Gospel Reflections for Life-Promotion

BIBLICAL APOSTOLATE OF THE PROVINCE

Introducing Fr. Freddie's Gospel Reflections for Multi-purpose

1. These reflections are not written like an essay, but in six precise steps. Choose what you like.

2. They are not meant only for preaching homilies, but for a multi-purpose: for teaching, prayer (either personal or common), reflections and socio-pastoral guidance.

3. They can be used outside the liturgical celebrations also on any other occasions for preaching (by using the same text), private and common prayers, Bible Vigil, Adoration, Prayer Service, Gospel Sharing, conferences, talks, etc.

4. Only the Gospel text prescribed for the Sunday Liturgy in the Catholic Church is used for these reflections, and not the First and Second Readings. The latter are quoted only for reference. Those who want to include them, have to find their own applications.

5. These reflections are written from a pastoral and spiritual perspective, and not from academic or exegetical.

6. The preachers have an option to develop only the focus-statements given in Step 2 on their own into a full-fledged homily. If they want to make their homily shorter, they need not include all the points/thoughts written by the author; instead can select what they like, and (if they want) add their own stories/ anecdotes/ examples.

7. The title, “Gospel Reflections for Life-Promotion” indicates the author’s intention to highlight the life-sustaining or life-saving issues in our world and society in the midst of anti-life forces.

8. Though much of the material presented in these reflections is author's, no claim is made for the originality of all the thoughts and ideas. They are adopted from various authors.

9. Reproduction of these reflections in any form needs prior permission.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Seventh Sunday of Year A


Seventh Sunday [Mt 5:38-48]
19 February 2017

The Law of Non-retaliation and Love for Enemies

Readings: (1) Lev 19:1-2.17-18 (2) 1 Cor 3:16-23
1.  Theme in brief
Overcoming evil with good
2.  Focus Statement

