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).