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24 February, 2021, Wednesday, 1st Week of Lent

February 24, 2021

THE UNCONVERTED CONVERTED


SCRIPTURE READINGS: [Jonah 3:1-10Ps 51:3-4,12-13,18-19Luke 11:29-32 ]

It is a fact that preaching to those Christians who are supposedly active in church and well informed of their faith is the most difficult.  We become numb or blind to our sins.  We do not see ourselves requiring any real conversion because we are already converted.  Whilst we do not say it openly, most of us do not think we are real sinners.  If anyone who needs conversion it is the others.  We are quick to judge the sins of others but are blind to our own.

Hence, we can understand the rejection of Jesus by the Jews.  Our Lord had performed many miracles.  He had fed the 5000 with five loaves and two fishes.  He had healed the sick and cast out demons from those who were possessed.  After all that He had done, the religious leaders accused Him of corroborating with Beelzebul.  (Lk 11:14-23) The Jews themselves in today’s gospel reading were too skeptical of our Lord.  This made the Lord remark, “This is a wicked generation; it is asking for a sign.”  What other signs do the Jews need to believe in Him?  Jesus however refused to give them signs, presumably, spectacular signs that they wanted to see, before they would believe.   For Jesus, He did not perform miracles to command attention or cower people into believe.  Rather, the miracles were always performed out of mercy and compassion for those who were suffering.  It was not the miracles that Jesus wanted to demonstrate but the love and mercy of God in the healing of the sick and the deliverance of the possessed.

Instead, the Lord gave two examples for them to draw their own conclusion.  “The only sign it will be given is the sign of Jonah. For just as Jonah became a sign to the Ninevites, so will the Son of Man be to this generation.”  The story of Jonah which we just read is a satire written by a Jew on the narrowmindedness of his fellow Jews.  The exclusivity of the Jews with regard to their being the Chosen People of God excluded people of all races and nations.  Only they were worthy to be saved whereas the infidels were all condemned to perdition.  This explains why Jonah refused to be sent to the Ninevites to call them to conversion.  Not only did he consider them to be undeserving of being saved but because the Assyrians were known for their evil and cruelty.  They were the most hated enemy of the Jews.  If we were Jonah, we too would not go and save our enemies.  In fact, we would wish them destruction and annihilation from the face of the earth.

But today the scripture readings underscore that God wants all to be saved.  St Paul in his letter to Timothy wrote, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.”  (1 Tim 2:1-4) Indeed, we cannot be so narrow-minded as to think that God wants to save only a particular race in the world.  The goodness of God and His all-embracing love for humanity who are all His creatures is beyond what we human beings can imagine.   His only criterion is that we repent of our evil deeds and believe in Him.

However, Jonah, like the Jews who marginalized the Gentiles, did not want to save the Ninevites.  Jonah reluctantly went to preach to them as commanded by the Lord.  He ran away from this mission the first time.  As a result, he was thrown into the sea to calm the storm so that those on board the ship could be rescued.  However, God rescued him by allowing him to take refuge in the belly of the whale for three days and nights.  God gave him a second chance.  Unfortunately, Jonah, like the Jews, failed to see how merciful God had been towards them.  In spite of their constant infidelity, the Lord continued to rescue them from their enemies.  God gave them more than a second chance.  God always forgave them when they repented.

God wanted to extend the same grace to the Ninevites as well, just as in the New Testament, Jesus and St Paul reached out to the Gentiles.  His grace is not for some exclusive race only.  So God sent Jonah to preach to his enemies, hoping that they would be converted.  Unlike the Jews who remained arrogant and refused to recognize our Lord when He preached the gospel, the Ninevites repented immediately.  Their repentance was manifested not just in putting on sackcloth and ashes, but they stopped doing evil.  The King decreed, “All are to put on sackcloth and call on God with all their might; and let everyone renounce his evil behaviour and the wicked things he has done.”  So it was more than just an external repentance, unlike the scribes and pharisees Jesus condemned in the gospel.  They performed pious actions just to impress people but their hearts were unconverted.  Indeed, the king did what Isaiah expected of his people when he called them to repentance.  “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?”  (cf Isa 58:5-7)

