Friday, December 31, 2010

Christian Lifestyle as an Epiphany of God

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of Epiphany, Year A, Matthew 2:1-12, January 2, 2011

In his biography of the Italian saint entitled St Francis of Assisi, G. K. Chesterton writes of the reaction of the Bishop of Assisi to the poverty of St Francis who abandoned his family home and patrimony, making his home with the lepers: “The good bishop of Assisi expressed sort of horror at the hard life which the Little Brothers lived at the Portiuncula, without comforts, without possessions, eating anything they could get and sleeping anyhow on the ground.” Horrific though his poverty, his simple life, that attracted friends and enthusiasts; one by one, they attached themselves to him “because they shared his own passion for simplicity.” The first to be attracted to his lifestyle were a wealthy citizen named Bernard of Quintavalle and Peter, a canon from a neighboring church. Bernard gave up the comforts of the world and Peter a chair of spiritual authority. From then one, Francis attracted men from all over the known world, and his order changed the face of the Church. Writes Chesterton: Francis “was not only discovering the general lesson that his glory was not to be in overthrowing men in battle but in building up the positive and creative monuments of peace. He was truly building up something else, or beginning to build it up; something that has often enough fallen into ruin but has never been past rebuilding; a church that could always be built anew though it had rotted away to its first foundation-stone, against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.”

This glimpse from the life of St Francis of Assisi points out to us one way by which the Church can evangelize and change the world, even as the saint evangelized and transformed the Church. That style of evangelizing is the theme of the 1st Reading (Isa 60:1-6) and the Gospel (Matt 2:1-12) today. To begin with, we are, of course, accustomed to the idea of evangelization in which missionaries as sent to non-Christian lands to preach the Gospel in obedience to the Great Commission (Matt 28:18-20). But the Gospel of Matthew knows a different strand of tradition that speaks of a different way of evangelizing the non-Christian world. And to appreciate this method, it may be helpful to recall the Gospel reading on Christmas Day (John 1:1-18), which, examined closely, teaches us about our calling. According to John, God took on the human flesh, dwelling with us so that we could become sharers of his life and love: “Any who did accept him he empowered to become children of God… Of his fullness we have all had a share—love following upon love” (John 1:12.16). For John, Christians who have become God’s adopted children or his sons form a community in which a new kind of relationship among the members regulates the community life. Having been chosen by God to be his children, they must make real in their community life the experience of his forgiving love poured on them at baptism. Love, which is the bond that binds all the members, creates wholeness and integrity within the individual believer and within the Christian community. All the members surrender themselves to Christ’s rule (Col 3:12-17). This is the kind of community that God calls Christians to form and the terminus of its evangelizing efforts; it is a community that shares the life and love of God.

But that calling is not limited to Christians. As St Paul could attest, all are called to be sharers of that kind of life: “God wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). “In Christ Jesus the Gentiles are now co-heirs with the Jews, members of the same body, and sharers of the promise” Eph 3:6). For Paul, this is the mystery that God has revealed to his apostles and prophets through the Holy Spirit (Eph 3:5). But if others are co-heirs with Christians and Jews, then how are those outside Christianity to share in God’s promise? How can Christians make those who do not believe in Christ members of the community that now experiences a new form of relationship? Of course, Paul’s answer is through the preaching of the Gospel (Eph 3:6b). In other words, Christians must be sent to the non-Christian world and there engaged in evangelization. But the 1st Reading (Isa 60:1-6), together with the Gospel reading, provides us a different strand of tradition on the way by which others can come to the knowledge of the truth. For Isaiah, evangelization is not just about bringing the word of God to those who have not heard of it; it could also mean preaching by means of the life people lead as a community. For, according to Isaiah, the glory of the Lord must shine in the community; that experience of unity and love which the new people of Zion have with God and with the members of the community must be recognized by those outside: “Rise up in splendor! Your light has come, the glory of the Lord shine upon you” (Isa 60:1).

In other words, non-Christians will eventually form part of the Christian community if this community reflects the glory and love of God; that is to say, if they recognize in it the experience of unity and love among Christians. In the 1st Reading, it is related that the dromedaries from Midian and Ephah and from Sheba stream toward Zion because of the light that shines (Isa 60:6). Here, the prophet envisions the eschatological pilgrimage of the Gentiles to Jerusalem following upon the rebuilding of the city. But in today’s liturgy, Christians who read Isaiah take Zion to mean the Christian community, which is the new Jerusalem. And non-Christian nations and people will stream toward it and be converted if this city gives out a light—which is the experience of unity and love displayed by its members. This is precisely the point of the Gospel reading. In the Gospel, Matthew speaks of a star. A Christian reading the text will readily associate the star with Balaam’s prophecy: “A star shall come forth out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Num 24:17) which was a Messianic text. But as Matthew narrates the story, it obviously refers to a heavenly phenomenon. If the Magi, who represent the Gentiles, were able to find Jesus, it was because they were attracted to the bright star; it guided them to the manger where Jesus lay. In other words, for the Gospel writer, non-Christians will find Jesus if they are first of all attracted to the light and life that the Christian community gives.

The Church then can even more effectively evangelize non-Christians if the community members will display in her life the unity and love she shares with God. This is not, of course, to play down the importance of sending missionaries abroad, but this has to be complemented with life witnessing. The role of the Christian community is to give light so people of various beliefs and persuasions will be attracted to it, even as the magi found Jesus because they were attracted to the star of Bethlehem. The effectiveness of this way of evangelization has been shown in history by the lives of many Christian communities, and it was clearly shown in the life of St Francis. As we noted above, the first to be attracted to the lifestyle of the saints were Bernard and Peter, and from that moment, the Franciscan movement continued to grow rapidly. With his lifestyle that would have been mistaken for that of a maniac, Francis had no need to ask people to join the movement. what happened was that people were flocking to him, because the lifestyle of the saint was no less an epiphany of God.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Being a Christian as a Collective Vocation

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of the Holy Family, Year A, Matt 2:13-15. 19-23

We are now living in a time of globalization, and for all its advantages and disadvantages, its benefits and evils, it is likely to prevail in the coming decades. As James Wolfensohn, president of World Bank, claims in an interview with Reuters and Reuters Television, globalization cannot be turned back; it needs to be better managed, however, so its benefits are felt around the world. Indeed, globalization demonstrates that the world is really one global city; what happens on one side of the globe is now being felt on the other. The economic repercussions of the suicidal attack on the twin-towers in Manhattan, for example, were felt around the world; no country is an island; each one is part of the main. No wonder the thrust now is to go global. Even terrorists know this. Dr Ayman al-Zawahiri, considered to be Osama bin Laden’s mentor, confidant and chief accomplice, is said to be convinced, for example, that to establish Islamic rule throughout the Arab world, a worldwide jihad against infidels is necessary.

The awareness that the world is one family is a welcome development. It is ironic, though, that in the face of this realization, there are still many Christians who refuse to acknowledge that in religion, we are also one family of God. It is not uncommon for many Christians, even Catholics, to think that being Christian is an individual call, believing that faith is simply a matter between God and him. The question---favorite among born-again and fundamentalist Christians--“Have you accepted Jesus as your Lord and personal Savior?” is popular enough, and accepted with hardly any objection, indicating that many are not bothered by the mere individualistic approach to Christian faith. The result, of course, is far reaching. For example, we find families whose members belong to different Christian denominations. There are other families, the father of which prefers to go to the cockpit on Sundays, whereas the mother is almost crazy about her charismatic experiences, while the daughter feels at home with her fundamentalist peers. We have Catholics for whom it is enough to pray to God in the privacy of their homes, but who never bother about being one with their co-parishioners at the Sunday Eucharist and on action in behalf of justice and peace.

