4th Sunday of Lent (C)

“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

The parable of today has a particular context and in order to understand better, we should look at the whole chapter 15 of the Gospel of Luke. It begins this way (Luke 15:1-3): “The tax collectors and the sinners were all seeking the company of Jesus to hear what he had to say, and the Pharisees and scribes complained, ‘This man’, they said, ‘welcomes sinners and eats with them.” Jesus is with sinners because they sought his company; now Jesus tries to seek also the company of the Pharisees and scribes, as he tells them this parable.   Actually Jesus tells them three parables: the story of the lost sheep (Lk. 15:4-7), the story of the lost coin (Lk. 15:8-10), and the story of the lost son (Lk. 15:11-32).  Acknowledging the allegation that he mingled with the sinners, Jesus outlines the three aspects or dimensions of repentance, by presenting three characters in this parable: 1) the repentant younger son, 2) the forgiving father and 3) the self-justifying elder son.

The repenting son:He began by wanting freedom from his father. Hence he forced his father to give him his right to one-third of his father’s property (as stipulated in Deuteronomy 21:17). The son then sold his property and traveled to a far-off city where he realized all his wild dreams of a carefree life. Finally, when he became bankrupt, was abandoned by “friends,” and was faced with a local famine, he was forced to take up the job of feeding pigs – a job forbidden to the Jews. At last, awakened by his sufferings, he gathered enough courage to return to his father and confess his sin, thus becoming the model for repentant sinners.  He resolved to become a “hired servant” of his family, thereby regaining a measure of honor and independence, but with a social status matching his guilt and failure. Moreover, he would be able to take care of his father for as long as the father lived.

The Forgiving Father:The father in the story represents God the Father. He promptly gave a share of his property to his younger son, bid him a tearful farewell and waited daily for his return.  Finally, when the boy returned in rags, confessing his sins, the father promptly forgave him, kissed him on the cheeks, and healed the broken relationship between them.  He ordered a bath for his son, gave him new garments (a sign of honor) and a golden signet ring (sign of authority and trust).  By ordering sandals for the feet of his son, the father signaled his reacceptance as his son. The killing the fatted calf,specially raised for the Passover feast, meant that the entire village was invited for the grand party given in the returned son’s honor.  

When the elder brother refused to join in the party, the father goes out searching for the dutiful son(Lk 15:28), just as he went out to welcome the prodigal son (Lk. 15:20).  But the response of each son is quite different. It is comparable to the “Two men [who] went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector” (Lk. 18:10-14). It is similar to the parable of the story of two sons in Matthew (21:28-31): “A man had two sons. He went and said to the first, “My boy, go and work in the vineyard today.” He answered, “I will not go,” but afterwards thought better of it and went. The man then went and said the same thing to the second who answered, “Certainly, sir,” but did not go.”Thus, the father symbolizes the loving and unconditionally forgiving Heavenly Father who is excessive, extravagant and generous with His forgiveness and mercy.  

The self-justifying elder son:He represents the self-righteous Pharisees.  The elder son had no feelings of sympathy for his brother.  He played the part of a dutiful son, but his heart was not in it.  He was resentful, bitter and angry.  He was so jealous of his younger brother that he never wanted to see him again.  He leveled a series of allegations against his prodigal brother, whom he viewed as a rival.  Instead of honoring his father by joining him in accepting his brother and playing an appropriate role at the meal, the elder son publicly insulted and humiliated his father (vv. 28-30).  Jesus includes this character in the story to represent the scribes and Pharisees who began to complain, saying, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”  We are not told how the elder son responded to his father’s plea, or to his father’s assurances of continued love, place and inheritance (“All I have is yours”).  Perhaps that is because Jesus meant the scribes and Pharisees to see that their own final response to the Father’s love in sending Jesus had yet to be made, and that they still had time to “return home” to their Father in welcoming Him.           

Paul emphasizes the uniqueness of every individualin the Corinthian community – “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation!”  Then he explains “the ministry of reconciliation,” received from Christ, as the continuation of Yahweh’s ministry, and of the reconciliation that occurred in Temple worship.  He tells the Corinthian converts that they are a new creation, made so through the blood of Christ.  It is the shedding of Christ’s blood that has reconciled them with God and made them righteous.  So they have reason to rejoice.  Paul further reminds the faithful at Corinth that the apostles are ambassadors of Christ, announcing this reconciliation, which God offers to all humanity through Jesus Christ.   Hence he appealed to the Corinthians to be reconciled to God and to one another, thus sharing in God’s plan of salvation.  The Apostle believes that God is constantly reconciling everyone to Himself.  Like the Corinthians, we have been made a new creation and we have been given many second chances.  Hence, it is also our ministry to proclaim that reconciliation by being reconciled to those around us, unconditionally, with no strings attached.

