Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Unpopular Task of a Prophet--Denunciation of Evil, Injustice and Corruption

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 4:16-30, February 3, 2013

THE PHILIPPINES IS basically an agricultural country; it is not an industrialized one.  But it is a country where most people are suffering because, as the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines noted, realities of injustice are embedded in its political, economic and cultural systems.  Take for example the economic condition, which is tragically characterized by an appalling mass poverty.  “Such an abnormal economic situation is partly attributable to inequitable ownership of assets particularly land, to an oligarchic power system, to misconceived economic policies, to the prevailing economic structures, and to population growth which tends to be concentrated among the poor, increasing the competition among them for land and unskilled jobs.  Thus economic gains do not ‘trickle down’ to the poor.”  In face of such a situation, what ought to be the stance of a Christian?

            If, as noted in last Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus had a pro-poor program, we, as a Christian community, should follow suit by opting for the poor, denouncing how unjust such a situation is, and proclaiming that, as a sign that the Kingdom of God has entered into our Philippine society, such an abnormal economic condition has to be reversed.  According to the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church, “The fight against poverty finds strong motivation in the option or preferential love of the Church for the poor.”  No wonder, when he addressed the people of the sugar plantation in Bacolod City on Feb 21, 1981, John Paul II said: “The Church will not hesitate to take up the cause of the poor and to become the voice of those who are not listened in when they speak up; not to demand charity but to ask for justice.  Yes, the preference for the poor is the Christian preference!”  

            But even after John Paul II came to the country in 1981, one has to admit that the economic situation not been reversed.  Ours remains a society where there is a wide gulf between the rich and the poor.  And the challenge remains there—People of faith must take up the cause of the poor.  Yet, one has to admit, this is easier said than done, partly because it is scary to make that option, as this might entail loss of privilege and power.  Indeed, even to preach it is to invite disaster.  To denounce a lopsided economic system is to court opposition. One is easily reminded by a fave quote from Dom Helder Camara: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint; but when I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist!”  In today’s Gospel (Luke 4:21-30), this is what Jesus himself got: the people rejected him, after realizing the implication of his words that so much captivated them.  In Luke’s theology, this hostility has been adumbrated by the prophecy of Simeon: “Behold, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many within Israel, and to be a sign that is disputed” (Luke 2:34).    The opposition to Jesus culminated in his crucifixion, a fate that, according to the law, a false prophet deserves (Deut 18:20-22; Jer 23:9-30).

            In the Bible, denunciation of such a situation and living a life that witnesses to that denunciation is the task of a prophet; he is commissioned to stand up and tell the word of the Lord “against Judah’s kings and princes, against its priests and people.  They will fight against you” (Jeremiah, 1:18-19, First Reading). We are supposed to be a prophetic people, but who would like to preach a gospel that would bring in one’s oppositionists, harassers, enemies, and assassins?  Is it not dangerous to tell people and live accordingly that as a nation we should “do away with greed, selfishness, unhealthy competition and the concentration of power and wealth in the hands of the few” in order to have true economic development?  Who is ready to “infuse moral principles that put face of God and the many faces of the poor” into our “economic relationships, policies, programs and structures” (CBCP, Exhortation on Philippine Economy) and testify to it by the life one lives?   And who likes to live like Jeremiah who practiced what he preached?   Who would be happy to be called an ingrate, leftist, and be harassed, indicted and imprisoned for espousing such a cause?  Who likes to die like Jesus himself at a young age at that, when there is so much opportunity to live, and live comfortably?   Who is prepared to part with his sumptuous meal, his car of the latest model, his unrestricted travel, his signature clothes, his fat deposit in the bank?

            Oh, how much better to save one’s skin!  And various are the ways of doing it.  One is to align one’s self with the oppressors of the poor, even waltzing with them.  Who knows?—one would even receive thick envelopes that contain millions, get promoted, and live luxuriously.  After all, no one will bother about the collusion, because power and wealth are on one’s side; the protest of the poor are never heard, anyway.   As long as one is on the side of those in power, he would even be allowed to bark, provided he does not bite.  Another is simply to stop talking.  One does not give a damn about economic injustice, about lopsided economy, about progressive pauperization.  Speak no evil!  By doing so, one does not create opposition and enemies.  Why eat threats for breakfast unnecessarily?  Still another is to look the other way, and probably the best recourse is to offer people bread and circuses.  The poor will forget about their hunger; they will be entertained.  Of course, many of us take one or two of these lines of action, and still profess to uphold the values of Christianity.  After all, one can always reason out that there is no use in uttering the Gospel to the poor, knowing that it would ultimately put the preacher six feet below the ground.  A live cat is always better than a dead lion!  How much better to be accepted, to be honored, especially by the power-that-be in our political, religious, economic and cultural world! 

