Australia alone, an estimated 400,000 gathered last Friday.

Children carried placards that read “There Is No Planet B” and “Make The Earth Great Again,” a twist on President Donald Trump’s rallying cry of “Make America Great Again.” Many of the young demonstrators expressed extreme urgency for taking drastic action to mitigate the effects of climate change.  Taking no action now will endanger if not destroy the future of the next generation.  But not just immediate action, they demanded wise solutions in finding a way out of this mess that we humans had created. Indeed, this alarming situation can be transformed into a productive one.

In today’s gospel of the 25th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus through a parable, called his disciples to be cunning in order to find way out of any mess they find themselves in and to prepare for their ultimate future–a future in eternity with God.

The parable is known as “The Unjust Steward” which has puzzled many readers of the parables of Jesus. A way out of the puzzle, however, is to understand the economic system which forms the background behind the parable.

The background of the parable is an economic practice in Jesus’ times where a manager enjoying considerable autonomy lets out items of his master’s property for a commission or interest which includes some proportion for himself. As far as the master is concerned there is nothing particularly dishonest in this; he gets his interest. If the manager gets a cut as well, so be it. In the story as told by Jesus, it would seem that what the manager does after receiving notice about his dismissal is to strip away the portion of the interest accruing to himself. He cancels his own cut because he reckons that it will be more advantageous when he is out of work – and too weak to dig and too ashamed to beg – to have the goodwill of people who may be able to help him, welcoming him into their homes. He “buys” their goodwill in this way and the master wryly praises him for what he has done. By incurring some immediate loss to secure long-term interest, he has acted “sensibly”. He has not clung to his wealth but used it to win goodwill that will serve him in the hour of need that is coming his way.

The master is not condoning his dishonesty but praising his ability to figure his way out of a mess that he had created. The steward showed an ability to accurately assess his situation and turn it to his advantage.

Being astute about wealth is a particular theme in the gospel of Luke. We need to be clever opportunists, by using wealth in the ways that Jesus elsewhere advocates the use of resources—feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, lending but asking nothing in return. Luke sums this up with Jesus’ saying that the only really useful thing about accumulating wealth is to give it away so that it will store up “treasure in heaven” (12:33).  With so much more at stake (eternal life), the wealthy would be well advised to strip themselves of their wealth now in order to win friends among the poor. When the poor have their privileged places in the kingdom, these same poor will welcome these benefactors into “eternal dwellings”.

The opposite of the example of the dishonest but cunning steward is articulated by Amos in the First Reading (Amos 8:4-7). The prophet Amos attacks the hypocrisy of rich land-owners who observed the law against trade on the new moon but secretly longed for the feast to be over so that they could resume their defrauding of the poor. In any case, the law (Lev 19:9-10) enjoined them to leave the “sweepings of the wheat” for the poor to harvest.

What about us? How able are we to figure out the spiritual life and to work towards its goals? How can we make use of our failures, mistakes and sins to our advantage.

The readings today challenges us to put transitory affairs in proper perspective. Christians should handle the affairs of temporal life with an eye toward eternal life. In the everyday humdrum of life, we rarely think about the ultimate future. Life itself pressures us into shortsighted choices for living. Discipleship, on the other hand, calls us to live in such a way that our daily choices form patterns of behavior that move us toward God’s promise of life eternal.

Our challenging times today demands that we become cunning and resourceful. We need to think of the fate of our future generation. Our present lifestyle is no longer sustainable. Drastic actions needs to be done. We can find innovative solutions that can turn this critical situation to our advantage.

But more than temporal wisdom, we need Christian astuteness. We need to do something more lasting: to use of the wealth to build something more lasting – friendships. This is the blessing that the dishonest steward showed us. He uses the present wealth to invest on future relationships.

Jesus calls us to take advantage of the mess, faults and failures we have made out of our selves and the world toward a future that is beyond this world. This is particularly true about money, as Jesus concludes,

“And so I tell you this:
use money,
tainted as it is,
to win you friends,
and thus make sure that when it fails you,
they will welcome you into eternal dwellings”

Jesus calls us today to be opportunists for the Kingdom of God.

24TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: SHARING IN THE EXTRAVAGANT MERCY OF GOD

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Once in a while, we rejoice and celebrate extravagantly. We throw out a party and provide abundant food and drinks. Some people think that these parties and celebrations are excessive and senseless. Think, for example, of a poor family who would extravagantly prepare a banquet during fiesta and feed the whole barrio when throughout the whole year they would just be eating mostly rice and dried fish.