What was even more dramatic was not just the way they manifested their sorrow for their sins, but everyone was involved in the fasting and repentance.  “From the greatest to the least.”   When “the news reached the king of Nineveh” he “rose from his throne, took off his robe, put on sackcloth and sat down in ashes.”  Few kings would publicly demonstrate their humility before the almighty.  Among the Israelite kings, many of the prophets who prophesied and called for repentance were condemned, put in prison and suffered persecution. Instead of repenting, they resented the call of the prophets.  But not for this Ninevite King who led the people in repentance through fasting and wearing of sackcloth.  Interestingly, even the animals were made to repent with the people.  “Men and beasts, herds and flocks, are to taste nothing; they must not eat, they must not drink water.”  They put on sackcloth, ashes and fasted as well.  Such was the heartfelt response of the people to the Word of God that was preached by Jonah.

The Israelites and the Jews on the contrary were indifferent and ignored the Word of God when it was preached to them.   They refused to repent, simply because they did not feel that they needed repentance.  They were too blind and superstitiously clung to their chosen status.  Not for the Ninevites.  They were more receptive to the truth than God’s own people.   Although they might not have had faith in the God of Israel, they had faith in God.  They believed in God and in the message of the prophet.  Hence, they repented sincerely and immediately.  They believed and trusted in God’s mercy even though they were not guaranteed that their fasting would stop the punishment of God.   They said, “Who knows if God will not change his mind and relent, if he will not renounce his burning wrath, so that we do not perish?”

Finally, their humility and response to God contrasts greatly with the way Jonah responded to God’s call to preach the message of repentance to the Ninevites.  Jonah acted as if he knew the mind of God towards the Ninevites.  This, too, was the arrogance of the Jewish people when it came to knowing God and observing the laws.  Christian leaders sometimes also give the impression that they always know the mind of God on specific matters.  The truth is that we come to know His mind whilst walking with Him along the way.  Only in walking with God each day, can we discover Him and His will in our lives.

This is why the Lord condemned His people for unbelief and the humility to recognize their sins.  He said, “On Judgement day the Queen of the South will rise up with the men of this generation and condemn them, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and there is something greater than Solomon here. On Judgement day the men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation and condemn it, because when Jonah preached they repented; and there is something greater than Jonah here.”   Jesus is greater than Jonah and wiser than Solomon.   He is the Word of God in person.  He is the Wisdom of God.  Alas, they did not recognize Him and rejected His word.   Jesus eventually even gave them the ultimate sign of Jonah when He was put to death and rose on the third day.  Still, the Jews did not accept Him.  It was the Gentiles that were converted through the mission of St Paul.


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. The contents of this page may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission from the Archbishop’s Office. This includes extracts, quotations, and summaries.


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online nor will they be available via email request.

22 February, 2021, Monday, Chair of St Peter, The Apostle

February 22, 2021

AUTHORITY TO OVERSEE, GUARD AND FEED THE FLOCK OF CHRIST


SCRIPTURE READINGS: [1 Peter 5:1-4Psalm 23:1-6Matthew 16:13-19 ]

Today, we celebrate the Feast of the Chair of Peter.  This is an ancient feast celebrated in Rome towards the end of the fourth century.  This feast is celebrated as a thanksgiving to God for the mission entrusted to the Apostle Peter and his successors.   The word “chair” is a symbol of authority, which is also the same word used in secular, educational and corporate organizations.  Chair refers to one who presides with authority.  The Chair of Peter therefore refers to the authority entrusted to Peter and his successors to oversee the Church of Christ, to guard and feed the flock of Christ.  From the word “chair” is derived the world “Cathedra” which means the seat of the bishop.  Hence, the Cathedral is considered as the mother church of the diocese.   It is here that the bishop exercises his authority in teaching and feeding the flock of Christ.  He sits on the cathedra where he exercises his office as teacher and shepherd, leading the flock of Christ to grow in faith, hope and charity.  In celebrating the Chair of Peter, we want to give thanks to God for the gift of the Holy Father and his successors in guiding her in the journey of faith. They are a sign of His providential love of His Church.

