THE INVITATION IS REAL, COME TO JESUS
Readings: 1st- Zech. 9:9-10; 2nd- Rom. 8:9, 11-13; Gospel- Matt. 11:25-30
The third stanza of Nicole Mullen’s song “Come unto me” goes like this: “Are the clouds above your head oh so heavy? Bursting with showers of despair. And do you struggle under more than you can carry? Has life given more than you can bear? And would you like to trade your failures in for victories? Like piles of ashes in from piles of gold. And can you fall down like a child who is helpless? So, he can pick you up and make you whole.”
As a young boy, I remember the day we went to the stream to fetch water. Fetching water in Africa is an important chore. It was early in the morning on a summer day. With mom and my older sisters, we walked on foot for about five miles each carrying different sizes of water cans on our head (Africans often carry objects on their heads). I had a water can that was considerably heavier than I could carry because I always flexed my muscles with my sisters. Halfway back from the stream, the water can got heavier and I was struggling to walk. I didn’t want to say it aloud, so I dragged my feet in desperation. My siblings walked ahead of me not aware of my struggle. I finally stopped moving with two options; either I had to throw the can off my head or collapse under the weight of it. So, I burst into tears instead. At that point, mom looked back and saw what was going on. She made everyone stop, hurriedly put down her own bucket of water, rushed at me, and lifted the water can off my head. Immediately, I felt a great relief both physically and emotionally. Mom took care of my load and hers and let me walk freely home.
When Nicole Mullen sings, “And do you struggle under more than you can carry? Has life given more than you can bear?” she brings our minds to focus on the presence of Jesus who alone can lift the burdens off our shoulders. The gospel of today says clearly about this invitation from Christ, “Come to me, all who are burdened, and I will give you rest.” Here, Christ calls our awareness of the presence of God in our lives. He begins that passage by first alerting us that God has omnipotent authority. God is the “Father, Lord of heaven and earth,” which means that he is in total control. The key to understanding the mystery of our human existence is to identify God’s power in our lives. Humility is that gift of grace to know that God is present and that only in Him do we find solutions.
Putting the statement of Jesus in its proper scriptural context, Jesus approaches Capernaum where he confronts the Scribes and the Pharisees for their arrogance and prideful attitude. To this group Jesus would later warn his disciples, “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers” (Matt. 23:4). These Scribes and Pharisees, for instance, had multiplied the rules into about 613 making it difficult for the people to observe. Jesus challenges them against putting up shows in the synagogues, at feasts, and in marketplaces and to avoid creating heavy burdens for people.
On the contrary, Jesus simplifies God’s commandments into two- love the Lord your God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself. He makes following God simple. The key is to follow Jesus the gentle, meek, and humble master. Jesus does not spread his kingdom by conquering others. He does not rule by oppression, rather quietly walks beside those who come to the Father through him. Jesus conquered through being obedient on the cross.
The humble and meek of heart listen to Jesus. They understand his invitation and honor it. For instance, his apostles qualify as being meek and humble; less educated as they were, they clearly understood his invitation and followed him. Jesus’ disciples took on the yoke of Christ which enabled them to spread the gospel of love and truth. They found rest for their souls.
Obviously, most of us carry burdens that weigh heavily on us. Sometimes, we do not recognize that these burdens are heavier than we can bear. Like in my case at the time I carried the can of water on my head, those burdens make us restless. What happens at those moments? Some of us slow down our spiritual pace. Some of us drag our feet. Some of us groan inwardly. Some of us experience physical and emotional pains. Some simply withdraw as I was doing. Imagine if I didn’t cry out when it got so heavy on me. The can of water was collapsing on me. I was crashing. Imagine if my mom hadn’t come to my rescue. I was giving up because the weight was more than I could bear. What burden do you carry? Is addiction weighing you down? Is sin making you drag your feet? Are you saddened by the trauma of a failed relationship? Are you feeling disappointment from failed goals? Is it pressure from sickness?
