Saturday, November 2, 2013

Is Salvation Simply about Having Unblemished Lives?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 19:1-18, November 3, 2013

IN THE MINISTRY, I have encountered many Christians who are of the belief that being saved is a matter of one’s being sinless.  They think that if a person does nothing wrong, he will eventually be saved.  And for them, to sin is usually identified with transgressing any of the Ten Commandments.  How often have I heard some of them being comfortable with themselves, self-assured as they were that they had really nothing to confess since they had followed the Decalogue.  Their claim to clean living, in a culture that identifies sin with transgression, could hardly be disputed, of course.

            However one may agree with that claim, though, Luke would probably hesitate to go along with that kind of reasoning.  Today’s Gospel is a pericope on Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-18).  But prior to this narrative, Luke tells us the story of a man from the ruling class who has been faithful in following the Law.  Asked by Jesus about the commandments, he replied: “I have kept all these since I was a boy” (Luke 18:21).  Walking before the Law, he was certainly blameless.  But he could not be saved, for all the blamelessness of his life, because he would not part with his wealth.  Challenged by Jesus to sell all he had and distribute to the poor, he became sad (Luke 18:23), and Luke would have us understand that the ruler refused to comply with Jesus’ demand.  Which elicited a comment from Jesus: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).

            Juxtaposed with the story of the man who belonged to the ruling class is the narrative on Zacchaeus. According to Luke, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus when he went to Jericho, and unable to see Jesus on account of his small stature, he climbed a sycamore tree.  When Jesus saw him, he told him to hurry down because he would stay at his house, and Zacchaeus welcomed him with delight (Luke 19:1-5).  It may be noted that like the young ruler, Zacchaeus was wealthy, but probably unlike him, if we judge simply on the basis of the gospel data, Zacchaeus was not blameless.  On the contrary, probably almost every contemporary of Jesus would have described him like any other tax collector: a person of greed.  Small though he was, he was big with ambition and greediness.  In a poor country like Israel in Jesus’ time, it would have been difficult for a man like him to be rich without using people, disregarding our concept of justice and rights.  Of course, as a tax collector, he was notorious, for the occupation of tax collectors at that time was base in the popular estimation.  For one thing, they were considered traitors, working for a hated foreign power that oppressed the Jewish people.  Why would Zacchaeus secure employment from the Romans if not for the dirty money?  For another, tax collectors were in charge of deciding how much each family had to pay, and usually they raised the tax assessment so they could keep for themselves the difference between the money collected and the amount they had to turn over.  No wonder the Jews ostracized them.  That would have included Zacchaeus.  He was rich, but at the expense of his own people.  That is why, the righteous, like the Pharisees and the scribes, murmured against him.  Practically, he was a thief, one who, unlike the young ruler, could not claim to have followed the Law.

            And yet, unlike the rich ruler, Zacchaeus experienced salvation: “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9).  What happened?  How could the rich young man, who was known to be blameless since he followed the Law since childhood, could not enter the Kingdom of God, whereas Zacchaeus, equally rich, but avoided and despised, and never bothering about the commandments, could attain eternal life?  Why is it that Zacchaeus suddenly became a parable that the rich can be saved?  The reason is that, unlike the young ruler, Zacchaeus allowed God to work in him; he became a host to Jesus who was bringing salvation to his house.

            For, as the 1st Reading and the Responsorial Psalm state, it is in the nature of God to be merciful to those who welcome him in their lives; he overlooks their sins (Wisd 11:23; Ps 145:8-9).  Understandably, Jesus the living parable of God’s forgiveness, sought out Zacchaeus the sinner, even as the Son of Man came to seek not the righteous but sinners (Luke 15:4.7).  What God does is allow “the scoundrel forsake his way, the wicked man his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving” (Isa 55:7).  It may be recalled that it was important for Jesus that the community of Israel experienced wholeness.  For this is what salvation, the reason for his coming into the world (1 John 4:14), means—the experience of integrity and wholeness by the community.  And in allowing Jesus to enter his house and his life, Zaccheus experienced forgiveness and liberation.  He knew wholeness—a new freedom from the world of greed, avarice and trickery. 

