Thursday, December 15, 2011

What Appears Foolish to Men Shows the Wisdom of God

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, Luke 1:26-38, December 18, 2011

A FEW WEEKS after the Marcoses were unseated in February 1986, many books were written about the four-day Edsa Revolution. One of the interesting features of the event, as narrated in several books, is that the outcome was far cry from what many actors of the event hoped to transpire, and the scenario many political analysts thought would take place. As is well known, Juan Ponce Enrile, together with Gregorio Honasan, Red Kapunan and the RAM had their own plans of what to do with the Marcos machinery. They had their own timetable. Of course, their plan failed, for what came off was People Power—a scenario which the communists and military adventurers never thought of. Indeed, even when the Edsa event continued to unfold, many political analysts came to the conclusion that it was highly probable that the communists would profit in the end. But they were wrong. No one thought of it—but People Power was born. And for a man of faith, this illustrates what the wisdom of God means (Rom 16:27). And it came as a surprise.

The First Reading and the Gospel can be seen in this perspective. Both focus on the wisdom of God. Of this wisdom, Isaiah puts it beautifully: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above yours, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isa 55:1-9). In the first half (1 Sam 7:1-5) of the Old Testament reading today, we are told that David wanted to build a house for the Lord. Realizing that he was living in a house of cedar while the Ark of the Covenant dwelt in a tent, the King proposed to build a temple for God (2 Sam 7:2). No doubt, it was a wise move on the part of David—even Nathan the prophet thought so. But his intention, however noble, failed, because God had a different plan in his mind; it was his son, Solomon, who would do the building (2 Sam 7:13-14). God had his own wisdom which David never anticipated. On the other hand, God’s plan for David—which the latter never envisaged, however wise he was—was to maintain the dynasty of David in perpetuity: “Your house and your kingdom shall endure for ever before me; your throne shall stand firm for ever” (2 Sam 7:16).

In today’s Gospel, we are furnished with another example of God’s wisdom at work. In Luke’s account of the transcendental origin of Jesus, Mary most likely thought that her marriage to Joseph would be no different from any normal marriage between a man and a woman. But God had a different mind about their marriage: it would be his vehicle in the incarnation of God. When the archangel, Gabriel, told her of God’s plan, Mary raised an objection: “How can this be since I do not know man?” (Luke 1:34). Obviously, Mary thought that she could not conceive God’s Son because no one had ever touched her. But the angel replied that her conception would have no precedent in human history, because the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. To conceive without having sexual intercourse is an impossibility; but the angel assured her that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37). If the birth of Jesus did not follow the human course of things, it is because, in the words of Edward Hoskyns, it is “a dagger thrust into the weft of human history.” God’s ways are simply different from man’s, his wisdom is beyond human contingencies and plans.

This has a profound lesson for us. We are now in the age of computers which ushered in a culture of precision. In this culture, everything seems to be predictable. Almost nothing is left to chance. Some even hardly tolerate human error. There seems to be a common belief that we are in control of the future. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that we depend on our own wisdom so much that we hardly conceive that God may have a different plan for us. Yet, our experience shows that how the Church grows and develops, for example, does not reflect our own human wisdom. Very frequently, ours does not succeed. It happens many times that our own wisdom fails, and eventually we realize that in our failure God’s wisdom is manifested. And this brings us to the point. It is important that in our lives, we give space for God. We have to agree to his own plan, and this often requires that we scrape out our own, however well-laid. Like Mary, we have to say “yes” to his will (Luke 1:39), even when this is opaque to our understanding and goes beyond our own wisdom. After all, he made the Number One enemy of the early Christians the Number One “propagandist” of Jesus Christ—St Paul. The early Christians had a view of Paul that never coincided with God’s, but it is always God’s wisdom that prevails in the end. We might be wise, but God is far wiser than we are. What appears as wisdom to man, is sometimes shown as foolishness before God.*

Friday, December 9, 2011

Do Other People Recognize God's Presence in the World Through Our Christian Life?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Advent, Year B, John 1:6-8; 19-28, December 11, 2011

IT IS PROBABLY not an exaggeration to say that, of all mortals, those whose names are well known are showbiz celebrities and politicians. Almost to a man, both are eager to publish their names and everything they do, and writers are even paid to promote their self-importance. Probably, no mortals crave to have the spotlight focused on them than these two groups of people. No deed of theirs is so small to pass unnoticed. Of some politicians, it could be said that while alive, they name buildings and streets after them through people loyal to them. Notices are put up on government projects to say that these are being undertaken through their efforts. How they wish, one can only conclude about their frame of mind, they were always in the limelight, the center of attention of their followers and fans! And funny that some of them would even view themselves as larger than life.

In the Bible, God alone is the center of life. It is incumbent upon people, as creatures, to recognize how he works in history. Though God is transcendent, he is involved in the affairs of men. In his plan to share his life with them, he raised up a people to be his own to proclaim his deeds in history. By recognizing him as the only Lord and God, men can experience wholeness and integrity in their individual and communitarian life. (On the other hand, the lordship of men over others will only bring evils to the community.) It is for this reason that God raised prophets. The prophets proclaim that the caring and loving God is present among his people, and that he is working on their behalf. Thus, in the First Reading (Isa 61:1-2.9-11), Isaiah says that he was anointed by God to proclaim a new order which God is giving to those who had been exiled to Babylon: glad tidings to the poor, healing to the brokenhearted, liberty to captives, release to prisoners, comfort to those who mourn and a year of favor to all. He will ultimately establish justice upon the earth (Isa 61:1-2.11).

In all this, however, it is important to notice that in so proclaiming, Isaiah identifies himself as God’s servant who points not to himself but to the saving deeds of Yahweh among his people.

In the Gospel (John 1:6-8.19-28), we meet another prophet by the name of John the Baptizer. God is sending the true light to the world to enlighten men so that, once they accept the light, they will be empowered to become children of God (John 1:11-12). By accepting the light, men will receive light. When John came on the scene, preaching God’s word and calling them to repentance, people flocked to him in big numbers. He was an instant celebrity. And were he a politician, he could have utilized his popularity, and initiated a personality cult around him. But he did not. He never capitalized on his reputation. Asked by the priests and Levites from Jerusalem, he did not claim to be a Messiah (anointed by God), or an Elijah returned to earth (Mal 3:23), or a prophet like Moses (Deut 18:15.18). Rather, like Isaiah’s, his mission was to let people realize what God was active among them: that God sent his Son, the true light, and his job is simply to testify to the light (John 1:8). He was the voice in the desert prophesied by Isaiah to prepare for the coming of the true light, the Messiah.

Such is the call of every Christian, and of every Christian community—we are called to proclaim his saving deeds, we are called to be witnesses to the true light, Christ himself. Just as John the Baptizer proclaimed what God was doing among his people, so we must proclaim what God is doing in the community and in the world. And the witness to his living presence is our life itself. John the Baptizer’s appearance betrayed that he came from God. The same should be true of our life. It should point to what God is doing in our midst, among the people we are part of. There are various ways of doing this, and one of them is to be sensitive to the events happening in our midst. In these events, we can recognize what God wants to say to us. Here we become like road signs—people can point to us as signs of what real life is all about. We do not stand in the middle of the road. We are readable and clear signs of how God works in our present history.

Matthew puts it this way: “Your light must shine before men so that they may see goodness in your acts and give praise to your heavenly Father” (Matt 5:16). John has something akin to this: “But he who acts in truth comes into the light, to make clear that his deeds are done in God” (John 3:21). The focus of other people’s attention is not we, who are merely signposts, but God our heavenly Father. Thus the Gospel is a challenge: Is God recognized in our lives? Do people perceive his presence in the world through the life we lead? Being a Christian is not really about telling people about what one has done either in the Church or in the secular society, or about what one has contributed to the uplift of people from misery, no matter how noble this may be; rather, in contrast to being a showbiz personality or being a politician, being a Christian is about allowing people to recognize God’s presence in all we say and do.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

What's the Good News? It's Jesus Christ Himself

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent, Year B, Mark 1:1-8, December 4, 2011

IF THERE IS anything that we always welcome with joy, it is good news! Did not Fidel Ramos jump with joy when the news spread that the Marcoses had been transported to Hawaii? One can just imagine how happy a woman is after being told by her doctor that she has no cancer, after all! That is certainly good news that can make her face glow! For a person accused of murder, the good news is none other than the pronouncement of the judge that he is not guilty! These examples illustrate to us what good news signifies—it means liberation, justification, vindication to someone who, in one way or another, is undergoing negative experiences. These experiences are transformed into something positive that gives liberation, freedom and healing.

The First Reading (Isa 40:1-5; 9-11) provides us with an example of what good news means to God’s people in the Old Testament. Sometime in 697 BC, Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, attacked Jerusalem and besieged the city. As a result, he took captive the King of Judah, together with the ministers and government functionaries, the officers and men of the army, craftsmen, smith, and “none was left among the people of the land except the poor” (2 Kings 24:11-17).According to the prophets, this happened because of the perversion of Israel (Jer 16:10-13; Isa 1:21-23; 10:1). The exile suppressed the national identity of the Jews, destroyed their spirit, and humiliated them—“we today are flushed with shame” (Baruch 1:15).

It was to this situation that Isaiah, 59 years later, proclaimed the reading today: “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is atg an end. Go up on a high mountain, Zion, herald of good tidings, cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of the good news! Here comes with power the Lord God, who rules by his strong arm” (Isa 40:2a.9). To hear that God would finally put an end to their servitude and exile—that was certainly good news! It was the answer to their prayer and confession of sins (Dan 9:18-19). One can just imagine the joy of the Jews, who have been living in exile for a number of years in a land foreign to their culture and life, at hearing this news of liberation! They must have been dancing on the streets and highways!

