Sunday, October 16, 2011

All things belong to God; and our lives are in His hands (Reflections on the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Matt 22:15-21)

The Pharisees in today’s gospel are at it again, trying to find ways to trap Jesus and discredit him.

"Teacher, we know that you are a truthful man and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. And you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status. Tell us, then, what is your opinion: Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?"

On the surface, the question seemed like a clever, totally airtight trap. If Jesus said they shouldn’t pay taxes to Rome, the Romans would arrested him. If he said it was alright to pay taxes to Rome, the Jews would hate him because they didn’t like paying taxes to the Romans.

And they hated doing so not only because it was a burden, but because they believed that they should pay homage to God alone. And taxes were a form of homage to the emperor.

Now think about it, if what Jesus said simply meant that the coin with Caesar’s image should be given back to Caesar—that would be the same as saying it’s ok to pay taxes. If that’s what he was saying, how come the Jews didn’t rise up against him?

The fact is Jesus was much more sly and clever in his reply. And this is what we sometimes don’t realize. The gospel isn’t about the relation of religion and politics or church and state. That’s not what Jesus was referring to when he said: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s”.

What exactly was he saying? Was he saying: “Go ahead and pay taxes. The coin’s got Caesar’s head anyway”. Not at all! (This is what’s often missed in many interpretations and discussions of this particular Gospel passage, which often leads to all sorts of ideas that stray too far from the spirit behind the text—a spirit that has very little to do with the relationship of religion and politics or church and state, but has everything to do with the kind of faith Jesus preached.)

All the Jews knew and believed that everything on earth belongs to God, everything—including the metal used to make coins. Now if you took away the metal of that coin, what else would be left—nothing but the image of Caesar. And what did the image of Caesar mean? Nothing. It was a graven image that meant absolutely nothing.

That’s what the Second Commandment’s all about: “Thou shalt not make any graven image”. Any graven image, even of the emperor, means absolutely nothing.

If the metal of the coin was created by God and therefore belonged to him, and if the emperor’s graven image on the coin meant nothing, then what was Jesus really saying?

“Render unto God what is God’s”. But what is God’s? What belongs to Him? And what is it that we must thus render unto Him?

Allow me to share with you a rather jarring experience I had yesterday - and I do so with the knowledge that had things been slightly different, I wouldn't even be here today. I'd probably be in the hospital, or worse, the morgue.

My workout at the gym yesterday morning began the way it always does: stretching, 20 minutes of cardio, a little bit of warm up so I don’t start out cold (muscles don't tend to respond well with cold starts), then it’s heavy lifting until I’m either sore or just bored and can’t take any more of it.

I didn’t notice a kid (yes, he was literally a kid, probably 16 or 17 years old) start doing presses on the bench at my left; I was too intent on getting done with my own routine. After my light sets though, I did notice him move from the bench on the left to the incline one on the right. He had two 45-pound plates on each side of the bar which itself weighed a good 40 pounds. He didn’t use any clips.

When I finally got done with my heavy sets, I sat up, picked up my bottle of water and began taking a sip. As soon as I did, I heard this really loud clanging sound right behind me, probably a foot and a half behind my back.

It was the two 45-pound plates and the 40-pound bar hitting my bench on the spot where my face, neck and chest had been, barely two seconds ago. The kid had taken off the plates on the right side of the bar, leaving the plates on left to fall off together with the bar itself, crashing on the spot where I had been lying and where my towel was still laid out.

He was shaken; so was I. A whole bunch of people rushed to the spot to see if someone had gotten hurt. Mercifully, we were both ok. The reactions of the folks who came over was quite predictable. One guy said, “I guess it isn’t your time yet, bro”.

Others kept telling me how “lucky” I was that I had gotten up from the bench, adding that had I not done so, they’d be rushing someone to the hospital who would probably not make it given the amount of weight that came crashing down.

One of the guys who knew I was a priest though, came up and said to me: “Hey Father, I guess God’s got your life in his hands”.

It was perhaps the single most important thing I took away with me from the experience. God has my life in his hands. In fact, He’s got all our lives in his hands – because, ultimately, he has all things in his hands. And that was precisely the point Jesus was making in the Gospel. All things are in God’s hands, because everything – including the metal used to produce those coins with Caesar’s head – belongs to Him. Everything!

Ultimately, even what may seem to belong to Caesar – what is “of this world” – is God’s. The Jews would’ve surely understood what he meant. Meanwhile, the Romans would’ve thought he was advising people to pay taxes. It was a very clever answer. And that’s why his enemies went away defeated, their trap failed.

Today’s gospel is about the lordship of God over all things, even over the most ordinary things of our day to day life. God is the God of all things. All of life belongs to him, even of those things we think have nothing to do with him.