Jesus is addressing you today, he says, “ALL you who labor and are burdened.” ALL is an inclusive word, meaning everyone. Everyone is invited, but only the humble and little ones understand the invitation. Jesus says, “Come to me…” Come to Jesus and receive your freedom. Come to Jesus and be relieved. Come to Jesus and get your burdens uplifted. It was such a relief when my mom lifted the can of water from my head. My neck straightened up. My shoulders and lungs expanded. I breathed the fresh air. But that was momentary. If the intervention of my mom brought such temporary physical and emotional relief, how much more the eternal freedom in Christ Jesus.
“Come to me…” means Jesus knows you more than my mom knew me. Like Nicole Mullen sang, “would you like to trade your failures in for victories? Like piles of ashes in from piles of gold?” The yoke of Jesus is easy; his burden is light. That yoke is the CROSS which I like to explain in the following acronym:
C -Come (trust)
R -Real (vulnerable)
O -Open (sincere)
S -Simple (humble)
S -Safe (secure)
Let’s go to Jesus in our vulnerability, open to his healing, simple in our faults, and safe in his embrace. He heals you in the sacraments. “And can you fall down like a child who is helpless? So, he can pick you up and make you whole.”
THE PROPHET’S REWARD
Readings: 1st- 2 Kgs. 4:8-11, 14-16; 2nd- Rom. 6:3-4, 8-11; Matt. 10:37-42
There is an African word called “ubuntu” which generally means, “I am, because of you.” African people understand the importance of relationships with community, family, and friends in shaping who we are. Every action we take affects and influences the lives of others, and in return, our lives are also affected. “I am because you are,” is similar to what Martin Buber described as “I and Thou” relationship. We all need each other.
In today’s gospel, we find two interdependent parts that both speak about discipleship and commitment to Christ’s ministry. Jesus says to his apostles, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Jesus identifies two “loves” here: love for family and love for God. He does not ask us not to love our dear ones -parents, siblings, and close relatives. He does not ask us to despise our family. He asks us to not love them more than we love God because sometimes the demands of family life can pull us away from God. This can make loving God challenging in a different way, a form of a cross, and sacrificial.
To love God involves self-denial. It involves giving up things we treasure in natural lives -sports, vacation, investment, ambitions. Loving God means prioritizing our spiritual desires. Jesus says, “Whoever does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Preachers, evangelists, pastors, and church ministers work specifically for the gospel. Often, their missions warrant leaving families and homes to distant places to spread the good news. They become missionaries for the gospel. We see this in the encounter between Elisha and the woman of Shunem in the first reading of today. Elisha is a man of God, a prophet. He travels to Shunem to preach and would pass this woman’s house from time to time. He stops by their house to eat. It is important to remember that when God invited Elisha through the prophet Elijah, here’s Elisha’s response, “Let me kiss my father and mother goodbye, and then I will come with you.” Then “He took his yoke of oxen and slaughtered them. He burned the plowing equipment to cook the meat and gave it to the people, and they ate. Then he set out to follow Elijah and became his servant” (1 Kgs. 19:19-21). We see in Elisha an example of Jesus’ statement to love God more than family, hence, the woman of Shunem declares to her husband, “I know that Elisha is a holy man of God.”
In the second part of the gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever welcomes a prophet as a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and whoever welcomes a righteous person as a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward” (Matt. 10:40-41). The woman of Shunem does just that; she welcomes Elisha for the fact that he is a prophet, “a holy man of God,” without expecting any payback. This woman underscores the need to provide for God’s messenger, the man of God with limited material possession. For the Shunamite woman, providing a shelter would alleviate the sufferings associated with being a prophet.
