Wednesday, August 24, 2011

What Does It Mean to Follow Jesus?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Second Sunday of Year A, Matthew 16:21-27, August 28, 2011

Almost a decade ago, June 19, 2002 to be exact, even as then US President George Bush prepared to make a major Mideast policy statement, an Islamic extremist detonated nail-studded explosives in a Jerusalem city bus crowded with students and office workers, killing himself and 19 passengers, injuring 55 people, sending bodies flying through the windows and peeling off the roof and sides. This was the deadliest attack in Jerusalem since February 25, 1996 when 26 people were killed in a bus explosion. According to the report of the Associated Press, Hamas, an Islamic militant group, claimed responsibility for the blast, identifying the assailant as Mohammed al-Ghoul, 22, from the Al Faras refugee camp near the city of Nablus in the West Bank. Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, said that their goal in these suicide attacks was the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as they did not have the power to liberate all Palestine through such attacks, although one remembers that Hamas leaders in the past used to say that their main objective was the destruction of Israel. Anyhow, though one must condemn such form of violence, one can only remark at how relentless Palestinians stick with their goal. They could even sacrifice their lives in pursuit of that objective.

Would that Christians were as relentless in their pursuit of Christian objectives! For it appears that the exercise of our being Christian leaves much to be desired. For some, being Christian means professing the Roman Catholic faith against every effort of born-again Christians to demonstrate how false the Roman Catholic Church is—it is being a catolico cerrado, even though one does not notice how well they exercise their profession of faith. For others, being Christian is identified with doing what the so-called practicing Catholics are supposed to do—go to Mass on Sunday, abstain on Friday, go to confession and receive other sacraments, and die Catholic. This brand of Catholicism, one notices, is often extremely individualistic, without regard for the common aspiration of the community of Christians, like the parish or the diocese. Against this background, one cannot therefore fail to notice what is remarkable with the Hamas! One can only hope that Christians are as unyielding in their enthusiasm for Christian values that the community needs—like peace and justice.

Still, being Christian is more than that—it is more than an ideology to pursue. In today’s Gospel, Matthew outlines for us the basics of discipleship. First of all, it is a profession of Jesus as the Messiah, as was seen in the Gospel last Sunday. But not just any kind of Messiah—he is a crucified Messiah: “From then on Jesus [the Messiah] started to indicate to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly there at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and to be put to death, and raised up on the third day” (Matt 16:21). The first reading gives us a model of what it means to accept the implication of a profession of faith. Jeremiah’s faith in a God who placed his words in his mouth, setting him over nations and kingdoms to root up and to tear down, to destroy and to demolish, to build and to plant (Jer 1:7-10), brought him derision and reproach, making him the object of laughter and mockery (Jer 20:7-8). Similarly, a profession of belief in the messiahship of Jesus entails a living out of that faith in sharing the life and death of the Messiah. Just to make sure that this is not misunderstood, Matthew tells us that when Peter remonstrated Jesus that the Messiah could not suffer and die, tagged him—this man Peter who a moment ago was called blessed—with a harsh appellation, “Satan,” who was trying to make the Messiah trip and fall (Matt 16:22). Matthew seems to portray the apostle Peter as adhering only to a theology of glory and power. That is why Jesus corrected him by offering him a theology of the cross. To profess belief in the messiahship of Jesus is to share in his life and destiny.

How does one share in the life and death of the Messiah? Jesus explained to his followers the practical implications of the theology of the cross: “If a man wishes to come after me, he must deny his very self, take up his cross, and begin to follow in my footsteps” (Matt 16:24). In Filipino popular religiosity, self-denial is sometimes identified with being an ascetic, or engaging in self-flagellation, as is done in some parts of Luzon during Holy Week. Still, one can be an ascetic or a self-flagellant and still remain self-centered. Such a view of self-denial could justify and encourage various forms of oppression. Rather, denying oneself on the one hand implies the affirmation of one’s being a child of God and therefore subordination of his will and desire to God’s will as expressed in the life of Jesus. Obviously, this entails negation of self-centeredness, a complete severance from what people crave after—all forms of self-seeking and self-promotion. It means death to pride, selfishness, and lust for pleasure and power. It means no to self-assertion. On the other hand, it means replacing one’s very “I” with Christ, who alone is the real wealth, all others being counted as rubbish (Phil 3:8b).

