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Saturday, September 27, 2014

OBEDIENCE




26TH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME - A
Matthew 21:28-32
     
     Our gospel this Sunday is about obedience.  The word "obedience" comes from the Latin words ab audire which means to listen.  Obedience comes from listening.  We listen to something audible; sometimes we also listen in silence.  When we say we obey God, we listen to him and do his will.
    In the beginning God spoke his Word; it was called Dabar Yahweh.  In the New Testament, the Word became flesh (Jn 1:14).  The Word who was now a human being spoke the words of man in order to communicate with man in the language that connected God and man.  His words were creative just like at the beginning when God spoke his Word to create everything.
        Jesus Christ is the Word of God so that we are able to listen to God when he speaks to us.  But how do we listen to the Word of God now that he has become human like us?  The parable of the two sons answers this question.  When the father summoned the first son to the vineyard, he refused and yet later on he went.  The initial response of the second son was positive but later on did not go.  When asked who between the two sons obeyed the father, Jesus’ hearers replied “the first son”.
          The Scribes and the Pharisees were the masters of the Law and the Prophets; because they knew the Mosaic Law they thought they were obeying the commandments.  Because of that, they always believed they were righteous more than the rest.  But when they came face to face with the Living Word, they refused to hear his message.  They represented the second son who said yes but did not go to the vineyard.
          The Gentiles and sinners were considered outcast.  At first, their response was negative which was represented by their sinful ways but when they encountered Jesus they amended their lives and obeyed him.  By a reversal of fortune they were now considered the first son in the parable.
          Christianity is not a religion of the book but a religion of the Incarnate and living Word of God.  This is how Christianity differs from the other world religions like Islam whose belief is centered around the Koran.  Catholics also differ from the other Christian sects whose belief is in the centrality of the written Word which they call “Sola Scriptura”.  Before the books of the New Testament were written down there was already the Church alive in her oral tradition.  Some of these oral traditions were written down and became the written tradition which eventually became the Bible we have now. 
    We believe in the Word Incarnate who speaks when the scriptures is proclaimed in the assembly through our liturgy. It is in the liturgy when we hear the Word speaking to us and when he speaks he re-creates us as an individual person and as a community.  We listen to the Word and in the liturgy we say AMEN which is our way of saying YES to God.
          Our yes is challenged when we go out into the world, in our workplace, in our homes, etc. where we incarnate the Word we heard of in the concrete manifestations of our faith.  It is not just the audible yes that we say in our prayers which make us obedient children of God but how we are able to translate that yes in the events of our daily lives.
          None of the two sons in the parable are models of obedience because both were imperfect.  The perfect model is Jesus who, in obedience to the will of his father, “emptied himself… accepting death, death on the cross,” as St. Paul reminds us in his letter to the Philippians in the second reading today.  It was the unwavering obedience of Jesus to the will of the Father that saved us.  Religious men and women also take the vow of obedience in imitation of the obedience of Jesus to the Father.  As we obey, we listen to the Word speaking to us either audibly or in silence in a continuous encounter that entails "unselfing" just like Jesus emptying himself.  Listening to the other strange voices will only lead us astray.
          “When love beckons to you follow him, though his ways are hard and steep. And when his wings enfold you yield to him, though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you.  And when he speaks to you believe in him, though his voice may shatter your dreams…. (The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran).

