8TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: WANTED, AUTHENTIC CHRISTIANS

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One of the most wanted virtues today, especially in this age of fake news, is authenticity. Today, we live with so many fakes from products to food to news and to human persons. We are bombarded with fake products like denims, electronics, dvds, drugs even food like fish and rice. We are made to believe in fake news on social media like facebook and youtube. We wear masks and interact with people who wear masks just so we become more acceptable in society which in the long run does not just hide our identity but become who we are.

Why do fake flourish? It is cheaper to buy fake products inasmuch as it is easier to live in the lie than in the truth. in many cases facing the truth requires a tremendous amount of courage for truth can be very harsh. Most humans have an intense desire to escape from their problems and to even construct a false reality just to avoid facing the truth.

The shortage in authenticity is also prevalent in religion today. This is not much truer than in the Catholic faith. The lack of authentic Catholics have led many not to go to church anymore or worse has turned agnostic and atheist. The conviction of Cardinal George Pell for sexual assault in Australia this week has further provoked distrust in church’s effective authority, which is already reeling from the many sexual abuse cases in recent years.

It is to this contemporary search for authenticity that today’s readings of the 8th Sunday in ordinary time addresses. The readings for this 8th Sunday speaks about the source of existential authenticity and how to live authentic Christians lives today. To be authentic Christians demands living beyond the minimal requirement of Christian faith which the readings of last Sunday talked about.

In the first reading, Sirach says that we can detect the true identity of people through their manner of speech; the way they speak, their tone, their volume, and their body language. Sirach demonstrates this in three sharp images. The act of speech is like sifting wheat through a sieve: as the sifting sorts out the husks, so our speech exposes the otherwise hidden faults of our character. And just as the hot fire of a kiln tests the craft of the potter, so the give and take of conversation tests the integrity of the interlocutors. Finally, just as the quality of a fruit tree indicates the care of its cultivator, so our speech reveals everything that has gone into our formation.

When a sieve is shaken, the husks appear;
so do one’s faults when one speaks.
As the test of what the potter molds is in the furnace,
so in tribulation is the test of the just.
The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had;
so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind.

In the gospel, Jesus talks about spiritual integrity through the unity of of the different parts of the human body. John J. Pilch identifies three distinct yet interpenetrating symbolic zones which Jesus utilized in the gospel today: eyes-heart (the eyes for gathering the information that the heart needs for making judgments); mouth-ears (the organs that collect and share self-expressive speech); and hands-feet (the body parts that act upon or implement what one has learned or knows). [1]

Eyes-heart. Jesus spoke of teachers and guides with flawed vision (Lk 6:39-42). He noted the heart’s potential for producing both good and evil. He urged that teachers strive to develop proper vision and insight and a good heart.

Mouth-ears. For Jesus, it is clearly imperative that a person cultivate a good heart that will produce good fruit, “for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” (Lk 6:45), words that others will hear, remember, and act upon.

Hands-feet. But speaking alone is not enough. “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Lk 6:45). It is imperative to act upon what one knows, to live according to what one has learned.

This is how the human person acts consistently, with all the symbolic body parts in sync: heart-eyes, mouth-ears, hands-feet. In other words, it is important that one’s emotion-fused thoughts (heart-eyes), self-expressive speech (mouth-ears), and purposeful activity (hands-feet) be perfectly coordinated. Anything else is stage-acting.

The inner worth of human beings is to be assessed from their words and deeds, just as “the fruit discloses the cultivation of a tree.” Full discipleship is not just all talk but practicing what one preaches, that is, “walking the talk”. Full discipleship, however, is not only a matter of walking the talk; it also entails “talking the walk.” That is, some of the most important Christian deeds will in fact be acts of speech, challenging injustice, encouraging the downhearted, and asking and giving forgiveness.

Besides consistency between the heart and other parts of the body and the integral unity of words and actions, Jesus exhorts his listeners to candid self-examination and authentic efforts to improve self before attempting to help others improve themselves. Short of this effort, such teachers and leaders are blind, unreliable, and untrustworthy.

They are deceivers, actors, hypocrites!
Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye,
but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own?
How can you say to your brother,
‘Brother, let me remove that splinter in your eye,’
when you do not even notice the wooden beam in your own eye?
You hypocrite! Remove the wooden beam from your eye first;
then you will see clearly
to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.

To be authentic human being and Christian entails both internal and external transformation. St. Paul, in the second reading, says that this transformation is possible because of the resurrection of Jesus. In his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul said that our bodies (hearts and minds) have been transformed through the resurrection of Jesus our Lord. Through the resurrection, we have become immortal, we have conquered the effect of sin. Our transformation in Christ inspires us to live our life of discipleship in word and deed.

Let me end with a prayer by Anne Osdieck, [2]

Christ,
be in my heart
to love everyone I meet,

be on my mind
to find you in all things,

on my tongue
to spread your love to all who hear me,

in my hands
to give your love to all in need,

in my feet
to take your love
everywhere
I go.

 


 

[1]John J. Pilch, “Historical Cultural Context, Eighth Sunday of Ordinary Time C,” The Sunday Website at Saint Louis University, March 3, 2019. Accessed at http://liturgy.slu.edu/8OrdC030319/theword_cultural.html.
[2] Anne Osdieck, “Praying Towards Sunday,” The Sunday Website at Saint Louis University, March 3, 2019. Accessed at http://liturgy.slu.edu/8OrdC030319/prayerpathmain.html.

