Saturday, December 19, 2009

Finding God in a Helpless Child

Feast of Epiphany of Year C
(Matt 2:1-12)
January 3, 2010

I no longer remember its exact details, but the story I read in high school goes something like this: in a German prison camp during the Second World War, some prisoners escaped. Since no one could tell where they were and how they were able to make their way outside, the German guards retaliated by picking up men at random to be hanged—unless the escapees returned. Since not a single one returned, these men were hanged. Among them was a boy. As he hanged from the gallows, someone asked: “Where is God?” There was silence among the onlookers. Much later, a voice was again heard: “Where is God?” Then a voice came: “There he is, hanging from the gallows.” That someone could recognize God in the boy who was hanging from the gallows brings to mind a theological observation that one notes from the story of the Magi.

In today’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12), we are told of civil and religious authorities—Herod and the experts of scriptures—who were caught unawares about the coming of the Messiah. On the one hand, Bethlehem was a village under Herod who should have known the place and its people. On the other, the religious authorities had the Scriptures which tells of the birth of the Messiah: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd me people Israel” (Matt 2:8). Indeed, it was the priests and scribes who furnished King Herod the information about the future ruler. And when Herod eventually knew about him, he rejected him, thinking the child would be a threat to his kingship. In sharp contrast, we are also told of Magi, astrologers who studied the stars, so much aware of the coming of the new King. To know him, the Magi did not have the Scriptures; they had only a miraculous star to tell them. And by means of the star, they were led to the house of Joseph. In this pericope, Matthew thus makes a contrast between astrologers from the east who accepted Jesus and the King and religious leaders of Israel who rejected him.

The Magi story is a part of the introduction to Matthew’s gospel, and functions as an overture to the whole Matthean account of Jesus’ life, ministry and death, in more or less the same way that the Prologue of John introduces the reader to the theology found in his gospel. In particular, the Magi story serves to prefigure what happened in the life and ministry of Jesus and the early Church. Looking back, we know that both the civil and religious authorities, whom Herod and the interpreters of the Scriptures represent, refused to recognize Jesus as the One sent by God. God chose them as his people, and gave them his Word—the Scriptures—so they could walk in his ways; but when the time came, they failed to recognize the Messiah. They were scandalously slow in coming to faith in the Messiahship of Jesus. In sharp contrast, the Gentiles, whom the Magi represent in today’s gospel, knew nothing about God except through what was available to them through the natural phenomena, like the star, and yet, when confronted with the Message, they believed in Jesus the Messiah. In other words, the story was recalled by the Matthean community to explain a phenomenon in the early Church: the early Christians saw the contrasting reactions of the Jews and Gentiles to the ministry of Jesus and the apostles: while the Israelites rejected him, the Gentiles accepted him. In the understanding of the Matthean community, this sheds light on why the majority of the members of the Church came from pagans, not from Israelites, even though Jesus was a Jew.

How explain the contrast? For Matthew, Herod and the religious authorities, even though they had the sacred tradition, failed to recognize the Messiah because of their unbelief; they closed their eyes to the revelation of God in the child. The Magi, on the other hand, had faith. They believed that God spoke to them through the miraculous star. They believed that in the ordinariness of the child born in Bethlehem , God was there. Hence, the feast of the Epiphany is really about God’s revelation, and our acceptance or rejection of that revelation. It is possible that people who are supposedly religious may fail to recognize the coming of God in their lives. It happens when they presume to know the working of God, and limit his action to what they have already learned in their theologies. They put limits to their faith. But God is a God of surprises! He reveals himself in ways that are unknown and ordinary, and that people do not expect. He can reveal himself in a helpless child at Christmas, a child no different in appearance from the children of a small, poor village like Bethlehem . And we can detect his presence even in the negative experiences of our lives, in much the same way that a Jewish prisoner of war in a German camp came to recognize him in the boy hanging on the gallows. What is important for us, of course, is to detect his presence, to recognize his revelation. And we can do it only with the eyes of faith.

Religious Environment for a Family

Feast of the Holy Family of Year C
(Luke 2:41-52)
December 27, 2009

With the advent of international trade and globalization, nations are no longer far removed from one another. National barriers are falling apart, and the global village, which decades ago was only a dream, seems no longer a remote possibility. But for all their advantages—new ways of communication, for example, have made the world smaller—globalization and international trade have brought values that are foreign to Christian faith, however. One of their known attendant values, because too widespread, is consumerism. Created has been a mentality and lifestyle that prefer having to being. That is why we live in a secular environment in which people think that it is important to have enough of the world’s goods, and spend one’s life in enjoying these goods. Because of this environment, many people crave for items and services that are not needed. Such values enter into the family, and it is not surprising that many families have succumbed to it. They think that the more material things the family possesses and enjoys, the better it is. If one visits a family even in the poorer parts of the metropolis, there he will see appliances and gadgets displayed for all to see, even though one senses that they were acquired at great cost to the family itself. The consumerist mentality can be seen in the attitude of children who put prime value on these devices.

Today is the feast of the Holy Family, and the Sunday gospel provides us with pattern on how our own families ought to live if they are to be called Christian at all. In Luke’s portrayal of the Holy Family, it is difficult to sever it from his description of the events that lead to the nativity of Jesus. It may be recalled that for Luke, Mary is a hearer of God’s word. In his plan to reveal himself and save humanity, God finally spoke his word to Mary who, despite its seeming impossibility, accepted it in faith: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39). Luke does not have much to say of Joseph, but if we look at Matthew’s portrait of him, it will be noticed that he, too, is described as a hearer of the word: a devout observer of the Mosaic law (Matt 1:19), and at the same time, obedient to God’s communication through an angel who told him not to be afraid to take Mary, who was with child, into his home: “When Joseph awoke, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took his wife into his home” (Matt 1:25). What about Jesus? Of course, he is God’s communication himself, and even though such an understanding of Jesus is Johannine (John 1:1) and quite foreign to Luke, yet it is not inconsistent with Luke’s theology to say that the life of Jesus as a child has the concern of God for its center.

This brings us to the heart of the Sunday Gospel (Luke 2:41-52). This story is traditionally known—one who prays the rosary will easily recall--as the finding of Jesus in the Temple . It may be doubted, however, that this is intended to satisfy curiosity about the boyhood of Jesus. It is most likely that the story is remembered on the principle that what happens to a person in his adulthood is prefigured in the events of his childhood. That is to say, one should not be surprised that Jesus performed mighty deeds and spoke powerful words during his public ministry, for even in his childhood, he was already known to be endowed with much wisdom and power. Thus Luke: “On the third day they came upon him in the temple sitting in the midst of the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. All who heard him were amazed at his intelligence and his answers” (Luke 2:46-47). However, since today is the feast of the Holy Family, what is of relevance to us in this story is a minor theme of Luke: Jesus’ claim that in his life and mission, the claim of God his Father has priority over anything: “Why did you search for me? Did you not know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49b). His relationship with his Father transcends his relationship with his human family. The latter has meaning which derives from his intimacy with the Father.