Friday, September 19, 2014

GOD'S SOVEREIGN GENEROSITY




25th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME A

         In the parable of the workers in the vineyard, we see the sovereign generosity of God.  In our first impression we see the landowner (God) as somewhat unreasonable and unjust for a number of reasons: 1) Why would he hire workers four more times? 2) Why would he hire late workers who could only give him so little?  3) There was something wrong in the mode of payment: those who came last got their pay first and those who had been working the whole day were given the last.  4) Why would he give everybody the same pay?  Justice demands that the first workers will have more because they worked longer hours than those who worked later in the day.  Justice also demands that the first workers should be paid first and the late workers last.  This is the way we think; this is the way we expect justice should be served.  But God’s justice is beyond our expectation and understanding.  In the parable we see  the sovereignty of God: “Am I not free to do what I wish with that which belongs to me?”   We also see the super-generosity of God:  Are you envious because I am generous?” 
The prophet Isaiah in the first reading holds the key in understanding the parable: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.”  So how do we understand the parable in the context of our faith journey?
         The first workers hired by God were the Israelites and they were promised a “wage” which was salvation.  The consequent workers were the Gentiles, the prostitutes, the sinners and the outcast and eventually us.  They have also been called by the landowner at a later time in fact in different hours of the day to work in the vineyard.         The Jews expected that they would be favored more than anybody else simply because they were the People of God.  But because they rejected the gift of salvation, it was offered to the Gentiles and sinners who accepted it, thus: the first will be last and the last will be first.
         The parable shows that God has always exceeded the level of simple distributive justice.  His sense of justice and charity can never be outdone and always overflows beyond the limits of our constricted understanding of equality and fairness. 
As we translate the parable into our time we can never demand from God to reward us because we think we are good, holy and deserving.   This becomes more real when bad things happen to good people: “Why did God allow this tragedy to happen to me when I am good and faithful to him?”  In the midst of pain and suffering, some would say “God is unfair! I do not deserve this.” 
         In our own workplace justice demands that we should fight for our right, that we should be rewarded with the right compensation commensurate to our work done.  But this is not so with the first workers who agreed on a day’s wage given by the landowner.  They were not happy because they expected more and they became embittered when they looked at others who were given the same pay with them. 
One of the cardinal sins is envy.  When we are envious of others our hearts are poisoned: we are not happy and contented with what we have even if we have more than enough and we feel sad when others possess what we do not have or when they possess more than what we have. When it happens, our life becomes miserable just like the early workers in the parable.
Let us rejoice in our own giftedness and equally rejoice in the giftedness of others.  Our gifts are the manifestations of God’s super-generosity which challenge us to become generous as well in giving ourselves as gifts to others.   

Saturday, September 13, 2014

THE CROSS IN THE THEO-DRAMA



EXALTATION OF THE CROSS
John 3:13-17      

       We always associate the cross with Good Friday, hence pain, suffering and death!  The Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross brings us unto the joyful dimension of the cross!   There is more to the cross than death.
        In order for us to understand the transcended meaning of the cross, we have to go back to the Old Testament.  In Genesis, there was a garden, a tree and the first man (Adam and Eve).  In the primordial drama of human history, man and woman were living in a paradise symbolised by the garden yet they were tempted by the devil which was symbolised by the snake.  They  eventually rebelled and disobeyed God by eating the fruit of the forbidden tree.  In consequence, they were driven out of paradise and they were doomed.  But God did not give up on man so he promised a Messiah.  The same drama was staged in the life of Israel, the chosen People of God.  Whilst on their way to the Promised Land (the garden restored), the Israelites once again rebelled against God through their complaints in the desert.  In anger, God sent them snakes (a reminder of the snake that tempted man in Genesis) and bit them; many died and asked Moses to intercede for them. God told Moses to make a bronze serpent and put it into a pole.  Those bitten by the snakes were saved by looking at the bronze serpent.  Jesus in the gospel gave us the fuller meaning of that Old Testament event by claiming that he would be lifted up just as Moses lifted up the bronze serpent in the desert.  Just as those who were bitten by the snakes were healed by looking up at the bronze serpent, those who believe in Jesus will be saved.  St. Paul in the Second Reading summarised his Christology through the kenotic hymn: "Christ although was God, emptied himself, took the form of a slave and was exalted at the end."
    The drama in Genesis was transported forward in time during the crucifixion of Jesus with the usual "stage production" of the garden of skulls (Golgotha  or Calvary), God-man (Jesus) and a condemned tree (the cross).  The famous theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this "theo drama".  It is a drama that involved God the Father as the "scriptwriter", Jesus as the "actor" and the Holy Spirit as the "director".  But it is not the usual drama that we know of because the stage was not just the world but the physical cosmos (the earth) and the spiritual cosmos (heaven) and the actors involved were the God-man Jesus and humanity.    In this drama, God was giving birth to the New Genesis!  The forbidden tree in the Old Testament which became a symbol of death in the New Testament was now the exalted Tree of Life not because of its own accord but by the merit of the God-man who was crucified on it.  Without Jesus hanging on the cross, it would remain the dreaded fate of criminals who deserved death.  With the presence of the New Adam, the garden of skulls suddenly bloomed into a sacred garden which staged the drama of redemption.  The exalted cross connected heaven and earth once again by the presence of the God-man who inhabited that dark and measureless abyss.  The cross became the bridge and the door by which we enter paradise once again.
    So where is our place in this theo drama?  As followers of the Crucified and Exalted Lord, we are all "dramatis personae" together with God, each one playing a unique and irreplaceable role with a mission that can only be understood in the light of the cross.  It might not be easy to embrace our personal crosses but with Jesus they become our glorious crosses leading us unto our redemption and the redemption of humanity. In the theo drama the beauty of the cross is kept hidden in the eyes of the world yet in the eyes of faith it is our own redemption, perfection and exaltation.

