Sunday, March 25, 2007

5th Sunday of Lent (Year C)

Jn 8:1-11

The teachers of the Law and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery, and they asked his opinion about her case. The gospel highlights the fact that the question was meant to be a trap; the interrogators had the intention to discredit Jesus (Jn 8:6). In effect, the person on trial here was Jesus, not the woman.

It was a no-win situation for Jesus. If he says the woman ought to be stoned to death, he could be denounced to the Romans for agitating people to commit murder. Significantly, he would be contradicting his own teaching about love and forgiveness. On the other hand, if Jesus says the woman deserves mercy, he would be contradicting the Law of Moses which orders a death sentence to any adulteress (Dt 22:22).

Before giving his word, Jesus bent down and wrote something on the ground with his finger. Bible scholars say that this manifestation was customary among Mediterranean peasants when they were troubled. The act, however, gave the scribes and the Pharisees the needed moment to realize the maliciousness of their heart. When Jesus stood up and said, “Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to throw a stone at her”, the accusers walked away, one by one, starting with the elders (Jn 8:7-9). They realized that they, too, were sinners, like the adulterous woman. The elders were first to leave because they had more faults to be sorry about in their own lives.

Saint Augustine noted how at the conclusion of the story we are left only with the “misera et misericordia”, the pitiable woman and mercy. By refusing to condemn, Jesus emerged triumphant over the merciless hearts of the scribes and the Pharisees.

It is quite amazing that during the penitential season of Lent the Church keeps reminding us of God’s boundless mercy and compassion. Instead of threatening us with “fires of hell” and “eternal punishment”, the Church consoles us with the thought that God’s mercy always prevails in the end. Such was the indisputable message in the parables of the fig tree and of the prodigal son. This wonderful truth should not encourage us to keep sinning and be a recipient of God’s mercy forever. We need to hate sin because it is harmful to our relationships with self, God and others. Thus, while Jesus refused to condemn the adulterous woman, he admonished her, “Go away and don’t sin again” (Jn 8:11).

Furthermore, the season of Lent urges us not to be judgmental with others. We all are sinners and are in need of mercy. Only God has the right to judge people because only he is perfect. Somebody said that God himself does not propose to judge a person until he is dead, so why should we?

A young businessman fell in love with a beautiful ramp model. Wanting to be sure of the woman’s moral integrity, he contracted an investigating agency to make a character check on the prospective wife. (But he didn’t reveal his identity to the agency.) After a month, he received a report: “The lady comes from a good family, single, morally clean, honest and very selective in friendships. Lately, however, the lady’s family and friends are quite worried because she is always seen with a businessman friend, who, according to this investigation is ill-repute and has been into corrupt business practices.”

(The story is by Larry Faraon)

Sunday, March 18, 2007

4th Sunday of Lent (Year C)

Joshua 5:9, 10-12; Ps 33; 2 Cor 5:17-21; Lk 15:1-3, 11-32

After reading the Parable of the Prodigal Son, the old catechist asked the kids: “At the end of the story who is it that ended up in a miserable state, the younger or the older brother?” A boy stood up and answered: “Neither one. It’s the fattened cow!”

The gospel provides a background of the “Parable of the Prodigal Son”. The scribes and the Pharisees were grumbling when they saw Jesus associating with sinners and outcasts. For them, it was inconsistent for a Rabbi to teach religious truths and at the same time mingle with bad elements of society. The Lord narrated the parable in order to show the scribes and the Pharisees that their idea of God was quite problematic. He wanted to teach them that God is not a wrathful Judge whose only concern is to find fault and condemn sinners; rather, God is a merciful Father who forgives repentant sinners and wills the salvation of all. In order to appreciate the point of Jesus, let us try to know the three main characters of the parable and understand what these personalities tell us about our moral life today.

First, there is the younger son. Apparently, he is unhappy in the home of his father. Without waiting for his father to die, he asks for his share of the family estate, something considered offensive and dishonorable in Mediterranean culture. He is like telling his father “For me, you are good as dead.” Bible experts explain that perhaps the younger son is disgruntled with the fact that in their society it is the eldest son who enjoys greater privileges. The younger son considers it clever to take his share ahead of time, go abroad and live away from his home and family. He thinks that with his inherited money he could live his life unrestricted and enjoys it to the maximum. However, he realizes that there is an end to all his waywardness. His reckless lifestyle drains his fortune. When he turns moneyless, he also becomes friendless. For survival purposes, he applies to work and ends up feeding pigs, the greatest indignity possible for a Jew. This merely shows the depths of degradation in which the prodigal son finds himself. Coming to his senses, he remembers the beautiful home he left behind and decides to go back to his father in order to beg for mercy.