Clearly, the Holy Family, as Luke portrays it, lived in an environment which is informed by divine values and concerns. Consequently, Luke teaches us that to be Christian, our families ought to live in an environment in which God’s plan has priority and informs the very life which each member lives.. Our Christian families, in other words, makes God the center of our life. The values of the Gospel form even the air we breathe, our vision in life, and our motive for action. Since God fills up each member of our families, and our relationship with those outside, we will be able to lead holy lives, clothing ourselves “with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” We can bear with one another, and forgive grievances. Our families would then be bound love, each member experiencing peace ( Col 3:12-15, First Reading). That is to say, in an atmosphere which is informed by Gospel values, it would be easy to live in harmony with one another, to live as one family like the Holy Family. And precisely because of that environment, it would not be difficult for each member of the family to resist the bombardment of secular values, like consumerism, since a different way of valuing things has already been ingrained in the outlook of each one. The environment of holiness itself is the protection of our families from the onslaught of values foreign to Christian outlook and understanding.

Salvation comes from the Lord

Fourth Sunday of Advent of Year C
December 20, 2009

During the unlamented dictatorship, some soldiers planned to stage a coup d’etat to topple the Marcosian rule. The communists, on the other hand, stuck to their strategy of armed conflict from the countryside. At any rate, both groups wanted to give expression to the people’s clamor for an end to the dictatorial regime. But despite their conviction of their ideological approaches, and for all their tested and even sophisticated strategies and tactics, neither of them succeeded in their effort. Ironically, what eventually took place seemed almost impossible—people power put an end to the Marcos regime in a way no one—not even the brightest of the left and the right—ever envisaged in his wildest dreams. The people power which was ignited by the call of Jaime Cardinal Sin for men and women to gather at EDSA, even though without strategic planning, shamed both groups, for it proved to be more effective in dislodging the power of Marcos. There could be various explanations for the people power phenomenon, but for those who have faith, that was a result of God’s action for his people who cried out to him. It was an answer to their prayer for liberation.

And somehow, that event illustrates to us where to pin our faith in. To be sure, we seem to lack trust that God could accomplish things. We so much depend on material things (Ps 20:8; Isa 31:1), on the military or politicians, on our creativity. How often, for example, people thought that if a new political leader emerged, the nation would be renewed, only to find out that the new leader merely did what his predecessor had done. Even when it comes to physical health, there are some who completely rely on medicine and technology, and who regard as charlatans those who call on God in prayer and supplication. Oh yes, we think that our happiness, well-being and salvation rest on our own powers.

But the biblical experience is different. When David, for example, was confronted with the Philistines, he did not put in faith in his sword, but in the hand of God, and answered them: “You come against me with sword and spear and scimitar, but I come against you in the name of the Lord of hosts, the God of the armies of Israel that you have insulted. Today, the Lord shall deliver you into my hand” (1 Sam 17:45). This faith is echoed in the Psalms: “A king is not saved by a mighty army, nor a warrior delivered by great strength. Useless is the horse for safety; its great strength, no sure escape. But the Lord’s eyes are upon the reverent, upon those who hope for his gracious help, delivering them from death, keeping them alive in times of famine” (Ps 33:17-19).

And today’s Gospel, the Evangelist Luke invites us to look at our faith. Salvation comes from the Lord (Ps 18:3); all we need is to trust in his Word. This is precisely why Mary is blessed (makaria). Unlike Zechariah who did not believe that the words of the angel about the conception of John would be fulfilled, she trusted that what the Lord promised her would see realization (Luke 1:45). With faith she accepted the message of the angel, even though to human appearances this was impossible. With humility she said: “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:39). Yet, the same may be said of the faith of Abraham. God promised him a great nation (Gen 12:1), and even though he did not know how it would be done, he put his faith in him (Gen 15:5). He even hoped against hope (Rom 4:18), he being nearly one-hundred years old, and still without a son. But it was by putting his faith in God’s word that he became the father of many nations (Rom 4:15-21).

Today, we are still caught in a web of evil: political, economic, psychological and even demonic. How we look to politicians to save us!—as if they could not betray the interest of the nation. But we should realize that it is foolish to expect salvation from violence (Ps 44:7), from foreign government (Lam 4:17), from a powerful army (Ps 33:17) or from men (Isa 26:18). In the final analysis, we must recognize that God alone is our savior: “But as for me, I will look to the Lord, I will put my trust in God my savior; God God will hear me” (Micah 7:7). And God will save us if like Mary we trust in him (Isa 30:15), if we take refuge in him (Ps 37:39-40). Mary provides us with a pattern by listening to God’s word and doing it (Luke 11:27-28). We walk in his path (Ps 25:5), our hearts clean and our desires not vain (Ps 34:3-5). In short, Like Mary, we ought to be obedient, doing God’s will, as Jesus himself was: “Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, Behold, I come to do you will O God’” (Heb 10:7).

Monday, December 7, 2009

Rejoice: God Is In Our Midst

Third Sunday of Advent of Year C
(Luke 3:10-18)
December 13, 2009

The rejoicing of Europeans on the 20th anniversary celebration of the fall of Berlin wall last November 9, 2009, which signified the unification of Germany and the end of the cold war, brings me back to a local celebration on commemoration of the return of Gen Douglas MacArthur. During Leyte Landings Golden Anniversary, thousands came to celebrate the event with much joy. Not a few of them wanted to reminisce the experience when even just the news that Gen. MacArthur would certainly return was enough to lift up their spirit. For the prospect of his coming brought to mind the gaining of freedom from Japanese atrocities, and the restoration of the American rule in what was formerly known as the Philippine islands. It was thought that his return would put an end to destruction and be the beginning of a new era of progress and development for the Filipino people. Indeed, when Gen MacArthur did return, people were literally dancing on the street, joyful at the thought that liberation was at hand!

Today has been traditionally called Gaudete Sunday, because the readings tell us to rejoice. Thus the second reading: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice”(Phil 4:4). We are told to rejoice because, more than what Gen MacArthur did to the Filipinos, not only is the Lord with us, renewing his love for us, but also he will reveal himself as our Savior, forgiving us our iniquities, freeing us from dangers and misfortunes (Zeph 3:15-18), liberating us from all forms of evil.. As we await the coming of the Lord this Christmas, we ought therefore to rejoice. Our religion may stress the value of suffering, pain, and patience, but it is a religion of joy. For in the final result, God would put an end to our experience of misery, suffering and evil, when Jesus returns in glory. What we should feel is best captured by the Psalmist:: “Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; let the sea and what fills it resound; let the plains be joyful and all that is in them. Then let all the trees of the forest rejoice before the Lord who comes, who comes to govern the earth, to govern the world with justice and the peoples with faithfulness” (Ps 96:11-13). That, in fact, is what Advent is all about: rejoicing in the coming of the Lord (Phil 4:5b)

This is the good news. The Messiah is coming to vindicate his people. Of course, in the Gospel, John the Baptist describes his coming in terms of judgment: “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire” (Luke 3:15-17). As we prepare for the second coming of Jesus, we do not interpret this in terms of the purifying and refining action of God, as John the Baptist probably did, but in terms of the outpouring of the Spirit of Christ, who will perfectly share with us his very life in the final age. We will be brought into communion with the Father and the Son, and share the joys of the blessed.

