God’s Love, First – Arnel Aquino SJ

Luke 10:38-42, 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time

My elder brother and I did very well in the Ateneo de Davao while we were growing up. We tried to land in the honor roll every quarter, and join elocution & spelling contests where we thought we excelled. As each school-year came to a close, kuya and I, in quiet desperation, gunned for the most medals because we figured, the more medals we had, the more times dad and mom could come up onstage to pin them on us. Kuya and I were desperate, I say again. Because dad expected only first-honors. He once said, “I know both of you are capable of always being first honors. So do it. Kami ng mommy n’yo, public school lang kami noon. Kayo ngayon, Ateneo. So, do it. Take advantage of the blessing. Don’t be second honor or third honor; first honor lang!”

Dad put all our medals in one big frame he hung on the wall. But whenever I looked at that vitreous memento of our accomplishments, I felt more sad than anything else. Whereas dad was all the happier and prouder when we were first-honor, the opposite was also true. He’d go into some kind of “funk” if we landed anything less. He’d be surly, cold, on edge; second, third honor, silver, bronze…not good enough.

I think I’ve told you this story before. There was one evening when dad flew into a rage when he saw that our final exam grades wouldn’t land us first honors. Kuya was in sixth grade, I was in fourth. We had written our marks on our assignment notebook and shown them to our parents. At noong, ika nga, tinimbang kami ni daddy ngunit kulang, our notebooks came hurtling across the living room as he hurled them at the television. Then he yelled, “Wala na bang itataas ito!?” Then he stormed out and went up the bedroom. Then, after what seemed to be forever, he summoned us up to the room where we found him looking very, very tired. He sat us in front of him, and with disarming tenderness, he said, “Mga anak, magmula ngayon, hinding hindi na ako magagalit nang dahil lang sa grado n’yo sa eskwela. I’m sorry, mga anak.” The next thing I remember: my face buried against dad’s neck, and my cheek turning warm with my tears. From that evening forward, kuya and I didn’t have to purchase dad’s pride with the currency of medals and honor cards. In that moment of contemplation in the room, dad finally paused from all his frantic struggle for success which he calibrated according to the medals and honors he could make his sons bring home. Dad must’ve finally realized something else was more important to him now than honors and medals, and that was, that we were his children.

There’s nothing wrong with being like a Martha who spins around like a top in the kitchen—always doing, doing, doing stuff for Jesus. But you know, several people have asked me, “Father, what else can I do ba to please God? I pray every morning and night naman, I give alms, I go to Church faithfully, I confess naman, I try to be a good mother and wife. What more can I do?” Then, the clincher: “Why do I feel it’s not enough?” Not enough for God (I usually want to ask)? Or not enough for you? Is it really all about satisfying God? Maybe, if for a while, we stopped doing, doing, doing something for God, and for a change, listening, waiting, being present to God, we might finally awaken to the sense that it doesn’t have to be always all about us pleasing God all the time. It’s also all about God loving us first—before we can even do the first thing for him.

Like kuya and I grew up thinking that we had to earn dad’s pride by a maddening forage for honors and medals, many Catholics have been led to think that we must earn God’s love at a high price, we must merit expensive grace by doing, doing, doing; that we must guarantee our heaven by praying, praying, praying; that we must forestall God’s anger by obeying, obeying, obeying. No, I’m not saying we should stop doing or praying or obeying. But if we are scared that God might stop loving us, blessing us, and saving us unless we earn it, then we’d have tragically misrepresented God. If that’s the case, salvation and grace become all about us, what we can do. And only subsequently about God—signing our assignment notebook, “first honor”.

Jesus didn’t take it against Martha for spinning around in the kitchen. He knew she was doing this for him. But not for a minute did Jesus take it against Mary either, for not doing anything, just sitting there, for him. Jesus loved the sisters, that was the most important thing; he wanted to visit with them, to stay with them, to waste time with them & share their presence before either woman could even do anything for him.

This short story of Jesus in Bethany speaks volumes about salvation, dear sisters and brothers. Salvation is primarily God loving us first, and only subsequently, us loving him back. Both are important & needed & inseparable. But we need to get the order right: laging nauuna tayong mahalin ng Diyos. At ang pag-ibig ng Diyos, hindi kailangan kitain, o suhulan, o bilhin, kasi bigay. Libre. At buhos pa. Tayo lang naman ang naglalagay ng presyo sa pag-ibig ng Diyos, kasi madalas, ganoon tayo sa isa’t isa. Pero ang Diyos hindi ganon. What we can do for God is second only to the breadth & depth of his joy & delight in loving us first, in blessing us freely, and in wanting to be with us forever. God’s love is first, free, and forever. Amen.

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