The Ambition of James and John


Matthew 20: 20-28
2 Cor 4: 7-15 / Ps 126: 1-6

“Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” They answered, “We can.” Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup…”
(Matthew 20: 22-23)


Lord, take away all my ambition,
Desire for prominence, and my pride...
If serving You be my commission,
I leave it all for You to decide.

Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and, kneeling down, asked a favor of him. “What is it you want?” He asked. She said, “Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” Jesus said to them, “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” “We can,” they answered. Jesus said to them, “You will indeed drink from my cup, but to sit at my right or left is not for me to grant. These places belong to those for whom they have been prepared by my Father.” When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20: 20-28)

Reflection

It was obvious that the sons of Zebedee put up their mother to make this personal request from Jesus to seat them at His right and at His left in His kingdom. Earlier, they had heard the Lord declare, “Amen, I say to you that you who have followed me, in the new age, when the Son of Man is seated on his throne of glory, will yourselves sit on 12 thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Mt.19:28). Being the first cousins of the Lord, (Mrs. Zebedee was the sister of the Blessed Mother), they must have felt that they had the right of first priority. And indeed, St. James, whose feast we commemorate today, was given the first priority of martyrdom among the twelve apostles.

Interestingly, the ambition of James and John provided the opening for Jesus to prophesy their destiny. According to St. Luke’s account, St. James was the first apostle to die of martyrdom in the hands of King Herod Agrippa, who had him beheaded (Acts 12:2). On the other hand (no pun intended), St. John’s cup of agony took a much longer period to consume. For the next 80 years, he travelled and founded churches in many pagan lands. He was imprisoned in Ephesus and sent to Rome, where he was cast into a cauldron of boiling oil, but miraculously survived without any injuries. In the end he was exiled by Emperor Domitian to the Isle of Patmos, where he wrote the Book of Revelation. Unlike his brother James who was the first martyr, this apostle that Jesus loved the most was the only one among the twelve who did not suffer a violent death. He died in Ephesus at the age of ninety-five years, the last of the apostles.

Ambition is not wrong, provided it is focused in the right direction. The main motivation must be for a greater cause, and never merely for personal gain or reward. Billionaire Andrew Tan’s rags-to-riches life story serves as an example. His passion to succeed was driven by the desire to provide employment and decent housing to tens of thousands. He spent all his time working hard to realize that dream, saying, “spending money also takes time,” and instead plowed back all his revenues to more investments, building more residences and office buildings. The primary motivation of true leadership should be a strong desire to serve others. Those who give their most for the best causes deserve the greatest rewards.

Grant us the grace, Lord God, to see that the only way to prominence in Your sight is to give of ourselves in humble service. May this be our sole ambition in this short life that we live to be assured of an eternal place in Your kingdom. Amen.

Hidden Truths in the Parables

Matthew 13: 10-17
Jer 2: 1-3. 7-8. 12-13 / Ps 36: 6-11

To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.
(Matthew 13:11)

Life will be hard to understand
Unless we seek God’s perfect plan,
Read His Word, obey His command,
This is His will for every man.

Then the disciples came and said to Him, “Why do you speak to them in parables?” And He answered them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given. For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says: “‘You will indeed hear but never understand, and you will indeed see but never perceive. For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.’ But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.” (Matthew 13: 10-17)

Reflection

Why indeed did Jesus deliver His messages in parables? Well, first of all, our Lord was a great storyteller, and He knew that His listeners would easily retain the lessons they learned if they heard them in stories that they could relate to. Like the Parable of the Sower was as interesting as it was instructive, and one could glean fruits of wisdom in its illustrations. The other practical reason why Jesus spoke in parables was to avoid a direct confrontation with His critics, the religious authorities, who were always ready to pounce on Him if He so much as made a derogatory remark about their Mosaic laws and rituals. That was why Jesus told His apostles, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” They were favored because they were like innocent children, trusting in Jesus’ words even if they were confused at first. But not the Jewish authorities and their followers, who were constantly skeptical about the works and words of Jesus.