We need to acceptthe fact that we are all prodigal children who have squandered our Father’s inheritance.  There is a spiritual famine even in countries with a booming economy.  Because of this spiritual famine, we resemble the younger son who lived with pigs.  Examples of this spiritual famine are seen in drug and alcohol abuse, fraud and theft in the workplace, murders and violence, premarital sex, marital infidelity and priestly infidelity, as well as in hostility between people.  Sometimes this “spiritual famine” exists in our own families.  That is why we condemn some of our family members to “survival-level” existence, and even contribute to the death of some of them, by refusing to associate with them.  Let us accept the fact that we have been squandering God’s abundant blessings not only in our country and in our families, but also in our personal lives. 

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

“Unless you repent, you will all die as they did.”

One of the recurrent themes throughout the Lenten season is the compassion and mercy of our God. History proves that Our God is always faithful and consistent. His love for us never changes, no matter how we behave, no matter how serious our sins may be. It is because God is fullness of love and he knows only to love.  It is God’s very nature and He cannot go against it. His love is like the sun, which gives its warmth to good and bad alike; like the gentle nurturing rain, which falls on good and bad alike.  We are called to imitate him by responding His love unconditionally. It is difficult for us as human beings to grasp the power and depth of his love. We do need to get rid of the idea of an angry, disappointed, vengeful God threatening catastrophe on a wicked world, an idea still being fostered by those who claim to have had special revelations.

Today’s Gospel reading underlines the Christian call to metanoia, which means conversion, repentance, and inner change, and heartens us with the reality of God’s unfathomable mercy. Jesus calls for decision and conversion by referring to two contemporary disasters and by narrating the parable of the barren fig tree. The first disaster was the Galilean massacre. Notorious for his harsh rule and insensitivity to Jewish religious beliefs, Pilate had caused the death of some Galileans while they were offering sacrifice, probably in the Jerusalem temple during the Passover. The other disaster involved what was probably a construction accident at the Siloam reservoir in Jerusalem. Jesus negates the popular speculations regarding the personal culpability of the victims of the Galilean massacre and the Siloam accident. At the same time he stresses the universal need for repentance. Unless all repent and respond positively to the Gospel, all will suffer the greater disaster of being alienated from God. The last section of the Gospel reading is Jesus’ parable of the barren fig tree which received a reprieve, or stay, from the impending punishment by the vineyard owner in response to the gardener’s compassionate plea. The parable reminds us of the long-suffering of God, but it is also a warning that those who persist in their sinful refusal to repent will suffer and eventually be cut down.

The parable of Divine Patience:The fig tree was planted, watered and nurtured with manure and care, but it failed to produce any fruits. A tree is judged by the fruit it bears, so too in our lives. So today’s readings are asking us to take a good look at ourselves: whetherwe are like that tree that Jesus speaks of in the parable in today’s Gospel. It is alive but it bears no fruit. If the tree does not bear the fruits intended by the ownershould be cut down. Every Lenten season is our chance to fertilize our tree and to see how it can be more fruitful.

Each one of us is able to bear fruit– each one of us is gifted by God with the ability to produce what the Scriptures call in some places “the fruit worthy of repentance” and in other places “the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the fruit that is described in the fifth chapter of the Letter to the Galatians as consisting of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control”

Sin and tragedies:We know that tragic events can occur randomly, as in the cases of the Galileans and the eighteen Jerusalemites, and have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the victims.  For example, a tornado that destroys a nightclub also destroys a Church. An earthquake or tsunami kills the saints as well as the sinners in the affected area. Drunk drivers kill innocent people. Ride-by shooters kill children and other innocent bystanders. Religious fanatics, terrorists and suicide bombers cause the untimely deaths of good as well as of bad people.  Violent people, with or without provocation, injure their loved ones. Only a few of us will have a burning-bushexperience, but all of us have struggled to understand why tragedy seems to befall innocent people. In all these cases, we need to trust in Divine mercy, believing that God is with us and God is on our side, even in those situations we cannot explain.  Jesus’ life is the clearest evidence that a person’s suffering is not proof of that person’s sin

In fact, every single experience we have is a sign of God’s love. If we are showered with blessings – spiritual, emotional or material – they are given that we may share them with others, so that we become a channel of God’s love to others. If we are struck down with disaster, disease, pain or failure, it is again a message for me to seek and find there the presence of a loving God. Paradoxically, it is often only through such experiences that we can grow and come closer to God and others. Good health and material prosperity can often lead to selfishness, individualism and neglect of others. Where there is love, there is God. Where there is no God, one is not likely to find much real love.

