Christ: Comfort to the afflicted and affliction to the comfortable

Homily for 20th Sunday in Ordinary time 2014

One of the many things I love about Jesus is that he not only comforts the afflicted, he also afflicts the comfortable. I really felt it as I read and reflected on the gospel of today. See, I have grown comfortable with the Jesus who always listens to the pleadings of the poor and the needy. I have become so comfortable with the Jesus who can’t allow the people to go hungry without giving them something to eat. I have been comfortable with the Jesus who is very compassionate, understanding, forgiving, loving, and caring for those who come to him for help. I have experienced it myself.

Today’s gospel (Matthew 15:21-28) however makes me feeling uncomfortable. It is uncomfortable for me to have Jesus playing indifferent to the Canaanite woman who came to him for help. ‘He answered her not a word’, as Matthew would describe Jesus’ reaction towards the desperate person calling out for his help. It took him few ‘naggings’ from the woman, and a pleading from his disciples, for Jesus to ‘give in to her request. But even then, when Jesus finally spoke to the woman, his words were not even a consoling or comforting words. ‘I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel,’ Jesus said to her. I could only imagine the woman pleading more earnestly: ‘But Lord, it’s not about me! It’s about my daughter! I loved her so much, and I wanted to help her but it is beyond my power to cure her. I can’t do anything for her, but I believed in you. You can do something for her!

But to add insult to injury, Jesus said: ‘‘It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the house-dogs.” In the Semitic language and expression, calling someone a ‘dog’ or a ‘house-dog’ is a highly derogatory term. In a way, it is looking down at someone. Today, we can equate this to our current issues and events saying: ‘You are an asylum seeker. You’re not one of us. You’re not from here. You jumped in the queue. It’s not fair. Thus, I can’t allow you to enjoy what we are enjoying in here.

But thank God, the particular story didn’t end up Jesus driving the woman away or turning her down. Thank God the woman didn’t give up on her prayers and on her faith. Otherwise, we would have a good scriptural basis for being a racist. Thank God, though Jesus was caught up with racism (Note: I am not saying Jesus is a racist), he didn’t make it an obstacle for him to grant to do something great and to appreciate the faith of the people who come to him.

As I have mentioned above, this gospel makes me a bit uncomfortable. Because, I was once caught up with racism or I really was acting as racist before.

When I arrived in the seminary in Melbourne in 2007, I met this seminarian from Wagga, he is now a priest…He is just absolutely black, shining black. That’s the first time I saw a person as black as he is in person, and I just can’t hold myself, I laughed at him. Thank God, he made light of that awkward situation. He laughed with me too, and I realized he was very funny. I remember when we had our photo taken, he said: ‘I must smile to show my teeth, to have at least something in me seen in this photo.’ And we all laughed about it.

I just felt guilty of judging people by their skin color when in God, we are all one. There is no racism in God. In him we are all equal and none of us is more equal than others in his eyes, though  it doesn’t mean we are to be the same too. In God, it doesn’t matter what or which country do we come from, or what skin color do we have, or what language do we speak. For God what matters is where we are going to- and I hope and pray we are going in the same direction- heaven, eternal life, happiness forever. This must be the basis of our discernment and self-examination everyday- and constantly reminding ourselves to stay on the track leading us to life.

I just wanted to share with you this poem written by an African kid, and which was nominated by the UN to be the best poem in 2006. The title is: ‘And you call me colored?

It goes like this:

When I born, I black

When I grow up, I black

When I go in Sun, I black

When I scared, I black

When I sick, I black

And when I die, I still black

And you white fellow

When you born, you pink

When you grow up, you white

When you go in sun, you red

When you cold, you blue

When you scared, you yellow

When you sick, you green

And when you die, you gray

And you calling me colored ???

And here’s the rub here: When we judged others, we are actually judging ourselves more than we judge the other person.

So God is not a racist. And as sons and daughters of God, we must not put categories, label, or stereotype towards other people too.

 Going back to the gospel however:

In showing that particular attitude towards the woman, which seemed to be an attitude of indifference at first, Jesus was driving at  two very important points: That the house of Israel- that is the chosen of people God would realize how vital their role is and how ‘special’ are they in the story of salvation and the other point Jesus is presenting here is that we are to persist in our prayers.

First point: Matthew wished to stress in here the dream of Jesus for  his Jewish audience to realize how they have taken for granted God’s offer of salvation, who has come to them not just as a prophet but really a God in person. This is what St Paul was lamenting about, in the Second Reading today (Romans 11:13-15,29-32) . St Paul said: “Let me tell you pagans this: I have been sent to the pagans as their apostle, and I am proud of being sent, but the purpose of it is to make my own people envious of you, and in this way save some of them. Since their rejection meant the reconciliation of the world, do you know what their admission will mean?