“To the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance, but from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away” (Mt.13:12). These words referred to the fertile soil – it had the capacity to produce, so it yielded an abundant harvest. The other soils that had no nutrients, were rocky, or overgrown with weeds lost even the few seeds that were sown on them. These types of soil refer to people who reject the teachings of Jesus because they have little or no knowledge of Scriptures, and/or are more preoccupied with the pursuits and pleasures of this world.

What our Lord is telling us in today’s Gospel is that there are only two kinds of people in this world: those who hear and live the Word of God in their lives, and those who never bother to listen, and so lose the opportunity to be transformed by God’s Word and be saved. In our community, after we end a bible sharing, we decide on what action word we could apply related to what we have learned in our Gospel sharing. Acting immediately on the Word of God is a sure way of retaining it in our hearts, never to be lost again. May we act on all the lessons that we learn daily from the Lord, as we read His Word in the Gospel.

Thank You, Lord Jesus, for the lessons You impart to us in the Bible. In it are hidden great and marvelous truths which so many have never grasped and which all mankind desperately need to know. Thank You, Holy Spirit, for helping us understand its secret treasures. Amen.

Fertile Soil for His Word

Matthew 13: 1-9
Jer 1: 1. 4-10 / Ps 71: 1-6, 15 and 17

Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.
(Matthew 13:9)

In faithful hearts will fruits abound,
But God’s Word will never take root
In hardened hearts like rocky ground
That remain oblivious to the truth.

That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat by the lake. Such large crowds gathered around Him that He got into a boat and sat in it, while all the people stood on the shore. Then He told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13: 1-9)

Reflection

It’s very clear in the parable of today’s Gospel that not many people are receptive to the Word of God. The cacophony of buyers and sellers in the marketplace of life’s commerce simply drown out the Spirit’s call. Or the hearts of those who may hear have either been so hardened by life’s adversities, or simply intoxicated by the pleasures of the world that the Word of God has become meaningless, if not irrelevant to them. Who are the “good soil” in this Parable of the Sower? Those who seek the mystical beyond the confines of the material world, and understand that the spiritual life is more valuable than what this temporal life can offer. The author Gerald May, in his book “Will and Spirit”, said that “a genuinely spiritual life needs a spirit of willingness rather than an attitude of willfulness.” Willingness means being open and receptive to the work of the Holy Spirit in cultivating our moral values and character. Willfulness, on the other hand, is following our own desires, refusing the yoke of discipline and the prompting of conscience. “The unspiritual man does not receive the gifts of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor. 2:14).

St. Paul also wrote to Timothy, “Train yourself for godliness; for while physical training has limited value, godliness is valuable in every respect, since it holds promise for the present life and for the future” (1 Tim. 4.7-8). How do we train ourselves to be spiritual, so that the Holy Spirit can cultivate us to become fertile ground for the seed of God’s Word? There are four ways: 1) By prayer, 2) By selfless service, 3) By being physically fit, and 4) By actively participating in a praying community.

Prayer is a powerful tool that weeds out vain and immoral thoughts and desires, because it focuses on the purity and love of God. All the saints lived a life of prayer. Most of them also dedicated their lives to serving God though others. Mother Teresa of Calcutta was the prime example of selfless service, and was loved and admired by millions throughout the world. St. Paul mentioned in his letter to Timothy that “physical training has limited value,” but only in comparison to spiritual training. We also need to be physically fit and healthy for serving the Lord, just as a stable building needs a strong foundation. We cannot hope to discipline ourselves spiritually if we cannot adopt a healthy and wholesome lifestyle. Finally, Joining a praying community like the Brotherhood of Christian Businessmen & Professionals, Couples for Christ, BLD, etc. has many advantages than “going solo” in our life journey. We all need a community as our support group, because no man can stand alone against the power of evil forces. Jesus Himself said, “If two or three are gathered in My Name, I am there in their midst.” We all need to belong to a renewal community as our support group.

Dear God, make our life a fertile soil that can nurture the seeds (Your Word) that You plant therein. We know that we came from the soil, and to the soil we must eventually return. Until then, grant that our lives may reap the harvest of a hundredfold. Amen.

