Sep 23, 2017

Love at the Eleventh Hour (25th Sunday A)

Nothing is too late for this loving God.  His love and his grace are freely given to those who seek him even at the eleventh hour.  He is ready to offer his love just anytime.  To those who come at the last hour, he showers his underserved love just the same.

This loving God turns our world upside down.  We order our values and priorities this way; He shows us what is essential to life quite another way--oftentimes, the exact reversal of our human reckoning.  We establish consistent and obliging norms for our individual and communal acts; He intervenes in our lives beyond these norms we set.  In humility, then, we ought to listen to this God through his Prophet Isaiah:  “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways... As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Is 55: 8-9). God’s ways are simply beyond us.

These words of the prophet in the first reading prepare us for the unpredictable God of the gospel today.  He is the landowner in the parable who hired labourers in his vineyard at five different intervals and paid all of them equally with the customary day’s wage.  In other words, those who came in early to work and those who came in at the last hour of the day received the same amount from him as their wage. 

Isn’t it unfair?  Our impeccable human sense of equity is tempted to say, “Yes, unfair! It is a complete disregard of commutative justice.” But we hesitate.  The parable invites us to ponder more deeply and come to a deeper insight into the free and loving acts of God.  Allow me to offer two points for our reflection:

First, God’s moment is not governed by chronos but is manifested in kairosChronos and kairos are two helpful Greek concepts of time. Chronos is clock time. Calendar time.  Sequential time.  This helps us organize our lives well.  With a Rolex watch on our wrist, we can be precise with our time management... or so the advertisement goes.  We can quantify time and execute our plans by the hour from day one to the day we die.  With chronos, we have an accurate sense of who came early and who got in real late.  We even invented the Bundy clock to monitor and quantify work time.   Since we benefit so much from this time category we also take it for granted that God works within the same paradigm forgetting that He is eternal... timeless... hence beyond chronos

God’s actions in history are manifested in kairos which is use in the New Testament to mean “the appointed time in the purpose of God.”  It is any moment when God acts.  Freely.  Lovingly.  Not imprisoned by the rigidity of our time inventions.  If we come to think of it, the precision of Rolex time doesn’t matter much to the eternal God.  God’s only time is the one and lasting moment of the now.  The time that matters to him is every moment that his lost son or daughter finally comes home to accept his mercy and love.  It even doesn’t matter to him who came in early or late, who served him the longest or shortest.  He does not use the Bundy clock. All, including him who comes at the eleventh hour, receive the same grace He intends for his people. 

We have developed acute sense of chronos.  We have become time conscious in its chronological sense for our human purposes.  We even blow our tops when time is not observed as planned. But are we time conscious in the sense of kairos?  Can we go past the familiar tic-tac of the clock and recognize instead the glorious moments when God acts in our lives to accomplish his purpose?  Have we celebrated these precious moments in life when God bathed us with his grace?    

Second, God deals with us not with strict justice but with love.  If God were to use our human standard of justice in dealing with us sinners, who would survive?  Yet we expect God to be just.  While listening to the parable, what makes our eyebrows meet with disbelief is the part when the landowner gives the same wage for everyone.  We feel there’s lack of equity. Others have worked longer. How come those who worked for the last hour receive the same amount as those who worked the whole day? This smacks of injustice, so we think.  Again, we are invited to think deeper.  Justice is rendering whatever is due by right. Those who worked the whole day actually received what is due as agreed upon beforehand.  So, there isn’t a real justice problem here. The issue at hand is actually this: that those who worked in fewer hours received more than what they deserved.  The issue here is not of justice but of our sense of envy in the face of God’s generosity to those whom we believe are undeserving.  God’s action is beyond justice. God deals with us with love. And God’s love is gratuitous. God renders not just what is due by right but grants even what is undeserved!

The landowner in the parable asks, “Are you envious because I’m generous?”  Oftentimes we cannot believe that God still acts lovingly to those who do not deserve his love.  All too often we wish that God be the strict God of justice.   We want him to be like us—calculating and exacting.  But sorry, or shall I say, thank God, God’s ways are not our ways.

Again, I would like to say what I have said: Nothing is too late for this loving God.  His gratuitous love shines even more at the eleventh hour.  He is ready to offer his love just anytime.  To those who come at the last hour, he showers his underserved love just the same.  






