“Everybody is looking for you!” In other words, “You are in demand! You have become an overnight sensation. You’ve gone viral. You have a huge fans’ club waiting out there!”
Those were the excited words of Peter to Jesus when he found him in solitude praying, after a very successful mission. Peter was “beside himself” as they’d say in English. But Jesus does not share in his excitement. Instead, he says, “It’s time to go. I did not come here to build a fans’ club.” In his own words, “Let us go on to other towns and villages that I may preach there also. IT IS FOR THIS PURPOSE THAT I HAVE COME.”
For today’s homily, perhaps we can focus on just that word: PURPOSE. It is the word that also made the evangelical pastor Ric Warren an overnight sensation when his book entitled “A Purpose-Driven Life” became an instant New York Times best seller. I hear that the book has sold 50 million copies and has been translated into 85 languages.
The phenomenal success of this book speaks more about its readers, or should I say buyers, than about the book itself. I wonder if even half of those who bought the book in the last ten years have really read it. I hear that the book-reading people are fast becoming an endangered species in the age of digital technology and the social media. I imagine the typical modern individual reading just the title of the book and buying it for no reason other than the fact that it is a best seller, and it made him ask, “What is my own life’s purpose in this world? What do I wake up each morning for? What keeps me going?”
Our first reading speaks about a man who is going through what we might call “The Dark Night of the Soul.” His name is Job. He woke up one day after experiencing a whole series of misfortunes and tragedies and found himself groping in the dark, like he didn’t even know where he was, where he had been, and where he was going to. Listen to his words, “I have been assigned months of misery and troubled nights have been allotted to me… the night drags on; I am filled with restlessness until the dawn.” (Job 7:3-4)
He has friends who commiserate with him, but they only add further to his misery because they keep telling him that maybe he had done something wrong and all he needed to do was repent so that God would restore him. As far as he was concerned, he could not recall anything that he had done to deserve such misery. He had lost his bearings but he refused to blame himself for it.
Sometimes, it is not misfortune that makes us lose our sense of purpose but success. This is what Paul, on the other hand, is saying in our second reading today. Paul’s success in his preaching could be easily translated in material terms. Like what happens with charismatic tele-evangelists or with gifted healers who are able to command a huge following. Before they know it, they lose their sense of purpose and get corrupted by fame, power and wealth. Paul nips it in the bud. He does what the Jesuits often call “agere contra.” He acts against the impulse or the temptation to take advantage or to exploit the pay-offs of being an effective steward of God’s Word.
Listen to what he says: “I have no reason to boast…I preach because I am doomed if I don’t.” (1 Cor 9:16-18) In other words, what he is saying is, “I have merely been entrusted with the good news; it is not mine. I claim no credit for it, nor any form of entitlement. I give it free of charge because I have no right at all to use it for my personal profit.” Just at that point when he is tempted to get derailed, he returns to his life’s purpose; he keeps himself well-grounded on his mission.
This is what Jesus himself is doing in the Gospel. And his secret for grounding is PRAYER. Sometimes he even reinforces his prayer with fasting, as when he struggled with temptations in the desert when he did a 40-day retreat and the devil kept tempting him to use his prerogatives as Son of God. (See Mt 4:1-11) He knew he would lose the true power of the Gospel the moment he succumbed to the temptation to use it for personal gain.
Last Monday evening we had a psycho-spiritual webinar on the topic of resilience with the psychiatrist, Dr. Eleanor Ronquillo, and the Jesuit anthropologist, Fr. Albert Alejo, as resource persons. Both speakers affirmed the importance of having a sense of meaning and purpose in life in building resiliency in the face of adversities in life, such as during this pandemic. It is what keeps us in one piece especially when we are tempted to fall apart and break into pieces.
Incidentally, the Tagalog word for meaning is KAHULUGAN, and it comes from the root word HULOG, which has to do with falling. The word makes me imagine life like the water that is pumped from a deep well. It just goes to waste if it has no bucket to fall into, if there is nothing that will collect it. That is what purpose is about. It turns the idea of falling into something positive: as in “things falling into place”, instead of the negative “falling away” or “falling apart.” This, by the way, is expressed very well by that song entitled FALLING:
Help me I’m fallin’
Catch me if you can
Maybe this time I’ll have it all
Maybe I’ll make it after all
Maybe this time I won’t fall
When I fall in love…
This is the homily of Bishop Pablo Virgilio David of Kalookan for the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Feb. 7, 2021, Mk 1:29-39