Thursday, November 24, 2011

Our Hope Will Not Leave Us Disappointed

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent, Year B, Mark 13:33-37, November 27, 2011

FROM TIME TO time, we read news items about people who commit suicide—a jilted lover, a bankrupt businessman, or a problem-laden woman. But these are exceptions. We, the majority, go on living despite frequent ups and downs in life. And why do we go on? The reasons are varied, but the most common denominators are future and hope. One person may commit suicide because, in his perception, there is no hope of getting rid of the pain and conflicts save by getting rid of oneself. He longs for rest from conflicts, but he feels he cannot get this in the future. Thus, one takes a dive. However, there is always the desire the go on living as long as there is hope. Hope gives power and strength to life. As long as there is hope and future, no situation is unbearable.

Today, we begin the season of Advent, which is a time of hope. It is a reminder that our religion is one of hope. To be a Christian is to be in joyful hope. Which brings us to the question: Why do we continue to celebrate hope? Of course, if we look at our world and examine its history, we discover much that forces us to question the future. We ask, for instance, if peace is probable in the future, because, if history has anything to tell us, it informs us that wars have been with us since the beginning. Marx is not entirely wrong when he interpreted history in terms of struggle. The ethnic cleaning in some African countries, which recalls similar phenomenon in the former Yugoslavia, the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the Cold War, the Second World War—the list seems endless. One wonders whether man can achieve peace. If this is what one feels about the world, what does a believer feel about his hope that evil will come to an end?

In the First Reading, we read from Isaiah who articulates the feelings of his people about their lot: “For you have hidden your face from me” (Isa 64:6). Do we not sometimes feel, with all the seemingly unending experience of evil, that there is no hope ever that things will change in the future? Who does not feel the seeming absence of God who, it sometimes seems, has abandoned us who believe in him? Does it not sometimes appear that the heavens are closed, that God is silent and absent? People ask God to help them overcome their problems, but it seems that their cry remains unanswered. Everyday, we pray for peace, but when will the prayer be heard? Despite all this, however, we continue to celebrate hope, because, according to St Paul, God in Jesus Christ has begun working among us. To the Corinthians, for example, he speaks of the rich gifts that have been bestowed on them (1 Cor 4:7). For Christians, God is at work in the good that happens in the world, in the beautiful things that happen in each person’s life. Reconciliation of quarrelling neighbors, forgiving a murderer, donation to a cause for justice, embracing an enemy, feeding the hungry, standing for the rights of the oppressed—events such as these are the work of the Spirit. And what God has begun, he will not abandon (1 Cor 10:13), for he is faithful (1 Cor 1:9, Second Reading).

Since God is at work, we cannot therefore despair. We cannot give up even the tiniest accomplishments we have with regard, for instance, to world peace and justice, despite the multitude of wars and injustices in our midst, because each accomplishment has been initiated by God. We have reason to hope that he will reveal more powerfully in our lives what “no ear has ever heard, no eye ever seen” (Isa 64:3b). Which is none other than the “fellowship with His Son, Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9). As followers of Christ, what we can do is watch for that revelation. This is the point of today’s Gospel (Mark 13:33-37). We wait for God to intervene in the world on our behalf. As we do not know when is he going to reveal to us this object of our hope—this fellowship with him and with the saints—all we need to do is to watch! “Be constantly on the watch! Stay awake! You do not know when the appointed time will come” (Mark 13:33).

And how do we watch? It is by allowing God’s gift to work in our lives. “Would that [God] might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of [him] in our ways!” (Isa 64:4). The active watching is revealed in the kind of life that we lead, which we hope to be perfected when Christ will fully reveal to us the fellowship. It is a life that proclaims that we are mouthpieces of Christ, giving witness to all. God has already begun this kind of life in us through the Holy Spirit, and we continue allowing the Spirit to work in us as we wait for the final revelation. Wars may go on, but the fact people are reconciled gives hope. Says St Paul: “The hope will not leave us disappointed, because the love of God has been poured out in our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Rom 5:5).*

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Will God Judge Us on the Basis of Our Attitude to Christ's Representatives?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Fourth Sunday, Year A,
Solemnity of Christ the King, Matthew 25:31-46, November 20, 2011