In saying that one must take up the cross, Jesus did not mean that this has to be done literally, as do some flagellantes during Holy Week, although it could lead to that. What is meant here is the acceptance of suffering entailed in following Jesus—the rejection and ridicule, opposition and sacrifice of one’s very life, which could literally include carrying the cross and being crucified in it, though today there are other ways of doing this. In following the Lord, one is formed in the pattern of his death. In the words of St Paul, I wish to know “how to share in his sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death” (Phil 3:10). That way, one carries in his body the death of Jesus: “We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; full of doubts, we never despair. We are persecuted but never abandoned; we are struck down but never destroyed. Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying of Jesus so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may be revealed. While we live, we are constantly being delivered to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus may be revealed in our mortal bodies” (2 Cor 4:8-11). This mystery of the cross is likewise reflected in a deutero-Pauline letter; “Even now I find my joy in the suffering I endure for you. In my own flesh I fill up what is lacking in the sufferings of Christ for the sake of his body, the Church” (Col 1:24).

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Do Weak People Have a Place of Leadership in the Church?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-First Sunday of Year A, Matthew 16:13-21, August 21, 2011

Ever since sex scandals rocked the Roman Catholic Church in the United States, the local Church in America has never been the same. Many people believe that pedophilia in the ranks of the clergy diminished their trust in Church leadership. No wonder, efforts have been made to restore confidence. The US Bishops, for example, decided a few years back to bar priest-abusers from any position that requires face-to-face contact with parishioners, removing them from parish work, and in some cases to defrock them entirely. Later on, in a move that was less restrictive than the zero-tolerance policy adopted by the American Bishops, the leaders of the US religious orders decided that sexually abusive priests be kept away from children, but not expelled. The document issued by the Conference of Major Superiors of Men states that “these religious priests or brothers who have molested children or adolescents have broken the bonds of trust invested in them. We feel this hurt deeply.” According to a wire from the Associated Press, victims advocates criticized the document by saying that it gives too much freedom in disciplining guilty priests. Which makes people wonder: why are weak and wounded priests given position of leadership in the Church?

I am not sure if today’s Gospel is of any help. But Roman Catholicism has always read the pericope in terms of Petrine leadership. The story in Matthew, like that of Mark, begins with an opinion poll on how people perceived Jesus. People outside thought that he was John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah or one of the prophets. There was, of course, speculation that he was John the Baptist who returned from the dead (Matt 14:1). Elijah, who went up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11), was expected to return (Mal 3:1.23). People might have also thought that he was Jeremiah, because he relived the prophet’s experience of rejection and suffering. Or, they identified him with the prophets of old (Deut 18:15). It seems, however, that this range of opinion is aimed at providing a foil for the assertion of Peter: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matt 16:17). Peter’s confession of Jesus’ messiahship is given on behalf of the community of disciples. But for Matthew—and this is distinctive of him— this is not simply a personal assessment of Peter. The perception of who Jesus really is does not come from human speculation, but from divine revelation: “Blest are you, Simon son of Jonah! No mere man has revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father” (Matt 16:17). Jesus called him blessed, because God has chosen Peter to be the recipient of this divine revelation.

Precisely because he is the recipient of that revelation, Jesus constituted him the rock of the Church he was to establish by calling him Petros, meaning rock. In the words of Georg Schwaiger, Peter is to guarantee stability and security, permanence and unity. Christ is himself the foundation of the Church, but this foundation appears visibly in Peter. Of course, it has been objected that Peter cannot be identified with rock, for the original Greek gives Petros for Peter and petra for rock. But the problem is only apparent, because in the Aramaic language that Jesus spoke, the distinction does not exist. The Aramaic word for both is simply kepha. This, however, cannot be preserved is a Greek translation, because petra, which is feminine, cannot be applied to Peter. Thus the Protestant scholar Howard Clark Kee: “Peter’s nickname now becomes the basis for a play on words: Peter (Kepha) is to be the rock on which the Church will be built.” Accordingly, in the New Testament, Peter is named first in the post-resurrection list of the Eleven, plays a significant role in the election of Matthias, is a preacher in the Jerusalem church and spokesman for the Christian community, the object of miraculous divine care, and presides at the first council in Jerusalem.

