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, 30 September 2016

27th Ordinary Sunday (C)

Twenty-seventh Ordinary Sunday (C) [Lk 17:5-10]
02 October 2016
Deep-rooted Faith and Disinterested Service
Readings: (1) Heb 1:2-3;2:2-4 (2) 2 Tim 1:6-8.13-14
1. Theme in brief
Power of a deep-rooted faith
2.  Focus Statement
Our faith has the power to do impossible things, but it needs to be increased and deepened always as it is assailed by trials and doubts; it has to be translated into faithful and disinterested service,
3.  Explanation of the text
In today’s gospel Jesus speaks about the power that comes from faith.  He spoke these words in the context of the hard demands he made from his disciples to offer all their repentant offenders unconditional and unlimited forgiveness to (17:3-4). The apostles must have realized that these demands required greater faith than what they had. Hence, they must have requested him to “increase” their faith at this juncture (17:5).
Jesus answered by saying that if they had faith of the ‘size of a mustard seed’ they could ‘uproot’ even a mulberry tree and get it planted in the sea (17:6). His comparison of faith to a little mustard seed did not refer to a small measure of faith, but great or firm faith, since in his culture (and in many other cultures even today) it was common to speak in opposite ( and exaggerated) terms to emphasise a point. Here Jesus seemed to refer to the quality or depth of faith than its quantity. Secondly, instead of comparing faith to a huge rock, he compared it to a seed because a rock could neither grow nor increase. On the contrary, if a seed were sown in the ground it would sprout and grow. Thus, he compared the power of faith to the power inherent in a tiny seed – a power to bring out a big tree. Thirdly, since mulberry tree was one of the trees that had very strong roots in Palestinian milieu, he compared its strength with the power of faith to tackle deep-rooted sins, habits and problems. Hence, a deep-rooted faith could solve deep-rooted problems. Jesus wanted to give this message: what seemed to be impossible could become possible when approached with faith.
In the second part of today’s gospel, Jesus described how his disciples had to put their faith into practice by rendering faithful and disinterested service. He began to explain this point by telling a parable of the “Unworthy Slave” (17:7-9) by using the same words as he used in parables of the Lost Sheep and Coin (in chapter 15): “Who among you.…” (17:7). Surely, in Palestinian culture of his time, no master would tell his slave to eat a hot meal and take rest when he returned home after a whole day’s hard work (17:7). Instead, though the slave came home tired at the end of the day, it was natural for the master to order him to prepare a meal for himself first; then wait on him while he ate and drank; then only the servant could eat at the end (17:8). Those days, nobody expected a master to congratulate or praise a slave for a job well done (17:9).
Jesus seemed to imply here that he was the master and his disciples were like those ‘slaves’ serving their master faithfully. While slaves were fully under obligation to obey their master, the master was under no obligation to show gratitude to them or shower rewards on them.  The slaves had no right to demand anything from their master, either. After doing all the duties faithfully, they could only consider themselves “worthless slaves” or “unworthy servants” who did only what they were supposed to do (17:10). In this sense, St. Paul also considered himself as a servant (‘slave’ in original Greek) of Jesus Christ (Rom 1:1). Here Jesus associated faith with unworthiness.
The Pharisees thought God was under obligation to reward them for their faithful observance of the Law and piety. On the contrary, Jesus taught that the main characteristic of faith was to approach God with a spirit of unworthiness, relying solely on his grace rather than on one’s merits. Jesus hinted at the wrong attitude of Pharisees who laid claim on God by citing the example of a slave who faithfully did what was commanded (17:7-8). The message is very clear that we must serve disinterestedly and unconditionally without looking for any reward. A disciple cannot make any claim for reward from God, in spite of his/her life-long faithfulness. Salvation is God’s free gift.
4.  Application to life 
Though our faith is God’s gift, we have to constantly pray that it may grow and be deepened.  The reason is that it can become very shaky and weak when we are assailed by temptations, doubts, trials, suffering, unfulfilled desires and expectations, unanswered prayers, unjust treatment from others, incurable illnesses, sudden accidents, calamities and death. That is why, as the disciples did, we should always pray humbly to the Lord that he may increase and deepen our little faith, so that we are able to uproot the deeply rooted doubts of faith.
