Grace to you!
You may have heard the story of the Pharisee and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) over and over again. Perhaps, you have also gleaned some aspects of the story very important in understanding the two personalities.
You would realize that both of them were believers in the same God. Both belonged to the same religion and both worshipped in the same temple. At the end of the worship, one goes home at peace with God, but the other doesn’t. Why?
Though many of us may have a wrong conception of the Pharisees, we will appreciate this story more if we learned that the Pharisees were the most disciplined and religious of all the Jews. They were serious-minded believers who had committed themselves to a life of regular prayer and observance of God's Law. In fact, they went beyond the requirements of the law. They fasted twice a week, Mondays and Thursdays, even though the law only required people to fast once a year, on the Day of Atonement. They gave tithes of all their income and not just of the required parts.
When the Pharisee in the parable said, “I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income,” (Luke 18:11-12) he wasn't kidding. Few Christians today can measure up to the visible moral standards of the Pharisees.
Tax collectors, on the other hand, were generally regarded as people of low moral standards, except that they still hoped for salvation not on the merits of any religious or moral achievements of theirs, but on the gracious mercy of God. Here is the radical difference.
Jesus told this parable against the Pharisees because they “trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt” (verse 9). The tax collector, on the other hand, trusted not in himself or in anything he had done, but only in God’s mercy. Standing far off, he would not even look up to heaven, but beat his chest and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” (v. 13). This is the man who went home at peace with God, and not the self-righteous Pharisee.
Let us learn from the tax collector the secret of worshipping in a manner that is acceptable to God. Firstly, we should not listen to other people or even to our own consciences when they tell us that God is so angry with us and that God cannot possible forgive us. God is kind and merciful – trust God’s mercy.
Secondly, we must acknowledge our sinfulness, confess them and entrust ourselves to the generous mercy of God which is bigger than any sins we might have committed. May we not presume the mercy of God.
Finally, we promise God to never look down on our fellow sinners, but to help them in their search for God, just like the figure of the tax collector is helping us today in our appreciation of Divine Mercy.
May I end with this wonderful story told by Venerable Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen. He visited the prisons. The prisoners expected the renowned Catholic speaker to mesmerize them with his oratory. Instead, he spoke with a sincere tone of humility: The sin you committed I committed. The difference is that you were caught in the act whereas I wasn’t.
Remember, God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5). “The humble person’s prayer pieces the clouds….” (Sirach 35: 17).
Lord, bless me with a humble and repentant heart. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Homily 30th Sunday C: Sirach 35:15-17, 20-22; 2Tim 4:6-8, 16-18; Luke 18:9-14)]
Grace to you!
When evil befalls people, is it because of their sins or for some other reasons?
Among the Jews of the biblical times, as was with many of the ancient worlds, there was a gradual development of the idea that when evil happens to a person, it is because the person was guilty of one sin or another. This view was shared by many. This is what is called the traditional thesis of retribution. The entire Old Testament Book of Job was written, in part, to debunk this erroneous belief. Many still hold it today.
People often have the mental frame that those beset with unfortunate misfortune must have done something wrong to deserve it. We see this belief in our communities and our families. It’s a form of an-eye-for-an-eye belief wrongfully attributed to God’s Justice.
The disciples of the Lord Jesus were not free from this temptation. Did you not read in John 9:2-3, where they were quick to judge that the blind man must have become blind due to his or his parents’ sins? The Lord refuted their error, teaching that the man’s condition is for God’s work to be made manifest.
In another situation (as recorded in Luke 13: 1-9), the Lord refuted the quick-to-judge mentality concerning a horrific massacre of some Galileans by Pilate, telling the people it wasn’t because the murdered were the worse sinners. Instead, a call for repentance for all is divine expectation in cases of this kind. Then he tells the story of the barren fig tree, thereby revealing the intention of God for all—bearing the fruits of repentance.
Get this: Suffering is revelatory. When people suffer or when calamities befall us, it isn’t necessarily because of our sins—though no one merits the righteousness of God. As St Josemaría Escrivá said, “When you meet with suffering, the cross, your thought should be: what is this compared with what I deserve?” (The Way, 690). We are sinners and if the strict justice of God were to meet us, no one can be saved.