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7TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: GOING BEYOND THE MINIMUM

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We have an old saying in Tagalog, “Madaling maging tao, mahirap magpakatao” (It’s easy to be born human, it’s hard to live a true human). Similarly, we can apply this to Christian life, “Madaling maging Kristiyano, mahirap magpakaKristiyano” (It’s easy to be baptized Christian, it’s hard to live as a true Christian).

One of the manifestations why it is hard to live as true Christians is that many Christians live only the bare minimum of Christianity. I call them minimal Christians. This comes in various forms. First are Catholics who are called KBL which means Kasal, Binyag, Libing (wedding, baptism and funeral), they show up in the church when they are baptized, when they are married and finally on their funeral. Another form is Cerrado Catolico (closed Catholic). They expressed their Christianity by being closed to other religion, born a Catholic, always a Catholic. But that’s all there is to their Christian life. The third form of minimal Christianity is living Christian life as an obligation, a set of rules, of do’s and don’ts; their faith is centered on following the 10 commandments. As long as they follow the 10 commandments, they believe that they are fulfilling their faith. The fourth form of minimal Christianity is being Christians through the sacraments only. They regularly receive the sacraments; they go to mass every day, they go to confession once a month, they pray the rosary every day and they pray the novena weekly.  They do not however, see a connection between the sacraments and the real life situation. This is what Jesuit Fr. Jaime Bulatao called split-level Christianity. There is a split or divorce between the worship they celebrate inside the church and the actual life outside. This is also perhaps the basis behind the false interpretation of many about separation between church and state. Religion has nothing to do with the dirty and corrupt things happening in economics and politics.

Today’s readings of the 7th Sunday in ordinary time challenge these minimal and narrow mindsets. In the first reading from the 1st book of Samuel, David spares the life of King Saul after being hunted down by the king. It was perfectly permissible and encoded in the Law to exact an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” By most reasonable judgment, David could have finished off his enemy and predator. Yet, at the very moment when God had delivered Saul into David’s grasp, the chance to drive a final stab to the heart and end the threat, David turned away from revenge and violence. This story shows one of the greatest feature of David’s character—his magnanimity. He was generous in overlooking injury and insult, and rose above pettiness and meanness. David’s sparing Saul’s life was a gesture of mercy which superseded the Law.

Today’s gospel is the continuation of last Sunday’s gospel on the beatitudes which is the summary of the new commandment of Jesus. Today’s gospel outlines some of the concrete and practical application of the beatitudes. The biggest challenge to living the beatitudes is how to go beyond the minimal standards of living our faith. Jesus challenges the people in today’s gospel to go beyond the faith of the pagans and sinners. If people get a reward for each thing they do, they are no different from the pagans. Jesus said,

For if you love those who love you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners love those who love them.
And if you do good to those who do good to you,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners do the same.
If you lend money to those from whom you expect repayment,
what credit is that to you?
Even sinners lend to sinners,
and get back the same amount.

Jesus’ norms of behavior challenge us to move from the already high standard “do to others as you would have them do to you” to the even higher standard “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”

So Jesus instruct the people to love their enemies, bless those who curse them, give people their other cheek to slap, offer more goods to those who are taking things from them, lend without expecting repayment, and go through life without judging or condemning anyone.

Why do we have to act this way? Because this is God’s way.  To be a Christian is to follow the divine way. God’s love is not conditional. God’s love is not vindictive. God’s love is not limited.

for [God] himself is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked.
Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

In other words, this is how God treated us. Our behavior toward others is to be the reflection of the treatment we receive from God. The biblical ethic is essentially one of response to God’s treatment of his people—this is true both in the Old Testament and in the New. Jesus calls us to live as “children of the Most high” in concrete and practical way.  We are empowered to act in this way because of the extravagant good measure with which God continually acts toward us. Thus, the measure of being a genuine Christian is the unconditional and gratuitous love of God for all. When we live in accordance with God’s standards, we will receive overflowing blessings. Then God’s love will flow out to others through us.

Give, and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

But this is simply ultra darn hard.

We live in a society where the standard for many is “dog eat dog” and getting ahead at any cost. We must love our friends, and love those who love us. We can’t let people get away with slapping us in the face. When someone takes something away from you, steps must be taken to have the stolen goods returned. When we lend someone something, we expect them to pay it back. Criminals are to be judged, and wrongdoers are to be condemned.

Is it even possible to just love—and never to get our own empty tank filled back up? How can we love without any return? Certainly, we will burn-out in the long run.

This is the reason why God came down to become human like us in Jesus. As Paul writes to the Corinthians in the second reading: “The spiritual was not first: first came the natural and after that the spiritual. The first man was of earth, formed from dust, the second is from heaven.”

How does Jesus, the “heavenly Adam,” coming together with the “earthly Adam” (Adam which is the representative of all humanity) cut a path for us? The Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar said that Christ cut a path for us by being grace ascending and grace descending. Jesus is just as much creation’s highest response to the Father as he is the Father’s Word to creation.  As St. Paul implied, the death and resurrection of Jesus opens for us the possibility of attaining authentic human existence.