No wonder, the world suffers from a lack of real prophets! 

For all that, however, this Sunday’s Gospel is precisely a challenge to all of us.  It invites us to take up the cause of Christian prophecy, however dangerous and discouraging it may be, even as Jesus made it his own option, in order that our society might give witness to the presence of God’s kingdom in the world.*

Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Cause of the Poor--Central to the Program of Jesus

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 4:1-4; 14-21, January 27, 2013

WHEN PRESIDENT AQUINO made his inaugural speech at the Quirino Grandstand on June 30, 2010, he outlined the program of what he was about to set in motion during his tenture.  Although most listeners would certainly have difficulty in remembering all the points that he had stressed, yet many remembered the catchy highlights: “Samahan ninyo ako sa matuwid na landas… Kayo ang boss ko, kaya hindi maaaring hindi ako making sa mg autos ninyo…  There can be no reconciliation without justice… Kami an narito para magsilbi, hindi para maghari… Sa tamang pamamahala, gaganda an buhay ng lahat… Walang lamangan, walang padrino, at walang pagnanakaw.  Walang wangwang, walang counterflow, walang tong…”  For many people, these sayings were meant to define Aquino’s presidency, and they expected him to fulfill his manifesto.

          The second segment of today’s Gospel (Luke 4:14-21) fulfills a programmatic function for the Gospel and the Book of Acts, as it serves as a preface to Jesus’ public ministry, in which Jesus made his inaugural speech.  What was Jesus trying to say?  Since he was quoting from Trito-Isaiah, which promised freedom to the Jewish exiles in Babylonia in 6th century BC, he was actually saying that the liberation of his people is being fulfilled in his person, in his talk and in his walk: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.  He sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind, to released the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).  Thus, Jesus assumed the role of a liberator of the underprivileged to which the downtrodden, the blind, the imprisoned debtors and the poor belong.

          Jesus’ cause is the liberation of the underprivileged.  One wonders whether Philippine Presidents fulfill the promises they made at their inaugural speech, but Jesus really carried out his program, as can be seen from the rest of Luke’s Gospel.  Though his friendship with some rich people, on scholarly grounds, could be put into question, there is not a single iota of doubt that his life was dominated by a ministry to the poor.  His words of consolation, his preaching of the kingdom, his words of forgiveness, his healings and exorcisms, his table fellowship were almost without exception directed to those who belong to the lower rungs of the Jewish society.  While Presidents may not take seriously the pledged they have made during their inaugural speech (probably there being no intention to fulfill them), there is scarcely any question that Jesus was consistent with what he said in his programmatic talk: the poor was his cause.

          One major problem with the way we lived our Christianity in history is that instead of taking up again the cause of Christ, many of us have so made Jesus an icon that we have almost forgotten his cause.  Of course, to make him an icon is reasonable enough.  He was no ordinary man; he was really God, and early in the history of the Church, there were already the rudimentary beginnings of the tradition of worshipping him.  “Therefore God exalted him in the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father” (Phil 2:9-11).  But whether this should be the dominant feature of the life of Christianity, this could be a subject of debate.  There should be celebration of Christian life, that can be easily conceded, but first and foremost, there ought to be a Christian life worth celebrating about, and that life could only be patterned after the life of Christ that is dominated by a ministry to the underprivileged.

          The poor are the losers in human history.  They are cursed, dominated, taken advantaged of, fooled, degraded, not counted, oppressed, used, subjugated, pawned, forgotten, disenfranchised.  In a human society where they are a majority, one wonders whether God can be happy about their lot.  In the Old Testament, God takes the cause of the poor: “I have witnessed the affliction of my people… therefore I have come down to rescue them” (Exod 3:7-8).  In a Christian community, greater honor is to be given to those from the underside of history. As Paul, in the 2nd Reading, puts it, “God has so constructed the body as to give greater honor to the lowly members, that there be no dissention in the body, but all the members may be concerned for one another” (1 Cor 12:24-25).

