Nov 18, 2017

Talents and Accountability (33rd Sunday Ordinary A)

My mother would have been practically living alone for years in our home if it were not for the company of working students she had sent to school.  I remember Lynlyn who had been with my mom for several years.  While staying in our home and assisting my mom with the domestic chores, she diligently completed her college degree in Education.  I think Lynlyn was truly admirable.  Instead of complaining about life’s poverty and deprivation, she faithfully faced every single day doing what she could with the little that life had given her.  Whenever I was home, I would notice her industriousness in doing the house chores and her capacity to endure extended hours of studying and completing her class requirements. She graduated two years ago and took the teacher’s board examination. I was, by chance, at home on the day of the release of the result.  I asked her if she made it. She smiled sheepishly and raised her eyebrows! Lynlyn is now a teacher.    

When life seems to have given us very little as compared to the abundance the others enjoy, it’s so easy to wallow in the mud of self-pity.  Lynlyn stands for a person who has been given less in life but does not succumb to the temptation of defeat.  Instead, she rises above the seeming unfairness of life by capitalizing whatever little she has got.

Today’s gospel is the Parable of the Talents (Mt. 25:14-30). Three servants are entrusted with five, two, and one talent respectively to be invested in the master’s absence.  Talent was the largest unit of currency known at that time.  Other translations render a talent as a thousand silver pieces.  Hence, the first servant is entrusted with five thousand silver pieces, the second with two thousand, the third with one thousand silver pieces.  Today we understand talents as some skills and personal qualities we are gifted with.  While the parable does not intend to legitimize, much less glorify, the inequalities in life, it instructs us about our sense of responsibility especially in view of the final accounting at the end of time.  We are accountable to our Master.  Our accountability is in direct proportion to the abilities with which we have been entrusted. 

Much is expected from whom much is given.  Hence, the master in the parable is happy with the first two servants who manage to double the amount they have entrusted with. But while the master does not expect much from him who has been given very little, he still expects at least whatever enterprising spirit that could be harnessed with whatever little resources made available.  Hence, the third servant who just buried his talent out of his negative notion of his master is rightly met with his master’s anger and punishment.

In application to life, I submit the following lessons:

There is no use complaining about what we do not have in life. Focusing too much in what we do not have can lead us to self-pity and defeat. We would rather do well appreciating who we are and what we have, even how little it is. This appreciation brings hope and strengthens our determination to overcome the lack in our life.  To those who are given less in life, God does not expect much more than what He has given them. But He surely invites them to show that they can be trusted even in small matters: “Since you were faithful in small matters, I will give you great responsibilities” (Mt. 25:21). Mother Teresa of Calcutta is known to have said this: Not all of us can do great things but we all can do small things with great love.” So, stop complaining. Be faithful with the small things entrusted to you. Carry it out with great love. You’ll see that the world is a little better because of you.

“With great power comes great responsibility.” To those who are blessed with plenty in life, it’s good to remember that much is expected from you.  Many people end up as underachievers because they do not put to use the gifts they have been blessed with. Or they recognize their gifts but they refuse to accept the responsibility. So they spend life wasting what they have been given unable to contribute to the transformation of society and the world into a better place.  Underachievers are, needless to say, a real disappointment to God, the giver of gifts. When we experience God’s generosity, let us be grateful. Gratitude is appreciation of what we have been endowed with and a commitment to return the favor.

Whether we have received plenty or little in life, we will all be held accountable. Again, our accountability shall be in direct proportion to the capacities we have been endowed with.  After all, we are invited to be responsible and trustworthy stewards.  We pray and hope, then, that our life shall be a proof that we can be truly trusted with small matters on earth and, hence, deserving of greater things in heaven.

Nov 11, 2017

The Unexpected God (32nd Sunday A)

To say that God is the unexpected God can mean two things:  Either He is the God of surprises whose ways and thoughts are far beyond human reckoning or He is the God whose presence many of us are not eager about.

The early Christians certainly awaited the God of surprises.  They waited vigilantly for the surprise second coming of our Lord.  Initially, they believed in the imminent Parousia—that the Lord will come again during their generation as evidenced in today’s second reading, Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians (1 Thes  4:13-18), where Paul consoles the community by assuring them that the beloved dead will rise again in Christ as He comes and those who are living “will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air” (v. 17).  In this context of their belief in the imminent coming of our Lord, to be prepared is the order of the day. The Lord’s coming will happen just anytime. It will be a surprise.  So, everyone’s on their toes.

The Parable of the Ten Virgins (Mt. 25: 1-13), then, is obviously not about the moral value of virginity.  Thanks be to God! Rather, the parable is all about preparedness as the manifestation of wisdom. This is exemplified by the five wise virgins who prepared enough oil for their lamps to last them through the groom’s unknown but imminent arrival. Foolishness is exemplified by the other five virgins’ lack of foresight and vigilance which caused them their eventual exclusion from the banquet.  The moral of the parable is clear: Be wise. Be prepared for surprises! The Lord will come but no one knows the day or the hour.

