FEASTING ON THE WORD
"If you meditate on the Scriptures it will appear to you in its brilliant splendor." ―St. Pio of Pietrelcina
Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
Jeremiah 20:7-9 | Psalm 63:2, 3-4, 5-6, 8-9 | Romans 12:1-2 | Matthew 16:21-27
Today is the Twenty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time and discerning the value of suffering in Christian living, choosing Jesus everyday, and carrying our crosses lie at the heart of our readings.
There is a story told of a certain woman named Clara who was always bright, cheerful and optimistic, even though she was confined to her old shack on mountainside because of sickness. Francisco, a friend visiting her one day brought along a woman – Bella, a person of great wealth. Since there was no easy way up the mountainside, the visitors began the long climb upward. When they reached the first camp and Bella commented, “What a disgustingly ugly and filthy trail!” Her friend replied, “IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.” When they reached the second camp, another remark was made, “Things look even worse here.” Again the reply, “IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.” The two visitors finally reached the old shack on mountainside, where they found the bedridden Clara. A smile on her face radiated the joy that filled her heart. Although the shack was clean and flowers were set on the window sill, Bella, the wealthy visitor could not get over the plain surroundings in which Clara lived. She blurted out, “It must be very difficult for you to be here like this!” Without a moment's hesitation, the saint of God, pointing towards heaven, responded, “IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.”
Christian hope is knowing that whatever dark or frightening things are going on in one's life, God is there offering protection and light. Being a mouthpiece for the word of the Lord was often a dangerous calling. In fact, Israel has a long history of rejecting prophets. People frequently mocked, rejected, persecuted, and even killed God’s prophets, especially if they do not like what they are hearing. In our first reading, the prophet Jeremiah (The Lord raises up) felt deceived by the Lord for the mockery he endured for proclaiming the prophetic message entrusted to him. Jeremiah made a choice to be God’s prophet. God called Jeremiah, and he said “Yes.” Once he made that choice he lived with it. He took the responsibility for his choice, even if people didn’t like what he said or did. Jeremiah continued to love God and talk about him. Throughout the Gospels Jesus promises us suffering and persecution and asks that we accept it with joy. As Catholic Christians, we will experience some degree of opposition, persecution, and suffering but we will be rewarded for it eternally. Every one of us is a martyr, a witness to the sure hope that faith inspires. Being faithful to Jesus and being living witnesses requires sacrifice. Teresa of Calcutta, the saint of the slums, hit the nail on the head when she said, "Pain and suffering have come into your life, but remember pain, sorrow, suffering are but the kiss of Jesus – a sign that you have come so close to Him that He can kiss you." Do you feel rejected and persecuted for telling the truth? Are you suffering for being honest and truthful? Have you been bashed or bullied on social media for standing for what is right and just? Let Jesus kiss you. Don't worry. IT'S BETTER HIGHER UP.
Have you played the Mine Field game? I have facilitated this leadership game to high school students in Notredame of Greater Manila during their recollection a couple of years back. Imagine navigating a space filled with objects you can’t step on. Participants carefully guide their blindfolded teammates across the “mine field” without touching any of the obstacles along the way. When I asked the winners the secret to their success they said that it's about stepping precisely in the footprint left by the person in front of them. The concept was simple: since the person in front of them stepped on a spot that didn’t set off a landmine, the only spot guaranteed to be safe was the ground under that footprint. Stepping anywhere else meant risking death. The person at the front of the patrol is called the “point man.” His job is to make sure he clears any mines or booby traps before moving forward. Everyone else’s job is to walk where he walks and step where he steps. When we say we’re following Jesus, living as Jesus lived and doing what Jesus did, we are letting Jesus be the point man in our lives.
It was much easier for the Roman Christians to follow the pagan ways of their day. The apostle Paul, in his letter to the Romans tells the converts from paganism that they must prove themselves worthy of their identity in Christ, by living truly Christian lives. He urged them not to conform themselves to the ways of the world but be transformed “by the mercies of God.” Choosing Jesus is not always easy but we will find so much comfort and joy knowing that there is so much more to this life. Falling back into the the ways of the world is something we all struggle with, so we need to choose Jesus every day. It can be challenging, but by the mercies of God, we can make a conscious choice to be transformed. Today, tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, let's pray for the grace to choose Jesus at work, at home, in developing one’s hobbies, in relationships, in thinking about the future. It’s important that “mercies” is plural because grace comes into our lives in an infinite number of ways even if we don't deserve it most of the time.
I have a friend who in a time of the pandemic lost his job, a sizable fortune, and his beautiful home. To add to his sorrow, his wife left him for some one else; yet he tenaciously held to his faith – the only thing he had left. One day when he was out walking in search of a job, he stopped to watch some men who were doing stonework on a large church. One of them was chiseling a triangular piece of rock. 'Where are you going to put that?' he asked. The workman said, 'Do you see that little opening up there in the bellfry? Well, I AM SHAPING THIS STONE DOWN HERE SO THAT IT WILL FIT IN UP THERE.' Tears filled my friend's eyes as he walked away, for the Lord had spoken to him through that laborer whose words gave new meaning to his troubled situation.
What's your daily cross? All of us have a cross. In fact, most of us have more than one. For all of our resistance to suffering, Jesus never preached a Gospel of ease and comfort. He spoke openly about the cost of being his disciple. Today, countless false prophets are too willing to misguide the gullible faithful by preaching a gospel of prosperity that posits the enjoyment of material benefits while viewing poverty or hardships as a curse and lack of blessing from God. Today’s Gospel includes the clear words by which our Lord prepared us for the road ahead of him and them: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me” (Matthew 16:24). Jesus could have asked his followers to do positive confession to the unbounded, limitless, overflowing abundance of God’s solar system, galaxies and universe and be truly rich, but he simply DID NOT. Mary, the saints and the martyrs were faithful to Jesus in good times and bad even to the point of persecution and death. If our faith in God depends on over abundance of sales and orders, job promotion or gains, we are most likely to get discouraged and turn our back on God when we experience loss, pain and suffering. Jesus taught us to carry our crosses and follow him. Suffering in God’s plan is always for a purpose. Saint John Paul the Great taught, "Every man has his own share in the Redemption." The frustrations, pains, and hardships that we encounter are not meaningless. Our ability to unite our suffering with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross makes all the difference in this world and in the next. The gospel of prosperity is a contradiction to the cross. We are blessed with good things when we embrace the cross. We are gifted with everything we need when we are contented with the sufficient. We are rewarded in heaven if we seek to heal the wounds of Christ in the poor and the needy. Just as Christ is never without a cross, a genuine Christian is never without a cross. Jesus did not promise the pain and failure to go away when you believe in Him, but surely the suffering will be cut into half because He is always there to carry our crosses with us. Through our crosses, GOD IS SHAPING US DOWN HERE SO THAT WE WILL FIT IN UP THERE. In conclusion, let the timeless wisdom of St. Rose of Lima echo in our hearts: "Apart from the cross there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven."
Jeff Jacinto, PhD, DHum