This brings us to the Gospel reading (Mark 1:1-8). Mark opens his work with a proclamation that it is a gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God (Mark 1:1). By gospel he does not refer to his work, the book which we read and which is divided into 16 chapters. Gospel—which originally denoted good news of victory in battle—means “good news”! And the “good news” that Mark proclaims is a person—Jesus himself. The greatest news is Jesus himself In Aramaic, Jesus is Yeshua, which is a late form of the Hebrew Yehoshua, meaning, “Yahweh is salvation”. In him, God reveals himself as Savior. In other words, the good news is Jesus embodies the salvation of God, which all people long for.

There are two best known Jesuses in the Bible. In the Old Testament, there is Jesus or Joshua, son of Nun, successor of Moses (Num 13:16). In the New Testament, there is Jesus of Nazareth (Luke 2:21). Just as in the first Jesus, Joshua, God executed his plan to bring his people into the land that he swore to their fathers he would give them (Deut 31:7-8), so in the second Jesus, the man from Nazareth, God will accomplish his plan to give his people healing, liberation and salvation. This means that in Jesus, God is acting again on behalf of his people just as he did for Israel of old. In Jesus, God brings liberation and salvation to his people. In Jesus, one finds the answer to the fundamental problem of existence. Today, we are enmeshed in many negative realities—injustice, exploitation, global greed, oppression, political and economic inequality and disenfranchisement, suppression of human rights, abuse of power, and destruction of environment, among others. All these involve separation from God and severance of common brotherhood, which are the essence of sin. But Jesus came to save his people from their sins (Matt 1:21) and its consequences. This is the good news. In Jesus salvation, integrity, healing, new life—all this is possible, can be given to humanity.

Jesus will accomplish this as Son of God (Mark 1:1), not as Son of Man, Prophet, or Son of David. What does this mean? Notice: that Jesus is the Son of God is never recognized in Mark’s account, except at the end, when a pagan soldier, seeing how he died on the cross, declared that he is the Son of God (Mark 15:19). This means that for Mark, salvation can only come from dying. Jesus will be able to give life, healing, salvation and integrity precisely because he is able to endure suffering and give up his life. And what does this imply for Christians? Since the purpose why Mark wrote his story is to know Jesus as Son of God, and since to know him is to believe that he is the suffering Messiah who died on the cross, the evangelist therefore wishes to ask us, who are Christ’s disciples, to follow the crucified Messiah in loving service and suffering, even to the point of dying. In this way, we become good news to people in need of liberation and salvation.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Our Hope Will Not Leave Us Disappointed

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent, Year B, Mark 13:33-37, November 27, 2011

FROM TIME TO time, we read news items about people who commit suicide—a jilted lover, a bankrupt businessman, or a problem-laden woman. But these are exceptions. We, the majority, go on living despite frequent ups and downs in life. And why do we go on? The reasons are varied, but the most common denominators are future and hope. One person may commit suicide because, in his perception, there is no hope of getting rid of the pain and conflicts save by getting rid of oneself. He longs for rest from conflicts, but he feels he cannot get this in the future. Thus, one takes a dive. However, there is always the desire the go on living as long as there is hope. Hope gives power and strength to life. As long as there is hope and future, no situation is unbearable.

Today, we begin the season of Advent, which is a time of hope. It is a reminder that our religion is one of hope. To be a Christian is to be in joyful hope. Which brings us to the question: Why do we continue to celebrate hope? Of course, if we look at our world and examine its history, we discover much that forces us to question the future. We ask, for instance, if peace is probable in the future, because, if history has anything to tell us, it informs us that wars have been with us since the beginning. Marx is not entirely wrong when he interpreted history in terms of struggle. The ethnic cleaning in some African countries, which recalls similar phenomenon in the former Yugoslavia, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Cold War, the Second World War—the list seems endless. One wonders whether man can achieve peace. If this is what one feels about the world, what does a believer feel about his hope that evil will come to an end?

In the First Reading, we read from Isaiah who articulates the feelings of his people about their lot: “For you have hidden your face from me” (Isa 64:6). Do we not sometimes feel, with all the seemingly unending experience of evil, that there is no hope ever that things will change in the future? Who does not feel the seeming absence of God who, it sometimes seems, has abandoned us who believe in him? Does it not sometimes appear that the heavens are closed, that God is silent and absent? People ask God to help them overcome their problems, but it seems that their cry remains unanswered. Everyday, we pray for peace, but when will the prayer be heard? Despite all this, however, we continue to celebrate hope, because, according to St Paul, God in Jesus Christ has begun working among us. To the Corinthians, for example, he speaks of the rich gifts that have been bestowed on them (1 Cor 4:7). For Christians, God is at work in the good that happens in the world, in the beautiful things that happen in each person’s life. Reconciliation of quarrelling neighbors, forgiving a murderer, donation to a cause for justice, embracing an enemy, feeding the hungry, standing for the rights of the oppressed—events such as these are the work of the Spirit. And what God has begun, he will not abandon (1 Cor 10:13), for he is faithful (1 Cor 1:9, Second Reading).

Since God is at work, we cannot therefore despair. We cannot give up even the tiniest accomplishments we have with regard, for instance, to world peace and justice, despite the multitude of wars and injustices in our midst, because each accomplishment has been initiated by God. We have reason to hope that he will reveal more powerfully in our lives what “no ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen” (Isa 64:3b). Which is none other than the “fellowship with His Son, Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9). As followers of Christ, what we can do is watch for that revelation. This is the point of today’s Gospel (Mark 13:33-37). We wait for God to intervene in the world on our behalf. As we do not know when is he going to reveal to us this object of our hope—this fellowship with him and with the saints—all we need to do is to watch! “Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come” (Mark 13:33).

And how do we watch? It is by allowing God’s gift to work in our lives. “Would that [God] might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of [him] in our ways!” (Isa 64:4). The active watching is revealed in the kind of life that we lead, which we hope to be perfected when Christ will fully reveal to us the fellowship. It is a life that proclaims that we are mouthpieces of Christ, giving witness to all. God has already begun this kind of life in us through the Holy Spirit, and we continue allowing the Spirit to work in us as we wait for the final revelation. Wars may go on, but the fact people are reconciled gives hope. Says St Paul: “The hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).*

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Will God Judge Us on the Basis of Our Attitude to Christ's Representatives?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Fourth Sunday, Year A,
Solemnity of Christ the King, Matthew 25:31-46, November 20, 2011

A DECADE OR so ago, Vice-President Teofisto Guingona was in Monterrey, Mexico where he delivered a speech on poverty at the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development. Hours later, Guingona, who represented President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was in a luncheon tendered by the governor of the state of Nuevo Leon for 150 heads of state, to which he had been invited. While seated at table no. 5 of the dining hall of the Centro de Arte de Monterey, he was told that there had been a mistake, and his name was not on the guest list, despite the fact that upon arrival at the hall, he presented his formal invitation. He left in a huff, and ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a protest. Said Guingona: “I called our department for them to inform the Mexican government that the slur approximating insult, for whatever reason, was in effect directed not only at me but mainly to our government, to our nation, our people for whom I stood. Reason and justice therefore demands that an apology, if at all, should come from the Mexican government herself, asking indulgence for the breach from our government.” Some countries virtually condemned the Mexican insult. The Thai and Brunei delegations did not attend the State Dinner in protest of the terrible discourtesy.

If Mexico was condemned for her treatment of the representative of the Philippine government, so at the end of time, people will be condemned on the basis of their treatment of Jesus’ representatives. This is the main point that the parable of the sheep and the goats or of the last judgment in today’s Gospel is trying to convey. But before developing this theme, let us first examine the parable. Doubtless, this goes back to Jesus himself, and in its original setting, the story is about the Kingdom of God, more specifically, about the act of separation in the end-time, much like the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30) and the good and the bad fish (Matt 13:47-50). When it was used in the early Church, the parable became an allegory of the last judgment, as the shepherd came to be identified with the king (v 40). Matthew is probably responsible for the addition of apocalyptic features to the parable, as when he speaks of the coming in glory of the Son of Man who is identified with the king. But as it stands in Matthew, how is one to understand it? Many exegetes think that the parable has two fundamental questions that influence one’s interpretation: who are the nations being judged, and who are “the least of the brothers”. According to one interpretation, it is really about judgment of Christians on the basis of their attitude toward the needy members of the Christian community.

But in recent years, Liberation Theology popularized an interpretation that sees it as a judgment of all persons—Jews, Christians, pagans, grounding on their treatment of any person in need, both Christians and non-Christians. Says Gustavo Gutierrez in his A Theology of Liberation: “Our encounter with the Lord occurs in our encounter with others, especially in the encounter with those whose human features have been disfigured by oppression, despoliation, and alienation… The salvation of humanity passes through them; they are the bearers of the meaning of history and ‘inherit the Kingdom’ (James 2:5). Our attitude towards them, or rather our commitment to them, will indicate whether or not we are directing our existence in conformity with the will of the Father.” In other words, all individuals and nations will be judged on the basis of their attitude toward the poor, the deprived, the oppressed and the marginal. This goes beyond the traditional corporal works of mercy under which rubric the acts toward others have been placed, for, in this theology, working on the side of justice for the poor is an essential task of salvation. Some groups even interpreted this to mean that faith is not necessary for salvation, not even the Church, since all that one needs is preferential option for the poor.

