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.

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