Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Christian Community as a People Living on the Wisdom of God in Jesus

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent, Year A, John 4:5-42, March 27, 2011

A few years back, a group of Marinduqueños wanted to see the then President Arroyo (but were not able to) to appeal for her help, bringing with them a postcard with a photo of children posing along the “dead” Mogpog river, three bottles of bluish water from the rivers with the label “Marcopper Water: Toxic” to remind her of the sorry plight of the islanders. According to a report by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, since l996 when the Marcopper Mining Co. spilled up to 300 million gallons of mine tailings into the Boac River and Calancay Bay in Marinduque, the people have been suffering from fish kills, skin and health diseases, and the degradation of their flora and fauna. The President was reported to have been pursuing a Canadian firm, the Placer Dome, which owned 40 percent of the mining company, for the compensation of the affected Marinduqueños, and it is claimed that Placer Dome could be made to pay up to $13 million to bring back the river and bay to life. But as Msgr Senen Mapalad argued, their demand was not simply about compensation; it was about justice: “What about the deteriorating health of the victims, the rehabilitation of our rivers and the continuing environmental degradation caused by the disaster?”

This mining disaster underscores how important water is to life. Without clean water, people and animal will die. We recall this tragedy because today’s Gospel is about water, more particularly, about living water. This term “living” water (John 4:10), which is the subject of Jesus’ conversation with a Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob, is a common expression for spring or flowing water to distinguish it from the still water, like the one found in cisterns, which is less desirable. A remarkable dialogue began when Jesus asked water from her. Assured that he could give her water that banishes thirst forever, the Samaritan woman eagerly asked for some of it so she would not be thirsty or have to keep coming to the well of Jacob to draw water (John 4:15). Of course, she misunderstood what Jesus was referring to, when he talked of the water that, once drunk, will not make the drinker thirsty again, and that becomes in the recipient a spring of water welling up to eternal life (John 4:14). What she thought was that Jesus would provide her flowing water that is much tastier than the stagnant one. In John’s literary technique, her misunderstanding serves as a springboard for Jesus to explain, and for the reader to understand, that Jesus was simply using a symbolic language, a metaphor. If Jesus spoke of living water, it was meant to bring the Samaritan—and the reader of this story—to the real or supernatural water.

What water was Jesus referring to? In Jewish tradition, water can signify the purifying of God’s Spirit in the community. Among the Qumran sectaries, for example, we find the belief that “God will cleanse by his truth all the works of every man, and will purify for himself the (bodily) fabric of every man, to banish all Spirit of perversity from his members, and purify him of all wicked deeds by the Spirit of holiness; and he will cause the Spirit of Truth to gush forth upon him like lustral water” (1QS 6:21). Most likely, however, it refers to God’s wisdom. In the Old Testament, the role of God’s wisdom is cast in water metaphor: “He who eats of me will hunger still, he who drinks of me will thirst for more; he who obeys me will not be put to shame; he who serves me will never fail” (Sir 24:20-21). And for the Jews, that wisdom is none other than the Law: “All this is true of the book of the Most High’s covenant, the law which Moses commanded us as an inheritance for the community of Jacob” (Sir 24:22). A similar identification is found among the Qumran monks: “He opened (this) before them, and they dug a well of abundant waters” (CD 3:16); “The well which the princes dug, which the nobles of the people delved with a rod. The well is the Law” (CD 6:4-5). In Isaiah, God invited his people to hear his wisdom so they might live: “All you who are thirsty, come to the water!… Come to me heedfully, listen, that you may have life” (Isa 55:3).

In the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman, the wisdom that Jesus speaks of, however, is not the Law, but he himself, together with his teaching, for he is the one who gives the water that, when drunk, will not make the drinker thirsty again (John 4:14a). As well as his teaching, he himself is wisdom, and the giver of wisdom. Paul likewise makes this identification: “Christ is… the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24). “What we utter is God’s wisdom: a mysterious, a hidden wisdom. God planned it before all ages for our glory. None of the rulers knew the mystery: if they had known it, they would never have crucified the Lord of glory.” And this wisdom is far superior to the Law of Moses because it gives eternal life to the recipient: “The water I give shall become a fountain within him, leaping up to provide eternal life” (John 4:14c). The teaching that Jesus as wisdom gives eternal life is supported by the first reading (Exod 17:3-7). At the time of the Exodus, when the Israelites journeyed through the desert and became unfaithful to the Lord, they experienced water crisis and almost died, but God saved them by providing them water from the rock. This event highlights God’s care for his people, and in crisis, the Israelites, long after the event, hankered for the time when God would once again draw water from the rock to save his people. That hope finds fulfillment in Jesus.

