Weekly Reflection (19 Sep 2021)

25th Sunday Year B

Wisdom 2:12,17-20
James 3:16-4:3
Mark 9:30-37

Sin and conflicts.

We experience human conflicts all the time, whether it is in our families, our work places and yes, even in our faith communities. Conflicts are destructive. They strain human relationships and divide the community. Conflicts cause hurt and dissent. They often result in estranged relationships. These estrangements can be very long lasting, sometimes even for a lifetime. And the reason for these prolonged estrangements, even among loved ones, is because conflicts can create deep wounds. If a wounded heart is not healed, the relationship remained estranged. While the passage of time can bring about some level of superficial cordiality, without true healing of the heart, the estranged parties are unable to move on, to truly love each other again. This is a great tragedy – especially if the estrangement happens between loved ones or among members of a faith community.

My brothers and sisters. What are the unhealed wounds in your heart? Lets be honest, we all have them. They cause us anguish and we rather not think or talk about them. This is because talking and thinking about them brings back painful memories and unhappiness. And the reason it brings back pain is that my heart remained wounded. It has not been healed. I have merely swept the pain under the carpet and conceal it.

What is the cause of these human conflicts that cause us so much pain? It is sin – not just of one party, but often of all parties involved. The Church called the worst of these sins the Seven Deadly Sins, and list them in the following order: pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth. The world today does not like to talk about sin. They think sin makes people feel bad. Presumably, by not talking about them, it makes us feel better. This is not true – we are only deceiving ourselves. The truth is, we cannot overcome an evil if we are not prepared to even name it. This is escapism, and escapism in itself is a manifestation of one of the seven deadly sins – the sin of pride. And far from making us feel good, pride brings us more misery.

The First Reading is set in the city of Alexandria, where faithful Jews live among pagans and other Jews that have abandoned their faith. Like today, the unbelievers were spiteful of the believers. They said, “Let us see if his words are true, and let us test what will happen at the end of his life; for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him, and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.” (verse 17-18). The unbelievers were not interested in whether what the believers believe is the truth. All they wanted to do is to inflict sufferings upon the believers. The want to see the believers react in a way that contradicts the teachings of the faith, so as to discredit them and the faith they profess. This is an extremely spiteful and destructive form of pride. It is not surprising that the Church lists pride as the first among the deadly sins. It is the same in our world today, unbelievers inflict sufferings on believers through words and action. In some cases, unbelievers even threaten the livelihood of unbelievers through the unhealthy practice of the “cancel culture”.

But many of us believers are not much better. Some believers also engage in radical rivalries among ourselves and against the unbelievers. Many of us experience conflicts with people who supposedly have much in common with us – people of the same family, people of the same faith. Instead of cherishing our common belief and common heritage, we emphasise our differences and create rivalries among ourselves. In the Second Reading, St Paul warned us, “For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind.” (verse 3:16) In the family, family members fight each other over money and influence. In the church, ministry members fight each other over prominence and recognition. In Gospel times, afraid of losing prominence and influence, the religious leaders nailed Jesus on the cross. Some of us would secretly or even openly rejoice when misfortune fall upon our adversaries. We justify our sinful acts and sinful thoughts as efforts to defend our faith, our rights or our dignity, but in truth, the sin of pride is our main driving force. We want to prove we are right at all cost. This is pride. It is not love. That is why St Paul said in the Second Reading, “Those conflicts and disputes among you, where do they come from? Do they not come from your cravings that are at war within you? You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder. And you covet something and cannot obtain it; so you engage in disputes and conflicts.” (verse 4:1-2)

Jesus knew the temptation of pride all too well. To avoid unnecessary rivalry and jealousy, in the Gospel this week, as He passed through His home region of Galilee, “He did not want anyone to know it” (verse 30). He explained his action by cautioning the Apostles on the danger of the sin of pride, saying “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him” (verse 31). But did the Apostle heed our Lord’s message? No they did not. For almost immediately, they started arguing among themselves, they “argued with one another who was the greatest” (verse 34). The sin of pride has taken hold of them.

It was the sin of pride that crucified Jesus. Within our families and communities, where the sin of pride spurns conflicts, we too are crucifying each other. As we crucify each other, we bring pain and sufferings upon the whole family and the whole community. As Church members, we are the Body of Christ. As we crucify each other, we are also crucifying Jesus, just as the chief priests and the religious leaders did at Calvary. When church members fight each other, we are distracted from our common work of promoting love and justice. So, instead of being Jesus’ hands and feet to reach out to the world, we immobilise Him by crucifying Him on the cross.

So, what do I do if I am engaged in conflicts? The first step is to examine my words, actions and motivations honestly and truthfully. Am I been being controlled by the sin of pride, and with it the other deadly sins of greed, lust, envy, gluttony, anger, and sloth? The second step is to contemplate Jesus on the cross. He died out of love for me. Let me invite His love into my hearts and let His love heal me. It is only with the love of Jesus that I can love our enemies, so that they too can be healed. It is only then that I may go forth to truly serve – not for the sake of pride, but for the sake of love. It is only then that I can serve the way Jesus teaches us in the Gospel this week, “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.” (verse 35)

Let us break free from the sin of pride, go forth to love and to serve. Peace be with you, my dear brothers and sisters.

Weekly Reflection (12 Sep 2021

24th Sunday Year B

Isaiah 50:5-9
James 2:14-18
Mark 8:27-35

Do I possess true faith of the heart? Or is my faith a superficial intellectual faith?

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus asked His disciples a question: “Who do people say that I am?” (verse 27). They answered, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets.” (verse 28). Then, seeking a personal answer from the disciples, Jesus asked again, “But who do you say that I am?” Indeed, my brothers and sisters, Jesus is asking us the same question, “Who do you say that I am?” So we ask ourselves: Who is Jesus to me? Like Peter, we might answer, “You are the Messiah.” (verse 29). Messiah is a Hebrew word meaning “the Anointed One”, translated to Christo in Greek, from which we derive the English word “Christ”. Indeed, Jesus is the Anointed One of God. In Matthew’s account of the story, Peter provided a more vivid answer, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Mt 16:16) These text-book answers are not new to most of us. For us Christians, we proclaim Jesus as the Christ all the time – at our church services, in prayers, through songs, etc. The question is: As we proclaim with our lips, do we mean it in our hearts?

They say that words are cheap. This is certainly in the case with Peter. He proclaimed Jesus as “Messiah, the Son of the living God”. Later, at the Last Supper, when Jesus said, “You will all become deserters because of me this night” (Mt 26:31), Peter boldly declared, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you” (Mt 26:35). And denied Jesus he did, not once, not twice but three times (Mt 26:69-74). Why did Peter deny Jesus? Did he not understand what he said when he proclaimed, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God”? Did he not mean what he said when he declared, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you”? In truth, Peter understood what he was proclaiming; he meant what he declared. The problem with Peter was that his faith was an intellectual faith, and intellectual faith is superficial.