However attractive such an interpretation, it is not consistent, though, with the theology of Matthew. If one reads the whole gospel, he will notice, as Donald Senior points out, that Matthew envisages three forms of judgment: first, the leaders of Israel will be held accountable for their rejection of Jesus and his message (Matt 23); second, the Christian community and its leaders will be judged on the basis of their response to God’s offer in Jesus (Matt 24-25); and third, the nations to which the mission of the Church is directed, will be convicted on their refusal to accept the messengers and their message (Matt 25:31-46)—which is the Gospel today. These different forms of judgment may be compared with Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:5-10 (see also 1 Pet 4:17). In other words, the basic question that the parable addresses is this: How shall non-Christians share in the Kingdom of God? For Matthew, the Gentiles will be judged according to how they responded to the proclaimers of the Gospel, namely, the disciples of Jesus. They are, for Matthew, the “least brothers” of Jesus (Matt 10:42; 11:11; 18:6; 10,14). The reason for interpreting this parable as a judgment on non-Christians is that when Matthew speaks of nations, he usually means the Gentiles (Matt 4:15; 6:32; 10:5, etc.) Moreover, in the Gospel, they are pictured as ignorant of Jesus: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or away from home or naked or ill or in prison and not attend to your needs?” (Matt 25:44; see also vv 37-39). Hunger, thirst, nakedness and imprisonment—these refer to the sufferings of the disciples who proclaim Jesus’ message of salvation.

At the beginning of this essay, we noted that the snub done to Vice-President Guingona was an insult to the Philippine government. Because she shabbily treated our representative, Mexico actually insulted our country. She is ill-qualified therefore to join the family of decent nations—this is what the diplomatic issue that emerged virtually means. Similarly, one who does not treat well the representative of Jesus is hardly qualified to join the family of God, for in point of fact, he rejects Jesus himself. The same thought is found elsewhere in Matthew: “He who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me welcomes him who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Underlying this logic is the shaliach principle according to which the rejection or acceptance of an envoy involves the rejection or acceptance of the sender, and in this principle, such acceptance or rejection will be validated on judgment day. Clearly, the situation-in-life that this parable presupposes is the missionary activity of the disciples. But at the present moment, this means that nations and individuals will share in the Kingdom of God on the basis of their attitude toward the Church, the proclaimer and sacrament of Jesus.*

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our Creative Response to God's Gift of Salvation

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Third Sunday of Year A, Matthew 25:16-30, November 13, 2011

"PARISIAN LIFE" IS now a 120-year-old painting of Juan Luna’s, depicting a woman in a cafĂ©, on the right side of which are Juan Luna himself, Jose Rizal and Ariston Bautista Lin in a huddle. A few years ago, it was auctioned off by Christie’s auction house in Hongkong where the painting was the second top selling lot, and Winston Garcia, who was then GSIS president and general manager, won the bid at P46 million, but the GSIS would have to pay a premium of 10% of the final bid price. When GSIS won the bid, Garcia was quoted to have said that we were buying not a masterpiece but a piece of Philippine history. But he got a lot of flak. Sen. Manuel Villar said that while Garcia’s objective may have been noble, the welfare of the GSIS members should have been his primary consideration. According to Sen. Teresa Aquino-Oreta, the GSIS should have funneled a hefty part of the money to the members in the form of more benefits, if indeed it was awash in money. Complained the late Bayan Muna Rep. Crispin Beltran: “For years, members have been demanding better services and increased package of benefits from the GSIS. But what they give us are questionable investments, behest loans and ‘barya-baryang’ yearly dividends which are not even commensurate to the amounts we have contributed.”

For many, the people’s money in the GSIS was not invested in a right place. Which reminds us of the third servant in today’s parable of the silver pieces: he placed his master’s money in the wrong place. But that is going ahead of the story’s point. To begin with, the parable, like last Sunday’s, is clearly allegorical, although as Jesus himself told it, it probably had a different point. Most likely, it was intended for the Jewish religious authorities, such as the scribes and the Pharisees, who like the third servant, were so much concerned with the preservation of the religious tradition they had been entrusted with that they refused to hear the new message that Jesus brought. But this main point has given way to allegorization. As it stands in Matthew, the master’s invitation “Come, share your master’s joy” (Matt 25:21b) obviously refers to the messianic banquet in the Kingdom of God. The servants (v 14b et passim) stand for Christians who, through baptism, accept Christ as their master. The silver pieces (v 15) represent the faith that God gives them through baptism. And the “going away” and the long absence of the master (v 15b, 19a) refer to the journey of Christ to heaven and his physical absence from the world. His coming home (V 19) is the parousia, the second coming of the Lord. The early Church moralized the parable with the addition of the saying, “Those who have will get more until they grow rich, while those who have not will lose even the little they have” (v 29). Concerned with the coming eschatological event, it is now a parable of judgment.

While it is true that in this allegorization the story revolves around the three servants to whom the master disbursed his silver pieces, it gives far greater attention on the third servant. In the dialogue between the master and this servant, the former sharply rebuked the latter for his failure to do something with the silver pieces entrusted to him. This unproductive servant is held up as an bad example of one who, having been entrusted with capital, was more concerned about himself and thus about keeping the money intact—an attitude which, in Matthew’s redaction, shows his lazy and sterile life. Because his desire was security, however false, he was unable to obey the master in a very creative way, unlike the two other servants who made capital gains. If Matthew dwells at length on this lazy and unproductive servant, it is because the parable is meant to teach us that the gift of faith given to us at Baptism must grow while we await Jesus’ second coming so that, upon his return, we can give a good account on what we have done to the faith we received. This growth of faith is our creative response to the offer God has given us, while living in the period between now and Christ’s arrival at the end of time.

What does this mean? Like the first servants who, having received five thousand silver pieces, went to invest it and made another five, so we must be believers whose faith grows and bears fruit. Or, if we look at the parable as an allegory on the membership of the Kingdom at the end-time, we are supposed to work out our salvation in the same way that the first two servants invested the master’s money. Of course, salvation is God’s grace (Titus 3:5), but our part is to make a creative and proper response to it. In the second reading (1Thess 5:16), Paul expresses this in terms of being “awake and sober” (v 6)—“We who live by day must be alert, putting on faith and love as breastplate” (v 7). A productive faith is one that bears fruit in love. Thus Paul: “Your love must be sincere. Detest what is evil, cling to what is good. Love one another with the affection of brothers. Anticipate each other in showing respect. Do not grow slack but be fervent in spirit; he whom you serve is the Lord” (Rom 12:9-11). The first reading makes the same emphasis when it speaks of works: “Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates” (Prov 31:31). Of course, Paul himself makes a laconic expression of the growth of faith in love, when he says that in Christ what counts is “only faith that expresses itself in love” (Gal 5:6).

If the master was harsh with the third servant because he was concerned only with his own security, this implies that the growth of faith must benefit others. This brings to mind James’ assertion about unproductive faith: “If a brother or a sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day and you say to him, ‘Goodbye and good luck! Keep warm and well fed’, but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that? So it is with faith that does nothing in practice. It is thoroughly lifeless” (Jas 2:14-17). Obviously, the parable stresses that like any gift, faith, no matter how small, is precious, and has to bear fruit for others. Which brings us back to the “Parisian Life.” One wonders, then, whether by buying the Luna painting, the GSIS was obedient to the mission of the institution in a creative way. No one disputes that the work of art was priceless, that its proper home should be the Philippines. But whether it was the GSIS that should buy the painting for P50.6 million, and whether it made a good creative and productive investment of the people’s hard-earned money, that is what is being disputed. At the end time, Jesus would dispute, too, the way the gift of faith has been invested—whether it grew, or it simply became fossilized.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How Should Christians Live Out the Faith Vis-a-Vis the Coming of the Kingdom?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Second Sunday of Year A, Matthew 25:1-11, November 7, 2011

WHEN FAHRAKORB RIKKIATGYM, the Thai challenger in the International Boxing Federation (IBF) super bantamweight division, climbed up the ring at the RMC stadium in Davao City sometime in 2002, he packed a record of 33 straight wins, 22 by knockouts, and 2 losses. Confident that he could snatch the crown from Manny Pacquiao, he hoped, it was said, to return to Thailand with the title as a gift to his king and his people. What he did not know was that the lone reigning Filipino world boxing champion was very much in shape and well honed, swearing in fact that he was ready for the gory. No soon than the first round began than a right ram, which could have been mistaken for a set-up jab, landed on the bewildered Thai, mercilessly sending him to the floor. Seconds later, another blitzkrieg of punches was unleashed and floored the poor challenger, and after he was able to get up, another power-packed punch proved difficult to absorb. Before the first round was finished, the goner was flat on the floor, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Pacquiao is, of course, known for his lethal left, but it was claimed that for two months he perfected his right punch, and its awesome impact was more than enough to retain the crown.

Obviously, Rikkiatgym did not watch the right hand of the Filipino champion; or if he did, he was not prepared enough. That is why he suffered a stunning defeat. A similar lesson is presented in today’s Gospel—one who does not watch, or does not prepare himself adequately at the coming of the Son of Man will suffer exclusion from the victory of the Christian community. In view of the delay of Christ’s arrival, the proper attitude of the Christian is constant readiness and vigilance. Matthew stresses this point in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-12). If one assumes that Jesus told this story, the parable may have referred to the imminent but unpredictable arrival of the Kingdom of God. Seen in this perspective, it must have taught that those who accept Jesus’ message about the coming of the Kingdom will have access to it when it finally comes, but for those who rejected it, it will be too late for them to realize that they will not be given entry. But as we find it in the Gospel, it is an allegory that the Church applied to those who follow Jesus in their watchful expectation of Jesus’ return. In this allegory, the ten virgins—the first five foolish, the second wise—are supposed to represent Christians in the community, some of whom are ill-prepared, the others well prepared for the parousia; the bridegroom is Christ, the Son of Man; the return of the bridegroom is the second coming of Christ; the delay in his coming is the postponement of the parousia; and the wedding feast is the messianic banquet.

