Friday, November 30, 2012

Is It Important To Know When Is the World Coming To an End?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the First Sunday of Advent, Year C, Luke 21:25-28, 34-36, December 2, 2012

IF ONE WERE to believe present-day doomsday preppers, the world will end on Friday, December 21, 2012.  They explain this in terms of the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar, or Mayan calendar, earth’s collision with planet “Nibu”, galactic alignment, Nostradamus’ prophecies, and other apocalyptic theories.  To be sure, of course, speculations about the end of the world are not wanting.  It is told that in 1831, William Miller, a farmer, began preaching the end of the world in 1843.  He draw his dating from the 2,300 days in the book of Daniel (Dan 8:13-14) which, for him, mean 2,300 years, and using 457 BC as the calculated the date commanded to restore Jerusalem.  Thousands heeded his call to repentance, but the year 1843 went without the world ending with a bang or with a whimper.  He deferred the date to October 22, 1844, but most Millerites abandoned his religion, others returned to their former denominations. 

Of course, the Millerites concluded that they were correct on the dating, though this has reference to Jesus’ entrance to the holy place in the heavenly Jerusalem.  The remnants of the Millerites accepted the prophetic role of Ellen G. White, whose writings the Seventh-Day Adventists revere as second to the Sacred Scriptures.  After meeting with the Seventh-Day Adventists in 1872, haberdasher Charles Taze Russell founded the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  He predicted the end of the world in 1914.  He died in 1916, but his successor, Joseph Rutherford, head of the Watchtower Society, advanced the date to 1925.  He himself, however, died in 1942.  More recently, the Jehovah’s Witnesses were sure 1975 would be the year when Jesus would return.  Of course, they were mistaken again.

            Although many religionists are gaga over the precise date of Christ’s return, the Gospel today does exhort us not to concern ourselves with such speculation.  It cannot be calculated, because it can come at any moment: “that day catch you by surprise like a trap” (Luke 21:34b-35a).  The basic Christian attitude toward Christ’s return is not one of curiosity, but one of great expectation that is seen in our daily behavior.  Having followed Jesus in discipleship, for all the trials and sufferings attendant upon it, we can stand erect and hold our head high because our deliverance has come (Luke 21:28).  However the world will end, with a bang or with a whimper, we really have nothing to fear, because Jesus comes back as a savior, a victor over the forces of evil and death. 

Of course, we know that in following Jesus in discipleship, we do not always obtain justice or peace.  On the contrary, we are even persecuted for our belief, and for our action on account of that belief.  But this is not the last word of our discipleship.  The last word is that, Jesus is coming to put an end to it---to the miscarriage of justice, to the injustices and every form of evil.  When he comes, Jesus will be manifested to us as the just shoot of David who does what is right and just, and we, his disciples, will experience peace and justice (Jer 33:14-16, 1st Reading).  That is why we do not fear death or the end of this world.

            As we await his coming, we have to conduct ourselves in a way pleasing to God, and learn to make progress in it.  We make our hearts blameless before God, overflowing with love for one another (1 Thess 3:12).  This should be our concern as we await his return: a blameless life, overflowing with love, not speculation of date.  We are to act as if we were a woman whose husband is an OFW (overseas Filipino worker) in Italy or Hongkong.   While her husband is away, she does not falter in her love for him and for their children.  Her life of care and love is her daily preparation for the coming back of her husband.  Because of her life of love, she is eager to meet him at the airport upon his return, and to receive his gifts for her.  She knows that his return is the salvation of her family from their deprivation of basic needs; her husband’s coming is the redemption of their family from grinding poverty, and signifies the unity of the whole family. 

