30TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE CHURCH AS FIELD HOSPITAL

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Redemptorist Church in Tacloban after supetyphoon Yolanda

“There is no saint without a past, no sinner without a future.”
― St. Augustine

In August 2013, Fr. Antonio Spadaro, S.J., editor in chief of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Italian Jesuit journal, conducted one of the earliest interviews of Pope Francis after he was elected as Pope.  The very first question Spadaro asked Pope Francis was,

“Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” (Pope Francis’ real name)

After a few seconds of silence, Pope Francis answered,

“I do not know what might be the most fitting description …. I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.”

This humble admission of being a sinner is nothing new for Pope Francis. In his general audience at St Peter’s Square on 13 April, 2016, just a month after his election as pope, Pope Francis describes the church as not a

“a community of perfect people, but disciples on a path who follow the Lord because they recognise themselves as sinners and in need of his forgiveness,”

In the same interview with Spadaro, Pope Francis describes what the church needs be today. The church today demands that it need not be a magnificent building secure on itself but a field hospital after a battle.

“The thing the church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.

In the gospel of today’s 30th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Jesus told a parable about two people who prayed in the temple in Jerusalem, one was  a religious person and the other a notorious sinner. In an unexpected twist of fate, the sinner went home from the temple justified rather than the religious person:

“Two people went up to the temple area to pray;
one was a Pharisee and the other was a tax collector.
The Pharisee took up his position and spoke this prayer to himself,
‘O God, I thank you that I am not like the rest of humanity —
greedy, dishonest, adulterous — or even like this tax collector.
I fast twice a week, and I pay tithes on my whole income.’
But the tax collector stood off at a distance
and would not even raise his eyes to heaven
but beat his breast and prayed,
‘O God, be merciful to me a sinner.’
I tell you, the latter went home justified, not the former;
for whoever exalts himself will be humbled,
and the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Jesus’ verdict favoring the tax collector must have been outrageous to his hearers. Jesus did not mean, however, that the Pharisee was wrong in his deeds of morality and piety, or that the tax collector was right in being a swindler and extortioner.

The Pharisee was quite right in performing his religious and moral duties. He was not like other people—extortioners, unjust, adulterers. He practiced strict observances of prayer, fasting, almsgiving, and tithing. The tax collector, on the other hand, had nothing to commend him. He was no better than the rest of his kind. There was no question but that he was the “bad guy.”

But being “justified” means being in right relationship with God, faithful to the covenant relationships. Luke says pointedly that Jesus addressed this parable to those “who trusted in themselves” that they were righteous (or justified). In other words, the target of the story is those who foolishly thought their righteousness was based on their own action rather than the grace of God. They placed their faith more in themselves than in God, thereby undermining the foundation of their covenant connections with God and the community.

The greatest enemy of religious belief today are not the atheists or agnostics but self-righteous people from within a certain religion or church. They give religion or church a bad name.  They repel others from the church, especially those who are struggling to rectify their relationship with God and others, because they impose their moral compass which they think is above all others.

On the other hand, one cannot justify the statement, “Why go to church if the church are full of hypocrites and self-righteous people, anyway.” The reason we go to church is not because we are perfect but because we want to seek God’s mercy out of our imperfections.

Jesus’ parable today, as every parable, is Jesus’ way of teaching us about divine reversal. God’s ways and values are, more often than not, a reversal of the ways and values of the world. This is true in prayer, God hears not the rich and sufficient in themselves but the poor and the oppressed, as the first reading today from the book of Sirach says:

Though not unduly partial toward the weak,
yet he hears the cry of the oppressed.
The Lord is not deaf to the wail of the orphan,
nor to the widow when she pours out her complaint …
The prayer of the lowly pierces the clouds;
it does not rest till it reaches its goal,
nor will it withdraw till the Most High responds,
judges justly and affirms the right,
and the Lord will not delay.

In prayer, we can discover in our failures and sinfulness, examples of divine reversals, a better plan, a more rewarding venture. What may initially look as a set-back can be an opportunity for course correction. Thus, Jesus parable today, as every parable, is an open-ended story. We’re supposed to end the parable in our own lives and apply what this parable means to us and make the changes that it demand from our lives today.

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.'”

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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

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.

18TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE FUTILIY OF ALL HUMAN PURSUITS

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Are you searching for meaning from all your individual pursuits and toils?

