Saturday, July 30, 2011

Contraceptives, Population, Poverty and Unjust Economic Order

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Eighteenth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 14:13-21, July 31, 2011

Nothing probably more indicates the wide economic gulf between the rich and the poor than the food they eat, in both quality and quantity. In the United States, the problem is whether it is healthier to eat beef or not. It is the American food—TV commercials say—and it is the food most Americans eat virtually every day. But as notes Richard Corliss, in “Should We All Be Vegetarians?” it is for many an obscene cuisine. More and more Americans have started going vegetarian, believing that it would help them live longer and healthier lives. But, ironically, in other parts of the globe, a choice between beef and vegetables is a luxury, nay, a dream. Reuters, for instance, reported sometime ago that widespread food shortages and rampant AIDS have put nearly 13M southern Africans on the very edge of survival. The region’s crisis—the worst since the 1992 drought—was brought about by a combination of severe draught, floods, economic decline and government mismanagement. According to Reuters, the residual debilitating effect of past conflicts and the region’s extremely high AIDS infection rate that has killed many farmers and left millions of orphans, aggravated the famine.

The reality of hungry millions recalls the Gospel today. According to Matthew, when Jesus disembarked and saw a vast throng in a deserted place, “his heart was moved with pity” (Matt 14:14). Obviously, the miracle story on the multiplication of the loaves is about the compassion of Jesus on the about 5,000 men, not including the women and children, who in following him have experienced hunger. This story is quite relevant. For one thing, this serves as a corrective to the idea that limits the mission of Jesus to the spiritual realm. For some people, the Church should have nothing to do with the material problems of humanity; her province is only the Bible and the altar. For another, it shows us that Jesus was in touch with the problems of society, and that he tried to meet what was needed by the hungry crowd—food. What is implied here goes beyond the exercise of one of the corporal works of mercy. Rather, it has reference to the unjust social structure in which millions of people are condemned to hunger and poverty. That countless people go to bed without food because they are deprived of it politically, socially, and economically—this is a moral evil that cries to heaven for an answer. In the Old Testament, when Israel was journeying in the desert, God gave them flesh to eat in the evening and fill of bread in the morning. So the people would not go hungry, he provided them with quail and manna in the desert of Sin (Exod 16:7-8.13-14).

Hunger, then, is a social problem that seeks solution. How is this solved? Today, in view of the controversy spawned by the RH Bill, some columnists and editorialists write that the single obstacle to progress is the Roman Catholic Church for its refusal to countenance measures to curb population growth. Beneath this observation is, of course, the perception that the problem is basically that too numerous are the mouths to feed. This easily calls to mind the perception of Jesus’ disciples in the Gospel. Seeing the thousands of hungry folks, the disciples suggested to Jesus to dismiss the crowd so they could go to the villages and buy some food for themselves (Matt 14:15). Today, a number of experts propagate a Malthusian outlook, anticipating the collapse of civilization if population growth remains unchecked. Too many women and men divide among themselves the small pie. Since it is their teaching that hunger and poverty result from population growth, they flood us with condoms, pills, and all kinds of anti-life gadgets. The fewer the family members, the more comfortable life is.

The Gospel, however, does not see the problem this way. While an unchecked population increase is to be recognized as a problem, a more fundamental one is the unjust sharing of the world’s goods—resources, knowledge, power, technology— which drives people to poverty and hunger. Far from being a problem of dismissing the crowd, Jesus saw the problem as one of breaking and sharing the bread available. Thus, he took the five loaves, broke them, and gave them to the disciples to distribute (Matt 14:19). Because the loaves were broken and shared, a big miracle happened—all those present, thousands of men, women and children, ate their fill, and when the fragments were gathered up, these filled twelve baskets (Matt 14:20-21). What are we to say in connection with this miracle story? We say that the basic problem today is not so much the growth of the population, but that only a small percentage of it—those in the West—have the greater share of the world’s goods, while the many have to content themselves with what falls from the rich countries’ table.

