Leaving Nets & Navigating Internet for God’s Word 3rd Sunday of the Year – Cycle B – 24 January 2021
Leaving Nets & Navigating Internet for God’s Word
3rd Sunday of the Year – Cycle B – 24 January 2021
Sunday of the Word of God Readings: Jon 3:1-5, 10; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Mk 1:14-20
“And immediately they left their nets and followed him” (Mk 1:18)
Prologue: Celebrating the ‘Sunday of the Word of God’—which Pope Francis instituted to be held every year on the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, with the Apostolic Letter ‘Aperuit illis’ of September 30, 2019—it’s fitting to reflect on today’s readings from the viewpoint of God’s word, which is spoken by prophets like Jonah, John the Baptist and even Jesus, The Prophet par excellence, whose word announces the Reign of God and is also a call to follow him. Symbols of net and internet can be used keeping in mind Jesus’ call of fishermen and our call to be ‘Online’, today.
Three Scriptural Signposts:
1. The Book of Jonah is not a historical document of the life and preaching of a historical prophet called ‘Jonah’ who lived in the 8th century (see 2 Kings 14:25), but rather a satirical work or ‘didactic fiction’ meaning a sermon in the form of a story. The deep truths underlying the Jonah story are: (a) God wants all to be saved, (b) God chooses prophets to preach salvation and repentance, and (c) those who hear God’s word can either freely accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. This book—written after the Exile sometime in the 5th
century BC—critiques Jewish exclusiveness and stresses that God was Lord of all peoples. God only expects all peoples to be open to God’s word, with readiness to convert themselves by changing mindsets and lifestyles. We are all familiar with Jonah the so called ‘reluctant, escapist prophet’ who refuses to go to Nineveh, the ‘pagan city’ which was the capital-city of the Assyrians, archenemies of Israel in the 8th century. Obviously, Jonah would have rejoiced seeing them punished and destroyed by Yahweh, rather than repentant, converted and spared. After his adventures at sea, being tossed and turned during the tempest, and in the belly of the whale, God’s word comes to him “a second time” (3:1), saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city …” (v.2). Jonah goes and, as directed by Yahweh, he calls for repentance. Jonah’s proclamation of God’s word leads to the Ninevites’ conversion: “The people of Nineveh believed God ….” (v.5) proclaim a fast with sackcloth and ashes and are saved.
2. Similar to the prophetism exercised by Jonah for repentance and conversion of the Ninevites, today’s gospel passage opens up with mention of two prophets: John and Jesus. There is a similarity-with-dissimilarity and continuity-in-discontinuity in their lives and messages. Cousins though they are, and though they both preach repentance, first, John is but the ‘friend of the bridegroom’ who is Jesus (Jn 3:26). Second, John preaches that God will act in the future, while Jesus proclaims that: “The time is fulfilled …” (v.15), in him, here-and-now. Third, John brings the old covenant to a close with its focus on law and adherence to it, while Jesus inaugurates a new covenant, limited to but one commandment, love, yet enlarging it with radical depth and dynamism. With one simple statement, “Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee” (v.14) evangelist ensures that John the Baptist’s mission is accomplished; he is imprisoned, while Jesus is free to proclaim ‘Good News’. Not only does Jesus proclaim the ‘kairos’, special time of God breaking into human history, but also appears in a God-chosen place: Galilee. His message will be addressed, first, to simple folks and his call will be directed to fishermen of little learning—seven of the Twelve will be of this group—probably knowing not much more than making nets and casting them for a catch of fish.