A DECADE OR so ago, Vice-President Teofisto Guingona was in Monterrey, Mexico where he delivered a speech on poverty at the United Nations International Conference on Financing for Development. Hours later, Guingona, who represented President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, was in a luncheon tendered by the governor of the state of Nuevo Leon for 150 heads of state, to which he had been invited. While seated at table no. 5 of the dining hall of the Centro de Arte de Monterey, he was told that there had been a mistake, and his name was not on the guest list, despite the fact that upon arrival at the hall, he presented his formal invitation. He left in a huff, and ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a protest. Said Guingona: “I called our department for them to inform the Mexican government that the slur approximating insult, for whatever reason, was in effect directed not only at me but mainly to our government, to our nation, our people for whom I stood. Reason and justice therefore demands that an apology, if at all, should come from the Mexican government herself, asking indulgence for the breach from our government.” Some countries virtually condemned the Mexican insult. The Thai and Brunei delegations did not attend the State Dinner in protest of the terrible discourtesy.

If Mexico was condemned for her treatment of the representative of the Philippine government, so at the end of time, people will be condemned on the basis of their treatment of Jesus’ representatives. This is the main point that the parable of the sheep and the goats or of the last judgment in today’s Gospel is trying to convey. But before developing this theme, let us first examine the parable. Doubtless, this goes back to Jesus himself, and in its original setting, the story is about the Kingdom of God, more specifically, about the act of separation in the end-time, much like the parable of the wheat and tares (Matt 13:24-30) and the good and the bad fish (Matt 13:47-50). When it was used in the early Church, the parable became an allegory of the last judgment, as the shepherd came to be identified with the king (v 40). Matthew is probably responsible for the addition of apocalyptic features to the parable, as when he speaks of the coming in glory of the Son of Man who is identified with the king. But as it stands in Matthew, how is one to understand it? Many exegetes think that the parable has two fundamental questions that influence one’s interpretation: who are the nations being judged, and who are “the least of the brothers”. According to one interpretation, it is really about judgment of Christians on the basis of their attitude toward the needy members of the Christian community.

But in recent years, Liberation Theology popularized an interpretation that sees it as a judgment of all persons—Jews, Christians, pagans, grounding on their treatment of any person in need, both Christians and non-Christians. Says Gustavo Gutierrez in his A Theology of Liberation: “Our encounter with the Lord occurs in our encounter with others, especially in the encounter with those whose human features have been disfigured by oppression, despoliation, and alienation… The salvation of humanity passes through them; they are the bearers of the meaning of history and ‘inherit the Kingdom’ (James 2:5). Our attitude towards them, or rather our commitment to them, will indicate whether or not we are directing our existence in conformity with the will of the Father.” In other words, all individuals and nations will be judged on the basis of their attitude toward the poor, the deprived, the oppressed and the marginal. This goes beyond the traditional corporal works of mercy under which rubric the acts toward others have been placed, for, in this theology, working on the side of justice for the poor is an essential task of salvation. Some groups even interpreted this to mean that faith is not necessary for salvation, not even the Church, since all that one needs is preferential option for the poor.

However attractive such an interpretation, it is not consistent, though, with the theology of Matthew. If one reads the whole gospel, he will notice, as Donald Senior points out, that Matthew envisages three forms of judgment: first, the leaders of Israel will be held accountable for their rejection of Jesus and his message (Matt 23); second, the Christian community and its leaders will be judged on the basis of their response to God’s offer in Jesus (Matt 24-25); and third, the nations to which the mission of the Church is directed, will be convicted on their refusal to accept the messengers and their message (Matt 25:31-46)—which is the Gospel today. These different forms of judgment may be compared with Paul’s teaching in Romans 2:5-10 (see also 1 Pet 4:17). In other words, the basic question that the parable addresses is this: How shall non-Christians share in the Kingdom of God? For Matthew, the Gentiles will be judged according to how they responded to the proclaimers of the Gospel, namely, the disciples of Jesus. They are, for Matthew, the “least brothers” of Jesus (Matt 10:42; 11:11; 18:6; 10,14). The reason for interpreting this parable as a judgment on non-Christians is that when Matthew speaks of nations, he usually means the Gentiles (Matt 4:15; 6:32; 10:5, etc.) Moreover, in the Gospel, they are pictured as ignorant of Jesus: “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or away from home or naked or ill or in prison and not attend to your needs?” (Matt 25:44; see also vv 37-39). Hunger, thirst, nakedness and imprisonment—these refer to the sufferings of the disciples who proclaim Jesus’ message of salvation.