Sep 16, 2017

Oops! I Did It Again (24th Sunday A)

Britney Spears had the world as her captivated audience in the year 2000 for her teen pop song that spoke about a girl who thinks love is a game and plays with her lover's emotions. The song Oops!... I Did It Again became her signature song.  Was it her unique voice that made the song popular? Or was it her breath-taking dance moves? Or maybe her signature low-rise jeans and exposed belly as she wiggled about the stage? Perhaps...  Perhaps...  But it could also be, I suspect, the identification of millions of people with the experience of having repeatedly misbehaved in life.  So that the expression, “Oops, I did it again,” is simply a favorite.  Millions wouldn’t mind intoning it anytime of the day.

When every now and then we find ourselves helpless scratching our heads or biting our nails as we say with real regrets, “Oops, I did it again,” we acknowledge with humility and shame our need for forgiveness.  Not once, not just twice, not even thrice.  More times.  Peter, in today’s gospel reading (Mt. 18:21-35), is cognizant of the reality of repeated offense done against one another and against God.  Hence his question, “how often must I forgive?”  He follows it up with his opinion: “Seven times?”  Maybe he is expecting to be affirmed because seven is a perfect number and, by human calculation, to be able to forgive seven times is undoubtedly magnanimous enough.

Jesus’ reply bears again the perspective of God, not of man:  No. Not seven times, Peter. Seventy times seven!  This means in effect, setting no limit to the act of mercy and forgiveness.  Jesus is saying here, “Peter, when you forgive, forget about counting.”

Peter has a sense only of the thriving sinfulness of the world; hence, it is important for him to know how far forgiveness can be offered.  Jesus knows not just the sinful side of reality, he is aware, more importantly, of the liberating grace that abounds even more.  Only with mercy and forgiveness can this broken world be saved.  God is making sure we have unlimited source of this grace.  Sin, however it thrives and flourishes, however it comes back again and again and again, will have to be conquered by mercy and acts of forgiveness.  God’s unconditional mercy always has the last say!

Chronic sinners as we are, we can only submit in gratitude and humility to God as we chant David’s psalm as our own: 

He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities. 
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
As far as the East is from the West,
So far has he removed our transgressions from us (Ps 103: 10-12).

The ensuing self-explanatory parable of the unforgiving servant in today’s gospel is meant to highlight the fact that we are asked to forgive as we have experienced it from God.  God’s mercy is as expansive as the distance between heaven and earth, between one end of the earth and the other.  We experience this unconditional mercy of God; therefore, we just have to share that same liberating experience to those who have sinned against us.  Our failure to do so shows our lack of gratitude and appreciation of our experience of God’s mercy. 

Maybe we find this difficult and almost impossible because we humans are very calculating.  Our sense of justice is oftentimes devoid of the spirit of love.  To be appeased when aggrieved, we make sure we get even.  Or if we do forgive, we set limits. Otherwise, it’s foolishness; our human logic reckons so.

My father was a disciplinarian.  It was characteristic of him to pronounce clear rules, limits and boundaries to be observed at home.  First offense was tolerated as a necessary mistake to learn from. Second offense called for an unforgettable dressing down as a strong precaution. Third offense was the last warning!  Over and above this was unacceptable, the offender had no more excuse and must get lost!  I was naturally obedient and careful for I didn’t like the feeling of being scolded.  One of us was not.  So he reached the point, according to the rules, when he had to leave the house and live wherever he wanted.  With his absence, my father tried to appear undisturbed.  But with my mother twisting my father’s arm, he finally set out to look for his wayward son.  After this event, my father stopped counting.  Perhaps, he realized how foolish it is to set quotas for forgiveness when it concerns a loved one.

We may be very calculating. But beyond the limit that we have clearly set, we do realize sometimes that we still possess a heart that continues to beat with love for the offender. It is this same love with which God approaches our repetitious transgressions.   This love does not know how to count up to seven.  Much less compute seventy times seven!  This love only knows infinity.

So once again, we are facing the high standards of Christian love.  It demands that we forgive those who have offended us as often as they come with sorrow for their transgressions.  To enable us to actually do it, we just have to remember with gratitude how we ourselves have been forgiven by the merciful and kind God... again and again... and again.   

We often go to God admitting our guilt saying “Oops, I did it again.”  We experience his mercy anyhow.  It gives me pure and innocent joy to imagine God granting his grace of forgiveness for the nth time scratching his head or biting his nails mumbling to Himself, “Oops, I did it again...” but in His case, without any ounce of regrets.