In trying to emphasize the need of vigilance, Matthew warns us about the fate of the five foolish virgins. Since they were not ready for the moment when the groom arrived, they were excluded from the wedding banquet, in much the same way that Rikkiatgym failed to get the crown, as he did not watch Pacquiao’s right hand. In effect, the parable is about practical wisdom—what is a Christian ought to do, as the Son of Man is delayed in his arrival? That one needs this practical wisdom to be saved is the point of the First Reading: “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of men’s desire; he who watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her at the gate” (Wisd 6:13-14). If one possesses this wisdom, it is certain that he will survive the last judgment. When this time comes, God will bring forth with him from the dead the wise believers who have fallen asleep. At the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet, they will rise first, and the wise who are still living will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air—an event that born-against Christians call “rapture” (1 Thess 4:16-17). But this is an apocalyptic imagery that cannot be taken literally; but what this means to us is that the wise believer is assured that he will be restored in the Christian community, now transformed into a perfect one, in fellowship and love.

It is Matthew’s wish that the members of the Christian community on earth should not be excluded from this fellowship at the end of time. They should be wise enough to be in a permanent state of readiness for the arrival of the Son of Man. For this reason, he presents us model of Christian behavior the five wise virgins who never ran out of oil. Unlike the foolish ones who, in bringing their torches to meet the bridegroom, brought no oil along, the wise virgins, sensible as they were, took flasks of oil. Because of the long wait for the bridegroom, the foolish ones realized later that their torches used up the oil they contained. For Matthew, a sensible Christian should not run out of oil. By what is meant by oil? The popular suggestion is that this refers to good works. Comparison is often made with the guest without a wedding garment in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:11-14) and the five foolish virgins without oil, and what is lacking in both is supposed to be good works. Of course, the theme of good works is not foreign to Matthew. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christians are exhorted to let their light shine so that people will see their good works and glorify their father in heaven (Matt 5:16). But as Garland suggests, it might be more consistent with Matthew’s theology to take oil not allegorically but parabolically. Since the main point of the story is that the foolish virgins were not ready when the great moment finally came, Matthew could have identified the oil not simply with the performance of good works, but with the tireless doing of other obligations—abstinence from bad behavior (15:19), love for enemies (5:44), love of other Christians (24:12), forgiveness of others (18:21-35), unhesitating faith (21:21), loyalty to Jesus (10:32), and love for God (22:37).

In other words, the parable is basically an exhortation on living out the Christian faith. Only those who live out their faith in every circumstance of their lives keep their eyes open (Matt 25:13). In the parable, the five wise virgins represent them. Of course, the problem of division in the Christian community between those who live out and those who do not is a reality. Today, the Church sees the flourishing of various faith communities and movements, where members take seriously their Christian faith and obligations, but one is afraid that enthusiasm might easily wane. In the 1960s, the Cursillo movement took the Philippines as if by storm; one found the movement in almost every parish. Today, they are few and far between. Indeed, for many, being Christian may not be more than just a name. If Christian faith finds its communal expression in the Sunday Eucharist, one wonders about the percentage of the baptized who really go to Mass and who fulfill their other Christian obligations.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Was Jesus' Vision for His Church?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-First Sunday of Year A, Matthew 23:1-12, October 30, 2011

IN FACE OF TODAY'S global terrorism, greed without moderation, spiraling cost of electric power, frequent kidnappings and proliferation of illegal drugs, hoodlums in robes, pandemic corruption and other gargantuan problems, how is one to envision the country that Filipinos can live in with dignity? It might be recalled that former President Macapagal-Arroyo, in her State of the Nation Address, described the vision of her administration in terms of a “strong republic, ” and by this she meant one that “takes care of the people and takes care of their future,” built on the foundation of “citizens with rewarding jobs paying decent wages.” To build the foundation, she would generate investments and jobs by addressing the problems of graft and corruption, peace and order, and high power rates. In an editorial, “Small steps,” that treated of the President’s SONA, the PDI writer observed that these working agenda were a little more than reflex reactions to major problems identified by businessmen and independent observers. He faulted the administration for being unable “to see any problems unless others point them out. No wonder, it cannot offer any fresh insights into what ails the nation.” However much one agrees with the editorialist’s critique, one cannot dispute that what we envision for the future of our country is a reflex reaction to what we identify as inconsistent with what a republic ought to be.

Today’s Gospel hardly qualifies as a State of the Community Address, but there is no doubt that like the SONA of former President Arroyo, it provides us a glimpse of how Jesus and the early Church envisioned the Christian community. If Arroyo saw the republic against the current problems, so Matthew’s portrayal of the Christian community uses as foil what is perceived to be the imperfections of Judaism known to his community. In particular, he outlines practices of the Judaism of the Pharisees and scribes that have no place in the community. (Of course, it must be admitted that from the point of view of biblical scholarship, this description of the Judaism of the Pharisees must be seen as a caricature. but can be maintained, being too real in our experience, as a portrait of what the community ought not to be.) These practices are contained in the three woes. The Jesus of Matthew accused the Pharisees and the scribes of separating their religious belief from everyday life: “Their words are bold, but their deeds are few. They bind up heavy loads, hard to carry, to lay on men’s shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them” (Matt 23:4). He accused them of ostentation: “All their works are performed to bed seen. They widen their phylacteries and wear huge tassels” (Matt 23:5). Finally, he accused them of seeking first places in the assembly, and honor in society: “They are fond of places of honor at banquets and front seats in synagogues, of marks of respect in public and of being called Rabbi” (Matt 23:6). For Matthew, these practices veer away from the nature of a true people of God. They are religious aberrations.

What, then, ought to exist in a true community of God? For Matthew, religious practices must flow from a correct understanding of the nature of the community. The Christian community ought to be a family of God—it is a community under the fatherhood of God, and no one can exercise that role: “Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven” (Matt 23:9). One implication of this description is that the family is a brotherhood and sisterhood of women and men. This means that the community is not to be seen as primarily an institution that stresses organization and structures. On the contrary, what seems to be important is the relationship within the community. Because God alone is father, all the rest are brothers and sisters to one another. As such, it can be described as a fraternity or sorority of equals, since all members form one body in which they share the same dignity. They may be numerous, but the fatherhood of God makes them one family, and their being all children of the same God establishes equality in dignity.

Which is why St Paul describes the Christian community as a family of co-equals: “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave of freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Differences in nationality, social status, and gender can create social tension, but because Christians have been born in baptism, and incorporated into Christ, their belonging to the body overcomes these tensions. Vatican II seems to echo this self-understanding when it speaks of the Church’s mission: “By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherliness which allows honest dialogue and invigorates it. Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence, and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity. Thus all those who compose the People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything which divides them” (Gaudium et spes, 92).

In place of these polarities and tensions, what ought to characterize the Christian community is service: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt 23:11-12). Of course, Jesus himself is the model of service. Referring to himself on the issue of authority and power, Jesus said: “Such is the case with the Son of Man who has come not to be served, but to serve, to give his own life as a ransom for the many” (Matt 20:28). This self-understanding of the Christian community is enshrined at the Second Vatican Council: “Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ Himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served” (Gaudium et spes, 3). In this understanding, the community is encouraged to look beyond its internal affairs, to be involved in making the world a better place to live in by proclaiming, through its life of service, Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God where there is peace, justice and forgiveness.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Life Is Not Really About Laws and Lawyers--It Is About Loving People

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirtieth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 22:34-40, October 23, 2011

Probably the most intellectually entertaining show that was ever presented on Philippine television, rivaling telenovelas in its crowd-drawing power, was the Impeachment Trial of former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. For the first time the majority of the Filipinos were introduced to the best world of Filipino lawyers who not only explored new grounds of jurisprudence, but also had a field day of demonstrating their intelligence, prowess, legal tricks and tactics.

At the same time, however, it left many ordinary mortals disturbed. For them, the mountain of evidence uncovered by the prosecutors and presented by witnesses was enough to convince them about the truth of the charges. Obviously, it was difficult for them to understand that truth was served by the thrust of the defense lawyers to block evidence on the ground of irrelevance and immateriality. It was easier for them, for example, to go with Aquilino Pimentel who declared, “I vote to open the second envelope… because that is the only way to determine whether or not the contents are relevant or material to the case at bar.” But Francisco Tatad’s view, echoing the argument of Atty Estelito Mendoza, and repeated in his book, A Nation on Fire, that he refused the opening of the second envelope on the ground that the charge against Estrada was not part of the complaint verified by the House did not make sense to them! Given the arguments and counter-arguments and the various interpretations that were aired, however, the ordinary person could only wonder how complicated a society would be if it were governed only by law and lawyers! Could law be simplified enough so that it could be a real guide to all to true life, not a labyrinth where people—the majority of them—could be lost?

The background of today’s Gospel is somehow similar to this. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish fundamental law was the Torah or the five books of Moses which, according to Jewish scholars, contain 613 precepts, of which 248 are positive commandments, the rest being prohibitions. But because these laws needed to be applied to particular situations, Jewish scholars developed other laws, which became known as Halakah, in much the same way that Congress has to apply the Philippine Constitution to particular situation and age through enactment of laws. But when one considers that provinces, municipalities, and barangays also pass laws and ordinances in order to apply the fundamental law in the concrete circumstances of the people’s life, one can only imagine the mountain of laws that he must observe as a good Filipino citizen! At the same time, one must admit that there are few mortals like Joker Arroyo or Estelito Mendoza, just as in Jesus’ time, many people were not as knowledgeable about laws as the Scribes and the Pharisees. Given the plethora of laws to be observed, the Jews needed to know what is central to the precepts and prohibitions so that by observing it, they would not have to bother about the overdevelopment of minor laws in order to be good Jews.