But today, the word “authority” is often met with suspicion.  People do not wish to be told what to do.  Everyone has his own mind.  Gone are the days when authorities, whether secular, corporate or religious, can expect submission from those under their charge.  Those in authority today have to explain their position, defend their policies and teachings.  And at the end of the day, the flock decides whether to believe, to listen and to follow.   This is because of relativism, individualism and a distrust not just in corporate, secular, political authority but especially in religious authority because of the abuses and scandals and bad examples of religious leaders.  As such, there is a much higher expectation from people today when someone is a religious leader.  Respect today is to be earned, not simply given because of the office.

This is why, bishops and all priests and religious leaders included, must avoid scandalizing the flock of Christ.  Religious leaders, as Pope Francis often warns us, should be careful not to fall into spiritual worldliness.  What temptations religious leaders can fall into are the same as those that plague the world.  These are the same temptations Satan sought to distract Jesus from His ministry, by tempting Him to take the easy way out by His power to satisfy His material and physical hunger, or to show forth His power and authority, putting fear into the hearts of people to submit to Him, or to choose fame and glory.  Today, priests are also tempted to abuse their power to satisfy their worldly needs.  This is why St Peter cautioned the elders, “watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, because God wants it; not for sordid money, but because you are eager to do it.”  The office of bishops as overseers must be assumed freely and always as an act of service and not because of greed for money or other worldly things.  Otherwise, we end up serving ourselves and bringing discredit to the faith and destroying the People of God and those who are searching for Christ.

Within this context, it is important for us to understand better the exercise of authority of the Holy Father and that of the apostolic college of bishops.  Indeed, the office of the Holy Father, and by derivation, the bishops, are overseers of the Catholic community, which is what the word, bishop really means.   Bishops are deputized by our Lord to provide guidance and care for His flock.  This is why bishops carry the crozier, the staff of a shepherd to signify their role to protect, defend and guard the flock under their care, more so than as a symbol of their authority.  Of course, the Holy Father and the bishops are exercising this role on behalf of Christ.  He is the Chief Shepherd and all bishops are called to be shepherds after His own heart.  The Pope, as the Bishop of Rome, has a preeminent position to be the visible vicar of Christ as the head of the universal Church.

As shepherds of the flock of Christ, bishops are called to imitate Christ the Good and Chief shepherd of the flock.  The shepherd leads not by driving his flock like cattle but as a shepherd walking ahead and among them, both in his words, deeds and examples.  This is what St Peter wrote to the elders.  “Be an example that the whole flock can follow.”  This is why the exercise of this office requires humility in service.  Authority is not to be abused or to dominate the lives of people.  Authority is always exercised for the common good of all, especially in the proclamation of truth, in doctrines and morals.  St Peter reminds the elders, “Never be a dictator over any group that is put in your charge.”

The authority of the Holy Father and all bishops working in communion with him, seeks to safeguard the deposit of faith entrusted to them and to keep the Church of God united in love, charity and in truth.  St Paul reminds the elders in Ephesus, “Keep watch over yourselves and over all the flock, of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God that he obtained with the blood of his own Son. I know that after I have gone, savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Some even from your own group will come distorting the truth in order to entice the disciples to follow them.”  (Acts 20:28-30) This is why today, the Papacy is better referred to as the Petrine ministry, a service on behalf of the universal church rather than the emphasis on authority.

Unity and communion are important for the Church of Christ.  Division in the Church causes weakness.  This was why our Lord prayed in His last testament for unity in the Church.  “As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  That they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.”  (Jn 17:21-23) He also told the disciples, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (Jn 13:34f)

The bishops together with the Holy Father are called to be the exemplar of communion.  This is why bishops never act alone but always in communion with the head of the Church, the Holy Father.  When the pope acts alone on doctrines and morals, he too always acts in communion with the apostolic college as its head.  This is why there are limits on the exercise of papal infallibility as he cannot teach contrary to the deposit of faith.  The word “college” means the exercise of authority requires consultation and dialogue.  It is not an arbitrary exercise of authority like a dictator.  This was what St Peter warned the elders.

