In the first reading, we read of the indictments of the prophet Amos against Israel. The people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel had become prosperous and wealthy. Business and trading were good. The people were living in luxury and comfort. But as in all countries, the rich got richer and the poor became poorer.
Instead of distributing their wealth to the poor and the under-privileged, greed set in. The rich grabbed and used dishonest means to increase their wealth. The poor were at their mercy. They were exploited, over-taxed and subjected to illegal collaterals for their loans. The helpless and the widows were taken advantage of.
The people became complacent in their spiritual life. Although the rich, who belonged to the Upper Class, were apparently faithful in observing the rituals, offering worship and sacrifices, their hearts were far from God. It was just for show, like many of our faithful today. We attend mass on Sundays just to show that we are good Catholics. However, behind all these expressions of piety, we take advantage of the weak and the vulnerable. We cheat and divide people. We are unjust towards our colleagues and employees. We engage in politics, manipulating each other for promotion and benefits. We shout and scream at our staff and colleagues, humiliating them in public, as if they have no feelings and no dignity. How can we who profess so much love for God act contrary to what God has done for us and how God would like to be loved in His people?
Such behavior saddened God who chose Israel to be a model nation of love and compassion. God reminded them that they were nobody when they were in Israel. “Yet it was I who overthrew the Amorites when they attacked, men tall as cedars and strong as oaks, I who destroyed them, both fruit above ground and root below. It was I who brought you out of the land of Egypt and for forty years led you through the wilderness to take possession of the Amorite’s country.” They were once slaves themselves, so how could they make others their slaves now? They were once poor and without food and luxury, how could they allow the poor to suffer now that they were rich? Israel was given the laws of Moses so that they could govern themselves and live a covenanted life based on justice, charity and compassion for one another.
But the truth is that they had forgotten and hence were ungrateful. This is the tragedy of life’s common mistakes. We forget what we were before, now that we are well-off and living a comfortable life. We have no thought for those who are suffering like us before. We forget the love and mercy of God. Instead, we think that we earned the blessings through our hard work. We forget that all we have today, including our health and opportunities, were given by God, without which we would be nowhere and nobody. We become arrogant and self-sufficient, thinking that we can do without God. This is the real mistake of the world today. Many of us have become prosperous and think highly of ourselves. We feel that we do not need God. At most we pay lip service to Him. We hardly pray to Him for wisdom. Only when we reach a stage where no money, power or status can save us from our desperation – because of illness, a lost relationship, bankruptcy or caught by the arm of the law for a crime committed – do we then turn to God.
Jesus in the gospel shows us what it means to be grateful for the love and gifts we have received. He set Himself as an example for us to follow. One of the most important things about Jesus is that He practiced what He preached. That is why He could tell the people, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.” (Mt 23:2f) Indeed, whatever He taught, He made sure that He Himself did it. “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” (1 Pt 2:21)
So when “one of the scribes then came up and said to him, ‘Master, I will follow you wherever you go”, Jesus’ reply was, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” He did not tell the prospective disciple that following Him would cost him much in personal sacrifices, his comfort and his security. Rather, He pointed to Himself as an example because as the Son of Man and as an itinerant preacher, He was always on the move, walking, talking and living among His people, especially those who were poor, the marginalized and the sick. He was reaching out to them. He was at sea with the disciples, sleeping on the boat or in the desert praying. He did not live a life of comfort. That was why He instructed His apostles to do likewise, “You received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food.” (Mt 10:8-10)
Secondly, when the other would-be disciple said to Jesus, “’Sir, let me go and bury my father first.’ But Jesus replied, ‘Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their dead.’” Again, this man was concerned about his security and attachment. Most probably he was asking Jesus to wait until his elderly parents had passed on. He had to do his filial duty as the son, and if he was the first born son, he would have been entitled to the inheritance. So this man was telling Jesus that when his life was more secure and when he was freed of his responsibilities, then he would follow Jesus. In itself, it is not wrong to fulfill our responsibilities. Indeed, it is the right thing to fulfill the commandment to honour our parents.
But if the Lord is the One who is calling us to follow Him, then we cannot wait but respond in faith. We must put the Lord before any human being. In this case, it was Jesus who was calling the man. When God calls, the answer expected of us is immediate obedience, as Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38) Abraham did the same thing when he was told to sacrifice his only son, Isaac. “So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him.” (Gn 22:3) If we trust in the Lord, He will provide for the needs of our loved ones. This was what Abraham said to Isaac, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” (Gn 22:8) True enough, God provided a ram for the offering. “So Abraham called that place ‘The Lord will provide’; as it is said to this day, ‘On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.’” (Gn 22:14)
This was the life of Jesus Himself. When His Father called Him, He could not wait;even as a young child, He told His parents who had searched for Him everywhere and finally found Him in the Temple, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Lk 2:49) It appears that by the time Jesus left for the ministry, Joseph had already died. Mary, His mother, would have been in her mid-forties. She was a widow. It must have been hard for Jesus to leave His mother alone while He went out for His mission and even unto death. It must have been difficult for the Lord to be detached from Mary because as her Son, He too wanted to take good care of her. And this was in the mind of our Lord because one of the last things He did for His mother was to entrust her to the care of His beloved disciple, John. (Cf Jn 19:26f)
Today, as leaders and elders, we must remember that what our younger generation will turn out to be is dependent on the kind of examples we set for them. They will follow what we do and what we say. If we do not lead by example, then together with them, we will face the consequences of our actions, just as the prophet Amos warned the people. “See then how I am going to crush you into the ground as the threshing-sledge crushes when clogged by straw; flight will not save even the swift, the strong man will find his strength useless, the mighty man will be powerless to save himself.” The psalmist warns us as well, “Mark this, you who never think of God, lest I seize you and you cannot escape; a sacrifice of thanksgiving honours me and I will show God’s salvation to the upright.” Let us therefore offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving by returning to the Lord and His people what He has blessed us with, our resources and health and loved ones.