That seems to be the context of the question that a lawyer posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel: “What commandment of the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:36). Out of the 613 commandments (mind you, not 10 commandments) of God, Jesus cited two. The first one comes from the heart of the Shema, which is an ancient Hebrew prayer lifted from the historical prologue to the Deuteronomic Code: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). The second comes from the Code of Holiness: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). For Jesus, these two are the most central commandments in the 613 laws of God found in the Torah. What Jesus introduced to his listeners, however, is not the combination of these two. In fact, we already find this in, for example, the Testament of Issachar: “But love the Lord and your neighbor, and show compassion for the poor and the weak” (T.Issac 5:2). What is new here is the view that both commands are on equal plane: “the second is like it” (Matt 22:39a). The second is similar to the first in theological depth, and there is an interrelationship between them. That is to say, although love of God comes first, yet there is no true love of God that is not incarnated in the love of neighbor. The proof that we love God lies in our love for our neighbor. This in a way is reflected in John: “If anyone says, ‘My love is fixed on God,’ yet hates his brother is a liar. One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).

What’s the point we are driving at? Law in Judaism at the time of Jesus has become a complicated phenomenon, with various groups making their own interpretation of the laws of God, a complication that is not without some similarities in what the Filipino people witnessed during the Impeachment Trial of Estrada. And as already noted, the average Filipino might not be able to follow the finer points of law, whose distinctions could be perceived easily only by the likes of Joker Arroyo or Estelito Mendoza. Jesus’ audience, on the other hand, never had the sophistication of the Scribes and Pharisees, for it was a popular and simple one. Understandably enough, since it was his purpose that the law of God could be easily understood and followed by the common people, Jesus taught them what was so central so that by obeying it, they were assured that they have already followed the whole law. And what is so central is love. That is God’s will for man. In other words, for Jesus, anyone who loves God in his neighbor has fulfilled the whole law. Hence, the additional comment of Jesus to what we find in the Gospel of Mark: “On these two commandments the whole law is based, and the prophets as well” (Matt 22:40). What does this imply? In being Christian, what counts, in the ultimate analysis, is life. But life is not all about laws, and it is too preciously to be placed in the hands only of lawyers. Before anything else, life is about love, and that life is meaningful if it embodies a love of God that is incarnated in the love of neighbor, in the love of others. No wonder, St Augustine could say, “Love, and do what you will.” Obviously, when a person loves, he fulfills what is most necessarily in life, and love is possible for any person, simple or not, even if he does not have the sophistication of an Estelito Mendoza or a Pharisee. After all, the best lawyer is not necessarily the good Christian; but a lover qua Christian lover surely is.*

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Should Our Country Be Placed No Longer Under God, But Only Under Judges and Lawyers?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Ninth Sunday Of Year A, Matthew 22:15-21, October 16, 2011

WHICH THINGS ARE God’s? If the decision of the judges of a federal appeals court that ruled a few years ago that the US Pledge of Allegiance vowing fealty to one nation “under God” is unconstitutional—since this violates the basic constitutional tenet of separation of church and state—is to be followed to its logical conclusion, only our private life belongs to God. Writing to the Newsweek editor, April Collins seems to share this view: “Please take God out of Inaugurations and out of the Pledge of Allegiance. People who use it and insist on keeping it are juvenile. America was not founded on God. I’m Roman Catholic and still believe that as a 6-year-old in school—whether I happen to be Buddhist or a Native American whose God is a bird, or I believe in a rock—I should not be forced to say God. Ours is a country of many religions. Let’s keep church and state separate and keep God out of it all. Belief belongs in the home or church, not in the state or government or school. Religion is private, and this is a free country—let’s keep it free.”

That God or religion should be confined to private life cannot, however, be accepted in the life of anyone who professes himself to be Christian. For one thing, the idea that God should be kept out of the state contradicts what the Sacred Scripture itself teaches in the Gospel today: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give God what is God’s (Matt 22:21). To understand this saying, it may be helpful to recall that at the time of Jesus, Israel was under Roman rule. And just as the Filipinos never relished being under the Japanese during the Second World War, the Jews hated the Romans. Of course, the Pharisees accepted the Roman occupation, and true to their ideology, counseled submission to it. The Herodians were obviously supporters of Herod who governed Palestine under the auspices of the Roman Emperor. In today’s pericope, we are told that these two groups wanted to put Jesus in a dilemma by asking him: “Is it lawful to pay tax to the Emperor or not?” (Matt 21:17). The dilemma was this: should he tell them it was all right to pay tax to the Emperor, Jesus would certainly be ostracized by the common people to hated the Roman tribute as a symbol of political and economic subjugation. But should he answer that it was not right to do so, the Pharisees and the Herodians would certainly brand him an anti-Roman, if not a revolutionary.

Jesus’ answer to the trap, as already noted, was to give Ceasar what was his, and to give God what belongs to him. And it being a trap, the course to take is to escape it, and that is what Jesus, wise as he was, exactly did. He got away from their trap by putting the burden of the question on the Herodians and the Pharisees themselves! Knowing that the tax was paid in Roman currency, he asked for a Roman coin, and raised the question: “Whose head is this, whose inscription?” (Matt 22:20). Scholars surmise that the coin probably showed the head of the Emperor with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.” What was Jesus’ purpose in asking for a coin? It must be stressed that then Ten Commandments explicitly prohibit graven images, like the image of the emperor on the coin (Exod 20:4). Consequently, by demanding that he be shown a coin, he was subtly accusing the emissaries of the Pharisees and the Herodians that they were violating the commandment of God, because they brought with them a graven image, the image of a pagan high priest, to the holy land. Yet, never did the Pharisees or the Herodians protest against it. But if they never gave a hoot about that flagrant transgression, why would it bother them to pay tax to Caesar? In other words, by answering that they give to Caesar what is his (Matt 22:21b), Jesus was cleverly saying that since you have already violated God’s commandment, why worry about whether paying taxes is against God’s will or not?

In truth, though, Jesus must have, in the context of his theology of the kingdom of God, thought that paying tribute to Caesar was against God’s will. It must be noted that one of the revered beliefs in Judaism is God’s ownership of the land of Israel: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants” (Lev 25:23). That the Roman Emperor occupied Israel, the Jews understandably regarded it as usurpation, and since there seems to be no evidence that Jesus rejected that belief, it is most likely that he thought of it like an ordinary Jew did—it was not according to God’s will to recognize the authority of the Emperor. Of course, Jesus did not say it; or he would have fallen into the trap, but that is exactly the meaning of the punch line of the second segment of the saying: “Give to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21). In Jewish thought—and there seems to be no evidence that Jesus departed from it—there is really nothing that belongs to Caesar that does not belong to God, including political power. For a Jew, all power comes from God, and if anyone, like the Emperor, exercises it, it is because God permits it (Rom 13:1b). But it was clear to the Jews that it was not his will that the Emperor should put Israel under his rule, because God called Israel to freedom. Therefore, that the Roman should oppress, disenfranchise, alienate and discriminate them, and violate their rights—that could not have been legitimized, for they opposed God’s call to liberty and freedom.

What, then, is due to God? Everything. There is no sphere of life that can be claimed as an exclusive domain of the state. The state, any state, belongs to God, and state power can be said to be legitimate only if it does not oppose God’s call to liberty and freedom. The idea, in other words, that the realm of God should be confined merely to private life or to the sacristy and the rectory can be grounded only on a misunderstanding of what it means to believe in a God who cares for the salvation of the world. Which is why, one can understand the reaction of US leaders to the decision of the federal court regarding the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. For the decision does not simply touch on the freedom of expression, pace the claim of Daan Schoemaker of Amsterdam in his letter to the editor (Newsweek). It has to do with one’s and the nation’s world view. In fact, by confining God only to private life, the decision of the federal court virtually placed the nation not under God but under the lawyers and judges—which is what the title of a lead article in Newsweek is all about: “One Nation Under Judges”. In effect, law and lawyers have substituted God!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Unworthy of the Gift?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 22:1-14, October 9, 2011

When Joseph Ejercito Estrada ran for President, his critics and opponents scoffed at him, calling him a womanizer, gambler and drinker. But he proved to be a Teflon. The criticism that he was ill-prepared for the office, that his intellect would not grasp the intricate work of the presidency, that his morals would demean the office—nothing of course stuck. After all, it was reasoned that the country had had enough of presidents who were well-educated and yet were not able to bring the poor out of the quagmire of poverty. As for having several mistresses, people took it as a private affair that has nothing to do with the office. If he was ill-qualified, he could simply seek the advice of scholars and experts in the field. On the other hand, they perceived him as the candidate who would make good of his promise. Erap para sa mahirap was a slogan that brought almost eternal hope. No wonder he scored high in surveys. And when election time came, he obtained 10.7 million votes against the 4.3 million of his closest rival, Jose de Venecia. After more than 2 years in the office, however, the hope of the people was not transformed into reality. As the impeachment trial revealed, he enriched himself in office through bribery and corruption; almost nothing was done to really uplift the condition of the poor; he did not devote much time and energy to his office; he continued his drinking with the midnight cabinet; and he had little work ethic. Though people overlooked his faults and deficiencies and gifted him with the Presidency, Estrada did not act in a way he was supposed to as chief executive. Found wanting, he was booted out from office.