What about us, my brothers and sisters? Let us ask ourselves: Am I like Peter? Do I mean what I say yet my faith is weak? Is my faith merely an intellectual faith? Is my faith superficial? We know that faith in Jesus is the gateway to our salvation. Before his conversion, St Paul was a Pharisees who believe that we can earn our salvation through scrupulous observation of the religious laws. Later, he realised his mistake and said, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal 2:16) Yet simply knowing that we are justified by faith is but an intellectual exercise. And as we can see from St Peter’s experience, intellectual faith is shallow. So like the young man who came to Jesus, we asked our Lord the same question, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” (Mt 10:17)

Some of us believe that proclaiming that Jesus is the Messiah is all that is necessary. We believe in the “prosperity Gospel” – not just monetary prosperity but earthly prosperity in all forms, that God will grant all that we desire on earth if we simply believe in Him. That as we proclaim our faith verbally, God will grant us wealth, protect us from harm, hold our enemies at bay; and on the last day, receive us into heaven. Such faith is not only superficial, but dangerous. It opens itself to the devil’s deception. For what happens when God does not grant us our wishes and we become disenchanted? This was Peter’s problem in the Gospel this week. Peter wanted salvation without the cross. That is why Jesus rebuked him, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” (verse 33) Sadly, many Christians have stopped practising their faith for exactly this reason.

My brothers and sisters, the Christian faith does not guarantee us earthly fulfilment. It grants us heavenly fulfilment. And heavenly fulfilment is not just fulfilment when we go to heaven. Our heavenly fulfilment starts on earth by us leading a fulfilled life – by giving ourselves in service to others; by sacrificing for sake of love; by forgiving and loving those who wronged us; and by enjoying life-giving, loving relationships with our loved ones. A fulfilled life in faith manifests spiritual fruits. As St Paul said, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22-23).

But, how do we learn to do that? In truth, there is no instruction manual for faith. We must learn through mistakes, through experience, and through following others’ example. The greatest example of this of course is our Lord Jesus Himself. He literally loved us to His death: “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) Of course, there are also the examples of the great Saints in our history. St Teresa of Calcutta (1910-1987), better known as Mother Teresa, gave up her physical comfort to attended to the poor and dying on the streets of Calcutta. St Lawrence (225-258) called the poor people of Rome the treasures of the Church and was martyred by being roasted alive. The truth is, living a fulfilling life in faith does not mean living a comfortable life. Living a life in faith is not a passive state. It does not mean that we just verbalise that Jesus is the Messiah and expect good things to happen to us. True faith calls for action, true faith requires a response. In the Second Reading, St Paul said, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?” (verse 14) True faith will always drive us to act – to sacrifice, to serve and to love. It is through our faith that we touch hearts, that these hearts too will in turn be moved by faith and prompted to act. Otherwise, if we simply verbalise our faith and urge others to do the same, then all we are doing is spreading an intellectual understanding of faith, we are not spreading faith itself. Hence, St Paul said, “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” (verse 17-18)

And one of the great works of faith is the docility to accept sufferings as God wills it, as Jesus and the Saints showed us. In the Garden of Gethsemane, on the eve of Jesus’ suffering and death, He prayed to the Father, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet, not my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42) In the First Reading, a passage we often hear leading up to Easter, the suffering servant said, “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. The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame” (verse 6-7) Often, it is through our docility to accept the sufferings, especially sufferings unjustly inflicted upon us, that we soften those hardened offending hearts and convert them to faith. It is our docility in accepting sufferings that we may look beyond the creature comfort of our flesh and look to our eternal destiny. St Paul said, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Gal 5:24) As Jesus concluded in the Gospel this week, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (verse 34)

There is no truer faith than faith manifested in works of charity, sacrifice, service and docility. May the Holy Spirit guide us in our faith. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (5 Sep 2021)

23rd Sunday Year B

Isaiah 35:4-7
James 2:1-5
Mark 7:31-37

Approach Jesus with our spiritual impairments, let Him declare on us Ephphatha, which means “Be open”. Then we can be truly free.

What is freedom to you? The world defines freedom as the ability to do whatever one like. If that is the definition of freedom, then none of us is truly free. For a start, in our society, there are civil laws that governs our behaviours. Under our civil laws, we are not free to do whatever we like – we are not free to jaywalk, to damage public property or to hold mass gathering without a permit. At a personal level, the freedom of one person to act in whatever way he/she likes often would deprive another person of his/her freedom. In this way, the two persons cannot be both free. From example, my freedom to cause harm to another person would deny that person the freedom to live safely; my freedom to detain another person against his/her will would deprive that person of freedom of movement.

In spite of the illusive nature of worldly freedom, freedom has often been quoted by advocacy groups as their reason for wanting social changes. For example, I should be free to spent my money anyway I want, even if it involves vices such as pornography, prostitution or drugs; I should have the freedom to do what I want with my body, even if it means ending the life of the baby in my womb; I should be free do what I want with my life, including ending my own life; I should be free to marry whoever I want, even if it is a person of the same sex. As in the case of the earlier examples, worldly freedom is often a zero-sum game – one party’s win is another party’s loss. If I spend my money on vices, I am depriving others of their greater need of that money, e.g. my family and charitable causes. If I am free to end the life of a baby in my womb, I am depriving my child the freedom to live. If I am free to end my life, I am depriving others the joy and richness my life brings to them, especially my loved ones. If I am free to redefine marriage to include the union of a same-sex couple, I am depriving those with a traditional view of marriage their time-honoured definition of marriage. With the arrival of COVID-19, we continued to be obsessed with the concept of worldly freedom, even among Christians and people of faith. We have the anti-lockdowns, the anti-vaxxers and the conspiracy theorists. Everybody wants their freedom – freedom of movement, freedom to travel, freedom not to be vaccinated, freedom from catching COVID, freedom to enter any establishment we like, including hospitals and aged-care homes. And just like all other previous examples, the absolute freedom of one group deprives the freedom of another group. This inevitably leads to chaos and conflicts. But what is the real underlying reason for the chaos and conflicts we are witnessing in our society? In truth, as much as it is often quoted as the reason, the lack of freedom is not the reason. Rather it is because too many are deprived of their spiritual senses – our spiritual sight, spiritual hearing and the ability to speak spiritual truth.