And yet, it may be asked: on the basis of what personal merit was Peter chosen to be the rock? It seems that there was no personal basis at all. Judged from worldly standards, he had no special qualification. Unlike the scribes, he was not a theologian or a scholar of the Torah, he had no special social position nor was he wealthy. On the contrary, if one judges him from his portrayal by Mark, Peter was a man of weak faith and had many failures. Jesus accused him of being on the side of men rather than of God (Mark 8:27-33). He rebuked him for failing to stay and watch. Indeed, Peter denied the Lord, probably even to the point of cursing him (Mark 14:37.71). One wonders then why, despite all these, God chose him to be the honored recipient of the fundamental revelation of Jesus’ messiahship, and why Jesus himself chose him to be the rock. Obviously, “flesh and blood,” the earthly capacities of the weak man that is Peter, are not responsible for the choice. It was simply God’s pleasure. Which reminds us that the secrets of the Kingdom of God are revealed only to the little ones, to the unworthy, out of God’s pleasure: “Father, Lord of heaven and earth, to you I offer praise; for what you have hidden from the learned and the clever you have revealed to merest children. Father, it is true. You have graciously willed it so” (Matt 11:25-26).

If the Church was placed in the hands of Peter who was weak, one wonders why people are scandalized when they discover that Church leaders exhibit some frailness or weakness. Weakness is a part of being Church, precisely because, apart from being divine, it is also human, and also because it is put in the hands of weak, frail people. If the Church is strong, it is because God is, and not because of its strong leaders. Personally, whenever the media exposes the weakness of the Church, I am not scandalized. My faith has not been shaken, because I know the Church is in the hand of God. When the late John Paul II, ending the World Youth Day celebrations in Toronto with a big outdoor Mass, urged the drenched 800,000 to stand by the Roman Catholic Church, not letting “be discouraged by the sins and failings of her members,” he was obviously right. The sex scandals in the US are not the first, nor will they be the last. Indeed, if Christ entrusted the Church to weak and frail leaders, it could only mean that he trust them so much—and he even guaranteed them with his presence until the end of the world (Matt 28:30). There is therefore no reason for me to trust them less than God himself does. If God chooses weak leaders for his Church, it is to show that the Church is his, not men’s; Church leaders are there to serve it, not to dominate God’s people. The Church lives, and remains holy, despite its weak and sinful leaders. Therefore, for a leader, there is no substitute for acceptance of weakness, sinfulness and failures. When a weak, scared and sinful leader trusts himself, he becomes arrogant, a hypocrite, and tries to cover up his weakness, sins and failures by using or even "killing" other members to create the appearance of godliness or aura of holiness around himself. But nothing is hidden that is not made known.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Can Non-Christians Be Saved?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twentieth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 15:21-28, August 14, 2011.

When it comes to the doctrine of salvation, there still seems to be exclusivism in the teaching of many ecclesial bodies and sects. In Isang Pagbubunyag sa Iglesia ni Cristo, the following is claimed by the Church that Manalo founded: “Jesus taught that a person needs to enter into him in order to be saved… In Col 1:18, it says: ‘And he is the head of the body, the church… Christ is the head and the Church is Christ’s body. Whoever enters into Christ, enters into Christ’s head… Therefore, in order for a person to be saved, he must become a member of the Iglesia ni Cristo.” D. Platt’s Counterfeit!, from which the quote was lifted, states that according to the teaching of the Jehovah’s witnesses, only 144,000 will share in the heavenly glory, because this is plainly shown in the Scriptures. If this is true, will the more than two billion people in the world who do not belong to the Iglesia ni Cristo, or who are outside the 144,000, not share in God’s glory? Is one saved exclusively on the basis of the body he enters into, or of a required number? Will it be only on the basis of who are able to get into an island, as in the case of Ruben Ecleo’s PBMA which teaches that only those who come to Dinagat will be saved from the coming cataclysm? What does the Bible really say of salvation of peoples?

The fate of other people, their salvation, was a great concern of the early Church. It was even so crucial not only in the discussion but also in the division of the first Christians. In its early history, Israel did not consider the Gentiles within the purview of salvation. For one thing, there was, as Grelot and Pierron note, scarcely anytime that the existence of Israel as a nation was not threatened, if not ravished, by the Gentile nations, caught as she was in the currents of international politics. If they opposed Israel which was the depository of essential values that pertain to salvation, they thereby set themselves in opposition to God’s plan. For another, the Gentiles represent paganism, idolatry and tyranny. Therefore, in order that Israel would not be contaminated by their pagan and idolatrous worship and tyrannical rule, the Israelites tried to separate themselves from these nations. Indeed, the community of Israel would not even permit Gentiles to become membership (cf Deut 23:2-8). There cannot be any salvation for these pagans. This religious culture seems to be the backdrop of today’s Gospel. When a Canaanite woman came to Jesus so that her daughter, who was tormented by a demon, could be healed, and his disciples told him about it, Jesus replied: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Mark 15:24). In fact, he said to the woman, “It is not right to take the food of the children and throw it to the dogs” (Mark 15:26) “Children”, of course, represents Israel, while “dogs” is a Jewish term of contempt for Gentiles.

