Tuesday, December 4, 2012

To a World Caught in a Morass of Pain, Whence Will Salvation Come?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent, Year C, Luke 3:1-6, December 9, 2012

A FEW DAYS ago, a number of columnists wrote about China being a savior of Europe or Africa, continents caught in a morass of economic distress.  Indeed, when we hear of the United States and Japan, we usually associate them with countries advanced in science, technology, and economy.  We look up to them because they have virtually become world leaders who are able to give their people comfort and happiness that citizens of the third world normally envy.  Theirs is an advanced industrial society.  Yet, the other side of the picture of such societies is quite alarming: they have worsening air and water pollution, mounting crimes, ghettoes, dwindling resources, to mention a few.  And one wonders whether this is a form of collective suicide.  Of course, Karl Marx saw this, and proposed an alternative.  Since the West is individualistic, he proposed the abolition of private property, and thought of allowing the people—the poor—to govern society.  Thus, decades before, we heard of the Josef Stalin of the Russia and Mao Tse Tung of China proclaiming themselves as champions of the proletariat.  Yet, we who are on the other side of the fence know that these nations have their own brand of dogmatism and bureaucracy, regimentation and inquisition, witch hunting and police state.  And not to long ago, we saw the virtual collapse of the communist world.  Hence the question: whence comes the salvation of the world?

            It is not fortuitous that today’s Gospel begins with the name of Tiberius Ceasar, emperor of the Roman empire, Pontius Pilate, prefect of Judea, Herod Antipas, tetrach of Galilee and Perea, and Philip, tetrach of other parts of Galilee (Luke 3:1).  As an evangelist who has a universalist outlook, Luke takes care to relate the significance of the gospel to the world in his time.  For him, these known persons represent the political and religious rulers at the time of Jesus.   It may be recalled that as the people at that time expected, the political rulers, on the one hand, were supposed to save their people from hunger and lawlessness, while the religious leader, on the other hand, were to put them in right relationship with God.  Yet it is clear from the Jewish tradition that their national rulers were hardly faithful in their task.  On the contrary, they did the opposite.  That is why, God, using pagan rulers as instruments, scattered them and exiled them (2 Kings 15:29; 17:16).  The Jewish religious leaders, on the other hand, led the people astray (Jer 50:6).  They became unfaithful (Ezek 34:2-10), and even scattered the flock (Jer 23:1-2).  Thus, they failed in their responsibilities (Jer 2:8).  It appears, therefore, that if Luke mentions secular and religious rulers to preface his account of Jesus’ ministry, it is to imply that salvation cannot come from the religio-political establishment of his time.

            Not surprisingly enough, God’s word did not come to them, nor to any Roman or Jewish politician, but to John who, in contrast with the Roman emperors and governors, was an unknown in the empire.  The word of the Lord came to him to indicate that salvation of the people can come from God alone (Bar 5:6), not from the religio-political rulers of his time.   How does the prophet picture salvation?  The book of Baruch presents this salvation to us in the image of Jerusalem taking the robe of peace instead of mourning to manifest the return of the sons of Israel from exile (Bar 5:1-4), led by God himself (Bar 5:6).  So, Jerusalem has to look toward the east, to the coming of salvation from God (Bar 5:5).  That is to say, the prophet warned his people that if they wish to be saved, the Israelites cannot rely on their own religio-political rulers, still less on foreign powers.  If there is anyone to be depended on for salvation, it is God alone.

            The same may be said of us.  No matter how altruistic the United States, China or Japan may appear to be, no matter how they are able to show concern for peoples in the third world, we, Christians, cannot have the illusion that the salvation of men from all misery and want, and from evil and death could come from the political rulers of these powerful nations.   It cannot come even from our own political rulers.  Many presidents have sat on the presidential throne, but the salvation of the Filipino people is nowhere nearer.  On the contrary, their lot has even become worst—politically, economically, socially, environmentally.  Following the exhortation of Baruch, we have to look toward the East, to Jesus, for it is only he who can establish the new Jerusalem in splendor and glory (Bar 5:1, 1st Reading), that is to say, who can make us one community where justice and peace prevail, and removed all forms of evil in this world, by showing this splendor to every nation (Bar 5:3).  This is the significance of advent.  We await the coming of Jesus from the east who alone can save us.  And as he is coming to save us, our role is simply this: we need to cultivate a proper conduct, abounding in love, and valuing the things that really matter (Phil 1:8-11, 2nd Reading).  This way, we accept his coming, and prepare his way (Isa 40:3-4).

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