2nd Sunday of Lent(C)

“Master, It is good that we are here.”

Peter’s confession of Faith:

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus asked his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” None of them could give a satisfactory answer except Peter, who said, “You are the Christ, son of the Living God.” Jesus told Peter that he still needed to understand the meaning of what he has said. Today’s gospel recalls another insight into the person of Christ, by his own self-revelation of his very nature to the apostles Peter, James and John.

Transfiguration:

Jesus took them to the mountain and there in their presence he was transfigured. The heaven opened, Moses and Elijah were seen conversing with him. This experience had a Transforming and lasting impact on his followers. Peter cried out, “It is wonderful for us to be here, let us build three tents here, one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” It is something like St. Paul saying, “Who will separate us from the love of Christ?” The disciples may have thought that they would remain forever in ecstatic bliss. But soon afterwards Luke tells us “Jesus was found alone” (v 36). The time would come when Jesus would suffer and they would need to recall the memory of Mount Tabor to encourage one another. The voice from the cloud addressed them, “This is my beloved son, listen to him.” We will understand transfiguration when we realize that we are all disfigured in some way. The whole healing ministry is about transfiguration, transfiguring the disfigured humanity.

He Started to Change:

Let us look this event from another perspective. People around Jesus expected that he would change their situation and living conditions; that he would change the world, which in their imaginations what the Messiah would do. That was in a way, even the devil wanted him to do: change the stones of this world into bread; reverse the law of gravity and become famous; and rule the world as no one ever ruled before. That is what his disciples also wanted him to do.

He came into this world to reconcile and transform the disfigured humanity with God, to regain the lost paradise for us, to show us the way to the Father, who loves us and to accompany us on our journey to heaven. He identified with the humanity and had all the expressions that we have, except the false ones. His face often showed weariness; think of the time he fell asleep in the boat. His face showed disappointment: when the Nazarenes rejected him. It showed anger: when he cleansed the temple. It showed gentleness: when the children. It showed compassion: when he saw that the people were like sheep without a shepherd; It showed sadness: when he cried on the way to the grave of his friend Lazarus. It showed fear and anguish: in the garden. It showed pain: on the cross. It was pale and frozen: when he was dead. The face he showed on Tabor was indeed a very special one, but it was not the only face of Christ.  Gospels tell us that behind all these faces lay the person of Christ, human like us (Except sin) but carrying within him also the splendor of his divinity.

The Pilgrimage to Tabor:

God’s mystery surrounds us though we are given glimpses of it. These glimpses are a given grace. How is that transformation or transfiguration to take place? For a transfiguration experience we need to appreciate silence, the capacity for attentive listening, of looking with reverence and of entering into the silence of God.By listening to Jesus, listening to all that he invites us to be and to do, however much it may seem to go against the conventions we were brought up on. It means especially listening to those words, which caused such difficulty and challenge for Peter and his companions and integrating them into my own vision of life. It means having a total trust in walking his Way, a total trust that only his Way brings me into full union with God, the source of all Truth, Love, Happiness and Peace. 

Our true greatness is a matter of faith. It is hidden from us. Christ gave his disciples a glimpse of his inner glory on Tabor. He was the new Moses, the lawgiver. He was the new and final prophet- the one who is the very Word of God made flesh. He is the presence of God among us- Emmanuel, God with us. He is God’s son, the visible manifestation of the invisible. All we have to do is to listen to him and follow him. One day as St. Paul says, ‘he will transfigure our lowly bodies into copies of his glorious body.’ Meanwhile, like Abraham, we have to live by faith. The faith that assures us that behind the most ordinary human faces lie a son or a daughter of God, a brother or a sister of Christ.

Christianity is the religion of light.The Word who became flesh is the light that illuminates every man and every woman. It is mystic light at Nazareth at the annunciation, light in Bethlehem with angels and the star, light at the Jordan River with the dove of the Spirit, light on Mount Tabor, light at Easter and light of eternity. Let us not make three tents, but we should be the tents for the Father son and the Holy Spirit to dwell in us, for us and with us.

