Thursday, October 27, 2011

What Was Jesus' Vision for His Church?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-First Sunday of Year A, Matthew 23:1-12, October 30, 2011

IN FACE OF TODAY'S global terrorism, greed without moderation, spiraling cost of electric power, frequent kidnappings and proliferation of illegal drugs, hoodlums in robes, pandemic corruption and other gargantuan problems, how is one to envision the country that Filipinos can live in with dignity? It might be recalled that former President Macapagal-Arroyo, in her State of the Nation Address, described the vision of her administration in terms of a “strong republic, ” and by this she meant one that “takes care of the people and takes care of their future,” built on the foundation of “citizens with rewarding jobs paying decent wages.” To build the foundation, she would generate investments and jobs by addressing the problems of graft and corruption, peace and order, and high power rates. In an editorial, “Small steps,” that treated of the President’s SONA, the PDI writer observed that these working agenda were a little more than reflex reactions to major problems identified by businessmen and independent observers. He faulted the administration for being unable “to see any problems unless others point them out. No wonder, it cannot offer any fresh insights into what ails the nation.” However much one agrees with the editorialist’s critique, one cannot dispute that what we envision for the future of our country is a reflex reaction to what we identify as inconsistent with what a republic ought to be.

Today’s Gospel hardly qualifies as a State of the Community Address, but there is no doubt that like the SONA of former President Arroyo, it provides us a glimpse of how Jesus and the early Church envisioned the Christian community. If Arroyo saw the republic against the current problems, so Matthew’s portrayal of the Christian community uses as foil what is perceived to be the imperfections of Judaism known to his community. In particular, he outlines practices of the Judaism of the Pharisees and scribes that have no place in the community. (Of course, it must be admitted that from the point of view of biblical scholarship, this description of the Judaism of the Pharisees must be seen as a caricature. but can be maintained, being too real in our experience, as a portrait of what the community ought not to be.) These practices are contained in the three woes. The Jesus of Matthew accused the Pharisees and the scribes of separating their religious belief from everyday life: “Their words are bold, but their deeds are few. They bind up heavy loads, hard to carry, to lay on men’s shoulders, while they themselves will not lift a finger to budge them” (Matt 23:4). He accused them of ostentation: “All their works are performed to bed seen. They widen their phylacteries and wear huge tassels” (Matt 23:5). Finally, he accused them of seeking first places in the assembly, and honor in society: “They are fond of places of honor at banquets and front seats in synagogues, of marks of respect in public and of being called Rabbi” (Matt 23:6). For Matthew, these practices veer away from the nature of a true people of God. They are religious aberrations.

What, then, ought to exist in a true community of God? For Matthew, religious practices must flow from a correct understanding of the nature of the community. The Christian community ought to be a family of God—it is a community under the fatherhood of God, and no one can exercise that role: “Do not call anyone on earth your father. Only one is your father, the One in heaven” (Matt 23:9). One implication of this description is that the family is a brotherhood and sisterhood of women and men. This means that the community is not to be seen as primarily an institution that stresses organization and structures. On the contrary, what seems to be important is the relationship within the community. Because God alone is father, all the rest are brothers and sisters to one another. As such, it can be described as a fraternity or sorority of equals, since all members form one body in which they share the same dignity. They may be numerous, but the fatherhood of God makes them one family, and their being all children of the same God establishes equality in dignity.

Which is why St Paul describes the Christian community as a family of co-equals: “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave of freeman, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). Differences in nationality, social status, and gender can create social tension, but because Christians have been born in baptism, and incorporated into Christ, their belonging to the body overcomes these tensions. Vatican II seems to echo this self-understanding when it speaks of the Church’s mission: “By virtue of her mission to shed on the whole world the radiance of the gospel message, and to unify under one Spirit all men of whatever nation, race or culture, the Church stands forth as a sign of that brotherliness which allows honest dialogue and invigorates it. Such a mission requires in the first place that we foster within the Church herself mutual esteem, reverence, and harmony, through the full recognition of lawful diversity. Thus all those who compose the People of God, both pastors and the general faithful, can engage in dialogue with ever abounding fruitfulness. For the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything which divides them” (Gaudium et spes, 92).