In the first reading of today’s 18th Sunday in ordinary time, from the book of Ecclesiastes, Qoheleth, the main character or spokesperson in the book, says that all individual pursuits are vanity.

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth,
vanity of vanities!  All things are vanity!

We usually equate vanity with excessive pride in oneself or in one’s appearance, a picture of conceit and perhaps even arrogance. But in Ecclesiastes  “vanity” translates the Hebrew hebel, which means “vapor, breath,” which implies “empty or valueless,” fleeting, like a vapor.  Qoheleth finds no meaning in all our individual pursuits, but declares it meaningless! Everything is futile, Qoheleth reiterates,

What profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days, sorrow and grief are his occupation; even at night his mind is not at rest.

What a gloomy and dark picture Qoheleth paints about life! On the other hand, Qoheleth provides us with a brutally honest questioning of all our aspirations, struggles and dreams.  Indeed everything in this physical world is transitory, ephemeral, impermanent and without any enduring substance. We often try to cling to things, and attempt to resist changes, but alas that is wasted effort, like trying to chase the wind. Qoheleth sees through the illusions of all our ambition and offers the most despairing of answers—there is no answer.

So does this mean that we should not strive anymore for anything? Does this mean that we should just do nothing or just eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we will die?

The second reading provides a meaningful way out of Qoheleth’s dilemma. St. Paul in his letter to the Colossians, tells the Colossians that they can only find meaning in their lives by seeking what is above and sharing in the risen life of Jesus. What matter most is not the earthly individual pursuits but putting on the new self of the victorious life in Christ:

Brothers and sisters:
If you were raised with Christ, seek what is above ,..

Put to death, then, the parts of you that are earthly:
immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire,
and the greed that is idolatry.
Stop lying to one another,
since you have taken off the old self with its practices
and have put on the new self,
which is being renewed, for knowledge,
in the image of its creator.

The Gospel further deepens the thoughts of the first two readings. In the Gospel, Jesus tells a parable about a very rich man who produced a huge harvest one year. He was busy tearing down his storage barns to build still larger ones so he could hoard more into them.

He stores for future lean years, but not simply for his own pleasure. When the village smallholders have to come to him and borrow grain, he will charge an exorbitant price in hopes of confiscating even more land for himself.

“You have ample goods laid up for many years,” said the fool.
“Relax, eat, drink, and be merry”

The rich fool is a man who lived his life without reference to God and was caught in the toils of futility and meaninglessness (“vanity of vanities!”). He organized his life without reference to the transcendent; he did not “seek the things that are above.”

But Jesus was more than just spiritual, he was also practical. What should the fool have done? He might have done what Jesus praised the shrewd steward for doing (Luke 16:1-9): using surplus wealth as a means to gain friends so that when the wealth is gone, the friends will remain and repay the kindnesses, as this culture expects.

The readings for this 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time are warnings about the illusions of individualist and selfish pursuits that beset many of us. The anxiety and toil of Ecclesiastes, the idolatry and obsessions mentioned in Colossians, the voracious greed portrayed in the gospel parable all clamor for our attention.

The readings for today gives us a profound perspective for determining the worth of our lives. The readings teach us that life is not just about wealth, the bald facts of human mortality and the transiency of material possessions. Any reliance on wealth and possessions is pure folly—both worldly possessions and this life are fleeting. 

Many would determine a person’s worth by the greatness of their house or their status and position in life or their portfolio or the make of their car. Whatever good is in them is transient; they die when you do. As the saying goes, you can’t take any of them with you when you die.

What then are the things that last in this life? Love lasts. Work done for the love of others especially the poor, needy and oppressed lasts. Most of all, the inheritance that only God can give: the fullness of eternal life. What truly last is spending our life dispossessing ourselves of anything which hinders us from growing into the fullness of life.

 

15TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME: THE LAW IS SIMPLE AND NEAR

Good-Samaritan

If you have lived in a barrio in the province, perhaps you may have experienced how being a neighbor means. Being a neighbor is to know someone not just their names, work and other peripherals but more so their needs, problems and aspirations. Being a neighbor is to share whatever you have like food, fruits of the harvest. Being a neighbor is reaching out to someone especially in their time of need.

One time I was invited by a friend to her condo unit. I asked her does she know the people in her neigboring units in the condo. She said no. Usually, in the condo, nobody knows anybody, everybody live their lives each to his/her own, she told me.

