Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Yes, of Course, God Continues to Care for His People

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 6:24-35, August 5, 2012

WITH MILLIONS OF people starving, powerful countries vying for world domination, and the few who are rich wallowing in scandalous wealth, while human rights are being violated and the environment being cannibalized for the sake of more wealth, what is there to say that God really cares?  Present-day atheists generally reject the existence of God because, for them, if he really exists, he will not allow the dehumanizing plight of millions.  In the Old Testament, time was when, although the Jews always believed in God, yet many of them doubted his care for them, in face of the reality of exile and their shameful defeat at the hands of their conquerors.  But almost all of them, on the other hand, remembered that God acted on their behalf when they complained to him about their oppressive situation under the Pharaoh of old.  And when they were starving in the desert, God showed his care by sending them manna from heaven (Exod 16:11-12).

In today’s Gospel, Jesus assures the Jews that despite their experience to the contrary, God still cares for them.  Just as in the Old Testament God, not Moses, gave them bread from heaven, so in the New Testament, God shows his loving care for them by sending them bread from heaven.  He does so even more exceedingly, for here, he is not only after the basic needs in life, like what ordinary bread is supposed to ansswer (John 6:27).  Rather, through this bread from heaven, God wants to give his people eternal life (John 10:10).  This eternal life is none other than the participation of his divine life, the life in the Kingdom of God, a life of final reconciliation, freedom, peace, love and forgiveness, not only here on earth, but also in the life to come.

How is one to receive that life?  According to the Gospel, it is by eating the bread from heaven; and this bread in the New Testament is none other than Jesus himself.  But what is meant by “eating this bread”?  To eat the bread that God sent is to have faith in Jesus.  If, for the Jews to achieve a blessed life on earth, one has to do the works of the law (John 6:30), for Christians, it is to believe in him whom God sent (John 6:29).  Thus, if in the Old Testament God cared for the Jews in their journey through the desert by sending manna from heaven, so in the New Testament God continues to care for his people by sending Jesus, the bread of life, from heaven.

But then, one might ask: how does one eat this bread, or, how does one profess his faith in Jesus?  If this question is addressed to one with fundamentalist orientation, the answer will surely be: “Accept Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.”  A Catholic, of course, will not accept this formula for a number of reasons; at any rate, however, this saying is correct on two points: one, a Christian must accept Jesus in faith, believe in him, and be committed to him.   Jesus determines what it means to live.  He defines how one lives.  Two, Jesus should obviously the Lord and Savior of one’s life.  A Catholic cannot make a god out of money, nor make it the dominant factor of his life, nor should he think that wealth can save him, or bring him new life.  Money, together with the comfort that it affords, cannot be the be-all and end-all of one’s existence.

If only all Christians are committed to Jesus, taking their life of faith seriously, and if only all of them make him the Lord of their lives, not money, or power to satisfy their greed, then they will certainly become “the new man” that St Paul speaks of (Eph 4:22).  As the new man, the entire body of Christians, on account of their belief and life of faith, can create, even on this earth, a new society with a new social structure, in which greed, struggle for power, oppression and aggrandizement will be eliminated, and in which truth, forgiveness, freedom, liberation, and love will prevail.  By embracing the life of Jesus, Christian will obviously create new forms of relationship among people, eliminating poverty, starvation, violation of human rights and other forms of evil,   Thus, while still living on earth, Christians already participate in the everlasting life that God promised to those who believe in his Son, and once the end comes, they will enjoy these features of the new community in an even perfect degree.  Their being “the new man” becomes the perfect evidence that God continues to care for his people.

Every time, then, Christians receive communion, the Eucharistic Bread should be a reminder of God’s care for them, at the same time giving them the mission—precisely because they received the Body of Christ—to make the present history a reflection of the life to come, transforming it from one that is taken as an evidence of the absence of God to one that proclaims that he is alive, through people who have become witnesses to his presence.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Division in the Church--Why Scandalous?

Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 6:1-15, July 29, 2012

IN LAST SUNDAY’S reflection on the Gospel, we observed the glaring divisions that characterize our world: political, economic, and cultural.  But our religion has not been immune to division.  Within the Christianity, Christians are divided into Catholics and Protestants.  But this is too general a division.  Within the Catholicism, we have the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox and the Eastern Churches.  In Protestantism, the division is almost atomistic: Anglicans, Lutherans, Baptists, and hundreds of other churches, not to mention the Pentecostal and Fundamentalist sects.  The division shows its ugly head when the quarrel between Churches become violent.  Of course, religious wars have become almost a thing of the past, but division remains a social fact.
Division, to be sure, is a great scandal, because it contradicts the very essence of the Church.  That essence demands that the Church be one.   As the 2nd Reading puts it, we must strive “to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace: one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (Eph 4:3-6a).  Here Paul describes the calling of all Christians to unity, which has been established by means of the union with the Father through the Son in the Spirit.  Disunity is unthinkable, and from the reading, we can point out the reasons.  First of all, we are all one body (Eph 4:3), the body of Christ.  If the body is divided, so is Christ.   There is one Spirit (Eph 4:4), who calls us to the same vocation: eternal life.  This is our hope. By the one Spirit, we receive one baptism (Eph 4:5) by means of which we are incorporated into the one body.  Finally, the body is constituted as the one family of God, who is our one and only Father (Eph 4:6).  This is our identity as Christians: one body.  And we must become what we are.

The Christian community, therefore, must be one.  If the various Churches, given the historical, cultural, economic and cultural factors, cannot be united, at least one can exhort that our small faith communities, our religious congregations, our presbyteriums, and our very own Christian families should exhibit that vocation: to show our unity with God in our relationships with our brothers and sisters.   And how is that unity demonstrated?  The gospel (John 6:1-15), which relates the episode of the feeding of the multitude, teaches us that at least we can express that unity in the liturgy and in our concrete day-to-day life. 

There is no doubt that in the gospel reading, John takes the narrative not as a miracle story, unlike the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke), but as a sign (semeion), a vehicle in the revelation of Jesus as the bread-giver for the life of the world.  As such, it points to the Eucharist.  This is probably the reason why John uses the verb eucharistein in the sign-narrative.  To know the Eucharist—Jesus himself the giver of life, one must examine the episode.  Just as in the past God fed his people with manna in the desert, so Jesus feeds his people now in the Eucharist.  The feeding of the Eucharist, in other words, is a sign that we are the one family of God.  Thus, our gathering around the one table is a demonstration that we all belong to the one body of Christ.  It is for this reason that when we come to the Eucharistic Celebration, we do so not to pray alone or together, but we do so in order to act out who we are: one people celebrating the death of the Lord (1 Cor 11:26) which constituted us into one family of God.  The Eucharistic Celebration is therefore a communal celebration.  It is not a collection of people praying at the same time.  The Eucharistic Prayer beautifully expresses our vocation to unity: “May all of us who are in the body and blood of Christ be brought together in unity by the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer II)

But the unity that we celebrate in the Eucharist is to spill over to our everyday life.  As Christians, we cannot close ourselves to our brothers and sisters in need.  Our unity is displayed in our solidarity with the poorer members of the Christian community.  A great scandal that members of faith communities, congregations, presbyteriums, and our families can create is to refuse to share their wealth with their lesser members, at the same time celebrate with them the Eucharist.  Paul stresses this point well.  For him, such a practice is a contempt for one body of Christ, and a dishonor to the poor.  The meaning of the Eucharist is not realized: “When you meet in one place, then, it is not to eat the Lord’s supper, for in eating, each one goes ahead with his own supper, and one goes hungry while another gets drunk…. Do you show contempt for the church of God and makes those who have nothing feel ashamed?”(1 Cor 11:20-22b).  That is why, in the Gospel, the five barley loaves were shared, and all—not just a few—had their fill.  Thus, the Eucharist motives us to share, and preserve the unity of the community by seeing to it that there is no one needy among its members (Act s 4:34).  That way, we live a life worthy of the Eucharist and our call to unity.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Aim of Leadership--Unity, not Division, of People

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 16th Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 6:30-34, July 22, 2012

SOON AFTER THE Second World War, we saw the emergence of various forms of division.  The partition of Berlin into East and West was a microcosm of the political division between Socialism and Capitalism.  The fantastic wealth of the First World countries is morally difficult to reconcile with the poverty of the Third World, and the economic gulf between them is wider than ever.  In the Bible, sin is described in various ways, and one of the common descriptions is that it is a separation of man from God and of man from his fellowmen.  But if men have become divided, it is because they separated themselves from God.  The story of the Tower of Babel demonstrates how the sin of pride can result in the almost infinite divisions of men and women and the scattering of humanity (Gen 11:9)