3. Nets, fish and fishing — besides being understood literally, are rich biblical images that symbolize God’s judgement of peoples (e.g., Eccl 9:12; Amos 4:2; Hab 1:15-17; Ezek 26;5, 32:3, etc.). While ‘net’ in the First Testament predominantly signifies judgement, in the Second Testament, the Galilean setting of Jesus’ call for discipleship is linked more to fishing as an exercise in hauling in a catch of fish. This interpretation is more plausible since Jesus commissions his first disciples with a promise: “I will make you fish for people” (v.17). While Jesus calls Simon and his brother, Andrew, who were “casting” a net into the sea, he calls James and John who were “mending” their nets. Casting and mending, fishing and fixing, toiling and recuperating, venturing outward and retreating inward, respectively, suggest the active and the passive dimensions of discipleship. Jesus’ word: “Follow me” results in the brothers following him “immediately” (vv.18,20). Jesus’ announcement of God’s Reign and his call to “repent, and believe in the good news!” (v.15) bear quick results. The word for repentance, metanoia, refers to ‘changing one’s mind’. Jesus must’ve used the word ‘shûbh’ or its Aramaic equivalent, which implies “turning around 180 degrees.” Repentance requires a 180-degree turnaround and a 100-percent following of Jesus. By placing the ‘call of the disciples’ soon after the ‘call for repentance’, Mark links repentance and discipleship. In sum, if one chooses to follow Jesus, one must do a 180- degree turnaround and follow him 100%. Simon, Andrew, James and John’s life was totally turned around: they left boats, nets and families, too.
Linking the Psalm and 2nd Reading to the Theme of Repentance and Response to God: Today’s psalm (25) further develops the theme of repentance. It echoes God’s mercy: “Remember your compassion, O Lord, and your merciful love, for they are from of old.” In the second reading, Paul puts the Kingdom/Reign of God in eschatological (end-time) perspective: “The appointed time has grown short” (v.29). By repeatedly using the words “as if not” (Greek, hōs mē), he exhorts his community to give ‘counter witness’ to all that the world holds precious. In sum, he says that, nothing and no one is absolute; except God. Thus, one must be detached from everything and everyone, and attached only to God.
Two Contextual Concerns for Preaching God’s Word:
From Net to Internet: Jesus’ disciples had to leave their nets in order to busy themselves with God’s word. Rather than leaving nets, would Jesus not ask us so much to launch out on the Internet and preach God’s Word in the most effective way possible?
From Exclusivism to ‘Catholic’ Universal Ecumenism: Pope Francis writes in ‘Aperuit Illis’: “This Sunday of the Word of God will thus be a fitting part of that time of the year when we are encouraged to strengthen our bonds with the Jewish people and to pray for Christian unity…The celebration of the Sunday of the Word of God has ecumenical value, since the Scriptures point out, for those who listen, the path to authentic firm unity.” What is our attitude to others and what is our approach to ecumenism?
In Lighter Vein: ‘Baavaani langoti’ is a popular Gujarati folktale of a devoted baavaa (sadhu) who owned nothing but a langoti (loincloth) and lived a life fully devoted to God. Once, a rat nibbled a hole in his langoti and so he got a cat to protect it. However, he had to beg for extra milk to feed the cat. “I’ll keep a cow to get milk for the cat and myself,” thought he. So, he got a cow, but had to find fodder for the cow. “Too troublesome!” mused he, and married a woman to look after the cow. With wife, cow and cat to feed, he got some land and hired labourers to work upon it. Soon, he became the richest man in town. When asked about why he denounced discipleship, he explained, “This is the only way I could preserve my langoti!” To preach God’s Word Online or Offline we don’t need too much: Bible, computer and wi-fi should suffice!
Discipleship: Seeking, Seeing, Staying
Discipleship: Seeking, Seeing, Staying
2nd Sunday of the Year – Cycle B – January 17, 2021
Readings: 1 Sam 3:3-10; 19; 1 Cor 6:13-15; 17-20; Jn 1:35-42
“They said to him, ‘Rabbi, where are you staying?’ He said, ‘Come and see’.” (Jn 1:38-39)
Prologue: Whether it be Prophet Samuel or Apostles Andrew and Simon, the dynamics seems to be the same: (a) they seek God, (b) they ‘sense’—see, hear, taste, touch—God, and (c) they stay with God/Jesus to the very end of their lives. You and I are called to undergo the same process, daily.