When was the last time you celebrated extravagantly? Perhaps it was on a special event like wedding or birthdays, or when you got promoted or closed a business deal, or when you achieved a major milestone in your profession or when you found something of great value, which you have lost for a long time.

In the gospel for today’s 24th Sunday in ordinary time we hear about God’s extravagant rejoicing and celebration. We hear of God’s extravagance from Jesus in not just one but three parable stories–indeed, an extravagant way to teach about God’s extravagance.

In the first story, the parable of The Lost Sheep, the shepherd leaves behind the 99 sheep to search for the 1 lost sheep. When he finds it, the shepherd rejoices with friends and neighbors. The second story, about a poor woman who will not stop searching until she finds her lost coin. And when she find it she calls together her friends and neighbors to rejoice with her. In both stories, Jesus ends with the punch line:

I tell you, in just the same way
there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents
than over ninety-nine righteous people
who have no need of repentance.

there will be rejoicing among the angels of God
over one sinner who repents.”

Finally, the third parable story, the longest and most memorable parable in the Gospels, the story we have come to know as The Prodigal Son. Just as in The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin, this story (found only in Luke) is really about the seeker. The loving father is at the center of this parable. Even though his second son runs off with his father’s inheritance and squanders the money, the father waits for him, hoping for his return. Upon his son’s return, the father, “full of compassion,” runs out to embrace and forgive him before the son can utter one word of repentance. He orders the slaughtering of the fattened calf and celebrate with a feast.

Jesus portrays God’s extravagance in all three parables as God’s finding and celebrating the return of repentant sinners who are of greatest value to God. God’s joy is the return of the lost who have found or re-found their treasure in God.

In short, we can describe the extravagance of God in one word – mercy! Jesus’ portrayal of God’s extravagant mercy in all three parables was in response to the heaps of criticism he received from the Pharisees who saw him welcoming and eating with “tax collectors (social outcasts) and sinners”.  But God’s mercy goes against common sense. God is merciful to the extent that God would “foolishly” leave behind the 99 good ones to seek out the 1 lost and rebellious one. The “foolishness” of God represented by each of the main actors in the parables reflects in some way the supreme “foolishness” of God’s love demonstrated in the Cross (cf. 1 Cor 1:21-25).

Heaven is the ultimate expression of God’s extravagance. God’s celebration of “these lost ones being being “found” or “re-found” by God is nothing other than a reflection on earth of a much greater celebration going on in heaven (v. 7; v.10; vv. 23-24; v. 32). Heavenly joy is the gathering and sharing in the banquet of God of all sinners, deserters and reckless ones who have rediscovered their original goodness and returned to the source of their goodness–God. Heaven is not the place for perfect people but for the crooked, transgressors and weaklings perfected by God’s grace.

The Second Reading is a narration of a personal experience about this “foolish” mercy of God. Paul, in his letter to Timothy, explains that he once was a persecutor of God’s people. He doesn’t gloss over his own evil then or make himself a moral idiot. But Paul says that he obtained mercy from God anyway, because God could see the man that Paul could become. For the sake of the man Paul could be in the future, God had mercy on him.

Today’s readings invites us to rejoice with God and share in his extravagant mercy and acceptance for the lost and sinners. This could begin with ourselves. The lost and repentant sinner could be you and me.  By experiencing God’s extravagant mercy we can be extravagantly merciful to our fellow sinners and lost ones.

 

23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE FREEDOM OF BEING DISCIPLES OF CHRIST

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Some of the misconceptions put forward against Christianity is that it curtails freedom. Some atheists and agnostics argue that Christianity is very stifling and suffocating as it puts a lot of demands.

On the other hand, true believers in Christ can attest to the fact that following Jesus is a very liberating experience. They truly experienced Jesus’ words: “The truth will set you free” (John 8: 32). They experienced true freedom after they discovered the truth about themselves and the world as a consequence of following Jesus. Subsequently, this entailed throwing off the lies and deceptions to which they have been captive for so long.

In the second reading of today’s 22nd Sunday in ordinary time, St. Paul wrote to Phelemon on behalf of Onesimus, a runaway slave who had wronged his owner Philemon, to receive him no longer as a slave but as a “brother beloved.”

that you might have him back forever,
no longer as a slave
but more than a slave, a brother,
beloved especially to me, but even more so to you,
as a man and in the Lord.
So if you regard me as a partner, welcome him as you would me.

St. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a prison letter, co-authored by Paul with Timothy, to Philemon, a leader in the Colossian church. It is often assumed from the letter that Onesimus, a slave, had fled Philemon, his owner, after stealing money, as Paul states in verse 18 that if Onesimus owes anything, Philemon should charge this to Paul’s account. Sometime after leaving, Onesimus came into contact with Paul, although again the details are unclear. He may have been arrested and imprisoned alongside Paul. Alternatively, he may have previously heard Paul’s name (as his owner was a Christian) and so travelled to him for help. After meeting Paul, Onesimus became a Christian believer. An affection grew between them, and Paul would have been glad to keep Onesimus with him. However, he considered it better to send him back to Philemon with an accompanying letter, which aimed to effect reconciliation between them as Christian brothers.

There is a very radical idea that Paul puts forward in this letter. Paul was implying to Philemon that the consequence of Onesimus’ conversion to Christ is that the runaway is no longer simply a slave but a “brother in the Lord.” Let us remember that slavery was an accepted institution in Paul’s time. In this letter, therefore, Paul states a revolutionary idea, especially during those times, that there are no longer divisions between slaves and free people in Christ. In fact, as Paul wrote in another letter – the letter to the Galatians (3:28) – all divisions and exclusion should be eliminated in the new family of God:

There is no longer Jew or Greek,
there is no longer slave or free,
there is no longer male and female;
for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Baptism into the body of Christ created an equality of dignity that transcends distinctions grounded in race, law, and even gender. Paul has planted a seed here that, with painful slowness, will come to fruition centuries later.

The Christian paradox of freedom is written all over the letter. Although Paul was in prison, he was proclaiming about freedom. His external environment may have been the prison but internally he was absolutely free. He talked about the new-found identity of Onesimus who is no longer a slave but a brother on equal putting with fellow Christians because of his conversion to Christ. He was imploring Philemon to accept Onesimos back into his care with this new found freedom in Christ.

Indeed, you cannot hold captive a person even if you incarcerate him. The names of  Nelson Mandela, our national hero Jose Rizal, St. Thomas More, Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  immediately comes to my mind. Sometimes those who are in jail are freer than those who are living outside of jail but are held captive by their own internal demons for so long.

Paul’s sensitive and clever letter of intercession illustrates well the point of this Sunday’s Gospel. When Jesus lays down the shocking teaching that following him entails a readiness to turn one’s back on family members, he states a stark consequence that accompanies good news: finding and following the will of God in Jesus makes us part of a new family that goes deeper (and wider) than blood.

This comes, however, at the expense of one of the harshest words of Jesus about family life found in the New Testament:

“If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother,
wife and children, brothers and sisters,
and even his own life,
he cannot be my disciple.
Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me
cannot be my disciple.”

American biblical scholar, John J. Pilch commented that in Jesus’ time, the main rule of behavior is: family first! A disciple who deliberately cuts ties with family and social network will lose the ordinary means of making a living. This is the “economic cross” the disciple has chosen to carry.

No longer able to make claims to a livelihood based on blood ties and advantageous social network, a disciple have to rely on “hospitality,” which in the Middle East is extended exclusively by strangers to strangers (see Lk 9:4-5; 10:3-12). This risk-filled option is quite a cross to carry.

By joining a new, fictive family consisting of other disciples of Jesus, however, a “family-hating” person presumably has a new source of livelihood. Nevertheless, a disciple who has accepted these challenging exhortations will effectively have given up everything. Therefore, a would-be disciple must seriously calculate the costs.

Two brief parables (about construction and waging war) drive this point home. Anyone who weakens and abandons this determination will become the butt of ridicule and shame. A disciple must remain firmly committed.

Jesus teaches us today that discipleship requires both renunciation and calculation. Those who wish to follow him must renounce everyone and everything that gets in the way of a single-minded response to Jesus’ invitation to be his disciple. At the same time, disciples are not naively to follow Jesus. They must calculate and consent to the cost—the price is giving their all, even their own life. What the One who calls gives disciples in return, however, is beyond calculation—fullness of new Life

Christian freedom is one of the many paradoxes of the Christian faith. True freedom means willingly becoming a slave to Christ, which happens through an ever growing relationship with Him (Colossians 2:16–17).

To follow Jesus of taking up of one’s cross is a sheer act of freedom. Following Jesus is liberating. It frees us from all attachments, prejudices, possessions and barriers to experiencing the redeeming grace of the cross. At the cost of leaving behind our own family and our own small lives, however, we gain a hundredfold of families and we become fully human and fully alive.

22ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: TRUE HONOR

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One of the most common Filipino cultural trait is utang na loob which, when translated literally, means “a debt of one’s inner self (loob)” or simply a “debt of gratitude.”  The essence of utang na loob is an obligation to appropriately repay a person who has done one a favor. I do you a favor; you do me a favor. According to Filipino Psychologist Katrin de Guia, however, utang na loob goes much deeper than ordinary debt or even the western concept of owing a favor because loob involves a deeply personal internal dimension.  Utang na loob thus reflects the kapwa orientation of shared personhood or shared self, which is at the core of the Filipino values system. [1]

This trait is also very common among the Jews in Jesus’ time. In the Gospel of today’s 22nd Sunday in Ordinary time, Jesus told a parable which comments on this practice of reciprocity. The practice of reciprocity was a key factor in the economic life of equals in Jesus’ day. I do you a favor; you do me a favor—endlessly. This basic rule of behavior guided every host in drawing up the guest list.

Thus, accepting an invitation to dinner in the ancient Jewish world obligated a guest to return the favor. It was not uncommon for guests to decline the invitation, especially if they realized that returning the favor was more than they could or cared to handle (Luke 14:15-24). On the other hand, inviting people who cannot return the favor is viewed as cultural suicide. Jesus’ advice to his host was, therefore, not only rude and insulting but also shocking.

Then he said to the host who invited him,
“When you hold a lunch or a dinner,
do not invite your friends or your brothers
or your relatives or your wealthy neighbors,
in case they may invite you back and you have repayment.
Rather, when you hold a banquet,
invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind;
blessed indeed will you be because of their inability to repay you.
For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.”

Such guests—the poor, crippled, lame, and blind—are clearly people of a lower social status than the host. To associate with such is to dishonor one’s own status. One’s social equals will then shun future invitations, and a host of means will be socially ruined.

Jesus, however, paints another picture of “true” honor. It is not human judgment, the return invitation, that determines honor. God determines true honor, and at the resurrection of the righteous, God personally will reward and honor the host who has been gracious to those unable to return an invitation.

Jesus echoes the First Reading, from Sirach:

My child, conduct your affairs with humility,
and you will be loved more than a giver of gifts.
Humble yourself the more, the greater you are,
and you will find favor with God.

Humility is the virtue by which we acknowledge our status before God: we are “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind” who come to God’s table because of God’s invitation and generosity.

God, in the person of Jesus (see Lk 14:8), is inviting all people to the messianic feast. The only way to respond to this invitation is to renounce any claim or merit of one’s own.

The Pharisees expected the best seats as a reward for keeping the Torah, but, like the outcast, they have to learn that salvation has to be accepted as an unmerited gift—exactly as Sirach proclaims in the first reading.

Today’s liturgy challenges us to a different lifestyle, one based on forgiveness, love and faith, humble living, the following of Jesus, who is gentle and lowly of heart, peacemaking and suffering persecution, and service of others. It is responding to the challenge of living a shared personhood or shared self with others in the “God who has made a home for the poor.”

 


 

[1] Katrin de Guia,  Kapwa: The Self in the Other: Worldviews and Lifestyles of Filipino Culture-Bearers (Pasig City: Anvil Publishing, Inc. 2005), 378.

21ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: ENTERING THE NARROW GATE

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The theme of our readings for today’s 21st Sunday in ordinary time, proclaims the abundance and generosity of God’s salvation. The abundance of God’s salvation, however, requires people’s response and acceptance. People cannot just “coast” into salvation; it requires effort from people. 

In the first reading, Isaiah prophesies that salvation is offered to all peoples. The prophet foresaw the outreach of God’s salvation, beyond Israel, to the nations of the world. 

Thus says the LORD:
I know their works and their thoughts,
and I come to gather nations of every language;
they shall come and see my glory.

From the beginning it was God’s plan to save all humankind. God never intended for anyone to be excluded. This universal salvific intention of God is picked up by Jesus in the Gospel today:

And people will come from the east and the west
and from the north and the south
and will recline at table in the kingdom of God.

Jesus himself  personify the inclusivity of God’s reign: He hosted meals to which even tax collectors were invited. When religious officials challenged this behavior, Jesus defended the practice by telling the parables of the Lost Sheep, the Lost Coin, and the Two Lost Sons (Luke 15, where the prodigal son’s return is celebrated in a banquet from which the elder son absents himself).

