Homily on the 5th Sunday of Year C
February 7, 2010
Who are qualified to be ministers of the Word of God? If we go by popular standard, we would think that only those who are clean of heart deserve to be called ministers. If this is the way we think, it is because, when we are in the realm of religion, we seem to approach the problem of ministry by considering who God is, and once we are able to identify him, we start talking about the person who is fit to serve him. For many, God is all-powerful, without sin, and incapable of error. We attribute to him almost all the qualities that are exactly the opposite of ours. And so, we believe that the stronger, the less sinless and the more correct a person is, the more he deserves to be God’s minister. So true is this that when we know of someone’s skeleton in the closet, we immediately question his qualification to preach the Gospel. Typical of this line of thinking is the assertion of a former ambassador, made at an interview on ABS-CBN News Channel, that the Church has no business speaking about morality in politics, unless it first cleans its own backyard.
Today’s readings, however, give the lie to that impression. In the 1st Reading, Isaiah describes himself as a man of unclean lips (Isa 6:5). In the 2nd Reading, Paul tells us that he was formerly a persecutor of the Church, and hardly deserves the name apostle (1 Cor 15:9). Finally, in the Gospel, Peter, who denied Jesus thrice, is described as telling Jesus to stay away from him because he was a sinful man (Luke 5:8). And yet, these three men were proclaimers of the Lord’s Word. In light of this, it would be wrong to say that only those who are good deserve to be preachers, for in these three we have almost the exact opposite of goodness. This point is worth emphasizing because many of us think that, because the Church is holy, it does not have a place for sinful people. How often we distance ourselves from those we perceive to be sinful members! We do not accept them as members of religious organizations or faith communities in the parish! Yet, Isaiah was chosen by God to be a prophet to Israel for many years; despite his betrayal, Peter became the first head of the Church; and Paul became an unrivalled missionary to the known world at that time.
What gives? If we go back to the readings, we will notice that there is one thing common among the three: they experienced the Lord. The Lord touched their lives. Isaiah was probably an aristocrat, because he could get near to the King. One time he went to the Temple, and there he was overwhelmed by a vision of God. He saw him, and that experience touched his life. From then on, he became a proclaimer of God’s Word. Paul had a vision of Jesus, while he was on the way to Damascus. Before he entered the city, he was struck by a vision, and from then on, he became a different man. In the Gospel, Peter encountered God not in a place like the Temple, but in an event. He experienced the presence of the Lord in the abundant catch of fish. The point of all these is that we will truly become spokesmen of the Lord only if we have an experience of him. (No wonder that, because of this lack of experience of his presence, many of us look for him in astrology, feng sui, born-again sects, transcendental meditation, and new age movements, and we consult all kinds of charlatans just to encounter him.)
But how do we know we had an experience of the Lord? The authenticity of our experience, at least from the standpoint of the readings today, is verified in two acts. First is the consciousness that we are sinful, and therefore ability to accept the sinfulness of others. ”Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man,” said Peter (Luke 5:8). “Of these [sinners],” confessed Paul, “I myself am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15). Indeed, it would seem that only a person who is able to see the depth of his sinfulness can say that he has truly experienced the presence of God. The opposite is completely true. If a person comes parading that he is very good, and criticizes others for their need of conversion from sin, and sets himself apart from sinners, he has hardly any credentials to a claim of a personal encounter with God. And second: having experienced the Lord and having gone into the depth of his sinfulness, one begins to proclaim the Word of God, and nothing can stop him from doing it. He may even leave everything that made him secure. Isaiah left the comfort of wealth and the company of powerful men. On the contrary, he even experienced persecution because of the Word he proclaimed. Having seen the vision on the road, Paul became a Christian and nothing could stop his missionary activity. “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16). He left the comfortable life of a Pharisee, and in his ministry as missionary, he was often flogged, stoned, and placed in dangerous situation.
