Weekly Reflection (5 Apr 2020)

Palm Sunday Year A

Isaiah 50:4-7
Philippians 2:6-11
Matthew 26:14-27:66

Theme of the week: In our faith journey, we are called to be imitators of Christ. Where am I on my journey of faith?

Our faith life is a journey, a journey to become a more perfect imitation of our Lord Jesus every day. As we enter into the most holy period in the Church calendar, let us ask ourselves: Where is my faith life on this journey?

The story of the Passion of our Lord is read on two occasions in the year, once on this weekend (Palm Sunday), and again in a few days’ time on Good Friday. During the Passion, we hear of Jesus being put on trial at the Sanhedrin (verse 1:57-68). However, as we read the story, we will realise that it was not just Jesus that was on trial. Many of the characters in the Passion story were also on trial. In fact, my brothers and sisters, so are you and I. As we draw parallels between our faith life and those of the characters in the story; as we place ourselves in the story, we will realise: I too am on trial. Let us reflect on the story of each of the following characters, place our lives in theirs and as we place ourselves in the story.

Judas Iscariot
Judas betray Jesus for money (verse 1:15, 1:48-50). In betraying Jesus, he also betrayed the teachings of the Lord. Later, after witnessing the consequences of his actions, Judas regretted and repented (verse 2:3-4). However, in spite of having repented he could not comprehend the mercy of the Lord. Even though God forgave him, Judas could not forgive himself and committed suicide (verse 2:5). Judas failed to see the mercy of God. Judas’ suicide is the most tragic part of his story.

Peter
In his enthusiasm, Peter was willing to die with Jesus if that was asked of him (verse 1:33-34). However, when the test came, Peter could not find the courage to stood by the Lord. Instead, for three times, he denied knowing Jesus (verse 1:69-74). Like Judas, Peter betrayed the teachings of Jesus when he denied Jesus. As the cock crowed, Peter realised he failings. Unlike many who sin, Peter reflected on his action and was honest with himself. He became so remorseful that he wept bitterly (verse 1:75). Unlike Judas, Peter accepted the mercy of God and went on to become a great leader of the early Church. Peter eventually died a martyr.

Peter, James and John
Before his arrest, Jesus brought the disciples Peter, James and John to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he prayed. Three times, the Lord asked the disciples to stay awake in the time of trial (Lk 22:40), three times they fell asleep. The disciples were tired, and their earthly bodies let them down. Nevertheless, Jesus forgave them and protected them from harm through the whole ordeal. Each of these went on to become great Apostles, evangelising many through their words and their writings.

Caiaphas the High Priest
Caiaphas felt his position threatened by Jesus. He was unsecured. Publicly, Caiaphas was a man of God. Privately, he was seduced by the fame, status and power that his position brought him. He engineered the whole event that led to Jesus’ crucifixion and death. At the Sanhedrin, Caiaphas looked for false testimonies against Jesus (verse 1:59), interrogated Jesus (verse 1:62) and declared Jesus blasphemous (verse 1:65), a crime punishable by death. Later, outside Pilate’s courtyard, when Pilate wanted to release Jesus, Caiaphas persuaded the crowd to demand for Jesus’ crucifixion instead. Blinded by fame, status and power, Caiaphas never truly reflected on his actions and remained unrepentant.

Pontius Pilate
Pilate was someone that was given great power. He alone could decide the fate of anyone brought before him. Such power ought to be exercised with great responsibility. Pilate knew that Jesus was innocent and that it was out of jealousy that the Chief Priest handed Jesus over to him (verse 2:18). He tried to secure Jesus’ release by offering the crowd what he thought was a no-brainer of a choice – release a notorious prisoner or Jesus the Messiah (verse 2:16-17). When the crowd demanded the crucifixion of Jesus instead, Pilate became afraid. He was not able to stand up for what is right. Pilate succumbed to the pressure and his fear and handed Jesus over to be crucified (verse 2:24).

The two thieves
The Gospel of Luke describes the reactions of the two thieves crucified alongside Jesus. Unlike Jesus, both these thieves did commit the crimes they were accused of and received their just publishment. On the cross, one was unrepentant and was taunting Jesus to the end. The other was remorseful and asked Jesus forgiveness. (Lk 23:39-43) In response, Jesus forgave his sins and uttered these words to the Good Thief, “Today you will be with me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43).

Nicodemus
Nicodemus was a follower of Jesus but kept it secret for fear the negative publicity his discipleship might bring. Nicodemus want to learn from Jesus but dare not do so publicly. Nicodemus wait till the night before coming to Jesus to seek the Lord’s teachings (Jn 3:1-21). After Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea collected Jesus’ body from Pilate. Nicodemus came and helped Joseph perform the burial of Jesus. All through the Gospel of John, Nicodemus kept his faith a fairly low-key affair and had never publicly bear witness to Jesus.