Since we are God’s children, we must imitate God’s perfection by doing good to,   praying for and greeting those who hate and persecute us or those who are evil  and unrighteous.
3.   Explanation of the text
In  today’s gospel, just like last Sunday’s, Jesus once again “fulfills” or radicalizes two more old laws with his new understanding and interpretation of them, namely (1) the law of retaliation or the law of tit-for-tat (5:38) and (2) the law of hating one’s enemies (5:43). In plain language, the OT law of retaliation (also found in the ancient Code of Hammurabi) that commands “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” (Lev 24:20) means this: If your enemy destroys one of your eyes or breaks one of your teeth, you are legally permitted to destroy your enemy’s one eye or break a tooth, but not both the eyes or all the teeth. Your revenge has to be proportionate to the loss or injury caused to you by your enemy. Though in modern view this law sounds barbaric, in ancient days it was meant to restrict or limit the enormity of vengeance and violence that was prevalent before this Code came into existence, like killing several people even when one was killed or wiping out the whole village for a wrong. This law was meant to enact fair justice among the people of ancient Israel. Jesus radicalizes even this limited retaliation permitted by the law by ruling it out altogether. He teaches his disciples to refrain from resisting an evildoer violently, or from the common practice of returning evil for evil (5:39); instead he teaches them to overcome evil with positive good.
Though there is no direct command in the OT to hate one’s enemies, Jesus here projects the prevailing mentality among Israelites in his days and states it in the form of a command: “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy” (5:43). It was understood that Israelites “hate” non-Israelites. But in the original language, “to hate” does not mean the strongest aversion or disgust for someone as we commonly understand. Actually, it means to love somebody less than others. Jesus takes the command “to love your neighbour” beyond the narrow boundary of loving only fellow Israelites – as the Jews understood – to include loving one’s enemies also.
Who are our enemies?  When we analyse today’s gospel text, we come to know that our enemies are those who injure us (5:38), strike us (5:39), sue us and take away our belongings (5:40), compel us to work for them against our will (5:41), do not return what is borrowed from us (5:42), do evil (5:39), hate and persecute us (5:43-44), and are unrighteous (5:45). Jesus gives four examples to explain how to love this kind of people positively and conquer evil with good, which should be understood not in their literal but symbolic sense:
(1) Showing the other cheek to them (5:39) implies a refusal to return insult for insult from them. [In order to hit on the other cheek one has to use either the left hand or the back of one’s palm; both symbolize a great insult in Palestinian culture.] (2) Giving our cloak also if they forcibly take away our coat (5:40) means giving others more than what they ask. (3) Walking an extra mile if they force us to walk one mile (5:41) means going beyond what is asked of us, or doing much more than the minimum of what is expected of us. (4) Giving whatever the beggars and borrowers ask of us (5:42) means doing charity without expecting anything in return or willingness to give more than what is asked by those in need (5:42). (5) Praying for them (5:44) and greeting them (5:47).
Why should the disciples love their enemies? The reason for loving their enemies is to show their nature as God’s children (5:45).  If his disciples’ conduct does not reflect anything of God’s nature or character, how can they claim to be his children, or a reward from him (5:46)? God’s nature is so impartial and generous. He makes his sun rise and rain fall on the hideouts of terrorists and compounds of cloistered nuns equally (5:45). What greatness is there in calling oneself his disciple if one’s love is purely reciprocal, that is limited only to returning love for love? Even the sinful tax-collectors and hated Gentiles do that much (5:46-47). Instead, he tell his disciples to imitate the perfection of God himself, that is, his holiness, purity, fidelity, generosity, forgiveness and single-mindedness.
4.   Application to life
In today’s gospel Jesus invites us to be perfect as our heavenly Father is. Here “perfection” does not mean totally flawless or faultless. What it means is that we, being God’s children, have to imitate God’s own nature or character such as his holiness, generosity, forgiveness and single-mindedness. It also implies acquiring God’s way of thinking, loving and forgiving. In other words, our conduct should correspond to our status or dignity as God’s children. In the OT, to be perfect means to be holy, “for I the Lord your God am holy” (Lev 19:2). Loving, praying for, and resisting the temptation to retaliate against those who injure us, strike us, take away our belongings, hate and persecute us or those who are evildoers and unrighteous is a way of imitating God’s own perfection or his holiness. Again, since God provides necessary things such as sunshine and rain to the evil and the good or the righteous and the unrighteous, in order to be perfect like the heavenly Father we (his children) are to imitate his own qualities. Instead of retaliating evil with evil, we are called to return evil with good or with a loving deed. The word “perfect” can also mean complete or thorough.  When we love only our family members and friends, our love is incomplete. To do that one need not be a follower of Christ. All do it naturally. It is only when we love those who hate and persecute us, our love becomes complete.
It is clear, according to Jesus the reason why we are to love our enmies is because we are called to exhibit God’s own nature or qulaities as his children. To be children of the heavenly Father means striving day after day for the goal of treating our enemies as God treats them. It also means going beyond justice, beyond what others deserve or ask of us. It further implies imitating God’s own generosity and forgiveness by responding to hatred with love, refraining from all revenge and retaliation. Showing the other cheek does not mean allowing our enemies to attack us. It means not to return a slap for a slap, an insult for an insult or a hurt for a hurt, but instead do good to those who do such evil. Since our heavenly Father treats the good and the evil ones impartially, since we are his children, we too have to do the same as explained in the above-mentioned text.
