Homily on the 5th Sunday of Year C
February 7, 2010
Who are qualified to be ministers of the Word of God? If we go by popular standard, we would think that only those who are clean of heart deserve to be called ministers. If this is the way we think, it is because, when we are in the realm of religion, we seem to approach the problem of ministry by considering who God is, and once we are able to identify him, we start talking about the person who is fit to serve him. For many, God is all-powerful, without sin, and incapable of error. We attribute to him almost all the qualities that are exactly the opposite of ours. And so, we believe that the stronger, the less sinless and the more correct a person is, the more he deserves to be God’s minister. So true is this that when we know of someone’s skeleton in the closet, we immediately question his qualification to preach the Gospel. Typical of this line of thinking is the assertion of a former ambassador, made at an interview on ABS-CBN News Channel, that the Church has no business speaking about morality in politics, unless it first cleans its own backyard.
Today’s readings, however, give the lie to that impression. In the 1st Reading, Isaiah describes himself as a man of unclean lips (Isa 6:5). In the 2nd Reading, Paul tells us that he was formerly a persecutor of the Church, and hardly deserves the name apostle (1 Cor 15:9). Finally, in the Gospel, Peter, who denied Jesus thrice, is described as telling Jesus to stay away from him because he was a sinful man (Luke 5:8). And yet, these three men were proclaimers of the Lord’s Word. In light of this, it would be wrong to say that only those who are good deserve to be preachers, for in these three we have almost the exact opposite of goodness. This point is worth emphasizing because many of us think that, because the Church is holy, it does not have a place for sinful people. How often we distance ourselves from those we perceive to be sinful members! We do not accept them as members of religious organizations or faith communities in the parish! Yet, Isaiah was chosen by God to be a prophet to Israel for many years; despite his betrayal, Peter became the first head of the Church; and Paul became an unrivalled missionary to the known world at that time.
What gives? If we go back to the readings, we will notice that there is one thing common among the three: they experienced the Lord. The Lord touched their lives. Isaiah was probably an aristocrat, because he could get near to the King. One time he went to the Temple, and there he was overwhelmed by a vision of God. He saw him, and that experience touched his life. From then on, he became a proclaimer of God’s Word. Paul had a vision of Jesus, while he was on the way to Damascus. Before he entered the city, he was struck by a vision, and from then on, he became a different man. In the Gospel, Peter encountered God not in a place like the Temple, but in an event. He experienced the presence of the Lord in the abundant catch of fish. The point of all these is that we will truly become spokesmen of the Lord only if we have an experience of him. (No wonder that, because of this lack of experience of his presence, many of us look for him in astrology, feng sui, born-again sects, transcendental meditation, and new age movements, and we consult all kinds of charlatans just to encounter him.)
But how do we know we had an experience of the Lord? The authenticity of our experience, at least from the standpoint of the readings today, is verified in two acts. First is the consciousness that we are sinful, and therefore ability to accept the sinfulness of others. ”Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man,” said Peter (Luke 5:8). “Of these [sinners],” confessed Paul, “I myself am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15). Indeed, it would seem that only a person who is able to see the depth of his sinfulness can say that he has truly experienced the presence of God. The opposite is completely true. If a person comes parading that he is very good, and criticizes others for their need of conversion from sin, and sets himself apart from sinners, he has hardly any credentials to a claim of a personal encounter with God. And second: having experienced the Lord and having gone into the depth of his sinfulness, one begins to proclaim the Word of God, and nothing can stop him from doing it. He may even leave everything that made him secure. Isaiah left the comfort of wealth and the company of powerful men. On the contrary, he even experienced persecution because of the Word he proclaimed. Having seen the vision on the road, Paul became a Christian and nothing could stop his missionary activity. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). He left the comfortable life of a Pharisee, and in his ministry as missionary, he was often flogged, stoned, and placed in dangerous situation.
The vocation to be a minister of the Word requires more than a vast reserve of accumulated knowledge about the Scriptures. It would seem that if few of us persevere in proclaiming the good news and have the zeal in doing the mission, despite our initial interest and training, it is because the Lord has not yet touched us. That is why, no amount of seminars and lectures can motivate us to be zealous ministers, unless we are first given this initial push, this divine touch. What matters in the end is not really who we are. It does not matter whether we are persecutors of the Church and public sinners, or whether we are equipped for the ministry or not. What matters is the finger of God, the touch by the Holy Spirit. Of course, there are people for whom this is not acceptable. They are even afraid to commit mistakes; they want to be like God so that nothing bad could be said of them. But such a life misses the whole point of what life is all about. We cannot be like God through our own effort in the first place. What is ultimately decisive is that we allow the Spirit to move us. And after that, nothing in us really matters, not even ourselves.