Thursday, June 30, 2011

Lightening the Burden of the Oppressed

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourteenth Sunday, Year A, Matthew 11:25-30, July 3, 2011

One of the reasons why our country cannot provide adequate service to the people is the government debt. Since about 1/3 of the yearly total budget is earmarked for servicing the country’s debt, or more exactly, to its interest payment, only a paltry sum goes to health, education and other public services. And because, for many years, the Philippines resorts to borrowing from creditors to pay its debts, the country continues to sink deeper in debt. No doubt about it, the government debt, both internal and external, is enerous. It condemns its people to hopeless poverty and misery. And it making debt service a priority of the budget, the government practically ignores the welfare of the people. No wonder, many people have been clamoring for its cancellation—the government debt is a burden that consigns many to a miserable life.

Life can be like the country’s debt, onerous, but it is always the poor who carry the weight. This is true not only of today but also of Jesus’ time. As we noted two Sundays ago, Jesus, during his public ministry, saw the poor in the eyes of prophet Ezekiel--tired, leaderless, and neglected: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves. Should not shepherds, rather, pasture sheep? You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered their fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured. You did not strengthen the weak nor heal the sick nor bind up the injured. You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered for lack of shepherd and became food for wild animals” (Ezek 34:2b-5a). But if the poor people felt that life has become burdensome, this was not simply due to the political leaders who failed in their responsibilities to the sheep.

It was also because the religious leaders laid heavy burdens on them. In his denunciation of the Pharisees, for example, Jesus said: “They tie up heavy burdens [hard to carry] and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they will not lift a finger to move them” (Matt 23:4). The way the Pharisees and the teachers of the law interpreted the commandments of God has become burdensome to the poor people. The law on the Sabbath is a good example. In their interpretation of the law, the Pharisees had to ask what activities constituted work and therefore were prohibited on the Sabbath—matters which probably were never envisaged by Moses himself. In Matthew, we encounter people known as sinners (Matt 9:10), and in the consensus of present-day scholars, the term refers to people who by their very profession could not, according to the teachers of the law, observe the commandments. The law was intended to give life to those who keep them (Ezek 20:13), but because of wrong interpretation, it became an onus for the poor.

What must the poor do to liberate themselves from the heavy load? At the time of Jesus, the poor people had options. They could follow the Pharisees in their meticulous observance of the law, in the hope that God would ultimately liberate them from all evil. Some did join the social bandits, not only to ease the burden of poverty, but also to get even with the rich. Others later on joined the revolutionary movement—which engulfed the whole nation in the end. Today, several choices present themselves. The poor can go to the street to denounce the various burdens that the government imposed on them and ask that they be scrapped unconditionally. Or, since they cannot lick them, they can join as well the corrupt and the greedy in fleecing the government, with the thought that, after all, justice cannot follow them. Or, one can participate in the materially rewarding occupation of the Abu Sayyaf—banditry and kidnapping. Of course, for many these may seem reasonable, but definitely, these do not have basis in Christianity. The Gospel offers only Jesus to lighten the load: “Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28).

Jesus is the only one who can refresh us—not the meticulous observance of the law, not the politicians, not money, not rebellion. For one thing, “he is meek and humble of heart” (Matt 11:29). He can understand the feelings of the poor, because he himself became poor, though he was rich (Phil 2:5-7). He was born to a poor family, had nowhere to lay his head, and his grave was not even his own. As the parables show, he looked at realities through the eyes of the poor. Because he had no mission other than to do the will of his Father, he was meek and humble, like the servant of God (Zech 9:9, First Reading). For another, he is the Wisdom of God. Indeed, Matt 11:28-30 very much echoes the invitation of Wisdom: “Come aside to me, you untutored, and take up lodging in the house of instruction. How long will you be deprived of wisdom’s food, how long will you endure such bitter thirst?… Submit your neck to her yoke, that your mind may accept her teaching, for she is close to those who seek her, and the one who is in earnest finds her” (Sirach 51:23-26). He can invite us to take his yoke (Matt 11:29)—obedience to his word and his life, because it is he alone to whom the Father has revealed everything (Matt 11:27).

Amidst problems that the nation faces, people who are supposed to be in the know—what with their trainings abroad and degrees attached to their name--are inclined to think that the Jesus way is neither easy or light—in fact, it is impractical. They like to depend on their own wisdom. But have their solutions given the people a better deal? One is tempted to say that they like their own solutions, because, from a biblical point of view, God’s wisdom has been hidden from them (Matt 11:25). But the Lord says: “Stand beside the earliest roads, ask the pathways of old, which is the way to good and walk it, thus you will find rest for your souls.” (Jer 6:16). However, only the humble will recognize God’s wisdom. Therefore, they alone will take Jesus’ yoke—which is easy and light—and learn from him, and certainly, in the end, “find rest for themselves” (Matt 11:28).*

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