Letting Go – Arnel Aquino, SJ

Matthew 10:35-45; 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Sisters and brothers, this thing that James and John asks Jesus: “Grant that in your glory, we may sit, one at your right hand, the other at your left,” that sounds familiar. Parang mas maganda sa Pinoy: “Lord, ‘pag hari na kayo ha, baka naman pwedeng second in command kaming dalawa sa ‘yo, Lord?” That sounds familiar because in today’s lingo, ‘di ba ‘yan ‘yung tinatawag na epal? “When the 10 heard this,” the Gospel says, “they became indignant with James and John.” We can judge from that reaction, na-epalan sila sa dalawa. Epal is short for pumapapel. It also sounds like kapal; as in, ang kapal ng mukha. Brazen, presumptuous, shameless. The apostles should be the least you’d expect to be such power mongers. But there you go. Only goes to show, sisters and brothers, that even people closest to the Lord, back in the day, were also given to epal.

But did you notice Jesus’ comeback? Instantaneous, brusque, and grave: “Hindi n’yo alam ang sinasabi n’yo. Can you drink the cup that I drink or be baptized as I will be baptized?” Cup, sisters and brothers, meant cup of suffering. Baptism meant submersion into darkness and death. “Sit at my right hand and my left? In my glory? You haven’t the faintest idea of what you’re saying,” you could almost hear Jesus think. But maybe James and John were just being facetious? ‘Yung mema lang? Maybe. But even then, Jesus did not let this slip. He had always taken issue with power mongering, the exact opposite of the kind of Kingdom he was living out all this time. “You want to be masters? Maglingkod tayo. You want to be first? Doon tayo sa likod.” Maglingkod sa likod, Jesus’ strange advocacy he called the Kingdom of God. Maglingkod sa likod.But after all this time, his friends still didn’t get it.

Sisters and brothers, you and I are familiar with how power changes its wielders, and often changes many of them for the worse. What draws me this time, though, is something that I’ve observed among the powerful: some don’t want to let go even when it’s time to. I’ve seen this in government, in schools, in departments in schools, in organizations, and sadly, also in parishes, dioceses, and religious orders. Many power wielders, even when it’s time to, cannot let go and will not. After being masters of others, you’d think they’d have mastered themselves, so they could step down in grateful serenity. But (sigh) whether it’s a president or director or chair, whether it’s a pastor or superior or his adviser—they “rage, rage against the dying of the light,” as Dylan Thomas would say. How do they rage? They wire various devices so they can stay up on the radar screen of command. For example, presidents lobby for their guy, their manok to replace them, someone beholden to them, someone they can slap around to continue their agenda. An outgoing kura paroko, for example, keeps the list of benefactors to himself. A replaced department chair continues to order around the secretaries, drivers, custodians, at‘pag kailangan sila ng bagong boss, ‘di sila mahagilap. A retiring counsel/adviser cozies up to the new boss, makes the boss dependent on him more and more, and bad-mouths his enemies to him, sells him his agenda. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light,” this infects both the irreligious and religious amongst us, the best and the worst of us.

Kaya naman siguro ganyan ang sagot ni Hesus kina Santiago at Juan: pabalang, prangka, at brusko. The Lord knew not only that power changed people, it made them doggedly hang on, made bite without letting go. This was precisely not the kind of Kingdom Jesus was showing all this time. Worse, this desperation for power was exactly what he wanted all of us to be free from, and the key word is free. Because people who can’t and won’t let go of power? They’re the unfreest people in the world…and also the most terrified.

I wish you had met Fr Nico. He was our former Superior General. When his term was over, Fr. Nico spent part of his retirement with us in Arrupe House. Absolutely no attachment to power, this man. So happy to be back to ordinary Jesuit community life, he radiated with it. He lobbied for no one, curried no favors, harbored no lists, hooked no loyalties, settled no scores. Fr. Nico was a man of deep interior freedom, a sweet old lolo you’d never think was successor to St Ignatius (that’s how I think about our Generals, anyway). From his seat in Rome, Fr Nico came right back… home to friends. See, sisters and brothers, that’s another thing I noticed. People attached to power are terrified of coming back. Yes, they need to stay within whispering distance of the powerful, but chances are, they’ve also hurt too many people back home and face recrimination. But Fr Nico and people like him? Oh, their friends couldn’t wait till they came back, came back down, back on the ground where stood the rest of them with their arms wide open!

Only the brave let go of power when it’s time. Cowards hang on. If I may, a shout-out to you who are terrified of letting go. Ser, ma’am, padre, sister… it’s time for the Higher Power, enough of yours. It was the Higher Power who put you there in the first place. He’s the one who’s calling you back. It’s time. It’s time to be free; time to be with friends and family again, to live simply, to walk around without looking over your shoulder all the time, to sleep with both eyes closed. If truly you are the brave man or woman you always show you are, then prove you’re no coward by stepping down and being servant, and being least of all. Maglingkod sa likod. It’s not a lonely place. The rest of us are here. And Jesus is with us…down here.

*Photo by Sebastián León Prado on Unsplash

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