On the other hand, Jesus warns us that God’s inclusive vision is not automatic. Those who might consider themselves “insiders”  may wake up to find themselves excluded, while, to their anguish and chagrin, they may see many included whom they would have considered outsiders.

In other words, God’s salvation comes with responsibility. We must not be complacent about God’s inclusion. Thus, Jesus in the gospel tells of the imagery of the narrow gate and the people rejected at the door.

“Strive to enter through the narrow gate,
for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter
but will not be strong enough.
After the master of the house has arisen and locked the door,
then will you stand outside knocking and saying,
‘Lord, open the door for us.’
He will say to you in reply,
‘I do not know where you are from.
And you will say,
‘We ate and drank in your company and you taught in our streets.’
Then he will say to you,
‘I do not know where you are from.
Depart from me, all you evildoers!’

To accept God’s salvation is like entering a narrow gate. When an entrance is narrow and many are trying to get through (think of people struggling to get into a department store when bargain sales are on), it pays to struggle and get to the front right away. Jesus is pointing to this experience and applying this to taking advantage of God’s generous offer of salvation.

Those who were rejected at the door represents, in Jesus time, those whose faith is sterile and lifeless and those hypocrites who love to show in public their holiness but wouldn’t lift a finger to ease the burden of the oppressed. They became complacent about God’s salvation since they were the chosen people but were shocked to know they are rejected in the end.

The challenge of the readings for today’s Sunday is twofold. First, the readings challenges us to live out God’s salvation seriously.  God’s salvation is not automatic just because we are baptized Catholic or we go to mass every day or receive the sacraments regularly. God’s salvation is a constant struggle to live out the gospel of Jesus not just within the confines of the church but more so in the world and ordinary life we live in. It challenges us to constant conversion that we can not afford to put off indefinitely.

Secondly, we need to rejoice and proclaim the inclusive nature of God’s salvation especially to those who are rejected by society. We need to go out to the poor and hungry, the oppressed and persecuted, the hardened criminals in jail, the isolated and alienated, the lonely elderly, those dying of AIDS, the prostitutes and pornographers, and proclaim to them God’s invitation that they have a seat at the feast of God’s kingdom.

 

20TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: OUR BAPTISM OF FIRE

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Prophets are disturbers of “peace” and “trouble makers.” This is demonstrated in our readings for today’s 20th Sunday in ordinary time.

In the first reading from the prophet Jeremiah, Jeremiah has been predicting the impending destruction of Jerusalem as a judgment from Yhwh. Quite naturally, the King and his officials regard this kind of talk as defeatist and treasonable, so it sought to silence Jeremiah by lowering him into a muddy cistern. But on this occasion his life is spared through the good offices of Ebedmelech the Ethiopian.

In the Gospel Reading, Jesus is again speaking to his disciples with the crowd hanging around. To the shock of them all, he told them that he has come “not to establish peace on earth.” “Division” is his blazing, heart-driven desire. It will produce divisions even within a family. He refers to this as a “baptism” with which he wishes to immerse the earth.

How can the Prince of Peace, the preacher of the message of nonviolence that we hear in the Sermon on the Mount speak the hard words of today’s Gospel?

“Do you think that I have come to establish peace on the earth?
No, I tell you, but rather division.”

We all want and seek peace. But more often than not, the kind of peace that we want and seek is “do not disturb me”, the peace of “let us not make problems”, the peace of “everything is fine”, a superficial peace-ful co-existence. This peace is the earthly peace. Jesus has come to bring us the true peace, the fullness of the gifts of God. God’s peace may run contrary to eathly peace, thus, in the eyes of many people, it is called “division”.

True peace is not the absence of conflict, but rather, the fruit of justice and the pursuit of a society mirroring the divine qualities and values of the triune God. As Vatican II’s Church in the Modern World proclaims,

Peace is not merely the absence of war; nor can it be reduced solely to the maintenance of a balance of power between enemies; nor is it brought about by dictatorship. Instead, it is rightly and appropriately called an enterprise of justice. Peace results from that order structured into human society by its divine Founder, and actualized by [people] as they thirst after ever greater justice.

                                                                                                             Gaudium et Spes, #78

The Baclaran shrine and the Redemptorist missionaries has always been critical and vocal about whatever it sees in society as contrary to the values of Jesus’ gospel.  Recently, in our vigorous condemnation of the extra-judicial killing in the country, we have heard people say that why would we not just leave the government alone and cooperate with its “war on drugs.” We told them that we all want a drugless and peaceful society and we have cooperated and have exerted efforts and established programs for this purpose in our mission and the shrine.  But it is our Christian duty to denounce evil wherever and whenever it occurs.  We cannot have true spiritual solace and peace, while there are killings, massive poverty and injustice all around us.

