Sunday, July 29, 2007

17th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Gen 18:20-32; Col 2:12-14; Lk 11:1-13

A man is praying. He says, “God?”
God says, “Yes?”
The man says, “Can I ask you a question?”
God says, “Go right ahead.”
The man asks, “What is a million years to you?”
“A million years is like a second.”
The man thinks this over and then asks, “What is a million dollars to you?”
God says, “A million dollars is like a penny.”
“Then can I have a penny?”
God says, “Sure, just a second.”

(The story is from an unknown author)

How do we pray to God? What are we asking God in our prayers? Does He answer all our prayers?

There are many forms of prayer and there are many ways of praying. A spiritual director or a religion teacher may suggest to us some techniques of praying. One style of praying may be helpful to us; another way might be suitable to our friends. But there is no single style that fits everyone. In praying, however, the most important thing is not the form or the style but the attitude that we bring in conversing with God.

A disciple asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray just as John taught his disciples”. Watching the Lord pray, this disciple fell in love with prayer and decided to learn the proper way of praying. Perhaps there was something in the way Jesus prayed that attracted the disciple so deeply.

Jesus said in reply, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come.” The Lord called God “Abba” – an endearing Aramaic word that a Jewish child would normally address his father. The closest equivalent that we have is “Daddy” (“Tatay” or “Papa” in Filipino). In biblical times, no Jew would ever dare to address God the way Jesus did. For the Jews, God is most sacred and absolutely transcendent. To call God “Abba” was simply considered blasphemous.

Jesus, however, had a different image of God – that of a loving Father, not a distant supreme being. The Lord wanted his followers to call God “Abba” because the kind of relationship that he liked them to have with God was like that of a parent-child affiliation. Disciples are God’s dearest children and they can approach him in the familiar confident way a child approaches a loving parent.

Calling God “Father” does not mean that God is masculine because he is beyond the categories of gender. Speaking of God as father is as meaningful as speaking of God as mother. In the Bible, one discovers that the love of God also is equated with that of the love of a mother to her children. This simply shows that every disciple’s relationship with God should be based on love and intimacy, not on power and coercion.

The Lord’s Prayer, therefore, is not simply a short formula of prayer. First of all, there is something in it that reminds us of our true relationship with God and with one another. God is our Father and we are all brothers and sisters. We approach God in prayer like little children seeking parental love and attention. When we pray, we don’t pray only for our personal needs but for others as well. Moreover, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us that there are only a few things that matter most in life – such as God’s kingdom, daily bread, forgiveness and deliverance from evil. A lot of what we ask for in prayer are not essential; sometimes even are harmful to us.

Responsible parents would never provide something that destroys their children’s life. We, as children of a loving Father in heaven, should come in prayer with a spirit of trust and expectancy, knowing that God will always do for us whatever is in our best interest. If God says “No” to our prayers, let us not think that he does not care or he does not love us. What Jimmy Carter said to Larry King on TV is true:

God always answers prayers. Sometimes it’s “yes” and sometimes the answer is “no,” and sometimes it’s “you just gotta be kidding.” But when prayers are not answered the way we want them, then we have an opportunity and an obligation to re-examine our own position. Maybe the things for which we are praying aren’t God’s will.

Fr. Rudy Horst has a brief and meaningful commentary on the Lord’s Prayer:

Do not say “Our” if you live isolated in your egoism;
Do not say “Father” if every day you do not behave like a son;
Do not say “Who art in Heaven” if you think only of earthly things;
Do not say “Hallowed be thy name” if you do not honor Him;
Do not say “Thy kingdom come” if you confuse him with material success;
Do not say “Your will be done” if you do not accept it when it is painful;
Do not say “Give us this day our daily bread” if you are not worried about people who are hungry, who are without means to live;
Do not say “Forgive us our trespasses” if you bear your brother a grudge.
Do not say “And lead us not into temptation” if you intend to keep sinning;
Do not say “Deliver us from evil” if you do not take position against evil;
Do not say “Amen” if you do not take the words of the Our Father seriously!

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Feast of James the Apostle (C)

2 Cor 4:7-15; Mt 20:20-28

The gospel features the story about a mother who asked Jesus to seat her two sons to his left and right in his kingdom. Matthew got this story from Mark but toned it down considerably. In Matthew, the mother asks that her sons be given the privileged position; in Mark, the two boys ask for the positions of power themselves. In Matthew, the two sons are not given names; in Mark, we are told that the two were James and John.

