14 September 2009

Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life

21st Sunday in Ordinary Time - 23 August 2009

Readings: Jos 24:1-2a, 15-17, 18b; Ps 34:2-3, 16-17, 18-19, 20-21; Eph 5:21-32; Jn 6:60-69

Peter’s statement provides a fitting a response at the culmination of a five-Sunday Gospel series (taken from Chapter 6 of the Gospel of John) wherein Jesus speaks of Himself as the bread of life. Peter’s response is not entirely different from the Great Amen we sing at the end of the Eucharistic Prayer. Both our Amen and Peter’s words mean: “We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God” (Jn 6,69).

Behind the statement is the making of a great choice: the choice either to believe or not, to follow Jesus or not. In the First Reading, Joshua asks the Israelites: “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve, the gods your fathers served beyond the River or the gods of the Amorites in whose country you are now dwelling. As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord” (Jos 24,15).

Now this choosing, far from being a mere declaration of belief, involves practical difficulties for the believer. Jesus’ revelation of being the bread of life is described in the Gospel text today as hard and difficult to accept (Jn 6,60).

The difficulty for Christians today may no longer come from the ignorance of Jesus’ divinity. It may come from the fear that when we open the door to enter into the life of Christ, there are doors that we may no longer enter; that when we choose to take the way of Christ, there are other paths that we may not be able to pass. For a soul that has made the multiplicity of choices as the definitive measure of freedom, the loss of other options as a result of choosing only one is difficult and frightening indeed. One of the Kapamilya TV station shows' blurb expresses this dilemma: "Sa mundong para lamang sa isa, 'di pwede tayong dalawa..." =)

The difficulty may also arise from the practical consequences of choosing God. For when we choose God, we don’t just choose to believe in God, we embrace His way of life. We don’t just proclaim Jesus as our Lord and Savior, we also choose to live the values of the Kingdom that Jesus preached about. And there are practical difficulties in reconciling our choice of living the values of the Kingdom with the options presented by a world that has become estranged from God’s Kingdom.

The Second Reading describes how the values of the Kingdom figure in married life. Ephesians 5,32 asks wives to be subordinate to their husbands. A hard saying indeed especially for those of us who have already grown accustomed to feminist and liberal ideas. Before dismissing the text as mere power check to keep women in a lower social status, it would be wise to read the next verses which then talks about the duties of husbands. Husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loves His body, the Church. We all know how Christ loves His Church: with all the love He has, even laying His life for His Church.

I have made an “informal hobby” of collecting answers to the question: “What is the secret to a happy married life?” One of the best answers I have gotten was from a middle-aged couple: “The secret to a happy marriage is that it should be treated as a competition. Dapat magpatibayan an mag-agom kun siisay an mas namomoot, mas maboot, mas nakakasabot…” (Couples should outdo each other as to who loves more, gives kind words more, understands more… Unfortunately, Bikol wit is lost in translation).

In a world that has seen the break-up of so many marriages, the Letter to the Ephesians timelessly reminds couples to pattern their love after the love of God, if they wish to succeed.

The Church’s stand to vigorously promote the culture of life is another value of the Kingdom that many people find difficult.

Recently, a proposal to build a casino in Legazpi City was submitted to the Sangguniang Panlungsod, which the good councilors promptly approved after a perfunctory public hearing. When the Church and many sectors raised their voices in protest, fortunately the host hotel proceeded to convince PAGCOR to withdraw its plans. The Church’s stand though earned not a few criticisms. The reactions exemplify the clash between the values of the Kingdom and that of the prevailing culture.

When asked in a radio interview why the Church seemed to be blocking progress with our latest protest, before I gave my serious answer, I quipped: Imagina daw nyako nindo kun madangog ta si Bp. Quiambao na nag-eengaƱar sa mga tawo: “sige mag-carasino kita, surugal sana kita..." =)

One of those values of the Kingdom involved here is stewardship. It means recognizing that all our talents, wealth and possessions are gifts from God. We are stewards of God’s gifts. A poor person who gambles away hard-earned money is a bad steward. He also causes much suffering to his family. A rich man is not exempt from the same principle even when his person or family many not suffer financially when he gambles in a casino. There are far more productive and responsible uses for his money. His money is not entirely his own; he too is a steward of God’s gifts.

Thus, it is wrong for local leaders to promote an industry that exploits people’s weakness for gambling and destroys persons and families in the process, just to earn revenue for the city or stimulate its economy. Neither can they validly claim a dichotomy between their job of taking care of the city's economy and the churches’ work of safeguarding the community's moral fiber. As elected officials, their leadership is also a stewardship from God.

Here is a story I got from Fr. Eugene Lobo, SJ’s blog (http://msjnov.wordpress.com/page/2/):

"A church-goer wrote a letter to the editor of a newspaper and complained that it made no sense to go to church every Sunday. 'I’ve gone for 30 years now,' he wrote, 'and in that time I have heard something like 3,000 sermons. But for the life of me, I can’t remember a single one of them. So, I think I’m wasting my time and the pastors are wasting theirs by giving sermons at all.'

This started a real controversy in the Letters to the Editor column, much to the delight of the editor. It went on for weeks until someone wrote this clincher: 'I’ve been married for 30 years now. In that time my wife has cooked some 32,000 meals. But, for the life of me, I cannot recall the entire menu for a single one of those meals. But I do know this: they all nourished me and gave me the strength I needed to do my work. If my wife had not given me these meals, I would be physically dead today. Likewise, if I had not gone to church for nourishment, I would be spiritually dead today!' "

When Peter said: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life”, he made a choice to be nourished by the bread of life.

If it isn’t Jesus we are choosing, we are choosing someone else. If it isn’t God we are serving, we are serving someone else. Joshua’s words still ring true to this day: “Decide today whom you will serve”: the false gods of this world or the God who wish to nourish you with His life.

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