But even as we hope for its fulfillment, joy is already in us. And our joy is first of all internal. It is the joy in the knowledge that God forgives us despite our sinfulness; that God loves us and has deigned to dwell with us. Once we experience this, nothing will ever separate us from God: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future thing, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (Rom 8:38-39). When we know that God is with us, we will be a happy people, no matter what the circumstances are: whether we get a good sleep, food, friendship, or whether we experience failure, are laid off from job. We can also thank with Job (Job 1:21), recognizing that everything comes from God (1 Tim 6:7).

But our joy does not simply come from the certainty of our hope. Rather, the joy itself is already an experience of what God will do once and for all when Jesus comes. To have this anticipated joy, we have to attune ourselves to him. We allow God to come to our midst, to our hearts, knowing from experience that a life that has no place for God is a miserable one. Just as one who has suffered under the Japanese during the Second World War understands the rejoicing at the news of Gen MacArthur’s return, so one who experienced and recognized his sinfulness and the evil he has done to human relationship will rejoice at the coming of the Lord to him.

Of course, joy comes to us in various qualities. When one, for example, gate-crushes to an alumni homecoming celebration, he could be happy with wine and dance, but he does not experience the joy of those who have been classmates, who know the history of the class and the reason for their celebration. Similarly, if we wish to experience joy, we must be aware of our own spiritual journey, our ups and downs, and the history of our own life. Knowing our own history and therefore identity, we can easily respond to what the joy of Christ’s coming demands. If we realize this, we will feel, even without being told, the need to prepare ourselves for his coming to our midst, doing something about our own conduct, as John the Baptist demanded reform in his hearers’ social conduct (Luke 3:10-14). Only in this way can we really enjoy the coming of the Lord in our midst.

The Eucharist is an anticipation of God’s coming. There Jesus is present, forming us into one body in which brotherhood, knowledge and love are to reign (cf Eph 4:12). Hence, partaking of it is likewise a source of joy.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Our Savior is Jesus, not the Politicians!

Second Sunday of Advent of Year C
(Luke 3:1-6)
December 6, 2009

WHEN we hear of the President of the United States or the Prime Minister of the Great Britain, we usually associate them with countries advanced in science, technology, and economy. We look up to them because they have virtually become world leaders who are able to give their people comfort and happiness that citizens of the third world normally envy. Theirs is an advanced industrial society. Yet, the other side of the picture of such societies is quite alarming: they have worsening air and water pollution, mounting crimes, ghettoes, dwindling resources, to mention a few. And one wonders whether this is a form collective suicide. Of course, Karl Marx saw this, and proposed an alternative. Since the West is individualistic, he proposed the abolition of private property, and thought of allowing the people—the poor—to govern society. Thus we hear of the Josef Stalin of the Russia and Mao Tse Tung of China proclaiming themselves as champions of the proletariat. Yet, we who are on the other side of the fence know that these nations have their own brand of dogmatism and bureaucracy, regimentation and inquisition, witch hunting and police state. And not to long ago, we saw the virtual collapse of the communist world. Hence the question: whence is salvation of the world?

It is not fortuitous that today’s Gospel begins with the name of Tiberius Ceasar, emperor of the Roman empire, Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, Herod Antipas, tetrach of Galilee and Perea, and Philip, tetrach of other parts of Galilee (Luke 3:1). As an evangelist who has a universalist outlook, Luke takes care to relate the significance of the gospel to the world in his time. For him, these known persons represent the political and religious rulers at the time of Jesus. It may be recalled that as the people at that time expected, the political rulers, on the one hand, were supposed to save their people from hunger and lawlessness, while the religious leader, on the other hand, were to put them in right relationship with God. Yet it is clear from the Jewish tradition that their national rulers were hardly faithful in their task. On the contrary, they did the opposite. That is why, God, using pagan rulers as instruments, scattered them and exiled them (2 Kings 15:29; 17:16). The Jewish religious leaders, on the other hand, led the people astray (Jer 50:6). They became unfaithful (Ezek 34:2-10), and even scattered the flock (Jer 23:1-2). Thus, they failed in their responsibilities (Jer 2:8). It appears, therefore, that if Luke mentions secular and religious rulers to preface his account of Jesus’ ministry, it is to imply that salvation cannot come from the religio-political establishment of his time.

Not surprisingly enough, God’s word did not come to them, nor to any Roman or Jewish politician, but to John who, in contrast with the Roman emperors and governors, was an unknown in the empire. The word of the Lord came to him to indicate that salvation of the people can come from God alone (Bar 5:6), not from the religio-political rulers of his time. How does the prophet picture salvation? The book of Baruch presents this salvation to us in the image of Jerusalem taking the robe of peace instead of mourning to manifest the return of the sons of Israel from exile (Bar 5:1-4), led by God himself (Bar 5:6). So, Jerusalem has to look toward the east, to the coming of salvation from God (Bar 5:5). That is to say, the prophet warned his people that if they wish to be saved, the Israelites cannot rely on their own religio-political rulers, still less on foreign powers. If there is anyone to be depended on for salvation, it is God alone.

The same may be said of us. No matter how altruistic the United States or Russia may appear to be, no matter how they are able to show concern for peoples in the third world, we, Christians, cannot have the illusion that the salvation of men from all misery and want, and from evil and death could come from the political rulers of these powerful nations. It cannot come even from our own political rulers. Many presidents have sat on the presidential throne, but the salvation of the Filipino people is nowhere nearer. On the contrary, their lot has even become worst—politically, economically, socially, environmentally. Following the exhortation of Baruch, we have to look toward the East, to Jesus, for it is only he who can establish the new Jerusalem in splendor and glory (Bar 5:1, 1st Reading), that is to say, who can make us one community where justice and peace prevail, and removed all forms of evil in this world, by showing this splendor to every nation (Bar 5:3). This is the significance of advent. We await the coming of Jesus from the east who alone can save us. And as he is coming to save us, our role is simply this: we need to cultivate a proper conduct, abounding in love, and valuing the things that really matter (Phil 1:8-11, 2nd Reading). This way, we accept his coming, and prepare his way (Isa 40:3-4).

So, next time we hear politicians promise us a new heaven and a new earth, in which our dreams of justice to the poor and the victims of history, prosperity, peace for all, equality before the law, participation in governance, and abundance of life, we need not take their word hook, line and sinker. If their track record has anything to tell us, it is that all they are capable of is giving morsel of bread and providing circuses. There is only one savior—the Lord Jesus. It is he whom we await.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

What If Christ Returns in 2012?