The whole of our life belongs to him, every single day, every single hour, every single minute: from the moment we open our eyes in the morning, to the moment we close them at night. To Him belongs every breathe we take, every step we make, every action, every thought, every word we utter. And because of that, we must return to him, render to him, every bit of our self as a worthy offering.

“Render to God what is God’s” is Jesus’ way of saying, put God into all things, put God at the head of our life, at the head of our family, our relationships, our work, our business, our problems. Make God the priority of our life, because our entire life belongs and depends on him.

And yet it is a truth we often forget. Our abilities, our talents, our capacities, our wealth, our intelligence, our possessions, degrees, titles – they make us lose sight of the fact that we are God’s and must therefore return to Him everything that we are.

Render to God what is God’s, hold nothing back, because we are His, totally His. And as my friend at the gym yesterday said: “He’s got our life in his hands”.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

What return can I make? (Reflections on the 27th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Is. 5:1-7, Matt. 21: 33-43)

"When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

But the more I called Israel,

the further they went from me".

It must be tough for parents when their children don’t grow up the way they had wanted or envisioned them to.

When I was back in the Philippines a few summers ago, I met one of my former teachers who wanted to see me about her son. He and I knew each other since we were children. We went to the same school, went to the same church with our families. When I entered seminary, we lost contact with each other as his family left for the United States but returned to the country a couple of years later.

I met my old school teacher for lunch. We chatted about old times, had a couple of laughs (she was quite tough on me in class), but I could tell she was quite anxious and distraught about the reason she had for wanting to see me. I guess my old friend had left the church a few years back, and had in fact abandoned the faith altogether. He had left his wife with whom he was married for close to ten years, and is now living with a new girlfriend. She wanted me to get in touch with him and maybe talk to him if I could.

I promised to keep in touch and a few weeks after our meeting, my teacher sent me an email, a part of which read:

“We did everything we could for our children. We wanted them to have the things we didn’t have. My husband had to do a lot of overtime and things weren’t always easy. But we gladly sacrificed a lot of things for our kids. We sent them to good schools. They never lacked money for books and were always well dressed. We taught them good values and shared with them the principles by which we’ve lived and shaped our lives. We taught them to be good Catholics, and God knows we did our best to show them a good example. They say that good example rubs off on your kids. I guess it doesn’t always work”.

There must be a great deal of heartache for religious parents who see their children abandoning the faith or adopting a lifestyle that isn’t good. While they’re sad for themselves, I’m sure they must be even sadder for their children.

I guess there isn’t that much difference between the sentiments my teacher expressed in her letter and the words of God we find in the first reading. It seems that even God sometimes feels the way my good teacher did. Indeed, His words are a cry from the heart.

“What more could I have done for my vineyard that I haven’t done?” He asks.

In spite of the love he showed his people, all that God received in return was stubbornness, ingratitude, and defiance. In fact as I was reading the passage from Isaiah, I was reminded of another divine plaint – one filled with even greater pain and heartache – from the Book of Hosea. They’re such tender and sorrow-filled words, that I cannot help but be totally moved every time I read them:

“When Israel was a child, I loved him,
and out of Egypt I called my son.

But the more I called Israel,

the further they went from me.

It was I who taught Ephraim to walk,

taking them by the arms;
but they did not realize
it was I who healed them.

I led them with cords of human kindness,
with ties of love;
I lifted the yoke from their neck
and bent down to feed them.
But my people are determined to turn away from me.

How can I give you up, Ephraim?

How can I hand you over, Israel?”

God, like a loving Father, a protective Master, and a caring Landowner, had treated Israel in a very privileged way. And yet it failed to make a return. Israel was God’s chosen people. They were the ones whom He had led out of slavery and guided into the promised land. They were the ones to whom the Messiah was sent. And yet when he came, they rejected and killed him.

Like a parent who had given so much time, energy and love to his or her child, God must’ve felt terribly frustrated at the return he received from a people he so loved and cared for.

And yet God isn’t disappointed for his own sake. He is disappointed because Israel squandered the blessings it was given. Israel was God’s vineyard, and it was supposed to bear much fruit.

The story of the vineyard is our own story as well. We are God’s vineyard, each one of us. And God asks us to make use of the many gifts, talents, graces, and opportunities he has given. But when we fail to respond to his love, like the Israelites, we squander his blessings and fail to make a return – a failure that hurts not simply God, but most especially ourselves.

The good news of course is that God will never write us off. He will never give up on us, unless we first give up on ourselves. Like the vineyard owner in the Gospel reading, he will send us chance after chance, hoping that we will come to our senses, realize how fortunate we have been, and make the most of the many blessings we have already been given.

And we have in fact been given much. And so let us ask ourselves today, whether we are making a return that’s worthy of what God has done for us. Today’s readings leave us with that question:

What return shall I make to my God, to my Father who has loved me with a love that has given of itself, and continues to give of itself, completely? What return can I make?

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