Jesus
Finally, Jesus himself was under trial. At the Garden of Gethsemane, showing his human weakness, Jesus asked God to relief him of the impending suffering. However, being ever obedient to His Father, Christ’s prayer has an important caveat, that God’s will should ultimately prevail. “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want” (verse 1:39) At the cross, Jesus forgave the Good Thief (Lk 23:43); prayed for his perpetrators and even made excuse for their sins: “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk 23:34). Jesus was submissive to God the Father right till the final moment” “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Lk 23:46).

The spirituality of Jesus’ submission to God the Father is elaborated further in the First and Second Reading. The First Reading is taken from the third Servant Song. We do not know who this Servant was but is reminded of his obedience to God. The Servant accepted God’s will without compliant, even though it brought him great sufferings: “I was not rebellious, I did not turn backwards. I gave my back to those who struck me, and my cheeks to those who pulled out the beard; I did not hide my face from insult and spitting.” (verse 5-6) The Servant’s sufferings pre-figure Jesus’ sufferings at the Passion.

The Second Reading shows us the great humility of Christ: “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave.” Imagine, the Almighty God allowing himself to be taken as a slave! Such is the love God has for us; such is Christ’s obedience to his Father; and such is the humility we should all strive to imitate.

What about me? Where am I on my faith journey? How well do I imitate Jesus? Were there times in my life that I am Judas, Peter, James, John, Caiaphas, Pilate, the two thieves or Nicodemus? I invite you to read these stories again and draw parallels with our own lives. Were there times where I, faced with sufferings, willingly picked up my cross that God has prepared for me? Were there times where I forgive others and show them mercy just as Jesus showed Peter and the Good Thief? Were there times where I was unforgiving, judgemental, blinded by my secular pursuits, and failed to see my own sins? Let us reflect these over the Holy Week. Amen.

 



Weekly Reflection (29 Mar 2020)

5th Sunday of Lent Year A

Ezekiel 37:12-14
Romans 8:8-11
John 11:1-45

Theme of the week: By his death and resurrection, Lazarus died to his old self of sin and was reborn a free man. By our baptism, we too died to his old self of sin and was reborn freed from the bondage of sin.

As Easter draws near, this week’s readings dwell into the topic of resurrection. Can a dead person come back to life? The text book religious answer would be yes, Jesus came back from the dead and we too will come back to life on the Last Day. However, let us consider this question in the here and now: can a dead person come back to life here and now, in our midst? In this context, most of you would say no. The next question then is: Are you dead? Can you come back to life? To that, you might respond, huh?

Rom 5:23 tells us the wages of sin is death. Let us pause for a moment and reflect the sins we carry – especially the hidden ones that we are too ashamed to admit. All my anger, jealousy, unforgiveness, greed, pride, lust, etc. What are these sin doing to my life? What are these sins doing to the lives of my loved ones? Am I happy, fulfilled and contented? Are my loved ones happy, fulfilled and contented? Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (Jn 10:10). The truth is, sins take away the life Jesus promised us. That is why the Bible says, “the wages of sin is death”. So, my brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves again: Am I dead?

Often like the proverbial frog that is slowly being boiled, we do not realise what our sins are doing to us. Like the frog who does not realise the water temperature is rising, some of us may not even recognise we are sinning! Can we be brought back to life? In the verses preceding this week’s First Reading (verse 1-3), the Prophet Ezekiel had a vision of a valley full of dried bones. These people have been dead for a long time. Yet God brought the people back to life. As the First Reading said, “I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, … I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live” (verse 12, 14). As Paul says in the Second Reading, “though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you” (verse 10-11).

The Gospel tells the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. Even though Jesus loved Lazarus, upon hearing that Lazarus is gravely ill, he stayed away for two more days and let Lazarus die. The grace bestowed upon Lazarus by this seemingly uncaring act only become evident at the end of the story. Theologically, Lazarus resurrection is not the same as the resurrection on the Last Day. After being resurrected, Lazarus in fact lived an earthly life and would die again when his earthly life was finally over. Lazarus’ resurrection points to our resurrection from sin-induced death. By his death, Lazarus died to his old self of sin. By his resurrection, Lazarus was reborn to a new life, freed from the bondage of sins and other earthly burdens. These earthly bondages were symbolised by the stone and cloth that bounded Lazarus. And Jesus’ command to those around was: “Unbind him, and let him go” (verse 44). In this way, Lazarus was reborn to a new life free from the bondage of sin. In our Church, there is a Sacrament closely linked to Lazarus’s death and rebirth. Lazarus’ death and rebirth are the spiritual equivalence of our Baptism. Upon our rebirth through the water of baptism, Jesus’ command to us is the same as the one he gave to Lazarus: that we should be reborn and be free!

This Easter, let us reinvoke the grace that was showered upon us at our baptism. As recall and reflect, let us free ourselves from our sins and be reborn to life. “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” Amen.