It is easy to be baptized Christian but it is hard to live a true Christian life enlightened and empowered by the gospel. A genuine Christian life struggles to live the radical demands of Jesus’ gospel. It goes beyond living the faith in name only, being a closed Catholic, as an obligation, set of rules, of do’s and don’ts, and sacramental only separated from the humdrum experiences of daily life. We cannot do this by our own efforts. Only through the grace of Jesus Christ and by our willing cooperation that we can truly fulfill the radical demands of the gospel.

 

6TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: LIVING THE BEATITUDES TODAY

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I remember an experience when we were doing missions in a far-flung barrio in Bicol, Philippines.  In that barrio, people did not just experience extreme poverty but also were caught in a constant crossfire in a never ending war between the NPA and the military.  One day we gathered the kids for some group activities. In the course of the activity we ask the kids: What do you want to be when you grow up? You know kids, they are always eager to share what they want to become when they grow up. These kids, however, were not so eager to tell their dreams. Some were staring at us with blank faces and some were looking away into some distant place. We felt so sorry for these kids because even though they are still kids it seems that they have already tired of dreaming. They have lost their energies to hope because of the constant life and death situation they have to endure every day.

Not far from that barrio we saw a group of born again Christian preachers who gathered some adults, leading them in singing several lively action songs.  Then I heard their leader preaching about God’s blessings, promising the group of adults that as a sign of their acceptance and faith in Jesus as personal Lord and saviour they are assured of God’s bountiful blessings—siksik, liglig at umaapaw (pressed down, shaken together, running over cf. Luke 6: 37).

I easily saw the contrast between these two experiences.  On the one hand, our experience with the kids implied that God is too far away from their reality of poverty and violence that it seems that God’s blessings is beyond their reach.  Poverty is their fate, they just have to learn to accept it and live with it. On the other hand, the experience of the born again Christians implied that God’s bountiful blessings is assured for anyone who personally accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior. God will improve their lives and even attain wealth. It promotes so-called prosperity gospel where abundance and wealth are signs of God’s blessings.

I realize, though, that there is a similarity in both experiences’ understanding of God’s blessings.  I thought that they were looking at God’s blessings from our human categories and experiences in our world. For in today’s world to be blessed is to be full of money, plenty of material things, full of power and authority.  Blessings in today’s world is measured in wealth, power, honor and position in life. On the other hand, misfortune and curse in today’s world is measured in terms of poverty, suffering, powerlessness, absence of honor and position in life.

In today’s gospel of 6th Sunday in ordinary time, Jesus proclaimed a reversal of blessing and curse.

“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.

But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”

This is a hard saying. Jesus’ proclamation about blessings and curses, also called the beatitudes, is contrary to common sense and to all expectations and wisdom about how the world works.  How can the poor be blessed and the rich cursed? How can we say that you are blessed to the people who have suffered so much in life? How can we say this to the people who lost lives and experienced great devastation from calamities? How can we proclaim that you are blessed to people who have experienced violence, war, depression, loneliness and despair?

Our difficulty in accepting the beatitudes lies in the fact that the beatitudes declares a situation that is a result of God’s action. In other words, it not based on human action but God’s action. For if it will be based on human action, the reverse is the result, as what we see is happening now (despite all the assurance from those who benefit from the existing system that global capitalism has reduced poverty and has improved the plight of millions of people, the blessed in this world are the select few who continue to be rich and the cursed are the multitudes who remain poor). The beatitudes declares the kind of life within the context of God’s gracious act. This is impossible through human efforts. The kind of a life under God’s gracious act, therefore, can only be a gift–unmerited, free and unconditional gift offered by God to everyone.

Furthermore, God talks about blessings as the qualities of the future community that God will gather in the end. In the Second Reading, St. Paul says that if Christ is not raised, our faith is in vain. The truth of Christ’s resurrection is the key to hope, the key to the belief of the coming of the future kingdom of God where God’s blessings will benefit all especially the poor, oppressed and powerless in the world. The community who is called blessed by God does not remain passive, but acts in accord with the coming kingdom.

The Beatitudes are, therefore, not so much about what we should do but about what we should be; it is about thinking, willing, and feeling, that is, about a new way of living and being Christian. The beatitude does not mean that God wants the poor to remain poor and thus, we do nothing about the situation of the poor.  Nor does it mean that we sell all our belongings and not utilize any benefit from material things (although some Christians have done this. Think of St. Francis of Assisi and the founder of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus who left a life of wealth to care for the poor and the most abandoned).

Indeed, the beatitudes have been subjected to various insidious misinterpretations and manipulations. For instance, the beatitudes was utilized in the past to subjugate the poor. Civil and religious authorities have told the poor that they need not struggle and aspire to improve their lot as their sufferings and poverty on earth will be rewarded in heaven. On the other hand, the beatitudes was utilized to justify the prosperity of the rich. Wealth is a blessing from God and it is a sign of God’s reward for those who lived with integrity and hard work. On the other hand, poverty is God’s curse and it is a sign of God’s punishment for those who are irresponsible and lazy.

Ultimately, the beatitudes calls us to conversion, a change of thinking, or as we often hear today, a paradigm shift. We need to adopt a beatitude paradigm shift in this world. We need to be guided by the values of the beatitudes in our our life together as a community of discipleship. We need to look at the real blessings and curse in this world from God’s perspective.  The beatitudes challenges us to experience God’s blessings in our concrete situation of “joys and the hopes, grief and anxieties.”  God’s blessings is not the physical pain, poverty, suffering and hunger but God’s endowed grace of solidarity, purity of heart, meekness, peacemaking, for the coming of the kingdom already here and now but will be fully realized in the end. The experience of God’s blessings will allow us to see beyond our world despite all its sufferings, hardships, hopelessness, injustice, violence and enslavements and journey towards the reign of God.  The reign of God has already began in the resurrection of Jesus.

