Jun. 28, 2020

THIRTEENTH SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME

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.