In place of these polarities and tensions, what ought to characterize the Christian community is service: “The greatest among you will be the one who serves the rest. Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, but whoever humbles himself shall be exalted” (Matt 23:11-12). Of course, Jesus himself is the model of service. Referring to himself on the issue of authority and power, Jesus said: “Such is the case with the Son of Man who has come not to be served, but to serve, to give his own life as a ransom for the many” (Matt 20:28). This self-understanding of the Christian community is enshrined at the Second Vatican Council: “Inspired by no earthly ambition, the Church seeks but a solitary goal: to carry forward the work of Christ Himself under the lead of the befriending Spirit. And Christ entered this world to give witness to the truth, to rescue and not to sit in judgment, to serve and not to be served” (Gaudium et spes, 3). In this understanding, the community is encouraged to look beyond its internal affairs, to be involved in making the world a better place to live in by proclaiming, through its life of service, Jesus’ vision of the Kingdom of God where there is peace, justice and forgiveness.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Life Is Not Really About Laws and Lawyers--It Is About Loving People

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirtieth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 22:34-40, October 23, 2011

Probably the most intellectually entertaining show that was ever presented on Philippine television, rivaling telenovelas in its crowd-drawing power, was the Impeachment Trial of former President Joseph Ejercito Estrada. For the first time the majority of the Filipinos were introduced to the best world of Filipino lawyers who not only explored new grounds of jurisprudence, but also had a field day of demonstrating their intelligence, prowess, legal tricks and tactics.

At the same time, however, it left many ordinary mortals disturbed. For them, the mountain of evidence uncovered by the prosecutors and presented by witnesses was enough to convince them about the truth of the charges. Obviously, it was difficult for them to understand that truth was served by the thrust of the defense lawyers to block evidence on the ground of irrelevance and immateriality. It was easier for them, for example, to go with Aquilino Pimentel who declared, “I vote to open the second envelope… because that is the only way to determine whether or not the contents are relevant or material to the case at bar.” But Francisco Tatad’s view, echoing the argument of Atty Estelito Mendoza, and repeated in his book, A Nation on Fire, that he refused the opening of the second envelope on the ground that the charge against Estrada was not part of the complaint verified by the House did not make sense to them! Given the arguments and counter-arguments and the various interpretations that were aired, however, the ordinary person could only wonder how complicated a society would be if it were governed only by law and lawyers! Could law be simplified enough so that it could be a real guide to all to true life, not a labyrinth where people—the majority of them—could be lost?

The background of today’s Gospel is somehow similar to this. At the time of Jesus, the Jewish fundamental law was the Torah or the five books of Moses which, according to Jewish scholars, contain 613 precepts, of which 248 are positive commandments, the rest being prohibitions. But because these laws needed to be applied to particular situations, Jewish scholars developed other laws, which became known as Halakah, in much the same way that Congress has to apply the Philippine Constitution to particular situation and age through enactment of laws. But when one considers that provinces, municipalities, and barangays also pass laws and ordinances in order to apply the fundamental law in the concrete circumstances of the people’s life, one can only imagine the mountain of laws that he must observe as a good Filipino citizen! At the same time, one must admit that there are few mortals like Joker Arroyo or Estelito Mendoza, just as in Jesus’ time, many people were not as knowledgeable about laws as the Scribes and the Pharisees. Given the plethora of laws to be observed, the Jews needed to know what is central to the precepts and prohibitions so that by observing it, they would not have to bother about the overdevelopment of minor laws in order to be good Jews.

That seems to be the context of the question that a lawyer posed to Jesus in today’s Gospel: “What commandment of the law is the greatest?” (Matt 22:36). Out of the 613 commandments (mind you, not 10 commandments) of God, Jesus cited two. The first one comes from the heart of the Shema, which is an ancient Hebrew prayer lifted from the historical prologue to the Deuteronomic Code: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord alone! Therefore you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut 6:5). The second comes from the Code of Holiness: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). For Jesus, these two are the most central commandments in the 613 laws of God found in the Torah. What Jesus introduced to his listeners, however, is not the combination of these two. In fact, we already find this in, for example, the Testament of Issachar: “But love the Lord and your neighbor, and show compassion for the poor and the weak” (T.Issac 5:2). What is new here is the view that both commands are on equal plane: “the second is like it” (Matt 22:39a). The second is similar to the first in theological depth, and there is an interrelationship between them. That is to say, although love of God comes first, yet there is no true love of God that is not incarnated in the love of neighbor. The proof that we love God lies in our love for our neighbor. This in a way is reflected in John: “If anyone says, ‘My love is fixed on God,’ yet hates his brother is a liar. One who has no love for the brother he has seen cannot love the God he has not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: whoever loves God must also love his brother” (1 John 4:20-21).