Suffering is revelatory in at least two ways. It reveals the unimaginable mercy of God who patiently waits for the sinner to repent. When people ask, “why does it seem bad guys do well and the righteous suffer a lot?”, it could be God is giving bad guys a very long rope so they can repent. As we read from the prophesy of Ezekiel 18:23, God doesn’t take pleasure in the death of a sinner; rather God wants the sinner to repent and live.
Suffering is also revelatory of God’s justice, the justice of mercy, “the justice of love” (Pope Benedict XVI, 2011, n. 25) and purification. When we suffer, we become partakers in the sufferings of Christ and the fruits of our suffering align with the fruits of righteousness. As the Lord relates, just like a sown seed does not germinate and produce fruit unless it first dies (Jn 12:24), so are we. Through suffering, we actually become a productive vine.
I pray for you today, that you will see the face of God upon the faces of suffering that come your way. May the revelation of God’s mercy, grace and strength find you as you carry your cross every day. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Saturday Week 29: Rm 8:1-11; Lk 13:1-9]
Grace to you!
When I was in kindergarten, a nun showed us a movie about the rich man and Lazarus. The movie depicted how uncaring the rich man was. Whenever the rich man crossed the entrance to his home, he would refuse to offer bread to the poor man (Lazarus) who sat begging for food.
I had a very bad impression of the rich man, believing he was heartless, too callous as not to help a poor, dying beggar. However, as I grew up, I started to read the bible myself and discovered that the movie exaggerated the rich man’s story. At face value, the rich man wasn’t really that mean; he behaved the same way many of us do today.
Look at the true story as it is presented in Scripture (Luke 16:19-31). Read it prayerfully. Lazarus never begged for bread. He only wished to have the scraps from the rich man’s table. No one gave him anything to eat. He only wished, he never asked. Pay attention to this distinction because, in my opinion, it is important. So, how is it that the rich man is found guilty of an offense he never committed? How is it the Lord depicted his action as those deserving of eternal punishment? Afterall, Lazarus never asked.
If one were to follow the law of the time during which the parable was told, the rich man did not commit any offense because Lazarus never made any request. Isn’t it a common expectation that when people don’t ask, they shouldn’t expect to receive? Lazarus never asked. One may say, as is usually the case nowadays: “He is neither my buddy nor my family, so who cares.” Often, many of us have this kind of attitude in response to situations that require our moral sensitivity and response.
Nonetheless, regarding praiseworthy morality, what is right and wrong is not measured only by what we have done, but also by what we have failed to do. At least, this is basic Catholic moral sense of responsibility. It isn’t simply about what evil we may have done. It is also about the good deeds we failed to do. The two go together. The latter is even more inspiring since it is more evidently connected with the law of charity. It is in this that the rich man got it wrong; completely wrong.
We have to understand that failure to do good may be the same as doing evil. Note that St. Augustine described evil as the absence of good (none being). Offenses against God and humanity aren’t only about actively committing sin or doing evil things, but also failing to do good. It is failing to be that moral light and existence which we are and should lead.
At the beginning of the celebration of the Eucharist, during the penitential rite, we Catholics recite the Confiteor (I Confess). We pray to be forgiven, for what we have done and what we have failed to do. All traditional Catholic prayers for repentance, including the Act of Contrition,contain the same element—what we have done wrong and what good we have failed to do.
The sin of the rich man was that he failed to notice that at the corner of his luxurious home (I suppose) and in contrast to his flamboyant garb, was a poor person who could have lived longer had he been given food and basic care. The sin of the rich man was negligence; or in moral theology, what is called sin of omission.
Negligence is, therefore, as serious an offense as the active commission of a sin. Doing just enough to get by is not right. Basic hospitality and generosity to the poor around us is a Christian duty, not simply an option. Christians are called to go the extra mile. Our practice of virtue goes the extra mile. Our spiritual life isn’t couched in simply avoiding evil or sin, as it is about doing what is good, honorable and virtuous.
As we go about our schedules this new week, let us also know that God expects us to be more conscious of the needy, and needy situations, around us. Also, it is important to be sensitive to a number of people who, though are dying of need, may not be courageous enough to ask. It is even worse when they ask, and we fail to help when we can.
May we, therefore, look around our homes, streets, places of work, schools, clubs, etc., to see if there is a Lazarus. That Lazarus may need some help from us. It’s wonderful, actually virtuous, if we notice and offer some help.
Remember, if good isn’t done, evil has a field day. Just like the practice of virtue is, invariably, the stifling of vices. Go for the good!