The three transformations in our journey towards eternity: The first transformation in our lives begins at Baptism, which washes away original sin, transforming us into children of God and heirs of heaven. The second transformation takes place through our victory over the trials and tribulations of life.  Every challenge, every difficulty, every moment of suffering, is an opportunity for transformation and spiritual growth. The third transformation takes place at death.  Eternal life in Heaven, perhaps after a period of further transformation in Purgatory, is granted to those who have been found worthy.  The last transformation or transfiguration will be completed at the Second Coming when our glorified body is reunited with our soul.

1st Sunday of Lent(C)

The preferential and unconditional love and obedience to God

The gospel reading deals with the story of Jesus being tempted by the devil. The temptations of Jesus were surely part of his redeeming action for the world; but it was also his self-gift as a role model for us to follow in similar circumstances of our everyday life which is often beset with evils of suffering, testing and temptations. The three temptations together cover human life in all its major dimensions – economic, social and religious. Jesus, whom God the Father had declared at his baptism in the river Jordan, “ This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Mt. 3: 17), by encountering the comprehensive testing at the hands of the devil proved to the world that he was indeed the “Son of God”. God will not put us to testing or allow evils of any kind befall us beyond our capacity, if only we turn to him in humble prayer and supplication. The first reading therefore reminds us how God came down with a mighty hand to save his people from the hands of their Egyptian oppressors, the moment they turned to him in their distress.  Jesus repeats the experience of Israel in the desert and he emerges victorious over evil, until another “opportune time”. Being in possession of the Spirit of God, and his mastery of the Word, lead him to a triple victory:  victory over his own bodily needs, victory over the thirst for power, and the victory of his own awareness that he was the Son of God. 

The first temptationundergone by Jesus related to his need for food. After fasting for forty days, he felt hungry and was tempted to use his divine power to satisfy his hunger. It would have been enough to tell the stones to become bread. But he chose to put up with his hunger and refused to satisfy it miraculously. He knew that he owed his life to God, his Father, and that the Father would take care of it. He preferred to trust God than to trust in his own powers. His need for God was greater than his need for food. If we want to have God as our Father, we will need to learn from Jesus, the Son of God, to put ourselves into God’s hands and wait for him to satisfy our needs.

The second temptationexperienced by Jesus is even more relevant and more dangerous.  He was offered power over the world, if he denied his God and Father. Jesus refused absolutely: only God is deserving of exclusive service. Filial obedience is due only to the Father. Nothing is to be preferred to God, not even power so great that it would make him like God. Being able to rely on God, as Father is to enjoy the power of God. Anyone who overcomes, as Jesus did, the temptation to exercise power over others, does not render himself weak. Instead, he allows God to be his God more readily, and he becomes more securely his son. Knowing that we are servants of God frees us from serving other gods. We know ourselves: nobody is free more than the one who has only one Master to serve. Having God as our God makes us sons of one Father. How much more freedom we would enjoy, if we lived to serve God alone! Instead of living peacefully with God as our Father and only Master, we destroy ourselves by worrying about how important we are, or what we are able to do, constantly comparing ourselves with others. By not choosing to serve God alone, we lose the chance of having his almighty power at our disposal. By choosing other fathers, we deny God the possibility of being our only Father.

The third temptationJesus had to overcome was the most subtle and the most serious. He knew with certainty that he was the Son of God, and he felt that he could rely with certainty on his Father’s protection. What use is a Father that cannot save his Son? A God who did not help his own children would be of little benefit. The trust that Jesus had in his Father could lead him to temerity. It would be wrong for the Son to risk his life, just because he knew that God would protect him. It is wrong to put the Father to the test, just to prove that one is a son. The Father of Jesus wants to be our Master always, in time of need and in time of plenty, in sorrow and in joy, in small things and in big things.

In the Bible the desert or wilderness is a place of encounter with God or evil spirits. Jesus during his stay of forty days in the desert also had this twofold experience. As followers of Christ we also need to have such desert-experiences, in which we are tested and tempted.  We also need to remind ourselves that God be always present in such experiences. Another important point to keep in mind is that as long as we are in this world, temptation and tempter never leave us for good. And so the Evangelist makes the telling remark, “When the devil finished testing Jesus in every way, he left him for a while.” (4: 13, emphasis added). By doing so Luke was hinting at Jesus’ final temptation also in Jerusalem, when he would be hanging on the cross, facing three similar temptations at the hands of (1) the Jewish leaders, (2) the soldiers and (3) the criminal on the cross at his left ( cf. 23: 35-39).