Perhaps, this is one of the saddest maladies of modern living. In a supposedly highly connected world we have lost connection with the closest people in our lives–our families, our neighbors. We have become distant to the people who are most physically near to us.

This is also the malady of our faith today. We have lost connection with the heart of our faith. We see our faith as a set of laws that is remote, if not alien, to the concrete reality of our daily lives.

In the First Reading of today’s 15th Sunday in ordinary time, Moses explains that God’s law is not so mysterious and remote. It is already in our mouths and hearts.

“For this command that I enjoin on you today
is not too mysterious and remote for you.
It is not up in the sky, that you should say,
‘Who will go up in the sky to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
Nor is it across the sea, that you should say,
‘Who will cross the sea to get it for us
and tell us of it, that we may carry it out?’
No, it is something very near to you,
already in your mouths and in your hearts;
you have only to carry it out.”

This suggests that the law is no longer written on tablets of stone but engraved on the hearts of people

In the Gospel, a lawyer, an expert of the law, asks Jesus what is the most important law of all. Jesus asks the lawyer what the latter thinks. Being a typical lawyer, the man says, mechanically, the most important of all the laws:

You shall love the Lord, your God,
with all your heart,
with all your being,
with all your strength,
and with all your mind,
and your neighbor as yourself.

But again being the typical lawyer who seem bent on cross-examining Jesus, he asks, “Who is my neighbor?” The lawyer was talking more about the law as the law written on tablets of stone.

Unlike the lawyer, however, Jesus did not respond in a mechanical or legalistic way, but with a parable. But in the end, as we shall see, Jesus will show us the true meaning of the law and how the law is very close to our hearts.

So we hear the parable of the Good Samaritan. Perhaps, we have heard this parable many times. This is my most favorite parable of Jesus. In the parable, a man fell victim to robbers. They beat him terribly, take his money, and leave him lying in the road, half-dead. Three people happen to pass by and saw the man in need: a Priest, a Levite and a Samaritan. The Priest and the Levite merely passed by leaving the man on the street. Only the Samaritan came to the aid of the hapless man. Incidentally, the Priest and the Levite are keepers of the law whereas the Samaritan is seen by many as disobedient to the law.

At the end of the parable, Jesus returns to the heart of the law. Jesus’ concern was not the abstract interpretation but how to practice the most important of all the laws, which he put into the question: “How am I a neighboor to someone in need?” The lawyer’s question was a more abstract question: “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus turns it into a practical question: “Which of these three, in your opinion, was neighbor to the robbers’ victim?” In other words, the question of Jesus was a smack on the face of the lawyer who is an expert of the law: Who fulfilled the law in this situation? The lawyer could only answer, “The one who treated him with mercy.” It was not the temple priest nor the Levite who were strict guardians of the laws of purity but the outsider–the much maligned Samaritan who was seen as ignorant, and therefore, transgressor of the law, as the one who fulfilled the greatest law: Love God, Love your neighbor as yourself!

Jesus said to the lawyer, “Go and do likewise.”

The parable of the Good Samaritan continues to be retold today. We are the new characters of this parable today. We are the modern day Priest, Levite or Good Samaritan. When someone is in grave need, do we stop whatever we are doing or do we just pass them by? How do we respond to someone in need?  Do we say, “I may get sued.” “Others will come to help.” “I’m in a hurry.” “The poor wretch should have planned for disaster.” “I am scared.”

We have a shortage of neighbor in our world today. We have become not neighbor but condominium dwellers. We live in our own ghettos. This is shown in our difficulty loving others because we do not understand “neighbor” as Jesus did. Neighbor for us means people we like, people who are on our side, who work for a living, and who mind their own business. Jesus redefines neighbor as the hated stranger who is down and out, challenging us to stop what we are doing and care for his need.

Who are the people in most need of Good Samaritans right now? The sick and the dying? The victims of EJK? The homeless? The hungry? The migrants? The trafficked? Whether they be large or small, friend or enemy, rich or poor, we can find them everywhere, calling us out of our comfort zone, making ourselves vulnerable in order to be present to someone different, desperate and diffident.

The law is not mysterious and remote to us. It is not up in the sky, nor across the sea. No, it is something very near to us. It is in whatever situation when we become neighbor to someone who is in need.