Today, God calls us: You are blessed, be a blessing to others.

 

5TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: GREATER CALLING DESPITE UNWORTHINESS

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Life is about discovering who we truly are. To know who we truly are, we need to discover our greater calling. Life is not just about waking up every day, eating, working and doing our daily chores. Beyond our daily struggles and frustrations, there is a far more meaningful life that we can experience but only if we are able to take a risk. When we are able to take risk, we discover the awesome goodness of divine power. In the presence of divine power we become aware of our unworthiness. Despite our unworthiness, we are called to greatness in the loving service of God and others.

This is the theme of our readings for today’s 5th Sunday in ordinary time. This is the story of three of the greatest characters in the Bible—the prophet Isaiah, and the apostles Paul and Peter.

Each of these three men experienced God’s abundant goodness and grace. In the presence of the divine goodness, all three felt a profound unworthiness.

In the First Reading, Isaiah exultantly receives a vision of heaven itself. The Lord is seated on a high and lofty throne and the Seraphim angel choir is crying out, “holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts! All the earth is filled with his glory!”*

In the face of this heavenly vision, Isaiah reacts with shame! He says,

Woe is me, I am doomed!
For I am a man of unclean lips,
living among a people of unclean lips;
yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!

In response an angel swoops down with a burning coal and begins to cleanse his lips!!!! He is doomed, alright, but doomed to be made clean through suffering, to be made able to speak of God.

In the Second Reading. St. Paul says that Christ appeared to him last of all, as to one born abnormally,

“For I am the least of the apostles,
not fit to be called an apostle,
because I persecuted the church of God.”

Paul persecuted the Church but then, because of God’s grace, he became a great minister of Christ.

In the Gospel Jesus tells Peter James and John to fish in the deep water (where they had been fishing and fishing and fishing all night but caught nothing). Without warning their nets become bloated with fishes that their nets were tearing. At the sight of the abundant catch, Peter knelt before Jesus and cried out,

“Depart from me, Lord,
for I am a sinful man.”

What followed that sense of unworthiness was a divine assurance but the biggest surprise of all was God’s commission.

One of the seraphim that flew to Isaiah touches him with an ember and assures him that his wickedness is purged. Then the future prophet hears the commissioning voice of the Lord saying,

“Whom shall I send?
Who will go for us?”

Isaiah freely said in reply,

“Here I am, send me!”

For his part, Paul found himself drawn into a mission of surprising fruitfulness. When he alludes to this mission as he writes to the Corinthians, he is compelled to say,

“But by the grace of God I am what I am,
and his grace to me has not been ineffective.
Indeed, I have toiled harder than all of them;
not I, however, but the grace of God that is with me.”

The amazed and kneeling Peter hears Jesus address him,

“Do not be afraid;
from now on you will be catching men.”

When we experience God’s abundant grace we become suddenly aware of our unworthiness. Unworthiness here does not mean we are worthless. In the face of God’s goodness, however, we truly become aware of our place in the universal scheme of things. Experience of God lets us understand that we are far, far less than God. This is the same attitude that we express in the part of the mass when we say, “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We confess to the Lord our unworthiness right before we’re about to let God’s awesome grace into our mortal bodies.

Nevertheless, God does not hold our inadequacies against us. It is, however, important for us to truly accept our unworthiness. For the moment we recognize our inadequacy, our sin, our smallness before the greatness of the transcendent God, we are capable of truly being called out of ourselves. When God is heard to say, “Whom shall I send? Who will go for us?” Isaiah responds, “Here I am. Send me.” He is empowered, not paralyzed.

Lord give us your worthiness instead of our unworthiness; make us deeper than our doubts. Let us fall on our knees. as did Simon Peter. Just as you did with Paul, give us your grace to overcome the chasm that lies between who we are and whomever you might call us to be. So together with Isaiah, we can say, “Here I am; send me!”

4TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: REJECTION AND THE CHRISTIAN FAITH

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One of the most common emotional wounds we endure in daily life is rejection. When we are snubbed by our friends, ostracized by our families and communities for our lifestyle choices, when our spouse leaves us,  when we get fired from our jobs, the pain we feel can be absolutely paralyzing.

Today’s readings of the 4th Sunday in ordinary time talks about rejection. The readings also talk of rejection as a common experience that Christians will endure in this world, particularly if we lived out the prophetic dimension of our Christian faith. If we proclaim the good news of Jesus about liberation from all forms of oppression, freedom, justice, love and truth, we will face stiff opposition and suffer rejection from the world. This is because often the values and standards of the world runs in conflict with the values and standards of the Kingdom of God.

In the first reading,  Yahweh, our Lord, warned Jeremiah that he will constantly incur the hostility of the kings, princes, priests, and people of Judah. In the face of opposition, Jeremiah frequently fled to God for refuge. Yahweh comforted him,

Be not crushed on their account,
as though I would leave you crushed before them;
for it is I this day
who have made you a fortified city,
a pillar of iron, a wall of brass,
against the whole land:
against Judah’s kings and princes,
against its priests and people.
They will fight against you but not prevail over you,
for I am with you to deliver you, says the LORD.