Friday, September 5, 2014

THE CHURCH AS A LIVING ORGANISM


23RD SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME - A
Matthew 18: 15-20
 
       When we were baptised we were incorporated into the Body of Christ, the Church.  Before our incorporation into the Church, we were like lifeless twigs which were grafted into the living Body of Christ that made it possible for us to participate in the divine life of God. 
       In the gospel this Sunday, we have a glimpse on the role of the primitive Church in terms of 1) fraternal correction; 2) the authority and responsibility bestowed on the Church; and 3) the power of fellowship and prayer of its members.  The picture may be primitive but it is still the same reality we have today.  The early Christian Church certainly has evolved from its humble Jewish beginnings to one of the most powerful institutions in human history.  Nonetheless, in all its wealth, glory and grandeur its essence remains the same: as the community of the disciples of Jesus Christ.  And because it is composed of sinful members like us, it continues to struggle to transcend herself to rise above human limitations and weaknesses through the mercy of God.            1) Fraternal correction is the way towards the reconciliation of the members of the community.  The Church is empowered to mediate in case of extreme difficulties beyond the power of the individual members.
2) Because the Church represents the corporeal and spiritual presence of Christ on earth, it is also empowered with authority and responsibility towards its members.  This is expressed in the Sacraments that we celebrate!  The rituals of the Sacraments represent the action of the whole Body of Christ celebrating and conferring grace. So it is not mere human actions that we see but rather Christ as the Head acting through the ministers duly ordained who act on behalf of Christ.  The priest celebrating mass, giving absolution during confession, doing baptism, anointing the sick, etc. are all the actions of Christ.  No matter how unworthy the priests are, the sacramental actions done are never his personal doing that is why we follow the prescribed rituals and formulas in order for the grace to take effect in the celebration (ex opere operato). This is the Church working at its best when it does not consider the disposition of the priest nor the participants to effect grace, hence the "binding force" coming from Christ the Head.
 3) The Church is also a community of believers gathered to celebrate communion and intercession: "where two or three are gathered in the name of Christ", the whole Body is present!  There is a bond that connects all the members just like all parts of the physical body are all connected as a living organism. There is an inherent spiritual power that binds all members to each other that is why we are all inter-connected spiritually.  The prayers of the members effect the whole Body! This is the power of the intercession of the Church.

So where do we find ourselves in this complex reality of the Church?  Let us evaluate the family as the domestic church: How do we witness our faith inside our homes?  Let us see how we participate in the local church which is our diocese and our parish.  Do we ever participate in the programs of our parish?  The ekklesia in the gospel today becomes alive when the community is 1) forgiven and forgiving  2) nourished through the care of our faithful and dedicated shepherds and 3) strengthened  by each other’s prayer and empowered as God’s People.
      There are those who believe that their faith is between them and God; it is partially true.  We need to celebrate that faith with the Christian community because our relationship with God has an ecclesial dimension and this is where fellowship becomes imperative.  We have to gather together as a Church because it is where we form a communion with each other as we become catalysts of change in the world we live in.  When we do this, the Church is truly a living organism which is relevant to the present time.