          Clearly, if it is to continue the cause of Christ, the Church has no alternative but to take up the cause of the poor.  She should be a Church of the poor, as John XXIII has already noted, a poor Church.  As a Christian community, it is incumbent upon us to make an option for the poor in a situation in which the bulk of humanity is poor.  As John Paul II said in Centesimus Annus, the Church “has become more aware of the fact that too many people live not in the prosperity of the Western world but in the poverty of the developing countries amid conditions which are still ‘a yoke little better than that of slavery itself”, he has felt and continues to feel obliged to denounce this fact with absolute clarity and frankness” (n 61).  We do not only talk, we walk our talk.  Jesus’ life was a witness to his cause: he was poor, he had nothing to lay his head on, he died poor, and in solidarity with the oppressed.  The lifestyle of both clergy and laity ought to be a witness to poverty.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Powerful God in a Powerless Little Boy

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of  Santo Niño Year C, Luke 2:41-52, January 20, 2012

IN RECENT YEARS, there has been a proliferation of various images of the Holy Child: in some, he is dressed like a soldier or a doctor, in others, a fisherman or a pilot.  I am not sure why the Infant Jesus was made to take these countenances, but the real image remains that of a child who wears the garb of a king, with crown on his head, scepter on one hand, and the universe on the other.  The reason partly comes from the First Reading (Isa 9:1-7), which is the most famous messianic prophecy. God will liberate his people from oppression, through the agency of a child, who is a prince of peace.  If the image has any meaning at all, it is meant to convey that this child, helpless and innocent though he is, is the king of peace, who is so powerful that he holds the world in his hand, and the liberator of the human race.

            When we think of a liberator, we associate him with Genghis Khan, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, or Napoleon Bonaparte.  They are mighty warriors, who defeated their enemies and established empires over which they ruled.  Through wars, power, and oppression, they subjugated nations and put their enemies under their feet.  That is how worldly power works.  But in the ways of the divine, one conquers the world not through power, but through weakness.  If Jesus conquered world, sin and death, and now sits at the right of God, it was not through violence, but by submitting himself to the powers of this world.  He showed his weakness by allowing himself to be humiliated, crucified and killed.  It was in his frailty that he was recognized, especially in the Johannine theology, as king: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” (John 19:19).

            If in his adulthood where he manifested his weakness, Jesus was recognized as king, so also in his childhood, helpless and feeble though he was, he was already known as king of the universe and its savior.  The child, in other words, despite his ordinariness, is not an ordinary one.  He is really a king—and more than a king, he is God among us, the Emmanuel (Matt 1:23).  Which is why, although the image of a Santo Niño might appear absurd—for how can a mere child place the whole world in his hand, yet its meaning is entirely correct: God has deigned to show himself in this child of Bethlehem. Frail and lowly though he is, yet he is worthy of praise and worship. Small and voiceless though he is, he is really the revelation of God.

            How did God manifest himself in this small boy?  In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 2:41-52), he is portrayed as one who was devoted to the things of God.  Early in his childhood, he was already concerned about his Father’s affairs: “Why did you search for me?  Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49).  His first allegiance was to his Father.  And it is not a simple allegiance.  Luke uses the word “must” or “had to be” which, in Luke’s Gospel, characterizes Jesus’ life: “The son of man must suffer…” (9:22); “But first he must suffer many things...” (17:25}, “I must stay in your house…” (19:5), “Everything must be fulfilled...” (26:44).  In the conflict of human and divine obligations, the Father’s will must prevail.  No wonder, Hebrews characterizes the life of Jesus as doing the Father’s will: “Then I said, here I am—it is written about me in the scroll—I have come to do your will, O God (Heb 10:7). Doing the Father’s will culminates in his death, in weakness, in what appears, from the human point of view, as a defeat.

            Of course, if from the beginning until his death, Jesus’ life was all about doing the will of his Father, it was not simply because he is God’s Son.  As the Gospel today emphasizes, he progressed steadily in wisdom and age and grace (Luke 2:52), and that growth is to be attributed to his upbringing as well.  An evidence of that upbringing is that “his parents used to go every year to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover” (Luke 2:41).  Surely, as can be seen from the rest of the Gospel of Luke, Mary and Joseph were deeply religious parents.  If God was able to manifest himself in a child, in a boy who not only was deeply religious, but whose whole concern was to do the will of his Father, it is in no small measure due to what he received from his parents. 