Homily on the First Sunday of Advent of Year C
(Luke 21:25-28,34-36)
November 29, 2009

If pseudo-scientists, internet theorists and paranormal enthusiasts are to be believed, the world is coming to an end on December 21, 2012, when a mysterious planet, supposedly discovered by ancient Sumerians, collides with our earth. This supposedly finds confirmation in the Mayan calendar that ends on that date. This doomsday scenario is the subject of the movie produced by Sony Picture, “2012.” No wonder, if one searches the internet, he will encounter a number of suggestions on how to survive the apocalypse.

Such an speculation about the end of the world is not new, however. It is told that in 1831, William Miller, a farmer, began preaching the end of the world in 1843. He draw his dating from the 2,300 days in the book of Daniel (Dan 8:13-14) which, for him, mean 2,300 years, and using 457 BC as the calculated the date commanded to restore Jerusalem. Thousands heeded his call to repentance, but the year 1843 went without the world ending with a bang or with a whimper. He deferred the date to October 22, 1844, but most Millerites abandoned his religion, others returned to their former denominations. Of course, the Millerites concluded that they were correct on the dating, though this has reference to Jesus’ entrance to the holy place in the heavenly Jerusalem.

The remnants of the Millerites accepted the prophetic role of Ellen G. White, whose writings the Seventh-Day Adventists revere as second to the Sacred Scriptures. After meeting with the Seventh-Day Adventists in 1872, haberdasher Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses. He predicted the end of the world in 1914. He died in 1916, but his successor, Joseph Rutherford, head of the Watchtower Society, advanced the date to 1925. He himself, however, died in 1942. More recently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were sure 1975 would be the year when Jesus would return. Of course, they were mistaken again.

Although many religionists are gaga over the precise date of Christ’s return, the Gospel today does exhort us not to concern ourselves with such speculation. It cannot be calculated, because it can come at any moment: “that day catch you by surprise like a trap” (Luke 21:34b-35a). The basic Christian attitude toward Christ’s return is not one of curiosity, but one of great expectation that is seen in our daily behavior. Having followed Jesus in discipleship, for all the trials and sufferings attendant upon it, we can stand erect and hold our head high because our deliverance has come (Luke 21:28). However the world will end, with a bang or with a whimper, whether or not the Lord is coming in 2012, we really have nothing to fear, because Jesus comes back as a savior, a victor over the forces of evil and death. There is no need for a survival kit!

Of course, we know that in following Jesus in discipleship, we do not always obtain justice or peace. On the contrary, we are even persecuted for our belief, and for our action on account of that belief. But this is not the last word of our discipleship. The last word is that, Jesus is coming to put an end to it---to the miscarriage of justice, to the injustices and every form of evil. When he comes, Jesus will be manifested to us as the just shoot of David who does what is right and just, and we, his disciples, will experience peace and justice (Jer 33:14-16, 1st Reading). That is why we do not fear death or the end of this world.

As we await his coming, we have to conduct ourselves in a way pleasing to God, and learn to make progress in it. We make our hearts blameless before God, overflowing with love for one another (1 Thess 3:12). This should be our concern as we await his return: a blameless life, overflowing with love, not speculation of date. We are to act as if we were a woman whose husband is an OCW in Italy or Hongkong. While her husband is away, she does not falter in her love for him and for their children. Her life of care and love is her daily preparation for the coming back of her husband. Because of her life of love, she is eager to meet him at the airport upon his return, and to receive his gifts for her. She knows that his return is the salvation of her family from their basic needs, because her husband’s coming is the redemption of their family from grinding poverty, and signifies the unity of the whole family. We cannot imitate the wife who, when her husband is in a foreign land, spends away all the money he sent her, and consorts with other men, for that would be like the man in the Gospel whose spirit has become bloated with indulgence, drunkenness and worldly cares (Luke 21:34). Assuredly, she cannot hold her head high.

In effect, by leading such a life in the in-between time, we demonstrate that, even though we do not know the exact date, we are confident of the Lord’s return. The waiting may be long, but it is not without purpose nor devoid of meaning. On the contrary, it is meaningful because it derives it significance from the Lord himself who will make it perfect, when he establishes peace and justice for those who followed him.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jesus’ Kingdom: Not of this World

The Solemnity of Christ the King
34th Sunday of Year B
(John 18:33-37)
November 22, 1009

Power and privilege are what kingship and ruling are all about. In times past, among the basic duties of the king concern war and law: they have to wage war to protect the interest of the people, or protect them from their enemies. They see to it that there is order in the kingdom. Today, among the basic expectations of the people from their rulers have to do with food and justice. They have power and privilege, but they have to see to it that people do not starve, and provide an ordered society in which justice prevails. It happens, however, that power, by which they can provide people food and justice, ironically causes hunger and injustice. For as Lord Acton observes, power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Indeed, it is scarcely untruthful to say that there is something demonic in political power. And one who holds it normally finds it difficult to relinquish it. The privileges that are attendant upon it are hard to give up. No wonder, once one is in power, he makes an effort to hold on to it, even by hook or by crook. It is not easy to say no to political power and its trappings. Because it corrupts, deception, graft, corruption, abuse, oppression, repression are often connected with it. Thus, though we change those who hold political power time and again, yet society scarcely exhibits itself as evolving into a more just and more humane one. One often gets the impression that it is a case of the same dog, with different collar. That is how it goes in the kingdoms of this world.

In today’s Gospel on the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world: “My kingdom does not belong to this world. If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not here” (John 18:36). This does not mean, of course, that Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with this world. It does not even mean that his kingdom cannot be found in this world. In the theology of John, the word “world” as used in this pericope means the world of sin. If anything, what Jesus said means that his rule does not belong to this world of sin, a world that values political power and social privileges, where there is domination, where rulers lord it over people, and make their importance felt. Hence, he cannot be a king in the sense Pilate understood it:”You say I am a king” (John 18:37).

How then do we look at the kingship of Jesus? We can understand his kingship if we consider how Jesus understood his kingdom. According to him, it is a kingdom of truth (John 18:37). Truth, in John, echoes the meaning of Wisdom 6:22 which associates it with God’s hidden plan of salvation, and in Daniel 10:21 which connects it with the designs of God for the time of salvation. Thus, unlike Caesar, Jesus did not have soldiers who were armed to protect him, nor people who were at his beck and call (John 18:36b), but certainly he had followers—those who hear his voice, which is the truth (John 18:37c). These are the disciples, the believers, his sheep (John 10:16; 8:47). Having considered this, we now understand Jesus’ kingship. He is a King in the sense that he is the embodiment of truth (John 14:6), and all his words and his deeds testify to it (John18:37b). Moreover, he testified to that truth with his death; so, in his crucifixion he is the King (John 19:19).