Indeed, rich nations, rather than share their technical know-how, resources, technology and other goods, would even take advantage of the poor. They would, for example, not countenance balanced trade relations. John Paul II, in his Sollicitudo rei socialis, emphasizing that imperialism is the cause of deteriorating poverty, points out that rich countries use mechanisms to get the wealth of poorer nations: “One must denounce the existence of economic, financial, and social mechanisms which, although they are manipulated by people, often function almost automatically, thus accentuating the situation of wealth for some and poverty for the rest. These mechanisms, which are maneuvered directly or indirectly by the more developed countries, by their very functioning favor the interests of the people manipulating them. But in the end, they suffocate or condition the economies of the less developed countries” (n 16).

It has been noted by many scholars that the Gospel today has Eucharistic overtones. One, of course, does not have quarrel with that interpretation. The fact that the wording in v 19 (“He took the five loaves and two fish, looked up to heaven, blessed and broke them, and gave the loaves to the disciples”) recalls the words of Institution is an indication of its Eucharistic allusion. But if this means anything, it is that a correct understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist must take into account the problem of hunger.*

Thursday, July 21, 2011

As Christians, What Should Be Our All-Consuming Passion in Life?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Seventeenth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 13:44-52, July 24, 2011

A few years back, when the World Cup tournament was held in Seoul, one thing that no visitor could have failed to notice was the ubiquity of the elliptical logo of South Korea’s largest company: Samsung. According to Brad Stone who described it in his Time article “Samsung in Bloom,” its liquid-crystal-display TVs dotted public parks, drawing hundreds of soccer fans to watch the game during the tournament. Everywhere, billboard after billboard featured its latest gadget. Why so? Samsung execs’ goal was to triple their $24.4B in worldwide revenues and to surpass Sony, which was making billions of dollars. At a time when most companies were trying to stay afloat amid a slumping market and sluggish economy, Stone said that this was a bold goal, but this was backed by a $50M US advertising campaign during that time. In its effort to make its logo recognizable instantly in the US, it spent $15M to sponsor the Winter Olympics. Indeed, one is not mistaken in saying that its execs were trying to use all their means to present Samsung the most valuable brand so that consumers at home and abroad will, according to Stone, think “wow” instead of “cheapo knockoff electronic brand.”

If the engrossing passion of the Samsung execs’ was to unseat Sony, what is supposed to be the all-consuming concern of the Christian community? For Matthew, of value so supreme that the Christian community must prefer it above all else is the Kingdom of God. But what is this Kingdom that should be the focus of our Christian life? There are various ways of describing it, but as we noted a few times before, if we wish to come to a knowledge of it, the shortest way is to understanding the meaning of the Lord’s Prayer. After all, it is a prayer for its coming. According to the “Our Father,” the kingdom is a community in which all women and men composing it live in fraternal love and unity under the fatherhood of God. Instead of pursuing their own plans, they do the will of God in the same way that it is done in heaven. In this community, all human hunger—for truth, for food, for love, for knowledge, etc.—is satisfied. It is a community of forgiveness and love, freed from all forms of evil. Since this is the only reality that can fulfill and satisfy our longings, today’s Gospel compares it with a hidden treasure or a fine pearl. As nothing can compare the happiness it will bring once we become part of it, or once it becomes our possession, the parable exhorts us to find it.

While that is how the Gospel parables view the Kingdom of God, not all Christians have that perception, or even if all do, many certainly are not convinced of it in practice. Although it is the most valuable reality, people seem to give a different weight to its value. If newspapers’ headlines are any indication of what seems to be of supreme importance to most people, it is certainly the filthy lucre. Some time ago, so much fuss was made of US Ambassador’s statement that corruption was widespread in the Philippine government, but, even to date, that is not far from the truth. As Emmanuel de Dios, in “Corruption and Fall,” Between Fires: Fifteen Perspectives on the Estrada Crisis, has noted, it is lamented but also countenanced as a fact of life. And at the bottom of it all is wealth acquisition. Says Egmidio Dacanay in an article in Kilosbayan: “For over half a century now, we have witnessed generations of politicians making service in government a vehicle for personal material aggrandizement at the expense of the vast majority who are denied their just share from the bounty of the land, remaining ill equipped to fend for their rights and becoming tools (by ignorance or extreme need) of their own exploitation. A culture of avarice has evolved in our land. Acquisition of wealth by foul means is accepted with apparent tolerance.” In other words, money is the most valuable thing, and many people really ran after it, believing that having plenty of it will assure them comfort, contentment and happiness.

