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.*