Indeed, as shepherds of Christ, our Chief Shepherd, the Pope and the bishops do not represent themselves.  This too should also be for our priests exercising their delegated role as teachers of the faith.  We do not teach our opinions.  Theological studies and insights are important but they do not have the last word. The gospel makes it clear that whatever science can offer, there are limits to what human reason can unveil.  As the Lord said to Peter, “Simon son of Jonah, you are a happy man! Because it was not flesh and blood that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven.”  Divine revelation is necessary as well.  The authority to teach definitively and authoritatively is given to the Holy Father, teaching in communion as the head of the apostolic college.  This is why the teaching of the Church must be under the Word of God.  The Church is not above the scriptures but the Church is at the service of the Word of God, not as her master but a servant in the correct interpretation of the text.

Hence, we must always pray for our Holy Father and His bishops, that they be protected from error so that “the gates of the underworld can never hold out against it.”  We must keep our Church leaders in prayer so that they can resist temptations as individuals, or be misled in the truth.  All the more today, when Church leaders are tempted to compromise Church doctrines to suit the world rather than proclaim the truth of the gospel. When that happens, we fall into syncretism, accommodating the values of the world and denying the uniqueness of Christ.


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. The contents of this page may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission from the Archbishop’s Office. This includes extracts, quotations, and summaries.


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online nor will they be available via email request.

21 February, 2021, 1st Sunday of Lent

February 21, 2021

REPENT AND BELIEVE IN THE GOOD NEWS


SCRIPTURE READINGS: [Genesis 9:8-151 Peter 3:18-22Mark 1:12-15]

On this First Sunday of Lent, the liturgy sets out the purpose and objective of Lent, which is to prepare us for the Feast of Easter when we will renew our baptismal commitment to the Lord and for those Catechumens who will be baptized.  The first reading from the book of Genesis tells us the story of Noah when God allowed the flood to wash away the sins of the people so that humanity could have a new beginning.   God then made a covenant with all of creation, humanity and all living things that He would not destroy them again.  The sign of this Covenant was the rainbow, a sign of hope and God’s mercy for sinful humanity.  Noah’s rescue from the flood was but a type of Christ, as St Peter in the second reading explains. He said, “Now it was long ago, when Noah was still building that ark which saved only a small group of eight people ‘by water’, and when God was still waiting patiently, that these spirits refused to believe. That water is a type of the baptism which saves you now.” Christian baptism is therefore the anti-type or the fulfillment of what was symbolically foreshadowed in Noah’s covenant.

However, baptism is more than “the washing off of physical dirt but a pledge made to God from a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has entered heaven and is at God’s right hand, now that he has made the angels and Dominations and Powers his subjects.” Baptism is our commitment to our Lord Jesus Christ by sharing in His passion, death and resurrection.  It is more than just mere external cleansing.  Rather, it is an act of commitment to die to self, to our sins and rise with Him to a new life of grace.  Baptism, therefore, is a sacrament, an outward sign of an inward grace given to us by God to live out the life of Christ.  In baptism, we put on Christ and become a new creation, a child of God.

Hence, the prerequisite for baptism is repentance.  In the gospel, Jesus began His ministry by inviting us to “Repent, and believe the Good News.”  This was the second formula we used during Ash Wednesday for the imposition of ashes.  However, the call to repentance today is often met with great indifference or even rejection.  

Firstly, it does not sound like good news.  Today, people want to hear things that are pleasing to their ears.  They do not like to be criticized or to be told that what they are doing is wrong or not good enough.  They want to hear affirmation, that they are all right, that they are doing well and they are good.  The Good News that people want to hear is to endorse their lifestyle and confirm their philosophy of life.  In an age of relativism and rationalism, no one wants to be told that their view of life is wrong.  If we do not agree with them, it means that we are wrong.  This is why few preachers today preach on morality because people do not like to hear.  They will write in to condemn us for being negative and moralistic.  Most preachers today preach on hope, a better life and a greater future; things that people like to hear.