The First Reading was written during a period when, as a consequence of their defeat by the Babylonians, the Jews lived in exile in a foreign land. The passage was written to give hope to the Jews that the exile was coming to an end. “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you” (verse 4). At that time, their enslavement, sufferings and oppression will be no more, signified by the healing of the blind, the deaf, the lame, and the mute. Notice that prophet Isaiah associated freedom from exile with the regaining of sight, hearing, mobility and speech. So we ask ourselves: Am I free? Am I blind, deaf, lame or mute? My brothers and sisters, in truth, many of us live self-centred, selfish and narcissistic life. True sacrifice is rare. We often think of our own interest first and what we want for ourselves before we consider the other person. We only think of the other person’s needs when our own needs are satisfied. When I give to the poor, I give them my leftover loose change. When I work as a volunteer, I do so only in my spare time. Like the Jews under Babylonian bondage, we too are under bondage. Our bondage is the bondage to our sins of self-centredness, selfishness and narcissism. Under the bondage of sin, like the Jews under the bondage of their human oppressors, we too become blind, deaf, lame and mute – blind to the Grace of God; deaf to his teachings; too lame to give a helping hand; and too mute to proclaim God’s truth.

St Paul gave us an example of spiritual blindness in the Second Reading: “For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please,’ while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there,’ or, ‘Sit at my feet,’” (verse 2-3) My brothers and sisters, I invite you to play out St Paul’s scenario in your mind. Has St Paul described our reactions, if these same two persons walk into our church on a Sunday morning? Do we not see both of these persons are son and daughter of God, with the same dignity as us, loved by God just as He loves us?

So what should we do? Jesus teaches us, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3) The truth is, we are all sinners. To a greater or lesser extent, we all suffer from deprived spiritual senses. On the cross, Jesus the truly sinless one, did not look down on the deprived spiritual state of his tormentors. Instead he pleaded with His Father, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34) To one who is addicted to pornography, prostitution or drugs, let me speak the words of counsel to him, not in a derogatory manner but speak the words of love. To one who has ended the life of her baby in her womb, let me hear the despair that had led her to that decision; and let me speak consoling words to her. To one whose physical ailment becomes so painful that he is contemplating euthanasia, let me see the pain and let my hands be that of God’s as I lend a helping hand. To one who is confused about his sexuality that he yearns for a person of the same sex for connection and sexual intimacy, let me see and hear the yearning of his heart and let me speak courageous words of counsel. Of course, not all of us are in the position to speak words of counsel, at least not all the time. And even when we are, we are often not in a position to bring about immediate changes to that person’s life. As sometimes, these issues stem from long-running trauma and wounds in that person’s life. It is in times like these that I need a discerning heart. I need to listen to the prompting of the Holy Spirit. I need the wisdom to know when to act. And at the right opportunity, I need the courage to act with spiritual sight, hearing and speech. And above all else, I need to convey my love and the love of God.

Finally, in those areas of my own life where I have been spiritually blind, deaf, lame or mute, I need to approach Jesus in humility. I need to try not to justify my sins. Rather, like the deaf man in this week’s Gospel, I need to beg Jesus to lay His healing hand on me (verse 32). Let Him declare to me as He declared to the deaf man, “‘Ephphatha,’ that is, ‘Be opened.’” (verse 34) Then, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy” (First Reading, verse 5-6) It is then that I am truly free.

May our Lord Jesus grant us true freedom. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (29 Aug 2021)

22nd Sunday Year B

Deuteronomy 4:1-2,6-8
James 1:17-18,21-22,27
Mark 7:1-8,14-15,21-23

Do not succumb to relativism. Be a faithful follower and doer of God’s words.

In the Gospel of John that we reflected two weeks ago, Jesus presented the disciples with a difficult teaching, that in order to have eternal life, we must eat His flesh and drink His blood (Jn 6:54). This was a difficult teaching for the Jews, as Jewish law forbids the drinking of animal blood, let alone human blood. Then in the previous week’s Gospel, we read that this teaching became so hard for the disciples that many left Jesus (Jn 6:66). As the disciples left, Jesus challenged the Apostles with the question: “Do you also wish to go away?” (Jn 6:67) We too are faced with difficult teachings of God. In this week’s scripture readings, God poses the same challenge to you and me: “Do you also wish to go away?”.

My brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves: What do I do when I am presented with a difficult teaching? More specifically, what do I do when teachings of God run contrary to my beliefs, my values and my lifestyle? When this happens, it creates a level of unease in our mind. Psychologists call this a cognitive dissonance. A cognitive dissonance makes us uncomfortable. So, what I do when there is a cognitive dissonance between what God teaches and the life I live? Some of us choose to ignore it. In this way, our life become a contradiction. That is why for some of us, when an uncomfortable topic is raised, we become very uneasy, preferring not to talk or think about it. Some of us might even turn aggressive towards the person who raises the topic. Another option is to try to resolve the cognitive dissonance. This can be done in two ways. Option one, I can resolve the cognitive dissonance by changing my interpretation of God’s teachings. I re-interpret His teachings to match my beliefs, my values and my lifestyle. In other words, I lower God’s teachings to match my morals. This is when I venture in the dangerous realm of relativism.

When God created humankind, He created us in His image (Gen 1:26-27). But today, many of us re-create God in our own image. Relativism is the practice where we deny the existence of God’s absolute truth. The world does so by redefining truth, that truth is whatever we want to believe is the truth. Under the absurd logic of relativism, two persons can believe in the opposite thing yet they can both be right. We see relativism manifested in our daily life with quips such as “there is no right or wrong”. Relativism is rife in the world on a whole range of issues where the world chooses its own truth over God’s – in secularistic issues such as materialism and greed; in sexuality issues such as homosexual acts and same-sex unions; in sanctity of life issues such as euthanasia and abortion; and so on. As Christians, we submit to the absolute truth of God. For example,

  • That the endless pursuit of fame and fortune does not bring us closer to our loved one, closer to our God and will ultimately cost us our happiness.
  • That homosexual acts are not life-giving; that same-sex unions are not marriage; that the biological sex we are born with is beautiful and purposeful.
  • That putting an end to a human life is wrong, even as the world musk it as compassion and human rights.
  • That the ultimate path to happiness is to live in God’s love, to live our life in full by serving others, by sacrificing.

The world does not like us when we declare that there is such a thing as God’s absolute truth. The world does not like to be challenged; it does not like to told that it is wrong. For what is relativism but a blind declaration that no one is wrong and everyone is right! Ironically, the only time a relativist would declare something is wrong is when a person of faith declares the existence of absolute truth – God’s truth. This is when the person of faith is silenced through attacks and victimisation. One of the ugliest forms of this is the phenomenon called “cancel culture”, where a person’s very livelihood and safety is threatened just because he/she dare to speak the truth. In truth, relativism is a modern form of tyranny. What is even more concerning is, relativism is not confined to the secular world. It has infiltrated churches and religious institutions, to the point where many churches and institutions are silenced; or worse, forced into changing its doctrines to the point of becoming inconsistent with God’s teachings. Hence, Jesus is asking you and me today: “Do you also wish to go away?”

