Friday, September 19, 2008

LOVING THOSE WHOM WE OFTEN PASS BY (Homily for Friday, Sept. 19, 2008, 24th Week in Ordinary Time)

“Jesus journeyed from one town and village to another, preaching and proclaiming the good news of the Kingdom of God. Accompanying him were the Twelve and some women who had been cured of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary, called Magdalene, from whom seven demons had gone out, Joanna, the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza, Susanna, and many others who provided for them out of their resources”. (Luke 8:1-3)

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Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shelo asani ishah.

These are lines from the ancient Aleinu, a prayer Jewish males during the time of Jesus would pray every morning. Translated, the line means:

"Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman."

Imagine that! There’s nothing surprising about the prayer though (and I must add that Judaism has in fact reformulated the prayer so that the negative reference to women is no longer included in the Aleinu’s contemporary form.)

Still, there’s no denying that women during Jesus’ time were regarded as ‘inferior’ to men—on so many levels. And this wasn’t just the case with the Jews. Their neighbors, the Greeks and Romans were no different. Plato and Aristotle, for instance, regarded women as “inferior by nature”, and insisted that women came about as a “degeneration of human beings”. Aristotle went as far as to call them “infertile males”.

Jewish rabbis would not normally have women tagging along with them, especially not as followers or disciples. In fact associating with women openly in public was something that was simply frowned upon. Remember that encounter Jesus had with the Samaritan women at Jacob’s well? When Jesus asked her for a drink, her reply was: “How could you, a man and a Jew, be asking me, a Samaritan and a woman, for a drink? She didn’t simply say “Samaritan”; she had to add “woman” to that.

Or recall the gospel reading from yesterday (Luke 7:36-50), when Simon the Pharisee was simply scandalized that this prophet and holy man who had come to his house was allowing this sinful woman to bathe his feet in perfume and tears and wipe them with her hair. “If this man were a prophet,he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him”, declares the horrified Pharisee.

And yet that is precisely what Jesus did. He didn’t only associate with these second-rate members of his society, he even welcomed them in his group—as today’s gospel reading tells us.

When I first entered seminary many years ago, I was asked to be part of a group of students who served at the cardinal archbishop of Manila’s masses. It was fun as we got to meet a lot of people—usually archbishops, cardinals, and bishops, and we got to go wherever the cardinal went. We also got to skip classes whenever there was a service and we were needed. (That was probably one of the things I enjoyed he most!)

One time, I was loading the seminary van with the things we needed for a mass. One of the boxes was a little too heavy and I was having problems lifting it up. A student, George, who saw me came running and offered to help. “Where’s the mass this time?” he asked. “At the cathedral…the cardinal of Cologne is visiting and we have to serve at his mass”, I replied. “Must be great to serve at the cardinal’s masses”, George said. “Sure. Haven’t you served at any of them?” George suddenly became quiet, and then replied: “I doubt I’ll get to serve at any of them. I’m not presentable enough”. I didn’t really understand what he meant by that. I do remember George being a very short and rather overweight kid who had sort of a hunched posture. I figured that’s what he meant.

I totally forgot about that conversation. A few years later, after I got my doctorate and was ordained, I began teaching in seminary. Now I’ve always liked having smart and intelligent students in class. Back then, however, I only had time for them. If there were four or five very bright students in class, I would often allow them to ‘monopolize’ pretty much the whole conversation in the classroom. Sometimes without my realizing it, I was actually talking only to them. I was paying so much attention to the bright ones, I didn’t realize I was neglecting the other students.

One day, Albert, one of the older priests in the seminary who’s like this grandfather-figure to everybody called me aside and said to me: “I need to tell you something. You know, one of your students came to me. He was rather sad and disappointed because he thought you were only interested in the bright students in your class. He said he really liked your class but didn’t feel you were giving him and the others enough attention.”

Suddenly, I remember that conversation I had with George many years ago. How could I be so blind? I had gotten so interested in my smart students and had totally neglected the others who weren’t as bright and articulate.

You see, it’s far easier to like smart people, pleasant people, presentable people, and nice people. It’s far more difficult to like all the others who aren’t. Just as in Jesus’ time, women, children, tax collectors, prostitutes, sinners, lepers, the poor, and the outcasts were neglected and often forgotten, so it is in our time.

The actions of Jesus in today’s gospel challenge us all. When we become priests, are we going to treat with greater concern and deference those who are smart, wealthy, presentable, pleasant? Or are we going to have what the late Pope John Paul called a “preferential love" for the poor, the needy, the outcasts, the difficult, the not-so-smart, the not-so-presentable, and all those who are often passed by because they are not easy to like and to love?

Jesus cast his lot with those at the margins. Today he challenges us to do the same.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)