 


Weekly Reflection (22 Mar 2020)

4th Sunday of Lent Year A

1 Samuel 16:1,6-7,10-13
Ephesians 5:8-14
John 9:1-41

Theme of the week: Like the Pharisees, we too can become spiritually blind even if we are believers. Jesus is calling me, wanting to grant me spiritual sight. What is my response?

What is it like for a person who is born blind to suddenly receive sight? That sudden burst of colours and light must be overwhelming, enlightening, delightful and apprehensive all at the same time. What happens to a person suddenly receiving physical sight is similar to a person suddenly receiving spiritual sight. Many of us, even believers who comes to church every week, are spiritually blind. In the Gospel last week, Jesus told the Samaritan woman that true worshipers worship “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:23). However, if we are honest about it, many of us are cultural Christians – we do not worship in spirit and in truth. We come to church because that is how we are brought up. We participate in rituals because that is what the Church says we do. Outside these worship and rituals, many of us are no difference from non-believers. We pursue fame, fortune and vanity in preference to spiritual pursuits. In our daily lives, we are proud, lustful, greedy and envious.

This week’s Scripture passages draw a parallel between physical and spiritual darkness, between physical and spiritual blindness. Evil deeds, like stealing, vandalism and murder, are performed in physical darkness, away from probing eyes. On the other hand, good deeds are performed in the light, in the open. In the Second Reading this week, Paul made the same point when he said, “the fruit of the light is found in all that is good and right and true” (verse 9). The same applies to spiritual darkness. Our sins, the most shameful ones that we do not want others to know about, are performed in darkness, away from probing eyes. These are what Paul called “unfruitful works of darkness” (verse 11). Because the acts are shameful, we commit them secretly (verse 12).

That believers lack spiritual sight is not uncommon. Even the great prophet Samuel in the First Reading suffered from the same constraint. He was asked by God to visit the House of Jesse to anoint a future king. Blinded by his lack of spiritual sight, Samuel was attracted to Eliab and his six other brothers, only to find that God has rejected all of them. Instead, God chose David the youngest son, who even Jesse the father overlooked. David was left out in the field keeping the sheep while the “selection process” was in progress. From the ordinaries of his daily chores, God called David. Such is the nature of God’s call, when he calls us from our ordinary lives and to gift us with spiritual sight, the brilliance of which we have never seen.

God is always calling us – beleivers as well as unbelievers. In the Catholic Church, the RCIA is a process where non-believers are guided towards God over a period of many months. Prior to the RCIA, many of these non-believers has never heard of God or Jesus. As they are given spiritual sight, they learn that Christian living is not just about attending to church or participating in rituals. Rituals and worship come alive only when one invites Jesus into his/her heart. At Easter, these RCIA candidates will take their final step and be baptised into Christ’s Church. Like a blind man suddenly receiving physical sight, it is a moment that can be overwhelming, enlightening, delightful and apprehensive all at the same time.

The journey of the RCIA candidates are similar to the experience of the man born blind in the Gospel this week. Like the story of the Samaritan woman in the previous week, this is another inspiring story of conversion. Some key points from the story are:

  • When confronted with the blind man, the disciples assumed that either the man or his parents had sinned (verse 1). That misfortune is a punishment for sins – either of the person or his/her ancestors – is an outdated and erroneous theology propagated by the Pharisees. This was evident again later in the story when the Pharisees accused the blind man of being “born entirely in sins” (verse 34). This teaching implies a merciless and spiteful God, a teaching rejected by Jesus.
  • The miracle is a call from God on all those who witnessed it to believe in him. This drew varying responses from different people. In particular, the parents of the blind man, being afraid of the Pharisees, disowned both their own son and God (“He is of age; ask him.” – verse 23). The blind man himself, on the other hand, defended Jesus fearlessly in front of the Pharisees. Such is the calling of God. We are all called, but each of us responds differently.
  • As in the story of the Samaritan woman (John 4:5-42), we witness a gradual conversion of the blind man. He initially addressed Jesus as a “the man called Jesus” (verse 11), then “prophet” (verse 17), and finally “Lord” (verse 38).

In the Gospel, we witness the blind man was first given physical sight and then spiritual sight, as he came to the realisation that the Jesus is Lord. The Pharisees, on the other hand, though sighted, were blind to their faith. What about me? Am I spiritually blind? Jesus is calling me, wanting to grant me spiritual sight, so that I may see my sins as they really are. That my anger, lust, pride, greed, envy and vanity are destroying me and my relationships with loved ones. Jesus proclaimed in the Gospel, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” (verse 39) Which is these is me? What is my response to God’s call?

 



Weekly Reflection (15 Mar 2020)

3rd Sunday of Lent Year A

Exodus 17:3-7
Romans 5:1-2,5-8
John 4:5-42

Theme of the week: Open our hearts, let the living spring of Christ water the parched land of our hearts. Let it wells up in our hearts as a spring of eternal joy and peace.