God has called us to be sons and daughters. What a privilege!

Are we acting like his sons and daughters, as brothers and sisters who love, and care for each other?

Or we are acting as siblings who are rivals in everything?

The second point Jesus wanted to drive at in the gospel is that we are to persevere in our prayer. God always listens to our prayers, even if at times he seemed to be deaf to our prayers, or he seemed to have misheard our prayers because we didn’t get what we are praying for. Like the Canaanite woman, we just need to be humble (kneeling before our Lord), persistent (that is with hope and patience). Patience is a difficult thing. It’s not easy to acquire this virtue. As someone says: “Patience is a virtue, possess it if you can, seldom in a woman, never in a man.”

One way to check if you are a patient person is to examine yourself after every Mass Sunday when you leave the Church. If you say:  ‘The Mass was beautiful only that it is 15 minutes too long’, or if you say ‘The homily is good, but it would have been much better if it’s not 5 minutes too long,’ then perhaps there is a great need still to grow in the virtue of patience.

And like the woman in the gospel we need to acknowledge our littleness. We need to be honest with ourselves. We need to accept that there are saints and sinners in us. And like the woman we need to present this self-acceptance to the Lord. And if we do this, the amazing things happens. God gives in to our request. Not that we bribe God, it is just that God wants us to be truly who we are, no hypocrisy before him. The woman taught us another great lesson here that the ‘dog’ in us (i.e. our littleness, our vulnerability, our neediness, our helplessness at times) can even be God’s opportunity to do something great not only for us, but through us.

As we continue our celebration let us thank God for calling us to be his sons and daughters and for allowing us to be  beneficiaries of his mercy regardless of who we are, what we have done, what language do we speak and what’s the colour of our skin. At the same time, let us resolve to  be sensitive towards one another, and welcoming as Jesus does, though at times he may afflict us  rather than comforting us. Amen.

Meeting God halfway- a way to go

Homily 19th Sunday A 2014

A teenage boy had just got his driver’s license and inquired of his father as to when they could discuss his use of the car. His father said he’d make a deal with his son: ‘You bring your grades up, study your Bible a little, and get your hair cut. Then we’ll talk about the car.
The boy thought about that for a moment, decided he’d settle for the offer, and they agreed on it.
After about six weeks his father said, ‘Son, you’ve brought your grades up and I’ve observed that you have been studying your Bible, but I’m disappointed you haven’t gotten your hair cut.
The boy said, ‘You know, Dad, I’ve been thinking about that, and I’ve noticed in my studies of the Bible that Samson had long hair, John the Baptist had long hair, Moses had long hair…and there’s even strong evidence that Jesus had long hair.’
To this his father replied, ‘Did you also notice they all walked everywhere they went?’

Well, Jesus even walked on the water in today’s gospel.

Experience teaches us that if we want to get something we need to do something about it. If we want a thing to happen, we need to make it happen.

This is applicable to our salvation too. But this does not mean that we can do something to earn our salvation. The gift of salvation is a free, undeserved gift from God for us. It is by the grace of God. What we need to do however, is to respond to this offer of salvation in faith, and to bear fruits – the fruits of salvation. The good news for us is that God offers us opportunities to realize this.

We therefore, need to meet God halfway in this, just as praying everyday to win the lottery doesn’t help much if we don’t go and buy the ticket. As St Augustine would say: “God created us without us: but he did not will to save us without us.” (Cf St. Augustine, Sermo 169,11,13:PL 38,923; and Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1847).  

 How to meet God halfway?

Our readings today offer us ways to realize this.

In the first reading, like the prophet Elijah, we need to stand up as a witness to the true God despite opposition, persecution or even imminent death. Elijah in the reading was running for his life because of his vocal opposition to the pagan god Baal and the prophets of Baal. We can learn then from the courage of Elijah.  But we need not look  only at a distant past here nor we are to look only at a distant figure. As of date, there have been many Christians who were martyred in the faith because they, like Elijah stood up for their Christian belief even in the face of death. I’m thinking of the many Christians in many parts of the world right here and now,  in our day and age, persecuted and martyred  for the faith they professed.  So we are here today celebrating this faith in relative peace and quiet, while at this moment too there are Christians in the world celebrating their faith in hiding, anxiously, because they just don’t want or they can’t afford their faith to die in their homeland. (See: http://www.ncregister.com/daily-news/number-of-christian-martyrs-increased-sharply-in-2013)

The example of Elijah also teaches us to sort out our lives and examine ourselves to eradicate the other gods we may have put up alongside the true God.