We cannot imitate the wife who, when her husband is in a foreign land, spends away all the money he sent her, and consorts with other men, for that would be like the man in the Gospel whose spirit has become bloated with indulgence, drunkenness and worldly cares (Luke 21:34).  Assuredly, she cannot hold her head high.  In effect, by leading such a life in the in-between time, we demonstrate that, even though we do not know the exact date, we are confident of the Lord’s return.  The waiting may be long, but it is not without purpose nor devoid of meaning.  On the contrary, it is meaningful because it derives it significance from the Lord himself who will make it perfect, when he establishes peace and justice for those who followed him.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Nature of Christ's Kingship--Obviously Not of This World

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of Christ the King, Thirty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, John 18:33-37. November 25, 2012

POWER AND PRIVILEGE are what kingship and ruling are all about.  In times past, among the basic duties of kings concern war and law: they have to wage war to protect the interest of the people, or protect them from war.  They see to it that there is order in the kingdom.  Today, among the basic expectations of the people from their rulers have to do with order, basic necessities and justice to everyone.  They have power and privilege, but they have to see to it that people are not deprived of food, shelter, clothing and good health, and provide an ordered society in which everyone is given his due.  It happens, however, that power, by which they can answer the people’s expectations, ironically causes deprivation of their basic necessities, disorder is society and injustice.  For as Lord Acton observes, power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  Indeed, it is scarcely untruthful to say that there is something demonic in political power.  And one who holds it normally finds it difficult to relinquish it.  The privileges that are attendant upon it are hard to give up.  No wonder, once one is in power, he makes an effort to hold on to it, by hook or by crook.  It is not easy to say no to political power and its trappings.  Political dynasties may be brutally logical—but logical, just the same.  Because power corrupts, deception, graft, corruption, abuse, oppression, and repression are often connected with it.  Thus, though we change those who hold political power time and again, yet society scarcely exhibits itself as evolving into a more just and more humane one.  One often gets the impression that it is a case of the same dog, with different collar.  That is how it goes in the kingdoms of this world.

            In today’s Gospel on the account of Jesus’ trial before Pilate, Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world: “My kingdom does not belong to this world.  If my kingdom did belong to this world, my attendants would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews.  But as it is, my kingdom is not here” (John 18:36).  This does not mean, of course, that Jesus’ kingdom has nothing to do with this world.  It does not even mean that his kingdom cannot be found in this world.  In the theology of John, the word “world” as used in this pericope means the world of sin.  If anything, what Jesus said means that his rule does not belong to this world of sin, a world that values political power and social privileges, where greed among powers-that-be cannot be moderated, where rulers lord it over people, and make their importance felt.  His kingship does not belong to this kind of world.  Hence, he cannot be a king in the sense Pilate understood it:”You say I am a king” (John 18:37).

            How then do we look at the kingship of Jesus?  We can understand his kingship if we consider how Jesus understood his kingdom.  According to him, it is a kingdom of truth (John 18:37).  Truth, in John, echoes the meaning of Wisdom 6:22 which associates it with God’s hidden plan of salvation, and in Daniel 10:21 which connects it with the designs of God for the time of salvation.  Thus, unlike Caesar, Jesus did not have soldiers who were armed to protect him, nor people who were at his beck and call (John 18:36b), but certainly he had followers—those who hear his voice, which is the truth (John 18:37c).  These are the disciples, the believers, his sheep (John 10:16; 8:47).  Having considered this, we now understand Jesus’ kingship.  He is a King in the sense that he is the embodiment of truth (John 14:6), and all his words and his deeds testify to it (John18:37b).  Moreover, he testified to that truth with his death; so, in his crucifixion he is the King (John 19:19).

            Viewed in this light, we can easily understand why Jesus’ kingship is not of this world.  However, still, it has to do with this world.  For the truth is opposed to this world of sin and division, of power and privilege; not surprisingly enough, it hates the testimony of Jesus (John 7:2). This world cannot accept the values of his kingdom—truth, justice, peace, liberation, equality and participation.  But Christians cannot despair.  For, few they may be, yet those who hear the truth and believe in him will eventually conquer the world: “Who indeed is the victor over the world but the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God?”(1 John 5:4).  In this feast of the Kingship of Jesus, John then has this to say to us: Jesus is a King and has a Kingdom.  But if we are to share in his kingship, we must listen to his voice.  By listening to his voice, we turn earthly values upside down: better to be poor than to be rich, to suffer than to persecute, to be weak than to be powerful, to be utilized than to exploit.  We no longer imitate the current language of power and privilege.  On the contrary, we follow him in discipleship, offering our very self on the cross, in which we can find our victory and vindication.  In our crucifixion, we reign with him.  In this reign, we experience wholeness, love, truth, justice and peace.  By this kingdom which is not of this world, we will conquer the kingdom of this world.         