That all of us, believers, form one global family of God is the theme of today’s Gospel (Matt 2:13-15. 19-23). At first blush, it would seem that the account is simply about the flight of the holy family—Joseph, Mary and Jesus—to the land of Egypt to escape from the persecution of Herod the Great. It will be recalled that, according to Matthew, the Idumean king felt he was deceived by the Magi about the new-born king, and to make sure that he had no rival to the throne, he ordered the massacre of all boys two years old and under in Bethlehem and its environs (Matt 2:16). Anticipating the king’s decision, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and commanded him to bring the child to Egypt. So, the family stayed there until the death of Herod, and Matthew appended the quotation from Hosea (Hos 11:1) to say that this happened in fulfillment of the prophecy “Out of Egypt I called my son” (Matt 2:15b). But what does this citation mean to us Christians? In Hosea, God speaks of himself as a father, and considers Israel his son. God loved Israel from the beginning, and at a time when he was helpless (Ezek 16:4-14), his love for Israel moved him to care for him. He rescued him from the Pharaoh of Egypt, who oppressed him. In quoting from Hosea, however, Matthew probably had in mind the Christian community. For just as in the Old Testament, God called the Israelites from Egypt, led by Moses, so in the New Testament, God called Jesus, the new Moses, to redeem us from the Egypt of sin and slavery to it, and establish a new people, the renewed Israel, the Church.

To create a new people that eventually became the Church—this is the reason for Jesus’ coming. He became incarnate to make us a new family of God, distinguished for its unity in Christ and love for one another in the manner of Jesus (John 13:34-35). This dimension of the meaning of incarnation should not be missed. Of course, there is the sacrificial aspect of his coming; he saved us by offering his whole life, but especially by his passion, death and resurrection. But it is equally important to underscore the vision Jesus himself had in mind—the establishment of a community of brothers and sisters who hear and act on the will of God in Jesus, a community that arose from the side of his death and resurrection. In Christian theology, one becomes a member of this family through the baptismal bath. In this new community, each member, according to Paul, clothes himself with Christ, taking up his manner of life and death. Since all are sons of God in Christ, there is no more Greek or Jews, slave or free, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28) in this family of God.

This is the family to which all are called. One is not a Christian apart from this family. Hence, there cannot be individual Christians. Since Christians can be found anywhere in the world, Christian believers therefore form a global family. Indeed, we have been global even without our realization, and long before businessmen spoke of globalization. This global family of God has a distinctive way of life, which one cannot experience if he remains an individual Christian: “Because you are God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with heartfelt mercy, with kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Bear with one another, forgive whatever grievances you have against one another. Forgive as the Lord has forgiven you. Over all these virtues put on love, which binds the rest together and makes them perfect. Christ’s peace must reign in your hearts, since as members of one body you have been called to that peace. Dedicate yourselves to thankfulness. Let the word of God, rich as it is, dwell in you. In wisdom made perfect, instruct and admonish each other. Sing gratefully to God from your hearts in psalms, hymns and inspired songs. Whatever you do, whether in speech or in action, do it in the name of the Lord Jesus” (Col 3:12-17, 2nd Reading). This rather long quote is part of a catechesis of what it means to belong to the family of God. Being part of this renewed Israel demands a new form of relationship within the community that reflects that status.

As we celebrate the holy family today, it is worth emphasizing that what we find in the global family of God—its goal, its purpose, its lifestyle, etc.—must be reflected in our human families, because the family after all is the smallest unit of the family of God. That is why in today’s 2nd Reading, Paul draws some implications of living in the family of God for Christian families: “You who are wives, be submissive to your husbands; this is your duty in the Lord. Husbands, love your wives. Avoid any bitterness toward them. You children, obey your parents in everything as the acceptable way of the Lord. And fathers, do not nag your children lest they lose heart (Col 3:18-21). Since the family must exhibit the lifestyle of the global family of God, it is clear that as a member of a family, one cannot exercise Christian life in a solitary manner. To walk “in the Lord” is always to walk with the family members, that is to say, in a collective manner. This is a way of saying that an individualistic Christianity is a contradiction in terms.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

God Is with Us--That's Enough Guarantee to Our Salvation!

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 4th Sunday of Advent, Year A (Matt 1:18-24), December 19, 2010

In November, a few years back, I went to Cebu City to celebrate the birthday of a friend. I almost did not make it, however, because our trip from Ormoc to Cebu was nearly cancelled, as the tropical storm “Ondoy,” which was spotted 430 kilometers east of Guiuan, Eastern Samar, with maximum winds of 70 kph at the center, gained strength. The Coast Guards, it was claimed, at first refused to give the go signal for the voyage. Later on, however, they did, with the warning to the passengers about the big waves. Indeed, as the Supercat negotiated the distance between Bohol and Leyte, we could feel how the winds and the waves buffeted it. The trip was a bit frightening. “Are you not scared of the big waves?” I asked. The passenger who sat beside answered, “Initially, I was. But having known that a priest is on the ship, I am no longer afraid. I know that God is with us in this trip.”

The belief that when one holds or can lean on a more-than-human power he will be protected from any harm or misfortune is almost universal. Those who do not believe in the presence of God in their lives seek assurance of safety and continued happiness elsewhere. Understandably enough, even among the supposedly educated mortals, the practice, for example, of wearing talisman to bring good luck or to ensure success and good fortune is fairly common. Gamblers, like cockfight aficionados, are notorious for their belief in the ability of talismans to make them win in games. Their favorite objects are items that are connected with the sacred, or have touched the sacred. The use of amulets is quite common, too. When one is new in a certain place, he is advised to keep an amulet to ward off the influence of bad spirits. Doors, windows, and walls are sometimes decorated with figurines or objects meant to stave off evil. Others use mascots to bring them good luck. Though amulets, mascots and talismans have different uses, they are similar in that they are intended to assure a person continued happiness and protection from the evil one. But, on the other hand, they of course show how weak his faith in God is, for these objects relatively control one’s movement, and even outlook in life! The presence of God in his life takes a secondary role. For a person of faith, these are of no use; nothing more could assure one’s happiness and protection from evil than the presence of God in one’s life.

In today’s Gospel, Matthew presents Jesus as God’s presence among us (Matt 1:23). He sees Jesus as fulfilling the promise of the prophets that God will be once again with his people. For this reason, he appended to his account on the virginal conception of Jesus a formula-citation from Isaiah’s prophecy about the Immanuel (Isa 7:1-14, 1st Reading). In order to appreciate Matthew’s presentation of Jesus as the Immanuel, it might be helpful to understand the Isaianic prophecy in its original setting. While Tiglah-Pelesser was trying to expand his empire, King Rezin of Syria and King Pekah of Israel formed an alliance of resistance, and tried to pressure Ahaz, king of Judah, into joining the alliance. When the latter refused to join and oppose Tiglah-Peleser, Rezin and Pekah besieged Jerusalem in the hope of replacing Ahaz with a puppet leader. To survive, Ahaz wished to have an alliance with Assyria against both kings. It is at this point that Isaiah paid Ahaz a visit (2 Kings 16:5-9), and told him that an alliance with Assyria would end with the destruction of Judah as an independent nation. Instead, he asked him to trust in the Lord’s sovereignty. Judah would be preserved if it remained faithful to God. As a guarantee of his word, the prophet said that a young woman would bear a son and call him Immanuel. The child would guarantee the continuation of the Davidic dynasty. Before he becomes mature, Israel and Syria would have been devastated. This is the original meaning of the famous Isaianic prophecy about the virgin conceiving a son or the birth of the Immanuel (Isa 7:1-16).

