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.

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