Sunday, September 30, 2007

26th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Amos 6:1a, 4-7; 1 Tim 6:11-16; Lk 16:19-31

A pastor stood up one Sunday and announced to his congregation: “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we have enough money for our apostolate for the poor and the homeless. The bad news is it’s still out there in your pockets.”

(The story is from an unknown author)

In today’s gospel Jesus tells the “Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus”. Commentators are quick to point out that while the poor man is called Lazarus, the rich man is not named, suggesting the gospel writer’s preference and care for the poor. Tradition would later call the rich man “Dives”, which really is the Latin word for “rich” or “wealthy”.

In Mediterranean culture, to be rich means to live comfortably without the burden of having to work for a living. Rich people would have hired hands to do their work or business. The rich man in the parable enjoys these privileges: Every day he wears the finest clothes and eats delicious meals. In contrast, to be poor is to lose one’s fundamental dignity and rights. The poor would include widows, orphans, little children, lepers, shepherds, etc. The parable describes Lazarus as a “poor man” who lay prostrate at the rich man’s gate. He is covered with sores and the dogs would repeatedly come to lick them.

Bible scholars explain that the reversal of fortune that happens at the end of the parable is quite common in ancient stories. The poor who suffers “bad things” while on earth will be consoled in the next life; the rich who enjoys privileged circumstances will be tormented. Yet, Jesus’ parable is enlightening because somehow it shows the reason for the radical reversal of status.

The rich man loses his soul in the next life not because of his wealth but of his total lack of concern for Lazarus. While living in affluence on earth, he never cared to share his surplus to the needy.

In a way, this parable teaches that our state in the afterlife would be determined by the way we respond to the needs of the poor person lying at our doorstep now. The rich among us should very well consider the advice of Saint Paul: “Tell the rich in the present age not to be proud and not to rely on so uncertain a thing as wealth but rather on God, who richly provides us with all things for our enjoyment. Tell them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous, ready to share, thus accumulating as treasure a good foundation for the future, so as to win the life that is true life” (1 Tim 6:17-19).

Today is the right moment to bridge whatever gap that exists between ourselves and those in need. After death the chasm is impassable, and our eternal destiny is set. As a matter of irony, the poor are our best hope for salvation. If they become visible to us, we can hope to achieve what is of inestimable value.

A king with no heirs invited qualified young people to be interviewed, with a view to succeeding him. A poverty-stricken young man felt an inner call to apply. He worked day and night to buy provisions for the journey and clothes for the interview. After weeks of travel, he came to the king’s palace. Sitting at the entrance was a beggar in dirty rags, calling out, “Help me, my son!” filled with pity, the young man gave the beggar his good clothes and the money he had saved for his return trip. Then, with fearful heart, he entered the palace. When he was escorted into the throne room, he was shocked. Seated on the throne was the beggar, wearing the clothes he had just given him. The king smiled and said, “Welcome, my son!”

(The story is from Challenge 2000 by Mark Link)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

24th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Ex 32:7-11, 13-14; 1 Tim 1:12-17; Lk 15:1-32

After going through the story of the Prodigal Son, a Sunday school teacher asked the kids, “At the end of the story who is it that ended up in the worst situation?” One of the kids stood up and said, “The fatted cow!”

(The story is by Ernest Munachi Ezeogu)

The popular “Parable of the Prodigal Son” has three main characters, namely: the younger son, the father and the elder brother.

The younger son was a volatile, easily bored, ready-to-try-everything teenager. He seemed to be unhappy in his father’s house. He asked for his inheritance while his father was still active and healthy. Commentators would say that the son’s demand was equivalent to wishing his father were dead. Worst of all, the shameless son went abroad and wasted his bequest in loose living.

The younger son represents every sinner. In sin we squander our human and divine birthright. Sin promises a life of happiness, excitement and satisfaction, but in the end what we get out of it is misery, wretchedness and a loss of personal dignity. The good thing is that no matter how deeply we sink into sin there is always a pending invitation for us to return to our Father’s house where genuine freedom and satisfaction are found.

Then, there was the loving father. After the son demanded to have his share of the inheritance at an inopportune time, the father gave in, of course with so much pain in his heart. He loved his son and wanted to keep him in his house. Actually, he had all the right to deny his son’s demand, but he chose not to impose his love. While the son squandered all his money in dissolute living, this father constantly waited for him to come back. The gospel says that “While he (the prodigal son) was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.” It is easy to imagine that the father had spent so many hours outside his house, patiently waiting for the shadow of his son. Thus, when he finally saw him from a distant he forgot his dignity as a father. He ran to his son – something unthinkable for a Jewish father to do. He forgot about his own pain, he forgot about the humiliation his son had caused him.