If many people consider money as the most important value in life, and not the kingdom of God, it is because God’s reign is hidden from them, like a buried treasure. It is shrouded from their minds and eyes: “Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it so much dawned on man what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2:9). Precisely because the kingdom, even though the highest good, is concealed from them, these people are content with lesser things, and for want of anything better, consider money and wealth the best. In order to recognize the incomparable value of the kingdom, one needs wisdom from above. The 1st Reading gives us an example of a man who was given such wisdom—Solomon. Said the king: “Give your servant an understanding heart to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong. For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?” (1 Kgs 3:9). Because of his wisdom, Solomon saw what was most precious: “The law of your mouth is to me more precious than thousands of gold and silver pieces…. For I love your command more than gold, however fine” (Responsorial Psalm). Only with this kind of wisdom will the Christian be able to know that the most important is not a wealthy, successful and comfortable life, but the community that Jesus wanted us to establish—the Kingdom of God.

Of course, the man who receives such wisdom is necessarily a spiritual man. As St Paul puts it: “The natural man does not accept what is taught by the Spirit of God. For him, that is absurdity. He cannot come to know such teaching because it must be appraised in a spiritual way. The spiritual man, on the other hand, can appraise everything, though he himself can be appraised by no one. For, who has known the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him? But we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:14-16). Understandably enough, people like St Francis of Assisi abandoned wealth and inheritance in favor of a life of poverty. They are able to recognize the folly of wealth, though many mortals could kill if only to amass it. One who has acquired the wisdom and mind of Christ counts as rubbish anything but the Kingdom of God. What St Paul said of his life in the Jewish law equally applies to wealth and other possessions that many of us, who are not yet spiritual men, and therefore who lack wisdom, continue to cherish: “But those things I used to consider gain I have now reappraised as loss in the light of Christ. I have come to rate all as loss in the light of the surpassing knowledge of my Lord Jesus Christ. For his sake I have forfeited everything. I have counted all else as rubbish, so that Christ may be my wealth” (Phil 3:7-8). *

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Forbearance in the Kingdom of God and in the Church

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Sixteenth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 13:24-43, July 17, 2011

No sooner had former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo seated herself in Malacañang than rumors, agitations, and even recruitments for mass actions, to dislodge her have abounded. The most scary came when the lumpenproletariat and the shirtless, reportedly on orders from political leaders, stormed Malacañang on May 1, 2001—and failed—in a desperate attempt to grab power on the excuse that the government neglected the concerns of the poor. She was the barely three months on her seat. In the months that followed, People Power IV became a mantra for several people wishing to change the political leadership. The same is true of P-Noy’s Presidency. He has barely finished his first year in office, but his rating has already plummeted; people feel nothing has changed for the better. Despite his anti-corruption agenda and “Tuwid na Daan” slogan, not a single case has been filed against the Arroyo government. On the contrary, they claim things are getting worse. Like a fetus being aborted long before it could be viable, the Aquino government is now being vilified for its “KKK” (“Kabarilan, Kaklase, Kakampi”) brand and for its “there’s–nobody-home-in-Malacañang” style of leadership before it could really come to its own shape.

This attitude that shows no tolerance and patience for initial imperfection or error, whether in the government or in the Church, is a theme of today’s Gospel (Matt 13:24-43). We already noted last Sunday that if we wish to know the mind of Jesus concerning the parable, we have to remove the subsequent interpretations given to it by the Church, and merely focus on the one point that the parable makes. In this case, then, we shall confine ourselves to the first part of the Gospel reading (Matt 13:24-30). And to understand this, we have to see its background. At the time of Jesus, there were some Jewish groups that delimited the Jewish community to those who were devout. The Pharisees, for example, viewed as members of the community those who observed purity laws, food tithes and the Sabbath, and did not associate with people who did not keep them, like the tax collectors and those known as sinners. The Qumranites were even more extreme. They considered themselves the true Israel, maintaining ritual purity, ethical probity and spiritual readiness to battle against the sons of darkness, expelling those who could not follow their rigorous ethic.