This brings us to the second option of resolving the cognitive dissonance. In the First Reading, Moses urges his followers to obey the Laws handed down by God. “You must neither add anything to what I command you nor take away anything from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God with which I am charging you.” (verse 2) In other words, I am asked to change my belief, my values and my lifestyle to match God’s teachings. So instead of lowering God’s teachings to match my morals, I raise my morals to match God’s. And where there are areas of my life that have not been a perfect manifestation of God’s teachings, I approach God in humility and repentance, seeking His help to be a better person. In the Second Reading, St Paul urges us to “welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (verse 21). How do we do that, especially the many of us who are proud of our intellectuals and our secular achievements? We need to open our hearts to be touched by God.

Jesus teaches us in the Gospel this week, “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (verse 21-23) Quoting the prophet Isaiah, Jesus warned us, “This people honours me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” (verse 6-7). My brothers and sisters, in truth, many of our hearts are darkened. Our hearts are constantly being challenged by the secularism, materialism, individualism and relativism of the world. When our hearts succumb to the world, when our heart succumb to sins, we bring misery into our life and the lives of our loved ones. If we are truly honest and reflect on the miseries of our life, we will conclude that the majority of which is brought on by human sins – ours and others.

So, how do we convert our heart? We need to read the Bible regularly, reflect the word of God in the context of our life, open our vulnerability to Jesus and let Him touch us. But that is not all. In his letter to James, St Paul further challenged us, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith apart from works is barren?” (Jms 2:14, 17, 20) Hence, in the Second Reading this week, St Paul urges us to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.” (verse 22) When we do good works, it is an outward manifestation of the Good News that is in us, rather than a self-serving act to feel good about ourselves. When our hearts are in synch with the will of Jesus, our hands will carry out the works of Jesus. When hearts and hands are in perfect alignment to Jesus, then we can truly say, “it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:20)

For a human relationship to be fruitful, we need to invest time, love and sacrifices into that relationship; we need open ourselves and be vulnerable to that person. A relationship becomes unfulfilling when we do not invest in it and expect something out of it – “Where were you when I needed you?” “How can you do this to me?” Think of the good and bad relationships in our lives – we know this is true. It is the same with our relationship with God. Do not reduce our relationship with God to just doctrines and rituals – that’s practice, not faith. Do not reduce our relationship with God to just good works – that’s charity, not faith. In the words of Moses in the First Reading, let us be “wise and discerning” (verse 6). With Jesus living in us, He become a shield for our souls, against the secularism, materialism, individualism and relativism of the world. By being “wise and discerning”, I am, as Jesus said to the wise scribe, “not far from the kingdom of God” (Mk 12:34). Amen.

Weekly Reflection (22 Aug 2021)

21st Sunday Year B

Joshua 24:1-2,15-18
Ephesians 5:21-32
John 6:60-69

Have I abandoned God in the midst of glitters and challenges?

My brothers and sisters, we have come to the final week of our five-week reflection on the Holy Eucharist. In the last five weeks, we reflected on the gifts we bring to Jesus; and our motivation and expectations as bringing forth those gifts. Last week, we reflected how Jesus transforms and completes our gifts, regifting them to us as His Body and His Blood in the Holy Eucharist. We reflected on the question: When I encounter Jesus in this way, am I marvelled? Am I transformed?

The truth is, while many presents themselves at the Eucharistic table at mass, not all are marvelled, not all are transformed. This is particularly true for those of us who are nominal Christians. We may come to church every week, we may occasionally give away some spare change to the needy, we may even help out as volunteers in various church ministries. But let us asked ourselves: Am I intimate with Jesus? Do I marvel at Jesus and say, “My Lord and my God!” (Jn 20:28) Do I regularly read and meditate on the Word of God? Do I consciously try to imitate Jesus in my life – in His love, His compassion and His mercy?

The First Reading recalls a scene at the Holy Land, where after years of war, an aging Joshua gathered the people to impart his wisdom upon them. In the passage, Joshua asked the people to choose between the Lord God and the pagan gods (verse 15). “Then the people answered, ‘Far be it from us that we should forsake the Lord to serve other gods; for it is the Lord our God who brought us and our ancestors up from the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, and who did those great signs in our sight. He protected us along all the way that we went, and among all the peoples through whom we passed; and the Lord drove out before us all the peoples, the Amorites who lived in the land. Therefore we also will serve the Lord, for he is our God.’” (verse 16-18) The people recalled how God brought them out of slavery in Egypt, fed them in the desert, defeated their enemies and delivered them the Promise Land. In truth, who among us would not pledge allegiance to God when He delivers us such safety and prosperity? Sadly, for the people, these are only lip services. For not long after the death of Joshua, the people abandoned God and started worshipping other gods (Judg 2:11-12). What about us? At church each week, we too proclaim the Lord as our God. But are our hearts with God? As soon as something more glittering comes along, or when things become challenging, do we abandon God? In truth, we often do. At least for the Israelites at Joshua’s time, they did it over one generation.

At the start of our five-week discourse, we read how Jesus miraculously fed 5000 people with five loaves and two fishes (Jn 6:1-14). Fed and satisfied, the people pursued Jesus relentlessly and found Him on the shore of Capernaum (Jn 6:22-24). There, Jesus challenged them with His teaching on the Eucharist. Jesus declared Himself as “the living bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:51); and if the people want eternal life, they must eat His flesh and drink His blood. And to make sure He was not misunderstood, Jesus repeated this several times (verse 51, 53, 54, 56, 57, 58). This became too much for the people, they said in this week’s Gospel, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (verse 60), to which Jesus responded, “Does this offend you?” (verse 61) That day, many of the disciples found Jesus’ teaching so hard that they left Him (verse 66). Though all the Apostles stayed, but even for them, the teaching was so challenging that it sowed the seed of Judas’ betrayal (verse 64).

The Israelites abandoned God when living conditions got tough in the desert. They abandoned God when the pagan gods look more attractive. The disciples abandon Jesus when His teachings become too challenging. My brothers and sisters, what about us? What are the glitters and challenges in our life that cause us to abandon God? We ask ourselves: Have I allowed my career, my sports and even my hobbies to take priority over God? If so, I have in fact abandoned God and erected materialism and secularism as my gods. When I serve in church ministries, do I draw glory to myself rather than to God? If so, I have in fact abandoned God and erected myself as my own god. Motivated by my own pride and self-interest, do I undermine another brother- or sister-in-Christ? If so, I have in fact abandoned God and erected pride and self-interest as my gods. When I am hurt, do I bear grudges and vengeance? Has Christ’s example of love, compassion and mercy become too hard for me to emulate? If so, even as I continue to serve God with my lip services, like Judas, have I in fact allowed my human weaknesses to sow the seed of my betrayal of Jesus?

