Thursday, February 24, 2011

Who Would Reject a "Pabaon" (Send-Off Gift) of P50 Million?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 8th Sunday of Year A, Matt 6:24-34, February 27, 2011

Filipinos got the shock of their lives when, early this year, they got confirmation about the corruption of the mightiest institution of their country—the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). One revelation that made headlines was the mind-boggling amount, to the tune of P50M ($1.1311M), given to a retiring chief of staff as a send-off gift, in addition to a monthly gift of P5M ($113,122) during his tenure as chief. In the testimony that former military budget officer George Rabusa rolled out, the successors at the AFP helm got even heftier amount, one received P80M ($1.809M), another P160M ($3.16M). (Long before this, of course, an ex-military comptroller with a rank of two-star general, was accused of accumulating more than P300M in assets.) But who would reject such “pabaon”? With the prospect of retirement, one knows that the usual perks and rewards, not to mention the salary, that go with the office will come to an end, and probably unsure of how to maintain his lifestyle, we might not be surprised that one will consider it more logical to accept the gift. A secure future is surely better than its opposite.

To be assured about one’s future—well, that is certainly everybody’s concern, especially when one grows older. The young can always squander their money, but the old surely know better. Security is a great value. Which is why the business of insurance proliferates and prospers—health insurance, death and burial insurance, education insurance, fire insurance, accident insurance, etc. The insurance business answers many of our worries in life. Understandably enough, when the Israelites were brought by Moses from Egypt, and started their desert journey, they complained, because even their daily life was not secure. “If only we died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death” (Exod 16:3). And yet, today’s gospel, Jesus told his disciples, “Therefore, I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink, what you will wear” (Matt 6:25)!

Does this mean that a Christian should not subscribe to PhilHealth, have deposit in the bank, or pay life insurance? Of course, not. In no way does the Gospel recommend indolence. What is condemned here is the obsession to be sure that all the future is well provided for, that one survives into the future without hitches or problems. Which is why, Jesus gave us two illustrations: “Look at the birds of the air. They do not sow or reap or store away in barns… See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin” (Matt 6:26a.28). In adverting to birds and lilies, Jesus was being poetic; strictly speaking, birds do work and they do get hungry. Many lilies die for lack of water. Rather, God who created them does not abandon them, and if man is higher than both birds and lilies, will he ever forget them? Hence, of birds, he said, “Your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matt 6:26b); of the lilies, he pointed out,”I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of them. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?” (v 30). Therefore, there is no reason to be obsessed with providing for a future without worry; one must leave room for God.

Here, Jesus attacked two human temptations. On the one hand, obsession for a secure future forces a person to limit his vision to himself, and not be concerned what this implies to other people, especially with regard to their rights. In the issue of corruption in the AFP, for instance, it is plain to all that the public funds that ended up in the pockets of high officials could be used to fund the AFP program of modernization, upgrade the condition of the ordinary soldiers especially in battle and enhance its capacity to fight insurgency. People suffer from substandard infrastructural projects because a large part of the money goes to the bank accounts of the corrupt. Mining is relentless pursued even if it has been shown that it is detrimental to the health of people and destroys environment because its vigorous proponents make money out of it. All this in the name of assuring one’s self of a future, in which honey and milk do not cease to flow. Corruption is engaged in, and almost everything is done to shield the corrupt, though it impoverishes the nation. The temptation to create a worriless future intensifies greed. And yet, how are they able to sleep well on the pillow of stolen wealth?

On the other hand, this reveals how little one’s trust in God is. Accumulation of unexplained wealth is obviously an indication not only that one has little faith in God’s ability to provide, even if Jesus said that “your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (Matt 6:32), but also that he has an almost complete disregard for morality, God’s guide to how life should be lived. No doubt about it, he has learned not to fear God. Outwardly, he is against corruption, but inwardly, he is indifferent to receiving kickbacks and “pabaon’ of scandalous proportion. Quite the contrary, it blinds him to the workings of God in the world, his providential care for humanity. Since he has no respect for the signs of God’s providence, he in the process destroys them—just look at how greed cannibalized the environment! Because of this blindness, the greedy does not see that his fellowmen are of higher value than food and bird and lilies; for the sake of his future, he can use his fellowmen, and so he has no qualms about using people in prostitution, making others his partners in pursuit of his immoderate greed, and about raising himself over the broken bones of the poor. The lesser one trusts God, the higher he trusts in himself. Which is why, Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters… You cannot serve both God and money” (Matt 6:24).