Faith is the greatest force or power we posses. The problems of life which seem to be impossible to solve, the sufferings which seem to be impossible to bear, and the tasks that seem so difficult to do, become possible for a person of strong faith. It is faith that gives us patience, perseverance, determination and endurance. Yes, faith has the power to uproot even deeply rooted sins and addictions. If you doubt, just listen to testimonies of those who get converted from addictive habits such as alcohol and drugs with the power of faith and surrender to God. In your life, was there any time when you thought you would never be able to do a difficult work, or  come out of a bad habit, or face agonising situation, or live with an unbearable person, were able due to constant prayer with deep faith and trust in God? Think of many married couples who can decide to stay together in spite of unbearable differences and refuse to get separated or go for divorce; or the terminally ill persons who are able to accept their illness by sheer act of surrender to God’s will and their own will power to survive.
As I understand it pastorally (not theologically), faith has three dimensions or aspects: (1) faith-observance that includes all the religious rituals, rites, traditions, worship and devotions; (2) faith-knowledge or information that is acquired by an intellectual (theoretical) understanding of the truths of faith through personal reading, catechism classes, religious instructions, seminars and courses, homilies and conferences; and (3) faith-surrender of our life into God’s hands by allowing him to do what he wants with us and submitting ourselves to his holy will. Though the first two dimensions of faith are also important, if our faith is confined only to them, it will not be able to ‘uproot trees’, or as other evangelists put it in some other places of the gospel ‘move mountains’ (Mt 17:20; Mk 11:23). In order to move mountains, we need to move from mere rituals like lighting candles and burning incense sticks, and knowing all the answers to catechism questions, to a deeper surrender and submission to God.
A total surrender of oneself into the hands of God with the attitude of permitting him to do what he wants with us, to take us where he wants to take and to give what he wants to give, has power to move mountains and uproot trees. That is to say, it has the power to overcome fears, tensions and anxieties caused by mountainous problems and to overcome deep-rooted sins and bad habits or addictions. It has the power to drive out so many superstitions, such as deep-rooted belief in witchcraft, sorcery and black magic that exists within the Christian communities in various parts of the world. The main reason for these superstitions is that people have not learned to face the problem of evil (such as misfortunes, calamities, sickness, suffering and sudden death) and overcome fear of the unknown with the power of faith, even after centuries of Christian faith. We should be convinced that the power of faith that comes from a total surrender to God in times of these trials is the only way to cast out the imaginary ‘demons’ that torment some people in such situations.
Faith and God’s Kingdom – the main theme of Christ’s preaching – are closely related. God’s Kingdom means his total authority, lordship or rule over our lives. Faith is nothing but wholehearted submission to God’s rule of love. This sort of surrender motivates a believer to work for God’s Kingdom as a humble servant without expecting any reward – leaving rewards fully to God’s grace and mercy. The question is whether we have that much faith that draws us to Christ in such a way that we are willing to dedicate ourselves to work for his main project, i.e. the Kingdom of God. Since it is hard, should we not once again ask the Lord to increase our faith, just as the disciples asked in his days? That is why in his parable of the Unworthy Servant Jesus links faith with action – action to serve disinterestedly in God’s Kingdom without looking for rewards. Faith is the motivating force that expresses itself in loyalty and faithfulness to the Master through humble service – sometimes even thankless service. While the apostles requested to increase the quantity or amount of faith, Jesus instead in the quality of faith that flows into loyal service with a willingness to do what the Master commands.
Jesus wants to tell us that our faith is increased when we become loyal and dutiful servants of our Master. It is increased when we put it into practice by serving others selflessly without expecting any rewards/ appreciation/ recognition or a “well-done” pat on our backs. After doing a thankless or unrewarded service (not only in terms of money but also in terms of appreciation), if somebody is able to say this – "We are unworthy servants (literally, “worthless slaves”); we have done only what we ought to have done" (17:10) – surely it is a sign of greater and deeper faith. It means, we are like servants who deserve no credit at all. Today Jesus once again invites us to translate our faith into life-long service. There is neither reward nor retirement in Christian life. Actually, we never finish our service. We can never have the satisfaction of having done enough as far as service to God and humanity is concerned.