Feast of Mary Magdalene

John 20: 1-2, 11-18
Sg 3:1-4b / Psa 63

‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her.
(John 20:18)

Let us honor Mary Magdalene,
And pray for her intercession;
She was the first saint on the scene
At Jesus Christ’s Resurrection.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene came to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the tomb. So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, ‘They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.’ Mary stood weeping outside the tomb. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb; and she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had been lying, one at the head and the other at the feet. They said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping?’ She said to them, ‘They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.’ When she had said this, she turned round and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, why are you weeping? For whom are you looking?’ Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary!’ She turned and said to him in Hebrew, ‘Rabbouni!’ (which means Teacher). Jesus said to her, ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” ’ Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord’; and she told them that he had said these things to her. (John 20: 1-2, 11-18)

Reflection

Today, July 22, is the feast day of St. Mary Magdalene. Her sainthood was an unofficial yet ecclesial canonization, in recognition of the privilege that God gave her as the first witness of Christ’s Resurrection. In fact, as the bearer of this good news to the disciples, she was even referred to in early Christian writings as “the apostle to the apostles.”

The 12th century saw a widespread devotion to St. Mary Magdalene in the Western Church. St. Theresa of Avila wrote in her personal journal that it was the story of Mary of Magdala which played an important role in her conversion from spiritual indifference. St. Bridget of Sweden wrote: “There are three saints I love above all: Mary the mother of Jesus, St. John the Baptist, and Mary Magdalene.” We do not know how many saints and martyrs shared the same sentiments about the influence this mystical woman played in their lives, but we do know that she has become the most controversial female saint in the New Testament, and even up to the present time. Many Gnostics believe that she wrote the “Gospel of Mary Magdalene” and even claim that she and Jesus were married. This became the basis for the controversial book of Dan Brown, the “Da Vinci Code”.

There seems to be some confusion in the Gospel accounts on whether the Mary of Bethany (sister of Martha and Lazarus) was the same “sinful woman” who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:37-38), and the “Mary called Magdalene, out of whom seven devils were gone forth” who was also one of the women of means who provided material help and assistance to the Lord and His apostles (Luke 8:2). But there is no question in all the four Gospel writers that Mary Magdalene was the first witness to Christ’s Resurrection. For this honor is she revered as one of the greatest saints.

Father God, we honor St. Mary Magdalene on her feast day today, and we pray that through her and our Blessed Mother’s intercession we may also draw nearer to our Lord Jesus Christ by serving those who serve You, and by complete devotion to Your Word. Amen.

The Sign of Jonah

Matthew 12: 38-42
Mi 6: 1-4. 6-8 / Ps 50: 5-6, 8-9, 16-17, 21, 23

An evil and unfaithful generation seeks for a sign.
(Matthew 12:39)

Jonah’s obedience to God’s command
Saved Nineveh from destruction.
We don’t need a sign to understand:
Repentance is God’s instruction.

Some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we wish to see a sign from you.” But He answered them, “An evil and unfaithful generation seeks for a sign; but no sign shall be given it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the whale, so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth for three days and three nights. The men of Nineveh will arise at the judgment day with this generation and condemn it; because they repented at the preaching of Jonah, and there is something greater than Jonah here. The queen of the South will arise at the judgment with this generation and condemn it; because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and there is something greater than Solomon here.” (Matthew 12:38-42)

Reflection

When the hard-hearted scribes and Pharisees insisted on seeing a sign from Jesus, it aptly recalls the prophecy of Simeon at the temple (see Luke 2:34-35) when he told Mary, the mother of the baby Jesus, “This child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” Jesus was the greatest sign that the Jews had ever seen since the time of King Solomon and the prophet Jonah. But the minds of the scribes and Pharisees had become so evil that they could only plot to kill Jesus, Whom they failed to recognize as the Messiah, but regarded as merely a man opposed to their established Judaic traditions and burdensome rituals. As Jesus would tell His apostles later, “Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in them, which says: ‘You shall indeed hear but not understand, you shall indeed look but never see. Gross is the heart of this people, they will hardly hear with their ears, they have closed their eyes, lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and be converted and I heal them’.”