In Matthew’s view, however, the assurance that God would not abandon his people finds fulfillment in Jesus, because Jesus himself is God-with-us! Of course, the knowledge that God is with his people is ingrained in the Jewish faith. Isaiah himself best articulates it: “But now, thus says the Lord, who created you, O Jacob, and formed you, Israel. Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mind. When you pass through the water, I will be with you; in the rivers you shall not drown; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned; the flames shall not consume you. For I am the Lord, your God, the Holy One of Israel, your savior” (Isa 43:1-3a). God then was with his people—in Abraham and the patriarchs, in Israel’s worship and wars, in her journeys, in the Temple, etc. But what Matthew had in mind is a new way of God’s presence—God is to manifest himself not in a voice, wind, water, fire or animal, but in a human person who lives among his people. In the words of John, “The Word was God…. And the Word was made flesh, and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1b. 14a). In the person of Jesus, God has descended to men in order to abide with them till the end of the world. Thus, after his resurrection, Jesus assured his disciples: “Know that I am with you until the end of the world” (Matt 28:20). Of course, he was speaking of a different form of presence in the Holy Spirit, which finds a good description in John: “Anyone who loves me will be true to my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him, and make our dwelling with him”(John 14:21).

In effect, Matthew is saying to his community and to us: God’s presence is the guarantee that the person who believes in Jesus will be saved. For the person who has faith that God is with him, God will ultimately comes to save on his behalf. He may suffer, or even be killed, but the forces of evil cannot defeat it: “Form a plan and it shall be thwarted, make a resolve, and it shall not be carried out, for ‘With us is God’” (Isa 8:10). God will not abandon him in his struggle, but will see to it that he survives any setbacks, and strengthen him when discouraged and disappointed. For this reason, it is abhorrent to trust in objects and figurines that serve as talismans, amulets or mascots. Even if it were true that these have inherent powers, they are nothing compared with the assurance God gives a person because of the divine presence. Paul says something similar to this when he speaks of God’s love: “Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Trial, or distress, or persecution, or hunger, or nakedness or danger, or the sword?… Yet in all this we are more than conquerors because of him who has loved us. For I am certain that neither death or life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, neither height nor depth nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord” (Rom 8:35-39). Of course, that one will not be destroyed because God is with him requires faith—a leap of faith that king Ahaz did not have, but one that every Christian must possess if, like St Paul, he is to emerge triumphant with God.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Has Jesus as Messiah Proved to Be a Disappointment?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Advent, Year A
(Matt 11:2-11)
December 12, 2010

What can transform our present world that is rife with suffering and evil into a paradise of love, justice and peace? Time was when many people, given the evils attendant upon Industrial Revolution, thought that Socialism and Communism would usher in a new paradise, the classless society, with the Proletariat as the Messiah; but in the end, the paradise turned out to be the Gulag archipelago. Karl Marx’s Communism was obviously a disappointment. That was why others were hoping for the destruction of the USSR, believing that the fall of the “evil” empire would usher in world peace. Today, however, the Russian empire has disintegrated, and Communism and Socialism have been defanged, but the world has not substantially changed for the better. We are still faced with the prospect of nuclear exchange, and we have problems of hunger and poverty, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, the foolish wars and the rape of the environment. Many people and probably some countries looked to terrorists and their network for salvation, but if the fallout of their attacks is any evidence, it would seem that the world has gotten no better off than before.

Which brings us to the question: given the persistence of evil experiences, who is to free us from them and offer us a new life and a new world? Of course, to those who belong to the Christian Churches and civilization, faith teaches that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, i.e., God’s anointed One who brought salvation to the world through his entire life, but especially through his passion, death and resurrection. We, Christians, identify him with “the one who is to come” (Matt 11:3)—he is the one we long for to save this world from all forms of evil. This belief in Jesus’ Messiahship is already expressed in the early post-Easter reflection, where he is recognized as the Davidic Messiah who is enthroned at the resurrection: “God made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:34).

But whether all of us act on that belief, that is to say, whether our belief in his Messiahship is seen in the way we live our day-to-day lives, is another question. For, one simply wonders whether the name of Jesus the Messiah is invoked in our efforts to establish peace and justice, whether his teachings matter whenever we try to resolve problems of hunger, war, poverty, and the destruction of the environment, and whether the way we do politics and economy is informed by what the Messiah has to say. Indeed, if the war against terrorism is any indication, it would seem that many Christians—or at least those who hold power in governments—look to other Messiahs. Like High-Tech Military Power.

We raise this point because it seems that many of us do not exactly understand the role of Jesus in the realization of salvation. We seem to think like John the Baptist who had his own notion of the Messiah and asked in this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt 11:2-11) whether Jesus fit his conception. In the Gospel of Matthew, John described the coming of the Messiah in terms of clearing the threshing floor, gathering the grain into the barns and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:10), that is to say, in terms of God’s anger and His judgment (Jer 7:20). The Messiah, as John the Baptist saw him, would be a stringent judge. But when Jesus arrived on the scene, he proved to be a disappointment to John the Baptist. Instead of eliminating transgressors from the face of the earth, for example, Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:10-13; cf Luke 15:1-2). He engaged in a healing ministry (Matt 11:5; Isa 35:5-6). While John looked for judgment pronounced on evildoers, Jesus pronounced the endless love and mercy of God the Father (Luke ch 15).

Jesus, in other words, did not match John’s preconception. Not surprisingly enough, in today’s Gospel, John sent deputation to inquire as to Jesus’ Messiahship: “Are you ‘He who is to come’ or do we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). Indeed, there seems to be a John the Baptist in each of us. In the face of the enormous problems we are confronted with, we look not to Jesus but to politicians, Rambos, foreigner mercenaries, terrorists, and even magic and sorcery to solve them! To deliver us from political and economic evil, we run to politicians, economists and technocrats, even if experience has shown that the country has never substantially improved with the solutions they have offered us in many years—the poor keep on multiplying, the powerful still control the economy, real service is still undelivered in the way it should, the rich become all the more rich.

Why is this so? Why do we not look to Christ, if we indeed believe that he is the Messiah? The reason is that, like John the Baptist, we seem not to believe that Jesus’ way is the correct way. We lack faith that in Jesus we have the ultimate answer to the problem of salvation. We think that Jesus’ words lack wisdom, and his teaching will not work. Probably at the back of our minds, we believe that he is “an obstacle and a stumbling block,” even if we profess with our lips the opposite. We are practically disbelievers in God’s word (1 Pet 2:8). A Christian will always condemn terrorism, but it will be difficult for him to find any Christian basis for an almost relentless bombing on a poor country, where millions who are poor live, even if it is an enemy. That might be a reasonable, sensible action, politically correct, but one doubts whether it could be considered Christian. The main problem, in other words, is that we lack faith. To conquer the enemy, one has to forgive, if one goes by the Gospel, but who would believe that? If one slaps your right cheek, give him the left as well—is that reasonable?

Hence, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Blest is the man who finds no stumbling block in me’ (Matt 11:6). To believe that Jesus’ way is the right way calls for a leap of faith. It is a faith that allows God to do what he wants; we do not dictate how God should act in us, even though this is what we would like to happen. On the contrary, all we do is just listen to him, as the experience of Israel proves, when the Lord saved his people from the Egyptians at the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod 14:14). This means that before anything else, we must believe, and then we can be sure that our hope will not be disappointed: “Behold, I am placing in Zion a stone to make men stumble and a rock to make them fall; but he who believes in him will not be disappointed” (Rom 9:33).

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

There Is No Room for Complacency

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Advent A
(Matthew 3:1-12)
5 December 2010

“Eat Bulaga!” is a noon-time variety show in the Philippines aired by GMA Network. That it is the longest running television show in the country and broadcast worldwide through GMA Pinoy TV is an indication that the program is a success. Aired from Monday through Saturday, it gives excitement to the viewing public because it bristles with surprises. Founded in 1979 and premiered at RPN 9, it celebrated its 31st anniversary this year, 2010. But to stay at the top, Joey de Leon, Tito Sotto and Vic Sotto cannot just sit back and relax; they cannot just bask in the sunshine of phenomenal success. If they are not to wake up one day and find out that their show has been dislodged from the top, they must always make an effort to make it unmatched.

