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.*