Though Jesus identifies a number of enemies in today’s gospel (cf. explanation above), his list is not to be taken as exhaustive. We can extend it to include the following kind of enemies: our personal, national (e.g. India and Pakistan), political, religious (e.g. Hindus and Muslims) and business enemies; those who hate, oppose, criticize, harm, challenge and speak ill of us, etc.  To find this kind of people, we need not go to a foreign or hostile land. Sometimes we can find some of them within the four walls of our own house and in our own neighbourhood. Even those whom we love genuinely can turn out to be our enemies. The law of retaliation – “an eye for eye and tooth for tooth” – is alive and active even today in other forms, such as revengeful aerial strikes to smash one’s national enemies totally, genocide, ethnic cleansing, communal riots, blacklisting of troublemakers by managements and governments. In our ordinary sense, love means a good feeling, a natural attraction or affection towards somebody. But the type of love (“agape” in Greek) advocated by Jesus goes beyond a good feeling, attraction or affection. What good feeling can we have for our enemies? Jesus does not command us to be affectionate towards our enemies, but he commands to do good also to those people towards whom we have no affection or attraction. To do this we need to make a decision of the mind almost everyday to do good to those whom we don’t feel like doing good.
Retaliation against the injury, harm and insult caused by our enemies is a natural instinct in us. Jesus calls us to go against our natural instinct that prompts us to return blow for blow. Given the human instinct for revenge, if all the citizens of the world were allowed to apply the law of retaliation mentioned above liberally, today most people would have been blind and toothless. Faith gives us what nature cannot give. With a deep faith we can rise above our human nature that cries for vengeance to regain our lost honour. Only God’s grace can sanctify and elevate our human nature and nable us to do good even to evildoers.
Jesus wants that we should avoid not only any sort of revenge but also actively and positively do good to above-mentioned enemies. St. Paul rightly projects the mind of Jesus when he tells the early Christians, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21). The motive behind this is to win over our haters, persecutors and insulters with benevolence and generosity after God’s own heart. St. Paul further says that this kind of benevolence towards our enemies “will heap burning coals on their heads” (Rom 12:20) leading to a purification of their evil intentions. Modern St. Paul would have given the example of heaping ice cubes on their heads to melt their anger or resentment and eventually heart itself. A few years ago, in India we were touched by the example shown by Franciscan Clarist Sister Selmi, the younger sister of Sr. Rani Maria. She visited a prisoner named Mr Samundar Singh, who had brutally murdered Sr. Rani Maria by stabbing her about 54 times, and tied a ‘rakhi’ on his hand. [‘Rakhi’ is a band of string tied around the hand by a sister to her brother on a feast day (also called ‘RAKHI’) as a sign of sisterly love.] This benevolent gesture of public pardon by calling the murderer “my brother” melted his heart in such a way that he began to weep bitterly. Later on it led to his conversion from a murderer to a follower of Christ.
Jesus’ instruction on non-resistance of evildoers should be understood to mean avoidance of violent resistance that may breed further violence. That does not include the passive resistance which we sometimes need to offer to unjust oppressors and tormenters as exemplified by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King (Jr.). When we are wronged by those who hate and persecute us, our first reaction is to teach them a lesson. Jesus tells us not to return violence for violence. Instead of planning revenge and retaliation in our minds, he wants that we plan how to do good.
In Jesus’ time people prayed against their enemies so that God may punish them. Instead, he asks his disciples to pray for the reform of enemies. Since we cannot love easily those who hate and persecute us, he advocates the practice of praying for such people constantly so that with the power of prayer we may be able to overcome bitterness against them. Loving one’s enemies and praying for them is not natural but supernatural. Humanly speaking, what seems to be impossible can become possible with supernatural grace, as Jesus says in another occasion: “For mortals it is impossible, but for God all things are possible” (Mt 19:26). Whenever we run to God with the impossibility of forgiving an enemy who has hurt us so deeply, God tell us as he told St. Paul: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor 12:9). It’s prayer that gives us the power to move from our natural response of vengeance in the face of injury done to us by our enemies to the supernatural response of forgiveness and goodness towards them. It is immaterial whether our prayer will change or convert our enemies. Even if it does not change them, it will change our plan of retaliation against them. We cannot pray for our offenders while keeping hatred and revenge in our hearts. By our constant prayer, they get converted in our hearts first – though we do not know whether they will be converted in reality or not! We should leave it to God. Our prayer is a sure sign that we do not want to nurse hatred for our enemies and are interested in overcoming the harm done by them with the good we wish for them in prayer.
Jesus’ teaching urges us to make our love pro-active and not re-active or reciprocal. Re-active love means we return love for love, help for help, kindness for kindness, and do it only for those who love, help and are kind to us. What is so special about this type of reciprocal love? Jesus asks to go beyond this to make our love complete or perfect. Pro-active love involves doing good to people who do not do any good to us or harm us, or from whom we do not expect any good in return.
5.   Response to God's Word
As God’s children, instead of showing God’s magnanimity, do we go for personal vendetta and even justify it later? What is our response to the culture of hatred, revenge, violence and retaliation around us? Are we a part of it? Were there instances in our life when we won over our enemy’s good will through our kindness to him/her? If not, shall we try it?
6.  A prayer
Lord, I pray for those who are different from me, do not like me, whom I do not like, who get on my nerves, who have hurt me deeply, who insult me, who strike me, take away my belongings, force me to work for them and do not return what is borrowed from me. Holy Lord, purify my negative and bitter feelings towards such people and bless them. Amen.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Sixth Sunday of Year A