In the gospel today, which is the continuation of the gospel last Sunday, Jesus identified his mission with the prophetic tradition. By telling his own town’s mates that the prophecy of Isaiah about bringing glad tidings of freedom for captives and the oppressed, sight for the blind are fulfilled today, Jesus clearly identified himself as a prophet. Because of this, his own town’s mates rejected Jesus and wanted to destroy him.

For in Jewish society, it was customary for a son to carry on his father’s trade and his grandfather’s name. No one was ever expected to become something better than or to improve on the lot of the parents. This fact is the basic foundation of honor. For Jesus to step shamefully beyond His family boundaries would be quite a scandal. In the Mediterranean world, the basic rule is “look after your family first”. Jesus also broke this rule. He healed the sick outside of His home town.

So his town’s mates tried to push him out to a cliff. But he escaped somehow. The crowd’s reaction foreshadows Jesus’ passion and death, as well as His escape to continue His journey points ahead to Easter victory and the continuing spread of God’s word.

Today, those who dared to be prophets also suffered rejection even death. Martin Luther King died for promoting the equality of all human beings irrespective of race. Mahatma Gandhi died because, as a Hindu, he was friendly with Muslims. Bishop Oscar Romero was shot and killed during the consecration at the mass because he denounced the exploitation of the poor. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged by Hitler because he attacked the racist evils of Nazism. Our very own Redemptorist Fr. Rudy Romano was abducted by military men because of his work for the poor and defense of human rights. Until now he remains missing, presumed to be dead.

A prophet will not be honored in this world, even his own will disown him. Because a prophet talks about values which the lords of this world abhors and are terrified–justice, freedom, truth, and love.  These are also the same values which God in Jesus Christ also died for. A prophet talks about values not of this world, about power not of earthly authorities, but of values and power of a totally different kind, a new world that is to come through Jesus Christ.

The theology of baptism describes our own Christian baptism as a participation in Jesus’ role of prophet. Thus, every Christian by virtue of his/her baptism, is called to be a prophet. We are called to proclaim the Gospel in our families, in our working places, among our friends, in our society. Whatever is happening we have to be ready to proclaim and defend truth, love, justice, freedom, people’s rights and dignity. We cannot compromise or keep silent in the face of evil and values contrary to the gospel.

We don’t have to die a prophet or martyr’s death in order to be prophet. We can be a “lesser prophet” and get small things changed in our world. We can be bold enough to stand for truth and voice out if there is something wrong within our office, our family, our parish, our society, our government, and world order. We can be prophets by contributing our talents towards building a better and more just, free and peaceful family, community, parish and society.

Lord help us to master our pride, conquer our desire for security, and delight in the new and creative ways that your Kingdom is present in the chaos and gloom of our world.  Let us be your prophets today!

 

3RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: RECLAIMING JESUS’ MISSION STATEMENT

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The Baclaran shrine has become well-known among the devotees through these years as a shrine of vigorous preaching about justice, peace and other social issues. The Redemptorists have always been very vocal in preaching about the burning issues in the world and country today in the light of the gospel.  Because of this, every now and then, we get reactions from devotees. When devotees asked us why do we have to preach on social issues, I often quote today’s gospel text, the very words of Jesus which has come to be known as Jesus’ mission statement.  Some of them are surprised to hear these words as they may not sound particularly religious. Some even could not believe that they actually come from Jesus.  Many of them have believed for a long time that being Catholic is merely going to mass, receiving sacraments, praying the novena. For them, the Catholic faith is merely a spiritual activity and has nothing to do with the concrete realities of the everyday life of the ordinary people.

Today’s readings of the 3rd Sunday in ordinary time talks about the essential importance of the proclamation of the Word of God in Christian faith and life. The Word of God proclaims God’s eternal plan of total salvation and liberation of all peoples from sin and all forms of evil and oppression. The proclamation of the Word of God is both and at the same proclaimed in words and action; they are not mutually exclusive nor can be separated from each other.

In the First Reading from the book of Nehemiah, Israel, the people of God, has newly returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon. They listened to Ezra, a priest-scribe who read the law (Torah) for the first time. After Israel’s exile from Babylon, the Torah was just completed. Ezra read the law for more than six hours, to men, women and children old enough to understand (7 years old up).  While Ezra read the Torah, the assembly cried as all around them lay the ruins of what Israel and Jerusalem and the Temple and God’s people had once been.

In the second reading, St. Paul, in his first letter to the Corinthians, proclaimed about how the Body of Christ, the Church, is to live out the mission statement of Jesus. St. Paul points out that all members of the Church have gifts for ministry. The members of the Church, however, have different gifts for ministry; we are not clones of each other. The different gifts can only come to life in the context of the whole.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus, following his river baptism and his long wilderness fast and temptation, returns to his home town of Nazareth. Reports about him have been spreading through the population, probably the result of his healing miracles and his synagogue teaching. So when he comes back home, it’s quite a big day in the synagogue. It was the day of Sabbath.  Everybody’s there, eager to hear the local boy who’s making a name for himself.