For John, if the Christian community wishes to achieve wholeness in its life, it must therefore draw water from Christ, the wisdom of God. Apart from Christ, the community cannot experience integrity and happiness. It would be like the Samaritan woman who, in her search for happiness, married five times (John 4:18), for she drank only from the water of Jacob’s well. However well educated and intelligent we are, we cannot be sufficient unto ourselves; hence, we cannot simply depend on our own wisdom and our own resources. It is just ironic that, according to Jeremiah, we prefer to drink water from our own cistern (Jer 2:13). We think, for example, that our own wealth and power can assure us happiness. But soon we realize that these, like sex, drugs, and honor, are fleeting. Moreover, they do not satisfy; once we have them, we never have enough. We crave for more money, more power, more sex, more drugs, and there is no end to that.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Christian Community as a Living Word of God

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent, Year A, Matthew 17:1-9, March 20, 2011

Transformed was how his mother described Fathur Rohman Al-Ghozi when she visited her at a Islamic boarding school in east Java. According to Simon Elegant (in his article, “Untangling the Web” in Time magazine), when she brought her his favorite food, her son told her that he was fasting, even though it was not a fasting month. Feeling proud that her son chose to live piously, she cried. The school where Fathur got his piety and brand of religion was founded by Abubakar Ba’asyer, a Islamic cleric believed to be a leader of a network of terrorist cells called Jemaah Islamiah, a Southeast Asian version of al-Queda, with possible links to Osama bin Laden. Fathur is believed to be responsible for a bombing spree in Manila that killed 22 people and injured 80. Comments Time: “Fathur absorbed enough of Abubakar’s ideology to choose a path that would eventually lead him to the prison cell in Manila army headquarters where he now resides awaiting trial, a sentence of death hanging over him.” A somewhat similar transformation occurred to John Lindh, a 20-year old American who sought himself and by June last year “had become so passionate about radical Islam that he went to Afghanistan to join the Taliban.” Calling himself Abdul Hamid, he was training at a camp run by al-Queda. If the Hindus could say that “you are what you eat,” both Fathur and Lindh confirm the theory that “you are what you listen to.” In a sense, one can always attribute what they became to the word they absorbed from those who had it.

In a way, the people of Israel could be described in that manner. If they were constituted as God’s people, it is because they listened to his word, and that call began with Abraham: “The Lord said to Abram: ‘Go forth from the land of your kinsfolk and from your father’s house to a land that I will show you. I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you…’ Abram went as the Lord directed him.” (Gen 12:1-4, First Reading). It was because Abraham listened to Yahweh that God was able to create in him a great nation. And the future of Israel as a nation was defined by its ability to hearken to him: “Therefore, if you hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my special possession, dearer to me than all other people, though all the earth is mine. You shall be to me a kingdom of priests, a holy nation. This is what you must tell the Israelites” (Exod 19:5-6). Of course, God has no mouth; so, if they were to become what they ought to be, they must listen to Moses, through whom God has spoken. Of course, Moses was not always with them; but what God has spoken through him became the Law, which for the Jews was God’s expression of his very will. That is why for them the Law held a central place in their life as a people, for it defined their way of life, and therefore they must listen to it if they wished to see the fulfillment of God’s promises: “You (must) carry every word of this law. For this is no trivial matter for you; rather, it means your very life, since it is by this means that you are to enjoy long life on the land…” (Deut 32:46c-47a).

But who should the Christian community listen to? In today’s Gospel, Matthew gives us an account of the transfiguration of the Lord (Matt 17:1-7). This event, in which Jesus changed his appearance, his face as dazzling as the sun, his clothes as radiant as white, is really an epiphany story—Jesus unveiled to his chosen three disciples his glory shining through his human body, transforming even his clothes! Jesus was beheld as he truly was. Matthew utilized this story to confirm Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messiahship, linking the suffering Son of Man with the glorious Son of God. But what is of relevance for our purpose is the appearance of Moses and Elijah. In the Old Testament, both Moses and Elijah received word or revelation from God. Moreover, God promised to raise someone like Moses (Deut 18:15) and to send Elijah (Mal 2:23) in the last days. Since the Scriptures note that the present constitutes the last days, the appearance of these two men signifies that Jesus is the promised prophet-like Moses and the Elijah who returned. This easily fits well with the claim that Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets (Matt 5:17). In other words, all this means that God today speaks to us through Jesus. Thus, “in times past God spoke in fragmentary and various ways to our fathers through the prophets; in this the final age, he has spoken to us through his Son” (Heb 1:1). No wonder that in today’s epiphany of Jesus, God informs us who Christians should listen to: “This is my beloved Son on whom my favor rests. Listen to him” (Matt 7:5b). It does not mean, of course, that the Christian community no longer listens to Moses; but it means, though, that it finds the completion and fulfillment of Moses’ word in Jesus, and understands Moses in relation to Jesus, not apart from him.