Because he allowed Jesus to come to and work in his life, he vowed to stop his greed and became generous.  Thus, he promised to give half of his property to the poor and, if he defrauded anyone, to pay him back fourfold (Luke 19:8), an amount far more than what the Law required (Lev 6:1-5).  It appears thus that even though Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:25), yet Zaccheaus became an example of a rich man—notorious at that—who experienced salvation.  Precisely because he allowed Jesus to enter into his life, he became generous to the poor, unlike the rich ruler who could not give up his wealth.  Thus, he became an example of a saved rich person, becoming a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17).  The old Zacchaeus, along with his old values and lifestyle, passed away.

Salvation, then, is not simply about being unblemished or about doing nothing wrong.  It is really about permitting God to enter into our lives, and changing us into loving persons, generous to the poor and the disadvantaged. And in our time, he has provided us an opportunity to come to our lives as members of the Christian community—he comes to us in the Eucharist.  He is with us in this sacrament because we are sinners.  In the Eucharist he is there, in the form of bread and wine, to seek and save the lost.  That is why we begin the Mass with an acknowledgment of our sinfulness before God.  The Mass then is not simply a communal worship of God.  It is also a personal and communitarian encounter with Jesus.  What a blessing would it be, if all of us who come to the Eucharist experience this personal encounter.  For it is in this encounter that Jesus himself gives us the grace of salvation.  Of course, the proof that we really received that grace, that we really encountered him in the Eucharist, is when, like Zacchaeus, we experience liberation from the world of greed—we go home after the Mass as changed persons and communities.  We go home, bringing with us the lesson of breaking the bread; we break our bread with the poor.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Do Our Achievements and Self-Righteousness Help Us Justify Ourselves Before God?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 18:1-4, October 27, 2013

A DECADE OR SO ago, an evening television show featured the Mangyans in Mindoro.  At one point, the reporter asked one of their chiefs if they had any desire to improve their situation by, say, making more money in order to buy elegant clothes, construct beautiful houses, and own the latest vehicles.  The chief answered that it was not in their culture to accumulate and concentrate wealth and that they were happy the way they were.  His answer was, of course, flabbergasting to us.  But that is because we were brought up in a culture far removed from the one in which the Mangyans live and survive. 

Culture largely defines our values, and therefore the way we look at people.  But our culture has largely been defined by the West.  And if we ask: who is acceptable to our community that has been shaped by Western values, the answer would be entirely different.  Before the judgment seat of our culture, one must not only be good, but even more important, he must have an achievement—political, economic, cultural, religious—in order to be considered praiseworthy.  No wonder, precisely because of our cultural make-up, many people parade their stockholdings, land titles, bank accounts, palatial houses, academic degrees tacked to their names and framed citations, among others.  How they display their assets!   Of course, these are important.  To have bank accounts, academic degrees, land titles, framed citations—one needs them in order to live what people brand as respectable life.  To live without them—how would one appear before our people and society if not a destitute, with nothing to survive on in this competitive world?

It is interesting to note that such outlook has been transferred, or at any rate can be found, in our life of faith.  In the realm of religion, it is likewise important for many people that one must have something before God.  In today’s Gospel (Luke 8:9-14), this is well illustrated in the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  What the Pharisee was able to accomplish made himself respectable, and obviously he lived within a circle of people whose social stratum and achievement no one at the time of Jesus would criticize: he did not extort, did something unjust, nor committed adultery.  On the contrary, he did more than what the law required: he fasted in food and drink twice a week (Monday and Thursday), although fasting was obligatory only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31; Num 29:7); he tithed all his purchases, which was more than what the law stipulated (Deut 14:22-29).  He would be like a Catholic who never transgresses any of the Ten Commandments, fasts Tuesdays and Fridays, and contributes much to the Church.  God would certainly be pleased with such religiosity! 