Further, Jesus tells us that we must render our service unconditionally and disinterestedly. Though often we have to serve out of compulsion (in workplaces and at home), we must set apart at least a small portion of our time to serve freely out of sheer love, and for no reward. Today’s message leads us to question whether all our services are like a business contract: help for help, visit for visit, gift for gift, etc. Are all our services to neighbours, friends, relatives and acquaintances motivated by expectation of rewards in terms of money, things, name, etc., or we do some services just out of love without expecting anything in return. After serving God and humanity all these years, we have no right to boast of our achievements or claim a name for ourselves, since we have done only our duty. We are to examine ourselves whether our social or church service is motivated by the desire to earn prestige and self-promotion. Sometimes our only reward for social or church service may be only opposition, criticism, or outright hatred by some extremist or fundamentalist groups when we side with the poor.
In Luke’s gospel we find Jesus associating faith with unworthiness in a number of instances. Faith works only when we consider ourselves unworthy of God’s grace and trust only in his mercy. Take for example, the Roman centurion’s dear slave was healed at the point of death because he confessed his unworthiness to have Jesus under his roof, though the Jewish elders considered him worthy because of his generosity towards them (7:1-10). Again, the faith of a sinful woman who anointed the feet of Jesus with perfume made her worthy to receive gifts of salvation and peace, whereas Simon the host who thought he was most worthy found himself unworthy of such a grace (7:36-50).
Finally, faith and prayer are also closely related. That is why in Luke’s gospel the request of the apostles to teach them how to pray (11:1) is related to their request to increase their faith in today’s gospel. It is impossible to pray without faith and when we pray our faith is nourished and increased.
5.  Response to God's Word
What is the quality of our faith? Do we take care to nourish it through prayer and spiritual reflections? Do we allow superstitions acquired through our culture, such as belief in witchcraft or black magic, to predominate over our faith? Are all our social services motivated by expectation of rewards in terms of money, status and promotion? Do we do voluntary and free service with some ulterior motives? Do we serve grudgingly, or lovingly?
6.  A Prayer
What thanks can we render to you, O Lord for the precious gift of faith. We humbly ask you: “Lord, increase our faith”.  When we are assailed by doubts and trials, be with us and never let us be separated from you. In deep faith we surrender our life to you and pray: “Lord, Do what you want with me. I am yours”. May our faith motivate us to render disinterested and faithful service till the end of our days without looking for reward or name and fame. Amen.


Friday, 23 September 2016

26th Ordinary Sunday (C)

Twenty-sixth Sunday [Lk 16:19-31]
25 September 2016
The Parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus
Readings: (1) Amos 6:1.4-7 (2) 1 Tim 6:11-16
&   Theme in brief
Sensitivity to the needs of the poor
&   Focus Statement
Noticing poverty and wretchedness at our gate, and doing nothing about it, or unwillingness to share our resources with the have-nots is also a sin of omission and indifference.
&   Explanation of the text
In the parable of the Rich Man and the Poor Lazarus, Jesus paints a stunning picture of contrasts between these two main characters: the former represents lavish riches and the latter abject povertythe former suffers torments of hell (in Hades, 16:23) and the latter enjoys blessedness of heaven (in Abraham’s bosom, 16:22). There is a tremendous contrast between the rich man clothed in purple and feasting sumptuously every day (16:19), and the poor Lazarus not even getting crumbs that fall from his table (16:21). Further, the abundance of wealth of the rich man is contrasted with his cold indifference towards the poor Lazarus at his gate. 
According to this story, the rich man experiences ‘heaven’ on earth, whereas the poor Lazarus ‘hell’. But after their death, there is a drastic reversal of fortunes (16:19-23). While living, the rich man makes a big show of his wealth by dressing in purple and fine linen clothes and feasting sumptuously (16:19), whereas the poor Lazarus is starving at his gate and dogs are licking his soars (16:21). After their death, the rich man finds himself in “Hades” (hell), whereas Lazarus is carried away to be in Abraham’s bosom (paradise). While on earth the rich man enjoys highest luxury but after death suffers agony, whereas Lazarus suffers immensely here on earth due to his misery but now is in greatest comfort. An unbridgeable chasm or gulf (16:26) and a strong gate divides them. This gate also symbolizes the distance that separates the poor from the rich people’s world.
Just like Matthew’s parable of Last Judgement, this one also connects eternal reward and damnation with works of mercy done or not done to the least ones (Mt 25:31-46). This story also tells us that the fortunes of the rich and the poor are reversed in the Kingdom of God. In last Sunday’s gospel we heard how that shrewd steward who was in deep crisis came out of it successfully due to his astute and prompt action. Whereas the rich man in today’s parable miserably fails and ends up in ruin for not taking any action when he notices utter poverty and misery of poor Lazarus at his gate (16:20). Why is the rich man (traditionally called Dives) condemned? His sin is not of commission, but of omission. He does not do anything morally wrong or commit any evil, but does not do anything good also, that is, omits to do the good he is supposed to do to a person in dire needs.
