Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 2nd Sunday of Advent A
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.*