Three Scriptural Signposts:
1. What are you seeking? (v.38) is the question that Jesus plainly and pointedly asks two of John the Baptist’s disciples who follow him after John points out to Jesus, saying, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” (v.36). Chapter 1 of John’s gospel has many messianic titles by which Jesus is identified: Son of God (vv.34,49), Messiah (v.41) and King of Israel (v.49), with Jesus identifying himself as ‘Son of Man’ (v.51). John’s identifying Jesus as the ‘Lamb of God’ evokes a couple of images. First, it could refer to the ‘Passover lamb’ (see 1 Cor 5:7). Second, it could refer to Yahweh’s ‘Suffering Servant’ who Prophet Isaiah describes as “a lamb that is led to the slaughter” (53:7). Earlier, John had declared of Jesus: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world!” (v.29). The Aramaic word ‘talya’ can be translated as both, ‘lamb’ and ‘servant’. Be that as it may, on the one hand, it seems as if John is aware that his life’s mission is coming to a close and he must hand over the reins of leadership to the Messiah of whom he will say: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (Jn 3:30); and, on the other hand, it looks as if John’s disciples sense that he is fading into the shadows so as to shift the spotlight onto Jesus who will now occupy centre-stage. So, the two disciples follow Jesus—not really knowing ‘who’ he is, ‘what’ he does, ‘where’ he is going and ‘how’. To Jesus’ question about their seeking, the disciples ask a counter question: “Rabbi, where are you staying?” … Here comes Jesus’ invite ….
2. “Come and see!” (v.39) is Jesus’ invitation to their seeking. Elsewhere, Jesus promises those who seek that they will find (Mt 7:7). The call to “come” is a direct summons to see for themselves—to leave the familiar and venture into the unfamiliar. Jesus wants them to personally discover who he is, what he does, how, and where he goes. Now that they have been disciples of John, he wants them to have a first-hand experience of him, identified by John as the ‘Lamb of God’. Coming to him, they will see, hear, touch and be touched by him. The first reading, too, is about seeing and hearing in the context of Samuel’s call to be a prophet. Samuel was a ‘special gift’ of God, born through his mother Hannah’s fervent prayer. In gratitude, she dedicates him to God and he is brought up by the priest, Eli, at the sanctuary at Shiloh (1 Sam 1:28). In today’s passage, although Samuel is lying in the temple where the ark of God is (v.3), he does not sense that God is calling him. By contrast, though Eli is sleeping faraway in his room, is getting blind, and “could not see” (v.2), yet, he senses that God is calling Samuel. Eli’s exterior blindness does not darken his inner vision that makes him see that God is calling Samuel. Just as John the Baptist directs his disciples to Jesus, Eli directs Samuel to God. Thus, when God calls a fourth time, “Samuel! Samuel!” he answers, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening” (v.10). Samuel will be God’s instrument to inaugurate a new chapter in Israelite history by anointing kings (1 Sam 8–12). Thus, from a loose tribal confederacy, Israel will become a nation, at least for a while.
3. “Where are you staying?” (v.38) is a question that John’s disciples raise not just to know some geographical location or house, but in the Fourth Gospel the word ‘stay’ means more than staying in a house. It is the same word as is used for ‘abide’ in the passages that speak of the Son abiding in the Father. Thus, the line: “they came and saw
where he was staying, and they remained with him” (v.39) leads them to a deeper awareness of ‘who’ he was, for they now more clearly ‘see’—with the eyes of faith, of course. Thus, Jesus invites the disciples to move from the visible to the invisible, material to the mystical and from the sensual to the spiritual. Consequently, Andrew will make a Christological confession to his brother, Simon: “We have found the Messiah” (v.41). Interestingly, though Andrew is the first one who seeks, sees and stays with Jesus, it is Simon who is ‘called within a call’. Jesus says to him, “You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas” (v.42). God’s choice and call is not often understood by human logic. Indeed, the initiative is God’s alone! It is God’s mission, too, for the disciples are but instruments in the hands of God. This gospel passage is significant. The evangelist John packs into a single scene a whole process of revelation and response that, historically speaking, embraces the entire expanse from Jesus’ baptism through Peter’s confession and the Easter appearances where the disciples finally recognize Jesus as Messiah. Thus, John theologically interprets Jesus’ call and inserts it in his gospel as the sum and summit of Christian discipleship.