But the exile of the Jews to Babylon transformed their view of the Gentiles. In Isaiah, for instance, the prophet envisages a time when nations will come to Jerusalem to learn the law: “Many nations shall come and say: ‘Come, let us climb the Lord’s mountain, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may instruct us in his ways, and we may walk in his paths” (Isa 2:2-3). The nations will be converted, justice will be established, peace will reign and all will worship one God. Thus the first reading: “My salvation is about to come, my justice, about to be revealed. And all foreigners who join themselves to the Lord and becoming his servants—them I will bring to my holy mountain, and make joyful in my house of prayer.. for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isa 56:1.6-7). In this Isaianic tradition, which has a universalist outlook, all will share in the one salvation of God, but of course, this happens through Israel. No wonder, St Paul could write Timothy: “God wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4). This is why, despite the earlier claim that he was sent only to the house of Israel, Jesus expelled the demon from the daughter of the Canaanite (Matt 15:28).

In principle, therefore, all Gentiles can share in the ultimate salvation. And just as Isaiah envisaged that the Gentiles will come to the Lord through Israel, so in the new order, all nations will receive salvation through the new Israel, Jesus himself. “God has not destined us for wrath, but for acquiring salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:9). In the plan of God, then, salvation is not dependent on a required number, or limited to a sect, or to those who can get into an island in time for the great catastrophe. No! All nations are included in God’s plan of salvation in Jesus Christ. This biblical faith is likewise the faith of the Catholic Church. Says the Declaration Dominus Iesus on the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church: “It must therefore be firmly believed as a truth of Catholic faith that the universal salvific will of the One and Triune God is offered and accomplished once for all in the mystery of the incarnation, death and resurrection of the Son of God” (n 14).

But how does a man or woman, Gentile or not, respond to God’s offer of salvation? In today’s Gospel, Matthew tells us that the response of faith is salvific. When the woman insisted, saying, “Please, Lord, even the dogs eat the leavings that fall for their masters’ table,” Jesus told her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your wish will come to pass” And Matthew adds that that very moment, her daughter got better (Matt 15:27-29). By faith of course is not meant simple trust or confidence. Rather, in the words of the same Declaration, it is “by which man freely entrusts his entire self to God, offering the full submission of intellect and will to God who reveals, and freely assenting to the revelation given by him. Faith is a gift of grace: in order to have faith, the grace of God must come first and give assistance, there must also be the interior helps of the Holy Spirit, who moves the heart and converts it to God, who opens the eyes of the mind and gives to everyone joy and ease in assenting to and believing in the truth. The obedience of faith implies acceptance of the truth of Christ’s revelation, guaranteed by God, who is Truth itself: faith is first of all a personal adherence of man to God. At the same time, and inseparably, it is a free assent to the whole truth that God has revealed. Faith, therefore, as a gift of God and as a supernatural virtue infused by him, involves dual adherence: to God who reveals and to the truth which he reveals, out of the trust which one has in him who speaks. Thus, we must believe in no one but God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (n 7).

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Does God Come To Save His People in the Midst of Crisis?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Nineteenth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 14:22-33, August 7, 2011

On the question whether it was enough to rely on the technological revolution without reference to God, the late John Paul II once said: “Christ alone is the cornerstone on which it is possible to build one’s existence. The 20th century often tried to do without reference to Him. It ended by actually building that city against man.” Indeed, there has been much change in man’s attitude to God in the 20th century. Even in this country, the culture tends to do away with the spiritual dimension of life. In the countryside, fifty years ago, once the bell rang for the six o’clock, the whole family gathered in front of their altar to pray the angelus and rosary; and seldom does house construction provide for a family altar. Now, they gather for such primetime dramas as “Amaya” or “Time of My Life” Indeed, how many people really make God the center of their lives? But at the same time, a man of faith asks—why does God allow these things to happen? Why does He not reverse the cultural transformation? Why does he not visibly help those who wish to build brick by brick the city of God within the city of man? Why doesn’t he teach godless men a lesson that they cannot build the city of man without reference to the spiritual dimension of their lives?