A similar lesson is taught in today’s Gospel: The Kingdom of God is a gift. Though we did not deserve it, God offered it to us. But we have to make a response. As recipient of the gift, we need to live a kind of life that the gift demands. Let us first describe the gift. Actually, it is difficult to describe the Kingdom. Since it partakes of the nature of God, it is therefore mysterious. No wonder, the Bible often resorts to images to capture some of its aspects, and an image that is frequently used, as in today’s Gospel and in the First Reading, is the image of a banquet. In the First Reading, Isaiah depicts it as a messianic banquet on mount Zion, the figure of the new Jerusalem, in which people no longer suffer hunger and want nor endure suffering and death. On the contrary, they experience a fullness of joy and gladness, peace and reconciliation, for it is none other than the life of God himself. Thus Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever (Isa 25:6-7).

But how are we to experience this life of God? As already noted—and this is what the parable stresses—this life in the Kingdom is a gift, sheer gift, from God. People are merely invited to it. As we saw in the commentary last Sunday, God called Israel to it, and to take care of it. That is why he sent his prophets and, ultimately, his Son, to remind her to respond to the invitation. In today’s Gospel, the invitation was issued to the leaders of Israel, because they were entrusted with the duty of shepherding God’s people. In the story, it is the invited guests who represented them (Matt 22:3). However, instead of welcoming the invitation, they rejected it and even did violence to the messengers, the prophets, sent. To punish them, the king destroyed the murderers and burned their city. Here, Matthew seems to suggest that if the city of Jerusalem was burned down by Roman soldiers, it was because the leaders of Israel murdered God’s messenger and rejected the offer of the Kingdom of God.

With the refusal by the leaders of Israel, those who were outside the respectable Judaism like the tax collectors, the sinners, and the Gentiles, received the invitation instead and accepted it. No doubt, Matthew here is trying to explain why in his Christian community there were tax collectors, sinners and Gentiles. It is also possible that Matthew is making an apologia for the mixed membership in his community—Jews and Gentiles, sinners and saints. But an even more important point that Matthew tries to bring across is this. To be invited to the Kingdom of God is just a first step in the process of salvation. A more significant question for those of us who have been invited is whether we make the appropriate response to the invitation. Thus, in the parable, the King went to the banquet hall to see whether the invited guests wore garments that were appropriate to the occasion (Matt 22:11-12). To understand the meaning of the wedding garment, it is best to see its usage in the Bible. In Isaiah, it is connected with justice and salvation: “For he has clothed me with the robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice” (Isa 61:10b). In John, it has reference to good deeds (Rev 19:8-9) and upright life (Rev 3:18). For Paul, it means equality and unity (Gal 2:22-27). These few biblical references make it clear that by garment is meant a new life, one that matches the new status that God has called the person or community to. For this reason, if sinners are invited, the appropriate response is obviously to change their sinful life and embrace the values of the Kingdom of God.

That is the point of the parable of the wedding banquet in the Gospel today (Matt 22:1-14). Out of his goodness, God called us to the Kingdom of God, his pure gift that we do not deserve. And we are to be thankful for it. But it is not enough to receive it. Along with the reception comes the responsibility that the gift demands. Once we are remiss with the responsibility, God could treat us in the way the King in the parable did the man who had no appropriate clothes—he was whisked off from the banquet (Matt 22:13), in much the same way that Joseph Ejercito Estrada was booted from office because his way of life did not match the demands of the presidency. The parable is thus a parable of judgment. And so, like the parable last Sunday, this one also calls for our self-examination as Christians who were called to a new life. For it happens that for many Christians, it is enough that they have been baptized, that they have been accepted to the Christian community. However, to fulfill their promise to renounce Satan and all his works, to be transformed by the word of the Gospel, to engage in the work of justice and peace—it is not infrequent that Christians forget to do these and similar demands of their faith. It is time therefore that we do not forget the saying, “the invited are many, the elect are few” (Matt 22:14) to warn us of the divine judgment once we fail to live according to the values of the Kingdom of God.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Unworthy of the Call?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 21:33-43, October 2, 2011

Since the birth of the Philippine republic, no President ever had the political will to change the condition of the majority who are poor. No wonder, when Joseph Ejercito Estrada ran for President, many people, including some businessmen and even intellectuals, opted to support him, despite what his rivals and critics described as his immoral private life. His image in the cinema that portrayed him as champion of the poor and his campaign slogan, Erap para sa mahirap, captivated them. For the majority who are poor, he was the cornerstone of the new building that would be the pro-poor government. He was then extreme popular. When the 1998 presidential election was through, Estrada got 10.7 million votes, while is closest rival, Jose de Venecia, obtained 4.3 million votes. But on January 20, 2001, after 31 months in office, President Estrada was deposed by the very people who elected him, in a 5-day popular uprising now known as People Power II. On the fourth day, the top generals of the armed forces joined the Edsa crowd to announce their withdrawal of support. On the last day, hundred of demonstrators marched to the presidential palace to pressure him to resign, even as then Vice-President Arroyo took her oath as President. Shortly after noontime, Estrada hastily left his official residence. What was thought to be the cornerstone was rejected by the builders in the end.

This fate of Estrada somehow illustrates what happened to Israel. In accord with his plan that all men might be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4), God chose Israel not out of any merit on her part, but on the contrary despite her sinfulness and weakness, and because of his love for her (Ezek 16:4-8). If people overlooked Estrada’s deficiencies and made him their President, so God ignored Israel’s sins and made her his very own people (Isa 1:3), or in the language of the parable in today’s Gospel, his vineyard (Matt 21:28; Isa 5:7). He gave her the law to distinguish Israel from other nations. If the Filipino people wanted Estrada to become the champion of the poor, God wanted Israel to become a light of all nations, through whom all peoples will be saved. Thus Isaiah: “All nations shall come and say, ‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob’” (Isa 2:3a). God wanted her to become the model community in which God dwells, a community where justice, peace and righteousness prevail (Isa 2:4). Israel, therefore, does not belong simply to the political history of humanity; rather, by divine election, she was constituted the center of the history of salvation.

But just as Estrada failed the presidency, so Israel failed in the mission God gave her. If the impeachment trial revealed the bribery and corruption of the presidency, so the first reading makes an account of Israel’s failure: God looked for judgment, but he found bloodshed; he searched for justice, but discovered the cry of the poor (Isa 5:7). In the view of the prophet Isaiah, the land of Israel was full of land grabbers (5:8-9), bribery and violation of human rights (5:23). God sent prophets to bring Israel to faithfulness and make her listen to his will (Jer 7:3), even as journalists, academicians, technocrats and businessmen criticized the way the President governed the country, but Israel, like Estrada, did not respond accordingly. On the contrary, Israel killed the prophets that were sent to her (2 Chr 24:21; Luke 13:34). She even rejected and killed God’s only Son. Because the nation did not live up to the covenant, God took away the vineyard from her and gave her to a new people, the Church, even as Estrada was booted out from office and a new President was installed. The new people in the parable are none other than the Church. This is what the “others” who received the vineyard mentioned in the parable (Matt 21:41) meant. Which is why, in the last supper, Jesus spoke of the new covenant (Luke 22:20), to signify that a new partner has been chosen to renew Israel.

Of course, just as Gloria Arroyo came to know that she was installed in order not to repeat the failed presidency of Estrada, so the early Christians gradually realized that their call was to be the renewed people of Israel. This is implicit, for instance, in Jesus’ final words to Peter: “In the new age when the Son of Man takes his seat upon a throne befitting his glory, you who have followed me shall likewise take your places on the twelve thrones to judge the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt 19:28). But in Paul, this is explicit, because the apostle already addresses the community as the renewed Israel: “Peace and mercy on all who follow this rule of life and on the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). As a renewed people, the Church is not to repeat the mistakes of Israel; hence, she has to realize that she is given a big responsibility to embody the features of the Kingdom of God in her life and mission. This is the reason why in the parable, the Gospel makes a loose quotation from Isa 5:1-7 to compare the Christian community with the people of Israel. A similar point is stressed in the 2nd Reading: the Church must live what she has received from God; she must have Christ as the center of her life. “Keep on doing what you have learned and received and heard and seen in me” (Phil 4:8-9).

The Gospel, like the 1st and 2nd Readings, calls for our self-examination as a new people of God, even as the Arroyo Administration should have closed examined itself whether it remained faithful to the people power that had installed her. As a community that has been called to embody the values of the Kingdom of God, the Church, like every Christian community, is to take seriously her vocation, and the responsibility given her for the salvation of mankind. In this self-examination, she could raise, for a start, the following questions: Has she progressed in her journey as a people, or is she simply repeating in her life the sins of Israel? If today God visits her, will he find wild grapes in his vineyard? Will he discover in the Christian community land grabbing, bribery, violations of human rights, bloodshed? Instead of peace, will he find violence and war? Instead of justice for the poor, will he unearth exploitation and marginalization? Instead of care and sharing, will he find greed and corruption? These and similar questions could be raised today by the Christian community in her self-examination, as well as by the current administration that replaced the Arroyo experiment.

Friday, September 23, 2011

A Test of Discipleship: Words Backed Up by Deeds

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 21:28-35, September 25, 2011

IF NOYNOY AQUINO was catapulted into the Presidency, it was not so much because of what his party had done; rather, it was because people had had enough of the litany of the alleged corruptions under the previous administration. For many, his election slogan, “Kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” accurately described the state of the nation. The immorality and the amount of money involved in various allegations were simply mind-boggling: NBN-ZTE scandal, Hello Garci scandal, P738M fertilizer scam, P532M overprice of Macapagal Bvld, Nani Perez Power Plant deal, P1.38 poll automation contract, Northrail project, Garcia and other AFP Generals scandal, the results of the 2007 Mindanao elections, Mindanao Massacre, and many others. One hopes that the new President will succeed in pursuit of the “matuwid na landas” (right path)! And yet, early this year, an SWS survey showed that his net satisfaction rating plummeted. This could be an indication that in the perception of those surveyed, the President has yet to show tangible results. Sen. Francis Pangilinan himself said that the Palace should match campaign promises with concrete accomplishments.