Just as Tito, Vic and Joey cannot just merely bask in their being number one in the noon-time show industry but have to exert efforts to maintain their rating, so a Christian cannot simply assure himself that his being part of the Church is enough guarantee of his salvation. And the Gospel today’s cautions us against that frame of mind by telling us about the outlook of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees and the Pharisees were sort of interest groups within Judaism, and although they had differences in their beliefs and interpretation of the law, both were proud of their being part of God’s covenanted people, who descended from Abraham. As can be gathered from rabbinic literature, the Jews believed that to be inserted into the Abrahamitic lineage was an assurance of protection against God’s wrath and, as may be gleaned from other sources (Luke 16:24; John 8:33-39), an assurance of salvation. The consolation of Zion or Jerusalem finds its basis in the share of Abraham’s blessings (Isa 51:2-3). No wonder, being an heir to Abraham’s blessings (Gen 12:2-4) was Israel’s national pride and boast, for they were sure of salvation on the basis of the merits of Abraham (Test. Levi 15:4). Indeed, some even believed that although one may depart from the ways of God, one could still share in the everlasting kingdom on account of his belonging to Abraham’s lineage; after all, God cannot be unfaithful to his promise to Abraham and to his descendants.

In today’s Gospel (Matt 3:1-12), John the Baptist repudiates such an outlook. It may be recalled that John preached the imminence of the Kingdom of God. Both Pharisees and Sadducees believed, of course, in the coming of the Reign, but with a difference. For the Sadducees, who were elitist, comprising the Jewish aristocracy that maintained the Temple and its rituals, the Reign of God is merely the continuing rule of God that existed from the dawn of creation, and all they waited was its perfection. The Pharisees, on the other hand, taught that the Kingdom could be hastened through meticulous observance of the law and a superior morality. But John the Baptist shared none of these; the coming of the Kingdom is imminent, and people had to be prepared for its coming. Of course, for the common people who looked forward to their deliverance from the Roman yoke, the coming of the Kingdom was a fulfillment of their dream.

No wonder that John’s preaching evoked a very strong response from the hoi polloi living in Jerusalem, Judea and around the Jordan. Because his message was one of judgment, he invited people to submit to his baptism of repentance, a ritual cleansing that recalls the message of Zechariah (“On that day there shall be open to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanliness” [Zech 13:1]), as he challenged people to acknowledge their sinfulness and change their lives, their lifestyle, in preparation of the coming of the Kingdom. They must turn to God and institute a moral revolution in their lives and in the way they related to one another.

But the Pharisees and the Sadducees would not hear of his message of repentance. They saw no need to submit to the baptism of repentance; after all, they were sons of Abraham (Matt 3:9; cf John 8:33,39). Which elicited a retort from John: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Give some evidence that you mean to reform. Do not pride yourselves on the claim, ‘Abraham is our father’” (Matt 3:7b-9a). In the mind of Matthew, God is not bound by the law of lineage. He can, according to John the Baptist, “raise up from these stones (‘abnayya) the children (benayya) of Abraham” (Matt 3:9)—a response that probably alludes to a comment in Isa 51:1-2 that though Abraham is like a lifeless stone, God can raise up descendants from him. This striking resonance or play of Aramaic words means that the Jews could not rest secure in their Abrahamitic lineage, for in God’s creative act, he can form a new people. Matthew’s perspective on this score is that the people of Israel have become divided with the coming of John and ultimately of Jesus. Whereas some put their faith in the Man from Nazareth, others refused to believe. For this reason, even families were sharply divided (Matt 10:21-22). But the nation as a whole did not come to believe in him; on the contrary, its leaders brought him to the cross. Therefore, Israel forfeited its privileged status as God’s people. That privilege has now been given to the Christian community, the Church. Judgment has fallen on Israel and God has raised a new people from these stones (‘abnayya)—the new children of Abraham.

But as we, the new children of Abraham, await the coming of the Kingdom, we cannot rest in complacency. Being God’s people is both a gift and a task. It is a gift because we, the Gentiles, did not deserve it. If it was given to us, it was not on account of our being superior to the Jews in any respect. Before God, we are stones (‘abnayya), dead and incapable of saving ourselves. It was simply because of his unmerited love (cf Rom 5:8) that created us into his own people. And for this very reason, it is at the same time a task, since we must maintain that divine election both in our belief and in our life. For it could happen that with this feeling of self-assurance, we will just sit back and relax, but without realizing that, in the end, that trust in our election as the new sons of Abraham is only a beginning. God demands something more in order that we may ultimately receive the reward of joining the community of the saints.

We cannot therefore put off the question of daily conversion to God, for the “ax is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:10). There is thus a need for an on-going conversion, a complete turnabout of our orientation to sin and our daily decisions that arise from that orientation. As Paul puts it, “the lives of all of us are to be revealed before the tribunal of Christ so that each one may receive his recompense, good or bad, according to the body” (2 Cor 5:10). As the new children of Abraham, we cannot be complacent; we must show in our personal and community life the saving deeds of God in Jesus. The spiritual dangers which beset the Pharisees and the Sadducees—and the people of Israel—are no less real to us.*

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Do Not Be Caught Flat-Footed

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 1st Sunday of Advent A
(Matt 24:37-44)
28 November 2010

Not so long ago, America was bullish about itself. For all the laying-off of workers in some giant corporations, Americans enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity that was probably unmatched in 20 years or so. The only world power was confident that it would continue to dominate the world of politics, business and economy. No wonder it was complacent, or so it would appear. But like a balloon, America burst on September 11, 2001. The terrorists, alleged to be part of Osama bin Laden’s al-Quida network of Islamic radicals, reduced to rubble the World Trade Center twin-towers in Manhattan and damaged the Pentagon in Washington DC, sending the entire country into a state of shock. Stock markets dipped, shops closed down, schools were shuttered, buildings evacuated, planes grounded, and the entire nation was quite literally paralyzed. It was the day America cried. No one could have ever thought that a small but determined band of terrorists could have inflicted so much havoc on the symbols of American prosperity and military might, the American people and the American psyche. The only powerful nation in the world, with its superiority in military intelligence and power, had its Achilles’ heel, after all; and the terrorists demolished the invulnerability of America. When one considers this particular catastrophe, he might make a mental note that despite the sophistication of its defense plan, there was obviously a failure in America’s intelligence network. The terrorists caught them flat-footed.

Advent is a time of vigilance; every time we celebrate it, the liturgy always exhorts us to get ready so that we may not be caught flat-footed when Christ’s return in glory. That is why, in this 1st Sunday of Advent (Matt 24:37-44), the themes of the Gospel are: being prepared for God’s coming in history and living accordingly. But what is this object of expectation, in the first place? Is it like a terrorist attack that is something to be feared, and so we always have to stand in readiness? If we confine ourselves to the liturgical readings, the Day of the Lord is not something to be scared of. In a vision of prophet Isaiah that we come across in the 1st Reading (Isa 2:1-5), all the nations will converge on Zion, the goal of their pilgrimage, which Yahweh made into his place of abode, the place of his special protection, and from which he will offer instruction on the right way of living. Of course, this is a Jewish way of understanding the future, but there we have the fundamental message of the things to come: it is the hope that all men and nations will belong to the renewed Israel, God’s people. In the vision wherein nations make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they would share with the Jews the same worship and the way of life, the law, as God’s people, the prophet shows his conviction that if all the nations recognize and accept the instruction of Yahweh as the right way of living, there will be world peace. Because the sound judgment of God prevails, there would be renunciation of warfare; swords will be beaten into ploughshares. In other words, the object of our expectation is world peace among nations and the brotherhood of all men—that is what will be established when Christ returns. It is not, therefore, something to be feared; quite the contrary, it is one that must be approached with joyful expectation both because it always eludes us however much we try to pursue it, and because it fulfills our dreams and human longings.