Viewed in this light, we can easily understand why Jesus’ kingship is not of this world. However, still, it has to do with this world. For the truth is opposed to this world of sin and division; not surprisingly enough, it hates the testimony of Jesus (John 7:2). This world cannot accept the values of his kingdom—truth, justice, peace, liberation, equality and participation. But Christians cannot despair. For few they may be, yet those who hear the truth and believe in him will eventually conquer the world: “Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”(1 John 5:4). In this feast of the Kingship of Jesus, John then has this to say to us: Jesus is a King and has a Kingdom. But if we are to share in his kingship, we must listen to his voice. By listening to his voice, we turn earthly values upside down: better to be poor than to be rich, to suffer than to persecute, to be weak than to be powerful, to be utilized than to exploit. We no longer imitate the current language of power and privilege. On the contrary, we follow him in discipleship, offering our very self on the cross, in which we can find our victory and vindication. In our crucifixion, we reign with him. In this reign, we experience wholeness, love, truth, justice and peace. By this kingdom which is not of this world, we will conquer the kingdom of this world.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

The Triumph of the Son of Man: A Source of Hope

33rd Sunday of Year B
Mark 13:24-32)
November 15, 2009

Discipleship means the following of Jesus. In Mark, however, discipleship has a definite reference—he is not just any Jesus. The Jesus being followed or referred to is the Son of Man: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow men… Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels”(Mark 8:34b-38). But who is this Jesus, the Son of Man? In Mark’s Gospel, this Son of Man who we follow in discipleship is, among others, the Jesus who must suffer, is rejected and killed (Mark 9:31; 10:33), and who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all (Mark 10:44b). As Son of Man, Jesus corrected his disciples for their wrong perception of what following him meant. For example, he criticized Peter who, instead of accepting the prospect of suffering and humiliation, thought of reviving David’s conquest (Mark 8:33). It is also for this reason that he silenced the brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who wished to occupy the prominent and prestigious places in the kingdom of God (Mark 10:38a).

Jesus’ criticism of his disciples makes it clear that to follow Jesus as Son of Man is rather costly. For judged in the light of worldly standard, it brings problems, deprivation, and suffering. A review of the Gospel readings of the preceding Sundays confirms this. The rich man refused to follow Jesus. When challenged to sell his property and give the money to the poor, his face fell because he was rich. For him, he could not suffer the loss of his wealth (Mark 10:23). As can be seen in Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, it also deprives one of his right to put away his wife for any cause (Mark 10:9). Discipleship also requires the giving up of ambition to lord it over others; instead, it asks the follower to accept suffering entailed in the ministry of service (Mark 10:38). Indeed, in one’s effort to call upon Jesus and follow him, as in the case of Bartimaeus, one could meet opposition and even attempts to silence him (Mark 10:48).

Does all this mean that following Jesus as Son of Man has nothing in store for the disciple except humiliation and defeat? Not at all. In the end, there is justification and triumph in discipleship. Although the disciple may live in a world enveloped by trials, difficulties and turmoil, he has a very certain consolation that the Son of Man he followed is coming back to give him eternal life in the age to come, making him share in his power and glory (see Mark 10:30). This is one point which this Sunday’s Gospel stresses: “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” (Mark 13:26-27).

This is to say that when Jesus comes as Son of Man, we who followed him in suffering and even death will be victorious over the powers of evil and death. Structures of power and domination represented by the stellar phenomena will be toppled: “The stars and constellations of the heavens send forth no light. The sun is dark when it rises, and the light of the moon does not shine. Thus I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their guilt. I will put and end to the pride of the arrogant, the insolence of tyrants I will humble” (Isa 13:10-11). “Then the moon will blush and the sun grow pale. For the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem , glorious in the sight of his elders” (Isa 24:23). Or, in the apocalyptic language of the 1st Reading , those who followed Jesus “shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament”(Dan 12:3). According to Mark, the chosen ones will be gathered from the four winds (Mark 13:27). This assembly of the elect who have followed the Son of Man fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah: “Fear not, for I am with you; from the east I will bring back your descendants; from the west I will gather you. I will say to the north: Give them up! and to the south: Hold not back! Bring back my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth: everyone who is named as mind, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isa 43:5-6). This only means that like the Son of Man, the people of the new covenant are vindicated.

The point is obvious. Discipleship may be costly, but in the end, a final victory over the forces of darkness awaits those of us who followed the Son of Man. Hence, we have much reason to take up the cause of discipleship.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Widow’s Gift: An Example of Christian Response

32nd Sunday of Year B
(Mark 12:38-44)
November 8, 2009

In the Gospel of the previous Sunday, we noted that in the Old Testament, the people’s response to God’s initiative is expressed in their keeping of his commandments which, according to Jesus’ summary, are summed up in the one commandment of loving God with all of one’s heart, mind and strength, and of loving his neighbor as himself. In today’s Gospel, Mark tells us the story of Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and his observation on the crowd who put their money into the treasury of the temple. What is of much relevance to us is the second, where a poor widow put in two small coins, for this story is connected with the point stressed in the Gospel last Sunday. This pericope considered as an independent story—probably of almsgiving--that Mark used in writing his Gospel, the widow represents what is best in the piety of the Old Testament. She placed all her two copper coins in one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles for offerings in the Court of Women in the Jerusalem Temple . In doing so, she demonstrated, poor though she was, her love for God out of her whole heart, soul, mind and strength. She gave all she had to live on (Mark 12:44).

In addressing his followers, however, Jesus appropriated this story as a lesson of discipleship. To begin with, in the Old Testament, a woman was a dependent creature, either on her husband or her father. But she could not inherit from her husband, and in the early period of Israel ’s history, she was part of the inheritance of the eldest son. We mention this to indicate how poor the widow was at the time of Jesus. In using this story, Mark was able to present two contrasting pictures: the poor widow and the rich man (Mark 10:17-32), and the poor widow and the scribes (Mark 12:38-40).

Whereas the man who wanted to follow Jesus and who was rich could not, after having been challenged by the Lord to get rid of them, part with his riches, the poor widow gave all she had. Having much wealth, the man depended on it; and his wealth stood in the way to discipleship. On the other hand, the widow had nothing to lean on except God himself; and it was easier for her to give everything she had. For Mark, this illustrates the truth that only a truly poor person can walk in the footsteps of Jesus. Wealth is a hindrance to it. A poor one, on the other hand, entrusts himself totally to God to care for him.

In the second contrast, the story of the poor widow immediately follows Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes: “Beware of the scribes who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets. They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers” (Mark 12:38-40a). For Mark, the scribes were people who were knowledgeable about the commandment of love of God and neighbor, and it is for this knowledge that they were accorded honors at banquets, marketplaces, and presidential tables. And yet, they did not put into action their knowledge of the law. Indeed, instead of showing God’s love by giving to the poor, they exploited them, like the widows whose houses they devoured. On the other hand, the widow might not have been as knowledgeable about the law as the scribes, yet, she took it to heart. Instead of exploiting others, which she could not do, she gave everything to God. She trusted in him, not wealth. Indeed, she could have kept the other coin, and gave only one to the temple treasury, but she did not.