What, then, is to be done? “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matt 6:33). Obviously, this does not mean that one has to neglect ordinary household tasks; but this means that one has to give up acquisitiveness, greed and self-centeredness. In giving them up, he realizes that life is really more than the material possessions he has acquired; there is more to life than accumulation of wealth. There are values higher than wealth—fraternity, compassion, forgiveness, love, sharing, surrender, which can be found only in a community, in an embodiment of the kingdom of God, which does not have wealth as the overarching value. It does not mean, of course, that in a community in which these spiritual values prevail, life would not be without suffering. St Paul himself, who lived that life, testified that he has suffered so much (read 2 Cor 11:23-29), but there can never be any substitute for a life where the strength comes from God. That is why he can say, “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every occasion, whether well fed or hungry, whether being in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength” (2 Cor 4:12-13). There is, therefore, no need for a “pabaon”; life is more than our earthly life, more than the sum total of one’s accumulated wealth. God is more than enough. Solo Dios basta.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

How To Deal With Those Who Injured Us--Sow the Wind, Reap the Whirlwind?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 7th Sunday of Year A, Matt 5:38-48, February 20, 2011

“War is hell,” Gen William Tecumseh Sherman correctly noted, and its hellish character is exemplified in what has been called “the Balangiga Massacre”. As part of the pacification of the Visayas, Company C of the 9th Infantry of the US Army was sent to Balangiga in the island of Samar, Philippines, to garrison the town. In a few days, what started as a friendly relation between the natives and the soldiers turned sourish. On September 28, 1901, while all the 54 soldiers were having their breakfast, the local revolutionaries made a surprise attack, killing 47 of them, wounding the rest. Still, the “Americanos” were able to fight back, killing about 14 to 25[0] natives. In a few days, however, the payback time came. Gen Jake Smith ordered his men “to kill and burn”, shooting anyone capable of bearing arms, including boys above 10 years old. Hundreds of houses were burned, farm animals slaughtered, and, according to one writer, about 2,500 SamareƱos, mainly of southern part of the island, were killed. The revolutionaries sowed the wind, they reaped the whirlwind (Hosea 8:7).

Is this the way for Christians to respond to those who do them violence—almost unlimited vendetta? One is reminded of what Lamech said to his wives, “if Cain is avenged seven times, then Lamech seventy-seven times” (Gen 4:24). Some scholars say that this song of Lamech is probably the origin of the tribal sevenfold vengeance to obtain justice for killing a powerful leader (see 2 Sam 21:1-9). And it is against this background that one has to understanding the law of revenge that the Gospel adverts to: “Eye for eye, tooth for tooth” (Matt 5:38). This law, known as lex talionis, tit for tat, was part of the commandments given at Mt Sinai: “If there is serious injury, you are to take life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise” (Exod 21:23-25). Although that law may appear savage to modern ears, yet in intent it was the beginning of mercy, as it limited revenge. In other words, it was meant to regulate boundless vendetta.

But for Jesus, even limited reprisal has no place in a Christian community. Which is why with authority he replaced the law of talion with another law—the law of non-resistance: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, ‘Do not resist an evil person” (Matt 5:39). In Jewish law, retaliation was a right, but for Jesus even this right has to be renounced. The force of this saying can be well appreciated if one recalls that during the time of Jesus, there were already various groups and movements that sought to dislodge the hegemony of Rome, and it is not impossible that some in Jesus’ audience were being recruited to the cause of uprising against the Emperor, a movement that in fact culminated in the First Jewish Revolt Against Rome in 66-70 AD. Here was an empire that used violence against its subjects; and would it be right—the question was certainly raised--for a Christian to ground his action on lex talionis? The law of Moses grants a Jew a right to make revenge, but Jesus would ask his followers to renounce it and offer no armed resistance.

