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.

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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.