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.*