In the story, Jesus took the opportunity out of the occasion to remind his first disciples about the real meaning of leadership and greatness. First place is achieved through service; greatness is measured by servanthood. The Master himself came not to be served but to serve, and so must the followers be.

Today, many people study and work hard to get to the top. Such ambition is common in schools, in work places, in politics, or even in the Church. There is nothing wrong with aiming for higher position. Excellence also is a virtue. However, those who desire for power must be careful not to be corrupted by it. Power, like money, is a good servant, not a good master. Those who occupy positions of authority have to make sure that they are serving others, not their personal interests.

James the apostle, whose feast we celebrate today, was initially driven by ambition, and so was his brother John. Eventually, however, the two learned where true greatness lies. The Book of Acts informs us that John would always yield to Peter when it comes to preaching and doing miracles. James, for his part, was inspired by great zeal to preach the gospel to the world and, putting aside all selfish interests, rose to such splendid heights that he straight-away suffered martyrdom (Acts 12: 2).

Sunday, July 22, 2007

16th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Gen 18:1-10; Col 1:24-28; Lk 10:38-42

The readings provide us important lessons concerning the virtue of hospitality.

In the first reading, Abraham welcomes three mysterious guests into his tent and offers them the usual desert amenities of shelter, water and food. Some authors would say that the three men are angels of God; others would suggest that the three are a manifestation of the Triune God. Abraham may not be fully aware of the identity of his guests, but we see in him a perfect representative of a culture that so highly values hospitality to strangers. Because of the difficulty and hazard of desert travels, ancient Jews would feel deeply obligated to provide for the needs of travelers. The Book of Hebrews says that hospitality can lead to divine encounters: “Do not neglect hospitality, for through it some have unknowingly entertained angels” (13:2). Abraham’s hospitality is demonstrated by the fact that he personally serves the guests. He prepares the cream, the milk and the calf, even though he has so many servants. In return to his generosity, Abraham is informed about the coming birth of his long-awaited son.

Abraham should inspire us to be hospitable to people, especially to those who are heavily burdened by difficulties and hardships of life. In the Parable of the Last Judgment, the Lord reminds us that every little thing that we do for a needy person, we are doing it to him (Mt 25:31-46). Therefore, we cannot be short of opportunities to serve the Lord because around us there are just so many people who are in need of assistance. Of course, we cannot possibly help every destitute person. The Lord reminds us that the poor will always be with us (Mt 26:11). And yet, if every one of us desires to help a poor person each day, imagine what a difference that would make in the world.

Martha and Mary, together with their brother Lazarus, were beloved friends of Jesus. They lived in a small village called Bethany where Jesus loved to drop by and relax whenever he was traveling near Jerusalem. In today’s gospel account, the Lord passes in Bethany and the sisters Martha and Mary once again invite him to their home. This time, however, Martha gets so busy because she wants to prepare a nice meal for the Lord. Meanwhile, Mary, the younger sister, is so excited to see Jesus that all she wants to do is sit and talk with the Lord. The next thing we hear is Martha’s complaint against the seeming laziness of her sister: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me by myself to do the serving? Tell her to help me.” Here, we suppose that Martha is not truly angry at the situation or is not really making a violent protest. One cannot initiate a fight in the family or make a strong comment about a sibling in the presence of a special guest. Jesus’ response to Martha somehow indicates that the atmosphere in the house is quite light. The way he repeats her name, “Martha, Martha,” suggests that he is smiling at someone whose little failings are not new to him. Nonetheless, the Lord proceeds to deliver an important lesson: The presence and attention of a friend or a loved one is more valuable than any material provision.

The story in Bethany should inspire us to check the quality of our hospitality to others. Genuine hospitality is a virtue that moves us to consider the real needs of people and to respond to them appropriately. Often we find it easier to serve people by providing them with material things than by giving them our time and presence. But we know for a fact that the greater need of people is not for money or things but for love and attention. As Mother Teresa of Calcutta used to remind us: “Loneliness and the feeling of being unwanted is the greatest poverty.”

There was once a man who was trying to read the evening newspaper after he had come home from a rough day at the office. As he attempted to read the paper, he was constantly being interrupted by his children. One child came and asked for money for an ice cream cone, and his father gently reached into his pocket and gave him the necessary coin. Another child arrived in tears. Her leg was hurt and she wanted her daddy to kiss the hurt away. An older son came with an algebra problem, and they eventually arrived at the right answer. Finally, the last and youngest of them all burst into the room looking for good old dad. The father said cynically, “What do you want?” the little youngster said, “Oh, Daddy, I don’t want anything. I just want to sit in your lap.”