And the Gospel asks us to get ready for it. To bring home the point, Matthew tells us the parable of the sign of Noah. In its original version, the story of Noah emphasizes that the flood was a punishment for the people’s wickedness (Gen 6:5-7). In Matthew’s use of the story, the warning about the flood does not point to immoralities committed by the victims; rather, it simply cautioned them that they were engaged in their ordinary activities, like eating and drinking, which were innocent in themselves. If one were to speaking of sin at all, it is that they never gave a thought to the impending catastrophe. In utilizing the Noah story, therefore, Matthew wants to admonish us that to prepare for the day when the Son of Man comes, we cannot imitate the contemporaries of Noah who went about their daily secular business and were blind to the imminent disaster. Considering that we do not know either the day or the hour (Matt 24:36), when the Son of Man comes, even as he will appear swiftly and without notice, much like the slamming of the two commercial planes against the twin towers of the World Trade Center, we can only pursue our interest with the parousia in mind.

Indeed, his coming will be so swift than we would not ever have time to prepare for it at all; therefore, now is the time to get ready so that so we might not be caught napping, or with our pants down. To stress this point, Matthew gives us another brief parable: the parable of the prudent householder (Matt 24:42-44). Here, Jesus compared the arrival of the Son of Man to the digging of a thief through the house (v 44). One is of course surprised by the use of the word “digging” but this is because the typical house at the time of Jesus was made either entirely or partly of clay bricks, and the easiest way to get in is to dig through the wall. And when a burglar does so, he does not of course serve notice to the owner of the house that he is coming in, much like today’s bank robbers who could pull a heist in five minutes and cart off millions of pesos. The approach of the parousia, in other words, will have no signs that could be discerned, and therefore we who await him must act like a householder who watches throughout the night. If the American military intelligence was always on the alert, the September 11 tragedy could have been prevented. The parable therefore is an exhortation that we have to we behave as if the Son of Man is coming at any moment today.

That means of course that we are caught up in an eschatological expectation. In fact, this is how the early Christians lived. Convinced that Christ would be arriving at any moment, they lived in joyful expectation. Just like a householder who is on the watch lest a thief breaks through his house at any time, and therefore who has with him everything that is necessary to defend the house from any burglary, so the Christians tried anticipate the future in the present. Thus, in the 2nd Reading, Paul gives us an example of an eschatological exhortation which insists that we are now living in the eschaton, in the end time: “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight; not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:12b-14). For Paul, to live in the eschaton is to live in and for Christ; but for Matthew, that life would be expressed in discipleship—listening to Christ and putting his words into action.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Jesus' Kingship as a Scathing Critique of Leadership in Churches and in the World

Homily on the 34th Sunday of Year (Solemnity of Christ the King)
(Luke 23:35-43)
November 21, 2010

Three decades ago or thereabouts, I read a book entitled Night, written by a Hungarian Jew—was it a certain Wiesel?—about the execution of three men by the Gestapo in front of thousands of spectators in a Nazi concentration camp. The three were mounted onto the chairs, and when the nooses were placed on their necks, two of them shouted, “Long live freedom!” while the third, a child, simply kept silent. Then, presumably asking why such a cruel fate should befall on the threesome, someone from among the crowd commented, “Where is God?” At a given signal from the head of the camp, the chairs tipped over, and in a jiffy, two of them were dead. The small boy, however, was still alive, and for about an hour, he hung there, suspended between heaven and earth, suffering the agony of dying slowly. Then, the same man from the crowd, who probably could not comprehend why such a child should suffer agony, asked again, “Where is God?” Then in answer to the question, a voice was heard, “Where is God? There he is—hanging on the gallows.”

That one sees God in a condemned child hanging on the gallows, that is something concealed from the eyes of many, for one does not normally associated God with defeat, or with condemnation in the hands of sinful men. Our image of God is one who is always triumphant, always in control of everything, and ever above human contingency and suffering. The same may be said of Kingship. In our common understanding, a reigning king is always associated with absolute authority and power. A ruling king who acts like a slave, is treated as a slave, who is in fact a slave—that is something beyond imagination. But that precisely what Jesus is: a servant-king. It is therefore understandable that, in today’s Gospel (Luke 35-43), the Jews could not believe in the kingship of Christ. If anything, he was, in their perception, exactly the opposite. That is why the leaders mocked him; if he were a king, they thought, God would not have allowed him to die just like that; if he were God’s anointed, he should have saved himself (Luke 22:35). The soldiers, too, mocked him in the same vein, placing an inscription over his head: “King of the Jews” (v 36). And one of the criminals derided him, convinced as he was that Jesus could not have been the Christ for he was powerless; to prove his messiahship, Jesus should have saved himself and the two of them who shared his fate (v 39).

But Jesus’ kingship can be perceived only by those who have faith. Only one who has faith can see the kingship of Jesus in powerlessless, weakness, pain and suffering. And precisely because he is a king—a crucified king—Luke is subtly suggesting that rather than trying to understand the kingship of Jesus in terms of what we know from kings who ruled in history, we have to understand what it really means to be a king in terms of the kingship of Jesus. That is to say, the analogue by which we judge what actions are proper to a king is none other than Jesus himself. It is the way Jesus rules that gives us the standard and meaning of kingship. Kings stand or fall on their conformity or non-conformity with the life of Jesus. Because Jesus is a king, as the inscription over his head itself reads, his kingship from the cross is thus a critique of how secular kings, heads of nations and leaders in Churches must comport themselves.

In today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43), Luke focuses on the declaration of faith by the good thief. Unlike the bad thief who shared his fate on the cross, but who uttered blasphemous words to Jesus, demanding that the latter should prove his messiahship by saving them from the cross, he looked on Jesus with the eyes of faith. Because of this faith encounter, he was moved to acknowledge his sinfulness, and appealed to the compassion of Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He could make this appeal because he knew, through the eyes of faith, that Jesus is the real King who could grant him salvation. And his hope was not disappointed: “Truly I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This recalls the words of Jesus to Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Both Zacchaeus and the good thief were notorious and lost, but, by their faith and by opening their lives to Jesus, they received salvation. And because he could dispense salvation to those who have faith, Jesus is thus a king.

At the same time, Jesus’ comportment is actually a scathing critique of leaders of our Churches and of our nations. Luke seems to be saying that now we have a new paradigm of leadership: to be a leader is not to subjugate and dominate people or do them violence; leadership is not about selfish exercise of absolute authority and power, nor is it about maintain one’s place at the top over the broken bones of many people. As Jesus himself points out, “Earthly kings lord it over their people. Those who exercise authority over them are called their benefactors. Yet, it cannot be that way with you. Let the greater among you be as the junior; the leader as the servant” (Luke 22:25-26). Leadership is rather about searching for the lost and saving them, like the good thief and Zacchaeus, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, the woman of ill-repute, etc. It is about serving the disenfranchised, the oppressed and the scum of the earth. It is about forgiveness. It is about service in the manner of a slave (Luke 22:26).

Far from abusing power or using people for his own ends, a real leader allows himself to be derided, or even crucified for the sake of the lost (Phil 2:11). It is clearly not about being perceived or appearing regal, nor about enjoying the trappings of power. As can be gleaned from the 2nd Reading (Col 1:12-20), Jesus is a leader who frees people from the power of darkness and brings salvation to them by his own death, not by absolute power or force or by pursuit of selfish interest: “He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Through him we have the redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14). It would be a disaster for the Church if its leaders are seen to be indistinguishable from secular ones, with concerns no different from the latter’s—power and privilege, wealth and self-aggrandizement.

