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.*

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