Reflection for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time (Cycle C)
Today’s readings are a depiction of what we may characterize as a less acceptable though arguably, a more effective means of becoming inspired to serve the kingdom of God: It is the way of penitential living.
Not a few of us may be driven by a strange sense of pride “to help the unfortunate” because “it is the best way to prove that in relation to our being as haves to the have-nots, we are not so bad after all.”
Service becomes a conscious effort to display “essential goodness” if not “exceptional virtue,” but one’s possible guilt for the material disparity between one’s prosperity and another’s poverty is left unquestioned: I can stay “rich and immaculately decent” for as long as I will do whatever is possible for me to alleviate the condition of the poor.
Some of us may be driven by an overwhelming sense of compassionate justice because “it is the only way to equalize and correct what is unjustly unequal and therefore incorrect.”
Service in this case, becomes a zealous mission of righting social wrongs, dramatically stirred by the witness of the unbearable state of one’s indifference and another’s suffering, but again one’s culpability for this state remains unacknowledged: I will fight against the inequalities which many – except for myself – do not seem to recognize nor care about, siding with the powerless poor in confronting and possibly bringing down the unrepentant rich.
But rarely is one driven to service by a disturbing sense of guilt or remorse for one’s imperfections or oppressive actions. The pathway to the kingdom demands an uncomfortable recognition of the reality of one’s inadequacies and transgressions, and the need to change this reality, a duty not everyone would be willing to do in the name of God. As Isaiah laments, “Poor me! I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips living among a people of unclean lips, and yet I have seen the King …”
Service has unfortunately become an inspiration we are more likely to do from the context of sinlessness rather than sinfulness; charity is an action we are much less likely to do when we can courageously admit to our contribution to the social misery we are undertaking to alleviate. When can we like Peter confess, “Leave me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!”
Penitential living is the bitter medicine we must take in order to cure ourselves of our worldliness, so that in a refreshed state of spiritual health, we can start anew and continue along the pathway to the kingdom. It is a new way of life initiated in a conversion process which involves the realization of love and the folly of self-love, culminating in the conviction that one’s life deserves to be dedicated for the other. See how much indescribable joy Isaiah felt when after the seraphim touched his mouth with an ember saying, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin is forgiven,” he exclaimed in glorious oblation, “Here I am. Send me!” The remainder of life is therefore spent in “lovingly repaying a debt that actually can never be repaid but is paid anyway, because the one to whom the debt is owed has already lovingly decided to forgive it.”
Continuous penance is actualized in charity and service, not because mercy has yet to be received, but because mercy has already been revealed. It is a process that solemnly begins with the Spirit, through the loving correction of one’s sinfulness; and which happily ends with the same Spirit, through the loving dedication in gratitude of one’s sinlessness to the transformation of the human condition. It is the same Lord who galvanized Peter and Paul, gently assuring us, “Do not be afraid. You will catch people from now on.”
Love for God and for the marginalized other, is driven by an undying awareness of the love of God manifested in divine forgiveness. We can simply describe this process of conversion which leads to penitential living in three “moments”:
Hence, penance is more than an act of mere self-denial or “instructed” mortification; it is the exercise of an option to lovingly offer oneself to the economy of salvation. It is a life-changing, life-saving choice to respond to divine love, thereby slowly but surely becoming another Christ.
Brother Jess Matias is a professed brother of the Secular Franciscan Order. He serves as minister of the St. Pio of Pietrelcina Fraternity at St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Mandaluyong City, coordinator of the Padre Pio Prayer Groups of the Capuchins in the Philippines and prison counselor and catechist for the Bureau of Jail Management and Penology.
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