Thursday, December 18, 2014

Friday, December 19, 2014 - Do you believe that God can do the impossible in your life? How will you show this belief?

To read the texts click on the texts: Judges 13:2-7, 24-25; Lk 1:5-25

The text of today is unique to Luke and is about the foretelling or annunciation of the birth of John the Baptist. It begins by introducing Zechariah and Elizabeth and then moves to the temple where the announcement of the birth is made by an angel.  Zechariah responds to this announcement in disbelief and leaves the Temple after being struck dumb. The announced child is conceived in Elizabeth’s womb fulfilling the angelic announcement.

In the first verses of today’s text, Zechariah and Elizabeth are introduced. Zechariah means “God has remembered,” and Elizabeth means something like “My God’s oath.” While Zechariah is a priest, Elizabeth is from a priestly family. By stating that they were childless (when barrenness was regarded as a tragedy, a disgrace, and even a sign of God’s punishment), despite the fact they were righteous and blameless, Luke probably wants to indicate that there is no connection between sin and punishment. That they were advanced in age, and so may have lost all hope of having a child, is to show the wondrous nature of the angelic announcement.

The priests were divided into 24 groups, and each group served twice a year for a week at a time in the Temple. On this occasion, Zechariah was chosen to enter the sanctuary and offer the incense. A sacrifice was offered twice a day, both on the outer altar and on the inner altar, inside the sanctuary. A list was compiled of those priests who had never been chosen to enter the sanctuary, and then lots were cast to determine the priests who would bring the sacrifice to the altar and clean the ashes off of it. This honour normally came only once in a lifetime. This was perhaps the most dramatic moment in Zechariah’s life as a priest. It was thus a significant moment for God to break into human history.

Zechariah’s immediate response to the angels’ appearance was one of fear and terror. The first words spoke by a character in the Gospel of Luke are by the angel and are an exhortation not to be afraid. The angel then announces, not only the birth of a son to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also the greatness of the child. The name of the child is to be John, a name which means “God has shown favor” or “God is gracious”. Zechariah’s response is a direct quotation of Gen 15:8, “How will I know that this is so?” To Zechariah’s emphatic “I am an old man.”, the angel responds with an even more emphatic, “I am Gabriel.” Gabriel was sent to speak for God, but because Zechariah did not receive the good news, he would not be able to speak until the annunciation was fulfilled and the child was born. Though Zechariah was to pronounce a blessing on the people after he came out of the sanctuary, he could not do so since he had lost the power of speech.

The angel’s announcement comes to pass and Elizabeth conceives. She praises God for his graciousness to her.

There are numerous occasions in our lives when things do not go the way we want them to go. We try everything and nothing seems to work. We begin to think that God does not care for us or that he is punishing us for some wrong that we or our forefathers did. We might even stop praying at these times and lose faith. The text of today calls for exactly opposite attitudes to these and challenges us to cultivate them.

First, if things are not going the way we want them to go, it does not mean that God is punishing us for some past sins. There is very clearly no connection between sin and God’s punishment. To be sure, any kind of negative feelings that we harbor, any resentment that we hold on to, any sediments of anger residing in our hearts, can lead to blocks in our minds and bodies and can affect our health. Giving in to despair and desperation and losing hope can also lead to ill health.

The call is a call to hope. It is a call to continue to petition God, and to keep asking him for what we need, with confidence and courage. It is a call to continue to believe that God can do what is impossible and that nothing and no one is outside the scope of God’s power. He can, with a word, make all things whole.

Thursday, December 18, 2014 - When in a dilemma do you usually do the right thing or the loving thing? Would your life have been any different if Jesus had not been born?

To read the texts click on the texts: Jer23:5-8; Mt 1:18-24

This text, which appears immediately after the genealogy of Jesus, and is the Gospel text for today, narrates the story of his birth. Since Mary and Joseph were engaged, they were legally considered husband and wife. Thus, infidelity in this case would also be considered adultery. Their union could only be dissolved by divorce or death. Though Joseph is righteous or just, he decides not to go by the letter of the law and publicly disgrace Mary, but he chooses a quieter way of divorcing her. God, however, has other plans for both Joseph and Mary and intervenes in a dream. Joseph is addressed by the angel as “Son of David” reiterating, once again after the genealogy, the Davidic origin of Jesus. He is asked to take Mary as his wife and also informed that is the Spirit’s action that is responsible for her pregnancy. He is told that he is to give the child the name “Jesus". Jesus (Iesous) is the Greek form of "Joshua" which, whether in the long form yehosua, ("Yahweh is salvation") or in one of the short forms, yesua, ("Yahweh saves”), identifies the son, in the womb of Mary, as the one who brings God’s promised eschatological salvation. The angel explains what the name means by referring to Ps 130:8. The name “Jesus” was a popular and common name in the first century.  By the choice of such a name, Matthew shows that the Saviour receives a common human name, a sign that unites him with the human beings of this world rather than separating him from them.