The younger son represents every sinner. The sinner tarnishes his special status as God’s child and jeopardizes his right as heir of the kingdom. The sinner is discontented with his relationship with God and looks for happiness in worldly things. Sin basically is a conscious decision to depart from the love of the Heavenly Father and to find idols in created things. Sin promises a life of pleasure, excitement and satisfaction, but the sinner would later realize that all he gets by sinning is misery, meaninglessness and shame. The good news is that no matter how deeply the sinner sinks into sin, there always is a small voice urging him to come back to his Father’s house where genuine freedom and happiness can be found.

Second, there is the loving father. He has all the power to say “No” to the untimely and insolent demand of his son, but he gives in (surely, with a heavy heart). The father loves his son and wishes to keep him happy and safe in his house, but he chooses not to force his love. He knows that love to be genuine must be free. While the son squanders all his money in dissolute living, the father keeps hoping for his return. He spends many hours outside his house waiting for the shadow of his son. Upon seeing his son, the father runs with abandon to meet him (Lk 15:20) – something unthinkable for a Jewish father to do. The joy of seeing his son alive makes the father disregard his revered status. Most of all, he forgets about his heartache and the humiliation his son has caused him.

The son has a well-rehearsed speech: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands” (Lk 15:18-19). He knows that he is a great sinner and that he deserves nothing but mercy. But the father never gives the prodigal son a chance to finish his apologetic lines. He needs no words, no explanations. The father understands the pain, the humiliation and the shame of his son. And thus, he restores immediately his dignity by giving him the best robe (sign of honor), the ring (symbol of authority), the sandals (only slaves wear no sandals), and by slaughtering a fattened cow (sign of joy and feasting).

The father of the prodigal son is the image that Jesus would like us to have of his Father in heaven. God is a merciful Father who loves us so much despite of our sinfulness or unworthiness. God would like us to respond to his salvific invitation, but he never forces himself on us. We are free to love God back or to reject him. Like the father of the prodigal son, God patiently waits for the return of his lost children. He is one who runs out to receive us. He is one who gives a lavish feast when he gets us back. Unfortunately, many of us are not too familiar with this kind of God.

Finally, there is the elder son. He is proud that he has never strayed like his younger brother. He serves faithfully his father and considers himself deserving of all praises and rewards. He imagines himself as the ideal son, but he lacks mercy and compassion. He is not happy that his erring brother has come back home. He says to his father: “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends” (Lk 15:29). From the words of the elder son, we can say that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not of loving service. The elder son stands for the self-righteous Pharisees who followed all the letters of the law out of duty, not out of love. Like the elder son, the Pharisees were arrogant and unforgiving. They would rather see a sinner condemned than saved.

How often are we like the unforgiving son? Sometimes, we are self-righteous and easy to find fault in other people. At times, we also are judgmental and quick to condemn. A spiritual guru says that when God looks at us, he covers one eye so as not to see the ugly parts of us. But when we look at other people, we open wide our eyes and we even use magnifying glasses in order to see the dirty sides of others. This is where the problem often lies. We need to learn from the heart of our Father in heaven. As Jesus invites us: “Be merciful as your Father is merciful” (Lk 6:36). At the end of the parable, the one that ended up in the worst situation is not the fattened calf but the older brother because he is self-righteous, proud and unforgiving.

As we move deeply into the season of Lent, the Church invites us to emulate the example of the younger son by turning away from our wandering, self-satisfying and totally autonomous lifestyle. May we learn to approach God in the sacrament of reconciliation not as slaves but as his children, ready to repent and make amends to every wrong or harm we have done to others. Moreover, the Church discourages us from following the arrogant, egotistical and purist mentality of the older son. Let us develop in us a merciful and understanding heart, ready to forgive those who might have offended or hurt us.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

3rd Sunday of Lent (Year C)

Ex 3:1-8, 13-15; Ps 102; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9

It was quite usual for people during Jesus’ time to consider misfortune as God’s punishment for bad people and blessings as God’s reward for righteous individuals. For this mentality, the fact that our business went bankrupt, that our loved one died in a car accident, that our child had a handicap, or that our marriage broke up, was a sign that God was not happy with us because of our evil deeds. Today, many of us would think the same way. In fact, whenever a serious accident or a terminal sickness befalls us, we immediately ask: “What have I’ve done to deserve this?”, “Why me?”, or “Where did I fall short?” The common tendency is to search for the punishable fault.

In the gospel, Jesus tries to address the mistaken idea that all sufferings are a divine castigation for sin. He cites two well-known sad incidents, namely, the “massacre in the temple” (wherein a group of Galileans who strongly opposed the Roman occupiers were brutally killed upon the order of Pilate) and the “Siloam tower tragedy” (an accident that led to the demise of 18 people). Jesus explains that the death of the victims does not mean that they are more sinful than others. Bad things may happen to good and bad people alike. In the first place, the power of darkness would cause harm to anybody regardless of the victim’s moral character. Moreover, calamities are usually the result of blind forces of nature which could hit people indiscriminately.