The vocation to be a minister of the Word requires more than a vast reserve of accumulated knowledge about the Scriptures. It would seem that if few of us persevere in proclaiming the good news and have the zeal in doing the mission, despite our initial interest and training, it is because the Lord has not yet touched us. That is why, no amount of seminars and lectures can motivate us to be zealous ministers, unless we are first given this initial push, this divine touch. What matters in the end is not really who we are. It does not matter whether we are persecutors of the Church and public sinners, or whether we are equipped for the ministry or not. What matters is the finger of God, the touch by the Holy Spirit. Of course, there are people for whom this is not acceptable. They are even afraid to commit mistakes; they want to be like God so that nothing bad could be said of them. But such a life misses the whole point of what life is all about. We cannot be like God through our own effort in the first place. What is ultimately decisive is that we allow the Spirit to move us. And after that, nothing in us really matters, not even ourselves.
Homily on the 4th Sunday of Year C
January 31, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
The Philippines is basically an agricultural country; it is not an industrialized one. But it is a country where most people are suffering because, as the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines noted, realities of injustice are embedded in its political, economic and cultural systems. Take for example the economic condition, which is tragically characterized by an appalling mass poverty. “Such an abnormal economic situation is partly attributable to inequitable ownership of assets particularly land, to an oligarchic power system, to misconceived economic policies, to the prevailing economic structures, and to population growth which tends to be concentrated among the poor, increasing the competition among them for land and unskilled jobs. Thus economic gains do not ‘trickle down’ to the poor.”
If Jesus had a pro-poor program, we, as a Christian community, should follow suit by opting for the poor, denouncing how unjust the situation is and proclaiming that, as a sign that the Kingdom of God has entered into our Philippine society, such an abnormal economic condition has to be reversed. According to the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, “The fight against poverty finds strong motivation in the option or preferential love of the Church for the poor.” When he addressed the people of the sugar plantation in Bacolod City on Feb 21, 1981, John Paul II said: “The Church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened in when they speak up; not to demand charity but to ask for justice. Yes, the preference for the poor is the Christian preference!” And we have to live what we preach!
But ever since John Paul II came to the country in 1981, has the economic situation been reversed? Has the cause of the poor been taken up? If the condition has even worsened, it is partly because it is scary to make this option, as this would entail the loss of much privilege and power. Indeed, even to preach it is to invite disaster. To denounce our abnormal economic system is to court opposition. In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:21-30), this is what Jesus himself got: the people rejected him, after realizing the implication of his words that so much captivated them. In Luke’s theology, this hostility has been adumbrated by the prophecy of Simeon: “Behold, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many within Israel , and to be a sign that is disputed” (Luke 2:34). The opposition to Jesus will culminate in his crucifixion, a fate that, according to the law, a false prophet deserves (Deut 18:20-22; Jer 23:9-30).
In the Bible, denunciation of such a situation and living a life that witnesses to that denunciation is the task of a prophet; he is commissioned to stand up and tell the word of the Lord “against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people. They will fight against you” (Jeremiah, 1:18-19, First Reading). We are supposed to be a prophetic people, but who would like to preach a gospel that would bring in one’s oppositionists, harassers, enemies, and assassins? Is it not dangerous to tell people and live accordingly that as a nation we should “do away with greed, selfishness, unhealthy competition and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few” in order to have true economic development? Who is ready to “infuse moral principles that put face of God and the many faces of the poor” into our “economic relationships, policies, programs and structures” (CBCP, Exhortation on Philippine Economy) and testify to it by the life one lives? And who likes to live like Jeremiah who practiced what he preached? Who would be happy to be called an ingrate, leftist, and be harassed, indicted and imprisoned for espousing such a cause? Who likes to die like Jesus himself at a young age at that, when there is so much opportunity to live, and live comfortably? Who is prepared to part with his sumptuous meal, his car of the latest model, his unrestricted travel, his signature clothes, his fat deposit in the bank?