The contemporary attitude towards God, I submit, lacks the wisdom of the urgency with which the early Christians manifested towards the prospect of the Lord’s coming. Today, the “unexpected God” assumes the second meaning:  He is the God whose coming to our lives is not met with eagerness. We are not expectant about God’s coming.  We are contented in maintaining a rather lackadaisical relationship with Him, that if we ever have one.  It is as if we have run out of oil for our lamps—that inner disposition of vigilance to match the surprises of God.

Today’s difficulty is not so much the unbelief of modernity.  It’s the indifference of this age.  There is respect for one another’s religious belief, only as recognition of freedom. But most people do not really care about relationship with God much less about setting the precepts of God as the norm for our social life.  Nowhere is this religious indifference more manifested than in the superficiality of the concerns of the youth of today.  This age is more concerned about the externals and matters that last for a moment than about the invitation to interiority, depth, and lasting commitment.  This is because the former is fun and cool. The latter is perceived to be weird and boring.

Today’s readings are an invitation to be wise.  Amid this prevalent religious indifference and superficiality around us, wisdom gives us the proper perspective and the ability to discern what is essential from among our overwhelming passing fancies.  To be wise means to order our life concerns towards its proper end—God.  To be wise is to have that interior disposition to recognize the surprises of God whenever He comes into our lives unexpectedly.

God is the unexpected God.  He is the God of surprises.  The wise are always prepared whenever God comes into their lives.  Wide-eyed, they welcome Him and his grace.  The foolish, with their indifference and superficiality, remain clueless about what they are missing.

Nov 4, 2017

Serving Better and Humbler (31st Sunday A)

The hierarchy is a gift to the Church.  But like any other good things, it can easily be subjected to abuse.  It is a gift because it facilitates better service.  Since the early Christianity, levels of ministering to the needs of the people have been established.  The designated positions like diaconate, presbyterate, episcopate are positions of ministering.  These are always understood in the spirit of the gospel today:  The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest.
In my homily for the thanksgiving mass of a newly ordained priest, I reminded him that the priesthood conferred upon him is foremost a position of service.  Since we both play tennis, I couched my message in tennis language:  Priesthood is a lot like tennis.  To be the best, you’ve got to serve well.  In order to serve well, you need to do a lot of practice. (I’m not sure now if he got me right. I heard he’s now spending a lot more time in tennis courts than in the church!).

Positions in the hierarchy can be abused. And it’s alarmingly easy.  It begins when positions held for the ministry turn into self-serving use of power and authority.  The abuse strengthens and becomes institutionalized when the higher one goes up the ladder the more one gains leverage to serve one’s own convenience and demands members to honor him properly with fantastic titles, front seats,  privileges, and what not.

In today’s gospel (Mt. 23:1-12), Jesus takes issue at the abuses of ministerial positions and authority by the scribes and the Pharisees.  Jesus affirms them as legitimate leaders following Moses. But he instructs his disciples not to imitate their example for “their words are bold but their deeds are few. They bind up heavy loads, hard to carry, to lay on other men’s shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them. All their works are performed to be seen... they are fond of places of honor at banquets, and front seats in synagogues, of marks of respect in public and of being called ‘Rabbi.’”

Jesus continues his instructions by telling his disciples that among them the desire to serve must be the motivation for assuming any community position and humility must be the accompanying attitude: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.”

The witnessing of St. Paul in Thessalonica is exemplary of an authentic Christian leader, an apostle.  In the second reading (1 Thes 2: 7-9, 13), we read Paul’s description of his service as a leader among the Thessalonians. He was caring, gentle, and dedicated. He did not impose any form of burden upon them. In fact, he even worked for a living in order to provide for his own needs while preaching to them the Good News. 

This Sunday, I believe, is a grace-filled opportunity for self-criticism and evaluation on the part of the leaders of the Church today.  Hierarchical positions, as I have noted, can easily be abused.  The person to whom the ministerial position has been conferred may gradually be intoxicated by the respect and endearment afforded by generous and loving members.  When the sense of entitlement creeps in, the minister may unwittingly begin to demand the privileges for himself and end up losing the original vocation to serve others.   The authority conferred may be wielded not for the good of all and of God’s Kingdom but for the advancement of personal agenda instead. Today’s reading is a healthy reminder that among the Christian communities any difference in position and any form of entrusted authority are justified only by the requirement of the ministry. 

Among the laity, in this time of lay empowerment when the lay are rightly tapped for important positions in the different ministries and apostolate of the Church, the same reminder is very helpful.  Our business in the Church is service and not to lord it over the people.  It is not uncommon to hear criticism among the lay regarding the authoritarian attitudes of lay leaders.  “Mas istrikto pa kay Father!” Or worse, we hear of pastoral council president competing with the authority of the parish priest.  The result: Division among the flock.

Let us not follow the example of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Jesus himself explicitly enjoins us that.  Instead, let us serve in the spirit of St. Paul’s gentle, caring and dedicated leadership and ministering among the Thessalonians. 

And in a healthy self-criticism, let us save the Church from our own abuses of the gift of authority. 

Forgive me Lord for the times I have marred the gift of hierarchy by attending first and foremost to my own convenience through the authority entrusted to me.  Give me the grace to serve much better and humbler. Amen.