The Christian community, then, is a community because it received word from Jesus; it is his word that formed it, and continues to inform it. The Christian community is therefore a people of the word. This means not only that it lends it an attentive ear, but also opens its heart to it and puts it into practice: “Anyone who hears my words and puts them into practice is like the wise man who built his house on rock” (Matt 7:24). Precisely because it is a people of the word, it is obedient to that word, and it is this obedience to the word, which Paul calls obedience of faith (Rom 1:5; 10:14-16), that transfigures the community. By word, Matthew of course means not only what Jesus has spoken, but also what he did, and especially what he preached (Matt 5-7). By putting the word in its life and practice, the community is changed into the likeness of Jesus in such a way that it really becomes of body of Christ, sharing his life and destiny. If the teaching of Abubakar can be seen in the action of Fathur, the word of Christ shines through in the community that transforms it into his very word. The community itself becomes a living word of Jesus. It would be unfortunate if a Christian community determines its life by what it reads even from well-known authors of books or from politicians and social or political commentators, for it will be judged on the basis of that word: “If anyone in this faithless and corrupt age is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes with the holy angels in his Father’s glory” (Mark 8:38).

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Temptations of Setting Aside the Mission, Enlarging One's Image and Misusing Power

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, Year A, Matthew 4:1-11, March 13, 2011

Not so long ago, in a proposed bill at the Philippine Congress, Quezon province Representative Danilo Suarez wanted to increase the pork barrel of congressmen by P30 M, and that of the senators by P50M, to be taken from the Motor Vehicle User’s Charge (MVUC). It may be recalled that under present practice, congressmen received P70 M pork barrel, otherwise known as Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF), while Senators have P200 M. Reacting to the proposal, Butuan bishop Juan de Dios Pueblos asserted that instead of giving an increase, the pork barrel should be abolished, and the fund be given directly to the concerned local and national agencies “Who will be in favor if you are in a good mind and in a good sense? Our country is in need actually and many of our poor people are languishing in poverty,” said the good Bishop. “It’s sad that only politicians are getting richer while millions of people are getting poorer,” he noted. According to the Bishop, there is no assurance that the hefty sum would be used properly, because it is one big source of corruptible funds. Of course, greed is not easy to moderate. As Oscar Wilde puts it, “I can resist everything except temptation.”

In today’s Gospel, Matthew brings us to the subject of temptation that is encountered in the Christian community, and he provides us with three typical examples: (1) The Tempter says: “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to turn into bread” (Matt 4:3b). In the first example in which Jesus is asked to turn the stones into bread, the Christian community seems to be faced with the temptation of using the powers given by Jesus to satisfy human need. Of course, at first blush, there seems to be nothing wrong with using power to satisfy hunger. Jesus himself multiplied the five loaves and two fish to feed the hungry crowd that has been following him (Matt 14:13-21). This is the reason why the Church does something about the problem; it sets up social action centers here and there because social charity or social involvement is not foreign to its mission. Still, this can be a temptation in a Christian community because, even though it is a good thing, it is not the proper mission of the Church. Its proper mission is to bring the Good News to men, and social involvement is meaningful only if it is not divorced from the proclamation of the Word. That is why, in response to the Tempter, Jesus says: “Not on bread alone is man to live, but on every utterance that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4b). Social involvement that does not proceed from the Word of God is no different from the social involvement of a communist; it is pure humanism. If the Church serves the poor and gives food to the hungry, it is because service to them is a Gospel imperative. But before its serves the hungry, the Christian community must first of all be fed with the bread of life, the Word of God.