As Jesus came victorious through these temptations, he stands as a brilliant example for all those who will have to wrestle with evil and suffering in the world. Lent is a time to face squarely temptations of different kinds by embracing afresh the Holy Spirit, given to us at baptism, when we were born into God’s family, the Church. As the same Spirit accompanied Jesus during his desert-experience, may he also accompany us into this Lenten season, which is in fact observed in remembrance of Jesus’ desert fasting. Once again Lent has begun for us; let us examine how the gospel message of today will help us to choose a pathway fitting for Jesus’ disciples, and how we will make the message of “fasting, penance and almsgiving” most fruitful in our everyday life.

8th Sunday (C)

“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit.”  

The first reading from the Book of Sirach teaches that what is inside us is revealed through our conversation.  It is like the grain and husks are separated in a farmer’s sieve, as the quality of the metal is revealed in the potter’s fire, and as the size and quality of a tree’s fruit reveal the care it has received from the planter. Sirach’s teaching serves as an excellent preview for today’s Gospel. It reminds us, when we’re feeling judgmental, to think before we speak because what comes out of our mouth reveals our heart.       

The Gospel of the day is a continuation of the translation of the beatitudes, which is a program to achieve perfection in Christian life. Jesus asks his disciples the question: “Can a blind person guide a blind person?” In order to   lead a blind person, one must be sighted; in order to teach, one must be knowledgeable; otherwise the blind person and the student will be lost. The sight and the knowledge specified here are the insights that come through Faith, the Holy Spirit and the knowledge that comes from a Faith-filled relationship with the Lord. The point of this image of the blind leading the blind is that we must be careful when choosing whom to follow, lest we stumble into a pit alongside our blind guide.   

Advice for students & teachers of Scripture: The Christian disciples are called upon to be both    guides and teachers. Since a teacher cannot lead his students beyond what he himself has been taught, he must learn from the best teacher and then continue to learn Scripture from all available sources; the best being the Holy Spirit Who inspired Holy Scripture. Then, the learner must apply what he has learned to his own life before trying to teach others. Our goal in the Christian life must be to become like our Teacher, Jesus, in our thoughts, words, and actions.  

We have no right to criticize and judge others:The first reason Jesus gives us is we have no right to criticize unless we ourselves are free of faults. That simply means that we have no right to criticize at all, because “there is so much bad in the best of us and so much good in the worst of us that it ill becomes any of us to find fault with the rest of us.” Jesus clarifies his point by presenting the humorous simile of a man with a log stuck in his own eye trying to extract a speck of dust from someone else’s eye. It means that the task of fraternal correction (removing specks, etc.) should not be attempted without prior self-examination, though the disciple need not be completely without imperfections before the process can begin. 

We must be good at heart to be good at our deeds:“A good tree does not bear rotten fruit, nor does a rotten tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit.” One of the first principles in philosophy is “action follows the being.”  The fruitfulness of the tree depends on its nature. So it can easily be applied to our life. It is by our words, actions and the way of life, that we bear witness to Christ. There should not be any discrepancy in what we say and do.  The fruitfulness of our life entirely depends on the authenticity and credibility of our life.  No wonder, He confronted the Scribes and the Pharisees for their double standard of life. He wanted everyone to live a sincere and honest life by loving God and their neighbors. Naturally the leaders of the time could not accept His teaching because of their hypocritical life, which he condemned it right through in every aspect.  He tells the people to obey what they tell you, but do not imitate them.

"The treasure of the heart is the same as the root of the tree," St Bede explains. "A person who has a treasure of patience and of perfect charity in his heart yields excellent fruit; he loves his neighbor and has all the other qualities Jesus teaches; he loves his enemies, does good to him who hates him, blesses him who curses him, prays for him who calumniates him, does not react against him who attacks him or robs him; he gives to those who ask, does not claim what they have stolen from him, wishes not to judge and does not condemn, corrects patiently and affectionately those who err. But the person who has in his heart the treasure of evil does exactly the opposite: he hates his friends, speaks evil of him who loves him and does all the other things condemned by the Lord."

Paul teaches that the transformation to immortality has been made possible for all only because of Jesus Christ.Christ’s resurrection was not only the first example of the final resurrection but also one that will make all other resurrections of the believers, at the end possible. Paul also argues that our resurrection isan elevation to an entirely new mode of existence because the resurrected will acquire a “spiritual” body. Christ by his death on the cross and his rising alone have accomplished the victory over death. Hence, Paul concludes: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”The hard work of the Christian life is not in vain, because the Christian is “in the Lord” who has already won the victory.