Linking the Second Reading and the Psalm to the Discipleship Theme: • The psalm (40) reinforces the call of Samuel in the 1st reading and is later applied to Jesus by the author of the Letter to the Hebrews (10:5-10). The response: “See, I have come, Lord, to do your will” is reinterpreted as the voice of Jesus who offers his whole life to do his Abba-Father’s will. Indeed, Jesus’ discipleship gives the key to understand all other discipleships. And, his discipleship is about being lamb-and-servant. • The second readings up to the sixth Sunday of the year are taken from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. Paul had founded this church and remained there for eighteen months from the winter of 50 AD to the summer of 52 AD. He was concerned about sexual immorality in the community, which was influenced by a dualistic, gnostic mentality that separated body and soul, matter and spirit. To critique and control this dangerous mindset, Paul reminds the Corinthians: “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you” (v.19). Disciples who seek, see and stay will realize not only that they stay with Him, but, more importantly, that God’s Spirit stays with them, in them.
Reflection on Discipleship: Seek! See! Stay! This invitation is neither only for God’s prophets of old nor of Jesus’ disciples like Andrew, Peter and Mary Magdalene, but is for you and me— for all disciples, ‘religious’ or otherwise. An abbot often showed his preference for those who lived in the world—the married, the merchants, the labourers—over the monks in his monastery. When confronted about his preference, he explained, “Discipleship in the state of activity is far superior to that practised in the state of withdrawal!”
Discipleship demands devotedness: A stranger once asked a teacher, “What’s your profession?” The teacher replied, “Christian.” The stranger continued, “No, that’s not what I mean. What’s your job?” The teacher said, once again, “I’m a Christian!” Puzzled, the stranger clarified, “Perhaps I should ask, what do you do for a living?” She replied, “Well, I’ve a full
time job as a Christian. But, to support my sick husband and children, I teach in a school.” She had certainly understood the meaning of discipleship summarized by the response of the psalm: “Here am I, Lord, I come to do your will!”
Keep your inner lamp aglow, Thirty-second Sunday of the Year – Cycle A – November 8, 2020
Keep your inner lamp aglow
Thirty-second Sunday of the Year – Cycle A – November 8, 2020
Readings: Wis 6:12-16; 1 Thess 4:13-18; Mt 25:1-13
“… the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps” (Mt 25:4)
Prologue: Oil and lamp are rich biblical symbols. ‘Oil’ appears over 200 times and ‘lamp’ some 100 times—with many meanings: sacred, secular, literal, liturgical, figurative, symbolic, etc. Lamp can be used for our reflection today, since the gospel has the parable of the wise and foolish bridesmaids with lamps either aglow or spent, and able or unable to enjoy the wedding feast.
Three Scriptural Signposts:
1. Since the liturgical year is drawing to a close and we will soon begin the season of Advent, the mood of today’s liturgy is eschatological, namely, expressive of the end times. The message running through all the readings is: “Be wise! Be awake! Be prepared!” Since the image of oil and lamp appear in the gospel reading, one can begin with reflecting upon the significance of the ‘parable of the ten bridesmaids’. The parable can be interpreted from different perspectives. For instance, at a simple, surface level that can be considered ‘allegorical’, one can equate the bridegroom with Jesus, his coming as the end-time, the wedding feast as the heavenly, Messianic banquet, the bridesmaids as the good or bad Christians, the closed door as acceptance into heaven or rejection and so on. However, trying to draw parallels with each detail of the parable is unhelpful, since our knowledge about details of wedding feasts in Jesus’ time is limited. Thus, for instance, commentators are at a loss to explain whose house the bridegroom was entering where the wedding feast was taking place, and the role of the bridesmaids who should have been accompanying the bride and not waiting for the bridegroom! Thus, proceeding deeper than merely seeking parallelisms, we could focus our attention on the inner disposition and attitude of those invited for the wedding— here, the bridesmaids—who seek to enter the ‘kingdom of heaven’ since Jesus narrates the parable in the context of the kingdom, as follows:
2. Among the many meanings of ‘lamp’ in the Bible there is the aspect of ‘inner illumination’, as seen in Proverbs 20:27: “The human spirit is the lamp of the Lord that sheds light on one’s inmost being” and in Job 18:6: “The light is dark in their tent, and the lamp above them is put out” — the latter referring to evildoers who experience inner darkness. Therefore, in this parable, one can think of the kingdom of heaven as an inner ‘God consciousness’, so to say, that bears fruit in outer commitment. In other words, external actions should always be an overflow of internal awareness. Here, the wise bridesmaids are fully aware of the importance of the event and leave no stone unturned to ensure that they are, indeed, worthy of the honour of being chosen, specially invited, and expected to walk into the wedding hall to eat, drink, sing and dance. The lamps are indispensable since, besides brightening up the procession, they will enable the bridesmaids to see the bridegroom and vice-versa. In the mutual seeing, they will recognize each other. However, this initial seeing and later rejoicing depend on one condition: lamps with sufficient oil. The marriage party is delayed, as is understandable on big occasions; and “all of them”—wise and foolish—“became drowsy and slept” (v.5). But, at the darkest moment, midnight, a cry pierces the night: “Look! Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” (v.6). One will surely sleep (like all other human beings do); but one must be prepared internally and externally when God calls.