Sixth Sunday [Mt 5:17-37]
12 February 2017
Jesus’ New Law about Anger, Adultery, Divorce and Oaths
Readings: (1) Sir 15:15-20 (2) 1 Cor 2:6-10
1. Theme in brief
Greater righteousness of a Christian disciple
2.  Focus Statement
Jesus calls us to live a life of greater righteousness than the scribes and Pharisees in areas of human relationships, sexual behaviour, marital fidelity and truthfulness.
3.  Explanation of the text
In today’s gospel, Jesus says that he has not come to “abolish” the Old Testament Law but to “fulfil” it (5:17). The word “fulfil” means “to bring to its intended meaning” or to fill up what is lacking in it or to complete it. He neither contradicts nor replaces nor erases the Law. On the contrary, he gives it a new interpretation or meaning; or he intensifies, internalizes and radicalizes it. He focuses not only on external evil acts like murder, adultery, etc., but also on the internal attitudes and motives that lead to those acts. Thus he asks his listeners to undertake an internal and reverse journey in their minds from the act of murder to harbouring of anger or resentment, and from the act of adultery to harbouring of lust in their hearts.
Today’s gospel text shows how Jesus fulfils the Law that forbids murder, adultery, divorce and false swearing by going beyond the understanding it had in Judaism, or by deepening and radicalizing it. In other words, he fulfils the Law by extending/enlarging it beyond its letter to its spirit touching upon the inner attitudes of humans. He does it by repeatedly contrasting the narrow understanding of the OT (“You have heard it was said….,” 5:21,27,31,33) with his new and broader interpretation (“but I say to you….,”5:22,28,32,34). Biblical scholars call these statements that radicalize the OT teachings ‘antitheses’ (opposite) to OT ‘theses’ (teachings). In today’s gospel we find the following of his antitheses: An extension of the OT law that forbids (1) murder to include all sorts of anger, resentment and revenge (5:21-22); (2) adultery to include all lustful desires (5:27-28); (3) divorce to include life-long fidelity of the spouses to each other (5:31-32); and (4) false swearing to exclude all oaths altogether (5:33-36). Thus he teaches his disciples to address human tendency to nurse anger or resentment in the heart, honour one’s matrimonial promises and follow a path of absolute honesty and integrity.
By following this new meaning given to the Law, Jesus wants his disciples to live a life of righteousness or holiness higher than the scribes and Pharisees in above-mentioned four areas. For him, anger already carries murder in the form of a germ. He wants his disciples to strike at the very root of murder - their tendency to nurse anger, hatred, resentment, aggressiveness, insult, revenge and all sorts of violent behaviour against others. According to him, a sort of killing is done by heart-piercing words, abusive language and name-calling. Calling our brothers and sisters ‘You fool’ (5:22) may not sound highly abusive in our culture; but in the Bible it means invoking a divine curse on our brothers/sisters. Jesus advocates a remedy to hatred, resentment and vengeance – cultivating a spirit of forgiveness and reconciliation (5:24). He says that any genuine worship or “offering our gifts at the altar” must be sustained by reconciliation of broken relationships with your brothers and sisters, if it has to be acceptable to the Lord (5:23-24). He says that the need of coming to terms with one’s opponent and taking concrete steps towards reconciliation are urgent before the matter further deteriorates and finally leads to a disaster like murder. He compares it to coming to terms with your accuser while still on the way to the court so that the judge may not throw you into prison (5:25).
Similarly, Jesus asks his disciples to strike at the root of committing adultery which can be traced to entertaining lustful desires in one’s heart; of divorce which is in marital infidelity. Further, he teaches that oaths and swearing are totally unnecessary and unwarranted if there is a general atmosphere of trust and honesty. They come into the picture because of human tendencies of lying, untruthfulness and dishonesty.
4.  Application to life
In today’s gospel, which is a part of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we get a glimpse of the attitudes, intentions and motives a disciple needs to imbibe. He teaches us that we cannot be counted as citizens of a new society he has come to establish (called the Kingdom of Heaven or God) if we are content with only external observance of the Law like the Pharisees and fail to change or purify their inner (sinful) attitudes which are the roots of all evil actions. Whereas the Pharisees and scribes speak about fruits (evil actions), Jesus wants his disciples to strike at the roots, found in their hearts from which evil actions proceed.
