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.

 

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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.