        What causes the division and scattering of women and men?  Various are the factors, but even to date, one who looks at the problem theologically can be almost certain that, among others, it comes from shepherds who separated themselves from God, and who, for that very reason, failed in the task of leading and guiding the people.  Thus, King Zedekiah separated himself from God by not governing the people with wisdom and (economic and political) justice; so they were scattered and exiled to Babylon (Jer 23:2).  This recalls God’s word to Ezekiel in the parable of the shepherd: “Woe to the shepherds of Israel who have been pasturing themselves!…  You have fed off their milk, worn their wool, and slaughtered the fatlings, but the sheep you have not pastured… You did not bring back the strayed nor seek the lost, but you lorded it over them harshly and brutally.  So they were scattered for lack of a shepherd, and became food for all the wild beasts”(Ezek 34:3-6).  In separating themselves from God, leaders then make a god out of themselves, and become attached to whatever pertain to their selves—greed, power, aggrandizement, privileges. All their manifestations of love for people are merely for show; their obverse is the King’s greed.

        But God’s will is not division; rather, it is atonement—that is to say, at-one-ment: to bring people in union with Gold and with men.  Thus the prophecy of Jer 23:4: Ï myself will gather the remnant of my flock from all the lands to which I have driven them and bring them back to the meadow; there they shall increase and multiply.  I will appoint shepherds for them who will shepherd them so that they need no longer fear and tremble, and none shall be missing.”  This prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus.  In the gospel today, Jesus took pity on the people and, unlike Zedekiah, took the role of a shepherd.  How is it fulfilled?  In the gospel, Jesus feed them with the word.  According to the 2nd Reading, he removed the barrier of hostility (the Law) that kept people apart, and reconciled them into one body through the cross, his death (Eph 2:15-16).  In other words, Jesus not only took care of his people, but he also died from them so that they could become one people of God.

        Today, there is still much division; indeed, it has even multiplied.   The political division between Capitalism and Socialism continues, despite the fall of the Russian Empire and the death of Mao Tse-Tung.  The economic gulf between the Wealthy and Powerful Countries and the Poor and Weak—but euphemistically described as Developing—Countries remains unbridgeable.  The cultural rift between the Colored and the White continues to baffle us, despite the recognition that all are equal, since others still feel they are more equal than others.  And quarrels of religions have not stopped, for all the inter-religious dialogue and ecumenism.  These aside, we have to add the division in our own country, in our homes, and among friends.  Even so, as followers of Christ, we are called to assume the role of shepherds.  By our word and life, and more so by our death, we have the vocation to do our human part in the reconciliation of man with God, which is the reconciliation between individuals, families, and countries.  God has called us to be instruments of reconciliation.  The will of God, as already noted, is unity.  As shepherds, it is incumbent upon us to abolish what keep us apart.

        This exhortation is specially addressed to Christian leaders.   There is always much temptation for leaders to give priority to their own position and power rather than to service.  Both position and power corrupt them. And the higher the position and the enormous the power, the bigger the opportunities to be corrupt.   Sometimes, they become blind to the needs of the people and to the truth; greed, aggrandizement, power and privileges make them blind. Not surprisingly, some are interested in giving rewards to flatterers, sycophants, and admirers, and they knock down those who disagree with them—that is to say, those who tell the truth.  They are tempted to give importance to their own pockets, rather than the welfare of the people.  And so, the consequences are clearly recognizable: we do not progress as much as we have to, we are back to square one, and remain a divided country. 

But Christian leaders have to make a difference.  They can set examples of shepherding and even offer themselves for crucifixion.  Indeed, Christian leaders embrace death, if not literally, surely figuratively--death to power, greed, self-aggrandizement, corruption, and lying to and fooling people; in other words, selfishness.  Without this death, people will remain divided, and cannot be saved from their sordid lot.  Christ left us that example.  Though he was rich, because his is the universe, yet he came to us as a poor shepherd.  He rejected power, and made it clear that greed is the root of evil; he owned nothing, not even a house, and freed himself from anything that corrupts the mind and soul.  He told the truth, and was so selfless that he even accepted death so we can all have life in him.

