Sunday, June 29, 2008

Solemnity of Sts. Peter and Paul (A)

A priest suggested that as we honor these two great men of the Church, the word to remember is “grace.” Peter and Paul were masterpieces of God’s grace. They were each changed radically by grace and they persevered for the faith until death by grace. The Catechism teaches us that grace is “the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adopted sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” The grace of God works in humanity’s weakness, brokenness and sin. As a Jewish rabbi said, “We meet God where human self-sufficiency ends.” This, indeed, was the experience of both Peter and Paul.

Peter’s most glaring failure was his triple denial of Jesus when the Lord was arrested. The gospels tell us how he swore and cursed the woman who accused him of being a company of the Lord. Peter said, “I do not even know the man.” The night before that, he promised the Lord that he will never leave him. But when the moment of test came, he failed.

Jesus came to meet Peter right down in his weakness. After the resurrection, the Lord asked him, “Simon, son of John, do you love me?” A commentator suggested that the Lord had to ask Peter the same question three times in order to give him the chance to redeem himself. This was for Peter his most humbling, yet reconciling moment. “Lord, you know that I love you,” three times he painfully responded. Whether Peter was this time honest or not was clearly decided when he himself later died for the faith.

Paul’s serious fault was his blatant persecution of the followers of Jesus. He was one of those zealous and rigid Pharisees. When Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death, Paul was present and the Scripture gave witness saying, “The cloaks piled up at the feet of Saul (the old name of Paul) who approved of the stoning.”

Paul was an arrogant and self-righteous religious fanatic until a blinding light struck him down from his horse while he was on his way to Damascus to round up more Christians. He was blinded and was laid flat on his back when he heard the voice that says, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” After that, Paul became disoriented – physically, emotionally, mentally, and spiritually. In that weakened state, he was led to a Christian household in Damascus to be prayed over, healed, and baptized. In his weakness, Paul met Jesus and from then on, he offered his whole life for the service of the Church.

Grace helped Peter recognize Jesus as the Messiah, Son of the living God. Grace transformed Peter from a weak, impulsive individual into a strong rock, confident head of the Church. It was also grace that changed Paul from a hateful persecutor into a dedicated apostle, a great messenger of the Lord to the gentiles. Grace allowed him to finish the race and to keep the faith.

The feast of Saints Peter and Paul should inspire us to find strength in God and to recognize that our gifts are all God’s grace. Like Paul, we always say, “In God we live and move and have our being.”

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

11th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Ex 19:2-6a; Rom 5:6-11; Mt 9:36-10:8

Does God really care for His people? Does He love us personally, individually? Today’s readings reassure us that God indeed is the Compassionate One.

In the first reading, God reminds the people of Israel how He delivered them from the bondage of their oppressors. He carried them “up on eagle’s wings” because they were weak and defenseless. The Israelites represent today’s poor, the vulnerable, and all victims of injustice. These people are God’s “special possession”, very dear to His heart.

St. Paul, in the second reading, proclaims the magnitude of God’s compassion by underlining the supreme value of the sacrifice of Christ: Only in extraordinary circumstances is a person willing to die for someone else. Parents, for example, would protect their child from serious danger at the expense of their own life, but they would not do the same sacrifice for a stranger, much less for an enemy. It is precisely in this that God proves His love for humanity: His Son died for us while we were still sinners, while we were still enemies because of sin.

In the gospel, Jesus looks upon the troubled and abandoned crowd and is “moved with pity”. In the original Greek, the word used to describe Jesus’ sentiment is splagchnizomai, noun for the vital inner organs of a person – the stomach, heart, lungs, spleen, liver, and kidneys. In Biblical understanding, the entrails are the source of deep human emotions. Henceforth, the Lord’s feeling for the people is no ordinary pity. A more exact translation is that “Jesus had deep compassion”.

The crowds are “like sheep without a shepherd” – unattended, vulnerable and directionless. This difficult situation moves Jesus to send out laborers, the twelve apostles who will do the work that He performs. These ordinary individuals are empowered to do extraordinary works: To preach the Good News of salvation, to liberate people from the bondage of evil and sin, to heal the sick, and to bring the dead back to life. Normally, God would make use of human hands to provide relief to those who suffer.