In the Gospel, Jesus gave three examples of applying this principle: [1] The first concerns suffering physical violence: “If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also” (v 39). [2] The second prohibits meeting a legal action with another legal action: “And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well” (v 40). [3] And the third is about accepting force labor with cheerfulness: “If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (v 41). If Jesus urged non-retaliation, the motive, as noted in the Gospel last Sunday, is none other love. He wanted to perfect this love by perfecting respect for any person, even those who do violence. Love is shown by ending retaliation and resentment, and by offering no resistance to injury. If it would seem that justice has little place, it is probably because justice, without love, may just be a cloak for one’s vindictiveness. Love is shown in suffering (cf 1 Cor 13:4-7).

Of course, Jesus walked his talk. When one of his companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the High Priest, he said to him, “Put your sword back in its place, for all who draw their sword will die by the sword” (Matt 26:52). Notice that it was in his power to take revenge, but he did not use it to destroy his enemies: “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (v 53-54). But he came to bring God’s love for men, even for those in power who wanted to murder him. Indeed, it was to fulfill this plan of God that he came: “But how then the Scriptures be fulfilled that say, it must happen in this way?” (v 54). Thus, Jesus was clearly determined to follow the path of non-retaliation, a path which God himself has outlined for his Son. This principle of non-resistance is echoed by St Paul: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:21).

Thus, we see a powerful Jesus not using his power to destroy those out to kill him, but allowing himself to be liquidated instead. To suffer indignity and humiliation, instead of retaliating—this is the challenge. When a committee of congressmen conceived the idea of transferring some troops in the east to the west, and some in the west to the east, Abraham Lincoln agreed and told the committee to see Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War. Hearing that the President was agreed to the plan, Stanton told the congressmen that Lincoln “was a d-d fool.” When this was related to the President, Lincoln commented, “He [Stanton] must be correct, as I have yet to know of Stanton being wrong.” True, one might say that the principle is applicable at the personal level, but can this be applied in other situations, like the relationship between nations? But, why not? Would it be Christian to destroy Basilan or Jolo on account of the evils that the Abu Sayaf fighters have been engaged in? Would it be right to obliterate a country because the followers of a Saddam Hussein continue to upset the work of peace? Of course, the logic of power would dictate that that would be right approach, but one wonders whether it can claim to be Christian.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Can We Build a Community Merely on the Basis of Law?

Exegetical reflection on the Gospel of the 6th Sunday of Year A, Matt 5:17-37, February 13, 2011

Why did Jesus become incarnate? Some people seem to think that Jesus came to teach us about God, and how to love one another. Others are convinced that he came to be crucified, in order to free us from sin. But if we really see his whole earthly life and examine its purpose, the answer would be different. For instance, he did not come in order to die. Rather, in coming to the world, Jesus wished to establish on earth a new community, the initial embodiment of the kingdom of God. Which is why, he started to call his disciples who would become the germ of his community. Being a new community, it offers its members an entirely different way of life. Consequently, it has a distinctive standard of righteousness. According to Matthew, this righteousness, which disciples must attain, is far above that of the Pharisees (Matt 5:20). This is not to say that the latter’s was bad; or were the Pharisees as a whole a bunch of hypocrites, though that is how they are sometimes seen or perceived. In their action, their motive was to fulfill the stipulations of the people’s covenant with God. If they fulfilled what the law of Moses requires, it is because the will of God is enshrined in the law. Their righteousness is seen in their moral action which is in accord with the law.

For all that, however, Jesus claimed that his disciples must aspire for a new righteousness, which is far above that of the Pharisees. The establishment of that kingdom in the community of disciples requires it. Such righteousness does not take the form of a more strict observance of the law in its minute details, although it is thus sometimes understood. On the contrary, it goes beyond the legal requirement. Its motive is not simply the fulfillment of God’s will as found in the law. It is rather the fulfillment of his will as it is embodied in the life of Jesus himself which, if summarized, is a life of love. Of course, Jesus did not abolish he law; as he himself said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets” (Matt 5:17). But because the focus has shifted from the law to the person of Jesus, it is not surprising that we are given a new way of understanding the law, in particular, the commandments. In this new righteousness, the commandment is to be seen as part of one’s response to God’s offer in Jesus, and that response in love begins with thought and ends with its execution.