(The story is from Stories for All Seasons by Gerard Fuller, OMI)

Sunday, July 15, 2007

15th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Deut 30:10-14; Col 1:15-20; Lk 10:25-37

“Master, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” The lawyer who asked this question to Jesus did not mean well. He wanted to discredit the Lord, perhaps by proving to the people that he was more knowledgeable about the law than this carpenter-turned-preacher. The lawyer’s intention was malicious, but his question was vital: “What must I do to gain life everlasting?” What question can be more crucial! There is, however, a problematic assumption that this lawyer shares with many others. He thought that eternal life is attainable by fulfilling certain obligations, as if a person is saved through his own efforts.

Jesus did not attempt to correct the fundamental flaw in the lawyer’s question. Inheritance is based on relationship, not achievement. In fact, a person does not have to do something to inherit a gift. More interestingly, the Lord chose not to answer the lawyer’s inquiry. Instead, he threw back a question to him: “What is written in the law?” All of a sudden, there was a reversal of roles: the questioned became the questioner.

The lawyer was quick to reply, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Practically, every Jew during Jesus’ time was familiar with this commandment, but not all, of course, took this by heart or put it into practice. Thus, the Lord said to the lawyer, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” Knowledge about the law of God does not mean anything if the person himself does not observe it in his life.

Perhaps, realizing that he was now the one under scrutiny, the lawyer tried to justify himself by asking another question, “And who is my neighbor?” The question was clearly a diversionary tactic, and yet, it presented a practical dilemma. Who is the neighbor I have to love? Do I need to love everyone? Or, is there a non-neighbor I do not have to love?

In Judaism there was a discussion about who should be considered a neighbor of an Israelite. Generally speaking, Jews would consider “neighbor” a fellow Jew or a convert to Judaism. Neighbors were people who share the same religious convictions or nationalist sentiments. The Jews would not consider Samaritans as their neighbors because there was a deeply-rooted animosity between them. For inter-marrying with foreign invaders (considered gentiles), Samaritans were accused of defiling the temple, distorting the Torah and degrading divine worship. Hence, from the Jews’ point of view, Samaritans were blasphemous, licentious and morally decadent. They were not to be included in the circle of neighborly love.

Now, imagine how the Jews reacted after Jesus told the story which became known as “The Parable of the Good Samaritan”. The Samaritan, not the priest and the Levite, came out the protagonist of the story. This parable was a big slap in the face for the Jews. Definitely, many of them got mad and wondered how this Jewish story-teller could possibly portray a “good” Samaritan.

The question “Who is my neighbor?” provided a context for the parable of the Good Samaritan. Through this parable, Jesus teaches that humanity is one big neighborhood. Every person is our neighbor, not simply those who are like us by race, color, tongue, philosophy, or belief. The Samaritan of the story proved to be a true neighbor because he responded to the needs of a dying man regardless of the fact that the victim was a Jew or an enemy. Moreover, the parable emphasizes that love of neighbor must not only be universal but also concrete and proactive. The Samaritan did not only say consoling words to the victim on the road. Instead, “he went up and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them”. Then, he lifted the wounded man onto his donkey, brought him to the inn and cared for him. The following day, “he took out two denarii and handed them to the innkeeper” with the promise that he will come back to settle his responsibility for the services the innkeeper would provide the patient. Through this story, Jesus teaches that genuine love of neighbor includes the willingness to give time, energy and material resources for the good of the needy.

The priest and the Levite were first to notice the wounded man on the road, but they did not feel any compassion for him and simply passed by on the other side. A commentator warns that we should not make the mistake of easily condemning the priest and the Levite as “bad” men. Perhaps, they were not bad, but busy. For the two religious personalities and, often, for many of us, people in need are cargoes, disturbances and troubles. They intrude on our privacy. They disturb our work, responsibilities and free times. We might see their needs and we wish others would help them, but not us, not now, or not here. We have other things to do.

Today’s gospel should inspire us to consider all needy persons – the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the broken-hearted, even our enemies – as our neighbors. Every time we encounter them, we are challenged to become Good Samaritans by helping them in their needs. This, according to Jesus, is a way that leads to eternal life.

Somebody wrote this inspiring Beatitudes:

Blessed are those who care and who are not afraid to show it – they will let people know they are loved.

Blessed are those who are gentle and patient – they will help people to grow as the sun helps the buds to open and blossom.

Blessed are those who have the ability to listen – they will lighten many a burden.