Oh, how much better to save one’s skin! And various are the ways of doing it. One is to align one’s self with the oppressors of the poor, even waltzing with them. Who knows?—one would even receive thick envelopes that contain millions, get promoted, and live luxuriously. After all, no one will bother about the collusion, because power and wealth are on one’s side; the protest of the poor are never heard, anyway. As long as one is on the side of those in power, he would even be allowed to bark, provided he does not bite. Another is simply to stop talking. One does not give a damn about economic injustice, about lopsided economy, about progressive pauperization. Speak no evil! By doing so, one does not create opposition and enemies. Why eat threats for breakfast unnecessarily? Still another is to look the other way, and probably the best recourse is to offer people bread and circuses. The poor will forget about their hunger; they will be entertained. Of course, many of us take one or two of these lines of action, and still profess to uphold the values of Christianity. After all, one can always reason out that there is no use in uttering the Gospel to the poor, knowing that it would ultimately put the preacher six feet below the ground. A live cat is always better than a dead lion! How much better to be accepted, to be honored, especially by the power-that-be in our political, religious, economic and cultural world!
No wonder, we suffer from a lack of real prophets! Indeed, one wonders whether prophecy has died in our midst.
Homily on the Third Sunday Year C
January 24, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
When President Arroyo made her inaugural speech at the Quirino Grandstand on June 30, 2004, she presented what would be her legacy when she steps down after six years. Among other things, she said: I shall have created 10 million jobs, developed 1 million hectares of agribusiness land; I shall have balanced the budget; power and water will be regularly provided to all barangays; Metro Manila will be decongested with economic activity; elections will no longer raise a single doubt about their integrity; I pledge to bring you a pro-poor agenda; I pledge to reduce spending; I will crackdown on wasteful and abusive officials. All these promises are supposed to be accomplished during her six-year term of office. Now that her term is almost done, how far have these promises been fulfilled?
The second segment of today’s Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) fulfills a programmatic function for the Gospel and the Book of Acts, as it serves as a preface to Jesus’ public ministry, in which Jesus made his inaugural speech. What was Jesus trying to say? Since he was quoting from Trito-Isaiah, which promised freedom to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia in 6th century BC, he was actually saying that the liberation of his people is being fulfilled in his person, in his talk and in his walk: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to released the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Thus, Jesus assumed the role of a liberator of the underprivileged to which the downtrodden, the blind, the imprisoned debtors and the poor belong.
Jesus’ cause is the liberation of the underprivileged. One wonders whether Philippine Presidents fulfill the promises they made at their inaugural speech, but Jesus really carried out his program, as can be seen from the rest of Luke’s Gospel. Though his friendship with some rich people, on scholarly grounds, could be put into question, there is not a single iota of doubt that his life was dominated by a ministry to the poor. His words of consolation, his preaching of the kingdom, his words of forgiveness, his healings and exorcisms, his table fellowship were almost without exception directed to those who belong to the lower rungs of the Jewish society. While Presidents may not take seriously the pledged they have made during their inaugural speech (probably there being no intention to fulfill them), there is scarcely any question that Jesus was consistent with what he said in his programmatic talk: the poor was his cause.
One major problem with the way we lived our Christianity in history is that instead of taking up again the cause of Christ, many of us have so made Jesus an icon that we have almost forgotten his cause. Of course, to make him an icon is reasonable enough. He was no ordinary man; he was really God, and early in the history of the Church, there were already the rudimentary beginnings of the tradition of worshipping him. “Therefore God exalted him in the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11). But whether this should be the dominant feature of the life of Christianity, this could be a subject of debate. There should be celebration of Christian life, that can be easily conceded, but first and foremost, there ought to be a Christian life worth celebrating about, and that life could only be patterned after the life of Christ that is dominated by a ministry to the underprivileged.
The poor are the losers in human history. They are cursed, dominated, taken advantaged of, fooled, degraded, not counted, oppressed, used, subjugated, pawned, forgotten, disenfranchised. In a human society where they are a majority, one wonders whether God can be happy about their lot. In the Old Testament, God takes the cause of the poor: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people… therefore I have come down to rescue them” (Exod 3:7-8). In a Christian community, greater honor is to be given to those from the underside of history. As Paul, in the 2nd Reading, puts it, “God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to the lowly members, that there be no dissention in the body, but all the members may be concerned for one another” (1 Cor 12:24-25).