There are many who do not believe in eternal life. If this earthly life of mine is all there is to life, where would my priorities be? I would place my priorities on all the pleasures and prestige my earthly life has to offer, of course. If we are only concerned about our physical earthly lives, then acquiring wealth, fame, fortune, good looks, admiration would be of utmost importance. Conversely, shame, disgrace, accusation, poverty would not just be undesirable, but would end all notions of our human dignity.

To help us gain a more balanced perspective on life, for the next three weeks, the Gospel tells of three great stories of conversion and salvation. The Gospel this week tells the story of the Samaritan woman. As Jesus revealed in the story, the woman had many failed relationships: “You have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband” (verse 18). Her failed relationships put her in great shame. That is why she has to fetch water at noon time (verse 6), the hottest part of the day, so as to avoid those staring and judging eyes. The Samaritan woman is someone who is truly trapped in her physical earthly life. Though she is a believer (verse 20), she cannot see her human dignity beyond the judgement of the world. Consequently, when Jesus offered her living water, water that quench her thirst eternally (verse 13-14), all she could think of is water that quenches her physical thirst, so that she need not fetch water at noon time again (verse 15). But the living water the Lord offers is much more. It is the unending joy that wells inside us like “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (verse 14).

The First Reading tells of a similar story. The Israelite people were wondering in the desert and they were thirsty. It is amazing that after witnessing all the miracles, after being freed from the Egyptians, the people could not look beyond their physical thirst, that they would turn against God in the face of the slightest difficulty. Nevertheless, ever faithful, God instructed Moses to strike a rock and water flowed out for the people to drink.

Like the Samaritan woman and the Israelites, we too are believers. Like the Samaritan woman and the Israelites, many of us too are caught in the trappings of our physical earthly lives. Like the Samaritan woman and the Israelites, Jesus is offering us living water for our eternal joy. The challenge is, can I see beyond the constraints of my earthly life?

As the Second Reading explains, regardless of our achievements in our earthly life, no one can earn his/her own salvation. Yes, not even if I am a living saint leading the most holy life. For by our sins, we all fall short. It is only through the unilateral mercy of God that salvation is mine to claim. It is through the suffering and death of Christ that I am redeemed. This is an act of spontaneous generosity by God: “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly” (verse 6). Predestined by God, Christ made the ultimate sacrifice for us while we are still sinners, so that we may receive his living water and share His eternal glory.

The story of Samaritan woman is an inspiring story of conversion. Trapped by the failures of her earthly life, Jesus offered her mercy and redemption:

  • Jesus reached out to the Samaritan woman even though she was a Samaritan and a woman – for Jewish men did not mix with the Samaritans nor women at that time. It was a spontaneous generous and merciful act from our Lord.
  • Jesus explained that with his coming, the worship of God need not be limited by locality. (At that time, the Jews worshiped at Jerusalem while the Samaritans worshipped at Mt Gerizim.) In fact, salvation is for all – to worship God, all we need to do is to worship Him “in spirit and truth” (verse 23).
  • We see the gradual conversion of the woman. She initially addressed Jesus as a “Jew” (verse 9), then “prophet” (verse 19), then finally recognising him as Lord and Saviour (verse 29).

So, what is this living water that Jesus is offering us? It is our dignity as sons and daughters of God. It is the recognition that our joy and dignity does not depends on our worldly success or what the world thinks of us. It is the healing from shame and hurt that our failed relationships brought us. It is freedom from our bondage to sin – that of pride, anger, lust, greed and envy. As a social outcast, the woman had to fetch water at noon, when it is the hottest. Upon accepting Jesus as Lord, her exuberance led her to abandon all sense of taboo and shame, running into town to bear her testimony on the Lord. She has regained her human dignity. She has indeed received the “living water” the Lord promised her.

What about me? Am I prepared to accept the living water of Jesus? Like the Samaritan woman, can I look beyond the trappings of my earthly life, and let the living water wells up in our hearts as a spring of eternal joy and peace? Emmanuel.


Weekly Reflection (8 Mar 2020)

2nd Sunday of Lent Year A

Genesis 12:1-4
2 Timothy 1:8-10
Matthew 17:1-9

Theme of the week: God calls us into the great unknown. Following that call often comes with a personal cost. Am I prepared to accept the cross and the outpouring of grace?

We are blessed. Many of us live in a free country and in civil freedom; we are surrounded by loved ones; and many of us have stable jobs and financial stability. In the midst of my enjoyment of all of God’s blessings, what if God suddenly calls me to abandon it all to take a venture that is totally out of my comfort zone? Faced with such a choice, most of us would hesitate, delay or even ignore the call, saying that we need more time to discern! This was the challenge faced by Abraham in this week’s First Reading.

It is natural to be afraid of the unknown, even if that unknown is a natural consequence of God bestowing His grace upon us. In the previous week’s readings, we reflected on the contrast between Adam’s disobedience and Christ’s obedience to God. In this week’s First Reading, Abraham was asked to leave his homeland and his familiar surroundings to go to a new country of great unknown. In obedience, Abraham heeded the Lord’s command, in spite of the hardships he would inevitably endure. As a reward for his unwavering faith, God blessed Abraham with multitude of descendants, a family line that ultimately included Jesus, the saviour of all humanity.