This reading touches me in a unique way because as a seminarian and a priest, I have encountered several persons like the woman of Shunem. In my seminary days, the bishop sent us out for what was popularly known as the 6 Weeks apostolic work, usually at the end of every academic session (what seemed like the summer vacation here). Prior to this apostolic experience, the seminary formators would read the passage of Matthew where Jesus sent his disciples out to preach with emphasis on the following verses, “Do not get any gold or silver or copper to take with you in your belts— no bag for the journey or extra shirt or sandals or a staff, for the worker is worth his keep” (10:9-10). During the 6 weeks of apostolic work, the parish priest had us live in the community/village among the people. A member of the community volunteered a room or an apartment where the seminarian lived for the duration of the mission. These people made a lot of sacrifices for the gospel. They cooked for and fed the seminarian. They helped the seminarian to know the community better. They accompanied the seminarian on various home visits to Catholics struggling with their marriages or having some challenges with their faith. They accommodated the seminarian because he is “a man of God.” These people gave up family comforts to support our missions. In the end, we usually prayed for the family which is our only gift in appreciation. We still have memories of such people.
As priests, we meet several people too. We work with laypersons who completely dedicate themselves to our ministry. Such people receive us first and foremost because of Christ. They identify with the needs of the priest. Unfortunately, today’s world looks at ministers differently because of the history of sex abuse and scandals in the church. For that, we will ever remain sorry. But the truth is that pastors and priests experience challenges and value the hospitality of laypersons, individuals who act like the woman of Shunem in our time. What makes our work different? The answer is that we have left father, mother, brothers, sisters, and relatives to follow Christ, to preach the gospel. We have given up children for the sake of God’s kingdom. We belong to our flocks. We are on a mission like Elisha. Our only qualification should be “a holy man of God.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes Ubuntu as “the essence of being human. It speaks of the fact that my humanity is caught up and is inextricably bound up in yours. I am human because I belong. It speaks about wholeness; it speaks about compassion. A person with Ubuntu is welcoming, hospitable, warm and generous, willing to share. Such people are open and available to others, willing to be vulnerable, affirming of others, do not feel threatened that others are able and good, for they have a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that they belong in a greater whole…”
Today, we are grateful to all those who provide support in our ministries. We are grateful to all those who offered us hospitality as seminarians, those who contributed to making us aspire to get to the finish lines in our vocation races. It is not always easy but those supports provided motivation to forge ahead. Like Elisha, we ask God to give you your heart’s desires, to surprise you for giving “a cup of water” to us as God’s disciples.
Christ invites us to invest in his mission and in the mission of the church. Never place vacation, sports, family values, etc., above God or your faith. We must love God with all our heart, that’s the first commandment. Loving and seeking God is not an option against any other choice, not even our families. It is a Christian responsibility, the only way to appreciate God’s goodness, love, and mercy. Loving our family is important but the message is clear, God takes care of those we love if we truly love him. May we all be a people who live the meaning of ubuntu.
Being God-fearing and not world-fearing
Readings: 1st- Jer. 20:10-13; 2nd-Rom. 5:12-15; Gospel- Matt. 10:26-33
In difficult times, God can be perceived as a “cold, distant, project manager.” He can be seen as having abandoned us on site. Yes, and so we’re left in the sun to suffer, lament, and feel lonely. That’s what it looks like in today’s readings. First, Jeremiah faces critical times as a prophet. He laments ”terror on every side,” vehement opposition from the priest Pashhur and his team. They wish that he be dead because he speaks the bitter truth. They hatch plans to eliminate the prophet because he condemns their evil ways. Jeremiah is not deterred. He identifies the source of his strength. Although frustrated by their perverse attitude, knows God’s strength, “But the Lord is with me, like a mighty champion: my persecutors will stumble, they will not triumph.” With God, Jeremiah is not confined in the present but looks hopefully to the future. It’s important to see what lies ahead, “Sing to the Lord, praise the Lord, for he has rescued the life of the poor from the power of the wicked” (Jer. 20:13).
Christ reminds us of the challenges of discipleship when he sends out his apostles, “Fear no one.” He impresses upon them the enormity of the missionary challenge and that a great risk faces those called to evangelize. Like in Jeremiah’s time, earthly powers and forces of darkness will stand on the way of witnessing. God’s children must be ready for battle; attacks and possibly physical deaths will be part of the story. Christ says, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.”