It is possible that Elijah raised almost similar questions during his time. Around the middle of the ninth century, BC, God called him for a mission to bring back the people of Israel to true worship, because they had turned their back on Yahweh. Thus, he fearlessly spoke against the proselytizing efforts of the pagan queen Jezebel in the northern kingdom, and defeated her more than 800 prophets at Carmel (1 Kings 18). Since the queen was greatly displeased, Elijah ran for his life. And he felt frustrated that God seemed to have allowed him to battle against Jezebel alone, and that his mission had no success. So, he prayed for death: “This is enough, Lord! Take my life, for I am no better than my fathers” (1 Kgs 19:4b). But as the first reading indicates, it is not that God was absent in his fight against Jezebel; it is simply that he was not present in the way Elijah imagined: “A strong and heavy wind was rending the mountains and crushing rocks before the Lord—but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake—but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake there was fire—but the Lord was not in the fire. After the fire there was a tiny whispering sound” (1 Kgs 19:11-12). Yes, the Lord was present, but in a new way—in a hidden way, as in a tiny whispering sound!

Today’s Gospel conveys almost similar point. The narrative is rather symbolic: the scene of the disciples gathered in a boat is unmistakably a picture of the Church, and the rough waves raised by strong headwinds that tossed the boat could be easily identified with the persecution that the early Church must have experienced. Like the persecutions by Jezebel, the persecutions that the early Church underwent shook the faith of the first Christians, some even giving it up. Others certainly raised questions whether Jesus still cared for them, since in their prayer they felt his absence. It is natural to expect that some would have wondered why Jesus allowed the persecutions to happen. But if the Gospel has anything to teach us, it is that in the direst need of the Church, when everything seems lost, Christ is there present in their midst: “Get hold of yourselves! It is I. Do not be afraid” (Matt 14:27). The saying “it is I” reminds us of Yahweh’s appearances in the Old Testament theophanies, as when God appeared to Moses saying “I am,” assuring him that Yahweh was there to save his people. The point of the Gospel is that Christ does not abandon the Church; when it faces crisis and persecutions, he is always there to save his people.

What is important is that every Church leader or every Christian puts his trust in him. To stress this point, Matthew tells us the story of Peter who asked permission from the Lord to share in his miraculous power, but frightened by the power of the sea, the wind and the waves, became scared, buckled and started sinking. Like that of the disciples in the boat, the scene of Peter eventually collapsing is a picture of every Church leader or Christian who, in the face of crisis, is caught in a conflict between faith and doubt. (It is even probable that this scene anticipates for the reader the later failure of Peter in the passion narrative, when he denied the Lord three times, fearing that he might share in the latter’s fate!) Of course, it is not easy to face persecutions. When the going gets tough, more than toughness is needed to get going—especially when one experiences reversals or setbacks, one after the other, and there is no one to turn to, since the Lord himself seems to be absent or not to care. But like the story of the small whispering sound in the first reading, the story of the Lord coming to Peter indicates that the Lord is with the Christian, though not necessarily in the way the believer expects him to be present. Despite all appearances to the contrary, he does not abandon the Christian in crisis—he is always there to save.

All the Christian needs is trust in his presence, and in his power to save. He is always there with him, watching him in prayer, even as Jesus was at the top of the mountain praying while the disciples were inside the boat (Matt 14:23). When the Christian faces crisis and persecution, Christ does not allow him to disappear, even as Jesus did not allow Peter to sink entirely (Matt 14:31). But it is faith that is decisive, it is faith that saves (Matt 14:32), for faith knows that God cares, despite appearances to the contrary. Which brings to mind the song Footprints in the Sand, a story about a believer who dreamed he was walking with the Lord along the beach. Scenes from his life flashed across the sky, and for each scene, he noticed two sets of footprints in the sand, one belonging to him, the other to the Lord. In a remarkable dialogue, the believer asked: “Lord, you said that once I decided to follow you, you’d walk with me all the way. But I have noticed that during the most troublesome times in my life, there is only one set of footprints. I don’t understand why when I needed you most you would leave me.” But the Lord replied: “My son, my precious child, I love you and I would never leave you. During your times of trial and suffering, when you see only one set of footprints, it was then that I carried you.” Of course, being saved does not always mean being freed from death; it could also mean being saved even in death.