Like Ezra, he takes up a scroll, this one containing the book of Isaiah. He reads a passage which says that the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to “bring glad tidings to the poor,  …  to let the oppressed go free,” to proclaim a time of favor from the Lord (Is 61: 1-2).

After reading these verses, Jesus rolls up the scroll, returns it to the attendant, and takes his seat. It is the custom for teachers to sit, rather than to stand. So when Jesus sat, everyone looked at him, expecting some commentary, some explication of this text, a text well known to many of them. Jesus, however, merely said,

“Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

This is, very possibly, the world’s shortest sermon, but packs lots of punch.  The people of Israel have waited for centuries for the fulfillment of promises that God made throughout their history, beginning with Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3).  Now Jesus declares that the wait is over — that the day has come — that the promises are fulfilled — that salvation is nigh!  This is, indeed, good news.

Jesus claims for himself the ancient prophetic words as his own mission statement. He bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, the sweet Jubilee Year, when the economy will be conformed anew to God’s justice.

Jesus’ mission statement did not become merely a string of high-sounding words (as some mission statements do). Everything that follows in his life, as presented to us in the Gospel, amounts to the living out of the prophecy he claims for himself that sabbath morning in Nazareth.

urban_mission

Today, we are called by Jesus to continue his proclamation of the Word of God. In order to be true Catholics or Christians, we should not be content with living our faith merely by going to mass, praying the novena or receiving the sacraments. To be true Catholics and Christians we need to reclaim Jesus’ mission statement as our mission statement too. In the light of today’s reality of continuous suffering by many of our people–the exploited poor, unemployed, homeless, the addicted, refugees, indigenous peoples, the wounded creation, the elderly who are increasingly isolated and abandoned, and many others, the proclamation of Jesus’ glad tidings remains imperative and urgent as ever.  As each one of us has our own distinctive gifts, as St. Paul said, we are called to apply and share our gifts generously for the continuation of the enactment of Jesus’ mission statement.

Let us pray for the courage and grace of the Holy Spirit that we may become vibrant hearers, proclaimers and doers of Jesus’ words, our Lord and primary missionary of God.

 

 

33RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: HOPE DEFIANT

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For many devotees, the shrine has become a channel for pouring out their sorrows and woes, an outlet for catharsis. They see the shrine as a very important channel where they could pour out their sufferings and agonies and turn to the Lord and Mary which in many cases is their only hope.

The plea of the thousands of devotees who come to the shrine is not just a cry for their needs but also a cry for liberation from whatever form of captivity they find themselves. In the state of captivity they find themselves, their devotion to Our Mother of Perpetual Help give them hope and strength not to surrender to apathy but to continue to struggle.

In this spirit of hope, devotees not only pray for what they need, but aim to be set free towards the life they profoundly aspire to attain.  They learn to embrace an active disposition–never surrendering to apathy and indifference. Led by Our Mother of Perpetual Help towards the true source of hope and light–Jesus Christ–they refuse to accept the status quo of their suffering and bondage.

In this way they develop a kind of hope in what Dutch Dominican Fr. Edward Schillebeeckx describes as a hope that is born “amidst the experiences of negativity, darkness, and injustice in which human beings cry out in protest: ‘This cannot go on!’”  Australian Redemptorist Fr. Anthony Kelly calls this hope as the refusal to see the ultimate meaning of life as simply more of the same. In this context, hope becomes bold, daring and defiant.

Thus, the experience of pouring out of one’s sorrows for many devotees is not just cathartic but empowering. In a thanksgiving letter written on August 27, 2014, Michelle Mulingbayan shares this kind of experience in the shrine:

I started coming to you last February 2014 because of a big problem that I was going through during those times with the father of my child. It has been my practise that whenever I experience that kind of feeling, I go to mass or visit a nearby church in order to pour out my sorrows, ask for help and guidance in order to lighten the pain I am experiencing … Almost every night I could not stop crying because of so the unbearable pain. For nine Wednesdays, I did not surrender, and in those times, I gradually felt peace in my heart and mind.  Every time I pray the novena, I feel the warmth of your acceptance and helping hand in order that I might overcome this trial in my life.

Today’s readings of the 33rd Sunday in ordinary time expresses this defiant attitude of hope. The readings today portrays the Biblical times in jagged and dark images in a language called “apocalyptic literature.” The first reading from Daniel, for instance, describes his times as

“A time unsurpassed in distress.”

In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus painted a gloomy picture about the end times to his disciples:

The sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from the sky, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.

In the midst of these dark and gloomy times, both readings proclaimed words of hope.  At the end of the First Reading we heard God’s promise of redemption:

… the wise shall shine brightly
like the splendor of the firmament,
and those who lead the many to justice
shall be like the stars forever.

That there is hope amidst darkness is anchored on the belief that at the end of time, God will be victorious. Goodness and love will have the final say. In the Gospel, Jesus proclaimed

And then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in the clouds’
with great power and glory,
and then he will send out the angels
and gather his elect from the four winds,
from the end of the earth to the end of the sky.

Today, the world is faced with crises every bit as bad as apocalyptic literature might suggest. Real threats of unrecoverable climate changes, economic crises that more than wreck people’s lives, toxic wastes, holes in the ozone layer, tsunami and hurricanes, shootings and killings, just to start the list. A fifth of the world’s population lives in absolute poverty. About three billion people lack adequate nutrition. There are somewhere between one billion and two billion unemployed adults in the world. More than half of the countries of the world have used violence against their own citizens in the form of torture, brutality, and summary executions.