The Gospel this week describes the episode of the Transfiguration, where Jesus was visited by Moses and Elijah. The Transfiguration is recorded in all of three synoptic Gospels of Matthew (17:1-8), Mark (9:2-8) and Luke (9:28-36). We hear this story every year on the second week of Lent, our preparation period leading up to Easter. In the story, Jesus brought the three principal Apostles of Peter, James and John to Mt Tabor, where the event of Transfiguration unfolded. Like Abraham in the First Reading, the three Apostles faithfully followed God’s lead, unprepared for the great unknown that was to unfold before them. At the Transfiguration, Jesus transcended his human existence – his whole body turned brilliantly white, and Moses and Elijah appeared before him, conversing with him.

The story of Transfiguration conveys three important messages to us:

  1. Firstly, it emphasises the immensity of God’s sacrifice. Moses represents the Laws and Elijah represents the Prophecies. With Moses and Elijah appearing with Jesus, it signifies Jesus being the fulfilment of both the Laws and the Prophecies. To emphasise this point, the story ended with Moses and Elijah disappearing, leaving Jesus as the only one standing. Jesus is God. It is only through the sacrifice of God Himself, that all of humankind may be saved.
  2. Secondly, the Transfiguration occurred at a time when Jesus was about to face his gruesome death. It is in this context that God sent Moses and Elijah to strengthen him. In times of trials, we need to remember the story, and pray to God to send his Holy Spirit to strengthen us. As Paul said in 1 Cor 10:13, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
  3. In the midst of the great unknown of the Transfiguration, we were told that Peter in his ignorance (Luke 9:33, Mk 9:6) proposed to build three tents for Jesus, Moses and Elijah respectively. How ignorant he was, for to do so would be putting Jesus on par with Moses and Elijah. Then, as if to rebuke Peter, we hear God proclaiming Jesus to be his Son and that we should listen to Him (Matthew 17:5, Luke 9:35, Mark 9:7) The Gospel teaches us to recognise Jesus as God and put Him before all else. With Jesus about to face his eventual death and glorification, he is laying a path for us to follow, so that like him, we may attain glorification through the cross. There is no resurrection without death; and no glorification without suffering.

As well as being an event of great unknown to the three Apostles, the Transformation is also a great outpouring of grace upon them. In our faith life as well, we too encounter our own Transfiguration event, where God calls us into the great unknown. If we follow God in faith, if we renounce the comfort of our secular pursuits, if we embrace the cross and its inherent trails, then like the Apostles and Abraham, God will reveal his blessings upon us. My brothers and sisters, on the second week of our preparation period for Easter, let us reflect on our own faith journey: What was the Transfiguration event of my life? Was there a time when God calls me out of my comfort zone to follow his lead? Perhaps I was asked to make personal sacrifices to care for a loved one stricken down with a serious illness? Perhaps I was asked to forego my pride and acknowledge my own failings to a family member or a friend? Perhaps I was asked to venture beyond my comfort zone to undertake mission work or serve in a new ministry? Was I prepared or ready to accept the great unknown before me? What did I do? Did I follow God? Did I embrace the cross?

In the Second Reading this week, Paul urged Timothy to suffer “for the gospel” (verse 8). Like Abraham, Timothy was asked to draw strength from the knowledge that through God’s saving grace, a reward awaits all who do His will. This is a great comfort to us when we are contemplating whether to follow God’s lead to venture into the great unknown, to suffer for the sake of our faith. It is important that we constantly remind ourselves Paul’s teachings this week as we face our cross that inevitably accompanies God’s calling.

Shalom.

 


Weekly Reflection (1 Mar 2020)

1st Sunday of Lent Year A

Genesis 2:7-9,3:1-7
Romans 5:12-19
Matthew 4:1-11

Theme of the week: Resist temptation, stay steadfast and worship God and God alone. Obedience to God brings us joy, love, and abundance life. Disobedience brings misery and death.

We have entered into the season of Lent, a preparation period for Easter. It is a time for me to reflect on my relationship with God. On this first week of the Lenten season, the Scripture passages reflect on sin and temptation. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn 3:16) It is for our sins that Christ came into the world. It is for our sins that he suffered and died. In spite of that, I continue to sin. When I sin, it is my failure to respond to God’s love.

The First Reading recalls the first sin, where Adam and Eve succumbed to the temptation of the Devil and consumed the forbidden fruit. Why is the desire to “knowing good and evil” (verse 3:5) a sin? To understand this, we need to dwell beyond the literal words. The desire to “knowing good and evil” is not just some healthy quest for knowledge or wisdom. By their desire, Adam and Eve were in fact desiring to be “like God” (verse 3:5). In other words, they want to become God’s equivalence. Throughout history, we see humankind succumbing to this sin, of wanting to be equal to God, rather than submitting to the one and only true God. At the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:1-9), humankind attempted to build a tower to reach heaven, in order to gain equality with God. In our modern days, many of us indulge in ourselves – to our vanity, our relativist values, our fame, fortune and power. I want to be so self-fulfilling that I become my own God. Have I too taken this forbidden fruit?

