Friday, January 29, 2010

Rejection of Jesus’ Cause

Homily on the 4th Sunday of Year C
(Luke 4:21-30)
January 31, 2010

The Philippines is basically an agricultural country; it is not an industrialized one. But it is a country where most people are suffering because, as the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines noted, realities of injustice are embedded in its political, economic and cultural systems. Take for example the economic condition, which is tragically characterized by an appalling mass poverty. “Such an abnormal economic situation is partly attributable to inequitable ownership of assets particularly land, to an oligarchic power system, to misconceived economic policies, to the prevailing economic structures, and to population growth which tends to be concentrated among the poor, increasing the competition among them for land and unskilled jobs. Thus economic gains do not ‘trickle down’ to the poor.”

If Jesus had a pro-poor program, we, as a Christian community, should follow suit by opting for the poor, denouncing how unjust the situation is and proclaiming that, as a sign that the Kingdom of God has entered into our Philippine society, such an abnormal economic condition has to be reversed. According to the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, “The fight against poverty finds strong motivation in the option or preferential love of the Church for the poor.” When he addressed the people of the sugar plantation in Bacolod City on Feb 21, 1981, John Paul II said: “The Church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened in when they speak up; not to demand charity but to ask for justice. Yes, the preference for the poor is the Christian preference!” And we have to live what we preach!

But ever since John Paul II came to the country in 1981, has the economic situation been reversed? Has the cause of the poor been taken up? If the condition has even worsened, it is partly because it is scary to make this option, as this would entail the loss of much privilege and power. Indeed, even to preach it is to invite disaster. To denounce our abnormal economic system is to court opposition. In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:21-30), this is what Jesus himself got: the people rejected him, after realizing the implication of his words that so much captivated them. In Luke’s theology, this hostility has been adumbrated by the prophecy of Simeon: “Behold, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many within Israel , and to be a sign that is disputed” (Luke 2:34). The opposition to Jesus will culminate in his crucifixion, a fate that, according to the law, a false prophet deserves (Deut 18:20-22; Jer 23:9-30).

In the Bible, denunciation of such a situation and living a life that witnesses to that denunciation is the task of a prophet; he is commissioned to stand up and tell the word of the Lord “against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people. They will fight against you” (Jeremiah, 1:18-19, First Reading). We are supposed to be a prophetic people, but who would like to preach a gospel that would bring in one’s oppositionists, harassers, enemies, and assassins? Is it not dangerous to tell people and live accordingly that as a nation we should “do away with greed, selfishness, unhealthy competition and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few” in order to have true economic development? Who is ready to “infuse moral principles that put face of God and the many faces of the poor” into our “economic relationships, policies, programs and structures” (CBCP, Exhortation on Philippine Economy) and testify to it by the life one lives? And who likes to live like Jeremiah who practiced what he preached? Who would be happy to be called an ingrate, leftist, and be harassed, indicted and imprisoned for espousing such a cause? Who likes to die like Jesus himself at a young age at that, when there is so much opportunity to live, and live comfortably? Who is prepared to part with his sumptuous meal, his car of the latest model, his unrestricted travel, his signature clothes, his fat deposit in the bank?

Oh, how much better to save one’s skin! And various are the ways of doing it. One is to align one’s self with the oppressors of the poor, even waltzing with them. Who knows?—one would even receive thick envelopes that contain millions, get promoted, and live luxuriously. After all, no one will bother about the collusion, because power and wealth are on one’s side; the protest of the poor are never heard, anyway. As long as one is on the side of those in power, he would even be allowed to bark, provided he does not bite. Another is simply to stop talking. One does not give a damn about economic injustice, about lopsided economy, about progressive pauperization. Speak no evil! By doing so, one does not create opposition and enemies. Why eat threats for breakfast unnecessarily? Still another is to look the other way, and probably the best recourse is to offer people bread and circuses. The poor will forget about their hunger; they will be entertained. Of course, many of us take one or two of these lines of action, and still profess to uphold the values of Christianity. After all, one can always reason out that there is no use in uttering the Gospel to the poor, knowing that it would ultimately put the preacher six feet below the ground. A live cat is always better than a dead lion! How much better to be accepted, to be honored, especially by the power-that-be in our political, religious, economic and cultural world!