That words have to be substantiated—this is the main point of today’s parable of the two sons. The story is extremely short. When their father asked them to go and work in his vineyard, the first one objected, but eventually changed his mind and obeyed. The second one said yes but never went. To the question of Jesus, “who of the two did the father’s will?” the answer of course is the first son. There are various ways of understanding the parable, depending on the level of interpretation one wants to focus on As told by Jesus, the story seems to have been originally linked with the question of who was a true Israelite. The first son portrays the tax collectors and sinners. Because they were unable to follow the law, they were treated as outside the pale of the true Israelite community. The second represents the scribes and the Pharisees, those who know the law. They claimed to represent the true Israelite community because they were faithful in its observance. Because of their claim, they became so secure in their position that when God revealed himself not through the law but through a person named Jesus, he refused to respond to him. That is why they are compared with the second son because they said yes to God, but in actual fact, they did not obey his word spoken through Jesus. On the other hand, the tax collectors and sinners, who were regarded as transgressors of the law, now said yes to the revelation in Jesus. Hence, they are identified with the first son.

It is even possible that the parable was applied first not to the ministry of Jesus but to that of John the Baptist. In his case, the poor who did not know the law accepted his teaching, but the religious establishment did not. But at the level of Christian life, the parable is about discipleship. In particular, it has to do with the importance of practical response to God’s invitation in Jesus. No doubt, the first son is held up as an example of discipleship. It does not matter whether one was born to a pagan family, or to morally questionable parents; what matters is that, in the ultimate analysis, one accepts God’s offer of salvation in Jesus Christ through repentance and faith. Just as the tax collectors and sinners repented and believed in Jesus (Matt 21:32), so any person, whatever might be the beginnings of his life, has only to respond to the offer of discipleship by changing his life and putting on the life of Christ. Such a person is God’s son, Jesus’s disciple, heir to the kingdom of God: “Whoever does the will of my heavenly Father is brother and sister and mother to me” (Matt 12:30). One of the bitterest criticisms of Jesus against the Pharisees precisely consisted in this—that they merely talk, but their deeds are scarce: “Do not follow their [the Pharisees’] example. Their words are bold, but their deeds are few” (Matt 23:3). They are like the second son who said yes to his father, but failed him.

Discipleship is thus a matter of deeds. In much the same way that the real test of “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” is whether the current administration has made tangible results in its war against corruption, so the real test of discipleship is whether the words are backed up by deeds. Because discipleship is what makes one a child of the kingdom, Jesus could say: “None of those who cry out, “Lord, lord,’ will enter the kingdom of God but only the one who does the will of my father in heaven” (Matt 7:21). On the basis of this, one can only be amused that peripatetic preachers and born-again Christian could be so zealous in their attack against the Catholic Church, convinced as they are they have the truth, but are intolerant of those who happen to disagree with them. How often they forget that they have to love in deed and in truth (1 John 3:18). The final test that one is a disciple is not the ability to quote the appropriate biblical text to prove that one’s argument is rooted in the Bible, but the fleshing out of that belief in love.

The parable is a big challenge to us, Catholics. The center of our lives is the Eucharist, where we proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes (1 Cor 11:26). In Christian life, To borrow the words of the Second Vatican Council, it is “the summit toward which the activity of the Church is directed; at the same time it is the fountain from which all her power flows. For the goal of apostolic works is that all who are made sons of God by faith and baptism should come together to praise God in the midst of his Church, to take part in her sacrifice and to eat the Lord’s Supper” (Sacrosanctum concilium, 10). But there looms the danger that the Eucharistic celebration may be reduced to a mere ritual celebration, divorced from our daily life. It could happen that though we are faithful in celebrating it, we do not make an effort to live the life patterned after Jesus’, which is a life of self-giving (Phil 2:9; Second Reading). In that sense, we could be like the Pharisees whose words are bold, but whose deeds are few and far between. To make the Eucharist the real center of our life, it must also affect our very life—all our thoughts and actions come from it and lead toward it. For a Eucharistic celebration that does not lead to action on behalf of others is simply empty; it does not exhibit a response to the offer of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Exceptionally Generous Is God to Us!

An Exegetical Reflection on the Twenty-Fifth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 20:1-16, September 18, 2011

SERIALIZED ON GMA-7, Sana Ikaw Na Nga was a prime-time soap that told the story of the love between Carlos Miguel and Cecilia. In one of its episodes, there was a scene in which the family of Don Juan Salvador was gathered to listen to the lawyer read the last will and testament of the old man. One of his sons, Leroy, was to inherit part of the wealth, but with the stipulation that he had to finish his schooling first. His brother, Gilbert, who was legally married to Cecilia, was given an even greater inheritance, and without condition. But the surprise of the last will and testament was the wealth to be inherited by the young Juan Salvador, the legal son of Gilbert and Cecilia, although televiewers very well know that the baby was not Gilbert’s—he was Carlos Miguel’s—his inheritance simply boggles the mind, it was fabulously enormous. One could always sympathize with Leroy; he was after all a legal son, and yet he could not even have his inheritance, since conditions were attached. On the other hand, the young Salvador, who did not even have the blood of his father, bagged the biggest part of their family wealth!! If one looks at the last will and testament through the eyes of Leroy, he can easily see some injustice in the distribution of wealth. But one can always argue that their father was simply generous to his grandchild—the young Juan Salvador!

Almost exactly the same point is being stressed in today’s parable popularly known as the Parable of the Laborers of the Vineyard. It tells the story of a vineyard owner who hired from a labor pool at various hours of the day. When evening drew on, all the hired men, including those who were hired at five in the afternoon, received the same payment. If one looks at the parable in terms of labor relations, he can always sympathize with those who labored all day, beginning at nine in the morning, but nonetheless received a wage that was exactly the same as those who came at five in the afternoon. It is not difficult to see the injustice done to them, if by justice is meant the giving of what is due to everyone. Obviously, it is a gross injustice for the estate owner to give the same wage to those who came to work early in the day and those who came late in the afternoon. That would be a case of unfair labor practice. But the parable is not about labor relations. For the focus of the story is not on the laborers who came to the vineyard, but on the owner who was extremely gracious to those who came last—he was extremely generous!

In trying to understand the lesson of the parable, it may be helpful to point out that at Jesus’ time, the market place was some kind of a labor exchange. Men went there in the morning and waited for an employer to come along. And in the normal course of things, any employer would always hire the skilled or the competent workers. Consequently, if there were any workers standing idle in the marketplace from morning to afternoon, they were certainly the leftovers whom no one hired. The lesson of the parable lies here, for it is in connection with these leftovers that the extreme generosity of the owner is shown. For one thing, in spite of the fact that they were unskilled, the owner was generous enough to take them in. For another, he gave each of them a wage that was more than commensurate with their work. One wonders, of course, whether this could be practiced in a business corporation. It is easy to imagine a company eventually folding up because of the extreme generosity of the owner—being exceptionally gracious would send the company into bankruptcy! But that is how human thinking goes. Nonetheless, the first reading reminds us: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. As high as the heavens are above the earth, so high are my ways above your ways, and my thoughts above your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:5-6).

Linked with the parable, this Isaianic saying merely indicates that God does not deal with men in the same way that men deal with their fellow men. To curb greed and inequality, men like to appeal to justice—give each one his due, they say! But one wonders whether justice is enough. Law brings justice, but one can easily recognize that something is lacking—it lacks compassion, magnanimity and similar values! Dura lex sed lex, the law may be harsh, but it is the law! Obviously, the world cannot be ruled by law alone, and it would be unfortunately to leave the world only to lawyers or justices! Love is to be added, for it is love that enables us to share with those who are marginal and abandoned members of the community. “The Lord is good to all, and compassionate towards his work” (Ps 145:9), says the Responsorial Psalm, but that is because God is first of all love. Equality may express justice, but it does not convey the compassion and love of God. It may be difficult to fathom, but one can understand why God’s thought is unlike human thought.

But if God does not deal with us in the way men do, it is because if he does, no one would probably survive: “If you, O Lord, mark iniquities, Lord, who can stand? But with you is forgiveness, that you may be revered” (Ps 130:3-4). Since no one can stand if God deals with us like we do, he deals with us in his mercy and forgiveness. God remains good to humans, even if the latter are not good to him. He deals with us in his generosity. God is good to us not because we are good, but because he is good. This is the way the parable answers the murmuring of the Pharisees. When Jesus accepted the prostitutes, tax collectors and sinners to table fellowship, the Pharisees complained that he was thereby making sinners on par with them who were perfect observers of the law. For the Pharisees, they stand above transgressors of the law, and they deserve a reward that was much higher than sinners’. But Jesus answered that that God is extremely generous that he could even give equal pay for unequal work. What counts, in other words, is the mercy of God, not our own merits! What does this imply for the community? This means that since all are recipients of his mercy, members should rejoice whenever they receive gifts from God. Gifts are not earned; they are simply given! There is therefore no reason to be envious, when someone receives more than the others. The Christian community has no room for people who cannot bear to see others surpass them in gifts or talents. On the contrary, all have to rejoice in that, despite their unworthiness, God remains generous to them with his gifts!