At the beginning of this essay, we noted that the snub done to Vice-President Guingona was an insult to the Philippine government. Because she shabbily treated our representative, Mexico actually insulted our country. She is ill-qualified therefore to join the family of decent nations—this is what the diplomatic issue that emerged virtually means. Similarly, one who does not treat well the representative of Jesus is hardly qualified to join the family of God, for in point of fact, he rejects Jesus himself. The same thought is found elsewhere in Matthew: “He who welcomes you welcomes me, and he who welcomes me welcomes him who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Underlying this logic is the shaliach principle according to which the rejection or acceptance of an envoy involves the rejection or acceptance of the sender, and in this principle, such acceptance or rejection will be validated on judgment day. Clearly, the situation-in-life that this parable presupposes is the missionary activity of the disciples. But at the present moment, this means that nations and individuals will share in the Kingdom of God on the basis of their attitude toward the Church, the proclaimer and sacrament of Jesus.*

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Our Creative Response to God's Gift of Salvation

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Third Sunday of Year A, Matthew 25:16-30, November 13, 2011

"PARISIAN LIFE" IS now a 120-year-old painting of Juan Luna’s, depicting a woman in a cafĂ©, on the right side of which are Juan Luna himself, Jose Rizal and Ariston Bautista Lin in a huddle. A few years ago, it was auctioned off by Christie’s auction house in Hongkong where the painting was the second top selling lot, and Winston Garcia, who was then GSIS president and general manager, won the bid at P46 million, but the GSIS would have to pay a premium of 10% of the final bid price. When GSIS won the bid, Garcia was quoted to have said that we were buying not a masterpiece but a piece of Philippine history. But he got a lot of flak. Sen. Manuel Villar said that while Garcia’s objective may have been noble, the welfare of the GSIS members should have been his primary consideration. According to Sen. Teresa Aquino-Oreta, the GSIS should have funneled a hefty part of the money to the members in the form of more benefits, if indeed it was awash in money. Complained the late Bayan Muna Rep. Crispin Beltran: “For years, members have been demanding better services and increased package of benefits from the GSIS. But what they give us are questionable investments, behest loans and ‘barya-baryang’ yearly dividends which are not even commensurate to the amounts we have contributed.”

For many, the people’s money in the GSIS was not invested in a right place. Which reminds us of the third servant in today’s parable of the silver pieces: he placed his master’s money in the wrong place. But that is going ahead of the story’s point. To begin with, the parable, like last Sunday’s, is clearly allegorical, although as Jesus himself told it, it probably had a different point. Most likely, it was intended for the Jewish religious authorities, such as the scribes and the Pharisees, who like the third servant, were so much concerned with the preservation of the religious tradition they had been entrusted with that they refused to hear the new message that Jesus brought. But this main point has given way to allegorization. As it stands in Matthew, the master’s invitation “Come, share your master’s joy” (Matt 25:21b) obviously refers to the messianic banquet in the Kingdom of God. The servants (v 14b et passim) stand for Christians who, through baptism, accept Christ as their master. The silver pieces (v 15) represent the faith that God gives them through baptism. And the “going away” and the long absence of the master (v 15b, 19a) refer to the journey of Christ to heaven and his physical absence from the world. His coming home (V 19) is the parousia, the second coming of the Lord. The early Church moralized the parable with the addition of the saying, “Those who have will get more until they grow rich, while those who have not will lose even the little they have” (v 29). Concerned with the coming eschatological event, it is now a parable of judgment.