Understandably enough, the attitude of the Bible toward human leadership is ambiguous. Although there is a tradition that approves of the institution of kingship over Israel (1 Sam 9:1-10:16; 11), a different strand of tradition altogether rejects it. Precisely because it saw how kingship was exercised by its pagan neighbors, Israel rejected it; in Jotham’s fable, only a useless person would accept the office of a king (Jdgs 9:8-20). Historically, of course, Israel had bad national leaders (1 Kgs 16:25-28.30-33), as did Judah (2 Kgs 16:2-5). An example of a despotic monarch who was guilty of apostasy and lawlessness was Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:1-18). That is why some prophets like Samuel were not in favor of its institution (2 Sam 8:101-8), and Jeremiah minced no words in his indictment against Jehoiakim: “Your eyes and hearts are set on nothing except on your own gain, on shedding innocent blood, on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer 22:11). But his words equally apply to many of our leaders.

To be sure, Israel looked on David as an ideal king, one who shepherds the people of Israel (2 Sam 5:3, 1st Reading), but that is because the Jews were of the belief that David approximates the king that God had in mind: “He tended them with a sincere heart, and with skillful hands he guided them” (Ps 78:72). Of course, Jesus, who in Luke is David’s son (Luke 18:38; 20:41), is the ideal king. More than David, he is the leader God had in mind, because the Spirit of God is with him; in him all the qualities that a human leader must have resided in him. And as crucified leader, who gave his life for the salvation of all, he never ceases to be an embodiment of God’s critique of our present kings, dictators, presidents, and powers-that-be in various countries and leaders in Churches who continue to take their position not in terms of suffering, sacrifice, oblation, dishonor, self-emptying, servanthood and even death.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Why Bother about Predictions on the End of the World?

Homily on the 33rd Sunday of Year C
(Luke 21:5-19)
November 14, 2010

Every time a catastrophe occurs, self-proclaimed prophets and diviners arise and immediately deduct apocalyptic conclusions. When the two commandeered commercial planes crushed into the World Trade Center, some people, for example, became instant numerologists, pointing to the recurrence of the number eleven: the tragedy occurred on September 11, exactly 111 days before the year 2001 ended; the passengers were on the American Airlines flight No 11; the twin-towers look like No. 11 from a distance; and both have 110 floors; Sept 11 is the 254th day of the year, and 2+5+4 equals 11; and if you write Sept 11 in numbers and add them up (9-1-1), the sum you get is 11. That is to say that the calamitous event—for those who see apocalyptic meanings in numbers--was not accidental; the exact time came for it to pass, it being a part of a larger plan cooked up in heaven that only God knows. Others were no less ingenious; they referred to an alleged prediction by the 16th century French astrologer and seer Michael de Notredame (Nostradamus): “In the City of York there will be a great collapse, twin brothers torn apart by chaos. While the fortress falls, the great leader will succumb. The third big war will begin when the city is burning.” One notes, of course, that the “prediction” is almost so accurate that it could have only been a creation of an imaginative Nostradamus enthusiast.

But the Bible has been inexhaustibly used in the apocalyptic deductions from current historical events, and this is very true of the Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) today and its parallels. This selection is a discourse on the destruction of the temple and its distinction from the end of the world and the eventual return of Christ. In it Jesus said that before the Judgment Day nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and that there would be earthquakes, famines, pestilence and signs from heaven (vv 11-12). Many, however, read this out of context, and in association with the books of Daniel and Revelation, used it to interpret fearful events and catastrophes and began to claim to have discovered the exact date, concealed in Scriptures from the many but known only to a privileged few like them, when the world comes to an end. In 1991, a TV channel in the US, in one of its religious programs, calculated that the beginning of the crack of doom coincided with the crisis in the Persian Gulf on the basis of Daniel and the apocalyptic discourse of the Lord. Of course, in recent history, we have this long line of prophets who pretended to have known the exact date of the Lord’s return. One recalls, for instance, William Miller who set the date of the second coming in 1843, and then on October 22, 1844, awaited by some 50,000 Adventists, and they were greatly disappointed. Or Charles Russell, founder of what became the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who taught that the end would come in 1914, during the First World War, confident that “millions now alive will never die.”

It is of interest to note that all these predictions are based on a certain reading of Scriptures. But for one not initiated to studying them, what is puzzling is that, even when these claimants to prophetic knowledge read the same scriptural text, they give different interpretations and dates. And what is more baffling, they always get it wrong, as the fact that we are still alive proves. The reason for this is not difficult to determine, however. In the first place, these attempts to date the end of the world are founded on an overly literal and symbolic interpretation of the Bible. But even more fundamental than this, they rest on a failure to understand the nature of the biblical book or the Bible itself and the intention of the writer of the book or passage on which they anchor their predictions. To begin with, what a particular passage means depends on the nature of the form of literature. Unlike scientific history, for example, a fable cannot be taken as historical. What poetry conveys cannot be put on the same level as what prose has to say. That is why we speak of the truth of poetry, the truth of history, and the truth of fiction—all of them conveying a certain truth, but not in the same way and degree. When a lover says, “I can give you my whole heart and soul,” that is poetry which cannot be put in prose without distorting its meaning.

The same is true with the present scripture text. If one were to interpret Luke 21:10-19 literally, one might say that the second coming, clearly distinct in Luke from the fall of Jerusalem, would be preceded by wars, earthquakes, plagues and famine, fearful omens in the sky and persecutions. When such events happen, one may not be surprised that many, with a literalist interpretation, will raise the question of whether they are seeing the fulfillment of the Lord’s prediction. But the text is not about prediction of the things to come; rather, it is about interpretation of events Luke’s community was confronted with. That interpretation is clothed with a literary genre called apocalyptic, found in such books as Daniel, Isaiah and Revelation, among others. In this genre, the interpretation of an event is characterized by an extravagant use of various images, symbols, signs and figures of speech, taken from contemporary literature. It usually deals with cosmic transformation that precedes the day of the Lord, with the assurance that those who remain faithful to the end will participate in God’s victory, even if the present realities seem to show the powerlessness of God over his enemies, and those who persecuted his people will face the inevitable judgment. Thus the 1st Reading: “The day is coming… when all the proud and all evildoers will stubble… but for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Mal 4:1-2a).

If today’s Gospel, therefore, speaks of wars, cosmic changes, and persecutions, they are not to be taken as signs of the impending end, but as literary medium, taken from contemporary literature, to express the theological message that those who carry on the cause of Christ, amid threats, persecutions, and imprisonment, can always expect to suffer setbacks, and they can even experience the feeling of the absence of God when they cry for help. Ultimately, however, they have the assurance that, for all the appearance of the forces of evil gaining the upper hand, the triumph of what is right and salvation for those who remained faithful to the end is certain. For this reason, those who take up the cause of God in Christ must hold fast to the end. “By patient endurance you will save your lives” (Luke 21:19). Consequently, they must not be afraid to bear witness to God’s love. On the contrary, the assurance of victory should animate them to labor for the coming of the kingdom of God. It is relevant to point out that the Second Vatican Council says something to this effect: “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come” (Gaudium et spes, 39).

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Striving after Life after Death

Homily on the 32nd Sunday of Year
(Luke 20:27-38)
November 7, 2010

As a consequence of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States when three hijacked commercial planes toppled the twin-towers in Manhattan and wrecked havoc on the Pentagon, the only Superpower in the world launched large-scale operations against Osama bin Laden, his al Qaida organization, and the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, who were being blamed for the suicide attacks. The US campaign was ostensibly directed toward destroying international terrorism, but from another point of view, the campaign could also be seen as aimed at the survival of America as a nation. Survival, after all, is one of the basic instincts of women, men, peoples and nations.