Blessed are those who know how and when to let go – they will have the joy of seeing people find themselves.

Blessed are those who, when nothing can be done or said, do not walk away, but remain to provide a comforting and supportive presence – they will help the sufferer to bear the unbearable.

Blessed are those who recognize their own need to receive, and who receive with graciousness – they will be able to give all the better.

Blessed are those who give without hope of return – they will give people an experience of God.

[The Beatitudes for People Who Care is by an unknown author]

Sunday, July 8, 2007

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Is 66:10-14c; Ps 66:1-3, 4-5, 6-7, 16, 20; Gal 6:14-18; Lk 10:1-12, 17-20

“The harvest is rich but the laborers are few, so ask the Lord of the harvest to send laborers to the harvest.” When Jesus said these words, he was aware that his time on earth was nearing its end. He knew that his followers would have to continue the work he has begun. When he said “The harvest is rich”, the Lord was referring not only to people of Palestine in his time but to people of all times and places. He wanted to bring all of humankind to the Heavenly Father. Hence, he wished to have more laborers who will carry on the work of harvesting people for the kingdom. Jesus asked his disciples to pray for more laborers because he realized that too few individuals would be willing to work for God.

Until now, the harvest is abundant. There remain countless people who have yet to hear or know about Jesus and the good news of God’s infinite love and mercy. We need to continue praying for more laborers because there are not many who carry out seriously the salvific work of Christ.

The synoptic gospels have a record of the mission of the twelve apostles (Mt 10:2-14; Mk 6:7-12; Lk 9:1-6), but only the gospel of Luke narrated the mission-sending of the Seventy (other texts say there were Seventy-two). Reginald Fuller explains that “the mission of the Twelve represents the Church’s mission to Israel (twelve tribes); and the mission of the Seventy, its mission to the nations of the world (which according to Jewish tradition, numbered seventy or seventy-two).”

People are used to thinking that the ministerial work of Christ has been entrusted to priests and religious only. Indeed, priests and religious have a special calling to serve God’s people, but lay people are called to the ministry of service as well. The Vatican document Apostolicam Actuositatem (On the Apostolate of the Laity) states clearly that “Incorporated into Christ’s Mystical Body through baptism and strengthened by the power of the Holy Spirit through confirmation, the laity are assigned to the apostolate by the Lord himself” (n. 3). Jesus himself wills that every disciple should have an active part in the building up of the kingdom of God.

We, who have been baptized in Christ, are now the seventy disciples tasked by Jesus to deliver the gospel to every corners of the world. How are we going to do this? The same Vatican document explains: “Laymen have countless opportunities for exercising the apostolate of evangelization and sanctification. The very witness of a Christian life, and good works done in a supernatural spirit, are effective in drawing men to the faith and to God” (AA, n. 6). We, therefore, can contribute to the salvific mission of Christ by practicing the values of the gospel in our families, schools, places of work, or in marketplaces. Values such as integrity, fairness, diligence, generosity, love, understanding and forgiveness would surely attract people to the Church and to God.

Jesus tells his disciples, “You are the salt of the earth . . . you are the light of the world” (Mt 5:13-14). By this he wanted to tell us that our presence in society should make a big difference. We are not only parents, teachers, businessmen, managers, workers, or students. Rather, we are called to become Christian parents, Christian teachers, Christian businessmen, Christian managers, Christian workers, or Christian students. By being true to our name, we expect the world to become a much better place to live in. Andrew Long said it beautifully: “The main business of a Christian soul is to go through the world turning its water into wine.”

Daily witnessing of gospel values is supremely important, but it is not enough. There also is the task of disciples to proclaim boldly in “words” the message of Jesus to the world. A genuine follower “looks for opportunities to announce Christ by words addressed either to non-believers with a view to leading them to faith, or to the faithful with a view to instructing, strengthening, and encouraging them to a more fervent life” (AA, no. 6). The proclamation of the Word is a task that we, Catholics, often take for granted. Sometimes, we can’t help but marvel at how members of other Christian denominations preach the Word of God from one household to another with great courage and enthusiasm.

Jesus instructed the disciples about the way they should conduct themselves in doing their mission. “Carry no purse, no haversack, and no sandals.” In other words, they have to travel light and not be bothered by unnecessary baggage. The Lord is telling us through the seventy missionaries that we need to put our trust in God and in the generosity of people, not in personal belongings. Material things are important in life; we need them to live and to be happy. We also can utilize them to serve the needs of one another. Often, however, the things we enjoy possessing would hinder us from giving ourselves totally to God. Hence, the gospel inspires us not to be so attached to material wealth or to live simply so that we can serve God’s people with greater freedom and dedication.