Read in conjunction with the First Reading, the Gospel provides a stark contrast between Adam’s and Christ’s response to temptation. Whereas Adam succumbed to the Devil’s temptation, Christ rebuked him. By tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread and throw himself off a tall building, the Devil tempted Jesus to use his power for his own benefits, rather than by the Father’s design. This is a stark reminder for us followers of Jesus: when I serve in volunteer organisations, churches and ministries, do I always direct glory to God, rather than drawing glory to myself? By offering Jesus with fortunes and power, the Devil tempted Jesus to desert God and worship the Devil instead. This is a parallel message to that of the First Reading. By His example, Jesus urges us to resist temptation to worship false gods. “Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (verse 10).

In spite of the temptations, Jesus did not sin. It is in God’s design that Jesus is like us in all things but sin. He was tempted like us and suffered like we do; but he did not sin. This was His perfect response to the Father’s love. That the angels did not appear until Jesus has conquered all temptation (verse 11) is also significant. It indicates that while Jesus is both human and divine, he faced and conquered the temptations with his humanity, not his divinity. This is encouraging to us – it tells us that humanity, created in the image and likeness of God, is gifted the grace to conquer all temptations. The Gospel this week challenges us to response to God’s love by saying no to sin, just as Jesus did.

The Second Reading provides an apt conclusion to this week’s reading by contrasting Adam and Jesus. Adam’s disobedience to God condemns humankind to death and decay, separating humankind from God. On the other hand, Jesus’ obedience to God led to His crucifixion, thus paying for our sins and reconciling us to God. When I indulge in my vanity, my pride, my relativist values, my fame, fortune and power, by my sin, I too condemn myself to death and decay. Let us remember this week’s teachings and pray to the Holy Spirit for strength to resist temptation and stay steadfast to God. May God be with us as we walk closer to God this Lent. Shalom, my brothers and sisters.

 



Weekly Reflection (23 Feb 2020)

7th Sunday Year A

Leviticus 19:1-2,17-18
1 Corinthians 3:16-23
Matthew 5:38-48

Theme of the week: To break the cycle of sin, we are challenged to exercise sacrificial love. To love as God loves.

We live in a competitive world. Whether it is in our work, among our friends, in our family and even in our Church, competition is everywhere. While healthy competition can instil a sense of excellence, unhealthy competition driven by pride can be very destructive for the perpetrators, for those they victimised and the community as a whole. Indeed, pride is a serious sin that can destroy lives; even more so if it is manifested within the Church community, who is suppose to professes love and self-sacrifice for the good of others. Have I ever felt the urge to parade my good deeds and achievements before others? Have I secretly wished harms or failures upon others who are more successful than me? Conversely, have I been victimised by others just because I am more successful than them?

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Mt 5:5

In our secular society, a person might be considered smart when he/she is able to sabotage competitors and achieve success in the process. In the eyes of some, such a successful person might be even considered wise. But not so, according to Paul. In the Second Reading, Paul proclaimed that “the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God” (verse 19). For those who are meek and humble who fall victims to the haughty and proud, while the world regards meekness and humility as acts of fools, Paul proclaimed that indeed, “you should become fools so that you may become wise” (verse 18). If pride and competitiveness has blinded me from God’s teaching, it is never too late to repent to turn back to God. The Second Reading challenges us to rise above the norms of the secular world.

The First Reading teaches us that “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbour, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbour as yourself” (verse 17-18). In the previous week’s Gospel, Jesus taught us that harbouring ill-thoughts against another is a form of killing (Mt 5:21-22) and hence violates the 5th Commandment. The First Reading this week provides a deeper reflection of this Commandment: if we bear ill-thoughts toward a brother or sister, we are in fact bearing a grudge against an image of God – for all of us are created in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:27). Hence, we are all call to be holy, for God in whose image we are created is holy (verse 2).

Often, when we encounter a person driven by pride and vindictiveness, our natural tendency is to retaliate, to get even. If we do so, then not only has the Devil won over the perpetrator, he has won me over as well. As the cycle of sin takes hold and disaccord spread in the community, the devil gains a firmer and firmer foothold in that community. So, what should we do instead? We are called to do what Jesus does – love the person and help him/her to turn away from erroneous ways. The Lord shows us how to stop the cycle of sin when he died on the cross. Yes, the solution is sacrificial love. In the Gospel, the Lord teaches: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well” (verse 39-40). Jesus teaches us to love all our neighbours, even those who insult and persecute us. To the secular world, such behaviour is quite bluntly an act of stupidity. However, as the Lord says in the Gospel, if we behave like the rest of the world, then how are we Christians different from anyone else (verse 46-47)? Instead, we are asked to exercise our propensity to universal unconditional love, a capability inherent in us from being created in the image of God. And just as God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous” (verse 45), He asks us to do the same by loving all our fellow human beings in the same way, friends and foes alike.

“Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Mt 5:10

Shalom, my friend, and may God’s peace be with you.

 



Weekly Reflection (16 Feb 2020)

6th Sunday Year A

Ecclesiasticus 15:15-20
1 Corinthians 2:6-10
Matthew 5:17-37

Theme of the week: Relativist world view or Christian world view – it is our choice, a choice between “life and death”.

In this relativist world that we live in, as it is claimed, there is no absolute truth. Truth is in the eye of the beholder – nothing is objectively right or objectively wrong, not even in the realm of morality. Hence, under the relativist world view, the concept of sin does not exist.

In contrast, under Christian teachings, moral laws are absolute truths. God lays down a way of life of us to follow so that we may lead fulfilling happy lives. These are God’s Commandments. The Greek word for “sin” is hamartia, meaning to “miss the mark”. Hence to sin is to miss the mark on God’s Commandments. In the Gospel this week, Jesus teaches us on three of these Commandments, each time beginning with “you have heard that” (verses 21, 27, 33) and refining the common understanding by saying “but I say this to you” (verses 28, 32, 34).

  • On the 5th Commandment “Thou shall not kill”, Jesus teaches that harbouring ill-thoughts against another is a form of killing (verse 21-22).
  • On the 6th and 9th Commandment “Thou shall not commit or habour any thoughts of adultery”, Jesus teaches that lustful thoughts are a form of adultery (verse 27-28).
  • On the 2nd Commandment “Thou shall honour God’s name”, Jesus teaches that one should not swear (verse 33-37). Invoking God’s name in a malicious context, such as taking a false oath, is to ask God to be a witness to the malicious intent – a great disrespect to God.

In his letter to the Romans, Paul spoke of lust and unnatural sexual acts (Rom 1:24-27) and “every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Rom 1:29-31) In spite of these, under our contemporary wisdom, sin is unspoken of. Even in our churches, sin is not often mentioned in sermons and homilies. Under the guise of inclusivity, diversity and respecting the feelings of others, we are discouraged from pointing out the immoral behaviour of another person. As Christians, we must make the important distinction between the sin and the sinner. We must love the sinner but never condone the sin. When we reject sin, the relativist world accuses us of rejecting the sinner. This week’s Scripture passages challenge us to reject such “wisdom” of the relativist. Such wisdom, as explained in the Second Reading, “are doomed to perish” (verse 2). Instead, we seek God’s wisdom, “secret and hidden” (verse 7) from the world, “which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (veese 7).

As explained in verse 15 of the First Reading, whether I accept God’s teachings or the teachings of the relativist world is entirely up to me. Whether I choose fire or water, life or death, is entirely a matter of my free will (verse 16-17). By extension, it is I who choose between Heaven or Hell – not God. Our God is a loving, merciful and forgiving God, He does not cast anyone to Hell. God “has not commanded anyone to be wicked, and he has not given anyone permission to sin” (verse 20). It is our unrepentent sinning, our persistent rejection of his moral laws that cast us to Hell – it is I and I alone who can cast myself to Hell. That is why the relativist world view is so dangerous. Like a child playing with matchsticks, it may look fun, it may feel like freedom – for a while. For when the house is burnt down, it is too late.

My brothers and sisters, if you are sudduced by the relativist world view, it is never too late to turn back, never too late to repent. Remember, “what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him” (Second Reading, verse 9). May the Holy Spirit guide and strengthen us. Amen.

 



Weekly Reflection (9 Feb 2020)

5th Sunday Year A

Isaiah 58:7-10
1 Corinthians 2:1-5
Matthew 5:13-16

Theme of the week: God is calling me to serve. Am I prepared to manifest my God-given talent, serving God and his people?

Each of us are unique in our own way. Each of us are talented in our own way. Each of us are called to serve God in our own way. What is God calling me to do?

Before the days of refrigeration, salt was an important commodity. For it is through salt that food can be preserved; and travel and trade made possible. Much like other precious commodities of today, nations fought wars over salt in those days. In the Gospel, Jesus uses two parables to encourage His followers to serve. Just like salt and a lamp in the dark, each of us is created with talents that God has gifted us with. It is our calling to use our God-given talents for the good of the community, and ultimately to serve God. For if salt loses its saltiness and a lamp loses its light, what use is there for them? In those days, if one is sold fake salt, there is nothing much else to do with it but to be “thrown out and trampled under foot” (verse 13).

Each of us are called to serve in different ways. To some, as the First Reading describes, it may be to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, or cover the naked (verse 7). While there are charities and church ministries that do these things, serving God does not necessarily means serving in an established charity or church ministry. Perhaps it is a friend or a neighbour that needs my help, that it is only I who is put into a unique position to offer help to this person.