No wonder, we suffer from a lack of real prophets! Indeed, one wonders whether prophecy has died in our midst.

Friday, January 22, 2010

The Cause of Jesus, the Cause of the Church

Homily on the Third Sunday Year C
(Luke 4:1-4;14-21)
January 24, 2010

When President Arroyo made her inaugural speech at the Quirino Grandstand on June 30, 2004, she presented what would be her legacy when she steps down after six years. Among other things, she said: I shall have created 10 million jobs, developed 1 million hectares of agribusiness land; I shall have balanced the budget; power and water will be regularly provided to all barangays; Metro Manila will be decongested with economic activity; elections will no longer raise a single doubt about their integrity; I pledge to bring you a pro-poor agenda; I pledge to reduce spending; I will crackdown on wasteful and abusive officials. All these promises are supposed to be accomplished during her six-year term of office. Now that her term is almost done, how far have these promises been fulfilled?

The second segment of today’s Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) fulfills a programmatic function for the Gospel and the Book of Acts, as it serves as a preface to Jesus’ public ministry, in which Jesus made his inaugural speech. What was Jesus trying to say? Since he was quoting from Trito-Isaiah, which promised freedom to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia in 6th century BC, he was actually saying that the liberation of his people is being fulfilled in his person, in his talk and in his walk: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to released the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Thus, Jesus assumed the role of a liberator of the underprivileged to which the downtrodden, the blind, the imprisoned debtors and the poor belong.

Jesus’ cause is the liberation of the underprivileged. One wonders whether Philippine Presidents fulfill the promises they made at their inaugural speech, but Jesus really carried out his program, as can be seen from the rest of Luke’s Gospel. Though his friendship with some rich people, on scholarly grounds, could be put into question, there is not a single iota of doubt that his life was dominated by a ministry to the poor. His words of consolation, his preaching of the kingdom, his words of forgiveness, his healings and exorcisms, his table fellowship were almost without exception directed to those who belong to the lower rungs of the Jewish society. While Presidents may not take seriously the pledged they have made during their inaugural speech (probably there being no intention to fulfill them), there is scarcely any question that Jesus was consistent with what he said in his programmatic talk: the poor was his cause.

One major problem with the way we lived our Christianity in history is that instead of taking up again the cause of Christ, many of us have so made Jesus an icon that we have almost forgotten his cause. Of course, to make him an icon is reasonable enough. He was no ordinary man; he was really God, and early in the history of the Church, there were already the rudimentary beginnings of the tradition of worshipping him. “Therefore God exalted him in the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11). But whether this should be the dominant feature of the life of Christianity, this could be a subject of debate. There should be celebration of Christian life, that can be easily conceded, but first and foremost, there ought to be a Christian life worth celebrating about, and that life could only be patterned after the life of Christ that is dominated by a ministry to the underprivileged.

The poor are the losers in human history. They are cursed, dominated, taken advantaged of, fooled, degraded, not counted, oppressed, used, subjugated, pawned, forgotten, disenfranchised. In a human society where they are a majority, one wonders whether God can be happy about their lot. In the Old Testament, God takes the cause of the poor: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people… therefore I have come down to rescue them” (Exod 3:7-8). In a Christian community, greater honor is to be given to those from the underside of history. As Paul, in the 2nd Reading, puts it, “God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to the lowly members, that there be no dissention in the body, but all the members may be concerned for one another” (1 Cor 12:24-25).