Clearly, if it is to continue the cause of Christ, the Church has no alternative but to take up the cause of the poor. She should be a Church of the poor, as John XXIII has already noted, a poor Church. As a Christian community, it is incumbent upon us to make an option for the poor in a situation in which the bulk of humanity is poor. As John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, the Church “has become more aware of the fact that too many people live not in the prosperity of the Western world but in the poverty of the developing countries amid conditions which are still ‘a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”, he has felt and continues to feel obliged to denounce this fact with absolute clarity and frankness” (n 61). We do not only talk, we walk our talk. Jesus’ life was a witness to his cause: he was poor, he had nothing to lay his head on, he died poor, and in solidarity with the oppressed. The lifestyle of both clergy and laity ought to be a witness to poverty.
Homily on the Feast of Santo Niño Year C (Luke 2:41-52)
January 17, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
IN recent years, there has been a proliferation of various images of the Holy Child: in some, he is dressed like a soldier or a doctor, in others, a fisherman or a pilot. I am not sure why the Infant Jesus was made to take these countenances, but the real image remains that of a child who wears the garb of a king, with crown on his head, scepter on one hand, and the universe on the other. The reason partly comes from the First Reading (Isa 9:1-7), which is the most famous messianic prophecy. God will liberate his people from oppression, through the agency of a child, who is a prince of peace. If the image has any meaning at all, it is meant to convey that this child, helpless and innocent though he is, is the king of peace, who is so powerful that he holds the world in his hand, and the liberator of the human race.
When we think of a liberator, we associate him with Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte. They are mighty warriors, who defeated their enemies and established empires over which they ruled. Through wars, power, and oppression, they subjugated nations and put their enemies under their feet. That is how worldly power works. But in the ways of the divine, one conquers the world not through power, but through weakness. If Jesus conquered world, sin and death, and now sits at the right of God, it was not through violence, but by submitting himself to the powers of this world. He showed his weakness by allowing himself to be humiliated, crucified and killed. It was in his frailty that he was recognized, especially in the Johannine theology, as king: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).
If in his adulthood where he manifested his weakness, Jesus was recognized as king, so also in his childhood, helpless and feeble though he was, he was already known as king of the universe and its savior. The child, in other words, despite his ordinariness, is not an ordinary one. He is really a king—and more than a king, he is God among us, the Emmanuel (Matt 1:23). Which is why, although the image of a Santo Niño might appear absurd—for how can a mere child place the whole world in his hand, yet its meaning is entirely correct: God has deigned to show himself in this child of Bethlehem . Frail and lowly though he is, yet he is worthy of praise and worship. Small and voiceless though he is, he is really the revelation of God.
How did God manifest himself in this small boy? In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 2:41-52), he is portrayed as one who was devoted to the things of God. Early in his childhood, he was already concerned about his Father’s affairs: “Why did you search for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). His first allegiance was to his Father. And it is not a simple allegiance. Luke uses the word “must” or “had to be” which, in Luke’s Gospel, characterizes Jesus’ life: “The son of man must suffer…” (9:22); “But first he must suffer many things…” (17:25}, “I must stay in your house…” (19:5), “Everything must be fulfilled…” (26:44). In the conflict of human and divine obligations, the Father’s will must prevail. No wonder, Hebrews characterizes the life of Jesus as doing the Father’s will: “Then I said, here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God (Heb 10:7). Doing the Father’s will culminates in his death, in weakness, in what appears, from the human point of view, as a defeat.
Of course, if from the beginning until his death, Jesus’ life was all about doing the will of his Father, it was not simply because he is God’s Son. As the Gospel today emphasizes, he progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace (Luke 2:52), and that growth is to be attributed to his upbringing as well. An evidence of that upbringing is that “his parents used to go every year to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41). Surely, as can be seen from the rest of the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph were deeply religious parents. If God was able to manifest himself in a child, in a boy who not only was deeply religious, but whose whole concern was to do the will of his Father, it is in no small measure due to what he received from his parents. Which reminds us of a rhyme: “Before your child has come to seven, Teach him well the way to heaven. Better still the truth will thrive, If he knows it when he is five; Best of all if at your knee, He learns it when he’s only three.” That is the meaning of the figure of Sto Niño: the all powerful God who is king of the universe, deigned to manifest himself in a powerless little boy, who is chiefly concerned about the things of God, partly because of how his parents brought him up.