The son must have worried on the way home. What was he going to say his father? What if his family would refuse to accept him back? He rehearsed his opening words, trying to sound humble and truly repentant: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.” He knew that he was a sinner; he could only beg for mercy and forgiveness.

But the father had none of these. No words were needed, no explanations. The father understood the pain, the humiliation, and the shame in coming home. He embraced his son with love, kisses him again and again. And that was not all. He restored his son’s dignity – the best robe (sign of honor) was put on him, the ring (symbol of the authority of his father) was inserted on his finger, sandals were put on his feet (he was not treated as a slave for slaves wear no sandals), and the fattened calf was slaughtered (sign of joy and feasting). A commentator noted that killing a calf, not just a goat or a sheep, meant that the entire village was invited to share in the joy of having back a long lost son.

Such is the Father in Heaven that Jesus wishes all disciples to know. God loves us so much and he wants us to respond to that love freely. Freedom is God’s greatest gift to the human person, a sign of his love. We are always free to love him back or reject him. God is a Loving Father who keeps on waiting for his lost children. He is one who runs out to receive us, one who cares only for our return. He is one who gives a lavish feast when he gets us back. Many people are not too familiar with this kind of God. Many would imagine a God who is slow to understand, unforgiving and vengeful.

Finally, there was the elder son being introduced towards the end of the story. He was proud that he had never strayed or sinned like his younger brother. He had been faithful in serving his father and he thought he deserved all the rewards. However, he clearly lacked a forgiving heart. In fact, he was sorry that his brother had come home. He represents the self-righteous Pharisees who would rather see a sinner condemned than saved. The attitude of the older brother showed that his years of obedience to his father had been years of grim duty and not of loving service. His manner was one of arrogance. He could not accept his repentant brother, and he only referred to him as “This son of yours . . .”

Sometimes, we are like this unforgiving son, we are self-righteous and easy to find fault in others. Every so often, we are judgmental and quick to condemn. Somebody once said that when God looks at us, he covers one eye so that he will not see the negative parts in us. The problem with us is that when we look at other people, we open wide our eyes and we even have magnifying glasses to see the negative sides of others.

At the end of the story who is it that ended up in the worst situation? Not the fatted cow but the older brother – because he was self-righteous, proud and unforgiving.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

23rd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Wis 9:13-18b; Phil 9-10:12-17; Lk 14:25-33

A mother announced that a prize would be given every Saturday to the member of the family who had been the most obedient.

“Oh, but, Mommy,” chorused the children, “that wouldn’t be fair. Daddy would win every time!”

[The story is from More Quotes and Anecdotes by Anthony P. Castle]

In the gospel, Jesus says, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple”.

The use of the word “hate” needs clarification. Quite obviously, Jesus is not asking us to harbor ill feelings or anger against our family or against ourselves. He uses the word “hate” in order to deliver with great emphasis his message, which is, that nothing should stop us in following him, not even family or some selfish interests. The parallel passage in Matthew makes this clear: “Whoever loves father, mother, brothers and sisters more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37). It is, therefore, a question of priority, not of hurting people’s feelings. God, not our families and self, must stay at the top of our preferences because he is the source of all our being and becoming.

The fact is we are called to live harmoniously with our father and mother, sisters and brothers, wife and children. These people could make the best of our relationships when they help us see the truth more clearly or when they inspire us to follow Christ more closely. But when these relationships make us more inward-looking, stop us from reaching out to others, and lead us back from recognizing God’s presence in other people, then the words of Jesus would really mean a lot: “Unless you hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, you cannot be my disciple.”

The Lord also declares, “Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple”.

Discipleship involves self-denial and sacrifice. A narcissistic person cannot follow Christ because he will be preoccupied with his own needs and desires. One must first free himself from personal ambitions and worldly cares in order to have time for God and neighbors. Moreover, discipleship entails carrying of the cross. The person who is afraid of pain or struggles can hardly serve the good of other people. To follow Christ is to serve the poor, the sick, and the weak. Doing these things often is not comfortable and involves a lot of courage.

The two short parables in the gospel are meant to illustrate the necessity of counting the cost of following Christ. Before constructing a tower, the builder sits down and calculates the cost to see if he has enough resources to finish it. Before going to war, the king studies carefully if he has the needed forces to win a fierce battle. In like manner, we are told to count the cost before following Christ. Are we willing to give up some sinful ways or desires that contradict the gospel? Are we willing to sacrifice our personal wants or the convenience of our family in order to promote the goods of others? Do we have the willingness to suffer persecution in order to defend the truth or to protect the innocent?

