From word to witness to way of life

GOD'S WORD TODAY - Rogel Abais, S.J. - The Philippine Star

This Sunday’s three readings are quite provocative and challenging. They are provocative because they issue commands and prescribe actions that are easier said than done. They are challenging because they set a high mark by which we must live our Christian life. What does Moses mean by not adding or subtracting to the commandments of God? How does the traditional exhortation of James on the “care of orphans and widows in their affliction” translate to modern acts of piety? And how do we prevent evil from arising from within us?

We are used to receiving the command to listen in various situations. In many such instances, “listen!” goes beyond the mere injunction to hear the words of the one talking. It would imply as well understanding what is said and being able to execute these words if they indicate something to be done. The Hebrew word shema means “hear!” but it also means listen, heed, understand, and obey. When Moses and Jesus open their discourse with “now, Israel, hear…” or “hear me, all of you,…”, we are asked not only to listen to the words but to take them to heart, understand them, and follow them. But in our modern world, seeing has become part and parcel of hearing. We are not just satisfied to hear but we must see as well. Listening to a song on the radio is engaging but nothing beats its being sung and interpreted in an MTV. Teachers who simply talk in class rarely catch the attention of their students. They have to use visuals if they expect to get their message through. So to listen to, understand, and obey the commands of the Lord entail not only that we hear them but that we see them lived out by others. When we celebrate the Eucharist, we experience the hearing and the seeing — we hear the invitation in the proclamation of the Word and we see in the offering and the breaking of the bread.

James in the second reading enjoins us not only to be hearers of the Word but also to be doers which echoes Moses as he tells the Israelites, “keep the commandments and do them”. The application of the commandments to our day-to-day lives is quite a tall order but we have to begin somewhere. It means we need to practice if we want to get it right. In the process we will make mistakes but perfection does not happen on the first try, it comes only after several attempts. If we look at the wisdom traditions of the Jews, the one who is seen to possess wisdom is the one who is adept in its practice. What we hear in words come to life when we are able to translate the words of those commandments into corresponding deeds. Thus the command to care for the orphans and the widows was a central occupation in the ancient times for they were the marginalized and the most vulnerable members of society. Today, one can go beyond orphans and widows in seeking to reach out and care for the needy of society. There are so many that it does not take much to single them out. The question is not who or where they are but rather are we ready to be inconvenienced in caring for them? The “doing” that is expected of us is not the token sharing of our surpluses. It requires a radical giving which does not count the cost. The invitation of Jesus in the Eucharist to “do this to remember me” is in first place an act of remembering his supreme sacrifice for our sakes but at the same time it is also an invitation for us to imitate that act. We hear stories of men and women who untiringly worked at the height of the recent rains that flooded many parts of Metro Manila and neighboring areas, risking even their lives in attempts to reach out and help those who were affected. There are more who continue to work silently providing much needed assistance to places that are still flooded. Constant practice makes us better doers.

It is therefore quite astounding that Jesus criticized the Pharisees and the scribes for their assiduous application of the commandments and of the laws. When he called them hypocrites, he leveled a grave accusation to these fellow Jews. But were they not just striving to be doers, actively practicing what the law demanded? Sometimes in our zeal to apply the commandments, we forget that they are simply means to achieve a goal. We cannot get caught up with the details of the laws and lose sight of the fact that they are means for achieving a greater end — intimacy with God. The care with which nothing is added or subtracted to the commandment is precisely the single-mindedness with which we pursue God in our lives. He is the only reason why we listen and why we do.

Fr. Rogel Abais, S.J. is pursuing a doctorate on the Old Testament in the Gregorianum in Rome. For feedback on this column, email tinigloyola@yahoo.com.

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