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle in the Philippines, could help us in our reflection on this. This is part of the talk he gave during the 49th Eucharistic Congress in Canada in 2008.

The Cardinal said:

How many factory workers are being denied right wages for the god called ‘PROFIT?’
How many women are being sacrificed to the god called ‘DOMINATION?’
How many children are being sacrificed to the god called ‘LUST?
How many trees, rivers, hills are being sacrificed to the god called ‘PROGRESS?’
How many poor people are being sacrificed to the god called ‘GREED?’
And defenseless people sacrificed to the god of ‘NATIONAL SECURITY?’ 

In the Second Reading, like Paul, we need to keep up with our faith and never despair despite the ups and downs in our lives, despite the challenges in faith we are to face. At the same time, we are to do our best to help others realize and recognize the love of God for us and for God’s plan of salvation for us. This is a call to witness, to spread the gospel. Yes, spreading the gospel is a tough call because it requires commitment and dedication. Furthermore, in answering this call to evangelization does not guarantee us of immediate fruits of our labour. Yet, we need to realize in there that we can only sow the seeds of faith. God is the one who can make it grow. And He doesn’t work in time. He works in eternity, and according to Mr Bean, ‘It’s a heck of a long time.’

In the gospel today, Peter exemplifies for us a way to meet God halfway. He calls on to the Lord, “Lord, save me” then he stretches out his hand to hang on to Jesus. This is a call to trust in God not only when we are in difficult situation but at all times. This is a call to have God our priority. It is very important because God is not only the source of life, he is life himself. Apart from him, Jesus said in the gospel of St John, we ‘can do nothing.’ (Jn 15:5).

C.S. Lewis makes a beautiful analogy to show how important God is for us.

God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there.”  C.S. LewisMere Christianity

So for us to be assured of eternal happiness, we need to do something. Like that teenage boy in the story above, we need to do our part, and listen to what Christ tells us to do, so that we will get what really is reserved for us for all eternity.

Let us hang on to our faith and in God. The beauty of keeping up the faith and recognizing the presence and the works of God in our experiences is that we find more meaning in our lives and in what we do. This is so true and I’d like to share with you what I found posted on my Facebook wall the other day. It’s a clever way of putting it but it speaks truly of  how turn things around.  It says:  Only God can turn a Mess into a message, Test into a testimony, Trials into triumph and Victim into Victory.

 Questions to reflect on today:

Is God still the one behind the wheel in our car of life?

Or are we like those people who don’t even stop to give God a ride?

 

 

 

Witnessing a miracle

Homily for 18th Sunday in Ordinary time year A 2014

the boy with five loavesA preacher went into the pulpit one Sunday morning wearing a pair of new glasses.
The reading portion of the glasses improved his vision considerably, but the top portion of the glasses didn’t work so well. In fact he was experiencing dizziness every time he looked through them.
He explained to the congregation that the new glasses were causing problems.
“I hope you will excuse my continually removing my glasses,” he said.

You see when I look down I can see fine, but when I look at you, it makes me sick.”

Of course the preacher didn’t mean the congregation making him sick but the new glasses. I hope the parishioners came back to the same Church the following Sunday.

However, it is so true that there are indeed times, situations and even people we may have encountered that made us ‘feel sick’. I don’t know how you call it but I call this experience ‘a sickening experience.’ When I experience like this, my inclination would be to get out of it as fast as I can or get it over with at once, or get away from it immediately.

In a manner of saying, Jesus in the gospel could have been ‘feeling sick’ of the crowd of people gathering around him, wanting to touch him, to have a glimpse of him, to get a bit of him, or expecting him to do something for them, like healing from their illness, etc. Furthermore, Jesus had just learned of the sickening news of the beheading of his cousin, John the Baptist by Herod. So we heard Jesus proposing to his disciples that they ‘withdrew to a lonely place’, for a sort of  a ‘recollection’. He might have wanted to discuss with his disciples the repercussions of following him  in a more personal and real way and the consequence of standing up for the truth. In a way, Jesus needs to have a rest too.

But as the gospel tells us today, the people followed them. In fact, they arrived ahead of Jesus and his disciples to the venue of their recollection. If I were Jesus, I would have told these people off: ‘Come on, give me a break! It’s my day off.’

But no, he couldn’t do that to the people. Rather he entertained them, he taught them, and healed their sick. In other words, he faced the ‘sickening’ situation by using his powers and capabilities to transform it into a life-giving experience and a soul-enriching moment.