3. At first sight, the wise bridesmaids seem selfish by not sharing the oil in their flasks and by advising the unwise: “you had better go to the dealers and buy some for yourselves.” But rather than displaying their selfishness, they are revealing their wisdom, for it’s time to tap inner resources: their flasks full of oil! One must store up oil—for massaging, healing, lighting, heating, cooking, anointing, etc.—as a resource that comes handy as and when needed. Sadly, the only way the foolish are used to deal with emergencies like the present one is from ‘outside’: by going out and buying. This is the same line of action that Jesus’ disciples suggest when faced with feeding the five thousand. They want the masses to “go into the villages and buy food for themselves” (Mt 14:15). In Mark’s gospel, too, when directed to provide for feeding the people, the disciples ask Jesus: “are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread?” (6:37). Also note that when Jesus is drawing out the inner resources of the Samaritan woman, “his disciples had gone to buy food” (Jn 4:8). By contrast, Jesus directs everyone to tap their own resources. The foolish always look outside and run to buy, while the wise look inside and tap whatever is pure gift, free grace. Finally, after the wedding hall’s door is shut, the foolish women return, saying: “‘Lord, lord, open to us!” (v.11), only to be told: “Truly I tell you, I do not know you” (v.12). Interestingly, Matthew uses these same expressions in chapter 7:21-23 for those who say, “Lord, lord …” but do not do the will of God. They too will be told, “I never knew you; go away!” In an extended sense, the oil can also be interpreted for us, Christians, as the ‘Christ consciousness’ which is fruit of being anointed; yet, that requires deep inner awareness.
Linking the First and Second Readings to the Theme of Inner Light and Preparedness The first reading exhorts us to seek wisdom, which is basically an intimate ‘knowing God’ and not mere knowing ‘about’ God. Here, Wisdom is personified as a woman who, on the one hand, is readily “discerned by those who love her, and is found by those who seek her” (v.12); and, on the other hand, “she goes about seeking those worthy of her, and she graciously appears to them in their paths” (v.16). The dual dimension of activity and passivity is present here: one’s inner self ought to seek to love and serve God; and likewise, God’s Spirit graciously seeks to be in communion with the one who loves, seeks and serves.
The second reading contains end-time language that might seem strange today. Paul thought that the Second Coming of Christ was imminent and provided apocalyptic imagery like God’s trumpet blasts, the voice of the archangel, the opening of graves and the taking up of all people into the clouds. Such imagery should not distract us from the main theme, i.e., “We shall live with God forever!” Paul wishes to tell the Thessalonians: (a) Do not grieve for the dead since, unlike those who don’t believe in Christ, we have hope in being raised up; and, (b) our hope is not only anchored in Christ as individuals, but ours is a corporate hope, a communitarian faith.