In the Second Reading, St Paul spoke about what constitutes an ideal marriage in his times. It is true that with the changing roles of the husband and the wife in the modern family, some of St Paul’s stipulations may not apply to some of our families. However, we need to pay special attention to the underlying message of St Paul. For this is how St Paul concluded: “This is a great mystery, and I am applying it to Christ and the church.” (verse 32) In other words, the role of the husband personifies Jesus, the role of the wife personifies us His Church (verse 23). St Paul explains, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, in order to make her holy by cleansing her with the washing of water by the word” (verse 25-26). In return, we the people are called to subject in everything to Jesus (verse 24).

The Eucharistic discourse over the past five weeks prompt us to re-examine our relationship with Jesus through the Eucharist. The Eucharist is an offer of intimacy from Jesus to us: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (Jn 6:56) But have we rejected Jesus? Some of us have lost the Eucharistic amazement and do not receive the Eucharist very often. Some of us, while receiving the Eucharist regularly, do it in a perfunctory manner. The Eucharist, like any Sacraments, presupposes faith. For a Sacrament to have its desired effect on our life, we must first have faith. Only then is our heart open to Jesus when we receive the Sacrament.

In humility and docility, let us open our hearts to Jesus. As St Paul commanded us, let us subject in everything to Him. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (15 Aug 2021)

Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Revelation 11:19,12:1-6,10
1 Corinthians 15:20-26
Luke 1:39-56

As I approach the Eucharistic table, do I marvel, am I transformed?

We are now in the 4th week of the our five-week reflection on the Holy Eucharist, “the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). In the first week, we reflected on how God multiplied the gifts we bring to Him. In the second week, we reflected on our motivations for bringing forward our gifts. Last week, we reflect our expectations as we bring forth the gifts. Throughout our reflection, one thing is clear, our gifts are necessarily inadequate; our motivations and expectations not always pure. This is why we need Jesus. To emphasise this point, we ended last week’s reflection on Jesus’ proclamation that He is “the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41). As we present our gifts, we invite Jesus in; and through Him, we complete and perfect our offerings. At the Eucharistic table, by the grace of God, the earthly bread we present are mingled and then transformed into the heavenly bread of God.

As in the previous week, we would ordinarily be continuing our Eucharistic reflection by reflecting on John 6:51-58. However, with this Sunday coinciding with the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, we will reflect on the Eucharist in the context of the life the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the role she plays in our salvation.

As Catholics, we often say that on the Eucharistic table, the bread is the true flesh of Jesus; the wine the true blood of Jesus. The question is: while we say this on our lips, do we believe in our hearts? To truly believe this in our hearts, we need to open our eyes of faith. For to our naked eye, it is still ordinary bread, ordinary wine. Let us ask ourselves: do I gaze at the ordinariness of the bread and wine before me and marvel at Jesus’ presence in His flesh and blood? Even more importantly, as I partake in the bread and the wine, as Jesus becomes physically mingled into my being, do I let Him transform me? Do I share in His love and His mercy? Do I proclaim His truth? If I truly believe that the Eucharist is the flesh and blood of Jesus, then the answers to these questions must be an unequivocal “yes”. But does it? And if not, why not?

The First Reading presented us a eschatological vision, where “the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple” (verse 11:19). What was in the Ark of Covenant? As St Paul explains in his letter to the Hebrews, “In it stood the golden altar of incense and the ark of the covenant overlaid on all sides with gold, in which there were a golden urn holding the manna, and Aaron’s rod that budded, and the tablets of the covenant” (Heb 9:4) Reflecting on this, St Thomas Aquinas said that the three items personifies Jesus – Aaron’s rod signifies Jesus’ priestly ministry, the tablets inscribe Word of God who is Jesus, and the manna are food from heaven, the Eucharist. As the First Reading passage continues, it reveals that the ark is in fact “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birthpangs, in the agony of giving birth” (verse 12:1-2). As exclaimed by Pope Benedict XVI, “Mary, expecting the birth of her Son Jesus, is the Holy Ark that contains the presence of God”. Mary is the bearer of Jesus in His flesh and in His blood. In truth, she is the bearer of the Eucharist.

The Gospel recalls the story of the Visitation. Mary, carrying the flesh and blood of Jesus in her womb, visited her cousin Elizabeth who was blessed with a long-awaiting pregnancy in her old age. Elizabeth was one who truly believe that Mary was carrying the flesh and blood of God in her womb (verse 43). As we ought to be at the Eucharistic table, Elizabeth marvelled at this encounter. On hearing Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped in her womb (verse 41). In her mother’s womb, John the Baptist too marvelled at the presence of Jesus. Elizabeth asked Mary, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” (verse 42-44) And Mary, equally marvelled, replied, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (verse 46-48). It was truly a marvelled encounter, similar to our encounter with Jesus each time we approach the Eucharistic table.

Today, the Ark of Covenant exists in our church in the form of the Tabernacle, which holds Jesus in His flesh and blood. The Ark of Covenant exists in our body, as we partake in the Eucharist. And the Ark of Covenant exists in our heart, as we take Mary into the home of our hearts (Jn 19:27). If we are conscious of it, the marvel of God is in and around us all the time. But we are not always conscious of Jesus’ presence. The reason is because we are constrained. We are limited by our past, the baggage we carry, and our preoccupation with materialism and individualism.

In John 6:51-58, the Eucharistic discourse we would have been reflecting this week, Jesus said, “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” (verse 51) This was a great challenge to the people, and they asked, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” (verse 52) They could not understand how they could eat the flesh of a living person, not to mention the grotesque nature of the very act. They were so focus on their personal limitations that they lost sight of the spiritual transformation that Jesus was promising them. So Jesus pointed out to them, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (verse 56-57)

What about me? Do I carry past baggage and past hurts, am I so attracted to the materialistic lure of the world, so much so that they blind me from seeing the Lord? When I approach the Eucharistic table, am so focus on my limitations that I lost sight of the spiritual transformation that Jesus brings? My brothers and sisters, in truth, many of us are. That is why we can come to mass day-in-day-out, week-in-week-out; yet our life has not been transformed, we are not healed, we are not freed. In the Second Reading, St Paul wrote, “since death came through a human being, the resurrection of the dead has also come through a human being” (verse 21). By human sins, my sins and the sins of those around me, death comes into my life. To be resurrected from our death, we need to open our heart to Jesus. My brothers and sisters, what we were in the past, what we did, and what others did to us does not matter. Jesus can make us whole again. He is reaching out to us. Healing is on offer each time we approach the Eucharistic table. Take that first step; invite Him in through the Eucharist; reflect on the Scripture daily; encounter Him. “For as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ” (verse 22).