In the midst of all these crises and tribulations, those with power, wealth and position continue to reign. Their power and influence grew stronger, while the vast majority of the common tao continue to suffer, became poorer and weaker every day.

It doesn’t have to be always this way. We don’t need to surrender to the captivity we find ourselves today. We need to have a hope which defies even the most destructive force in our world that in the midst of the violence, chaos, madness, and misery of our lives here on earth, there is a “beyond-this-world” that is totally opposite our world today. It is this world where God will reign.  This is what Jesus proclaimed as the Kingdom of God. This world is already growing but will reached its fullest potential through the most creative and dynamic power and grace of God in the end.

At the end of time, as the readings today proclaims, the poor, those who suffered and were persecuted will reign while those who have dominated and use their power, position and wealth to abuse others will suffer. False messiahs will be expose for who they truly are. As the First Reading says, at the last chapter of history some people will be seen as the horror and disgrace that they really are. Others will shine like the splendor of the stars. The winners in the battle of life, those who shine like stars, are those who have turned many to justice. Those who acted with courage and integrity for justice, goodness, and truth will be hated, afflicted, and even killed today but in the end they will shine like the splendor of the stars.

God will make all things new. He is known today in his promises. 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.

32ND SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE HIDDEN LESSON OF THE WIDOW’S MITE

devout-prayer

Majority of the devotees in the shrine are poor. Many who flock to the shrine are hungry, thirsty, alienated, depressed, excluded, abandoned and deprived in multiple ways and variety of experiences. Many are just barely getting by, surviving on a day to day existence, as we say in Tagalog, isang kahig, isang tuka, (one scratch, one peck) which means hand-to-mouth existence.  Despite their poverty, they persistently turn to God and Our Mother of Perpetual Help and even generously give of what they have to the many programs and services of the shrine.

This is very true in the building of the shrine.  The construction of the shrine became possible through the coins contributed by the poor devotees. Actual construction of the shrine began in 1953 and finished in 1958. Although there were admittedly some prominent donors, Fr. Lew O’leary, Rector of the shrine at that time, stressed that about 75% of the cost of the construction came from the poor devotees. Devotees dropped their ten centavos through a campaign dubbed as “Ten Cents to Help Build a Shrine.”

This is why it took six years to build the shrine. Most of the money that came from small donations often ran out requiring construction to stop. Truly it is a church by the people, built mainly not by big and rich benefactors, but by the ordinary poor people. No wonder they continue to identify so strongly with it.

In the readings of today’s 32nd Sunday in ordinary time, we hear of extreme examples of utter generosity of the poorest among the poor in Israel during Biblical times–the widow. Widows are among those who suffered the most in Israel during ancient times. Thus, scripture repeatedly reveals God’s care for the widow, the poor, the fatherless and the stranger, and also reveals His anger at those who deprive them of what they need to live. Despite their extreme poverty, our readings today show the utter generosity of two widows.

In the first reading from the first book of Kings, Elijah asks the widow of Zarephath to give him the little cake she was about to share with her son before they die. Amazingly, she accedes to Elijah’s request. And the jar of flour and the jug of oil continue to deliver a miraculous supply that sustains not only her and her child but also the drop-in prophet—for a whole year. In the gospel, a poor widow gave all she had to the temple. The two widows in the readings gave up everything, totally trusting in the goodness of the Lord.

The traditional interpretation of the gospel story tends to view it as contrasting the conduct of the scribes with that of the widow, and encouraging generous giving. I have always heard the story of the Widow’s Mite used in the context of sacrificial giving. I have even heard it often in fund raising enjoining parishioners to generously give to a certain project of the parish.  Focusing on sacrificial giving, however, may miss a very important lesson which Jesus is trying to teach us in the gospel.

To understand this very important lesson of Jesus which may seem hidden to us in the gospel we may need to go back to the scene prior to the gospel story today.  In the passage immediately prior to Jesus taking a seat opposite the Temple treasury, he is portrayed as condemning religious leaders who feign piety, accept honor from people, and steal from widows.

“Beware of the scribes, who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers. They will receive a very severe condemnation.” (Mark 12:38 – 40)

In the light of this earlier passage, Addison Wright commented that more than commending the widow’s generosity, Jesus is actually condemning both the social system that renders her poor, and “…the value system that motivates her action, and he condemns the people who conditioned her to do it” [1]. The religious officials of the day, instead of helping the widows in need, were perfectly content to rob them of their livelihood and inheritance. The system was corrupt, and the darkness of the scribes’ greed makes the widow’s sacrifice shine even more brightly. In other words, more than praising the widow for donating her last mite; Jesus is pointing to her as a specimen of the exploitation of the poor widows by the Jewish leaders. She is not there to have her faith praised–she is there for the damnation of the ruling Jewish elite. Jesus’ saying is not a penetrating insight on the measuring of gifts; it is a lament of what society has become because of the hypocrisy and exploitation by the elite.

Similarly, Ched Myers shows in detail how the scribes so-called religious piety was the very reason for the perpetuation of the suffering and poverty of widows.