Both contrasts make it clear that all men are capable to responding to God’s generosity by being generous in love. A person, no matter how poor, like the widow, has always something to give. But an even more important point is that the greatness of one’s response is not seen in the amount that is given, for a wealthy man can always give from his surplus. Rather, what is decisive in the generosity of one’s response is the amount that is left. Hence, Jesus’ comment on the poor widow: “Amen, I say to you, the poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury. For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood” (Mark 12:44).

This is what discipleship really entails. Like the poor widow, we have to give up everything to follow Jesus in his footsteps.

The Place of the Commandments in Christian Life

31st Sunday Sunday of Year B
(Mark 12:28-34)
November 1, 2009

In one of our reflections, we stressed that the distinctive feature of Christianity is Jesus himself. Christianity is a religion that is centered on the person of Jesus Christ. Ours is not a religion of law. A person is a Christian, not because he follows the Ten Commandments. (The Jews observe the Decalogue, so do the Jews. And yet, they are not Christians.) One is a Christian he follows Jesus, his word and life. But, if Christianity is a religion of a person, does this mean that it has no place for the commandments of God? Of course, not. Even in civil society, laws are needed; they are of use to human relationships. All kinds of laws are intended to regulate order. Without them, society is doomed to chaos. And of course, in any religion, probably never was there a time that laws never existed. In Christianity, however, laws are not the heart of it; basically, the commandments express the people’s response to God’s initiative. In them we find a manner of life that is congruent with the offer of God.

That manner of life is essentially the life of love. The Gospel today makes this point. When the scribe asked Jesus about the greatest of the commandments, Jesus summarized them into two, although the rabbis taught that God gave Moses 613 commandments (365 prohibitions; 248 positive commands). In summarizing them, he quoted from Deut 6:4-5 (“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.”. ) and Lev 19:18 (“You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”). The summary shows that behind the commandments is revealed the life of love that God demands from his people. That love is shown in the love for the neighbor, because this form of love springs from the love of God.

The practice of religion, therefore, is not simply about doing nothing bad or offensive. More than refraining from evil deed or participation in it, it is always linked with loving God, shown in the love for others. It is along this gamut of thought that we shall understand St Augustine ’s maxim, “love and do what you will.” For when a person loves, he will do nothing that would harm his neighbor because his act of loving comes from the love of God. Paul describes this in terms of freedom: “For you were called for freedom, brothers. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Gal 1:13-14). This is the heart of the Jewish religion, and even of Christian religion—provided that we redefine what that love is. In Christian understanding, that love is none other than the love of Christ (John 15:12) shown in the Eucharist—his body is broken, his blood poured out (Mark 14:22.24). It is this form of love that ought to animate Christian praxis. Obviously, it is because of this redefinition that Jesus remarked to the scribe: “You are not far from the kingdom of God ” (Mark 12:24).

This has many consequences for Christian practice, but we can focus on one. Because love belongs to the heart of religion, liturgical worship would be less meaningful if there were no love. This explains why in the Old Testament, and as the scribe remarked (Mark 13:33), loving God is worth more than burnt offering and sacrifices: “Sacrifice and offering you do not want, but ears open to obedience you gave me. Holocaust and sin-offerings you do not require, so I said, ‘Here I am’ (Ps 40:7-8a). It is therefore understandable that, when the Jews laid much emphasis on the cult, the prophets readily criticized them. Hosea, for example, declared in God’s name: “For it is love that I desire, not sacrifice; and knowledge of God rather than holocausts” (Hosea 6:6; see also Jer 7:21-23; 1 Sam 15:22; Eccles 4:17). This prophetic critique was a serious one, considering the fact that the Temple worship, together with the Law, was central to the Jewish religion.

This has much bearing on our eucharistic celebration and other liturgical and devotional celebrations. In the final result, all of them should be celebrations of love. What is so much important is not that we have fulfilled the rubrics, or omitted nothing in the novena, or we have acquired charismatic gifts, like the ability to speak in tongues, or the ability to work miracles. It is our loving attitude to God, shown in our concern for other people, especially the poor, that counts. If, for instance, we celebrate Mass, we ought to know and even feel that we are celebrating the love of Christ. And it is expected that our liturgical celebration will deepen our love for him and for others. Our external worship should express our internal loving attitude; for, otherwise, that would be empty: “If I speak in human and angelic tongues… if I have the gift of prophecy and comprehend all mysteries and all knowledge… if I have all faith so as to move mountains, if I give away everything I own, and if I hand my body over so that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing” (1 Cor 13:1-3).

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bartimaeus: Model of Discipleship

30th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 10:46-52)
October 25, 2009

At first blush, the Gospel would seem to be a miracle story. Luke tells us of a story of a miracle in which Jesus healed the blindness of a beggar of Jericho , Bartimaeus by name, because of his persistent request. However, the manner in which the pericope is situated in the whole Gospel, and the way in which it is narrated in Mark, make it clear that the Evangelist uses the story to teach us a lesson on what it means to follow Jesus. He placed it on the section on the teachings on discipleship that Jesus imparted to his followers on the way to Jerusalem , after having been given the revelation that he was the Messiah. Mark holds Bartimaeus as a model of Christian discipleship. To appreciate this point, we might well compare Bartimaeus with the disciples of Jesus.

The disciples were not blind; their eyes could see. Bartimaeus, on the other hand, was blind; his eyes could not see. But it is he whom Mark holds up for imitation. James and John, for example, were not blind, yet they could not understand who Jesus was. Even though they have already heard of Peter’s declaration that Jesus was the Messiah, yet they betrayed their spiritual blindness in requesting to be seated at the right hand and at the left hand of Jesus (Mark 10:37). Jesus in fact told them they were ignorant of—blind to—what they were asking. In other words, though they saw physically, yet the disciples continued to be spiritually blind (Mark 8:18.21). Even Peter was not an exception. Of course, it was Peter who made the solemn declaration that Jesus was the Messiah (Mark 8:29). It is clear, however, that in Mark’s story, Peter was likewise spiritually blind, though he could see physically. When Jesus spoke openly about the implication of this messianic title, Peter took him aside and rebuked him. Jesus in turn rebuked Peter’s spiritual blindness by saying: “Get behind me, Satan. You are thinking not as God does but as human beings do” (Mark 8:33). Physically blind though he was, Bartimaeus was different from the disciples. Although he called Jesus only by the title “Son of David,”(Mark 10:47—a fulfillment of 2 Sam 7:12-16), yet he requested Jesus to heal him (Mark 10:51). Unlike the disciples, he knew what he was asking—that the Messiah came to save him from blindness: “Master, I want to see” (Mark 10:31).

What made the difference? Bartimaeus was different from the disciples because he had faith (Mark 10:32. The disciples, on the other hand, are described in the Gospel as having no faith at all, or having only little faith. In the story of the calming of the storm, for example, Jesus asked them: “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” (Mark 4:40) That is why, they could not recognize Jesus with the eyes of faith, and therefore unable to understand the Lord, his word and his work. In the story of the walking on the waters, Mark remarked that the disciples “were completely astounded. They had not understood the incident of the loaves” (Mark 9:52). Lacking in faith, their hearts were hardened, like Jesus’ enemies (Mark 3:5-6), and could not comprehend what he disclosed to them: “Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see” (Mark 8:17-18b). It is therefore not surprising that when Jesus was arrested, all of the disciples abandoned him and fled (Mark 14:50). Even Peter denied him not only once but three times (Mark 14:72). Because they were blind, they could not understand God’s revelation to them, even though their eyes could see. That is why they did not follow him on the road to his death.