Oh Blessed Virgin Mary, bearer of the Eucharist, pray for us.

Weekly Reflection (8 Aug 2021)

Saint Mary of the Cross (MacKillop)

1 Kings 17:8-16
Colossians 3:12-17
Matthew 6:25-34

As I present my gift in service, what are my expectations? Is my focus worldly or heavenly?

Two weeks ago, we commenced on a reflection on the Eucharist, the Body and Blood of Christ given to us. On the first week, we reflected on how God blesses and completes the gifts we present to Him. Last week, we looked into ourselves and reflected on our motivations for presenting our gifts. This week, we continue our reflection on presenting our gifts in service to God and to our community.

Ordinarily, we would be celebrating the 19th Sunday of Year B this weekend. We would have continued reading St John’s discourse on the Eucharist, John 6:41-51. However, as it the Solemnity of Saint Mary of the Cross (MacKillop), we will continue our reflection on the Eucharist in the context of the life and example of St Mary MacKillop, our Australian Saint. There is much we can learn from St Mary MacKillop on presenting our gifts to God and on serving God.

My brothers and sisters, let us ask ourselves: when I come forth to present my gifts, do I come with expectations? Perhaps I expect those I serve to respond receptively? Or perhaps I expect those I serve to be grateful? It is natural to have such expectations. In fact, it is something very human. The First Reading was set in the context of a severe famine in the land. Elijah was sent by God to a poor widow in Zarephath. The widow and her son were starving. They had but a little food left, the last meal they were likely to have before they would die of starvation (verse 12). In spite of the widow’s state of destitute, when Elijah asked her for some water and food, she offered the very little she had to a prophet of God. She reminded us of another widow in the Gospel, who offered to God two small copper coins, which was “everything she had, all she had to live on” (Mk 12:42-44). In spite of being one of the most oppressed social groups of the times, these two widows showed tremendous generosity. On his part, Elijah who received the gifts was receptive and grateful. In fact, by the power of God, Elijah multiplied the food and kept the widow and her household fed. This is a parallel story to the Gospel story from two weeks ago, when Jesus fed 5000 (John 6:24-35). In that instance, Jesus took the meagre gift of five loaves and two fishes from a small boy, multiplied them such that the gifts may achieve their intended purpose of feeding the people.

Often in our life, unlike the widow and the small boy who presented their gifts to God, when we present our gifts to our fellow brothers and sisters, we are not met with receptiveness and gratefulness. Often when we offer our gifts in service, those who are grateful to us are only silently grateful. Their gratitude is often not openly expressed. On the other hand, those who are not happy with us tends to be the more vocal. Perhaps the service we delivered are imperfect in some ways; perhaps they do not understand the constraints we have to work under or the sacrifices we made; perhaps there is a misunderstanding; or perhaps they are simply being spiteful because of past hurts that they habour. Whatever the case, it can be very disheartened when our efforts are not unappreciated; when all we hear are negative responses of complaints and dissatisfactions. Discouraged, we consider giving up our ministry. But if we do, many of those we serve, the silent grateful majority, would lose out.

St Mary MacKillop was called to serve God in providing education to children from poor families. In the mid 19th Century, St Mary and her Sisters of St Joseph ran schools across Adelaide and the countryside. Later, St Mary and her Sisters established schools in Brisbane and surrounds. But church politics would drive the sisters out of the schools they established in Brisbane. Then came the most devastating blow. St Mary was accused of insubordination and excommunicated from the Church. As a result, most of the schools were closed. This must have been a very dark period in St Mary’s life. While the children and their families were grateful for her service, St Mary must have felt unappreciated and discouraged. But God would send her deliverance. She was exonerated. She gained approved from Rome for her work and the Josephite Sisters grew from strength to strength. St Mary’s faith and persistence has enabled her to once again fulfill her calling in the education of poor children.

My dear friends, what about us? Have we asked ourselves: why am I discouraged? What is the underlying reason? In truth, we are discouraged because we treat our callings as worldly missions, the success of which are measured by worldly standards. Hence, like any worldly endeavours, we are encouraged when we are praised; discouraged when we are undermined and criticised. In the Gospel this week, Jesus invites us to widen and deepen our horizon, to move beyond our worldly pre-occupations: “do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (verse 25) This does not mean that we could totally transcend above our worldly worries. Rather, we should shift focus away from these. Jesus invites us to “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (verse 33).

John 6:41-51, the Gospel passage we would have been reading this week, carries a similar message. As Jesus led his followers through the Eucharistic discourse, He invites them to shift their focus away from the worldly physical, and focus on the heavenly spiritual. Referring to the manna that God rained down from heaven during Exodus times, Jesus said, “Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died.” (Jn 6:49) Instead, Jesus asked his followers to focus on “the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die” (Jn 6:50), for “whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (Jn 6:51). So, what is this bread? More correctly, who is this bread? Jesus declared, “I am the bread that came down from heaven” (Jn 6:41); “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn 6:51). (We will explore this deeper next week.)

Hence, my dear friends, this is what we should focus our expectations on when we present our gifts. The gifts we present are talents God blesses us with, they are heavenly gifts. From heaven gifts come heavenly rewards. Hence, be careful not to over-emphasise on worldly rewards. World rewards are superficial, transient and they often disappoint. As for those who constantly offer us negative responses of complaints and dissatisfactions, we ought to listen to them. If they make a good point, take it on board so that we may improve. And under all circumstances, do not forget to love them. St Paul advises us in this week’s Second Reading, “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” (verse 12-14)

“And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” (verse 17) Amen.

Weekly Reflection (1 Aug 2021)

18th Sunday Year B

Exodus 16:2-4,12-15
Ephesians 4:17,20-24
John 6:24-35

Through the Eucharist, let us serve others as Jesus serves us.

Many of us come to church regularly. Some of us even serve in church ministries, giving our time and talent generously. Have we ever asked ourselves, what motivates me to make these sacrifices? Some of us do it because we enjoy the company, we gain companionship. Some of us do it because helping others creates a warm and fuzzy feeling inside us, we gain gratification. Still some of us do it because we enjoy the limelight and attention, we gain recognition. If these are the reasons we serve, in truth, we are only serving out of selfish reasons. Whether it is companionship, gratification or recognition, I serve because I have something to gain from it. While the work is good and results can be uplifting for the people of God, my motivation is not entirely pure. The truth is, to a greater or lesser extent, this applies to all of us.

In this week’s Scripture, God invites us to reflect on the reasons we bring our gifts to God and to our community. As we reflect in the days ahead, we are led to the love of Jesus. And I grow in love and in faith, I learn to purify my motives for my serving: that I serve because I love; and I love because Jesus loves me first.