Monday, July 9, 2012

To Preach the Gospel--What Does This Mean for Us?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the 15th Sunday of Year B, Mark 6:7-13, July 15, 2012

LIKE PERFUME AND love, any good news is diffusive.  When Marcos was whisked off to Hawaii during the Edsa Revolution, the news caught fire.  It swiftly spread, and there was much rejoicing of the people in Esda and in other streets.  A victory in battle, a winner by a landslide in an election, a topnotcher in bar examinations—good news like these is too good and significant to be ignored.  The same may be said of the Gospel.  The word “gospel” literally means good news—the good news of what God has done to his people in Jesus.  And like anything that brings glad tidings, it is meant to be announced by those who receive it.  That is why, in today’s Gospel, the disciples of Jesus were told to go on mission—to preach the good news of the kingdom (Mark 6:7)

 The readings today give us a glimpse of what this mission to preach is all about, and how are we, who received that mission by virtue of baptism, to understand it.

First, although many people stand in awe and admire tele-evangelists who could draw thousands of listeners, and eventually make them followers, and even build a business empire, yet, when it comes to preaching the Gospel, what matters is not the apparent success or failure of the evangelizer.  Rather, what is of the essence is his fidelity to the Gospel message.  Amos denounced Jeroboam’s government of injustice and inhuman policies, and delivered God’s word against him that Amaziah, the priest, thus summarized: “Jeroboam shall die by the sword, and Israel shall surely be exiled from its land” (Amos 7:11).  It did not matter that his message was not accepted by Jeroboam and Amaziah; after all, he was not a political opportunist who would adulterate the message to make it palatable to his hearers. What was important was that Amos was faithful to God’s word to him: “Go, prophesy to my people Israel” (Amos 7:13).  In the gospel, the disciples were told that the people could refuse them (Mark 6:11), obviously because the gospel message could be disturbing to their complacent lives.  What the Lord sent him for, the preacher must talk.

Second, the proclamation of the Word must be free.  It is not meant to protect or to be subservient to particular interests, social classes or ideologies, or to the State.  A preacher must not defang the gospel out of consideration for money or bribery.  Though he was aware of the power of the King to retaliate, Amos did not emasculate the word by, for example, making it sweet to the ears of Amaziah.  On the contrary, he denounced the injustice in selling the poor for sandals (Amos 2:6) while the rich drank from the basin (Amos 6:4), and the corruption that resulted from prosperity.  He called spade a spade, even if this was not pleasing to the ears of the King, and would lead to his persecution.  He made no compromises with the King.

Third, the proclaimer cannot lose sight of the purpose of preaching: it is intended not simply that the hearers will know the word of the Lord, for its purpose is not primarily information about God and man.  Far more than mere intellectual knowledge, the word of God being preached has for its main purpose the freedom of man from all evil that oppresses him (Amos 2:6-7) on the one hand, and the restoration of the whole man (Mark 6:13) on the other.  This includes forgiveness of sins through Christ who redeemed mankind (cf Eph 1:7-8), making all believers into one community under the headship of Christ, and under the Fatherhood of God in the Spirit (vv 8-13).  In other words, preaching has for its purpose the total salvation of man in all the aspects of his life.  It is not meant to entertain the listeners so they could forget their sufferings, nor to praise and adore God oblivious of the conditions under which people suffer.  After, the good news in the Gospel is that God came here to free us from all evil and give us new life.

The last element that we ought to know about proclamation on the basis of the readings today has something to do with the messenger, unlike those already mentioned which have reference to the message.   The gospel demands that the preacher should be poor.  As the Markan Jesus instructed, the preacher is not to take anything on his journey—no food, no traveling bag, not a coin in the purse of his belt, no second tunic (Mark 6:8-9).  Of course, the point is not that the missionary in our time has to get rid of his car, empty his freezer, throw away his credit cards.  Rather, it is that his lifestyle must be such that other people will see in him the living word of God.  If he is to be credible to his hearers, he cannot but remove everything that gets in the way of his proclamation of the word.  In the 13th century, Francis of Assisi made it clear to all that Jesus’ instruction can be followed, and poverty made his message highly believable.  In many cases, the medium is also the message.  A consumerist preacher is a contradiction in terms.

This is what it means to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God.  Today, God has not ceased to commission people to preach it.  And as baptized Christians, we already received that mission when we were anointed to share the prophetic aspect of Christ’s life.  That is why, every Sunday, nay, every day, the instruction is given to us in the liturgy, when the celebrant dismisses us, the congregation: “Go, the mass is ended.” What we heard in the liturgy of the word, what we shared in the liturgy of the eucharist, we proclaim and share them with the rest of humanity—in our homes, in the market, at the office, in streets.  The message of salvation has to spread.