What’s the point we are driving at? Law in Judaism at the time of Jesus has become a complicated phenomenon, with various groups making their own interpretation of the laws of God, a complication that is not without some similarities in what the Filipino people witnessed during the Impeachment Trial of Estrada. And as already noted, the average Filipino might not be able to follow the finer points of law, whose distinctions could be perceived easily only by the likes of Joker Arroyo or Estelito Mendoza. Jesus’ audience, on the other hand, never had the sophistication of the Scribes and Pharisees, for it was a popular and simple one. Understandably enough, since it was his purpose that the law of God could be easily understood and followed by the common people, Jesus taught them what was so central so that by obeying it, they were assured that they have already followed the whole law. And what is so central is love. That is God’s will for man. In other words, for Jesus, anyone who loves God in his neighbor has fulfilled the whole law. Hence, the additional comment of Jesus to what we find in the Gospel of Mark: “On these two commandments the whole law is based, and the prophets as well” (Matt 22:40). What does this imply? In being Christian, what counts, in the ultimate analysis, is life. But life is not all about laws, and it is too preciously to be placed in the hands only of lawyers. Before anything else, life is about love, and that life is meaningful if it embodies a love of God that is incarnated in the love of neighbor, in the love of others. No wonder, St Augustine could say, “Love, and do what you will.” Obviously, when a person loves, he fulfills what is most necessarily in life, and love is possible for any person, simple or not, even if he does not have the sophistication of an Estelito Mendoza or a Pharisee. After all, the best lawyer is not necessarily the good Christian; but a lover qua Christian lover surely is.*

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Should Our Country Be Placed No Longer Under God, But Only Under Judges and Lawyers?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Ninth Sunday Of Year A, Matthew 22:15-21, October 16, 2011

WHICH THINGS ARE God’s? If the decision of the judges of a federal appeals court that ruled a few years ago that the US Pledge of Allegiance vowing fealty to one nation “under God” is unconstitutional—since this violates the basic constitutional tenet of separation of church and state—is to be followed to its logical conclusion, only our private life belongs to God. Writing to the Newsweek editor, April Collins seems to share this view: “Please take God out of Inaugurations and out of the Pledge of Allegiance. People who use it and insist on keeping it are juvenile. America was not founded on God. I’m Roman Catholic and still believe that as a 6-year-old in school—whether I happen to be Buddhist or a Native American whose God is a bird, or I believe in a rock—I should not be forced to say God. Ours is a country of many religions. Let’s keep church and state separate and keep God out of it all. Belief belongs in the home or church, not in the state or government or school. Religion is private, and this is a free country—let’s keep it free.”

That God or religion should be confined to private life cannot, however, be accepted in the life of anyone who professes himself to be Christian. For one thing, the idea that God should be kept out of the state contradicts what the Sacred Scripture itself teaches in the Gospel today: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, give God what is God’s (Matt 22:21). To understand this saying, it may be helpful to recall that at the time of Jesus, Israel was under Roman rule. And just as the Filipinos never relished being under the Japanese during the Second World War, the Jews hated the Romans. Of course, the Pharisees accepted the Roman occupation, and true to their ideology, counseled submission to it. The Herodians were obviously supporters of Herod who governed Palestine under the auspices of the Roman Emperor. In today’s pericope, we are told that these two groups wanted to put Jesus in a dilemma by asking him: “Is it lawful to pay tax to the Emperor or not?” (Matt 21:17). The dilemma was this: should he tell them it was all right to pay tax to the Emperor, Jesus would certainly be ostracized by the common people to hated the Roman tribute as a symbol of political and economic subjugation. But should he answer that it was not right to do so, the Pharisees and the Herodians would certainly brand him an anti-Roman, if not a revolutionary.