In Lighter Vein: A man knocks at the door of a house. A voice from inside inquires: “Who knocks?” The man replies, “It’s your countryman!” The voice from within replies, “Go away; this house will not hold you and me.” Disappointed, the man travels around for a year and knocks a second time. The voice from inside asks: “Who is it?” The man replies, “I’m your brother!” The voice says, “Sorry! There’s no room for you.” Desperate, the man spends a couple of years more, reflecting upon the replies he is receiving. He returns a third time and knocks again. The voice from inside asks, once again: “Who is it?” The man replies, “It is you!” The door opens. My door will be open and my lamp lit only when the distinction between Christ and me disappears. So, I pray: “Give me oil in my lamp, Lord, keep me burning!”
God’s ways are not our ways - Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year – Cycle A – September 20, 2020
God’s ways are not our ways
Twenty-fifth Sunday of the Year – Cycle A – September 20, 2020
Readings: Isa 55:6-9; Phil 1:20-24, 27; Mt 20:1-16
“My ways are not your ways — it is the Lord who speaks” (Isa 55:8)
Prologue: We normally judge people with our own Manmade binaries of good-versus-bad; saint-over-sinner; meritorious-against-unmeritorious; fair-versus-unfair. However, God is beyond all this and God’s generosity and mercy are not only incomparable but also scarcely understandable by us, humans, who are so calculative, conditional and condemnatory of others. The readings urge us to see and act as God, not Man, does.
Three Scriptural Signposts:
1. The Prophet (second-Isaiah) speaks words of comfort to his people in Exile sometime after the middle of the 6th century BC on behalf of Yahweh: God. He tells them to “Seek the Lord … and call upon him while he is near” (v.6). The “seeking” here refers to turning to God with humility. Making them aware of their sinfulness and their straying away from God, the prophet exhorts them to return to God with repentant hearts, for God “will abundantly pardon” their sins (v.7). He then reminds them that, though they are created in the image and likeness of God, there is an inestimable difference between the way God views reality and acts and the way that human beings do. God reminds us: “My ways and not your ways, my thoughts are not your thoughts!” (v.8). Truly, who can fathom God’s mind and the manner in which God deals with us, God’s children?
2. God’s mysterious yet marvelous way of dealing with human beings is seen in today’s ‘parable of the generous landowner’ found only in Matthew’s gospel. It is narrated in the context of Jesus’ promise of reward to his disciples — when Peter asks Jesus: “Look, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” (19:27). In reply, Jesus assures him that that they “will receive a hundredfold, and will inherit eternal life” (19:29) but with a caveat: “many who are first will be last, and the last will be first” (19:30). Through this parable, then, he shows them how God’s ways are very different from ours. Jesus’ disciples must have surely been aware of the pathetic plight of daily wage labourers waiting to be hired, while facing the very real prospect of returning home unhired, moneyless. These poor workers had no land of their own and thus depended on the largesse of landlords to hire them and pay them enough to quite literally buy their ‘daily bread’. All of these labourers—whether employed at the first, third, sixth, ninth or eleventh hour— were needy, since all were poor and had many mouths to feed. Moreover, all wanted to work but couldn’t, since, in their own words, “no one has hired us” (v.7). A denarius was a just wage for a day’s work, and would just about be enough to support a family’s basic needs; anything less—and especially payment for a single hour—would have been totally inadequate. Sensing their will to work and surmising their needs, the landowner not only hires them, but also gives them what is, legally, a just wage: a denarius. Had he given anything less, he would have been ‘just’ by worldly, calculative standards; but the workers would never have been able to make both ends meet.
3. Treating everyone as being equally in need and therefore paying everyone the same wage without any consideration of how long they worked, is perceived by those who came first
and worked longer as injustice. They grumble. The grumblers actually contest not the landowner’s skewed sense of justice, but his astounding generosity. The landowner calls these grumblers “friends,” and explains, “I’m not being unjust to you; did we not agree on one denarius?” Indeed, he had honoured his part of the labour contract by paying them not only what was agreed upon but also what was a just wage for their work of that day. Anyone seeking work would have been happy to get a denarius. The parable isn’t simply about life, but about the ‘kingdom of heaven’. God alone will decide who is to be honoured in heaven. The landowner coolly asks: “Have I no right to do what I like with my own? Why be jealous because I’m generous?” With these challenging questions remaining unanswered, Jesus ends the parable repeating the same punchline used earlier: “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (v.16). Obviously, he narrates this parable in the context of the ‘early workers’, the Pharisees, who were furious to see the ‘latecomers’—namely, the tax collectors, harlots and sinners—repenting and regarded as heirs of heaven. In his ministry, Jesus was giving his contemporaries a foretaste of the gratuitousness of God’s love.