God shares the work of shepherding, first and foremost, to priests and religious. In a special way, they are called and chosen to lead the people of God by serving bigheartedly and freely. Priests and religious must remind themselves regularly that their vocation exists for the world, for people, above all, for the poor, the sick and the unwanted. They received their callings without cost; they also are to serve without counting the cost.

The Lord’s ministry of compassion, however, is not confined to priests and religious; it belongs to all baptized Christians. All of us, no matter what our status in life is, are called to become shepherds of one another, responsible to one another’s happiness, well-being or salvation.

In the gospel, Jesus invites us to “ask the Master of the harvest to send out laborers for His harvest”. And so, let us continue to pray for more laborers, people who will give their lives for the service of God and the Church. May God make our hearts like the heart of Christ, one that feels deeply with the troubled and the abandoned!

One day as he began his daily prayer, a holy hermit saw passing by, a cripple, a mother begging for food for her pathetically malnourished child, and the victim of what must have been a very severe beating.

Seeing them, the holy man turned to God and said, “Great God! How is it that such a loving Creator can see so much suffering, and yet do nothing about it?

And deep within his heart he heard God reply, “I have done something about it. I made you.”

(The story is told by Jack McArdle in 150 More Stories for Preachers and Teachers)

Saturday, June 7, 2008

10th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Hos 6:3-6; Rom 4:18-25; Mt 9:9-13

There is an old Jewish legend about Moses walking through the desert and meeting a shepherd. He spent the day with him. In the evening after he had milked his sheep, the shepherd filled a big bowl with milk and carried it off into the distance and left it there. When Moses asked what that was all about, he answered, “I always offer God my best milk.”

Moses then told him, “But God is a spirit; He doesn’t drink milk.”

But the man refused to change his mind. And so Moses told him to pay attention to what happened to that milk on the next night. After he had seen what happened, the shepherd admitted, “You’re right. God does not need any milk. An animal has emptied the milk bowl. But now you have taken away from me the only means I had of showing my love for God.”

(The story is told by Friedrich Dietz in The Next 500 Stories by Frank Mihalic, SVD)

Hosea reminds us that it is love that God desires, not sacrifice. Matthew quotes Hosea but uses the word “mercy”, instead of “love”. Bible commentators are quick in pointing out that here God is not discounting the value of sacrificial offerings. What God denounces is the practice of sacrifice unaccompanied by obedience. Bringing material goods to the Church or doing a penitential act is worthless if the person doing it is not loving or merciful.

To offer a sacrifice is one form of worship. When we give to the Church a part of the fruits of our labor, we are acknowledging the fact that God is the source of all goodness and blessings. We know that apart from God we can do nothing. Giving material or monetary donation is our expression of gratitude to God for making us productive or successful. Moreover, when we deny ourselves of something good (food, drink, recreation, etc.), we are reminding ourselves of our fragility and total dependence in God. The sacrificial act becomes a discipline that would bring us closer to our Lord and Maker.

No matter how important sacrificial offerings are, they can be done inappropriately, or for misguided motivations. A person, for example, may donate a huge amount of money to the Church in order to get the admiration of others. Another person might do some sacrificing to secure the favor of God, as if God needs sacrifices for His survival. Still, one might think that by offering sacrifices he makes God indebted. The person expects God to answer his prayer-requests because he believes he has sacrificed enough.

We know, however, that God doesn’t need our sacrificial offerings for His happiness or sustenance. We are encouraged to make sacrificial offerings not for God’s sake but for ours. When we make genuine sacrifices, we become more and more generous and loving, and by becoming so, we glorify God.