Jesus’ answer to the trap, as already noted, was to give Ceasar what was his, and to give God what belongs to him. And it being a trap, the course to take is to escape it, and that is what Jesus, wise as he was, exactly did. He got away from their trap by putting the burden of the question on the Herodians and the Pharisees themselves! Knowing that the tax was paid in Roman currency, he asked for a Roman coin, and raised the question: “Whose head is this, whose inscription?” (Matt 22:20). Scholars surmise that the coin probably showed the head of the Emperor with the inscription “Tiberius Caesar, Son of the Divine Augustus, High Priest.” What was Jesus’ purpose in asking for a coin? It must be stressed that then Ten Commandments explicitly prohibit graven images, like the image of the emperor on the coin (Exod 20:4). Consequently, by demanding that he be shown a coin, he was subtly accusing the emissaries of the Pharisees and the Herodians that they were violating the commandment of God, because they brought with them a graven image, the image of a pagan high priest, to the holy land. Yet, never did the Pharisees or the Herodians protest against it. But if they never gave a hoot about that flagrant transgression, why would it bother them to pay tax to Caesar? In other words, by answering that they give to Caesar what is his (Matt 22:21b), Jesus was cleverly saying that since you have already violated God’s commandment, why worry about whether paying taxes is against God’s will or not?

In truth, though, Jesus must have, in the context of his theology of the kingdom of God, thought that paying tribute to Caesar was against God’s will. It must be noted that one of the revered beliefs in Judaism is God’s ownership of the land of Israel: “The land shall not be sold in perpetuity, for the land is mine, and you are but aliens who have become my tenants” (Lev 25:23). That the Roman Emperor occupied Israel, the Jews understandably regarded it as usurpation, and since there seems to be no evidence that Jesus rejected that belief, it is most likely that he thought of it like an ordinary Jew did—it was not according to God’s will to recognize the authority of the Emperor. Of course, Jesus did not say it; or he would have fallen into the trap, but that is exactly the meaning of the punch line of the second segment of the saying: “Give to God what is God’s” (Matt 22:21). In Jewish thought—and there seems to be no evidence that Jesus departed from it—there is really nothing that belongs to Caesar that does not belong to God, including political power. For a Jew, all power comes from God, and if anyone, like the Emperor, exercises it, it is because God permits it (Rom 13:1b). But it was clear to the Jews that it was not his will that the Emperor should put Israel under his rule, because God called Israel to freedom. Therefore, that the Roman should oppress, disenfranchise, alienate and discriminate them, and violate their rights—that could not have been legitimized, for they opposed God’s call to liberty and freedom.

What, then, is due to God? Everything. There is no sphere of life that can be claimed as an exclusive domain of the state. The state, any state, belongs to God, and state power can be said to be legitimate only if it does not oppose God’s call to liberty and freedom. The idea, in other words, that the realm of God should be confined merely to private life or to the sacristy and the rectory can be grounded only on a misunderstanding of what it means to believe in a God who cares for the salvation of the world. Which is why, one can understand the reaction of US leaders to the decision of the federal court regarding the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. For the decision does not simply touch on the freedom of expression, pace the claim of Daan Schoemaker of Amsterdam in his letter to the editor (Newsweek). It has to do with one’s and the nation’s world view. In fact, by confining God only to private life, the decision of the federal court virtually placed the nation not under God but under the lawyers and judges—which is what the title of a lead article in Newsweek is all about: “One Nation Under Judges”. In effect, law and lawyers have substituted God!

Friday, October 7, 2011

Unworthy of the Gift?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Eighth Sunday of Year A, Matthew 22:1-14, October 9, 2011

When Joseph Ejercito Estrada ran for President, his critics and opponents scoffed at him, calling him a womanizer, gambler and drinker. But he proved to be a Teflon. The criticism that he was ill-prepared for the office, that his intellect would not grasp the intricate work of the presidency, that his morals would demean the office—nothing of course stuck. After all, it was reasoned that the country had had enough of presidents who were well-educated and yet were not able to bring the poor out of the quagmire of poverty. As for having several mistresses, people took it as a private affair that has nothing to do with the office. If he was ill-qualified, he could simply seek the advice of scholars and experts in the field. On the other hand, they perceived him as the candidate who would make good of his promise. Erap para sa mahirap was a slogan that brought almost eternal hope. No wonder he scored high in surveys. And when election time came, he obtained 10.7 million votes against the 4.3 million of his closest rival, Jose de Venecia. After more than 2 years in the office, however, the hope of the people was not transformed into reality. As the impeachment trial revealed, he enriched himself in office through bribery and corruption; almost nothing was done to really uplift the condition of the poor; he did not devote much time and energy to his office; he continued his drinking with the midnight cabinet; and he had little work ethic. Though people overlooked his faults and deficiencies and gifted him with the Presidency, Estrada did not act in a way he was supposed to as chief executive. Found wanting, he was booted out from office.