How different was Bartimaeus! He had great faith. Despite the effort of many to discourage him, his faith did not waver. He persisted in calling out the name of Jesus (Mark 10:48). His faith was so great that he was too ready to put aside his old life, symbolized by his cloak (Mark 10:50). Because of his faith, he never doubted the healing word of Jesus. And abandoning himself to him, he was cured of his blindness—he received his sight. With eyes now open, his faith having the ability to know the power of God working in Jesus, he followed Jesus on the way—which is the same as the way of discipleship (cf Acts 9:2; 19:9.23). As Jesus’ way was to Jerusalem , Mark wants to say that Bartimaeus was ready to follow the footsteps leading to Calvary and to embrace the cross (Mark 10:52b). And once he is crucified with the Lord, he would be able to make an offering to God for others (Heb 5:3; 2nd Reading ; see Lev 9:7). In other words, for Mark, Bartimaeus is a model of discipleship.

What does this mean for us? We may be blind spiritually—money, power, self-interest, honor and glory may blind us initially, but if we have the faith of Bartimaeus, we can allow Jesus to heal us. He will give us spiritual sight. With our ability to see spiritually, we will follow him on the road to Jerusalem , as we listen to his words and act on them. And our journey of discipleship will culminate in the offering of ourselves for others, for the good of the community of faith.

Discipleship in Leadership

29th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 10:35-45)
October 18, 2009

In a culture that is characterized by inequality, people tend to think and accept as given that to be a leader always implies being at the top. And like any temptation that is often faced by giving in to it, very many people aspire to become leaders and thereby become second to none. In the political arena, many covet the position of president, governor, mayor and barangay captain. The dog-eat-dog competition among businessmen indicates the ambition to be number one in the business sector. That one sends his sons and daughters not to local schools but to London , Paris or New York reflects one’s belief that he must be ahead of others in terms of cultural achievement. In our present culture, no one probably wants to be the last in politics, business and culture. If one could have his way, he would like to make it to the top.

In today’s Gospel (Mark 10:25-45), the disciples of Jesus, who had yet to understand the meaning of Jesus’ teaching, showed the same secular values. James and John, the sons of Zebedee, had the same aspiration. They wanted to be ahead of the other disciples by asking Jesus to have them seated beside him, one on the left, the other on the right (Mark 10:37). Already in Mark 8:29, the disciples recognized that Jesus was the Messiah, and since they thought of his messiahship in political terms (cf Acts 1:6), their request was to be seated in a position of honor and power—this is what right and left hands means--which they would share with the Lord. They would be like two political supporters of a president-elect, wanting to be appointed Secretary of Finance and Secretary of Defense, as a reward for their work. Not only would they have the honor of sitting with the political messiah; they would also possess power, and imitate political rulers who lorded it over others (cf Mark 10:42)

Of course, one aspires to be number one not simply on account of the honor it confers on the one who sits on the throne. Political power is convertible to economic power. One is not so much interested in the salary, which is meager, but in the money involved that comes with the exercise of political power; unexplained wealth goes with it. He profits in almost all business transactions. Also, being at the top gives one the psychological satisfaction that he is a very important person. He enjoys bossing around, and making his importance felt. In fact, a man of secular values loves seeing other people at his beck and call, and depend on him for their needs and survival. It is really amusing when a secular man is put at the top: projects he has not done are credited to him, and words of wisdom he could not have uttered are ascribed to him. People around him laugh at his jokes, even if they are not really funny.

In a secular culture that stresses social differences and inequality, who would not want to be number one? On the other hand, to be at the last is to be reduced to a hewer of wood and carrier of water. To be at the bottom of the social ladder is to be ignorable and expendable. No wonder, the rest of the apostles, having learned of the request of James and John, became indignant at the two brothers (Mark 10:41). They are like so many of us who are so envious because we ourselves covet the position of honor and power, and we do not want others to outmaneuver us. That is why we hide anything that could help in their promotion, and we even resort to characterize assassination just to bring them down, and put them on our own level. We oppose them. And it is a psychological insight that one’s opposition is not always from moral motives, but from personal frustration that we were not able to achieve what others have gotten to their own honor and advantage.

In a Christian culture, however, this should not happen. This is not to say, however, that there should be no leader in the Christian community. Leadership can be, nay, must be exercised in a Christian ministry, but it cannot be exercised in the way secular leaders do. The leader cannot look at himself as above others, much less lord it over them. Jesus was emphatic on this: “You know that those who are recognized as rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them and their great ones make their authority felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant” (Mark 10:42b-43).

In this pericope, Jesus made three requirements for those who wish to assume the ministry of leadership, and those who are in positions of authority, in the Christian community. First of all, leadership is a call to share in the suffering of Jesus. They must drink the cup that Jesus drank, and be baptized with the baptism he was baptized with (Mark 10:39). If the members must suffer, so should the leader. This means that leaders are to be exposed to the hurt of others, carry their burdens, and even suffer their anguish, even if for many that is none of the leader’s business. They are to be baptized by putting themselves in conflict with evil powers (Eph 6:12) which oppress, discriminate against, and take advantage of the community members. Second, they assume the role of slaves in the service of others: “Whoever wishes to be first must be the slave of all” (Mark 10:44). Leaders cannot therefore exploit their members, or engaged themselves in seeking their own advantage or in self-aggrandizement. On the contrary, the quality of their leadership is to be seen in the amount of service that they render. Finally, leadership may even call for martyrdom: “For the Son of Man did not come gto be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). Time comes when leadership demands that the leader himself willingly gives up his life for the sake of his people (1 Macc 2:50; 6:44); he dies for them (Isa 53:11-12, 1st Reading ).

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Cost of Discipleship

28th Sunday of Year B
(Mark 10:17-30)
October 11, 2009

Our Gospel today begins with the most basic and decisive question: “What must I do to share in everlasting life?” (Mark 10:17). Christians should not only ask themselves this question. Even more important, they should always raise it every day, so they will always have some direction in their lives. We always ought to have a reason for living—and a correct one. But it is important to get the sense of the question. The inquiry does not assume that eternal life is a reward for our work. Both in Judaism and in Christianity, eternal life, life with God, life in the Kingdom of God —this is a gift. We do not work for it. But this offer of God requires our response. How do we respond to his offer?