Praying for more grace of generosity. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[26th Sunday C: Am 6:1, 4-7; 1 Tm 6:11-16; Lk 16: 19-31]
Grace to you!
Today’s reflection, which is a continuation of our thoughts from the sampled readings of Genesis, focuses on the tendency to play a blame game when we falter. I offer a suggestion on how to confront our demons head on and find answers and healing.
Did you notice that in our lives, more often than not, when things go wrong, we tend to look outside to see who is the cause? We look to person A or person B, situation A or situation B. It is easier to blame others than to blame ourselves.
We tend to judge others more harshly than we judge ourselves. Actually, many times, by judging others, we find excuses for our own indiscretions. It makes us feel good about ourselves. This proclivity is not unique to us as individuals. It was one of the first responses of our first parents Adam and Eve when they were confronted by the Lord after they committed Original Sin. It’s a natural human tendency.
After Adam and Eve violated God’s command not to eat of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, their nakedness became evident to them. And when God takes the stage to call them to responsibility beginning with the man (Adam) to whom the Lord expressly gave the command, the man blamed the woman. Perhaps, he indirectly blamed God who gave him the woman. The woman blamed the serpent. So, the circle goes.
The Lord asked a simple question: “Have you eaten of the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” Then the LordGod said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent beguiled me, and I ate.” (Gn 3:11-13).
Blame game. We forget that true self-discovery and true recovery happens when we dare tell ourselves the truth about ourselves. We notice this during the sacrament of reconciliation, Confession. Contrition, that is true sorrow for ours sins, is required for a good spiritual healing and restoration. No one who truly understands what making amends is goes to confession blaming other people. No one who wants to receive grace and mercy goes to God blaming others.
We come to God asking for mercy for ourselves and for others. We know that the Lord is everywhere and knows us through and through. The Lord knows each situation through and through just like the Lord’s Holy Presence was everywhere in the garden of Eden whether Adam and Eve knew it or not. The Lord sees. The Lord knows. Scripture says, even before we were molded in our mom’s womb, the Lord knows everything through and through (Ps 139).
Let’s face it. “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rm 3:23). Christian understanding of human nature is such that we acknowledge the reality of human frailty. We believe that the consequences of Original Sin affect all of humankind. No one is utterly good. No one is holy. No one is perfect except God (see Mk 10:18; Lev 19:2; I pet 1:16).
Also, God is all merciful. The Lord welcomes our repentant heart, our contrite spirit (Ps 51:17). In fact, in relating with us, the Lord is full of kindness and compassion (Ps 103:8, 145:8). The Lord is “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ex 34:6). The same way the Lord had pity on the crowd who was starving as to miraculously feed them (Mk 8:1-10), the Lord has pity on us when we are spiritually starving.
Hence, approach the Lord not hiding yourself or finding excuses for your failings. Approach God in humility asking for mercy and grace. You will receive grace in abundance, and healing too. Amen.
God love you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Saturday Week 5 Ordinary Time: Gn 3:9-24; Mk 8:1-10]
Grace to you!
It could’ve been an exciting day when our Savior Jesus Christ sat after His triumphant, though precarious, entrance into Jerusalem. Earlier, the priests, scribes and elders questioned his authority for trying to cleanse the Father’s temple (Mk 11:15-19). A barrage of skeptical interrogations began, from irrelevant political questions and allegations, to a more theological curiosity about life after death and Jesus’ identity as the Christ. The Lord provided fascinating and life-saving insights about life and the world to come (see Mk 11-12:20-37).
Next, he addressed the hypocrisy of the scribes head on: “Beware of the scribes, who like to go about in long robes, and to have salutations in the market places and the best seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at feasts, who devour widows’ houses and for a pretense make long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation (Mk 12:38-40).”
The Lord set the stage for the great lesson to follow, in stark contrast to the ostentatious pride of some of the synagogue's leading men. Looking into the treasury during the offering, he found many wealthy people putting in large sums of money. At a section of the court of women, there were thirteen trumpet-shaped collection boxes where one may put offerings. Each box wore inscriptions describing, in brief, the purpose for which the offerings were made and the ministries or charities they fund. People were free to drop their offerings into the box for the ministry they wanted to support. Thus, Jesus observed how people gave so comparably little for what they loved so much. An irony!