Because of our stance, some devotees have said that they will no longer go to our shrine and will pray and attend sacraments elsewhere. This is the price we have to pay for our active promotion of justice and peace and preferential option for the poor–division among our churchgoers and devotees.

But our baptism is a baptism of fire! We are baptised into the fire of Jesus which emboldens us to work and give our lives in the pursuit of true peace and justice. There will be no peace if we fail to confront wrongdoings. Our failure to confront wrongdoers doesn’t result in peace for them either. As Scripture says, there is no peace for the wicked (Isaiah 48:22, 57:21).

Our church is a church on fire. We are not just a feel good church. We are perpetually disturbed and discomforted by any abuse, injustice and oppression with us and in society. We accept the presence of conflict within us and in our society but make this as an opportunity to work toward true justice, reconciliation and peace.

Christ calls us to be on fire for goodness and love. Our God is a consuming fire of love, and there is peace for us only if we are at one with him in that fire.

19TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: FAITH AS ACTUALIZATION OF HOPE

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Usually, my reflection every Sunday centers on the gospel and the first reading. Seldom do I refer to the second reading.

For a change, on this 19th Sunday in ordinary time I would like to focus my reflection on the second reading,  the letter to the Hebrews 11,1-2.8-19.

The first verse of the second reading says it all,

Faith is the realization of what is hoped for and evidence of things not seen.

This opening verse gives us a simple definition of what faith is. Faith is more of an end-product, a realization, an actualization of hope. It also proves true the things that are intangible and incomplete for now.

Here in Baclaran, people come to the shrine to be inspired and renewed in the midst of their suffering and struggles. Many devotees see the Baclaran shrine as a symbol of faith and hope. Their devotion to OMPH gives hope to not just surrender to the predicament they find themselves in their current situation.

The sick, unemployed, frustrated, lost, loveless, and suffering, destitute as they are—spiritually or materially, they open their hearts to reach out to God and to fellow men and women in despair. They find hope from fellow hopeless devotee.  When one hear the thousands sing and pray the novena in unison one cannot help but experience courage and hope, which provide the strength to go on amidst the struggles in life.

Strengthened by hope, devotees not only pray for what they want, but aim to be set free towards the life they honestly hope to attain.  In this spirit, devotees experience hope as an active disposition–never surrendering to apathy and indifference.  Their hope, directed by Our Mother of Perpetual Help towards the Good News of Jesus Christ, is the refusal to accept the status quo

In this spirit, the prayer that the people pray—novena and personal prayers—becomes not just supplication but aspiration. Their prayer serves as a narrative and metaphor, an expression of aspirations of the longed for reality, the desire for new world.  Through their devotion, devotees are invited in hope to see beyond the present age. Our Mother of Perpetual Help invites the devotee to be a “hoper,” who is impatient with evil and death in this present age.

Hope is what gives us confidence in the possibility that those things, which are now so destructive of human well-being, will be overcome. Hope speaks to a world vividly aware of the “not yet” dimensions of human and social existence, and of the fact that hope at its human level is of the stuff of meaningful existence. It is hope that changes us, hope that changes the world.

Looking through the icon of Our Mother of Perpetual Help, the devotees are led to see an “it-could-be-otherwise” world. The icon invites the devotees to see behind and beyond their world—with all its sufferings, hardships, hopelessness, injustice, violence, enslavements – in anticipation of a possible world full of possibilities. In this sense, the icon is an agency of hope, a hope which defies even the most destructive force in our world today that in the midst of the violence, chaos, madness, misery of our lives here on earth, there is a “beyond-this-world” that is totally opposite our world today (magnificat) already growing but will reached its fullest potential through the most creative and dynamic power and grace of God in the end.

In the gospel today, Jesus said that his followers must acquire a vigilant, always ready and vibrant attitude for his return.

You also must be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect,
the Son of Man will come.”

Preparing and waiting for Christ return requires an active disposition in hope. It is not just passive acceptance of status quo but working for the coming of the Kingdom of God. It means combatting poverty; ending the hatreds that divide us; establishing peace among individuals, within families, in society, and among the nations of the world; curbing the pride that causes us to become confrontational with God and with each other; building social structures that respect the dignity of individual human persons.