Matthew then inserts into the text the first of ten formula or fulfilment quotations that are found in his Gospel. This means that Matthew quotes a text from the Old Testament to show that it was fulfilled in the life and mission of Jesus. Here, the text is from Isa 7:14 which, in its original context, referred to the promise that Judah would be delivered from the threat of the Syro-Ephraimitic War before the child of a young woman, who was already pregnant, would reach the age of moral discernment. The child would be given a symbolic name, a short Hebrew sentence “God is with us” (Emmanu‘el) corresponding to other symbolic names in the Isaiah story. Though this text was directed to Isaiah’s time, Matthew understands it as text about Jesus, and fulfilled perfectly in him, here in his birth and naming.

This birth narrative of Matthew invites us to reflect on a number of points. Of these, two are significant.  First, many of us are often caught in the dilemma of doing the right thing which might not always be the loving thing.  If we follow only the letter of the law, we may be doing the right thing but not the most loving thing.  However, if we focus every time on the most loving thing, like Joseph, it is surely also the right thing. Though Joseph could have done the right thing and shamed Mary by publicly divorcing her, he decides to go beyond the letter of the law and do the loving thing, which in his case was also the right thing.

Second, the story also shows us who our God is.  Our God is God with us. Our God is one who always takes the initiative, who always invites, and who always wants all of humanity to draw closer to him and to each other. This God does not come in power, might, and glory, but as a helpless child. As a child, God is vulnerable. He is fully human and in his humanity, is subject to all the limitations that humanity imposes on us. Yet, he will do even that, if only humans respond to the unconditional love that he shows. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The tongue is a Fire

Thursday, December 17, 2014 - What one action will you perform today to make Jesus known to someone who has not encountered him?

To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 41:13-20; Mt 11:11-15

John the Baptist is clearly a precursor in the Synoptic Gospels. He is the one who goes before the Lord to prepare his way. In Matthew, John has a borderline role. John is the last and greatest of all prophets until the time of Jesus. He is indeed the one who, alone among the prophets of the Old Testament, was the forerunner of the Messiah and this is what makes him the greatest human being. 

Even so, John does not belong to the new era of God’s rule inaugurated by Jesus. While on the one hand, the content of his proclamation about the kingdom is the same as that of Jesus; on the other hand, even the least in the kingdom is greater than John. 

The “least” in the kingdom, who is greater than John, while it may refer to Jesus (who came after John and was “younger” than him), here seems to refer to the disciples. These are greater than John because they have the privilege of seeing the inauguration of the kingdom which John was not privileged to see. They are also the ones who recognize the Messiah and point to him more clearly than John could hope to do.

From the beginning of Jesus' ministry, the kingdom has been forcefully advancing. The Prophets and the Law prophesied until then and, implicitly, prophesied this new era. And from that time on, the fulfillment of the prophecy, the kingdom itself has been forcefully advancing. This advancement cannot be seen by those who have closed themselves to this kind of revelation and thus, the text ends with the invitation to hear.

The kingdom that Jesus inaugurated continues to advance today despite many setbacks. It is not a kingdom that advances by force or by any kind of pressure.  It is a kingdom that wins over opponents by that unconditional love with which Jesus began it. We in the present generation are the fortunate ones who have been privileged to witness the kingdom. Now, it is our responsibility to point to him and make him known to those who have not yet had the privilege of encountering him as we have done. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Quick and slow

Wednesday, December 17, 2014 - What name do you use to address Jesus? Why?

To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 45: 6-8, 18, 21-26; Lk7:19-23

Though Luke has mentioned earlier in his Gospel (3:20) that John was in prison, there is nothing to suggest that he is still in prison when he asks the question about Jesus’ identity. Here, the question is asked after John receives a report from two of his disciples about the things that Jesus was doing. Thus, a number of explanations have been offered as to why John asked this question of Jesus. One reason is that John, after hearing the report from his disciples, was troubled by uncertainty. If he was still in prison (as Matthew clearly states he was when he sent his disciples to ask the question) then this uncertainty would have been greater. Another reason is that John expected the Messiah to come with spewing fire and venom, but Jesus was reaching out to people in unconditional love. This surprised John since Jesus was not the kind of Messiah he had expected. Another reason is that John, though not sure, was hopeful that The Messiah, whose coming he had announced, had indeed come in Jesus and that would vindicate his own proclamation.  Or, John thought that, by asking such a question of Jesus, he could encourage him to make a public announcement so that all would know that the Messianic age had arrived.

The disciples sent by John repeat the question of John to Jesus. In his response to them, who had probably seen, just then, the healings performed by him, Jesus lists six prophetic actions. These actions are works which both Elijah and Elisha had accomplished, as well as others mentioned in the book of Isaiah. Jesus was not merely a prophet, like Elijah or Elisha; he was the fulfillment of all the prophets. Besides healing those in need of it, the poor were also promised redemption through the preaching of Jesus. Jesus’ answer ends with a challenge not to have a stereotypical view of him or a preconceived notion that will prevent one from encountering Jesus as he is. A blessing is pronounced on those who will not reject him even though he turns out to be different from what they expected, imagined, or hoped he would be.