Here Jesus proposes a new way of life that goes beyond the teachings of the OT, and a new righteousness that exceeds the one practiced by the scribes and Pharisees in the OT. He neither abolishes the Law, nor keeps it as it is. Thus he upholds the principle of a continuity of the old with a change, that is, with a new meaning added to it. He seeks to radicalize it by broadening and deepening its meaning. Thus he fulfils or fills up the missing meaning in it or completes it. For Jesus, LOVE is the supreme law and all other laws should be subordinated to it. According to him salvation is not guaranteed by mere external observance of law but by making love as our guiding principle in human relationships and keeping the spirit of the law instead of only the letter. The greater righteousness advocated by him under God’s Kingdom goes beyond external observation to include a change of attitudes and heart, and a purification of inner motives.
Among the four OT laws radicalized by Jesus in today’s gospel – namely, murder, adultery, divorce and oaths – let us take the first one: “You shall not murder”. According to him, just avoiding murder is not enough. Anger is the root of murder. When we overcome or master anger, murder or any violence becomes impossible. Neither ‘murder’ is done by knives, guns and terrorists’ bombs alone nor is violence present only in the bomb or in the killer’s gun. Rather. it is deeply rooted human heart. The fruits are seen when we nurse resentment and revenge against our offenders which goes for days, months and sometimes for years. According to Jesus the spirit of this fifth commandment goes much deeper than external act of murder – transformation of a bitter and vengeful heart in which it is rooted. The evil roots must be tackled (uprooted) so that the evil fruits will not emerge. We observe an atmosphere of all-prevailing violence in our society that causes a real threat to human life. Because of its omnipresence, experts speak of a culture of violence existing in our world today. Here the term ‘culture’ refers to attitudes and behaviour which accept violence as inevitable to solve human and social problems without considering its terrible consequences. In the midst of such an attitude, Jesus invites us to create a culture of active non-violence which is life-promoting. His teaching motivates us to take active steps to overcome violent tendencies within us and in our communities, instead of merely feeling sad about it.
We can do it in various ways, such as (1) by consciously cultivating non-violent language in our speech; (2) by following the path of non-aggressive behaviour in our personal lives; (3) by cooperating with so many good willed people in our world who promote non-violence; and (4) by promoting non-violent language and behaviour among children. I am shocked to hear about a video game played by children in their mobile phone: If you shoot down your neighbour’s dog you gain 50 points; if you shoot down your neighbour 100 points and if you shoot down your parents 200 points. See, how the culture of violence is subtly injected into the tender minds of children! Listen to the vulgar, abusive and violent language used by some people, including children – much worse than the words “You fool” used in today’s gospel (5:22). Think of the name-calling done on people of a different race or ethnic group in any society, and the domestic violence perpetrated against women and domestic helps. Our everyday language is full of violent words such as “bash”, “bang”, “smash”, “thrash”, etc. Many of us say: “So and so should be thoroughly hammered…. Shoot/ kick/ thrash him/her….”, etc. Often we approve and laugh over such language of spitting poison of bitterness when we hear others speaking against those who have wronged them. Children imitate it from their parents and companions.
When we read about the first murder recorded in the Bible – in the story of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-16) – we come to know how Cain’s envy and anger towards his brother Abel ended up in hatred and cold-blooded murder. We have to admit that there is a Cain sitting inside of each one of us who broods over the wrong done by others, imagines and plans terrible things against those who have wronged or offended us. This Cain is nothing else but our own mind that gives in to aggressive and violent behaviour against our brothers and sisters. This story makes us deeply aware that there is something of the wild beast in all of us lurking at the door, but we must “master it” as the Bible says (Gen 4:7). If violence which is inherent in human nature is not contained or mastered, it will create havoc in human/social relationships and contribute to the all-prevailing culture of violence. Like Cain we too try to cover-up our guilt and refuse to accept responsibility for our violent behaviour by saying: "Am I my brother's keeper (Gen 4:9)?" God’s voice is clear to us: “Are you not responsible for your brothers and sisters? Are you not answerable to your God and society for the prevailing culture of violence in the world?”