What am I called to do? Where am I called to serve? Discerning this question can be a daunting experience. Often, God calls us to venture out of our comfort zone to serve others. Think of Moses’ reaction when God called him to lead the people. He was apprehensive. Who am I to go the Pharaoh (Ex 3:11)? Who shall I say send me (Ex 3:13)? What if they don’t believe me (Ex 4:1)? But I am not eloquent in speech (Ex 4:10). Please send someone else (Ex 4:13)! Faced with what seems like a daunting mission, we are often apprehensive like Moses. But God does not call the qualified, He qualifies those he calls. To alley Moses’ fear, God revealed His very identity (Ex 3:14); gave Moses supernatural power to turn his staff into a snake (Ex 4:3); and gave him Aaron as his spokesperson (Ex 4:14). That is how it is with God’s call. If I answer the call, God will smoothen the path ahead of me. All it takes from me is a willingness to answer the call and a willingness to trust in the Lord. In the Second Reading, Paul is equally apprehensive with his call. “And I came to you in weakness and in fear and in much trembling”, he said (verse 3). However, trusting in the Lord, Paul said, “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (verse 4-5). Here, Paul also shows us another great trait that will help in our service to the Lord – that of humility. Paul provides us a great example of humility, allowing the Holy to act through him and proclaiming that the teachings he impart are not his own wisdom but the wisdom of God.

The call to service embodies the very foundation of our faith. God gifted us with faith; and we are called to manifest our faith visibly though serving God and his people. Through our service, God’s presence is manifested. This is living faith. For “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.” (James 2:17.26) So go forth to love and to serve. Amen.

 



Weekly Reflection (2 Feb 2020)

The Presentation of the Lord

Malachi 3:1-4
Hebrews 2:14-18
Luke 2:22-40

Theme of the week: What to do when my intellect conflict with a Church teaching? Do I question? Do I reject? What is the right response in faith?

The First Reading foretell the coming of one who “sit as a refiner and purifier of silver”, refining humankind “like gold and silver” (verse 3). He is none other than our Lord Jesus, who is God Himself. In today’s feast, we celebrate the presentation of the baby Lord Jesus at the temple.

The Gospel describes the episode that is the centre of today’s feast – the Presentation of the Lord. According to Jewish custom, the mother of a new born boy is considered unclean. Hence it is necessary for her to be purified by presenting the newborn baby at the temple when he is 40 days old. But this is no ordinary boy. He is Jesus who is God Himself. Why would Mary and Joseph subject Jesus to the Jewish custom? Don’t they know Jesus is greater than the custom? Not only has ancient prophets like Malachi in the First Reading foretell about Jesus the Lord, Mary herself have heard the angel declared Jesus to be “the Son of the Most High”, one whom “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David” (Lk 1:32). And didn’t the angel also declared Mary to be “full of grace” (Lk 1:28)? How could one who is “full of grace” be uncleaned having just given birth to “the Son of the Most High”? Do I feel like that sometime, when a Church teaching does not sit well with my intellect?

We belong to a Church that is two thousand years’ old. It is rich in teachings and customs handed down to us through the generations. We live in an age where the education level of the general population has risen considerably since the founding of the Church. Today, many of us have good education and are highly intellectual in our thinking. More so than in Gospel times, this creates an environment where individual intellect is often pitted against ancient Church teachings. Have you had such an experience? When my intellect is pitted against ancient Church teachings and customs that I do not understand or agree, what is my response? Do I question the teachings and customs; sometimes even rejecting them outright? What is the right response in faith?

In presenting the Lord Jesus according to the Jewish custom, Mary and Joseph provided us a great example. In spite of them being well aware of who Jesus is, respectfully and with great humility, they follow the custom and presented Jesus at the temple. When there is a conflict between a Church teaching and my intellect, reflecting on the example of Mary and Joseph, am I too able to humbly accept Church teachings that are inspired by God and have stood the test of time?

By accepting what was required of them by their faith, Mary and Joseph brought forth a great outpouring of grace. Simeon and Anna, the two holy person who encountered Jesus, had their faith greatly enriched that day. By presenting Jesus at the temple, Mary and Joseph also become the foreshadow of Christ’s ministry on earth. For as the Second Reading explains, Christ shares our humanity (verse 14), he is like us in every respect (verse 17) except sin (Heb 4:15). Just as his parents submit themselves to laws of the human world, Christ submits Himself to the natural law of being a human, accepting suffering and death. It was through death that Christ destroys “the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil” (verse 14). By His death, Christ reconcile us to God, bringing us closer to the source of all truths.

Is there a Church teaching that sit uneasily with you? Rather than questioning or reject it, are we prepared to humbly accept that perhaps we have either misinterpreted the teaching or simply not understand it fully? And just as Simeon and Anna encountered the Holy Family at the temple, be rest assured that our submission will be a channel of grace, bringing us closer to God’s truth. May the Holy Spirit be with you.