We are not told that Dives has amassed his wealth by fraud or exploitation. Nor are we told that he does any harm to Lazarus. He neither chases the poor Lazarus from his gate nor ill-treats him nor has any objection to his eating the crumbs that fall from his table (16:21). He just ignores him or does not bother about his misery. He goes out and comes in through the gate umpteen times but just closes his eyes to the condition of the poor beggar. He does not notice even the dogs licking the soars of Lazarus (16:21). He is totally insensitive to the needs and feelings of his neighbour (Lazarus) who is a destitute. Thus, in contrast to last Sunday’s shrewd steward, he totally fails in his ‘stewardship’ (= a charge given by God) by ignoring the right of this poor man to live with dignity. He is condemned not because he is rich but because of his apathy, indifference and lack of concern towards the needs of the poor Lazarus. He refuses to share his goods or food with Lazarus at his gate covered with sores (16:20). He does not want to be involved in the problems of Lazarus either. He places his complete trust in his riches; whereas the poor Lazarus, deprived of earthly riches, totally relies on God alone. He goes to heaven not because of his poverty but because of his total trust in God as his only rescuer.
Any amount of pleading by Dives with Father Abraham to send Lazarus either to cool his tongue with water (16:24), or to send Lazarus to earth to caution his five brothers does not work (16:27), because it is too late. Way to salvation is the way of listening to ‘Moses and prophets’ (= the Scriptures, 16:29) and putting the Word of God into practice by sharing what we have with our neighbours in need. If one remains unmoved by the message of God’s Word, then even if a miracle takes place such as somebody rising from the dead will not convince such a person (16:30-31). From John’s gospel we come to know, when another Lazarus rose from the dead, instead of getting converted, the Jewish leaders plotted to kill Jesus (cf. Jn 11:45-57).
&   Application to life 
This parable rightly exemplifies the terrible and scandalous inequalities that exist in our world (even at our gates) between the rich and the poor or the haves and have-nots. In spite of technological advancement, today we cannot but observe the glaring co-existence of wealth and poverty, luxury and misery, skyscrapers and dingy slums. There are millions of Lazaruses in our world who lack necessities of life. They struggle for survival and are left with a few crumbs that fall from the rich man’s table – sometimes not even crumbs. Naturally, Dives represents a minority of the rich and the powerful people of the world who enjoy most of its resources.
Today’s gospel is a social gospel pointing to the relationship of religious practices to our social involvement. It is a severe indictment to those who promote religious devotions and rituals but totally ignore the social implications of the gospel of Christ. In spite of being pious in our religious observances, the riches of this world may prevent us from noticing the ‘poor Lazarus’ (= poverty and misery) covered with sores at our own gate (16:20). Excessive attachment to wealth can create a ‘gate’ that separates us from God and the needs of the poor. It can blind us also to the truth of impermanence of our lives and possessions. Inside the gate there may be lavish food and drinks (sometimes even wasted or thrown out after the grand parties and banquets), and outside of it hunger and misery. Today’s gospel invites us to reach out to people outside our gate by sharing something of what we have. The real problem is not our money, but whether we love money in such a way that we become totally blind to God's concern for the poor and the deprived.
A careful study of this story reveals that Dives is not punished for being rich, nor is the poor man rewarded for being poor. The rich man's sin was not his riches but his total insensitivity to the needs of the poor Lazarus. The very fact that Lazarus was lying at his gate provided him with plenty of opportunities to share something of his wealth. But hardheartedness and lack of compassion in him were the reasons for taking no action. Refusal to share our resources (goods, money, funds, knowledge and infrastructural facilities) with the have-nots and indifference to extreme poverty, misery, need and ignorance is against God’s will or against the gospel of Christ. As mentioned in textual explanation above, by this sort of indifference we become guilty of the sins of omission. In this case, we do not commit any evil but omit (fail to do) the good we should have done. In other words, noticing the misery and wretchedness at our gate, and passing by with no involvement, is a sin of omission or indifference. We hardly realize that tolerating extreme social inequalities (in terms of goods, knowledge, health facilities, etc.) and doing nothing to bridge the ‘chasm’ or gulf (16:26) between the haves and have-nots by way of sharing what we have, is also wrong. We confess this wrongdoing when we say, “I have sinned in what I have failed to do” in the beginning of the Holy Mass.
