Saturday, March 27, 2010

Palm Sunday (C)

Is 50:4-7; Phil 2:6-11; Lk 22:14-23:56

Today is “Palm Sunday”. We bless palms before the Mass to remember the people of Jerusalem who carried palms as they welcomed excitedly Jesus into their city. However, this day is also called “Passion Sunday” because during the Mass we relive the brutal rejection and condemnation that our Lord experienced in Jerusalem. It is quite ironic that many of the people who welcomed Jesus were also the ones who abandoned him.

The liturgy of the palms and the liturgy of the passion somehow illustrate the inconsistency of human responses to Christ throughout history. Sometimes people welcome Jesus into their lives; other times they deny him or drive him away. And we ask: What could be some reasons of people’s inconsistency in following Christ?

One possible reason is self-centeredness. The people of Jerusalem had selfish motivations in receiving Jesus. They got interested in him because they learned about the wonderful miracles he performed. They welcomed him thinking that he also would do something good for them. Many thought he could be the king who would deliver them from the bondage of the Roman occupiers. However, when they realized that Jesus would not do what they wanted him to do, they abandoned him. In fact, the crowd was no longer there when Jesus needed them most.

We are not totally different from the selfish people of Jerusalem. Sometimes we treat the Lord as if he is an agent of rescue 911. We only call on him in times of need, in times of crisis. But during happy and prosperous days, we could barely find time for Christ and his Church. When the Lord calls us to help the poor and the unwanted or when the Church needs us to enliven the Christian community, we are not always responsive.

Another possible cause of people’s halfhearted discipleship is fear of discomfort and suffering. The people of Jerusalem changed their attitude towards Jesus upon learning that religious authorities were planning to have him arrested or killed. In the midst of persecution, they no longer wished to be known as his followers. For fear of his life, even Peter denied any association with Jesus.

Sometimes we also are like Peter and the Jerusalem crowd. We try to avoid trials, challenges, or conflicts while following the Lord. We participate in Church related activities if they help maintain our security. But not when they disturb our comfort zones or when they lead us to struggle for the poor and needy. A “trouble-free” type of discipleship is not good because genuine Christian life includes not only devotional practices and liturgical celebrations but also actions in behalf of social justice and peace.

Still another possible reason why people waver in following Christ is lack of trust. Many of those who welcomed the Lord in Jerusalem believed in his miracles, but they didn’t have enough faith in him. They changed loyalties because Jesus was running directly against the strongest opposition. How could he defeat the military might of the Romans and the religious leaders of the Jews? They didn’t trust that Jesus had the power over all things and that he can save them from darkness and sin.

How often also do we lack faith in the saving power of Christ? We pray whenever we need something, but when our prayers are not granted we begin to doubt if the Lord really exists. In times of serious accidents or great calamities, we also begin to question if Jesus really cares. Our insecurities often lead us to believe in superstitions and to consult the opinions of quack doctors who serve other gods. How little is our faith! If we really accept Jesus as the Son of God or as Lord of the universe, why do we question his will? If we really believe that he is the Compassionate God or the Good Shepherd, why do we feel insecure in life?

During this Holy Week, the Church would like us to reflect prayerfully on the person of Jesus and his salvific act, and to thank the Lord sincerely for showing us what it means to be a true child of God. We need to highlight at least three important points:

First, a true child of God is one who is others-oriented, not selfish. Even during his darkest hour, Jesus continued to think of the good of others: he encouraged the disciples (Lk 22:28-30), comforted the women of Jerusalem (23:27-31), forgave his persecutors (23:34), and promised salvation to the repentant thief (23:42-43).

Second, a true child of God is willing to suffer for the well-being of others. Jesus was fully aware that his going to Jerusalem was like marching to his passion, one that would cost him his life. But Jesus was not deterred from entering the city of David because he felt the need to raise his ultimate challenge to the people to accept the good news of the kingdom of God.

Finally, a true child of God puts his trust completely in God. Jesus remained steadfast while undergoing the most serious trial of his life. At the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus in anguish sweated blood while praying so fervently: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup away from me; still, not my will, but yours be done” (Lk 22:42). Then, after hours of agonizing pain on the cross, Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46). Here was a child who remained faithful to his Heavenly Father up to the end.

After watching Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ”, a father asked his child “What would you think of someone who isn’t moved deeply by what we saw?” The young kid responded, “He would be evil.”

Saturday, March 20, 2010

5th Sunday of Lent (C)

Is 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; 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)

Saturday, March 13, 2010

4th Sunday of Lent (C)

Joshua 5:9, 10-12; 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 anomalous 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 urges us not to follow 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.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

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

During Jesus’ time it was quite common for people to consider misfortune as God’s punishment for bad people. Even today, many of us would think in the same way. In fact, whenever a serious accident or a terminal sickness befalls us, we would immediately ask: “What have I’ve done to deserve this?”, “Why me?”, or “Where did I fall short?” The tendency is to search for the punishable wrongdoing.

In today's gospel, Jesus tries to address the mistaken idea that every suffering is 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 did not mean that they were more sinful than others. Bad things could happen to good and bad people alike. 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 all 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 own share of suffering. Jesus himself, innocent and free of any stain of sin, had experienced the most painful suffering and death. And so, while the Bible recognizes the fact that many sufferings have resulted from evil actions of humanity or sin in the world, it is not saying that all sufferings are a punishment for sin.

Instead of portraying God as a strong punisher, Jesus brought an image of a patient and merciful Lord. Rather than condemning tax collectors, prostitutes, shepherds, lepers and others, Jesus invited them to repentance and discipleship.

Bible commentators suggest that the parable of the fig tree is a brief story about God’s mercy. The landowner already waited patiently 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 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. In gratitude we should give our best efforts 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 Jesus, 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)