Sep 9, 2017

Winning Over A Brother (23rd Sunday A)


In 1983, just two days after Christmas, Pope John Paul II visited his would-be assassin in prison and spoke privately with him for about twenty minutes.  The Pontiff later declined to mention what was discussed, and said, "What we talked about will have to remain a secret between him and me.  I spoke to him as a brother whom I have pardoned and who has my complete trust."
(Image and caption from polishgreatness.blogspot.com)

How do we actually respond to situations when a brother or a sister or a member of a community goes wayward or does something that offends us?

One approach that many of us easily subscribe to is the mind-your-own-business approach.  We have allowed the spirit of laissez faire to expand its influence from politico-economic sphere to our personal and social life.  We don’t want to have anything to do with whatever smacks of “meddling” with another’s life.  “Walang pakialaman pare!”  We have grown to become individualists imbued with a misleading philosophy of freedom synonymous to licentiousness. “Bahala siya sa buhay nya. Diskarte nya yan!”  In the same token, somehow deep within us we also wish to be left alone with our own business.  So, we build sturdy and high walls around our homes and strong divisions within, perhaps, in order to let one another just be.

Another favourite approach is the seemingly concerned non-confrontational tell-the-neighbours approach. In short and in my dialect, the libak approach.  Not a single soul in the whole barangay remains uninformed regarding the hottest issue except the person concerned.  Is this because of the daunting task inherent in the duty to correct the wrong doer? Or is it the passive-aggressive psychological make-up we all seem to grow up with given our authoritarian family dynamics? Or perhaps the highly valued cultural Smooth Interpersonal Relationship (SIR)?  Whatever underlies the town’s favourite gossip approach one thing is sure: It does not help.

This Sunday readings offer us a helpful approach.  May I call it the my-brother’s-keeper approach?  This one is imbued with the spirit of love and care clearly espoused by the second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans (13: 8-10). “Owe nothing to anyone, except to love one another; for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law” (v. 8).  Paul’s reminder is the underlying motive of my-brother’s-keeper approach.  Love, and not the cold spirit of laissez faire or the burning passion for gossip, should be the inspiration behind our effort to win over an errant family or community member.  We always have to be aware that our Christian communities are communities of the loving Covenant between God and his people. We are the communities of the Kingdom of God.  The bond that ties us together is not any social ideology or a common psychological idiosyncrasy but love.

In such a communitarian context, each is endowed with a prophetic vocation to remind, to warn, to reprimand a member whenever he or she turns away from the spirit of the covenant and the values of God’s Kingdom.   The prophet Ezekiel, in the first reading (Ez. 33:7-9), is given this responsibility to “dissuade the wicked man from his way.”  Failure to act on this responsibility holds the prophet liable to the evil that befalls the man in question.  “If... you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death” (v. 8).  This reminds all of us of our social responsibility to take care of one another by reprimanding or gently reminding each one whenever we are in error or in sin.

In the community of God’s Kingdom, it is not very responsible to say “Walang pakialaman pare!” nor it is with love and concern that we say “Bahala siya sa buhay niya.”  As children of God, we are always our brother’s keeper. We should constantly act out of love by reaching out to a community member who has gone wayward.

The gospel today (Mt. 18:15-20) prescribes some helpful steps to a genuine process of fraternal correction.  Again, in each step, the objective is to win your brother over (v. 15). This is real concern and love. And how lovely it is to live in such a community!

The first step is person to person confrontation.  Confrontation is not a very good word. I think a better expression is heart-to-heart talk!  I am convinced that if this is done with love and care there’s no need for another step.  Most will end up shaking hands or even embracing each other with a resolve to become better friends, better lovers.

Should there be a need for another step anyhow, Jesus instructs us to move to the second step:  To win over the brother or sister in the presence of two or three other witnesses.  Sometimes, one may be wrong about the accusation against another.  The presence of other witnesses establishes objectivity and certainty about the moral issue and strengthens the invitation for the erring party to consider reconciliation.

Should that fail too, the conflict has to be brought to the attention now of the community of the Church as the third step. In this level, failure on the part of the erring party to listen and to be humble enough to amend his ways may invoke the right of the Church to expel such an obstinate unloving member from the community. But even here, to treat such a member as a gentile or a tax collector, as the gospel instructs, is to leave an open door, an open invitation for an eventual conversion of heart.  Such is the magnanimity of Christian charity!

Again, what a lovely community we are called to be.  Is there someone in particular you ought to reach out to in the spirit of fraternal correction? Go, go, go! Win that brother or sister over.