To consider personal suffering as God’s punishment for an evildoer runs contrary to the entire message of the Bible. What happened to Job clearly showed that an innocent man has his share of suffering. Job was a pious man and he was not deserving of punishment from a just God. This truth is made definitely clear when Jesus himself, innocent and free of any stain of sin, experienced the most painful suffering and death. The Bible recognizes the fact that many sufferings have resulted from evil actions of humanity or sin in the world, but it is not saying that all sufferings are a punishment for sin. As Edward Schillebeeckx said, “It is possible to draw conclusions from sin to suffering, but not from suffering to sin.” Indeed, we do not need to go far in order to see the suffering of so many innocent people in the world.

Instead of portraying God as a strong punisher, Jesus brings an image of a patient and merciful Lord. This is particularly manifested in the way he relates with people considered in his time as dirty or sinners. Rather than condemning tax collectors, prostitutes, shepherds, lepers and others, the Lord invites them to repentance and discipleship.

Bible commentators would agree that the parable of the fig tree is a brief story about God’s mercy. The landowner already waited patiently (imagine three years!) for the fig tree to produce fruit. Since the fig tree normally bears fruit ten months of the year, any landowner would reasonably expect to see fruit at almost every time. Given such case, who would blame the landowner if he decides to cut down a tree which remains fruitless for many years? Imagine the kind of patience this landowner has when he agrees with the suggestion of a gardener to give the tree one more year. Consider also the dedication of the gardener who volunteers to cultivate deeply and manure the land in order to provide the tree the best chance to bear fruit.

In the parable we can easily imagine God as the landowner, Jesus as the gardener, and we as fig trees. God is saddened when we remain fruitless, when we fail to produce good works or fail to extend love to others. By our sinfulness or selfishness, we deserve to be condemned. But Jesus, who is the embodiment of God’s compassion, intercedes to the Father to give us second chances or more time to repent.

The season of Lent moves us to be grateful for the immensity of God’s mercy. Let us also thank Jesus who continues to mediate and intercede for us before God. He is the Great Gardener who cultivates in us genuine love for God and neighbor. In the concrete, Jesus develops our Christian life through our parents, catechists, teachers, spiritual directors, counselors, friends and others. They serve as gardeners after the model of Jesus and they help us move from infertility to fruitfulness. Our deep gratitude to them should inspire us to leave our sinful ways so that we can start bearing fruit that would benefit others. Let us not remain in our wrongdoings and fruitlessness because even the Gardener himself acknowledges that the time will come when the unproductive tree will be cut down.

A minister waited in line to have his car filled with gas just before a long holiday weekend. The attendant worked quickly, but there were many cars ahead of him in front of the service station. Finally, the attendant motioned him toward a vacant pump.

“Reverend,” said the young man, “sorry about the delay. It seems as if everyone waits until the last minute to get ready for a long trip.”

The minister chuckled, “I know what you mean. It's the same in my business.”

(The story is from an unknown author)

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Tuesday of the 2nd Week of Lent (Year C)

Is 1:10, 16-20; Ps 49; Mt 23, 1-12

The scribes and the Pharisees were criticized heavily by Jesus, not because they preached false teachings, but that they did not practice the good things they were preaching.

It would be tough to follow a teaching that is given by one who does not practice what he preaches. This would be the case of a parent who is against his children’s drinking alcohol but who is an alcoholic himself or of a priest who gives nice sermons about love and understanding but who is unloving and unforgiving himself.

When a teaching is given by one who practices what he preaches, the command will be easy to follow because of the preacher’s good example. Action speaks louder than voice. A good model is always the best teacher.

He who does not observe what he preaches (like the scribes and the Pharisees) is laying a heavy burden on others. He who lives what he teaches (like our Lord) gives a yoke that is light and easy to carry.

At the time of final reckoning, God will judge us not by the nice words that we say but by the good works that we do: “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Mt 25:35). The practice is what counts. As Jesus himself said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in Heaven” (Mt 7:21).

The scribes and the Pharisees enjoyed their status as religious teachers or spiritual fathers, but their negative attitudes and dispositions made them impotent of nourishing the spiritual life of their people. Strictly speaking, it is God who really fathers and teaches. Henceforth, even if people address us with such titles as “teacher” or “father”, we should not exert effort to be called so. We rather made sure that our words and actions will give justice to these honorific titles given us.