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Following the Son of Man--Its Vindication

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of theThirty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 13:24-32, November 18, 2012

DISCIPLESHIP MEANS THE following of Jesus.  In Mark, however, discipleship has a definite reference—he is not just any Jesus.  The Jesus being followed or referred to is the Son of Man: “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow men… Whoever is ashamed of me and of my words in this faithless and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels”(Mark 8:34b-38).  But who is this Jesus, the Son of Man? 

In Mark’s Gospel, this Son of Man who we follow in discipleship is, among others, the Jesus who must suffer, is rejected and killed (Mark 9:31; 10:33), and who came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for all (Mark 10:44b).  As Son of Man, Jesus corrected his disciples for their wrong perception of what following him meant.  For example, he criticized Peter who, instead of accepting the prospect of suffering and humiliation, thought of reviving David’s conquest (Mark 8:33).  It is also for this reason that he silenced the brothers James and John, the sons of Zebedee, who wished to occupy the prominent and prestigious places in the kingdom of God (Mark 10:38a).

            Jesus’ criticism of his disciples makes it clear that to follow Jesus as Son of Man is rather costly.  For judged in the light of worldly standard, it brings problems, deprivation, and suffering.  A review of the Gospel readings of the preceding Sundays confirms this.  The rich man refused to follow Jesus.  When challenged to sell his property and give the money to the poor, his face fell because he was rich.  For him, he could not suffer the loss of his wealth (Mark 10:23).  As can be seen in Jesus’ prohibition of divorce, it also deprives one of his right to put away his wife for any cause (Mark 10:9).  Discipleship also requires the giving up of ambition to lord it over others; instead, it asks the follower to accept suffering entailed in the ministry of service (Mark 10:38).  Indeed, in one’s effort to call upon Jesus and follow him, as in the case of Bartimaeus, one could meet opposition and even attempts to silence him (Mark 10:48).

            Does all this mean that following Jesus as Son of Man has nothing in store for the disciple except humiliation and defeat?   Not at all.   In the end, there is justification and triumph in discipleship.  Although the disciple may live in a world enveloped by trials, difficulties and turmoil, he has a very certain consolation  that the Son of Man he followed is coming back to give him eternal life in the age to come, making him share in his power and glory (see Mark 10:30).  This is one point which this Sunday’s Gospel stresses: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds, with great power and glory, and then he will send out the angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the end of the earth to the end of the sky” (Mark 13:26-27).

            This is to say that when Jesus comes as Son of Man, we who followed him in suffering and even death will be victorious over the powers of evil and death.  Structures of power and domination represented by the stellar phenomena will be toppled:  “The stars and constellations of the heavens send forth no light.  The sun is dark when it rises, and the light of the moon does not shine.  Thus I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their guilt.  I will put and end to the pride of the arrogant, the insolence of tyrants I will humble” (Isa 13:10-11).  “Then the moon will blush and the sun grow pale.  For the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, glorious in the sight of his elders” (Isa 24:23).  Or, in the apocalyptic language of the 1st Reading, those who followed Jesus “shall shine brightly like the splendor of the firmament”(Dan 12:3). 

According to Mark, the chosen ones will be gathered from the four winds (Mark 13:27).  This assembly of the elect who have followed the Son of Man fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah: “Fear not, for I am with you; from the east I will bring back your descendants; from the west I will gather you.  I will say to the north: Give them up! and to the south: Hold not back!  Bring back my sons from afar, and my daughters from the ends of the earth: everyone who is named as mind, whom I created for my glory, whom I formed and made” (Isa 43:5-6).  This only means that like the Son of Man, the people of the new covenant are vindicated.