Indeed, that we do everything within our possibilities to assure that our health does not fail, that we normally look at suicide with repulsion and not, despite the enormous problems we face, as a good exit (except for a few who some would judge as not in their normal state of mind)—that merely indicates that we all love life, however miserable it might be, and we wish to survive. In fact, many of us cling to life so much that, even in the face of the inevitability of death, we devise means by which to prolong it: operation, transplant, expensive medicine, to mention a few. It may be noticed, too, that we construct monuments, sire children and create masterpieces in the hope that, consciously or not, our name and honor will live on long after we have expired. Our human desire to live on and be remembered by perpetually is probably inseparable from our belief that there should be life after death. The pyramids of Egypt, judged from their structure, function and content, testify to that belief in survival after death. In some countries in Africa, time was when the wives, slaves and servants of kings were buried alive with them in the belief that they would still serve them in the next life; hence, the grave of kings were provided with rooms. Of course, in our time, there may be some people who do not believe that one survives after physical death, but one can be sure that even they devise means to perpetuate their memory. They will not want to die like dogs.

That there are individuals who deny that there is life after death—this is nothing new under the sun, of course. In Israel at the time of Jesus, the Sadducees, a religio-political “party” largely drawn from the priestly class of the Jewish society, but which included many lay aristocrats, were such. They did not accept teachings not found in the five books of Moses, like the resurrection of the dead, which represents a later development in the Jewish faith. They rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, which included that belief. For them, if God rewards a human person, he does so in the present life, and they felt that they were blessed by God, what with their position of power and privilege in economy and in social life. There can be no reward after death since there is, they claimed, no after life. In today’s Gospel (Luke 20:27-38), Luke mentions them for the first and the last time. He portrays them as coming to Jesus with a mocking question with the intention of ridiculing the teaching of the resurrection, which Jesus shared with the Pharisees.

To demonstrate how absurd that very belief was, some Sadducees cited a hypothetical story that reflected the practice of the time—the story of a woman who was able to marry seven brothers in succession, since, according to the stipulation of the levirate law (Deut 25:5-10), if a husband died childless, his brother would have to marry his wife. For the Sadducees, the levirate law made the belief in the resurrection ridiculous, for it assumes that there would be a fight in heaven over women to whom brothers have been given in marriage. To stress their point, they asked Jesus whose wife the woman would be in the resurrection (Luke 20:28-33). In response to their question, Jesus used two arguments—and a third may be added--that would have been convincing to the Jews. The first one was drawn from the nature of resurrection life. He distinguished two modes of human life—earthly existence and resurrection life. In the former, it is essential that men and women marry to assure perpetuation of species in face of the inevitability of death. In the latter, procreation is no longer appropriate because all will live like angels, and the problem of successive marital relationships is thus rendered irrelevant.

The second argument was taken from a passage of a book that was acceptable to the Sadducees, because it was part of the Pentateuch. After all, it was from the Pentateuch that they tried to justify their case. According to Moses, whose authority the Sadducees accepted, God is a God of the living, not of the dead (Exod 3:6), and if the Pentateuch calls God the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it follows that the threesome are alive, not dead. But as the three have died long ago, God must have resurrected them, if Moses’ claim, which the Sadducees submitted to, is true. The 1st Reading (2 Macc 7:1-2.9-14) puts forward another argument for resurrection. It raises the question of justice. When Antiochus Epiphanes systematically persecuted the Jews, introducing Hellenistic beliefs and practices in the process, many Jews were martyred for their opposition to his program of Hellenization. The death of these martyrs, however, gave rise to the question of how God could give justice to their lives, as they were murdered for their faith in Yahweh. The answer found in the belief that God would vindicate them in the resurrection of the just. Thus, the fourth of the seven brothers who were tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope of being restored to life by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life” (2 Macc 7:14b).

For Christians, of course, such arguments may not be very necessary. The evidence—and our assurance—that there is life after death is the resurrection of Jesus himself. That Christ is alive—this is the source of our hope, for in Christ all will be made alive: “Christ is now raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Death came through a man; hence, the resurrection of the dead comes through a man also. Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again, but each one in proper order: Christ is the first fruits and then, at his coming, all those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:20-22). Our resurrection is thus linked with the resurrection of Jesus: “If we have been united with him through the likeness of his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection” (Rom 6:5). In view of this, we can state that to raise monuments, raise children and leave a memorial behind may be important to remember us by, but what is decisive is to live, after our sojourn on earth, forever with Christ. Consequently, it is really out of character of the Christian hope to engage in large-scale operations and kill many people in the process with the end in view of surviving on this earth. Under the species of eternity, our earthly survival is very short. Rather, what we should work for with more intensity and strive after is our life after death—compared with which our survival on earth is but a moment.*

Monday, October 25, 2010

Can Rich People Be Saved?

Homily on the 31st Sunday of Year C
(Luke 19:1-18)
October 31, 2010

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 .

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Justification Before the Judgment Seat of God

Homily on the 30th Sunday of Year
(Luke 18:9-14)
October 24, 2010

Last September 2001, 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.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Relentless Persistence

Homily on the 29th Sunday of Year C
(Luke 18:1-8)
October 17, 2010

Observing how much 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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Healing and Saving Faith

Homily on the 28th Sunday of Year
(Luke 17:11-19)
October 10, 2010

When the two commercial jets that terrorists had hijacked brought down the historic World Trade Center in New York, leaving in its wake thousands of casualties and tons of debris, bringing havoc to the American psyche, a number of people went to the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral to thank the Lord for having been absent in the vicinity of the twin-tower when the tragedy struck. They attended Mass in gratitude to God who saved them from the disastrous attack. But events of course are not always as mind-boggling as the assault on the World Trade Center. And what is or has become ordinary does not normally make a dint. Understandably enough, when one becomes accustomed to an event, however momentous it may be, it becomes so normal that he misses to see even its significance, still less perceive the meaning that has yet to be uncovered in the long run. A sacristan, for example, may tend to regard the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ to be just an ordinary part of the rite, no different from the making of the sign of the cross at the beginning of the mass. Indeed, sometimes it takes the inquisitive mind of a little boy, who wishes to have his first communion, to make us realize the profound significance of the ritual. At other times, it requires the touch of God’s finger to make us aware that what is happening is far from ordinary, as in the miracle of the Eucharist in Lanciano, Italy. And only then are we conscious that the hand of God is behind what is happening before our very eyes.

Today’s Gospel about the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) provides us an example of that experience. At the outset, it may be noted that leprosy was a general term in the ancient world to cover a variety of skin anomalies. from rashes, acne, boils to actual Hansen’s disease (Lev 13). In instances of actual Hansen’s disease, the afflicted were ostracized from villages, although they lived near enough on the outskirts to receive alms. Their isolation, which was regulated by Lev 13:45-46 (see also Num 12:15; 2 Kings 7:3-4), was bridged by warning the people of their approach by shouting “Unclean! Unclean!”. Whether the ten lepers in the present story had Hansen’s disease or not, the data do not enable us to determine. At any rate, the episode seems to be a miracle story, in which the lepers called out for pity and mercy, and Jesus answered their plea by healing them while they were on the way to the priests to present themselves for examination (Lev 13:49). One gets the impression that here Luke shows Jesus as a healer who meets the needs of those who cry for help. He is portrayed as a liberator who frees the afflicted from the slavery to evil condition and restores them to the community of Israel.

It seems, however, that—as Luke narrates it—this is not the main point of the Gospel story. For one thing, the narrative ends with a pronouncement: “Your faith has been your salvation” (Luke 17:19). Secondly, the Samaritan’s faith is praised, obviously in contrast with that of the nine other lepers, and the gratitude of the former is starkly set over against the ingratitude of the latter. One is tempted to say, therefore, that Luke’s point revolves around the act of salvation that Jesus performed. Let us uncover what this means. To be sure, the healing of leprosy was not distinctive of Jesus. There were many miracle workers in the Near East at that time, and the Greeks called them theios aner, divine men. Which is why one can assume that although the nine Jewish lepers showed faith in Jesus, as evidenced by their shouts for help, yet they must have viewed their restoration to health as no different from the various healings that miracle workers performed in Israel. Their mindset was completely that of an Israelite who lived under the law of Moses. It was for this reason that they were content with fulfilling the prescription of the Law, which stipulates that those cleaned of their leprosy must show themselves to the priests so they could be restored to the community of Israel (Lev 13:49).