Anger and resentment have roots in our rational nature. Rationally we brood over the injury or harm done, or hurt caused to us by evildoers/ adversaries and demand satisfaction for it. Violent and aggressive behaviour in words and deeds is a common means of dealing with injured pride. But the fact is, even after evildoers get their punishment, including imprisonment or capital punishment – as it happens in some serious court cases – people’s anger, hatred and revenge does not end. Let us take Jesus’ example. While undergoing the agony of crucifixion, Jesus made an excuse for the evil action of his crucifiers below the cross by praying for them to his Father with the words that they did not know what they were doing (Lk 23:34). Though they knew that they were crucifying an innocent man, he made an excuse for their action. Moved by this example, can we also admit our ignorance of the motives, background and emotional state of our offenders? We really do not know why so and so behaved with us in such a nasty manner, or was rude to us. Jesus lays down the principle of compassion for the weakness of such people which leads to forgiveness from the heart.
Jesus further instructs us to cultivate a spirit of forgiveness of and reconciliation with those who have offended us as well as those whom we have offended (5:23-26). This, according to him, is an indispensable precondition for Christian praise and worship. Worship of God cannot be performed by an impure heart infected with resentment, bitterness and revenge. He wants that true worship of the heart must be sustained by brotherly/sisterly love and reconciliation. He gives the example of an accused man taking step to reconcile with his accuser while on the way to the court (5:25-26), to emphasize the point that the offended party should take the first step towards reconciliation rather than the offender.
It is easier to offer sacrifices and attend religious services than to forgive an offender from one’s heart; is it not? It is easier to avoid committing an act of murder than removing anger, resentment, hatred and bitterness from the heart; is it not? Heart of hearts many of us are happy that we have never committed murder and adultery; hence are righteous or holy before God. But today’s gospel asks those of us who consider ourselves righteous and “spiritual-minded” to answer this question: “Have you not ‘murdered’ the good reputation of your opponents/ offenders/ adversaries through defamation, slander, character assassination and using abusive language against them? By spitting venom against them and going after their blood, have you not ‘murdered’ them in your heart? How many people have you stabbed, not in the front but in the back?”
Harbouring hatred is also serious enough because murder is conceived by hatred.  There are people who nurse so much hatred in the heart that they would have preferred to murder their opponents or enemies. But they refrain from doing so because of fear of punishment (from God or from the court of law), social stigma and losing social respectability.  Hatred and crying for vengeance is like committing murder in one’s heart. Does Jesus’ teaching that we should reconcile with our opponents and enemies before we begin to worship God or offer our gifts on the altar make any church-goer return half the way? Of course, we need not take it literally. But Jesus asks us to examine how many times and how often we have offered our gifts on the altar with all resentment, vengeance, enmity and hatred in our heart.
Again, what is the use if we pat ourselves on the back saying that we have never committed adultery, but continue to lust after other men or women, and become slaves to cyber-sex or pornography in the media especially in the internet?
5.  Response to God's Word
Do our religious practices influence our inner attitudes and motives? Do we nurse resentment and revenge against our offenders and refuse to talk with them for days, months and sometimes for years? Do we feel we too are directly or indirectly responsible for the prevailing culture of violence in the world? What steps we would like to take to promote a culture of active non-violence? Is our worship sustained by brotherly/sisterly love and reconciliation?
6. A prayer
Purify our hearts and inner attitudes, O Lord. Teach us the language of love and the need to cultivate diligently non-violent and non-aggressive communication. Give us courage and humility to overcome the prevailing culture of violence in our world by seeking the path of forgiveness and reconciliation. Amen.