Secondly, there can be no true repentance when we do not acknowledge our sins.  The world does not know sin anymore.  We are getting numb to sin because in our minds, we are not too sure what we do is wrong anyway.  Maybe in the early days people were uneducated and they were ignorant.  They just followed blindly.  But with a more educated population, we justify and rationalize what we do and make something immoral to be moral.  And the irony is that even moral teachings are changing all the time so much so our people are confused. As the relativists say, we never know what is truth.  There is no objective and permanent truth but only relative truth which changes with time and culture.  So the word “sin” does not impact us anymore and we feel no guilt and remorse, after all, the world says it is alright.

Thirdly, we have a very shallow understanding of repentance.  For many Catholics, repentance is simply going for the Sacrament of confession to confess all their sins.  But there is no need to change our life.  We ask for pardon so that we can continue to sin.  We do not make any effort to give up our sinful way of life.  We make use of the Sacrament of Confession to resolve our guilt.  But this is not repentance.   For others, repentance means going to Mass more frequently, saying their prayers and doing some good works.  Just because we have performed our rituals and the requirements of the Church, going through them in a functional and routine manner, we consider that as repentance.

On the contrary, repentance means a total change of direction in life.  To repent means to turn away from our sins.  It is a 180 degree change of life.  It is not just changing our actions but our attitudes to life, to others and to God.  It is more than just shedding tears for our past life but a real and sincere desire to change our life because we are contrite and remorseful of our past.  We can only repent when we see that our lifestyle is contrary to our desire for real happiness, which can only be found in God and in walking the way of truth and love.  Repentance requires humility and a real recognition of the gravity of our sinful life.  This explains why many of us go for confession and yet there is no real change in life, because we are not truly contrite and even if we are, it is out of guilt and not a true realization that what we are doing is hurting us and our loved ones and God.

However, when we speak of repentance negatively as turning away from our current way of life, many of us are fearful that we might lose the little joys and pleasures that we have.  This is why many of us are reluctant to turn to God because we fear that being a true Catholic would mean taking joy and fun out of our life.  Perhaps, we see this in some of our so-called good Catholics.  They are judgmental and self-righteous and live in strait jackets.  They do not seem to have life in them.

More positively, repentance is not so much a turning away from. Rather, it is to turn towards God and the Good News.  This explains why the Lord began His ministry by saying, “The time has come and the kingdom of God is close at hand. Repent, and believe the Good News.”  In the understanding of our Lord, the primary meaning of repentance is to believe in the Good News, which is the love and mercy of God. It is to believe that God has come to rule His Kingdom so that there will be peace, love and unity, where division and wars would be no more.  Indeed, the mention of Jesus in the wilderness, living in harmony with the wild animals, is an indication that the Messianic time has come.  Jesus, therefore, was not asking the people to turn away from sin but to turn towards the Good News.

Of course, the turning to God and the Good News means at the same time, a turning away from sin.  We cannot choose God and mammon at the same time.  We either live in the light or in darkness.  We cannot say we want to love God and hate our neighbors at the same time.  This is the consequence of choosing God, truth and love.  When we turn to the Good News, we are free from the old way of life.  This is why we should not pressurize people to change, or condemn them simply because they are ignorant and they have not found the Good News.  Repentance therefore is the first step towards faith. When repentance is lacking, faith is lacking too.  Only those who have handed their lives to God can believe.

The best way to help people to repent is to introduce them to our Lord.  We must help them fall in love with Him and when they encounter His unconditional love and mercy, they will believe in His word, His teaching and the Scriptures.  Then they will change, not because they have to, but because they want to.  We must help them to experience victory over evil, just as Jesus did when He was battling with Satan in the wilderness and throughout His ministry by uniting ourselves with Him.  Only those who have faith in our Lord and trust in Him will be able to leave everything like the disciples of our Lord and follow after Him.  Faith is more than reason.  Faith includes trust.  Reason requires understanding but trust can happen even without the light of evidence.   Trust, unlike reason, simply requires an act of the will.


Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved. The contents of this page may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission from the Archbishop’s Office. This includes extracts, quotations, and summaries.


Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online nor will they be available via email request.

Bible

If you love, you will keep my commandments.