It is unfortunate that many continue to hold false views on the relationship between God’s offer and our response. For some, God is a God who is a heavenly bookkeeper. He keeps a ledger in which good acts are entered on the credit side. They think that as long as the trial balance shows that the credit side is weightier than the debit side, they will inherit eternal life. For others, the relationship is basically concerned with the “As-long-as-I-do-not-harm-anyone” mentality. As long as they do not offend their neighbor, they are of the belief that God will reward them. It is like saying that a good driver is one who has never been involved in a vehicular accident, or that a good engineer is one whose projects have never been destroyed by earthquake.

When we hold these or similar views, we are like the man in today’s Gospel. At first blush, we would think he is an ideal man. Because love of God is obviously expressed in the love of neighbor, all that Jesus asked him was about the second segment of the Decalogue (Mark 10:19; cf Exod 20:12-16). And the man said he kept all these since childhood. Nobody could be more ideal. But before we venture to imitate him, we could probably ask: has it occurred to us that we fulfill the commands simply because we live in comfort? Would it be different if we were living in deprivation? Or, have we consciously made a decision to follow them, or we are able to follow them simply because we do not have the opportunity to do the opposite? We do not steal, for example, simply because there is nothing to be stolen? The truth is, we can follow many commands of the Decalogue by doing nothing.

But the Gospel is about doing something. In Mark, a Christian must go beyond the Old Testament morality, and therefore we have to take a further step. Not only that we do nothing against the commandments; even more important, we imitate Jesus, following his footsteps. That is discipleship. And that what is distinctively Christian. (To follow the Ten Commandments is not distinctively Christian. The Jews have them. The Muslims observe them.) But discipleship is about renunciation of our selves. Eternal life is for those who are ready to lose their life: “Whoever would preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will preserve it” (Mark 8:35). And our Gospel, being like the previous Sunday’s, which is found in the Markan section of the instructions on discipleship, is a commentary on this text. The renunciation of our selves includes the renunciation of our possessions. That is the price to be paid for following Jesus. That is our response to the offer of eternal life. It is unfortunate that we have so many decent people who call themselves Christians but have not embraced discipleship. They have not gone beyond the Old Testament ethics. For them, not harming anyone else, or fulfilling the external signs of being Catholic—that is already enough. They lack something: the renunciation of themselves to allow the Spirit to work in them.

Of course, it is often argued that as part of our renunciation, we contribute something to the poor. But often we do this in terms of our definition of what renunciation shall consist of. Often enough, as long as it does not cost us much, we allow ourselves to be deprived of something—our spare cash. Inside, however, we do not really want to let go of our comfort and fabulous lifestyle. We are like the man in the Gospel who could not accept the challenge of discipleship because we really hold on to our possessions. Not surprisingly, Jesus told his disciples: “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God ” (Mark 10:23). And to make sure that his disciples heard it correctly, he added: “My sons, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God ! It is easier for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God ” (Mark 10:24b-25). Clearly, discipleship is not about doing nothing; on the contrary, it is about doing something: it requires the renunciation of ourselves, and of what we have so that our ultimate value will be none other than Jesus and his kingdom. Only then can we walk in accord with God’s will, and, having truly responded to God’s offer in grace, experience eternal life.

Discipleship in Marriage

27th Sunday of Year B

(Mark 10:2-16)

October 4, 2009

When we are joined in marriage ceremony, we are usually filled with hope and expectation, with joy and happiness. In the weeks or months that follow, we continue to have the confidence that we have made the right decision; we think that we have chosen the best partner we could ever have. Soon, however, that dream-world stage expires; we discover that the person we have married is not what we thought him or her to be. Then, the trouble starts. The crack in the wall of what seemed once a fortress begins to show. And when the going gets tough, there is always the temptation to call it quits, without our realizing that after all the one we have married is a human being, full of imperfection, faults, warts and all. Thus, we tend to assume as our very own the question that the Pharisees posed to Jesus: “Is it permissible for a man to divorce his wife” (Mark 10:2).

Needless to say, when we begin to ask that question, it is a tacit admission that we have failed to live according to God’s original intention. “At the beginning of creation God made them male and female; for this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and the two shall become as one. They are no longer two but one flesh. Therefore let no man separate what God has joined” (Mark 10:8-9). Instead of living according to God’s intent, we wish to follow the dictate of our hardened heart. Probably under the influence of our day-to-day business, we tend to think that marriage is simply a contract between two individuals. As in a purchase of a stereo, we want to have our money back, if not satisfied with the commodity.

In today’s Gospel (Mark 10:2-16), Jesus clarifies to us something about marriage. First of all, it is not simply a contract between two individuals. First and foremost, it is God’s gift. Like other injunctions in the Old Testament, it is an expression of God’s care for his people. At the basis of it is God’s loving concern for each one of us. Therefore, when God says that “that is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife and the two of them become one body” (Gen 1:24), this was not given to make man unhappy or bind him in legalism. Rather, this is connected with his observation in the 1st Reading that “it is not good for man to be alone. I will make a suitable partner for him” (Gen 2:18). God’s will is always our happiness. But because it is a gift, we can only benefit from it if we live it according to God’s intention. Therefore, in marriage we have to discern the will of God as we live it. If we do not act on God’s will for us in marriage, we can hardly expect to experience what God has promised.

Moreover, precisely because it is God’s gift, marriage is not for every one. When the disciples, having heard of their Master’s reply to the Pharisees on the question of divorce, observed that it is better not to marry, the Matthean Jesus noted that “not everyone can accept this teaching, only those to whom it is given to do so. Some men are incapable of sexual activity from birth; some have been deliberately made so; and some there are who have freely renounced sex for the sake of God’s reign. Let him accept this teaching who can” (Matt 19:11-12). One therefore does not marry because tradition demands it; he must first of all discern whether he or she has the gift. Certainly, there are people who are married but should not have married in the first place. Some people should not marry because physically they are incapable of living married life. Others should not because psychologically they are unprepared to live it, even if they think they are. Being a man or a woman is not a sufficient qualification for marriage. It remains a gift, and not everyone has it.

But there is another point that should not be missed in today’s Gospel. It is to be noted that the pericope on the question of divorce, as far as Mark’s editorial hand is concerned, is placed within the section on discipleship. In this section, Jesus taught his disciples what it means to follow the Messiah in his footsteps (Mark 8:27-10:52). Mark’s point is quite obvious. Marriage is a form of discipleship. If this is correct, then whatever is said of discipleship must apply to marriage, because discipleship is expressed in it. For this reason, it is in marriage that we can concretize the demands of denying ourselves, taking up the cross, following Jesus in his footsteps, and losing our lives. Consequently, while marriage is intended for our happiness, it is, paradoxically, likewise a vocation to suffering. In marriage we also undertake the journey to Calvary . Therefore, when the going gets tough, we should all the more give expression to the cross of Christ. It is not without reason that the marriage rite stresses that the bond is “for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in death.” We can always expect negative experiences in marriage. We shall experience difficulties and sufferings as we follow Jesus in discipleship. But these sufferings and difficulties could be opportunities for growth and deepening of love and happiness. For as the 2nd Reading assures us: the experience of suffering and death leads to glory. It is through suffering that we perfect the work of happiness and salvation (Heb 2:9-10).