Clearly, if it is to continue the cause of Christ, the Church has no alternative but to take up the cause of the poor. She should be a Church of the poor, as John XXIII has already noted, a poor Church. As a Christian community, it is incumbent upon us to make an option for the poor in a situation in which the bulk of humanity is poor. As John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, the Church “has become more aware of the fact that too many people live not in the prosperity of the Western world but in the poverty of the developing countries amid conditions which are still ‘a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”, he has felt and continues to feel obliged to denounce this fact with absolute clarity and frankness” (n 61). We do not only talk, we walk our talk. Jesus’ life was a witness to his cause: he was poor, he had nothing to lay his head on, he died poor, and in solidarity with the oppressed. The lifestyle of both clergy and laity ought to be a witness to poverty.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Santo Nino as the Manifestation of God-Man in a Child

Homily on the Feast of Santo Niño Year C (Luke 2:41-52)
January 17, 2010

IN recent years, there has been a proliferation of various images of the Holy Child: in some, he is dressed like a soldier or a doctor, in others, a fisherman or a pilot. I am not sure why the Infant Jesus was made to take these countenances, but the real image remains that of a child who wears the garb of a king, with crown on his head, scepter on one hand, and the universe on the other. The reason partly comes from the First Reading (Isa 9:1-7), which is the most famous messianic prophecy. God will liberate his people from oppression, through the agency of a child, who is a prince of peace. If the image has any meaning at all, it is meant to convey that this child, helpless and innocent though he is, is the king of peace, who is so powerful that he holds the world in his hand, and the liberator of the human race.

When we think of a liberator, we associate him with Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte. They are mighty warriors, who defeated their enemies and established empires over which they ruled. Through wars, power, and oppression, they subjugated nations and put their enemies under their feet. That is how worldly power works. But in the ways of the divine, one conquers the world not through power, but through weakness. If Jesus conquered world, sin and death, and now sits at the right of God, it was not through violence, but by submitting himself to the powers of this world. He showed his weakness by allowing himself to be humiliated, crucified and killed. It was in his frailty that he was recognized, especially in the Johannine theology, as king: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

If in his adulthood where he manifested his weakness, Jesus was recognized as king, so also in his childhood, helpless and feeble though he was, he was already known as king of the universe and its savior. The child, in other words, despite his ordinariness, is not an ordinary one. He is really a king—and more than a king, he is God among us, the Emmanuel (Matt 1:23). Which is why, although the image of a Santo Niño might appear absurd—for how can a mere child place the whole world in his hand, yet its meaning is entirely correct: God has deigned to show himself in this child of Bethlehem . Frail and lowly though he is, yet he is worthy of praise and worship. Small and voiceless though he is, he is really the revelation of God.

How did God manifest himself in this small boy? In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 2:41-52), he is portrayed as one who was devoted to the things of God. Early in his childhood, he was already concerned about his Father’s affairs: “Why did you search for me? Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). His first allegiance was to his Father. And it is not a simple allegiance. Luke uses the word “must” or “had to be” which, in Luke’s Gospel, characterizes Jesus’ life: “The son of man must suffer…” (9:22); “But first he must suffer many things...” (17:25}, “I must stay in your house…” (19:5), “Everything must be fulfilled...” (26:44). In the conflict of human and divine obligations, the Father’s will must prevail. No wonder, Hebrews characterizes the life of Jesus as doing the Father’s will: “Then I said, here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God (Heb 10:7). Doing the Father’s will culminates in his death, in weakness, in what appears, from the human point of view, as a defeat.

Of course, if from the beginning until his death, Jesus’ life was all about doing the will of his Father, it was not simply because he is God’s Son. As the Gospel today emphasizes, he progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace (Luke 2:52), and that growth is to be attributed to his upbringing as well. An evidence of that upbringing is that “his parents used to go every year to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41). Surely, as can be seen from the rest of the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph were deeply religious parents. If God was able to manifest himself in a child, in a boy who not only was deeply religious, but whose whole concern was to do the will of his Father, it is in no small measure due to what he received from his parents. Which reminds us of a rhyme: “Before your child has come to seven, Teach him well the way to heaven. Better still the truth will thrive, If he knows it when he is five; Best of all if at your knee, He learns it when he’s only three.” That is the meaning of the figure of Sto Niño: the all powerful God who is king of the universe, deigned to manifest himself in a powerless little boy, who is chiefly concerned about the things of God, partly because of how his parents brought him up.