Whom to fear! The one who can condemn the soul to hell. On this day that we celebrate Father’s Day, it might be proper to identify the various categories of fear that confront our lives: physical fear: the body is afraid of hurt. The body feels threatened by objects that are visible to the senses. It feels exposed to dangers. The body craves for safety from physical threats. Emotional fear: generated in the mind. The brain communicates the presence of harmful objects to the mind. The mind feels unsafe, traumatized, and insecure. It forces the body to go into a fight/flight/freeze mode. These fears can be caused by human or environmental factors which could result from past and present discomforting conditions. Fears can be as a result of things that might be either present or missing in a person’s life. Physical and emotional fears are real, but Jesus impresses upon his apostles a higher level of fear: fear of spiritual death, “be afraid of the one who can destroy both soul and body in Gehenna.”
Saint Paul helps us to understand this message better in the second reading when he personifies sin and death as he reminds his audience, “Through one man sin entered the world, and through sin, death, and thus death came to all men, inasmuch as all sinned.” Sin has the capacity to lure people away from God and the capacity to kill the soul. Sin deprives humans of the divine life that God bestowed on us. It renders the sinner hopeless and leads to final death. Christ warns against such death and challenges us on what to be afraid of.
Theology teaches us about two notions of fear concerning God- servile fear and filial fear. In relation to the human experience, physical and emotional threats lead to servile fear. We fear those who hurt us because they cause pain to us. We fear those who oppose us because they can harm our bodies. We fear those who can punish us and try to run away from them. Sin can make us fear God that way if we fail to understand how much He loves and values us. Our fear for God should be reverential. We fear him as our Father who cares for us. We should be afraid of sin because it offends God. It takes us away from God’s love. Christ makes this clear to us, “Even all the hairs on your head are counted.” God knows that you’re more than many sparrows and has got your back, hence Christ tells us, “So do not be afraid.”
Today’s world needs fathers and men who are God-fearing and not world fearing. Society is hungry for men who stand with God, for his truth and justice. Families need men who communicate God’s love to their members. We need men who bear witness to God’s greatness, men who boldly defend their faith. We need men who understand that God is first and needs our utmost attention. We need men who are not afraid to bring back society into God’s harmony. We need men who cherish their being men, being fathers, being husbands, and leaders in a healthy way. We need men who teach their children that fear does not provide answers to their questions, concerns, and anxieties. We need men who, like Jeremiah live out their prophetic roles. We need men who understand that present circumstances can fade away while God’s love doesn’t; men who live for the future. God is always in control, even in difficult circumstances, financial problems, family problems, societal upheaval. We need men who are meek, not weak. Meekness leads with quiet strength. Jesus leads the way in quiet strength. We need men who imitate Jesus and families will follow them. We need men who live beyond mere physical and emotional satisfaction. We need men who are genuinely compassionate and persevering in their roles. We need men who understand that God has got their backs and that every hair on their head has been counted.
To you men out there, Christ says, “Do not be afraid!” Do not be afraid to stand for the truth even if it hurts. Do not be emotionally or physically shaken when you defend your faith. Do not be afraid to lead your families- your children back to the truth. Do not be afraid that the world threatens you for standing on the side of justice. Do not be afraid of what might be considered as losses by the world when you are expressing your faith. To have Jesus is to have everything. He will surely acknowledge you before God on the last day for being steadfast in your role as his witness in the world. Being world-fearing pays in the short-run, being God-fearing has eternal rewards.
“LOVE YOUR ENEMIES AND PRAY FOR THOSE WHO PERSECUTE YOU”
Readings: 1st- Lev. 19:1-2, 17-18; 1 Cor. 3:16-23; Gospel- Matt. 5:38-48
The Old Testament standard is this, “You shall not bear hatred for your brother or sister in your heart.” Wouldn’t it be great if we all adhere to such a basic biblical injunction and live happily with the people around us? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we can live without malice or grudges for anyone? Moses reminds the Israelites of their religious commitment in that sense. First, they are to love God, a great step towards holiness. Then they are to love their neighbor as they love themselves. One who loves God must not take revenge and must not bear malice against their neighbor.