In the First Reading recalled an episode when the Israelites were wondering the desert. We read, “the whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness” (verse 2). To be sure, taking a long hike through the desert is not a comfortable experience. We hear them complaining, “If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.” (verse 3) They said to Moses, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?” (Ex 17:3) Are the Israelites really as miserable as they claimed? Make no mistake, the Israelites were exaggerating their plights in order to victimise Moses. After all, if life in Egypt was so good, why did they cry out to God for deliverance (Ex 3:9)? Also, let us not forget that as they left Egypt, “they had asked the Egyptians for jewellery of silver and gold, and for clothing, … they plundered the Egyptians” (Ex 12:35-16) They brought with them “livestock in great numbers, both flocks and herds” (Ex 12:38) The truth is, they were unhappy with their living conditions. Hence, they exaggerated their plights in order to victimise Moses their leader. Their complaint to Moses is based on a lie.

The fact is, the Israelites followed God not because they experienced the love of God. They followed God because they witnessed His power and hoped to obtain tangible benefits from Him. They plundered the Egyptians of silver, gold and livestock as they left Egypt. But once the living conditions were not up to their expectation, when the tangible benefits cease, they started complaining. We do the same. If personal benefits are what motivate us, like the Israelites, we too will complain at the first sight of hardships. Like the Israelites, we exaggerate the truth, even make up lies in order to victimise our co-workers and leaders in our church community. And eventually, we cause so much disenchantment that many, sometimes including ourselves, give up their ministries.

It is the same with the crowd in the Gospel this week. Last week, we heard how Jesus multiplied the five loaves and two fishes and fed the people. This week, we hear how the crowd went into great length in seeking out Jesus. They “got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus” (verse 24). When they found Jesus, our Lord bluntly told them, “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves” (verse 26). Like the Israelites in the First Reading, the crowd did not seek Jesus out of love, but they were after tangible benefits for themselves. And even as they witness the miraculous multiplication of the loaves, they demanded Jesus for more miraculous signs, “What sign are you going to give us then, so that we may see it and believe you? What work are you performing? Our ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness; as it is written, ‘He gave them bread from heaven to eat.’” (verse 31-32) In other words, give us more free food, more benefits!

But God is always merciful and compassionate. Even though we are shallow and superficial, God attends to our needs. In the First Reading, God gave the people food from heaven. He rained down manna (bread) and quails to feed the people. In the Gospel, Jesus invites the crowd to look beyond the bread that satisfied their physical hunger; just as He invites us to look beyond tangible personal benefits. Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (verse 35) I am invited to serve Jesus with love. I am invited to purify my motives, so that I no longer serve because I may gain something from it. Rather, I am invited to draw my motivation from this “spring of water” in me “gushing up to eternal life” (Jn 4:14). As St Paul encourages us in the Second Reading, “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live, in the futility of their minds. That is not the way you learned Christ!” (verse 19-20) St Paul urges us to put away our myopic and shallow self, “corrupt and deluded by its lusts” (verse 22). For what is lust but a self-gratifying desire to satisfy oneself above all else? Instead, St Paul invites us “to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to clothe yourselves with the new self, created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness” (verse 23-24).

Last week, we begin a five-week reflection on the Holy Eucharist. We reflected on how as we bring our gifts and talent to God, he multiplied it so that our God-given gifts may serve their intended purpose. In returning the gifts to humanity, Jesus blended Himself within the gifts. So that it not just human gifts we are receiving, but the gift of Jesus Himself. In the same way, as we serve others, Jesus multiplies. So that it is not just our gifts we are presenting, but Jesus Himself.

My brothers and sisters, I invite you to dwell on these thoughts in the days ahead. Next week, we celebrate the Feast Day of St Mary McKillop, Australia’s first Saint. Till then, my brothers and sisters, may His gush of spring water continue to well up within you. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (25 Jul 2021)

17th Sunday Year B

2 Kings 4:42-44
Ephesians 4:1-6
John 6:1-15

Our gifts, God’s grace.

Beginning this week and for the next four weeks, the Gospel takes us on a journey of discovery, a wonderful and amazing discovery into the mystery that is the Eucharist. For five weeks, the Gospel will take us through chapter 6 of the Gospel of John, through a beautiful discourse on the Eucharist.

We start this week with a reflection on the question of gifts. What has God gifted me with? In our individual and unique ways, we are all gifted. We are gifted with different virtues – intelligence, diligence, organisation capability; and also, as the Second Reading this week points out, humility, gentleness and patience. Some of us are also gifted with different physical attribute such as strength, height, health or good looks. These are God’s gifts to us. However, these gifts are not just meant for us to enjoy. We are called to serve God in humanity with what God has given us. In the Second Reading, St Paul urges each of us to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (verse 1). And the way each of us can contribute is as different and as unique as the gifts we are individually given. We all have a part to play. My brothers and sisters, have you been given great gifts? Jesus said, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.” (Lk 12:48)

We are use our gifts to serve God; we can also use the gifts to serve against God. As we present our gifts in service to God and humanity, St Paul stresses the importance of maintaining unity. He encourages us to “making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (verse 3), as “there is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (verse 4-6). St Paul’s advice is especially appropriate in our church community, where many volunteers come forth offering their time, their skills and their gifts. So we ask ourselves, as I offer my gifts, am I offering them in humility in service to God? Or do I come with a sense of self-importance, thinking that my gifts are more superior, that I am more important than others? And as I impose my ego and sense of self-importance upon others, do I draw resentment? And as resentments permeates through my church community, am I fostering division rather than unity? And if my church community do not foster unity in one God, does the community still manifest as one body of Christ? Ultimately, we need to ask ourselves, who am I really serving? Am I serving God? Or am I serving my own ego? Who am I really worshipping? God or myself? In truth, the worship of self is the root devotion of all idol worhsips.

So, how should we use our gifts then? The First Reading and the Gospel this week gave us two examples of the people presenting their gifts to God. “A man came from Baal-shalishah, bringing food from the first fruits to the man of God: twenty loaves of barley and fresh ears of grain in his sack” (verse 42). The “food from the first fruits” refers to the season’s first produce of the land. To offer these first produce is a sign of utter respect and reverence. In any case, “twenty loaves of barley” is a substantial amount. We can presume this man is a well-endowed and wealthy man. In the Gospel, we have a boy offering Jesus “five barley loaves and two fish” (verse 9). Compared to the contributions of the man in the First Reading, the boy’s contributions are very small contribution indeed, at least in the eyes of the world. The truth is, regardless of the differing size of their contributions, they were insufficient. In both cases, God had to intervene to multiply the contributions, so that the contributions may serve their intended purpose of feeding the people. Hence, it would be myopic and self-centred for us to think that just because my particular gifts are more substantial, I despise others who are less gifted according to my worldly view. Without the grace of God, my gifts, no matter how generous, is insufficient. In humility, we must recognise that we alone cannot satisfy the needs of God’s people. We need God to bless our gifts.