But healing wasn’t the only miracle that Jesus did in this particular gospel narrative. He also miraculously broke the five loaves and two fish and fed them to thousands of people, leaving even a dozen baskets of leftover. He did the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves. Matthew is not the only one who recorded this miracle of Jesus. Mark, Luke and John also recorded this. By doing this, Jesus is showing to the people that ‘the hand of the Lord’ indeed, ‘feeds us [and] he answers all our needs’ (cf Ps 144: 8-9; 15-18) as we have declared with the psalmist today.

Jesus performed the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves because he took pity on the people. Yet, the miracle occurred not only because Jesus wanted to feed the hungry crowd but because of three important things that happened.

First, Jesus cares for us so much that He put OUR needs first before HIS own.  He needs some quiet times and rest, and perhaps he would just want to grieve over the death of his cousin John the Baptist. He could have all the reasons not to be bothered by the crowd. But, no He looked at them not as people making him sick but people who are in great need of God, who are in great need of healing, and who are in great need of care and nourishment. Such is his way of caring for us. Such is Christ’s way of loving us- the kind of  love that St Paul tells us in our Second Reading today, that breaks any barrier, topples and overcomes anything that ‘comes between us and the love of Christ.’ (Cf Rom 8:35,37-39)

If such is the way God loves us then we ought to be as loving as he is. We can learn from Jesus’ compassionate attitude and genuine concern for the  people around him. If we do this, there would be no place for being critical and cynical towards other people, there would be no place for gossiping, there would be no place for looking down at anybody. We can only look down at anybody if we are helping that person get up. As Jesus exemplified to us, we need to look at everyone as someone who is worth-saving and even worth dying for.

Second, His disciples listened to him and obeyed his words.

The disciples listened to Jesus’ command to ‘give [the people] something to eat  [them]selves’ and they acted on it. They have utilized the little they could offer and gave it to Jesus. This is  a reminder for us too-  that in Christian discipleship, we can’t just leave it all to Jesus to do whatever needs to be done. We also need to do something. In asking his disciples to give something to the people, Jesus has awakened in them the fact that each one of us really has something to offer no matter how small, no matter how insignificant.

What can we offer then?

We can give  and share our time, our talent, and our treasure. Some of us might say, ‘I don’t know what to do, I am old, living alone, could hardly move about. I’m just sitting all day, I can’t do so much.’ Well, you can. Spend your time praying for the world, praying for the people you care for, praying for the people who suffer, and offer some sort of sacrifices. Like St Therese of the Child Jesus, the contemplative nun who spent her life inside a cloistered Carmelite Monastery until she died at the age of 24, you can be a great missionary- a missionary of prayers. God knows we can only do so much. But it’s not an excuse for us not to do anything. Living our lives with little we have is better still than not living at all. Witnessing for Christ despite oppositions, hardships, and seemingly fruitless endeavour is much better than not witnessing at all.

Third, because of the little boy who gave up his few loaves and fish by giving it to Jesus and by sharing it to others.

I could only imagine him peeping through crowd as they gathered around Jesus, then one of the disciples came to him and said: ‘The master needs your lunch mate’. He could have protested or he could have said: ‘Okey, but it would be $10  dollars each.’ He could have made an easy money out of that. But we didn’t hear a thing of that sort. In fact, the unnamed boy gave it all to Jesus.

And this is one reason why I loved this gospel.

This shows us that no matter how small we are,  how insignificant we think we might be, we can do something great or be a witness to a wonderful thing- if we give even just the little that we have to Jesus- to our God.

Another thing about this gospel is that, in God, we don’t have to be someone popular, someone rich, someone who is on top of the social ladder. God can do something in and through us regardless of who we are, where we are, and how little we have to offer. God can multiply the little that we have to benefit for the many, if we selflessly, lovingly and generously share it to others rather than keeping it for our own. We may complain that we have given so much already. Well, God expects us to do more and to give more, otherwise, he would have stopped giving us so much too.

So on this 18th Sunday in Ordinary time, let us remind ourselves: We might be feeling sick towards other people or situations around us, God in Christ offered us a better way to look at it and to approach it. Like him, we need to look at one another through the eyes of faith and with the eyes of love. Like the disciples we need to listen to Jesus and do ‘whatever he tells us to do’. And like the little boy unnamed boy (we can call him ‘fishy lad’ here), we need to be generous in giving to Jesus and to others, despite the little that we have. And I can assure you, if we do this we would be amazed of the return, the leftover, the miracle that would happen right before our eyes.