The Pharisees were faithful observers of the Law. They fasted and gave tithes to the temple on a regular basis. Yet, these sacrificial practices did not make them compassionate and understanding with one another. Instead they became self-righteous, arrogant and condemning to sinners. What went wrong to the spirituality of the Pharisees? The gospel seems to question the purity of the Pharisees’ intentions of their spiritual exercises. Jesus called them “hypocrites” and “whitewashed tombs” for they worshipped only with their lips, not with their behaviors or actions.

Today’s liturgy should inspire us to continue offering genuine sacrifices inside and outside the Church. May our donations and sacrificial actions be shared with pure intentions so that people will experience the love and mercy of God through us!

Mother Teresa of India once told the following story.

Two young people came to our house and gave me quite a sum of money to feed the poor. In Calcutta we cook for 9,000 people every day. The two of them wished their money to be used to feed these hungry people. I then asked them, “Where did you get that much money?”

And they answered, “Two days ago we were married. Before our wedding we decided that we would not spend any money on special wedding clothes, nor would we have a wedding banquet. We wanted the money we would spend on these things to go to the poor.”

For high caste Hindus to act like this was a scandal. Their friends and relatives found it unthinkable that a couple from such outstanding families should get married without bridal gowns and a proper wedding feast.

So Mother Teresa asked them, “Why did you give me all this money?”

And they gave her this surprising answer, “We love one another so much that we wanted to make a special sacrifice for each other at the very start of our married life.”

(The story is told by Willi Hoffsuemmer in The Next 500 Stories by Frank Mihalic, SVD)

Sunday, June 1, 2008

9th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)

Deut 11:18, 26-28, 32; Rom 3:21-25, 28; Mt 7:21-27

A man sobering up from the night before is sitting through the Sunday sermon, finding it long and boring. Still feeling hung over and tired, he finally nods off.

The priest has been watching him all along, noticing his apparent hangover and is disgusted. At the end of the sermon, the preacher decides to make an example of him. He says to his congregation, “All those wishing to have a place in heaven, please stand.”

The whole room stands up except, of course, the sleeping man.

Then the preacher says even more loudly, “And he who would like to find a place in hell, please STAND UP!”

The weary man catching only the last part groggily stands up, only to find that he’s the only one standing. Confused and embarrassed he says, “I don't know what we're voting on here, Father, but it sure seems like you and me are the only ones standing for it.”

(The story is from an unknown author)

Jewish people of olden days had this popular tradition of the Two Ways, namely: the way of wisdom, which is characterized by obedience to God’s laws, and the way of foolishness, which is associated with disobedience. Accordingly, wise people are those who follow God’s decrees and statutes; foolish ones are those who listen to the counsel of the wicked.

Moses was a strong proponent of such tradition. In the first reading, he confronted his people with a choice: to obey God’s commandments or not (Deut 11:26-28). And he made clear the consequences of human choice: blessing or curse. In another passage, Moses revealed that the choice is ultimately between life and death (Deut 30:15-18).

In the gospel, Jesus illustrates the notion of the Two Ways by using the parable of the two builders. “Everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. . . And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand.” For Jesus, the wise person is one who sincerely desires to understand his teachings and put them into practice. The consequence of this intelligent choice is endurance in face of storms or difficulties in life. On the other hand, the foolish person is one who knows the right ways but chooses not to follow them. Such fundamental option leads only to destruction.

So, genuine discipleship boils down to this: The living out of Jesus’ words. The crucial thing is in the doing. “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.”

A legend says that once upon a time, a Japanese peasant came to heaven, and the first thing he saw was a long shelf with something very strange looking upon it.

“What is that?” he asked. “Is it something to make soup of?”

“No,” was the reply. “Those are ears. They belonged to persons, who, when they lived on earth heard what they ought to do in order to be good, but they didn’t pay any attention to it. So when they died their ears came to heaven, but the rest of their bodies did not.”

After a while the peasant saw another shelf with very queer things on it. “What is it?” he asked. “Is it something to make soup of?”

“No,” he was told. “These are tongues. They once belong to people in the world who told people to do good and how to live good, but they themselves never did as they told others to do. So, when they died, their tongues came to heaven, but the rest of their bodies could not enter.”

(The story is told by Drinkwater)