Fat envelopes from the wealthy may have impressed the priest. Which pastor does not want big donations from the wealthy? But Jesus saw it differently. He was keen to see a pure gift, a gift that costs the giver something; a gift given without reserve; a holy sacrifice; a gift from the humble heart. In short, he was looking for a gift given with pure love and sacrifice. The Lord was not measuring the volume of the gift, but its quality. He wasn’t against the wealthy.
As each of the wealthy dropped off bags of huge coins, he looked through their minds and savings. He knows us through and through (Psalm 139). He knows and sees what is done in secret (Matt. 6:4). He found they gave little from their surpluses. In effect, their gift was less of a sacrifice than it was a routine giveaway of some benefits of windfall. They were handouts to God’s cause. Handouts to works of charity. Handouts to the ministries they claim to love so much.
Then a poor widow approached the treasury. She was not like any other in many ways. Luke describes her with two Greek adjectives denoting different levels of poverty in two successive verses of the Bible. First, she was described as a “poor” widow (Luke 21: 2). Next, she was described as abjectly and visibly poor (Lk 21:3). In spite of her unquestionable poverty, this widow offered to God all she had, all she had to live on. She made a sacrifice to God. God, who sees the heart, spoke about the wealth of her sacrifice: “For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, her whole living” (Mk 12:44). The woman was an immortalized example of someone who gives back to life, because she gives back to the Giver of Life. She believed she had come to give back, and in turn she received divine approval. In other words, she gave her heart, her all, her life. In her sacrifice, the poor widow could be compared to yet another woman, the Zarephath woman, whose story we read from 1 kings17:10-16.
Compare their example with many of ours. More often than we like to hoard. Even if we give back, many times it is with some ulterior motive of benefits from someone else. When we offer things to God or to the poor, we must have a tax-break; otherwise, we couldn’t possibly give. When we donate to hospitals or other nonprofit organizations, there must be public recognition, maybe on stone marbles, without which we could never again give to those organizations.
The above example of the widow is a clear and challenging principle to spiritual growth. We receive the measure we give (Lk 6:38). What we put into life is what we get out of life. It is as simple as that!
Scripture describes pure and unspoiled religion as follows:
“To visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world (James 1:27).”
“Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am’ (Isaiah 58: 7-9).”
Praying that God will give us the grace to give from the heart and with a sense of sacrifice. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Thirty Second Week Ordinary Time B: 1 Kg 17:10-16; Heb 9:24-28; Mk 12:38-44 or 12:41-44]
Grace to you!
Yesterday, we reflected on Philippians 2:12-18 where Saint Paul reminded us to do our part (work) in response to the grace we have received. In today’s reflection, the apostle talks to his beloved Church of the Philippians as he talks to us about the need that our renewal will spring from within the heart, not just be a mere physical mark or ritual.
You may have noticed that after baptism, or after the reception of any sacrament, nothing changes in our physical appearance. We still look the same. Our color and facial appearances look the same. We have the same feelings and emotions we use to have. Yet something has changed from within. The power of God’s grace changes us from the inside. We become new persons (2 Cor 5:17).
Whenever we truly receive the Lord, such as when we receive him in the Eucharist in a worthy manner, we are renewed from within. Conversion, inner transformation of the heart or deeper life in Christ, is what circumcision means for the Christian believer.
We are born again through baptism. Baptism essentially gives us the first gift of faith. It is through this faith, born in the heart, that one is born anew in Christ. This is in line with what Saint Paul was talking about while writing to the Philippians (3:1-8).
Some early Christian believers who were members of Judaism had insisted that physical circumcision is necessary for one to be saved. They were trying to impose the Jewish ritual on Christians and by so doing forcing others who weren’t Jews to practice the Jewish rite of initiation as if it were an essential Christian faith requirement. By so doing, they miss the point of the ritual of circumcision which, in the Christian way of understanding, is a physical sign of one’s willingness to follow and obey God’s ordinances (metanoia—conversion). They forget that though the ritual was prescribed in Gen 17:10, God’s word has also pointed to its central meaning in Deuteronomy 10:16 and Jeremiah 4:4. It is the renewal of the heart (circumcision of the heart).
Sometimes, in our worship and practice we do similar things to others who aren’t members of our culture or unique ways of prayer/worship. The point is that in many of our private spiritual exercises or prayers, for us to live the faith in greater fervor it has to reflect our true selves renewed from within.