Jesus cannot be captured in an image, or picture, or put in a box. He remains bigger than anything we can ever imagine. Thus, what is required if one is to encounter him is to get rid of any categories that we may have used to define him.  Jesus fits no specific category and yet, belongs to all of them. We sometimes think we know who Jesus is, what he stands for, and what he is doing, and then he surprises us and does something quite contrary to our expectations. Many scholars and holy men and women have proposed first one understanding of who Jesus is, and then another. They are all correct and all incorrect. Thus, the best response to Jesus is to be constantly open to whatever revelation he decides to make and to keep our whole being open in the hope that we will encounter him.

It is only important for us to constantly realize that God has acted in Jesus, and has been revealed as a God of the poor, a God who wants all people to be whole, a God who reaches out to the lame, the blind, the deaf, the mute, and the scum of society.  God reaches out to tell them that they are loved and honoured because they, too, are created in the image and likeness of God.  The ones who accept this Jesus, will also accept that the mission he inaugurated is now their own, and they are called to join him in continuing it as he would have done.

Monday, December 15, 2014

There is no such thing as a Superiority Complex

Tuesday, December 16, 2014 - Are you a person who says but does not do? Do you say YES but mean NO?

To read the texts click on the texts: Zeph 3:1-2, 9-13; Mt21:28-32

The parable, which is the text of today, is exclusive to Matthew and contains the first of three parables.  These parables are all addressed to the chief priests and elders of the people, as a continuation of Jesus’ response to their challenge of his authority. Since they remained silent to his earlier question about John the Baptist, the Matthean Jesus begins this parable by forcing them to answer. He does this through the question, “What do you think?” The older son is first asked to go and work in the vineyard. He initially refuses, but afterwards, relents and goes. Since the older son refused him at first, the father then goes to the younger son and asks that he go and work in the vineyard. This son replied that would certainly go, but did not do so. Without any doubt, the one who did the will of the Father was the older son who was asked first.
The Parable does not seem to be so much about Jew and gentile as it is about religious leader and public sinner. Thus, Jesus is saying that the scum of society, though it says no to God, repents, performs the Father's will, and enters the kingdom, whereas the religious authorities loudly say yes to God but never do what he says, and therefore they fail to enter.

Both religious leaders and public sinners had John as a pointer of the way to Jesus and the kingdom. Yet, of these, while the sinners repented and believed, the religious did not, even after seeing sinners repent.

Lip service is easy. It does not require any action on the part of the person who gives it. This kind of person merely says, but will not do. Committed service is more difficult, because this calls for action and putting oneself out for the sake of another. It is not those who say “Lord, Lord”, but those who DO what God wants, who will gain entry into the kingdom.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Religion must Unite not divide

Monday, December 15, 2014 - Do you usually mean what you say?

To read the texts click on the texts : Num24:2-7, 15-17; Mt 21:23-27

In these verses, in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus enters the Temple for the last time.  Even while he teaches, the chief priests and elders of the people challenge his authority. The context in Matthew for this challenge seems to include Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple, his miraculous healing, and also, perhaps, his teaching in the Temple. In his response to this challenge, Jesus mentions John the Baptist and his entire ministry, including his baptism. In doing so, Jesus is not being evasive.  He is trying to get the chief priests and elders to recognize that John was, indeed, sent by God, so that they will then be able to recognize Jesus as the Messiah, about whom John prophesied. If they gave the correct answer to the question that Jesus asked, they would know from where Jesus’ authority comes.

The answer of the chief priests and elders that they did not know is loaded with meaning. This is evident in the way they argued among themselves how they must respond. Thus, what they were in effect saying was that they knew, but did not want to say it aloud because that would lead to their being trapped in their own net. If they answered that John was from God, they would have to also answer why they did not accept him and his baptism. However, even more than that, they would have to answer why they are not accepting Jesus to whom John pointed. They could answer that John was not from God, or of human origin, since they were afraid of the people who regarded John as a prophet from God. This leads them to realize that it better not to answer at all. Jesus responds by refusing to answer their question, since they have shown that they do not have the authority to ask it. Since they have not opted for John, they have not opted for Jesus.

While it is true that a person will not know the answer to all questions and “I do not know” is an accepted and legitimate response because of the fragmentary nature of human knowledge, we must be careful in using “I do not know” when we really mean that we do not want to know or do not want to say. We may not want to know because the knowledge that we profess to have will demand a response from us.  We may not be ready for this response and, thus, hide our closed minds under the words “I do not know”. We may not want to say because we are afraid of the consequences that our views will have, on us and, on others.  We may prefer to let things be as they are rather than rock the boat and topple over ourselves.