Jul 22, 2017

God is Good (16th Sunday Ordinary A)

In the 2014 American fantasy film Maleficent, is the character of Maleficent evil or good?

Some film critics have warned parents of the offensive moral message of the movie. They see in it a subtle drive to present evil, personified by the character Maleficent, as loveable after all. Hence confusing the minds of the young about the nature of evil and influencing them to accept or at least tolerate whatever is evil in life.

I do not share the same view. On the contrary, I see in the movie and, in particular, in the character of Maleficent, the celebration of faith in the fundamental goodness of every being. We all experience the ambiguity that characterizes our earthly existence; there’s good and evil around us and within us. I think the film has shown that we can all be surprised by the capacity of our hearts to overcome what’s evil in us and around us by listening to our deepest invitation to love which is but the natural inclination of our hearts. True love and, hence, goodness is the fundamental calling of every being amid painful experiences of betrayal and the aching hunger for revenge. Goodness triumphs as we make a choice to be true to our calling.

The parable of the Weeds and the Wheat in today’s gospel reading (Mt. 13: 24-43) is of similar theme: The reality of the existence of both good and evil in the world and within us. Allow me to highlight three invitations presented to us by the parable for our reflection this Sunday.

Do not judge others.  In Jesus’ time, the Pharisees (which means “the separated ones”) dreamed of Israel as a society of “pure” believers. So they tended to separate themselves from the sinners; hence, creating an exclusive circle of righteous and respectable men. They excluded those whom they judged as sinners many of whom are the poor. The parable of the Weed and the Wheat is presumably addressed to them to caution them against their judgmental attitude. In the parable, the Sower, who represents the Son of Man, refuses to uproot the weeds as doing so may also result in uprooting the wheat. He suggests allowing them to grow together until harvest. Then it will be clearer which are the weeds and the wheat for judgment.

The parable invites us too to refrain from judging others.  Of course, externally we can morally evaluate an act as either good or bad but we can in no way ascertain the spiritual and moral state of a person who is acting. We cannot label a person as sinner and exclude him in our Christian community. After all who among us has not sinned? 

Pope Francis invites the Church to be like a “mother with an open heart.” The church should be the house of the Father with the door always wide open. The Church is the community of both saints and sinners. God searches the sinners and brings to his house the outcasts. He draws them to his goodness and invites them to be good. Let God be the judge, not us.

Choose always the good.  In our earthly journey towards the fulfillment of the Kingdom of God we experience in a very real way the ambiguity that characterizes our existence. Just as the weeds grow together with the wheat in the field, we experience both the presence of evil and good, sin and grace, curse and blessing in our world and in our hearts.

When it comes to our conscience, we are always led towards the good. We are fundamentally inclined towards the good as we are created good. We struggle with our evil inclination because of the presence of sin that has distorted our nature. Hence, it has not become always easy to decide for what is good.  But we are wired to choose what is good. When we allow the grace of God to work in us, we become more empowered to turn our back to what is evil and embrace what is good. Even Maleficent is surprised that she possesses the power of true love.

There will always be ambiguity in our hearts as we journey in this earthly life, but we have been enabled by the grace of Christ to embrace goodness as our fundamental option. We may falter from time to time in this journey because we remain sinful, but our hearts beat for God.  Let us allow our hearts to seek the Lord and to choose what is good amid the ambiguities of our human existence. Our daily decisions and choices chart our fundamental orientation. Let it be towards the good, towards God.

Trust in the Goodness of God. God is good. The parable reveals that the sower planted only the good seed, the wheat.  He is not responsible for the weeds. The enemy sowed them. We experience in life the suffering wrought by sin. There are many forms of this suffering. Sometimes they befall us and we get confused. We begin to question the goodness of God. Does God care?

Yes. He does care. He loves us. God is good. He did not spare even his Son in order to save us from the suffering and death wrought by sin. We need to trust in the goodness of God.

I was once in a conference in Manila when I received a text message from a certain mother back in Zamboanga requesting me to visit her child who was confined in a hospital and who was in danger of death because of dengue.  I would have easily referred her to another priest since I could not attend to her request; but something deep inside me prodded me to ask the name of the child. The mother texted me her name and I assured her of my prayers for her child and comforted her. Then in the corner of the vast conference hall where I was seated, I prayed ardently for the healing power of the Holy Spirit to strengthen the child. After entrusting to the Lord the concern of the family, I continued with my active participation in the activities of the conference throughout the day.

The following morning, I was seated again for the conference. I received a text message from the mother of the child saying: “Thank you for your prayers, Father. God is good. My daughter is well now!” I felt a sudden surge of gladness in my heart because of the good news. Teary-eyed I texted her back: “Let us praise God for He is good!”