As mentioned in today’s parable, still there are ‘five brothers’ of Dives (= people like him) roaming about in our world who have no feelings for the poor in pain and misery. Though the Gospel’s Dives is in hell, the world’s Dives and his brothers are unaffected. There is a Dives sitting inside of us, when for pleasure trips, grand celebrations and lavish parties we have enough money, but when there is a call to help the poor, we say we can’t afford; or when the rich and educated visit us, we are courteous, polite and kind, but when the poor come we become impatient and shout at them. With the money spent by the rich people for dog-food and cat-food in affluent societies, and with the money spent for advertising such food, we could have fed quite many hungry stomachs. This parable is a stern warning to ‘all the brothers of Dives’ – all those who do not care for the poor. We need to examine ourselves whether we have noticed a Lazarus in our midst and shown any mercy or kindness towards him/ her. Do the cries, pain, grief, misery and suffering of the ordinary people move us? Are we not guilty of tolerating extreme social conditions and not doing anything about it?
According to this story, the rich man’s torments in Hades were the consequence of his failure to “repent” (16:30) for the times he passed by poor Lazarus at his gate without even seeing him or doing nothing to alleviate his misery. As pious Jews, the Pharisees considered wealth as a sign of God's blessings and poverty as a sign of God's displeasure or punishment for serious sins. Naturally, they might have thought persons like Lazarus deserve such misery due to their own fault. The same thing happens to us when we evade our social responsibility by saying, “The poor are poor due to their own mistake or laziness. Let them also slog it out to reach our grade”. Sometimes we may give religious reasoning for the plight of the poor and justify our inaction, such as we are blessed by God with fortunes whereas they are not blessed. This passage invites us to repent for thinking and acting in this manner. We should not forget the historical truth that many rich countries have become rich by looting the resources from their former colonies.
What does this parable teach those who are not materially rich? It reminds them that they too are called to share something of what they have (need not be wealth or money) with those who are in dire need. The question we have to ask is not whether we are rich, but whether there is a Lazarus sitting at our gate, and begging not necessarily for bread but for a word of love, recognition, appreciation, acceptance, forgiveness and consolation, or seeking employment, education, rehabilitation, justice, dignity, moral support, peace of mind, meaning in life, etc. Do we notice him or her? We need not be ‘oil rich’; all of us are wealthy enough to share something from this list. There may be a Dives in all of us who does not notice a Lazarus at the gate……
What does this parable tell today’s parents? Because of fewer children in families, they become more and more greedy. What a heavy responsibility is laid on the parents to teach their children not to set their hearts only on “dressing in purple clothes and fine linen” and go on “feasting sumptuously every day” (16:19). After all, these things are not going to last for ever. How important it is to teach them respect for the poor and to motivate them to share with the poor something of what they have in abundance. If sharing of resources is totally ignored by the rich, a day may come when the poor will rise up against the rich.
&   Response to God's Word
Have we erected a ‘gate’ between “us” (the haves) and “they” (the have-nots)? Does this gate make us deaf to the cries of the poor and separate us from their needs, concerns and issues? Do we share our goods and resources with those who lack them? With whom do we side and associate always? Do we have friends among the poor? In this text Abraham says to Dives: “They have Moses and Prophets; they should listen to them” (16:29). We have personal and family prayers, community prayers, retreats, novenas, healing sessions, Sunday Masses, Scripture readings, homilies, catechism, etc. If these are not enough, even if somebody rises from the dead, can we be converted from our insensitivity to the cries of the poor?
&   A Prayer
Dear Lord, today you once again open our eyes to recognize the needs and rights of the poor. We have sinned by closing our eyes to extreme poverty, misery and ignorance around us, and by refusing to share our resources with the have-nots. Give us the generosity and a sense of active concern for any Lazarus sitting at our gate, and begging not only for bread but for a word of recognition, appreciation, acceptance and consolation. Grant that we may be attuned to your voice coming from Scriptures which tells us to share whatever we have with our neighbours in need. Make us more sensitive to their needs and motivate us to act on their behalf. Amen.