In the Gospel reading, Matthew gives us three examples. [1] The first is murder (Matt 5:21-26; Exod 20:13; Deut 5:17). Under the new righteousness, murder is not to be identified with the taking of life. The taking of life is simply the external display of a crime that really starts with anger. Anger, the source of violent crime, is part of murder and is as detestable, as it is opposed to love. We can murder a person by calling him names, by destroying his reputation. Thus, a Christian must remove anger in his heart by being constantly reconciled with other members of the community. [2] The same may be said of adultery (Matt 5:27-30; Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18). It is not enough that a Christian should avoid having sex with a person other than his marriage partner. A woman’s dignity can be violated by a man not simply by sexual intercourse. The very source of adultery, lust, is opposed to love, and adultery is simply the execution of a brewing lust in the mind of the adulterer. Hence, Jesus could say, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery in his heart” (Matt 5:28). [3] The last concerns the taking of oaths (Matt 5:33-37; Num 30:2). To call God a witness is not only to violate the majesty of God; it really reflects distrust in one’s neighbor. And distrust has no place in a relationship of love. For Jesus there is no need to take an oath. A word is sufficient guarantee of one’s truthfulness and fidelity.

The point is that, we cannot build a society which embodies the kingdom of God, if it is based merely on strict obedience to prohibitions. I may not murder, but I can hate, or refuse to forgive and talk with my brother in the community. In other words, it is possible that a community can violate the law internally, without having to execute the violation in external behavior. A community may follow all the Ten Commandments, yet it remains unable to exhibit the values of the kingdom in its life, if the members are not one in heart and mind (Acts 4:22). Which is why, law, whether in the Church or outside, is not sufficient for well being, and even for salvation. On the contrary, it can create hypocrites—people who may appear holy, but in really greedy, rapacious, and oppressive. In the new righteousness, one’s action is like spring water. If one gets clean water from the spring, it is because the source of the spring is clean. If the water is dirty, it is because the source itself has dirt. A sinful action is really a matter of inward thought and external action. We may not have sex with another person, but to seriously want it, to lustfully desire it, is no less heinous. And this destroys fraternal relationship. No community will ever externalize the kingdom of God unless its members love one another from the heart and in action. This is not to deny that law can organize a community, but it would be a community of corpses.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How Do We Change Our Country and the World--By Force, Naked Power, Violence and Uprising?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 5:13-15, February 8, 2011

Before the collapse of Communism in 1990, many idealists from the world over, recognizing the evils of capitalism, thought that communism, with its program of violent revolution, would establish heaven on earth--the classless society. Thus, the Constitution and By-Laws of the Hukbong Magpapalaya ng Bayan (HMB, 1950) in the country declares in its preamble: “In the face of these national crimes and treachery we have no other recourse but to act. We… consider it our duty… to band together and resort to our inherent right and only remaining means to save our country and our nationhood—armed uprising or revolution.” But after a communist revolution, heaven does not really come down. As Alexander Solzehnitsyn writes: “Communism was condemned the day it was born… Inside the Soviet Union it held on for seventy years only thanks to repression and blood violence—don’t forget that it killed up to 60 million people. Abroad it was able to hold sway thanks to demagogy and lies. It fascinated the West, because it was like a sickly blossoming of humanism. Didn’t the intellectuals of the 1930s believe that it had brought us paradise on earth?” There is really much truth to the maxim attributed to John Galbraith: “Under capitalism, man exploits man. And under communism, it is the exact opposite.”

What does the Church have to say to men and women who aspire to alter the present order of injustice and violence and replace it will a new one, just and more humane? The Church is, of course, not insensitive to the existence of serious injustices that build a network of domination, oppression and abuses, and to the new awareness that shakes people of out fatalistic resignation and spurs them on to liberate themselves and be responsible for their own destiny (cf Synod of Bishops, Convenientes ex universo). After all, it is the bearer of the Gospel, which is precisely the Good News of salvation; and, as such, represents God’s will to change this world of sin, division and injustice, since God himself wishes all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4). But the Church is not equivocal about changing the world by means of armed revolution; it outrightly rejects it, because it is not consistent with the teaching and life of Jesus. What the Church sanctions finds answer in this Sunday’s Gospel.