Becoming a true disciple of Christ is the biggest endeavor that we will ever undertake in this life. We hope that today’s gospel will inspire us to start considering our discipleship more seriously.

Sunday, September 2, 2007

22nd Sunday in Ordinary Time (C)

Sir 3:17-18, 20, 28-29; Heb 12:18-19, 22-24a; Lk 14: 1, 7-14

There were three mice who died and went to heaven. After a couple of days, Saint Peter stopped by and asked them how they liked being in heaven. The mice said that it was OK, but since they have such short legs, it was hard for them to get around because heaven was so big. So Saint Peter told them that he thought he would be able to help them. After a little while, an angel came to the mice and gave each of them a set of roller skates. Right away, the mice put the roller skates on, and they could zip around heaven, really enjoying themselves.

A little later, a certain cat died and went to heaven. After a couple of days, St. Peter stopped by and asked the cat how he liked being in heaven. The cat answered by saying, “Oh, boy, do I like being in heaven! I’m having a great time and I’m really enjoying myself. And most of all, I love those meals on wheels.”

(The story is by C.E. Bowen)

Banquets play an important part in the life and ministry of our Lord. It was in a wedding banquet at Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle. In the gospel, Jesus used a wedding banquet to describe the kingdom of God. And in the parable that we hear today, the Lord spoke of a wedding banquet scene to teach people about the important virtue of humility.

It is nice to know that the kingdom of God is like a banquet. It means that heaven is not a boring place. There are spirits of joy, festive activities, or colorful celebrations. Unfortunately, we hardly see a picture or a painting of heaven as a banquet celebration. Perhaps, artists would find it difficult to imagine holy men holding a glass of wine, virgins dancing the waltz, or pious women playing cards.

But what makes a heavenly banquet? Halos around people’s head? White linens? Solemn music? Processions?

The gospel today inspires us to understand that a heavenly banquet primarily is a fellowship of people who look at one another as equals. In heaven, there is no presidential table, no distinctions in between places, and no discriminations. All are considered special guests by the one Graceful Host. So, all will be seated and served equally.

Most of our earthly banquets are less than the ideal because we treat guests differently according to status, dress and color. Because of this, we see guests looking for important seats and squabbling for places of honor. This kind of attitude has been with humanity since time immemorial. Jesus had to remind his disciples to prefer the less important seats when they are invited to parties. Only the humble ones will find favor with God.

Moreover, what makes a heavenly banquet is the spirit of true concern for one another. In heaven, there will be no more hungry people, no more pain and sorrow. Everyone will be gladly taken cared of.

Commonly, our earthly banquets are celebrations only of privilege people, and there is hardly a place for the less fortunate ones. Jesus had to teach his disciples not only to include but also to give special preference to the poor in their celebrations. “When you give a feast, invite first the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind.” In the eyes of the Great Host, the poor are the ones in greater need and thus, must be attended first.

Elijah the prophet would go around, as was his habit, in disguise. He wanted to find out how people talked to each other, how people treated each other, how they acted toward each other. He would often give them a test. One day, he disguised himself with dirty, raggedy beggar clothes, and he went up to a big mansion. It just so happened that there was a big wedding party going on there. He knocked at the door. The father of the bride came to the door, opened it up, and saw this man in his filthy rags. He said, “I don’t know what you’re doing here, sir, but if you think you’re coming to this wedding, you have a second thought coming. You are not welcome here.” And he slammed the door in his face.

Elijah left. A little later on, he returned. But now he was dressed in splendor: white suit, satin vest, silk top hat, and a gold-handled cane. He knocked at the door. The father of the bride came, opened the door, saw this elegant gentleman, and welcomed him with great honor. With great honor he led him to the head table. With great honor he laid before him the finest of foods and the finest of wines. Elijah looked around. People were looking at this well dressed stranger. And then, all of a sudden, he took the food and began to stuff it in his pockets, every pocket he could find. Then, he poured the wine all over himself.

The people were shocked at the sight and wondered what was going on. And the prophet Elijah explained, “When I came dressed as a beggar, I was thrown out. And when I returned in elegant clothes, I was welcomed and given the place of honor. But I am the same person. All that has changed are my clothes. And so, since my clothes were welcomed to the feast, why should they not be fed the feast?”

(The story is by William J. Bausch)