LUKE 1: 5-25
The birth of John the Baptist Foretold
This account tells about angel Gabriel appearing to make known to Zachariah that his old and barren wife, Elizabeth, will conceive and bear a child whom they must name John. He will become John the Baptist, who is to bring many to repentance. We are told later that John was to prepare the way for the people to receive Jesus who is the Good News through repentance.
What humiliation Elizabeth underwent because she was barren. When she was finally with child, she said, "The Lord has done this for me now that it has pleased him to take away the humiliation I suffered among men."
In those times, people saw misfortunes as God's punishments for wrongdoings. If you were blind, it was because you were sinful and God was punishing you for your sins or those of your ancestors. Perhaps, it was their way of making sense of sufferings and the inequality among themselves. But perhaps too, it was because of the fact that they lived their lives following strictly to a very long list of rules of do's and don'ts. The way of holiness and the ticket to eternal life were found in the perfect abiding of these rules.
Recall your days as a student. What were the school rules like for you? For me, there were rules I could understand and accept and there were those I could not. While I saw the logic of punctuality, I did not agree that wearing earrings was wrong. What harm did it cause? What I did not believe in, I went against on some occasions. To some who abided, they might have understood the school's efforts to instil the value of simplicity, which took me many more years to realise. To some, rules are simply meant to be kept. No questions asked. They abide because that is the way they have been conditioned to do. They may not see the reason to but they just do. And yet to others, they might have abided only to stay out of trouble. Of those who keep the rules, how many of them truly understand the deeper and most often hidden purposes of the rules?
When our way of life is governed by a set of rules, when our religious practices become a mere doing of what we should and refraining from what we should not, then life and God become confined within the mind, where we constantly, scrupulously measure, evaluate, rank, judge, justify and rationalise all our thoughts, words and deeds. This becomes our preoccupation rather than appreciating the deeper meaning of what we do and do not do. Everything is logically linked.
It is no wonder that the people could not accept the radical change that Jesus came to bring - to turn around a religion that existed in the mind to one that resides in the heart and soul. This was completely unfamiliar and difficult to relate to. For the Father to send His Son to show us His illogical infinite love on the cross, for the Son to forgive sins and heal people, taking away their "punishments". These defied all rules they had and challenged at its core their belief in an eternal life that needed to be earned by their good deeds. It injured their pride that the sinful ones who did not work as hard to keep the laws were being forgiven so easily and made equal with them again. It was unthinkable that they could never stand worthy before God who gives us a salvation we have not deserved.
When we do good, when we hold ourselves back from doing wrong, let it be because we love God, we respect and uphold the dignity of one another. Jesus has to be alive in our hearts. When we attend Sunday Mass as an obligation without making any effort to mean the prayers we utter, when we go for the sacrament of reconciliation without sincerely being sorry and determined to work at our weaknesses, when we serve in ministries because our parish priests urged us to or because we want to glorify ourselves, God is not alive in our hearts. And without this living and personal relationship with God, we can have no lasting fuel to sustain our good deeds. We will fall into pride and self-righteousness, which will then become the underlying driving forces of those external good deeds.
Our pride will give us excessive guilt in our wrongdoings and excessive self-gratification in our successes. All because we start to buy to the idea that we have done right to deserve our good. God becomes a fictional character in the head and our religious practices become our brownie points that get us to heaven. We will not need God's mercy in that case. And God's mercy is the primary evidence of His love for us. So if we do not need His mercy and do not receive His mercy, we will not receive His love either. We will always remain in our brokenness because only God's love can heal our wounds and restore us to wholeness.
This, I believe, is why Jesus warned the people, "I tell you solemnly, tax collectors and prostitutes are making their way into the kingdom of God before you." Mt 21:31
Only those who seek cure can be cured. The tax collectors and prostitutes were public sinners. Their sins were known publicly. And perhaps because of this, there was no way for them to conceal their sins and were forced to acknowledge it. Since only those who realise, admit and surrender to their brokenness, inadequacies and sinfulness can be humble enough to go to the Doctor of Life, then only these will encounter the Living God fully present and alive and working in their hearts and lives.