The Sunday reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) in which Matthew outlines what is distinctively Christian in the life of the community of believers. For Matthew, the Christian community does not isolate itself from the world of sin and injustice, but has a role to play in the transformation of that world. That function he describes as being a city set on a hill: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Matt 3:14). Here Jesus was speaking to his disciples about their function in the world. This imagery is undoubtedly taken this text in Isaiah: “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain, and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it; many peoples shall come and say: Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:2-3a). In this passage, the mountain represents the people of God who do his will, who are faithful to his covenant. By appropriating this imagery and applying it to his disciples, Jesus wanted to emphasize that the world of sin and injustice cannot be changed through violent revolution, but through his community of disciples who fulfill their role as a city set on a hill that gives light to the world. Which is why in Matthew, before Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, he first called some men to constitute the community of disciples (Matt 4:18-22), and it is this community that he describes as a city set on a hill.

As the light of the world, this community that Jesus had in mind holds values that contradict the values of this world. If the present world values power, wealth, honor and domination, the community of disciples will value their exact opposite: weakness, poverty, and slavery. That is why, in sharp contrast with the world, the disciples are to become poor, sorrowing, thirsty, hungry and weak (Matt 5:3-112). As such, they have nothing to boast before the world. Instead of being a community held captive by power, money and influence, the disciples are a community that is characterized by freedom from these. Thus, in Luke’s account of the early Church, we are told that the community of believers was poor, but the members were one in heart and mind (Acts 4:32). In John, the disciples are recognized as Christ’s community in their love for one another (John 13:35). The same qualities are emphasized in Paul’s description of the community: “I plead with you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received, with perfect humility, meekness, and patience, bearing one another lovingly. Make every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as its origin and peace as its binding force. There is but one body and one Spirit, just as there is but one hope give all of you by your call” (Eph 4:1-4).

It is by living this kind of life that the community of disciples functions like a city set on a hill that gives light to the world. Hence, Jesus described the community as “the light of the world” (Matt 3:14). With such kind of life, the disciples lead a life that is in contrast with the world. But Jesus was convinced that if the community is faithful to its call, it will have an influence on the nations. Like a city set on a hill that cannot be hidden, the quality of life that the community leads will not be hidden; nations will take notice of it and ask: why do these people live that kind of life? Jesus must have thought that because of the quality of life lived by the community members, it would earn the admiration and envy of men. As Isaiah points out, when the community becomes an example of a people who, because of their love, release those bound unjustly, who free the oppressed and break every yoke, sharing the bread with the hungry, and sheltering the homeless, their light will break forth (Isa 58:6-8a, First Reading). Thus, it truly reflects the presence of God for other nations to see. Since in their manner of life and action the glory of God is manifested, other nations will stream toward it (Isa 49:6), and learn from its ways. Thus, evil nations will be transformed even without violence.

Violence begets violence. Revolution always engulfs its sons and daughters. Theologically considered, violence is a contradiction of faith in God, the creator of man, who cares for man and loves him (Pope’s Message for the World Day of Peace). That is why a Christian, qua Christian, cannot espouse violence. Of course, it is often said that what is needed is a change of heart. This is needed, it is true, but this approach is too individualistic, and fails to take into consideration that man is conditioned by society and culture. A change of heart would not be workable without a community or environment that makes the change possible. That is why the present Gospel text actually provides a third alternative to social change: not by violent revolution, not simply by a change of heart, but through a community that exhibits the new life in Jesus. By its way of life, by being a contrast-society, the Christian community can renew the world of sin and injustice. Of course, for people who think they are “wise” in the ways of the world, this might appear impractical, even quixotic. This is precisely the reason why hardly any world leaders listen to this teaching but rather resort to their own wisdom which they think is practical and effective—kill those who they think are evil! But what the world considers a wise decision is folly before God, whose wisdom defies the wisdom of men. The Christian community, on the other hand, rests not on the wisdom of men but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:5, Second Reading).