In protest against these communities, and those who had no patience for human imperfection and sin, Jesus told the parable of the wheat and the weeds. The emphasis of the story is on the forbearance of the farmer. The farmer sowed good seed. At the first stage of growth, the darnel—the weeds—could not be noticed because, being botanically related to wheat, they were indistinguishable from it. When the wheat shoots came up, however, the darnel became visible. The slaves suggested to the farmer to pull out the darnel, but the latter refused because the roots of the darnel have become intertwined with those of the wheat so that one cannot uproot the one without endangering the other. Rather, he told them to wait until reaping time: “If you pull the weeds [darnel] you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest” (Matt 13:29b-30a). When harvest comes, that would be the appropriate time to separate the wheat from the darnel—the latter would be bundled for fuel while the former would be gathered into barns.

What is the meaning of the point of the parable? When confronted with evil, people usually do one of two alternatives. The first one is to flee from what they perceive as evil. Sects usually begin this way. They perceive that the society they live in is under the power of darkness, and so they create their own community that embodies the very goodness of God. This is what the Qumranites did. Having condemned the Jewish society as evil, they established a community near the Dead Sea. It was their intention to make their community the earthly counterpart of God’s Kingdom in the heavens. Of course, most of us do not behave this way. But while we do not make our own hermitage, we do flee from people whom we consider a liability to society by refusing to associate with them. At other times, we do confine them to a place far removed from what we consider the civil society—we may not imprison them, but prisoners are nearly their equivalent. The other alternative is to liquidate them. Since they were perceived to be the cause of the German defeat in the World War I, Hitler tried to exterminate the Jews. Josef Stalin, we know from the revelations of Nikita Kruschev, eliminated his enemies, real or imagined. In a past issue of Time magazine, we are told by Phil Zabriskie (“The Punisher,”) that Davao is “an oasis of peace in the middle of Philippines’ lush center of chaos” because kidnappers, bandits, communist rebels, drug pushers and other undesirables are made to disappear. It is almost on the same principle that certain people would engineer to unseat the present national leadership.

The point of the parable, however, has nothing to do with these alternatives. Rather, it counsels tolerance and forbearance. And this should be true of the Church, the seed of God’s Kingdom. The Christian community is a mixed bag of saints and sinners, and that has to be accepted. There should be no attempt to weed sinners out. Believers must be patient with them. For one thing, God alone knows what is hidden and what is in the heart of each one. We cannot play God. For another, like life, people are not that simple. The line that divides the good from the bad is so thin that most likely an effort to separate the one from the other will backfire. Today, certain people would like to see the Church purged of pedophile priests. That might be a logical thing to do, and the recourse that one must do to avoid entanglement with the law. But for a man of faith, it may not always be the evangelical decision to make. If faith can move mountains, it can also transform a darnel into wheat! In his book, Priesthood Imperiled, Bernard Haring tells of a priest who was sent to prison for perjury. During his incarceration, he became an apostle to his fellow prisoners. Later, his Bishop gave him a pastorate abroad in full recognition of the transformation that happened to him. In his new assignment, the parishioners—who did not know of his past—were thankful that they were given a saintly pastor.*

Friday, July 8, 2011

Will the Kingdom of God that Jesus Preached ever Come?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifteenth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 13:1-9, July 10, 2011

When Luis Chavit Singson exploded the political bombshell more than a decade ago, accusing Joseph Ejercito Estrada of taking bribes from illegal gambling (jueteng) and tobacco excise tax, no one could have foreseen, least of all Estrada himself, that his presidency would end in ignominy. After all the citadel of his popularity seemed impregnable, the support of the urban poor bordered on fanaticism, the house of representatives was under his control, and he had the numbers in the senate. Indeed, not a few treated Singson’s disclosure was no more than a quarrel over turf. When former Sen. Teofisto Guingona accused Estrada in a privilege speech that prompted an investigation by the blue ribbon committee, many thought it was but another political exercise that would end nowhere, as in many of such investigations. Even the impeachment trial at the senate was viewed with skepticism. It being a political trial, Estrada had the certainty of being acquitted. But the fall-out from Singson’s revelation triggered a chain of events—however wary one was about them—leading to a bewildering conclusion that left political analysts standing agape. Estrada was whisked from office in a manner no one anticipated. At 2:30 PM of February 20, 200l, Estrada was flushed out of Malacañang, minutes before the crowd of anti-Erap rioters from Edsa could storm the presidential palace.