Which reminds us of a rhyme: “Before your child has come to seven, Teach him well the way to heaven.  Better still the truth will thrive, If he knows it when he is five; Best of all if at your knee, He learns it when he’s only three.”   That is the meaning of the figure of Sto Niño: the all powerful God who is king of the universe, deigned to manifest himself in a powerless little boy, who is chiefly concerned about the things of God, partly because of how his parents brought him up.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Encountering God in Powerlessness, Helplessness and Wretchedness

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Feast of the Epiphany of the Lord, Year C, Matthew 2:1-12, January 6, 2012

I NO LONGER REMEMBER its exact details, but the story I read in high school goes something like this: in a German prison camp during the Second World War, some prisoners escaped.   Since no one could tell where they were and how they were able to make their way outside, the German guards retaliated by picking up men at random to be hanged—unless the escapees returned.  Since not a single one returned, these men were hanged.  Among them was a boy.  As he hanged from the gallows, someone asked: “Where is God?”  There was silence among the onlookers.  Much later, a voice was again heard:  “Where is God?”  Then a voice came:  “There he is, hanging from the gallows.”    That someone could recognize God in the boy who was hanging from the gallows brings to mind a theological observation that one notes from the story of the Magi.

In today’s Gospel (Matt 2:1-12), we are told of civil and religious authorities—Herod and the experts of scriptures—who were caught unawares about the coming of the Messiah.  On the one hand, Bethlehem was a village under Herod who should have known the place and its people.  On the other, the religious authorities had the Scriptures which tells of the birth of the Messiah: “And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the princes of Judah, since from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd me people Israel” (Matt 2:8).  Indeed, it was the priests and scribes who furnished King Herod the information about the future ruler.  And when Herod eventually knew about him, he rejected him, thinking the child would be a threat to his kingship.  In sharp contrast, we are also told of Magi, astrologers who studied the stars, so much aware of the coming of the new King.  To know him, the Magi did not have the Scriptures; they had only a miraculous star to tell them.  And by means of the star, they were led to the house of Joseph.  In this pericope, Matthew thus makes a contrast between astrologers from the east who accepted Jesus and the King and religious leaders of Israel who rejected him.

The Magi story is a part of the introduction to Matthew’s gospel, and functions as an overture to the whole Matthean account of Jesus’ life, ministry and death, in more or less the same way that the Prologue of John introduces the reader to the theology found in his gospel.  In particular, the Magi story serves to prefigure what happened in the life and ministry of Jesus and the early Church.  Looking back, we know that both the civil and religious authorities, whom Herod and the interpreters of the Scriptures represent, refused to recognize Jesus as the One sent by God.  God chose them as his people, and gave them his Word—the Scriptures—so they could walk in his ways; but when the time came, they failed to recognize the Messiah.  They were scandalously slow in coming to faith in the Messiahship of Jesus.  In sharp contrast, the Gentiles, whom the Magi represent in today’s gospel, knew nothing about God except through what was available to them through the natural phenomena, like the star, and yet, when confronted with the Message, they believed in Jesus the Messiah.  In other words, the story was recalled by the Matthean community to explain a phenomenon in the early Church:  the early Christians saw the contrasting reactions of the Jews and Gentiles to the ministry of Jesus and the apostles: while the Israelites rejected him, the Gentiles accepted him.  In the understanding of the Matthean community, this sheds light on why the majority of the members of the Church came from pagans, not from Israelites, even though Jesus was a Jew.


How explain the contrast?  For Matthew, Herod and the religious authorities, even though they had the sacred tradition, failed to recognize the Messiah because of their unbelief; they closed their eyes to the revelation of God in the child.  The Magi, on the other hand, had faith.  They believed that God spoke to them through the miraculous star.  They believed that in the ordinariness of the child born in Bethlehem, God was there.  Hence, the feast of the Epiphany is really about God’s revelation, and our acceptance or rejection of that revelation.  It is possible that people who are supposedly religious may fail to recognize the coming of God in their lives.  It happens when they presume to know the working of God, and limit his action to what they have already learned in their theologies.  They put limits to their faith.  But God is a God of surprises!  He reveals himself in ways that are unknown and ordinary, and that people do not expect.  He can reveal himself in a helpless child at Christmas, a child no different in appearance from the children of a small, poor village like Bethlehem. And we can detect his presence even in the negative experiences of our lives, in powerlessness, helplessness and wretchedness, in much the same way that a Jewish prisoner of war in a German camp came to recognize him in the boy hanging on the gallows.  What is important for us, of course, is to detect his presence, to recognize his revelation.  And we can do it only with the eyes of faith.