Again, weeds and wheat grow together. In our earthly journey, let us not judge one another; judgment is God’s task not ours. But let us help one another to embrace what is good and to make goodness our fundamental orientation. This we can certainly do for we have a God who is good. Let us trust in his goodness.

Jul 15, 2017

Receptive Hearts (15th Sunday Ordinary A)

Not every single instance I stood on the pulpit that I was sure and confident about my preaching. There were moments when I felt lousy and seemed unable to connect to people.  On one particular Sunday at the Cathedral of Ipil, I was secretly ashamed of my homily because I felt I did not strike a chord with the congregation. I felt lousy. But the next morning, someone I knew who was usually shy and timid and did not care about having conversation with people approached me. This time she was smiling and she thanked me simply. For what? She told me something I said in the homily yesterday moved her quite deeply! I just nodded and smiled hesitantly; but somehow I sensed her sincerity.

This reminded me that preaching the Word of God is really not about me or my antics. Some effective skills and tricks in public speaking do help of course. But when all is said and done, it is the Word of God that penetrates any receptive heart. Even with my lousiest homily, God’s Word filled a hungry and longing heart.  For as the first reading asserts: “Thus says the Lord: Just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth… so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void…” (Is. 55:10-11).

The work of evangelization is indeed a lot like sowing seeds on the ground. As the Gospel reading illustrates (Mt. 13:1-9), when the sower went out to sow, some seed fell on the path, some on rocky ground; still some among thorns, but some fell on rich soil and produced much fruit.  The seed is the Word of God. When we evangelize, we sow God’s Word in the hearts of all without discrimination. Not all, of course, are interested. Some are preoccupied with other things. Some have their hearts and minds closed by philosophies and ideologies critical of God and of religions. Some are having doubts. But among all these, there will always be receptive hearts. These are hearts who long for the Word of God, hearts who have been prepared by the grace of God. It is in these hearts that the Word takes root, grows, blossoms and bears much fruit.

I think there are two things here worth our consideration:  Becoming sowers of God’s Word and cultivating the rich soil of our receptive hearts.

Becoming Sowers. The Gospel today invites all of us to become sowers of the Word of God. Evangelization is the mission of the Church. It is our mission. Clergy and laity alike. We are commissioned to proclaim the Good News to the ends of the earth.  Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, invites all members of the Church to embark on this evangelizing mission.  We are to proclaim the Good News to all peoples. And we are to do this with joy and enthusiasm (EG, 10).

We have to become confident sowers. By this, I do not mean we need to become biblical experts before we plant the seed of God’s Word. We just need to trust and acknowledge the truth that even in the world today, there are receptive hearts, hearts that long for true joy.  They are searching with hope, sometimes with anguish (as Pope Francis noted).  This fertile soil awaits the seed of God’s Word. And more importantly, we just need to accept with humility that it is the grace of God that helps hearts to allow the Word that is sown to blossom and bear surprising abundant fruits. 

Our invitation as sowers seems to be of trust then. Just sow the seed of God’s Word and trust that some will fall on fertile soil. Sow the seed at home, for instance. My mother bought two volumes of illustrated Bible long ago. I guess without her being aware, I had read all of them already even before I finished grade school. And there’s no way of accounting now the abundant fruits. Hundredfold perhaps? Sow the seed at school. Once in a sharing among priests, many recounted how their pre-school teacher or the catechist made them memorize the passages, “For God so loved the world….” and “The Lord is my shepherd…”  The fruits again are immeasurable.  Sow the seed of God’s Word in your offices, in the market places, wherever you are and in whatever capacity you have.  The fruit, you will see, is always beyond you. Hundredfold? Sixty or thirtyfold?

Cultivating our Receptive Hearts.  God’s Word, like seed, grows and blossoms only in a fertile soil, the soil of our receptive hearts. With God’s grace, we ought then to cultivate a heart that longs to embrace His word and allow it to blossom. Here’s a simple way anybody can try out:

Stop. Look. Listen.  Stop means having some time to be still, to cease from doing whatever is that which preoccupies much your mind and heart. This is time out from work and other concerns. This is time to be with the Lord. Look is reviewing our day, noticing what’s happening in our life and where God has touched us. Listen is allowing God’s word to enter our minds and hearts as we read the Bible. The daily liturgical reading is a big help. What is the Lord telling us as we read or listen to God’s word?

Pray. This is personal conversation with the Lord, asking for enlightenment and inspiration particularly about His message. We can freely talk to God about what we think and how we feel as we embrace his Word. We ought to beg for His grace to strengthen our commitment to do his will.

Act. Do what you have been inspired to do as revealed in your time with the Lord. Is it to forgive? Or kick a bad habit? To be kind? Or stop an unhealthy affair? To help someone in need? To share the Good News? To spend more quality time with loved ones? Whatever that is, trust that it is bound to produce much fruit.