(2) “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down,” this is what the Tempter says to Jesus while they are at the parapet of the Temple (Matt 4:5-6). This temptation has to do with the community’s power and work to attract attention. Of course, we know that with the coming of mass media of social communications, we now live in a culture in which image building is of paramount importance. People often feel the need to parade their personal achievements, and prefer to splash on the front page of the newspapers their works or contributions to charities. They would even employ public relations agents and image-makers to enhance the people’s perception of their appearance. But from a Christian point of view, success in image-building is not evidence that the community is faithful to its mission. The ability to draw huge crowds is not an evidence of the effectiveness of the community’s ministry, even if many people would like to believe it is—that is why they envy tele-evangelists who have thousands of viewers. Before God, achievements count nothing. What is of importance is the community’s faithfulness to God in doing its specific mission, even if it does not win the admiration of men or attract big numbers of admirers. It must simply trust in God’s word, even if doing so is not recognized. For this reason, it might even go against the world and its values (cf Rom 12:2); but certainly it does not need to justify itself before the judgment seat of men, for what the world holds is abominable before God (Luke 16:15).

(3) Pointing to the kingdoms of the world and their magnificence, the Tempter says: “All these I will bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me” (Matt 4:9). This third temptation is about power. Of course, politicians crave for it—and some even become addicted to it, because it gives them the power to control and dominate. Political power enables the politician to conquer territories, subjugate peoples, convert them en masse, establish a personal kingdom and, because political power is convertible to economic power, to get rich. In a secular world where a secular culture prevails, political power is a great temptation. No wonder every President makes his or her own enemies, because the logic of power entails it. Still, political power has no place in the Christian community. It does not and will never advance the cause of Jesus Christ; there is no evidence that the Kingdom of God will spread throughout the world because of political power; if it will, Christ should have said so, but he never did. On the contrary, there seems to be something demonic about it. That is why in today’s Gospel, Jesus rejects it: “You shall do homage to the Lord your God, and him alone shall you serve” (Matt 4:10). Political power cannot be exercised in the Christian community, and if at all one should speak of power there, it is the power to serve: “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to rank first among you must serve the needs of all” (Matt 20:26). Indeed, Jesus does not mince words in his criticism of political power, for its exercise results in violence and oppression (Luke 22:25).

This account of the triple temptations of Jesus was preserved to teach the Christian community. As Wilde notes, temptations are difficult to resist; but the Christian community has a model to imitate: like the community, Jesus was tempted, but he did not succumb, and therefore in imitation of the Lord, the community must resist it. The community must not copy the old Israel that did not overcome temptation. To make that point, Matthew so framed the story of the temptation of Jesus as God’s Son (Matt 4:1-11) as to make a comparison between Jesus and Israel. Both Jesus and Israel are sons of God (Matt 4:3; Matt 2:15 and Hos 11:1); the number 40 is significant in the life of Jesus (40 days of fasting in the desert, Matt 4:2) and in the life of Israel (40 years of sojourn in the desert, Deut 8:2). But they are different: whereas the community of Israel failed in the temptation in the desert (Exod 17:1-7), Jesus conquered it (Matt 4:1-11). At the same time, this story of the triple temptation of Jesus provides us with a picture of what the Christian community should be: it is a community that lives by the word of God, goes against the values that the world holds dearly, and serves its members even to the point of dying.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Of Bogus Heroes and Bogus Christians

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 9th Sunday of Year A, Matthew 7:21-27, March 6, 2011

Not so long after Angelo Reyes committed suicide, some quarters began trumpeting him as a hero, even comparing him to the Samurai of Japan, in the wake of the investigation of his involvement in the mind-boggling corruption in the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Of course, if flight is an indication of guilt, what could be more indicative of guilt than a permanent one to the cemetery? No wonder, even if he was buried in Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery), many critics were not convinced of the propriety of interring him there; according to them, he was not a hero, and there is nothing heroic in self-slaughtering for one’s self. One such critic is Ninez Cacho-Olivares: “Why then are the Filipinos being lulled into believing that suicide is not only a heroic act of Reyes, but an honorable and courageous act of saving the nation? Have Filipinos become so amoral that they no longer know what is right from wrong? “

Continues Cacho-Olivares in his article, “Spin”: “But all this spin on the suicide of Reyes that plays on the Filipino culture calling for respect for the dead is a big spin to save the corrupt in government and for the ugly truth never to surface. They in the military have even gone to the extent of portraying a suicide of a former chief of staff as heroic, and he is now being treated as a hero, with even the Philippine president, who claims to campaign against corruption honoring the suicide. If such is the way things go today in this country, why former military comptroller retired Gen. Jacinto Ligot, who refuses to talk and claims he remembers nothing, or at times, invokes his right against self-incrimination, should take the “heroic” soldiers’ way out: Suicide. The same should go for the other chiefs of staff who have been linked to the corruption in the military. After all, as the claim goes, suicide makes one a hero, which translates to the idea that one who refuses to help in baring the truth and hides the truth is a hero and his suicide a heroic act; a courageous act and he is “saving the country, its institutions and the Filipino people by his death.”