Scribal affluence is a product of their ‘devouring the estates of widows under the pretext of saying long prayers’ . . . Through their public reputation for piety and trustworthiness (hence the ‘pretext of long prayers’), scribes would earn the legal right to administrate estates. As compensation they would usually get a percentage of the assets; the practice was notorious for embezzlement and abuse . . . The vocation of Torah Judaism is to ‘protect widows and orphans,’ yet in the name of piety these socially vulnerable classes are being exploited while the scribal class is further endowed . . . [S]cribal piety has been debunked as a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation . . . The temple has robbed this woman of her very livelihood (12:44). Like the scribal class, it no longer protects widows, but exploits them. [2]

Sadly, what Jesus observed in his day remains true today. The present socio-economic, political system even religious system continue to exploit the poor and bled them dry of their resources. Yet those with the least continue to give more, by percentage of their resources, than the wealthy. The super wealthy, the wealthy and ostentatious “scribes” of today, actually give less than those who have middle and lower incomes in taxes and in the betterment of society.

Through the gospel story, Jesus is challenging us to see the structures that allow an exploitative system that defrauds the poor and benefits the rich to continue. We need to ask why we let this continue to happen. What can we do to make society and our faith communities more fair, just and equitable?

Hopefully, this Sunday we don’t miss the point of the widow’s mite, but instead accept the challenge of Jesus and make a difference in our world.

 


 

[1] Addison G. Wright, “The Widow’s Mite: Praise or Lament”, The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, 44, 1982, pp.256-265

[2] Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 320 – 322.

31ST SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE ♥ OF CHRISTIANITY

sunset hands love woman
Photo by Stokpic on Pexels.com

During my almost 10 years of hearing confession at the Baclaran shrine, the most common sins that people confess were against the Ten Commandments. As you know the ten commandments are expressed mostly in the negative: “Thou shall not kill.” “Thou shall not commit adultery.” “Thou shall not steal.” “Thou shall not bear false witness against your neighbor,” etc. This emphasizes the sin of commission rather than the sin of omission. Sins of commission are sins that we commit by doing something we shouldn’t do. It’s the type of sin in which most of us are familiar with. Sins of omission, on the other hand, are sins we commit by not doing something we ought to do. Come to think of it, most of us are more guilty of the sin of omission. Examples of sins of omission are not praying, not standing up for the truth, not sharing Christ with others, not sharing our talents and wealth with others, not defending the poor and victims of  injustice, oppression and abuse and many others.

Focusing on the ten commandments and the sin of commission also reinforces the view that Christianity is a set of rules, of do’s and don’ts. Christianity is merely concerned with the externals. Christianity is the mere fulfillment of an obligation and a duty.

The readings for today’s 31st Sunday in ordinary time focuses on Christianity as a way of life based on love. The readings focused on love–loving God, loving others and loving oneself–as the heart and soul of our faith. Not that there is any contradiction between the Ten Commandments and the commandment to love the Lord and our neighbor with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength but living out the Ten Commandments without love of God, neighbor and self would be empty and superficial.

In the first reading, the book of Deuteronomy talks about the Shema (“Hear O Israel”), which became the daily Jewish prayer.

“Hear, O Israel! The LORD is our God, the LORD alone!
Therefore, you shall love the LORD, your God,
with all your heart,
and with all your soul,
and with all your strength.
Take to heart these words which I enjoin on you today.”

“Hear, O Israel” was to become a centerpiece of all morning and evening Jewish prayer services. This great commandment of the Hebrew covenant is the greatest commandment, to love God above all else and with all we have. God is to be loved in response to his prior revelation of himself as the one God. In Hebraic thought, heart, soul, and strength do not mean separate human faculties but the person in the totality of his/her being.

Despite being the greatest commandment, it was the most abused commandment by the people of God, as the people of Israel struggled with different forms of idolatry. In our own day we continue to violate this commandment with the various idolatries that infect our public life: worship of money, adoration at the altar of capitalism, religious reverence for authoritarian rule which gives blessings to the brutal drug war on drugs which has killed more than 20,000 suspected drug pushers and addicts.

In the gospel, Jesus ratifies this greatest commandment but also links it with the love of neighbor: taken together the two commandments cover the ground. Jesus did not invent the second greatest commandment. He only link it with the first, to tie together love of God with love of neighbor.

You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. …
[And] you shall love your neighbor as yourself.

Just as we violate the first commandment, so we violate the second one as well: we discriminate against our neighbor, we use our political and economic power to oppress our neighbor, we overwork and underpay our neighbor, we sexually harass our neighbor, we physically abuse our neighbor, we lock our neighbor up and forget about him, we seem to do many things that are not love of neighbor.

To love God, to love our neighbor as ourselves is the greatest commandment of our faith. There is no greater commandment than these. It is worth more than all burnt offerings and sacrifices. The heart of Christianity is not in the law, external practices but in putting our heart and soul into loving God, neighbor and self.

Love is, however, more than just a duty or an obligation. Love is the very core of our being, the very heart of Christianity. Love is our deepest identity. We are born to love because we are created in the image and likeness of God who is love. The greatest sin that we can commit, therefore, is the failure to love, the omission to love, the denial of our identity as a loving creature.  At the end of the day, we will be judged as to how we have loved God and loved our neighbor as ourselves.

Christ, write on our hearts your law of love so that we can love you with our whole soul, our whole mind, and all our understanding, and with every ounce of our strength. And let our love for you spill over to our neighbor and our selves.

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

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. Increasingly our culture has become a visual culture where “image is everything.” 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.’

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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.