When the disciples came back from their missionary trips, they reported with gladness their achievements to the Lord saying, “Even the devils submit to us when we use your name!” Jesus recognized their accomplishments, but he led them to see the ultimate purpose of all missionary endeavors: “Do not rejoice because the spirits submit to you: rejoice rather that your names are written in heaven.” All successes and triumphs in life have no use if they would not lead us to the kingdom of God. To be with God is the thing that matters most in the end.

There is a story of a missionary and his son who returned from overseas aboard a ship that was also carrying a famous movie star. When the ship pulled into New York, huge crowds awaited the movie star but there was no one to greet the missionary and his son. “Papa,” said the boy, “isn’t it sad that there is no one here to welcome us home?” “No,” said the Father, “for this is not our home.”

(The story is from an unknown author)

Sunday, July 1, 2007

13th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

1 Kgs 19:16, 19-21; Ps 15; Gal 5:1, 13-18; Lk 9:51-62

The story is told about a man who asked a stranger what time it was. The stranger put down his two heavy suitcases, looked at his watch and said, “It is now 5:09 p.m., the temperature outside is 73 degrees, and it is going to rain tonight.” Surprised, the man said, “Wow, your watch tells you all that? I’m impressed. I’d like to buy it. Here is 2000 pesos?” The stranger gently refused the offer. “I’m sorry but I have no intention to sell it for 2000 pesos.” But the man insisted and offered 5,000 pesos. Finally, the stranger agreed. So happy with his new watch, the man wore it on his wrist and quickly turned to leave. The stranger had to stop him though and handed him the two heavy suitcases saying, “Hey, don’t forget the batteries.”

(The story is told by Rev. Fr. Jerry M. Orbos)

Today’s gospel provides a good reminder of the cost of discipleship. Like the man in the story who became too focused on the wrist watch and forgot the heavy batteries that came along with it, we can also become too engrossed on the splendor of Christianity and forget the high demands of true discipleship.

What is the real cost of discipleship? What comes along in seriously following the Lord? In the gospel, Jesus uses strong words in order to stir up our imagination, to disturb us and to make us calculate the cost of committing ourselves to him.

“Foxes have dens and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to rest his head.” Jesus is straightforward in telling this to would-be followers: discipleship has no economic and social security. The disciple should not expect a comfortable life; he must be ready to undergo a lot of renunciation like that of his Master; he must be ready to take up the cross and accept humiliations; he must not expect to be rewarded with good financial and social status.

“Let the dead bury their dead; as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Certainly, Jesus does not mean to say that his follower has to abandon his responsibilities to his family. Burying one’s kin is a pious, religious duty. However, the Lord wishes to stress that following him requires radical reordering of priorities. When the invitation to follow comes, nothing is more important than setting one’s heart to the kingdom of God. The disciple, therefore, must put Jesus on top of his priorities. He cannot allow anyone or any circumstance to stand on the way of fulfilling what the Lord asks of him.

“No one who sets a hand to the plow and looks to what was left behind is fit for the kingdom of God.” Discipleship requires undivided attention and full dedication for the kingdom. The disciple must make a steadfast commitment to his mission in the Church. Once he declares his intention to follow Jesus, he must set his heart to this new way of living and acting, ready to face whatever challenges that may come on the way.

Knowing the cost of discipleship, who among us would have the courage to follow the Lord? Ideally, all baptized Christians, not only priests and religious, must try to live the radical discipleship demanded by Jesus.

Are we brave enough to take the challenge? Are we willing to sacrifice our own personal convenience and interest in order to serve the Lord in the poor, the sick, the lonely and the brokenhearted? When there is conflict of interests, are we resolved to put God first in our lives and to place others, including the needs of our families, subordinate to the kingdom of God? Are we truly committed to keep the faith and live the values of the kingdom in the midst of trials and difficulties?

If discipleship is costly, is it worth it? The experience of many people would tell us that it is worth it.

I happened to know a number of Filipino married couples who became members of the Couples for Christ movement. Before they were able to join this Christian community, their friends discouraged them from doing so because, as their friends said, life would be boring and they would lose many of their free weekends. Indeed, when my Filipino friends got into this group, often they spent their weekends for meetings, seminars, and works of family evangelization. But life was never boring. They told me that they have so much fun and their life now is full of meaning than before.

Is the cost of discipleship worth it? The Word of God also assures us that it really is worth it: “No eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor. 2:9).