On the other hand, almost at the extreme end of the cultural and religious spectrum in Jesus’ day was the tax collector who had nothing to his name.  A known collaborator with the Romans who were the enemies of the Jews, he was avoided by his own people and excluded from the company of respectable men in the Jewish society.  An extortionist, he would have to make restitutions for his ill-gotten wealth before he could ever hope to be forgiven, if one goes by the teaching of the Pharisees.  Of course, even in our own society, any person like this particular tax collector would have difficulty in being accepted.

The Gospel today tells us that these two went to the Temple to pray, the Pharisee reciting a catalogue of his achievements and a litany of his own praises, the tax collector an inventory of his faults and a recital of his lack of achievements.  But in telling this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus surprised us with his concluding comment.  What transpired was a reversal of fortune, which would not have been acceptable, since normal Judaism took for granted that the Pharisee was a justified person, and the tax collector could only be such if he made retribution in addition to giving one-fifth to all those whom he had swindled, and reformed his life.  Hence the question: What went wrong?  Does the parable mean that God is happier with a sinner provided he repents, than with a virtuous man with all his merits and achievements?

On the surface, one may readily affirm that if God accepted the tax collector despite his sinfulness, it was because he is a God who loves the humble and despises the proud and the disdainful (Luke 1:51-52).  One’s achievements in religion could become a cause for pride and contempt for men and women who cannot come up to what common religiosity requires.  It often happens, for instance, that those who go to church Sundays, fast, contribute sizable amount to the parish projects and programs and practice virtues think that they have enough reason to be proud of themselves as Catholics who belong to a stratum formed by the elite in religiosity and, as a consequence, to criticize those who do not reach their standard.  This happens, too, in the secular world.  Many think that they form an elite enclave within the greater society on account of their wealth, education and upbringing.

At its marrow, however, the story is not simply about how we pray, but really about our justification before God.  As J. Fitzmyer observes, “one achieves uprightness before God not by one’s own activity but by a contrite recognition one one’s own sinfulness before him.”  The reason why it was the tax collector who was ultimately pleasing before God is that, before his judgment seat, human achievements, both in religion and in the secular world, are not decisive, however important they may appear to our Western culture.  God is not a God who can be controlled by any human achievements.  Quite the contrary, man cannot claim to be just on account of his achievements, because these do not count before him in the first place.  “What man thinks important, God holds in contempt” (Luke 16:15).  It is not man who makes himself just.  It is God, who gives justice as a gift.  Man does not attain it through his own effort.  What is ultimately decisive is that one puts his trust in God, abandons himself to him.  And this is what the tax collector did.  In terms of religious achievements, he had accomplished nothing to present before God.  But by acknowledging his sinfulness, unworthiness, and nothingness, he allowed God to give him the gift of being right before him. 

The parable, therefore, teaches us about the failure of human achievements and of self-righteousness to justify oneself.  It is God who justifies us sinners, and justification is always received as a gift from him.  We have nothing to boast before him.*

Friday, October 18, 2013

Will the Poor and the Weak Ever Get Justice in a Society in the Hands of the Moneyed and the Powerful?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 18:1-8, October 20, 2013

OBSERVING HOW PREVALENT evil exists in the world, its power sometimes overwhelming, philosophers of old used to ask whether this is the best of all possible worlds.  But those who experience evil do not merely look at the present and offer an explanation; rather, they look toward the future and ask whether there is any hope that we will ultimately triumph over it.  For example, after years of praying that the problems of violence and war in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Eastern Africa, Afghanistan,  Southern Mindanao and other hot spots be solved, is there any guarantee that an era of peace will finally dawn for the poor in these places?  In a history of exploitation and oppression, will the poor ever get a fairer deal from a society in the hands of the moneyed and the powerful?  In a society in which efforts to obtain greater justice for the majority meet vigorous opposition, is there hope that the cause of the poor will ever be vindicated?

These questions appear contemporary, but they make us understand the background of today’s gospel.  As in other synoptic gospels, Luke portrays the Kingdom of God as an experience of a community in which people are freed from hunger, thirst, persecution, injustice, poverty and other evils, and enjoy the blessings of justice, love and peace.  This summarizes the central message of Jesus.  It seems, though, that after years of practicing their faith in Jesus, that faith of the Lukan Christians was being challenged by the hostile environment in which they lived.  Luke’s believing community experienced persecution, injustice and violence from those who did not share its faith.  Understandably enough, the members raised question that affected their faith in the context of the adverse situation: when is the Kingdom of God coming so that the poor will come into their own (Luke 17:20-21)?  When will Christ return so that Israel will be reconstituted and the poor Christians will be rewarded (Luke 17:22-37)?  When will the poor believers finally obtain real justice on this earth (Luke 18:1-8)?