While it is true that in this allegorization the story revolves around the three servants to whom the master disbursed his silver pieces, it gives far greater attention on the third servant. In the dialogue between the master and this servant, the former sharply rebuked the latter for his failure to do something with the silver pieces entrusted to him. This unproductive servant is held up as an bad example of one who, having been entrusted with capital, was more concerned about himself and thus about keeping the money intact—an attitude which, in Matthew’s redaction, shows his lazy and sterile life. Because his desire was security, however false, he was unable to obey the master in a very creative way, unlike the two other servants who made capital gains. If Matthew dwells at length on this lazy and unproductive servant, it is because the parable is meant to teach us that the gift of faith given to us at Baptism must grow while we await Jesus’ second coming so that, upon his return, we can give a good account on what we have done to the faith we received. This growth of faith is our creative response to the offer God has given us, while living in the period between now and Christ’s arrival at the end of time.

What does this mean? Like the first servants who, having received five thousand silver pieces, went to invest it and made another five, so we must be believers whose faith grows and bears fruit. Or, if we look at the parable as an allegory on the membership of the Kingdom at the end-time, we are supposed to work out our salvation in the same way that the first two servants invested the master’s money. Of course, salvation is God’s grace (Titus 3:5), but our part is to make a creative and proper response to it. In the second reading (1Thess 5:16), Paul expresses this in terms of being “awake and sober” (v 6)—“We who live by day must be alert, putting on faith and love as breastplate” (v 7). A productive faith is one that bears fruit in love. Thus Paul: “Your love must be sincere. Detest what is evil, cling to what is good. Love one another with the affection of brothers. Anticipate each other in showing respect. Do not grow slack but be fervent in spirit; he whom you serve is the Lord” (Rom 12:9-11). The first reading makes the same emphasis when it speaks of works: “Give her a reward for her labors, and let her works praise her at the city gates” (Prov 31:31). Of course, Paul himself makes a laconic expression of the growth of faith in love, when he says that in Christ what counts is “only faith that expresses itself in love” (Gal 5:6).

If the master was harsh with the third servant because he was concerned only with his own security, this implies that the growth of faith must benefit others. This brings to mind James’ assertion about unproductive faith: “If a brother or a sister has nothing to wear and no food for the day and you say to him, ‘Goodbye and good luck! Keep warm and well fed’, but do not meet their bodily needs, what good is that? So it is with faith that does nothing in practice. It is thoroughly lifeless” (Jas 2:14-17). Obviously, the parable stresses that like any gift, faith, no matter how small, is precious, and has to bear fruit for others. Which brings us back to the “Parisian Life.” One wonders, then, whether by buying the Luna painting, the GSIS was obedient to the mission of the institution in a creative way. No one disputes that the work of art was priceless, that its proper home should be the Philippines. But whether it was the GSIS that should buy the painting for P50.6 million, and whether it made a good creative and productive investment of the people’s hard-earned money, that is what is being disputed. At the end time, Jesus would dispute, too, the way the gift of faith has been invested—whether it grew, or it simply became fossilized.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

How Should Christians Live Out the Faith Vis-a-Vis the Coming of the Kingdom?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Second Sunday of Year A, Matthew 25:1-11, November 7, 2011

WHEN FAHRAKORB RIKKIATGYM, the Thai challenger in the International Boxing Federation (IBF) super bantamweight division, climbed up the ring at the RMC stadium in Davao City sometime in 2002, he packed a record of 33 straight wins, 22 by knockouts, and 2 losses. Confident that he could snatch the crown from Manny Pacquiao, he hoped, it was said, to return to Thailand with the title as a gift to his king and his people. What he did not know was that the lone reigning Filipino world boxing champion was very much in shape and well honed, swearing in fact that he was ready for the gory. No soon than the first round began than a right ram, which could have been mistaken for a set-up jab, landed on the bewildered Thai, mercilessly sending him to the floor. Seconds later, another blitzkrieg of punches was unleashed and floored the poor challenger, and after he was able to get up, another power-packed punch proved difficult to absorb. Before the first round was finished, the goner was flat on the floor, and had to be rushed to the hospital. Pacquiao is, of course, known for his lethal left, but it was claimed that for two months he perfected his right punch, and its awesome impact was more than enough to retain the crown.