If initially no one ever thought that the Estrada presidency would end in the way it did, so probably no one among Jesus’ hearers believed that the word of the Kingdom, which he had been preaching, would ever succeed. This is the point of the parable of the sower, as Jesus told it. To see this point, we have to remove the allegorical interpretations that have been added by Matthew’s community to the story, considering that the original parable had only one point. If we are to discover Jesus’ intention, then, we have to limit ourselves to the earlier version of the parable (Matt 13:3-9). Although it is traditional to call it the parable of the sower, it is more descriptive of the story to title it as the parable of the seeds, for it is really about the seeds and their respective yield rather than the farmer or sower. Jesus told it in the context of the opposition to his ministry by the Jewish leaders and authorities. Many Jews rejected his preaching. Despite his sending of the apostles, very few believed in him and were converted. Would the proclamation of the word wind up with the establishment of the Kingdom of God that Jesus had been talking about? Many of his hearers, and probably even his disciples, were unconvinced that the kingdom would succeed.

It is in answer to this skepticism that Jesus told this parable. He drew his listeners’ attention to what happens when a farmer sows seeds. In Palestine, a farmer usually brings his sack of seeds to the field, where he liberally scatters them before plowing. Naturally, many of these do not reach maturity, because some are picked up by birds, others fall on rocky ground, still others find themselves among thorns. These bring no yield. But this does not cause him to be discouraged. Despite these failures, the farmer is confident that the seeds that grow on good soil will eventually yield a good harvest. Similarly, the preaching of the Kingdom may be frustrated. Indeed, many of the Jews did not heed Jesus; in fact, some of them brought him to the cross. For all his effort to bring them to conversion, their response proved to be disappointing. But Jesus was confident that with the few people who really heard his word and acted upon it (Matt 7:21), the Kingdom of God would become a reality.

What happened to the seeds—the coming of the Kingdom would be like that. Sometimes, people ask: Jesus came to establish the Kingdom, but after two thousand years, where can we find it? Where can we experience this reign of love and peace, of communion and justice? Have the First World countries shared their wealth with the Third World countries? The parable seems to say that the Kingdom of God cannot come instantly. Even as it develops, it undergoes various reverses. Take, for example, the search for peace. Probably there has never been a century that has not been marked by conflicts and wars among nations. And almost every effort at establishing peace knows its own setbacks. There have been many backward movements in the Mideast process, for example. And yet, we can point that it is only in the twentieth century that we can speak of a community of nations. It is only in this century that we can talk about the global village, of the consciousness that we are all one family. The road to such consciousness has suffered many upsets, of course, but who can argue that it is not a big stride? Surely, the Kingdom of God is in the process of being realized, for all the failures it has suffered. Dictatorships may recur, human rights may be abused, oppressive regimes may be established, but the Kingdom will surely dislodge them!

It is interesting to note, however, that the parable ends by saying that the seed that flourished brought forth a marvelous harvest—some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold, others hundred-fold (Matt 13:8). It has been noted that this does not reflect the ordinary experience of a farmer in Palestine, for a normal return for a bushel of seed would any anywhere between seven and a half, and a return of ten bushels could be considered a good one. Thus, the hundred-fold harvest could be a fantastic one! But if this is correct, there would be a further assertion about the Kingdom. Since God alone can bring such a hundred-fold harvest, the marvelous yield is meant to indicate that the dawning of the Kingdom is ultimately God’s work! Of course, many scholars would disagree with this interpretation, by noting for example that there is nothing extraordinary about the hundred-fold harvest. Still, this interpretation is still consistent with the Gospel data about the coming of the Kingdom—it does not really depend on man’s effort in order to flourish and succeed, even though it is vital to the Kingdom. It is, in the end, a supernatural action. God alone brings about the triumph of the Kingdom—in a manner, as in the unseating of former President Estrada, no one envisages and in a way that is beyond human control or effort.