A similar lesson is taught in today’s Gospel: The Kingdom of God is a gift. Though we did not deserve it, God offered it to us. But we have to make a response. As recipient of the gift, we need to live a kind of life that the gift demands. Let us first describe the gift. Actually, it is difficult to describe the Kingdom. Since it partakes of the nature of God, it is therefore mysterious. No wonder, the Bible often resorts to images to capture some of its aspects, and an image that is frequently used, as in today’s Gospel and in the First Reading, is the image of a banquet. In the First Reading, Isaiah depicts it as a messianic banquet on mount Zion, the figure of the new Jerusalem, in which people no longer suffer hunger and want nor endure suffering and death. On the contrary, they experience a fullness of joy and gladness, peace and reconciliation, for it is none other than the life of God himself. Thus Isaiah: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines. On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is woven over all nations; he will destroy death forever (Isa 25:6-7).

But how are we to experience this life of God? As already noted—and this is what the parable stresses—this life in the Kingdom is a gift, sheer gift, from God. People are merely invited to it. As we saw in the commentary last Sunday, God called Israel to it, and to take care of it. That is why he sent his prophets and, ultimately, his Son, to remind her to respond to the invitation. In today’s Gospel, the invitation was issued to the leaders of Israel, because they were entrusted with the duty of shepherding God’s people. In the story, it is the invited guests who represented them (Matt 22:3). However, instead of welcoming the invitation, they rejected it and even did violence to the messengers, the prophets, sent. To punish them, the king destroyed the murderers and burned their city. Here, Matthew seems to suggest that if the city of Jerusalem was burned down by Roman soldiers, it was because the leaders of Israel murdered God’s messenger and rejected the offer of the Kingdom of God.

With the refusal by the leaders of Israel, those who were outside the respectable Judaism like the tax collectors, the sinners, and the Gentiles, received the invitation instead and accepted it. No doubt, Matthew here is trying to explain why in his Christian community there were tax collectors, sinners and Gentiles. It is also possible that Matthew is making an apologia for the mixed membership in his community—Jews and Gentiles, sinners and saints. But an even more important point that Matthew tries to bring across is this. To be invited to the Kingdom of God is just a first step in the process of salvation. A more significant question for those of us who have been invited is whether we make the appropriate response to the invitation. Thus, in the parable, the King went to the banquet hall to see whether the invited guests wore garments that were appropriate to the occasion (Matt 22:11-12). To understand the meaning of the wedding garment, it is best to see its usage in the Bible. In Isaiah, it is connected with justice and salvation: “For he has clothed me with the robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice” (Isa 61:10b). In John, it has reference to good deeds (Rev 19:8-9) and upright life (Rev 3:18). For Paul, it means equality and unity (Gal 2:22-27). These few biblical references make it clear that by garment is meant a new life, one that matches the new status that God has called the person or community to. For this reason, if sinners are invited, the appropriate response is obviously to change their sinful life and embrace the values of the Kingdom of God.

That is the point of the parable of the wedding banquet in the Gospel today (Matt 22:1-14). Out of his goodness, God called us to the Kingdom of God, his pure gift that we do not deserve. And we are to be thankful for it. But it is not enough to receive it. Along with the reception comes the responsibility that the gift demands. Once we are remiss with the responsibility, God could treat us in the way the King in the parable did the man who had no appropriate clothes—he was whisked off from the banquet (Matt 22:13), in much the same way that Joseph Ejercito Estrada was booted from office because his way of life did not match the demands of the presidency. The parable is thus a parable of judgment. And so, like the parable last Sunday, this one also calls for our self-examination as Christians who were called to a new life. For it happens that for many Christians, it is enough that they have been baptized, that they have been accepted to the Christian community. However, to fulfill their promise to renounce Satan and all his works, to be transformed by the word of the Gospel, to engage in the work of justice and peace—it is not infrequent that Christians forget to do these and similar demands of their faith. It is time therefore that we do not forget the saying, “the invited are many, the elect are few” (Matt 22:14) to warn us of the divine judgment once we fail to live according to the values of the Kingdom of God.