The desire for respect is common to all people. He who thinks that such desire does not preoccupy him is worst than the scribes and the Pharisees. Nowadays, it is customary to assign honors of title and respect in order to acknowledge the great achievements and contributions of people. The giving of honors, titles, and banquets are our way of celebrating the good deeds of others. Does Jesus absolutely discourage this kind of practice? Not necessarily so. What is important is for us to understand clearly the Lord’s definition of greatness in the Kingdom of God. “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted” (Mt 23:11). May we learn to honor only those who give themselves unselfishly for the service of the entire Body of Christ!

Sunday, March 4, 2007

2nd Sunday of Lent (Year C)

Gen 15:5-12, 17-18; Ps 26; Phil 3:17-4:1; Lk 9:28-36

During his baptism by John at the Jordan River, Jesus heard a voice from heaven, saying “You are my beloved Son, with you I am well pleased” (Lk 2:22). The declaration of his Divine Sonship was crucial for Jesus to begin, persevere and complete his earthly ministry. When Jesus was praying and fasting for forty days in preparation for his ministerial work, the devil tried to challenge his adored status as God’s Son: “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to turn into a loaf (Lk 4:3) . . . . If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here . . .” (Lk 4:9). Obviously, the devil had the intention of casting a doubt in the mind and heart of Jesus concerning his Divine Sonship. “How could you be the Son of God when you are starving, weak, powerless and insignificant?” By refusing the enticements of the devil, Jesus showed that his Sonship was not relative to material abundance, power, honor, or fame. In today’s gospel, while Jesus was praying on a high mountain, he was transfigured before his three closest friends, and a familiar voice from the cloud declared, “This is my Son, my Chosen One, listen to him” (Lk 9:35). That reassurance was the only thing that Jesus needed to finalize his decision to go up to Jerusalem, even with the high risk of being ridiculed, persecuted and killed.

When we were baptized, we also were granted the privileged status of being adopted children of God and heirs of the kingdom of heaven. Our dignity as God’s children is an unmerited gift – something that we do not deserve; something that we do not acquire. God loves us unconditionally and we do not need to prove our worth. The devil, however, would not like us to believe the benevolence of God. Every now and then, the devil would do something to make us doubt or question our special relationship with God. “If you really are God’s favored children, why are you deprived of many things?” “Why are you hungry or malnourished?” “Why are you working hard with little success?” “Why are you failing from many relationships and endeavors?” “Why are you sick and dying?” If we are not careful or strong, the devil might succeed in convincing us that God doesn’t care and that we really are not His beloved children. We might forget all that God has already accomplished for us and the eternal joy in the future that He promises.

Bible commentators are one in saying that the mystery of the Transfiguration was not only for Jesus but also for his disciples. The disciples were about to journey with Jesus to Jerusalem and they were to witness the passion and death of their Lord, something that would be too much for them to see. The disciples needed something to hold on, to hope for, or to look forward to. Such was the value of the Transfiguration. The mysterious mountaintop experience would give the disciples courage and strength to face future trials and persecutions. It was a prefiguration of the Resurrection, of the Lord’s ultimate victory over the power of evil, sin and death.

In this Lenten season, the Church would like us to reflect and appreciate the relevance of the mystery of the Transfiguration in our life today. We have our crosses and trials, some of which are difficult for us to carry and handle. Nevertheless, we are believers of the Resurrection, and like the first disciples of Jesus, we have hope that someday we all will shine in glory as the Lord did. When the moment of our dying and death comes, the same kind of hope will sustain us in the darkest hours. The Transfiguration scene shall be for us a constant reminder that our journey will not end in death, but in life; not in humiliation, but in glory. If we suffer with Christ, we also can expect to live with him in everlasting glory. In the second reading, Saint Paul wrote, “For our homeland is in heaven and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transfigure the wretched body of ours into the mould of his glorious body. . .” (Phil 3:20-21).

Before she succumbed to cancer, my older sister Florenda shared with me her near-death experience which happened while she was being surgically operated of ectopic pregnancy in the hospital. She told me that during the operation, she experienced some kind of a release from her body and, all of a sudden, she found herself floating on the air. From above, she saw the doctors and nurses working on her on the operating table. What she can hardly describe was the beautiful feeling that she experienced during the release. She told me that the last thing she wanted during that moment was to go back to her body. Then, she also experienced passing thru a very long tunnel with a bright light at the end. Coming to the end of the tunnel was more than rewarding because there she saw the most loveable person she had ever seen in her life, Jesus our Lord. People might easily dismiss it as hallucination, a side effect of the heavy anesthesia. But for my sister, it was a meaningful experience, something that gave her a foretaste of the indescribable feeling of meeting Christ at the end of our earthly life. I believe it was a God-given experience that had prepared my sister to face with courage, if not, joyful expectation, her ultimate dying and death.