What does it mean to be holy? Christ says, “Be you perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). It means striving to live according to the mind of the Father. In the second reading, Saint Paul reminds the Corinthian Church of God’s calling, to embrace divine wisdom and heed the invitation to holiness. Holiness, in Saint Paul’s writing, implies that Christians recognize that they are consecrated, temples where God’s Spirit dwells. The temple is sacred, a place where holy sacrifice is offered. It is the abode of the Holy Spirit. If our bodies are God’s temple, it means that anger, revenge, grudge, malice, can only spoil it and make God’s temple filthy. To be holy, we must not entertain evil thoughts against our neighbors.
For Christ, loving one's neighbor, brother or sister is not enough; Christians ought to do more. Continuing in the beatitudes, Jesus, again raises the Old Testament standard, “You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, offer no resistance to one who is evil.” Jesus is not satisfied with the status quo of merely seeing love as a favor returned. To say that we should love our neighbors and to hate the enemy is not a Christian principle, rather an old religious engagement. Pagans and non-Christians also do the same; they have a sense of justice that arises not from Christian principles but as repayment or reward for allegiance. In that sense, tax collectors and pagans can also show love, they favor their cronies. The difference is that Christian love is limitless. It is the basis for holiness.
Christ demands two things from us. First, we should be like our heavenly Father. Believers should be models of holiness. They should always aim high. They are expected to reflect the image of the Trinity which is love itself. Being like God distinguishes believers from non-believers, the Christian way from the secular way. Our standard is determined by Christian principles.
Second, Jesus wants us to play fools for the sake of our faith. Christianity is not a give and take. It is not based on what one receives in expectation or a return merited. That’s what the Old Testament law prescribed. Within the Jewish setting, the tax collectors and their religious leaders set the standards. There were preferences and favors. It was about giving back to those who gave you, loving those who loved you, rewarding those who were loyal to you. For them, that is love.
For us Christians, love becomes pure sacrifice. That is the only way to be children of God, to be like our Father. Jesus sets the higher standard for us, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. Offer no resistance to one who is evil. When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other as well. If anyone wants to go to law with you over your tunic, hand over your cloak as well. Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go for two miles. Give to the one who asks of you and do not turn your back on one who wants to borrow” (Matt. 5:40). Christ himself exemplified this on the Cross. He let the Jewish soldiers divide his clothing among them. He pardoned those who spat on his face. He offered the Father’s love to his executioners. He opened the gates of paradise to the repentant thief. The Saints lived holy lives by emulating Christ and forgiving their detractors. One saint that always stands out to me is Saint Maria Goretti, the very young saint who pardoned her murderer with these words, “I forgive Alessandro Serenelli… and I want him with me in heaven forever.”Alessandro made it through Maria Goretti's forgiveness. Very powerful!
It always amazes me when someone comes to me and says that she is happy that she’s doing well in her spiritual life while not willing to forgive someone. Usually, you hear such statements, “It’s just that it is so difficult to forgive this or that person in my life. Apart from that, I am good.” That sounds ironic as if there is some hindrance to holiness. Christianity can only thrive amidst sacrifice. Jesus wants us to aim higher but at the same time to play the fool. How then can you love your enemies or pray for those who persecute you when you are unable to love the members of your household? You must play the fool to aim at the highest Christian standard of praying for those who persecute you.
“TO NONE DOES HE GIVE LICENSE TO SIN”
Readings: 1st- Sir. 15:15-20; 2nd- 1 Cor. 2:6-10; Gospel- Matt. 5:17-37
We have been presented with a challenge in the readings of today, to live according to the higher standards required of Christians.
The first reading opens with the importance of free-will which is God’s special gift to humanity. Man’s exercise of free will is not because of God’s inability to take charge of his creation. It is not because God is weak and cannot control the vast created universe. Rather, by free will, God bestowed upon man the capacity to choose. Hence, life and death, good and evil, light and darkness, are fundamental choices available to humanity by God’s generosity.