Linking the Psalm and the 2nd Reading to the Theme: The responsorial psalm proclaims, “The Lord is good to all” (Ps 145:9) and “The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings” (v.17). God is truly a generous Parent to all people. However, just as a family specially cares for its handicapped members, so does God apply a ‘principle of difference’ in dealing with the disadvantaged and dispossessed of the kingdom. Paul’s words to the Christians at Philippi are written from prison in the midst of manifold suffering. He does not view his possible, imminent death in a morbid way but as an occasion to be totally united with God. However, should God want him to continue working—i.e., to “remain in the flesh” (v.22)—he would gladly obey God’s will, for Christ was the be all and the end all of his life.
Two Contextual Challenges:
The Last will be First Challenge: While Jesus’ “last will be first and first will be last” axiom sounds logical and acceptable in theory, many so-called ‘original’ Christians are unhappy about so-called ‘converted’ Christians being given church benefits equal to what they receive.
The Communist Challenge: The Marxian maxim: “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” seems similar to Jesus’ logic in the parable. Could it be possible that many Communists/Marxists practise Christ’s gospels more radically than I do?
In Lighter Vein: A holier-than-thou self-righteous priest, Fr. Pious, reached the Pearly Gates after death and was surprised to see—according to him—his most unworthy parishioners: drunkards, womanizers, atheists and sinners of all hues. Heaven seemed overcrowded with the scum of society; hell, by contrast, seemed quite empty. Irked by God’s leniency, Fr. Pious protested. To pacify him, God told St Peter to reexamine all those already admitted into heaven, whereupon Peter read the Ten Commandments aloud, saying: “Those who have broken these commandments shall dissociate themselves from this celestial company and descend to hell!” As Peter read the commandments, one by one, people confessed their guilt and disappeared. When the fifth commandment was read, few were left, and after the sixth, everyone went to hell except Fr. Pious. Feeling lonely, God said, “Tell them all to come back!” Pious grumbled, “O God, that’s unfair! Why didn’t you tell me this before?” God reminds us: “Are you jealous because I’m generous? My ways are not your ways.” Thank God!
God’s fore-giving love Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year – Cycle A – September 13, 2020
God’s fore-giving love
Twenty-fourth Sunday of the Year – Cycle A – September 13, 2020
Readings: Sir 27:30–28:7; Rom 14:7-9; Mt 18:21-35
“Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (Sirach 28:2)
Prologue: Today’s readings may be summarized in a form of a syllogism — (a) God’s fore-giving love is incredible and boundless, (b) and God fore-gives Divine Mercy and Pardon no matter how grievous our sins; (c) therefore, we, God’s children, ought to forgive one another unconditionally.
Three Scriptural Signposts:
1. The first reading is from the Book of Ecclesiasticus also called the ‘Book of Sirach’ since it was written by a pious Jew, Jesus ben Sirach, around 180 B.C. He made a thorough study of God’s Law and the religious practices of his people, and drew up a collection of wise sayings and practical instructions to help his people live a life pleasing to God and their neighbours. Since his writing is so close in time to the drawing up of the books of the Second Testament, his trend of thought coincides with Jesus’ sayings—especially about revenge, forgiveness and the Lord’s prayer. Today’s passage contains teachings against vengeance and about forgiveness like: “He that takes vengeance will suffer vengeance from the Lord” (28:1) and, “Forgive your neighbour the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray” (28:2). The origin and wellspring of mercy and forgiveness is always God, who becomes a model for each of us. Although Sirach, like his fellow Jews, had no clear idea of a future afterlife, he stresses the importance of having one’s conscience clear at the end of one’s lifespan: “Remember the end of your life, and cease from enmity, remember destruction and death, and be true to the commandments” (28:6). In sum, Sirach’s thinking and ethics lies very much within the framework of the Decalogue (ten commandments) and traditional Jewish religion.