But for Luke, the healing was not ordinary. Although the nine lepers were blind to the salvific act involved in the healing, it took a Samaritan—a social outcast and religious heretic in the eyes of the Jews—to recognize that what happened to all of them was more than a miracle of healing and restoration to the community. For the Samaritan, the healing was over and above all a miracle of coming to faith in Jesus, and an experience of the salvation that comes from him. The nine Jewish lepers were completely blind to this. In the theology of Luke, Jesus is the bringer of the messianic salvation; he proclaims the Kingdom of God, makes it present in the salvific acts he performs, and invites men to experience the blessings of salvation. But to experience and participate in the messianic blessings, one must come to faith in him. That precisely happened to the Samaritan. It is for this reason that Jesus said to him, “your faith has been your salvation” (Luke 17:19). In other words, in contrast with the nine Jewish lepers, the Samaritan was more than healed; he was saved.

Consequently, in contrast to the comportment of nine Jewish leprous who did not show gratitude to Jesus because of their blindness, the reaction of the Samaritan to his experience of the messianic blessings from him, made possible by the eyes of faith, was one of thanksgiving. He recognized that Jesus was God’s agent who not only healed but brought or shared the experience of salvation. Hence, he came back to thank him, and glorified God through him. In contrast, the nine Jewish lepers did not recognize this; it was, therefore, understandable that they were content with simply carrying out the command of Jesus to show themselves to the priests. For lack of the perception of faith, they were simply healed, but never saved. They were never converted to Jesus; they remained under the Law. Hence, they did not feel the urge to thank him. They were unlike Naaman, an army commander from the Arameans in the 1st Reading (1 Kgs 5:14-17) who-- despite his being a pagan and, like the Samaritan, despised by the Jews—having been cured of his leprosy, recognized the superior power of the God of Israel at work in the prophet Elisha, and returned to give thanks, again like the Samaritan. Thus, the story anticipates the gradual blindness of Israel to God’s work of salvation in Jesus, and the growing acceptance of it by the Gentiles, whom the Samaritan represents. For Luke, this Samaritan exhibits the basic element of discipleship: faith in Jesus.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Putting Everything in the Hands of God!

Homily on the 27th Sunday of Year C
(Luke 17:5-10)
October 3, 2010

In the United States, the World Trade Center, a 110-floor twin towers in lower Manhattan, New York, was symbolic of America’s economic prosperity, while the Pentagon in Washington stands to remind us of her military might. Last September 11, 2001, no sooner had people warmed their seats than two commercial planes, hijacked by terrorists, brought down the twin towers without warning, and another wrecked havoc on the Pentagon. The damage, in terms of lives, not to mention property and their impact on the American psyche, was so enormous that the death toll was, in the words of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, “more than we can bear.” A political analyst may look at these horrific attacks in terms of imperialism and hegemony, but for a man of religion, they raise questions about God’s power and his government of the world. Why does he permit such acts of senseless terrorism? Why does he let injustice and violence run their course?

The first reading (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4) raises almost the same questions. At the time of Habakkuk, the Chaldeans have replaced the Assyrians as the masters of the ancient Near East in the early 6th century BC. There was turmoil in both the international scene and in the land Judah which was rife with confusion, disorder, intrigues and idolatry. Seeing the violation of human rights in the anarchic regime, while God seemed to be unmoved by the disorder, the prophet questioned the ways of God, complaining why he, who was supposed to save his people, tolerated the injustices against the innocent: “How long, O Lord? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’, but you do not intervene” (Hab 1:2). One is, of course, reminded of the questions of the skeptic on the problem of evil in theodicy: Why does God not prevent evil in the world? Is he not capable of it? If he is and he does not, can he still be a holy and just God? Is he not malevolent? If he is not able to prevent it and will not, is he powerless and resentful? But if he is and he will, why does he let terrorism and injustice have their way?

Though such questions may make sense in philosophical gymnastics, they are foreign to the Scriptures. If anything, it would seem that the problem does not lie with God. On the contrary, it seems to be a question of man’s attitude toward God in the face of the mystery of evil, and its concrete manifestations in history---as in the assault on the American nation. For a man of religion, one’s attitude toward God in the face of negative experiences in the world is one of faith. This is the message of both the 1st Reading and the Gospel, although the meaning of the word is not identical in both instances. In the 1st Reading (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4), in his response to the questions that the prophet raised, God said that even in the perilous and confusing times, one must trust and hope in him, confident the future belongs to him. And he who is just, because of his faith, shall live (Hab 2:4). Here faith means fidelity and steadfastness. In the Gospel (Luke 17:5-10), the saying about faith is placed in two contexts that have to do with discipleship. On the one hand, there is the larger context which is the journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), which would have been difficult for the disciples to comprehend, for a crucified Messiah would have been opaque to their understanding. Consequently, if in today’s Gospel they asked Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5), it could signify the lack of commitment on their part to follow the Lord in his journey to the cross.

On the other hand, there is the immediate context, namely, scandals and wrongdoings that inevitably arise in the community (Luke 17:1). In Luke’s theology, the community that Jesus intended to establish is one that loves, cares and forgives. Experience shows, however, that in the Church and in our faith communities, there are people who scandalize, are unrepentant and unforgiving. There are some who serve as stumbling blocks to others (Luke 17:1-4). Considering the havoc they create in the community even to the point of engendering factions and divisions, one wonders why God allows such problems and people to be part of his very own community. If Jesus came to defeat the powers of Satan and to establish the reign in the community, why does he not remove those community members who stifle the growth of the Kingdom? Does he not care about what happens to the communities and movements of faith that are, for example, placed in the hands of leaders who set bad examples to others, scandalizing even the most innocent members? Why does he not place millstone around their necks (cf Luke 17:2)?

But it is precisely in the face of such realities within the community that faith is necessary so that Jesus’ followers can grasp the divine wisdom. Faith is the disciples’ response to God’s call to belong to the community of love. In this context, faith means an act of abandonment and trust in God. It means putting everything in the hands of God, knowing that, despite what appears to be human foolishness, the wisdom of God will prevail. If the disciples have this kind of faith—authentic faith—not matter how small, they can certainly achieve great things, and transform the community into one that cares for the spiritual and material needs of its members. It is in this sense that Jesus used the exaggerated image of the power of faith so his teaching can sink well into the mind of his listeners: such faith can uproot the mulberry tree! In other words, many miracles can happen in a community whose members have that kind of trust in what God can accomplish. If human wisdom were left to itself, many people would probably think and suggest that those who are unforgiving, those who are trouble makers and those who are scandal-causing members of the Church should be excommunicated and written off! But human wisdom is folly before God. The wisdom of God dictates that forgiveness, tolerance and sufferings are necessary for the transformation of the community. And to believe in that wisdom obviously requires much faith. Hence the petition of the disciples: “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).

With this in mind, a disciple cannot therefore claim that when, for instance, a tragedy strikes the community, as in the despicable assault of the twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, God has abandoned his people or does not care about them. One cannot question the ways of God. What happens to the community may not make sense to human wisdom, and human wisdom may even appear to present better solutions to solve the problems that the community encounters. But as a hearer of the Word, the disciple remains faithful to God and to his Word, even when the Word does appear not to make sense at all. Hence the response to the 1st Reading: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.” Whatever evil may befall on the community, one’s faith in Jesus assures the disciple that God’s Word will ultimately emerge triumphant, because he knows that God is faithful to those who believe in him, and he cannot be deceived nor can deceive. All that he needs when the going gets tough is to ask the Lord to increase his faith so it could accomplish miracles!