When there is no glimmer of dawn in sight, it is easy for the poor members of the Christian community, who have everything but the positive experience in life, to lose heart.  This is especially so when people observe that the overwhelming forces of evil seem to make headway, despite all efforts to ward them off, and when every move toward obtaining deliverance from an oppressive situation seems to end in disappointment.  But the Gospel today (Luke 18:1-8) has a word for them: Christians who find themselves in that or similar situation should not lose heart (Luke 18:1).  To bring home this point, Luke preserved for us the parable of unjust judge.  The story characterizes the judge as unsympathetic, with no regard for what either God or man said about him—which explains his attitude toward the widow.  The judge delayed in his decision.  Some suggested that the widow was a plaintiff in a case she brought to court against a wealthy opponent, and the judge did not speed up the case in order not to offend the defendant.  Others, however, in keeping with the character of the judge, surmise that the judge refused to give an immediate decision in the hope that the widow could raise the sufficient bribe!  But these suggestions are not essential to the story.  For central to the parable is the widow.  And in the normal circumstances at the time of Jesus, widows were poor, marginal, not influential, and were economically deprived.  They were part of the déclassé in the Israelite society, and being powerless, they leaned on God for protection.  The widow, in other words, symbolizes the poor in the community of Luke and in our Christian communities who look on God to vindicate their cause.

Powerless and marginal though she might be, yet the widow in the parable succeeded in obtaining justice from the corrupt judge through relentless persistence.  But if she so got on the nerves of the judge that he was forced to vindicate her, how much more would God vindicate his faithful people, if they only pray persistently, even though he seems to delay (Luke 18:7).  This is the message that Luke tries to convey.  In other words, the point of the parable is that, even though they find themselves in a situation in which hope for a better future seems unobtainable, Christians are not to be discouraged or give up.  On the contrary, as followers of Jesus, they are to be persistent in their prayer, trusting that God will act and vindicate his cause and the cause of the Christian community.  The Kingdom of God will come, and if one is not vindicated at the moment, he will certainly be vindicated with the advent of the parousia, and justice will surely be served.

Such exhortation is relevant, because in the face of opposition to all efforts to obtain justice, even time can erode enthusiasm and faithfulness.  Constant suffering and oppression can destroy hope, and give the impression that God is really asleep.  Which recalls the experience of the Psalmist: as the people of Israel were being despoiled, God remained silent before their real pain, even though they were not conscious of any sin against the covenant: “Yet for your sake we are being slain all day, we are looked upon a sheep to be slaughtered.  Awake!  Why are you asleep, O Lord?  Arise!  Cast us not off forever!  Why do you hide your face, forgetting our woe and our oppression?  For our souls are bowed down to the dust, our bodies are pressed to the earth” (Ps 44:23-26).

But at the same time, this serves to correct an impression on the way God answers our needs.  Too often, when one sees on television big prayer rallies in parks and auditoriums, one often wonders whether the participants’ understanding of these prayer rallies makes sense.   For what is often portrayed is that, one who has accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior easily obtains answers for the petitions he makes.  All he has to do is to raise his wallet and money will come in, or raise his passport and he will find employment abroad, or hold high his umbrella and graces will flow.  But if the Gospel has anything to teach us, it is that one does not easily obtain the favor he asks, that justice is not always served, that peace is not easily given.  There is a need to knock too often, to pray persistently, to wait for long, to suffer in silence, and to stand in prayer, even when praying seems meaningless and useless.  A Christian may not easily obtain the favor he asks, but he can always take comfort in the thought that he is not totally helpless before God, and is entirely dependent on him, and that God will, in his own, time, answer his prayer, even though not always in the form that he wants or expects.*