Obviously, Rikkiatgym did not watch the right hand of the Filipino champion; or if he did, he was not prepared enough. That is why he suffered a stunning defeat. A similar lesson is presented in today’s Gospel—one who does not watch, or does not prepare himself adequately at the coming of the Son of Man will suffer exclusion from the victory of the Christian community. In view of the delay of Christ’s arrival, the proper attitude of the Christian is constant readiness and vigilance. Matthew stresses this point in the parable of the Ten Virgins (Matt 25:1-12). If one assumes that Jesus told this story, the parable may have referred to the imminent but unpredictable arrival of the Kingdom of God. Seen in this perspective, it must have taught that those who accept Jesus’ message about the coming of the Kingdom will have access to it when it finally comes, but for those who rejected it, it will be too late for them to realize that they will not be given entry. But as we find it in the Gospel, it is an allegory that the Church applied to those who follow Jesus in their watchful expectation of Jesus’ return. In this allegory, the ten virgins—the first five foolish, the second wise—are supposed to represent Christians in the community, some of whom are ill-prepared, the others well prepared for the parousia; the bridegroom is Christ, the Son of Man; the return of the bridegroom is the second coming of Christ; the delay in his coming is the postponement of the parousia; and the wedding feast is the messianic banquet.

In trying to emphasize the need of vigilance, Matthew warns us about the fate of the five foolish virgins. Since they were not ready for the moment when the groom arrived, they were excluded from the wedding banquet, in much the same way that Rikkiatgym failed to get the crown, as he did not watch Pacquiao’s right hand. In effect, the parable is about practical wisdom—what is a Christian ought to do, as the Son of Man is delayed in his arrival? That one needs this practical wisdom to be saved is the point of the First Reading: “She hastens to make herself known in anticipation of men’s desire; he who watches for her at dawn shall not be disappointed, for he shall find her at the gate” (Wisd 6:13-14). If one possesses this wisdom, it is certain that he will survive the last judgment. When this time comes, God will bring forth with him from the dead the wise believers who have fallen asleep. At the sound of the archangel’s voice and God’s trumpet, they will rise first, and the wise who are still living will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air—an event that born-against Christians call “rapture” (1 Thess 4:16-17). But this is an apocalyptic imagery that cannot be taken literally; but what this means to us is that the wise believer is assured that he will be restored in the Christian community, now transformed into a perfect one, in fellowship and love.

It is Matthew’s wish that the members of the Christian community on earth should not be excluded from this fellowship at the end of time. They should be wise enough to be in a permanent state of readiness for the arrival of the Son of Man. For this reason, he presents us model of Christian behavior the five wise virgins who never ran out of oil. Unlike the foolish ones who, in bringing their torches to meet the bridegroom, brought no oil along, the wise virgins, sensible as they were, took flasks of oil. Because of the long wait for the bridegroom, the foolish ones realized later that their torches used up the oil they contained. For Matthew, a sensible Christian should not run out of oil. By what is meant by oil? The popular suggestion is that this refers to good works. Comparison is often made with the guest without a wedding garment in the parable of the wedding banquet (Matt 22:11-14) and the five foolish virgins without oil, and what is lacking in both is supposed to be good works. Of course, the theme of good works is not foreign to Matthew. In the Sermon on the Mount, Christians are exhorted to let their light shine so that people will see their good works and glorify their father in heaven (Matt 5:16). But as Garland suggests, it might be more consistent with Matthew’s theology to take oil not allegorically but parabolically. Since the main point of the story is that the foolish virgins were not ready when the great moment finally came, Matthew could have identified the oil not simply with the performance of good works, but with the tireless doing of other obligations—abstinence from bad behavior (15:19), love for enemies (5:44), love of other Christians (24:12), forgiveness of others (18:21-35), unhesitating faith (21:21), loyalty to Jesus (10:32), and love for God (22:37).

In other words, the parable is basically an exhortation on living out the Christian faith. Only those who live out their faith in every circumstance of their lives keep their eyes open (Matt 25:13). In the parable, the five wise virgins represent them. Of course, the problem of division in the Christian community between those who live out and those who do not is a reality. Today, the Church sees the flourishing of various faith communities and movements, where members take seriously their Christian faith and obligations, but one is afraid that enthusiasm might easily wane. In the 1960s, the Cursillo movement took the Philippines as if by storm; one found the movement in almost every parish. Today, they are few and far between. Indeed, for many, being Christian may not be more than just a name. If Christian faith finds its communal expression in the Sunday Eucharist, one wonders about the percentage of the baptized who really go to Mass and who fulfill their other Christian obligations.