Jesus identified Himself with the prophet Jonah, because both of them were ‘entombed’ for three days, and then rose again to bring conversion to non-Jews. But while the gentiles of Nineveh were converted and repented even without witnessing any miracles by Jonah, the Jewish leaders continued to ask Jesus for proof even though they had seen the wonders He had performed. Jesus also identified Himself with King Solomon, because the latter was the son and successor of King David, and Jesus was likewise addressed as ‘Son of David’ (Mt.9:27,12:23). Both of them displayed extraordinary wisdom, but while Solomon’s human wisdom won over the gentile Queen of Sheba, Jesus’ divine wisdom was rejected by the leaders of God’s Chosen People. And Jesus was far greater than King Solomon.

The wisdom and power of Jesus to convert sinners and unbelievers were greater than the greatest prophets and kings of the Old Testament, and in fact even encompass all the ages of mankind’s history, as evidenced by the continuing relevance of His Word, the Holy Bible. Unlike His own generation, with whom He walked and talked, the billions of Christians all over the world today do not need any sign to believe in Jesus. His Word is enough for us, and our life conversions stand as testimonies (not signs) of His power in our lives.

Dear God, You have brought about our conversion through the power of faith in Your Word, and the evidence of Your love in Jesus Christ, our Savior. Let Your indwelling Spirit sustain our hope so that we may not be discouraged like the prophet Jonah, or be unfaithful like King Solomon in spite of his wisdom. Only by Your grace can we persevere. Amen.

The Gentle Way of Jesus

Matthew 12: 14-21
Mi 2:1-5 /Ps 10:1-4, 7-8,14

And in His name the Gentiles will hope.
(Matthew 12: 21)

If we must serve the Prince of Peace
The Word of God we must proclaim;
And if our Lord we aim to please,
Live gentle lives in Jesus’ Name.

The Pharisees went out and conspired against him to put Him to death. When Jesus became aware of this, He departed from that place.

GodMany people followed him, and he cured them all, but He ordered them not to make Him known. This was to fulfill what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘Here is My servant, whom I have chosen, My beloved, with whom I am well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon Him, and He will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear His voice in the streets. He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until He brings justice to victory. And in His name the Gentiles will hope.’ (Matthew 12: 14-21)

Reflection

St. Matthew gave a fitting description of the gentle character of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, by quoting a passage from Isaiah (42:1-4), whose writings prophesied about the Messiah. When Jesus learned that the Pharisees were plotting to put Him to death, He left the place, not because He feared for His life, but because it was not yet His time. And He wanted to avoid any trouble with the Pharisees. “He would not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick until He brings justice to victory.” Jesus was always faithful to Scriptures, and as the prophets predicted, His own kind would reject Him, and He would simply leave. This was the reason why it was written about Him: “He will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.”

“And in His name the Gentiles will hope.” In fulfillment of that prophecy of Isaiah, the name of our Lord Jesus Christ is now the standard by which all His “Gentile” followers outside the Judaic world are known –- as Christians.

All true Christians must aspire to follow the ways of our Lord Jesus if we are to believe in His words that “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (Jn.14:6). Let the verses of Isaiah as quoted by St. Matthew in today’s Gospel be our guide and inspiration. First of all, we have to adopt the attitude of a servant if we want to be chosen and beloved of God our Father. We can only be pleasing to Him if we are predisposed to serve His Church and His kingdom rather than ourselves.

God, however, knows that carrying our cross to follow Christ would be an impossible feat on our own efforts, so He will put His Spirit upon us. We will then be empowered to proclaim the Gospel to others who have yet to hear His Good News of salvation.

Following Jesus might require undergoing a radical transformation in our life, especially in the way we conduct ourselves towards others. Becoming a man of peace like Jesus means avoiding arguments, quarreling, or wrangling for a better position or influence, griping, or raising our voice, being loud and obtrusive. It means suppressing our need to be on top, but preferring instead to be incognito. It means helping those who are bruised by the brutalities of life, and giving hope to those who are ‘smoldering’ like a flickering wick. If we can do all these in the spirit of humility, then we can claim to be true Christians, and not only in name.

Father God, thank You for the help of Your Holy Spirit, Who has provided the guidance and inspiration we need in order to be faithful in following the ways of Jesus our Master. May all our words and actions be pleasing to You, as we pray for strength in living His Gospel values in our lives. Amen.