2. The gospel ‘parable of the unforgiving servant’ or the ‘heartless servant’ takes ben Sirach’s thinking deeper with practical implications for the early church-community. This parable is found only in Matthew’s gospel and forms the conclusion of his ‘community discourse’. Though in last Sunday’s reading Matthew does not rule out the possibility of an errant and unrepentant brother/sister being excluded or excommunicated from the faith-community (18:17), he wishes to ensure that community life be firmly founded upon mercy and forgiveness. Moreover, while evangelist Luke also gives a saying about forgiving someone who sins “seven times” and “turns back seven times” (17:4), Matthew attaches greater importance to this by putting the question of forgiveness in the mouth of Peter, the ‘rock’- leader of the community, by increasing the number of times from ‘seven’—already the perfect number signifying ‘any number of times’—to “seven-seven times” or “seventy times seven” (v.22): countless times! Jesus impresses upon his hearers that there is no limit to forgiveness because God’s love is a fore-given love. The disparity between the two sums mentioned in the parable and the attitudes of the king and the unforgiving servant is gigantic. It shows how unimaginably largehearted and forgiving the king is when compared to the hardheartedness and lack of forgiveness of the servant.
3. The circumstances of the parable are pagan, for, in Jewish law sale of an Israelite for debt was forbidden. The sums of money involved are meant not to be realistic but to stagger by their difference and by the size of the first. “Ten thousand talents” would be equal to what one would earn after working for 60,000,000 days—in cash, approximately 3.48 billion dollars; while “a hundred denarii” would work out to just four months casual labour. The plea for forgiveness by the second debtor is the same as the first; thus, couldn’t he have applied the same logic and limits of forgiveness that he received? Couldn’t he have thought in his mind and felt in his heart: “This fellow-servant is me before I was forgiven” or “I’ve been forgiven so much, let me also be equally generous in forgiving”? The unforgiving servant is truly ‘heart-less’. All he thinks about in his mind is his money—that makes him shamelessly ‘mercy-less’. Thus, Jesus ends the parable saying: “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart” (v.35). Notice that the heart—the spiritual centre of a person—is where the discernment and decision must flow from. With his heart closed, the dangerous phrase of the ‘Lord’s Prayer’ becomes self-condemnatory: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Mt 6:12) and the principle: “the measure you give will be the measure you get” (Mt 7:2) becomes operative.
Linking the Psalm and the Second Reading to the Theme of God’s fore-given love: Today’s responsorial refrain (Ps 103) summarizes God’s fore-given love: “The Lord is compassion and love, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Moreover, “It is he who forgives all your guilt, who heals every one of your ills.”
In the second reading Paul writes: “The life and death of each of us has its’ influence on others.” Couldn’t we add: The vengeance wrought, or forgiveness given, of each of us has its’ influence on others? Indeed, we’re so closely knit in community that if one either refuses to forgive or one seeks vengeance, the ‘circuit of love’ breaks. Beware! We could condemn ourselves praying, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” God’s pardon is fore-given; so must ours be.
Pope Francis on Forgiveness: “God forgets the terrible stories of so many sinners, of our sins. He forgives us and keeps going. He asks only this, ‘Do the same: learn to forgive, do not carry this cross of hatred, rancor, of ‘you are going to pay for this’.” These words are neither Christian nor human.”
In Lighter Vein: A sinner once prayed, “Remember not my sins, O Lord!” God replied, “What sins? I forgot them ages ago!”
Perugini, an Italian painter of the Middle Ages, stopped going for confession because he felt that people stayed away from the sacrament hoping to confess just before they died as a kind of ticket to heaven. Perugini considered it sacrilegious to go to confession if, out of fear, he was seeking to save his skin and gain entry into heaven. Not knowing his inner disposition, his wife inquired whether he was not afraid of dying unconfessed. Perugini replied, “Darling, my job is to paint and I’ve excelled as a painter. God’s profession is to forgive and if God is good at his job as I’ve been at mine, I’ve no reason to be afraid!”