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Small Infractions in the Community--What Should Be Done with Transgressors?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Third Sunday of Year A, Matthew 18:21-35, September 11, 2011

In a mid-section of a daily, a report is told of a husband named Rosendo, 24, who locked her wife Joanna, 22, in a room and did not give her any food for a whole day just because she failed to wash her pants. But Joanna had had enough of it. Reporting to a police station in Cubao, Quezon City, she claimed that her hubby, a security guard, punched her after she failed to wash the pants that he was supposed to wear to work. She claimed that when Rosendo came home at about 9 pm one evening, she asked him money for food because she was so hungry; instead, her husband beat her up. The report does not tell us what happened afterward, but one can surmise that their case having gone to the police blotter, their marriage is on the rocks, if not on the verge of being destroyed. It is far cry from the ideal, which is a community of life and love. Human weakness that shows itself in the inability to love and care for each other and to be responsible for one another, destroys the unity that binds them. For what the man does to the woman ultimately affects the covenant of life and love.

Like marriage, the Church has also an ideal. If we limit ourselves to the second reading today, we learn that for Paul, the Church, having been freed from law, sin and death, ought to be a community that lives for God: “None of us lives as his own master and none of us dies as his own master. While we live we are responsible to the Lord and when we die, we die as his servants. Both in life and in death, we are the Lord’s” (Rom 14:7). This means that the existence of the Christian is bound to the risen Christ as his Lord; he shares in his life. In everything he does, his purpose is to be of service to God in Christ. At the same time, he is bound to the other members of the Christian community because these share in the life of the risen Lord. They serve the risen Lord through service to the fellowship. In other words, the evidence that one belongs to the community is exhibited by one’s attitude toward the other members in the fellowship. In the Christian community, then, every Christian is bound to the other. This is why St Paul says: “If one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members shall its joy” (1 Cor 12:24). The whole community is involved in anything that a member does, whether good or bad.

Consequently, when a member sins against another, the persons affected are not just the two of them. When Joanna reported the maltreatment by Rosendo to the police, the husband and the wife were not the only ones involved in the scandal. Their children surely suffered public ridicule. When a wife commits adultery, it is not only her husband who is affected; the children live through the hell of it all, and the whole family is in a mess. The same is true of the Christian fellowship. When a member sins against another, the Christian community experiences cracks in its unity and the whole body suffers. Too often, even among Catholics, this dimension of sin is missed. Many think that when they sin, it is God alone whom the offended, or the brother directly involved. Because of this misunderstanding about the nature of sin, the sacrament of reconciliation is little understood. A little appreciation of this sacrament indicates that when someone sins, he sins not only against God and the person involved, but against the whole Christian community, to which the sinning member and the offended party are closely bound spiritually, theologically and sociologically. In the Church, every sin has a social dimension that always involves the whole body, even though it is not personally felt by every member.

Precisely because the members suffer from the sin committed by a single member, the cracks in the unity of the community must be repaired. But in order to preserve the unity and restore the fellowship, what is necessary? Vengeance, of course, is out of question. In the fellowship of mind and heart, only forgiveness can restore the broken relationship. Of course, here we are not dealing with infractions that are very serious. We are concerned here with infractions that are committed every day, most of them trivial and unintentional. Those that are serious were the subject of the Gospel last Sunday. This Sunday’s has to do with trespasses that are commonly encountered in Christian living with others, but that have to be resolved because they affect the fellowship. One cannot but be concerned with them especially once they are repeated. Which explains the question of Peter: “Lord, when my brother wrongs me, how often must I forgive him? Seven times?” (Matt 18:21). Peter, of course, knows that the infraction must be repaired by forgiveness. The sense of the question, however, seems to suppose that the sin of the brother has been repeatedly committed despite admonition by community members, and therefore have become a straining factor in the relationship and fellowship of love.

For Jesus, to the forgiveness of such infractions, there cannot be any limitations: “’No,’ Jesus replied, ‘not seven times; I say, seventy times seven times” (Matt 18:22). Because they are disruptive of the fellowship, such sins must be forgiven without limit, because to do otherwise would deprive the community of its wholeness. In forgiving the brother, the offended party not only frees the offender from the bondage of sin; the injured member is himself given freedom, for without forgiveness, his heart will be filled with resentment and bitterness, which may even take a permanent home in it. And once they pollute the mind and poison the heart, it is possible that resentment and bitter will irreparably destroy the relationship and the fellowship. But this is not to say that it would be easy to forgive. There is no problem if the infraction is repeatedly only once. But if it is repeated say fifty times, that certainly calls for a really Christian disposition—much like forgiving one’s enemies, or turning the other cheek to one who slaps the right one.

Because it is difficult to forgive without limit, Matthew holds up the forgiveness of God as a model to imitate by telling us the parable of the merciless official (Matt 18:21-35). To forgive once is human, but to forgive without limit is divine. Human nature sets limits to forgiveness, but what is distinctively Christian is to remove them. God is always lavish in his forgiveness. This is the main point of the parable, well illustrated by the king who easily cancelled the debt of his servant who owed him ten thousand talents, something like fifty billion pesos in today’s currency exchange. Indeed, even when we do not ask for it, God already gives us. “While we were still sinners, God died for us” (Rom 5:8).

Friday, September 2, 2011

Big Infractions in the Community--Should the Culprits Be Liquidated?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Third Sunday of Year A, Matt 18:15-20, September 4, 2011

Like illicit drugs, kidnappings break the order of society. What is to be done to the people behind them? It is interesting to recall that at a anti-kidnapping summit during the administration of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who launched a high-profile crackdown on kidnappings, ordering the Philippine the Philippine National Police to neutralize all kidnap-for-ransom gangs, government officials and private-sector representatives recommended the creation of one anti-kidnap body to handle all kidnap cases. But one speaker at the summit, Rodrigo Duterte of Davao City, declared that summary execution of criminals was the most effective way to stop kidnapping and illicit drugs. A newspaper quoted him as saying that “the intention of the criminals is to instill fear in their victims and kill them. What should we do, but kill them also.” According to the report, some Filipino-Chinese businessmen welcomed Duterte’s hardline stance against members of kidnap-for-ransom gangs—that is, liquidate them.

One wonders whether such instance could be adopted in a Christian community. Should someone who causes destruction be purged from, if not liquidated in, the community? How, indeed, should the community deal with a member whose life or behavior is destructive of the community? Normally, human wisdom demands that the community must be saved from a destructive member. In the name of discipline, for example, we expel from the school students who disregard rules and regulations. The honor of the school must be maintained. It is probably for the same reason that some lay people would wish priests who commit pedophilia be defrocked—they are a disgrace to the Church. Some clamor for zero tolerance. But it seems that the Gospel today does not share that outlook. What matters is not to maintain the purity or honor of the community, but to win back the erring brother. It seems that the gospel says nothing about protecting the community from the wayward member; it is more concerned with bringing back the erring brother to the fellowship: “you have won your brother over” (Matt 18:15b).

How is this done? The Gospel outlines a three-step procedure in reinstating the brother to the fellowship. The first step: “If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault, but keep it between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over” (Matt 18:15). It may be noted that the erring brother is to be informed of his fault. This is an important detail, because many times people are judged without even knowing the wrong they have done—they are simply not aware of it. In addition, confidentiality is emphasized. There is really nothing to be gained by embarrassing an errant brother before the community—it merely deepens the rift, and places him on the defensive to protect his name. The atmosphere of fellowship is protected when the peccant brother is not shamed before the community. On the other hand, by discussing the matter privately, one respects the ego needs and honor of the brother who sins. That way, his reputation is saved and scandal is avoided.

If the private admonition fails to make him realize his sin and bring him to repentance, then the help of one or two other brothers are invoked: “If he does not listen, summon someone, so that every case may stand on the word of two or three witnesses” (Matt 18:16). Obviously, this is an echo of an Old Testament procedure on criminal offense (“a judicial fact shall be established only on the testimony of two or more witnesses”[Deut 19:15]) and of a practice among the Qumranites (1QS 5:25-6:2). One surmises that the purpose of summoning witnesses is, negatively, to avoid serious misjudgment, for the demands may be more than what is necessary, for which reason the erring brother might resist, and, positively, to establish the full truth, which is made possible by the different ways of looking at the problem by the other witnesses. If this fails, the community is convoked: “If he ignores them, refer it to the church” (Matt 18:17). It is the totality of the community members that gives the last word, assured as it is of Christ’s presence: “When two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in their midst” (Matt 18:20). Some scholars think the assurance “that whatever you declare bound on earth shall be held bound in heaven and whatever you declared loosed on earth shall be held loosed in heaven” (Matt 18:18) has reference to God’s ratification at the last judgment. But the sense of the text seems to be that the decision of the community has the authority and sanction in heaven.

“If he ignores even the church, then treat him as you would a Gentile or a tax collector” (Matt 18:17). This last step is usually taken to mean that if the erring brother refuses to listen even to the Church, he must be expelled. It is argued that the thought behind treating the sinful brother like a Gentile or tax collector is this—just as an observant Jew would avoid their company, so a Christian must separate himself from the sinful member who refuses to acknowledge his sin and repent. This finds support in St Paul who says that ties with a peccant brother is severed: “If anyone will not obey our injunction, delivered through this letter, single him out to be ostracized that he may be ashamed of his conduct” (2 Thess 3:14). But this seems not to be the only way of understanding the saying. For one thing, the fundamental question that must be asked is what would this text mean to a community like Matthew’s, that is composed of Jews and Gentiles. It cannot be doubted that the Church of Matthew was a mixed Jewish-Gentile community. For another, Matthew presents Jesus as someone interested in preaching the good news to the Gentiles (Matt 28:19). Also, he invited a tax collector to join the group of disciples (Matt 9:9). In light of this, the injunction can only mean that the erring brother who refuses to listen to the Church must, according to Raymond Brown, “be the subject of outreach and concern in imitation of a Jesus who was so interested in searching out tax collectors that he was accused of being their friend (11:19).” This means “that the community is far from finished with brothers and sisters against whom it has had to invoke authority.”