The wise Ben Sirach recognizes the infinite power of God this way, “Immense is the wisdom of the Lord; he is mighty in power, and all-seeing.” Even though man chooses the wrong path most of the time, Sirach vindicates God’s position in our wrong choices. He affirms, “No one does he command to act unjustly, to none does he give license to sin” (15:20). Human beings use their freedom wrongly because their actions are based on earthly wisdom contaminated by evil. Human wisdom is corruptible. Divine wisdom is mysterious, hidden, predetermined before the ages for our glory, and which none of the rulers of this age knew” (1 Cor. 2:7-8). The wisdom of God is only revealed through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus reminds his listeners in the gospel about his mission, he has come not to abolish the law or the prophets but to fulfill them. Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s commandments. He invites his listeners to rely on God’s commandments in making choices in order to so set good examples for others. Jesus helps the Jews with the correct interpretation of the Law, namely, they must go beyond external manifestations and consider the significance of their interior dispositions.
Jesus sets out some contrasts to the Jewish laws as follows:
Old Law no. 1: Against killing: “You shall not kill, and whoever kills will be liable to judgment.”
Jesus’ antithesis: “But I say to you, whoever is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment.” Anger alone can make someone guilty. The heart stores up transgressions through anger. Therefore, the disciples of Jesus should be able to forgive their enemies on time. They have a greater responsibility to avoid whatever is associated with killing. If we let anger build up, then it devolves into conflicts that might lead to killing. We must make peace out of court.
Old Law no. 2: Against adultery: “You shall not commit adultery.”
Jesus’ antithesis: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Jesus warns his followers to have custody of their thoughts. The concupiscence of the flesh begins in the mind. Hence, to guard the senses against lustful thoughts and desires is the first step to avoiding lustful actions. No wonder Christ said, “But what comes out of the man, that is what defiles him” (Mk. 7:22). We must keep our hearts pure from evil thoughts and intentions.
Old Law no. 3: Against divorce: “Whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce.”
Jesus’ Antithesis: “Whoever divorces his wife -unless the marriage is unlawful- causes her to commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.” For the followers of Jesus, the question of divorce in marriage must not be part of the agenda. Jesus reinforces the fact that marriage that is validly contracted stands indissoluble. The man does not have any prerogative as in the Old Testament to send his wife away for the slightest provocation. Both the man and the woman have equal responsibility in marriage.
Old Law no. 4: Against Oath-taking: “Do not take a false oath but make good to the Lord all that you vow.”
Jesus’ Antithesis: “Do not swear at all… Let your ‘Yes’ mean ‘Yes,” and your ‘No’ mean ‘No.’
Jesus condemns oath-taking since it only stretches the truth too far. Why swear when you can say a simple truth? Christ redirects Christians to the ultimate reality of truth. Truth must precede the actions of every believer. We must identify with Jesus -the way, truth, and life.
The message in today’s gospel calls our attention to how much internal dispositions are crucial in our lives. They help us to discover the causes of our actions rather than base judgment on the effects. The wise Ben Sirach states, “to none does he give license to sin.” God does not regard anyone’s sins differently. Whether man or woman, young or old, black or white, rich or poor. God frowns at actions that contradict the Commandments.
If we take this a little beyond the Christian scope, we might wonder why some people think that they have the license to kill; they do it without qualms of conscience. Think about the evils of Christian persecution in the world, how numerous Christians in various parts such as the Middle East, Africa, and Asia, are killed. Think about terrorists and Islamist extremists who kill with impunity. They grossly misuse their gift of free will. They abuse their freedom. They put God to test and try the patience of Christians. They inflict untold pain, suffering, and hardship on others. They have no license to sin.
If you sin, go back to God and ask for forgiveness. Never remain obstinate in sin. Never become comfortable in iniquity. Fight the urge to sin from the inside. Evil desires breed crime. That is the metaphorical “right eye” that Jesus describes in the gospel which leads to sin. That is the metaphorical “right hand.” Christ says if it causes you to sin, uproot it and have it destroyed, “It is better for you to lose one of your members than to have your whole body go into Gehenna.” The Christian standard will always higher.