If Cacho-Olivares is vigorous in her assertion about who is a hero and who is not, so, in today’s Gospel, Matthew was no less spirited in his expose on what is bogus Christianity and what is authentic. He launched his attack on two fronts. [1] On the one hand, he tried to show that the brand of Christianity which the charismatics of his day claimed was not authentic. In the saying, “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 7:21), he had in mind false prophets and false charismatics who believed that their good external actions, seen in their prophetic utterances, the acclamation they made in their congregation, singing the title “Lord” to Jesus, and their miracles of healing were enough proofs of the authenticity of their discipleship. The truth is, they are even described as “lawless”, which could mean that they have probably neglected the commandment to love their neighbor, which is the fulfillment of the law. One is reminded of the question that Jesus posed in Luke, “Why do you call me,’Lord, Lord,” and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). In the mind of Matthew, charismatics, enthusiasts and prophets might be good preachers and good lecturers, or good singers and prayer leaders at the liturgy, but their brand of discipleship remained deceptive since they were unmindful of their obligation to lift the poor from misery. They appeared holy, but their inwardness teemed with selfishness, if not greed. That is why, they were “ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing” (Matt 7:15).

[2] On the other, he directed his attacks also against the Pharisees, who at the time he wrote the Gospel, were consolidating their theology in the light of the fall of Jerusalem, and who advocated strict Jewish orthodoxy. It is possible that they were Christians who--in contrast to the charismatics who thought that, with their claim that they had the Holy Spirit, there was no need to follow the law-- advocated strict adherence to the Pharisaical piety; probably, for them, Christianity was being a good Jew with one added element: belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Which is why, early on in the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew portrays Jesus already speaking of a higher righteousness for his followers: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:20). For Matthew, as for Jesus, Christianity is not about a more strict observance of the law, it is not about being concerned that none of the commandments of Moses are broken. Such brand of Christianity is bogus, anymore than the Christianity propagated by charismatics that does not go beyond acclamation of Jesus’ Lordship. Understandably, of course, the former could win a good number of adherents because they tended to disregard the commandments. (Who, indeed, would reject a religion that is too easy to observe, and yet gives assurance that one can reap eternal rewards?) On the other hand, people flocked to the Pharisees because many valued good behavior. And yet, Matthew (and Jesus, of course) looked at both brands of Christianity as bogus.

In view of this, what then is authentic Christianity? If neither strict adherence to the law nor being a pseudo-charismatic brings one to the kingdom of heaven, what will? According to Matthew, the sure foundation lies in hearing the words of Jesus and doing them:”Every one who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock” (Matthew 7:24). There are two points to be noted here: [1] First of all, the contrast is not between saying and doing, not between theory and practice, not between faith and works which is adverted to, for instance, in James: “What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds?... Faith, by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:14.17). Rather, Christianity is, before anything else, adherence to the person of Jesus. It begins with the belief that in the very person of Jesus God has revealed his redemptive plan, and the fruits of what Jesus did are appropriated by Christians by means of doing his teachings. It surely does not start with anything we do, no matter how good, moral or miraculous it may be.

[2] Which brings us to the second point. The words referred to are not the laws of the Old Testament but, as Matthew would have it, the teaching of Jesus, primarily his Sermon on the Mount. What are truly distinctive of being Christian can be discovered in that sermon, because they mirror the ultimate revelation of God’s will for humanity in Jesus. It is unfortunate that are many Christians, even Catholics, who believe that they are good Christians or Catholics because they have followed all the Ten Commandments. That is certainly wrong. Even Muslims and Jews follow them, and yet we do not call them Christians. Merely to base one’s being Christian on the Ten Commandments is to espouse a fake Christianity. One may not steal, one may not commit adultery, one may go to Church not only on Sundays but even every day, but these do make one an authentic Christian. As authentic heroism must be predicated on truth and unselfish dedication to the country, so real Christianity is based on the person of Jesus, his words heard and incarnated in practice. Consequently, one’s discipleship has a firm foundation when one not only follows the moral commandments, but also does so from inwardness, when one is able not to resist the evil doer, when one forgives seventy-times seven times, when one does not worry about the future because he knows God would take care of it, when one does not look at the speck in his brother’s eyes, when one does not lay up treasure on earth, when one is merciful, pure in heart, and poor in spirit. When one does all this—he is a real follower of Jesus, his brand of Christianity is authentic.*