To end, another confession:  The reason I mustered my courage to share my Sunday reflections through this blog is that someone in a lonely working place away from the family and in a foreign land where even reading the Bible is taboo told me how she looks forward to read the Sunday reflections.  A longing heart!  I may not offer the best of reflections but I’m confident anyway that this whole thing is not about me, this is about God’s word reaching out to the longing of receptive hearts.  

Let us be sowers of God’s Word. There are just as many ways to sow as there are receptive hearts longing for God’s Word.

Jul 8, 2017

The Gentle God (14th Sunday A)

For many of us, it is a matter of course to believe in a powerful God.  We easily associate God with power. After all, the first assertion of our Christian faith is the belief in God, the Father Almighty. So, chances are your own image of God is one who can do just anything you can imagine with just a single snap of his fingers or perhaps, like how Harry Potter does it, with a simple wiggle of his magic wand.  He is a God who can make all his wishes come true no matter what, because if he cannot then he is not God.  This is how our human logic goes. We understand God’s power as his ability to bring just anything into existence. He has a say, therefore, on everything and exercises control over anything.  Hence, an awesome God... one in whose presence we tremble for in his hands rest the very existence of just everything under the sun.

God's power revealed in meekness. But wait a minute. Today’s readings offer us a glimpse of a quite different side of God.  A gentle and humble God.  The first reading for instance (Zec. 9:9-10) foretells the coming of the king as a just savior, meek and riding on an ass rather than on a majestic chariot.  This foreshadows the entrance of Christ to the city of Jerusalem.  He comes on an ass. Not majestic but humble. He brings not war but peace. Furthermore, the Gospel reading (Mt. 11:25-30) reveals the Lord as one who invites those who are tired to come to him for refreshment, for he is “gentle and humble of heart.” 

Can power, on the one hand, and gentleness and humility, on the other, come together?  It appears difficult but yes.  We find the juxtaposition difficult because we easily associate power with ability to dominate and control, with force, with authority, with the ability to make things happen despite all forms of resistance. Here power becomes imposing and far from being gentle.

The real power though, I submit, is not imposition or coercion. It is persuasion.  God’s power is persuasive. He invites. He presents what is good; manifests what is beautiful and true; offers what we can embrace as values. In other words, He attracts. Unlike the coercive power which works from outside by imposing its will, the persuasive power works from within and gently achieves cooperation.  Such is the power of God—the Gentle God. Another term for this persuasive power of God is love.

The Gentle God invites the weary to carry the yoke of love. “Come to me, all you who are weary and find life burdensome, and I will refresh you. Take my yoke upon your shoulders and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart” (Mt. 11: 28-29).

Here is a God who invites. He invites not the high and mighty but the weary and those burdened by life.  To them he offers refreshment and rest.  He assures them of his heart which is gentle and humble. But we have to take note that he does not dispense of the yoke to be carried: “Take my yoke upon your shoulders.”  Coming to him for rest does not mean a responsibility-free life.  To have rest in Christ does not mean doing nothing in life.  It means carrying the yoke of Jesus, which is the yoke of love.

The gentle God offers a gentle yoke—the yoke of love as alternative to the imposing yoke of law. The yoke of law renders the people tired and unappreciative of life.  The people of Israel, for instance, had been bombarded with endless laws prescribed by the scribes.  Their lives had been all about fulfilling every letter of the law. The yoke of law became the be-all and end-all of their existence so that they gradually forgot about the loving relationship with God.  The ‘little ones,’ the poor especially, could not measure up to the demands of the law, so they were the ones who found life burdensome.  Life for them was an experience of imposition and coercion that led to their alienation.

Jesus reached out to them by offering his yoke. “My yoke is easy, my burden light.” This is the yoke of love offered by the gentle God. This yoke is inspiring and liberating because it works from within. Jesus’ message then is this:  Learn from me. Carry your responsibilities not because they are imposed upon you.  Carry them not because you are obliged by law. Follow me and carry your responsibilities because of love.  

Our response: Living each day with love in our hearts. All of us who have loved will agree by experience that anything we do out of love, however difficult and demanding, becomes easy and light.  The power of love works from within. It inspires and liberates. Life becomes worthwhile, enjoyable, easy, and peaceful when we put upon our shoulders the yoke of Jesus, the yoke of love.

Do we find life burdensome? Perhaps it would help if we examine what we do. We might have been spending our energies and time to things that are imposed upon us. We need to have a change of paradigm.  Let us approach Jesus and learn from him. Let us live each day with love in our hearts and let everything we do flow from that persuasive power of love.

Or do we find ourselves wielding power vested upon us by our status or position in society? Jesus offers himself as a model.  He invites us to come to him and learn from his gentleness and humility. To be powerful does not always mean being coercive and imposing. Again, change of paradigm—real power works not from outside but from within. It is the persuasion of love we need to exercise. It is the way of the gentle God.