Through our gifts, God calls us to cooperate with him. In the Gospel, Jesus could have fed the people all by Himself. Instead, He accepted the meagre gift from the boy, He gave thanks to God for the gifts (verse 11), before He performed the miracle of the multiplication. At this point, let us now cast our mind on the Liturgy of the Eucharist. Like the First Reading and the Gospel, we brought forth our gifts of bread and wine. Ponder for a moment what the bread and wine are made of? The bread is countless grains of wheat crushed and blended into one; the wine is countless globes of grapes crushed and blended into a drink. The bread and wine represent us, not just because they are the fruits of our labour, but they are us. As we presence ourselves in the bread and the wine, we need to be crushed and blended. Crushed, because in giving ourselves in humility, we must necessarily die to ourselves. Blended, because in the words of St Paul in the Second Reading, we are called into “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (verse 3). Then, as in the First Reading and the Gospel, God takes our offerings, miraculously transform them, and offer them to the people. In offering us the Eucharist, Jesus is not offering the gifts we bring. He is offering Himself, crushed and blended with us. As we will read in the coming weeks of the Eucharist, Jesus said, “for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink” (Jn 6:55).

In the Gospel, after the people had their fill, we are told the leftover measured twelve baskets. In Jewish numerology, twelve is a number representing abundance; and hence this represents the abundance of God’s grace and His generosity. This miracle happened at Passover time. It would be Passover again when Jesus broke the bread and gave it to the people, instituting the Eucharistic. Jesus commanded the disciples to “gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost” (verse 12). Reflect on this for a moment. The bread is us. It does not matter where we are in our faith life, Jesus will gather each and everyone of us to Him, so that no one may be lost. Amen.

Weekly Reflection (18 Jul 2021)

16th Sunday Year B

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Ephesians 2:13-18
Mark 6:30-34


All organisations need leaders. Good leaders unite the people, give them a sense of purpose; and over time the organisation grows from strength to strength. On the other hand, weak leaders disillusion the people, bring division, scatter the people; and over time weaken or even destroy the organisation. It is the same with our Church. We have many leaders in our Church – some good, some weak.

Divisions has existed among the faithful since the very early days. It is a trait of our darkened human nature. In Old Testament times, there was the division between the two Jewish kingdoms of Israel and Judah. The First Reading last week tells the story of Amos, a prophet from the southern kingdom of Judah, who was called by God to preach to the people of the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos was rejected by the religious leaders of Israel, who asked him to return to Judah. In New Testament time, the division between Jews and Gentiles was very pronounced. The Jews believed they are the chosen race. Only Jews may worship in Jerusalem; and even in the Jerusalem temple, there were designated areas exclusive to the Jews. As the gentile Samaritan woman said to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you [the Jews] say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.” (Jn 4:20). Division persists in our Church to this day. Sometimes, we see church groups with very clear designated “territories” that other groups should not infringe upon. And if a new group of volunteers offer their services to an established “territory” of another group, instead of the existing group welcoming new ideas and new workers, the new volunteers are sometime viewed as a threat and rejected. The root cause of this is weak leadership exacerbated by self-centredness and a narrow-minded mindset.

It is in the context of weak leadership and divisions that St Paul offers his exemplary leadership to the people of God. St Paul was a Jew and a Roman citizen, called by God to evangelise to the Gentiles. The diversity of St Paul’s background and calling is a stark reminder to all leaders of the Church today, clergy and laity alike. We care called to provide good leadership to all people of God, whatever the group, ethnicity, nationality; or in fact, whether the person belongs to our Church or not. Referring to the Jew-Gentile division, St Paul observed in the Second Reading this week, that Jesus “has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it” (verse 14-16).

The First Reading this week is from the Book of Jeremiah. Jeremiah was a prophet living in the land of Judah around 600BC. During this time, the Jewish religious leaders were weak leaders, not fulfilling their duties as the shepherds of their people. In the First Reading, God issued this stern warning: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! … It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the Lord.” (verse 1, 2) Assuring the people, God promised that He himself will become their Shepherd, to gather his people back to their pastures (verse 3, see also Ezekiel 34:11-12). The passage then goes on to foretell the coming of a Saviour from the lineage of David, who will be that Shepherd, a prophecy fulfilled when Jesus came into the world.

Jesus is the quintessential good leader all of us should model our leadership to, whether we are leaders in the Church, at work, at social settings or in our homes. When St Paul exemplify his good leadership in the Second Reading, he was quoting and modelling himself to Jesus. The Gospel passage this week tells the story of how Jesus ministered to the people. John the Baptist, Jesus’ beloved cousin, has just been beheaded by King Harod (Mk 5:17-29). Understandably, Jesus needed some quiet time with those closest to Him, to mourn and to grief. He said to the Apostles, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” (verse 31) “And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves.” (verse 32) However, the people needed Him. They tracked Him down and as Jesus “went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things.” (verse 34) The phrase “sheep without a shepherd” proclaims Jesus to be the fulfilment of the prophecy in the First Reading. But perhaps more importantly, the story illustrates to us what true leadership means. It is not an ego-centric endeavour for us to fulfil only at a time and place convenient to us. It is to die to ourselves every day for the good of the people we serve. In the Gospel, in spite of Jesus being in mourning, He felt compassion for the people and ministered to them.

As we read how the crowd deprived Jesus of His quiet time in the Gospel story this week, in our spiritual journey, we must nevertheless recognise the importance of spending quite time with the Lord – to rest, to reflect and to recharge. As leaders, if we do not invest in our own spiritual well-being, we cannot be good leaders. We need time not just to rest, but also to pray, to reflect and form ourselves. We need to build up the repository of God’s grace within our soul. Jesus did this often in the Gospel, often making special efforts to do it. For example, leaving the Apostles, He would wake up early, “while it was still very dark, … went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.” (Mk 1:35) Some leaders make the mistake of labouring constantly without taking time for spiritual recharge. If we do this, we risk burning out; and perhaps more dangerously, depleting our spiritual reservoir such that we are no longer equipped to withstand the inevitable trials that leadership entails.

Let us conclude this week’s Scripture reflection by a self-reflection of our own leadership. Am I a weak or selfish leader like Amaziah in last week’s First Reading? Or am I a good and selfless leader like Jesus and St Paul and this week’s Second Reading and Gospel? Do I take time to reflect, rest and recharge so that I may be a better leader, and a better servant to God? My brothers and sisters, let us go in peace to love and to serve. Amen.