As Saint Paul said, we are not circumcised according to the flesh. We are “circumcised of Christ” (Phil 3:11). In another place he called it “circumcision of the heart in the spirit” (Rm 2:29). Such a circumcision is not concerned with external or physical conditions to faith life to the detriment of the Spirit. Rather, it measures the physical based on what God has granted us in the Spirit.
So, in my spiritual life, how do I measure my faith life? Is it my physical observances that tell me how holy I have become or my deeper, spiritual renewal that informs my physical practices?
I pray that in all our religious observances, we be renewed from within, so our words and actions will be enlivened by the power of God. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Thursday Week 31 Ordinary Time: Phil 3:3-8; Lk 15:1-10]
Grace to you!
In many ways, hospitals reveal human needs. In the hospitals, we witness firsthand our weaknesses. The strong and the weak, the wealthy and the poor share the same fate. They lie on that uncomfortable bed and are pushed around in ways they may not have tolerated. In the hospitals, we surrender to the limitations of our nature as humans.
As we go through the emergency rooms, or the ICUs, sometimes we have that moment to reflect on our needs and inadequacies. In the hospitals too, we come close to the desire of many hearts to find answers. We want a miracle. We desire a savior. No one, not even the most stoic, wants to make the hospital a home. We want to be healed fast and get out of there.
The hospital situation could be seen as a metaphor to humanity’s condition. Sickness that leads people to the hospital is comparable to sin that leads people to unfreedom. Sin and sinful conditions call for healing from our heavenly physician, Christ. As a priest, it’s incredible to witness firsthand the joy of freedom as people walk out of the Confessional, having been freed from sin and the state of spiritual unfreedom. For me, it’s far more exciting than someone walking out of the hospital healed of their sickness.
Some of our brokenness as humans is social and structural. The people of Israel, for instance, witnessed firsthand the social dimension, and its implications for the group and for the individual during their exile in Babylon. They were taken to where they didn’t want to go. They were forced into the condition that was painful and humbling. The compassionate Lord responded to their call for healing: “Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you” (Is 35:4).
We read from the teachings of the Church that the story of the exile is a pointer to the story of the human condition in need of a Savior, Christ. This relates not simply to a group but also to individuals, such as the case in the New Testament miracle reported by Mark (7:31-35).
The man who was healed by the Lord in Mark 7:31-35 was described as deaf and with speech impediment. He needed a Savior. Though his situation was biological, and not his fault, by way of spiritual application, we could use it as relating to our spiritual needs too. The man is like anyone who lives in situations of spiritual needs, such as where they neither hear the good news nor proclaim the saving grace of God. He is like anyone bereft of grace by sin or sinful conditions. Conditions that prevent us from hearing or listening to God’s Word are terrible.
The Lord would use different sensory gestures of touching, seeing, spitting, eye lifting to heaven, and groaning to identify with the person in need. He demonstrates his connection with the individual and as well as his power to heal and save. “He himself bore our sins in his body .... By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Pet 2:24, see also Is 53:4-5). The Lord fulfills the promise of the messianic era for which the reference of Mark 7:35 is tied to Isaiah 35:5-6. “He has done all things well; he even makes the deaf hear and the dumb speak” (Mk 7:37).
What is your need? What is it that has tied us down that we live in a condition of unfreedom, unable to hear the whisper of God’s voice around us and unable to tell forth the beauty, goodness and truth of God’s saving grace? What is it that has taken our joy away and made us live in conditions that could be described like an exile, a desert or a wasteland? What is that need that calls for Christ’s redeeming grace? What is that sinful condition or painful past that has dulled our spiritual senses and made us lose sight of the holy, the pure and the love of God in us and in our neighbor?
What is that situation that has made us insensitive to the poor and the vulnerable in our midst and, therefore, unable to respond to them not with sympathy but with compassion and equal respect? What is that situation that has made us place values only in what people have and not who they are? Just like the story in the Letter of James (2:1-5), what is that condition that has made us close our eyes to see in the poor in our church or community the same dignity as the big donor who enjoys our respect?
Those situations call for the healing touch of Christ. In those situations, we need God’s saving grace to hear God speak and to respond accordingly.
Praying that God will grant us the grace of spiritual awareness and freedom from sinful conditions. Amen.
[Sunday Week 23 Ordinary Time B: Is 35:4-7; Jas 2:1-5; Mk 7:31-35]
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on the bible readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.