            The point is obvious.  Discipleship may be costly, but in the end, a final victory over the forces of darkness awaits those of us who followed the Son of Man.  Hence, we have much reason to take up the cause of discipleship. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

The Widow Who Gave All: The Ideal Christian Response

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirty-Second in Ordinary Time, Year B, Mark 12:38-44. November 11, 2012

IN THE GOSPEL of the previous Sunday, we noted that in the Old Testament, the people’s response to God’s initiative is expressed in their keeping of his commandments which, according to Jesus’ summary, are summed up in the one commandment of loving God with all of one’s heart, mind and strength, and of loving his neighbor as himself.  In today’s Gospel, Mark tells us the story of Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes and his observation on the crowd who put their money into the treasury of the temple. 

What is of much relevance to us is the second, where a poor widow put in two small coins, for this story is connected with the point stressed in the Gospel last Sunday.  This pericope considered as an independent story—probably of almsgiving--that Mark used in writing his Gospel, the widow represents what is best in the piety of the Old Testament.  She placed all her two copper coins in one of the thirteen trumpet-shaped receptacles for offerings in the Court of Women in the Jerusalem Temple.  In doing so, she demonstrated that, poor though she was, her love for God out of her whole heart, soul, mind and strength.  She gave all she had to live on (Mark 12:44).

            In addressing his followers, however, Jesus appropriated this story as a lesson of discipleship.  To begin with, in the Old Testament, a woman was a dependent creature, either on her husband or her father.  But she could not inherit from her husband, and in the early period of Israel’s history, she was part of the inheritance of the eldest son.  We mention this to indicate how poor the widow was at the time of Jesus.  In using this story, Mark was able to present two contrasting pictures: the poor widow and the rich man (Mark 10:17-32), and the poor widow and the scribes (Mark 12:38-40).

            Whereas the man who wanted to follow Jesus and who was rich could not, after having been challenged by the Lord to get rid of them, part with his riches, the poor widow gave all she had.  Having much wealth, the man depended on it; and his wealth stood in the way to discipleship.  On the other hand, the widow had nothing to lean on except God himself; and it was easier for her to give everything she had.  For Mark, this illustrates the truth that only a truly poor person can walk in the footsteps of Jesus.  Wealth is a hindrance to it.  A poor one, on the other hand, entrusts himself totally to God to care for him. 

In the second contrast, the story of the poor widow immediately follows Jesus’ denunciation of the scribes: “Beware of the scribes who like to go around in long robes and accept greetings in the marketplaces, seats of honor in the synagogues, and places of honor at banquets.  They devour the houses of widows and, as a pretext, recite lengthy prayers” (Mark 12:38-40a).  For Mark, the scribes were people who were knowledgeable about the commandment of love of God and neighbor, and it is for this knowledge that they were accorded honors at banquets, marketplaces, and presidential tables.  And yet, they did not put into action their knowledge of the law.  Indeed, instead of showing God’s love by giving to the poor, they exploited them, like the widows whose houses they devoured.  On the other hand, the widow might not have been as knowledgeable about the law as the scribes, yet, she took it to heart.  Instead of exploiting others, which she could not do, she gave everything to God.  She trusted in him, not wealth.  Indeed, she could have kept the other coin, and gave only one to the temple treasury, but she did not.

            Both contrasts make it clear that all men are capable to responding to God’s generosity by being generous in love.  A person, no matter how poor, like the widow, has always something to give.  But an even more important point is that the greatness of one’s response is not seen in the amount that is given, for a wealthy man can always give from his surplus.  Rather, what is decisive in the generosity of one’s response is the amount that is left.  Hence, Jesus’ comment on the poor widow: “Amen, I say to you, the poor widow put in more than all the other contributors to the treasury.  For they have all contributed from their surplus wealth, but she, from her poverty, has contributed all she had, her whole livelihood” (Mark 12:44).

            This is what discipleship really entails.  Like the poor widow, we have to give up everything to follow Jesus in his footsteps.  After all, Jesus gave all of himself for us at the cross.