Thursday, February 28, 2013

Events as God's Word on the Need for Personal and Communal Repentance

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 13:1-9, March 3, 2013

TODAY’S GOSPEL ON the Lord’s reminders on the need for all to repent (Luke 13:1-9), is part of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:27) in which he prepared his disciples for their role after his passion and death, while at the same time continuing to teach his listeners about the in-break of the Kingdom of God to which all must respond.  In the present pericope, which is part of Luke’s travel narrative, Jesus’ teaching was occasioned by the calling of his attention to two incidents.  The first refers to Pontius Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans whose blood he mingled with the sacrifice.  This incident is not attested in other gospels nor in extra-biblical literature, although that Pilate could have done this is not out of his character.  It is probable that these Galileans were pilgrims in Jerusalem.  They were likely in the forecourt of the priests in the Temple, slaughtering their Passover lambs, when the soldiers of Pilate came to liquidate them.  In contrast with this deliberate murder of Galileans was another incident, purely accidental, involving eighteen persons who were killed when the water reservoir of Siloam fell.  Luke is probably referring to a tower that formed part of the old wall of ancient Jerusalem.

            How did the people of Jesus’ time interpret these tragedies?  It would seem that our current popular interpretation of disasters has not been an improvement on theirs!  When tragedies like these happen, we usually see them as God’s punishment.  When we discover that we have a cancer, or our husband goes with another woman, or our only child dies, or when an earthquake shakes cities and a volcano erupts, almost always we ask: what have we done to merit these happenings?  In the Gospel, the Jews saw the collapse of the tower and Pilate’s heinous act no differently.  As in popular wisdom, they associated these with the victims’ sins, or with their having broken the Lord’s command.  Such observation is found in both Old and New Testaments.  In his talk with Job who experienced tragedies and so much suffering, Eliphaz said:  “Reflect now, what innocent person perishes?  Since when are the upright destroyed?  As I see it, those who plow for mischief and sow trouble, reap the same.  By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his wrath the are consumed” (Job 4:7-9).  When the disciples saw a man who had been blind from birth, they asked Jesus:  “Rabbi, was it his sin or that of his parents that caused him to be born blind?” (John 9:2).

            For Jesus, however, there is no theological ground for such line of thinking.  He ruled out the idea that a particular sinfulness brings about a particular tragedy.  He did not even countenance the logic that while we are all sinners, some are so sinful that they deserve a particular punishment.  Indeed, one can even assume that in Jerusalem at this time, there were people who were more sinful than the 18 who died probably because they were simply at the wrong time and at the wrong place, and that in Galilee there were likely some who were worst off than those Pilate liquidated.  On the contrary, he rejected the theology of those who inquired, and he refused to explain how in fact God acts.  It makes no sense to question them or justify them by the logic that if people are struck by tragedies, it is because of some particular sins they have committed.  After all, Jesus said that God himself “is good to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35).  He affirmed, however, that sin does spell disaster.  That is why he went on a journey to Jerusalem to challenge the people to listen to his words and be converted to the Kingdom.  They had to be taught of the way to peace.  It was for this reason that he told them the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:6-9).  The tree has been planted in the vineyard, but because it bore no fruit, the owner decided to cut it down. But then the gardener pleaded with him to leave it for one year (Luke 13:7). 

            What Luke is trying to put across may be stated in a more contemporary application.  Our country may be the most populated Christian nation in the Far East, but it is also a nation of Christians who are sinners.   The effect of our sinfulness can be seen in the widening gap between the rich and the poor, in the way we do our politics, in the devaluation of the peso, and in the consumerist society that many are enthralled to, to name a few.  But as the responsorial psalm says, the Lord is kind and merciful (Ps 103:8).  Instead of striking us down, he has given us a period of grace.  We saw it working in EDSA I, when we dislodged a dictator by the power of prayer.  But it seems people refused to listen to the Lord, despite his word that we should listen to his son (Luke 9:35, Gospel of 2nd Sunday of Lent C).  We simply changed the cosmetics of the nation without changing the core values of the people.   But God is rich in mercy.  Once again, we were given another manifestation of his activity with EDSA II.  A man of faith sees this event as God’s revelation of his presence among us.  EDSA II is another call for us to change the way we handle our politics, culture and economy.  We have to alter our orientation, we have to say no to—among others--traditional politics, the culture of gambling, unbridled capitalism, corruption, injustice and violation of human rights. 

A man of faith--who has been observing how we behave politically, economically and culturally despite the occasions of grace, like EDSA I and II--could weep, probably in the same way that Jesus wept at the sight of Jerusalem, because he could foresee what was to happen to the city after it rejected his message, what with the factions and intrigues among the inhabitants (Luke 19:41-44).  So, once again, we have to listen to God’s only Son, who calls us to repentance and to recognize his path to peace (Luke 19:41).  Otherwise, we will all perish as a nation like the passengers of the Titanic who went down with the ship.  The punch, in other words, is: while there is time, let us listen to Jesus and change our lives both as individuals and as a nation.


Thursday, February 21, 2013

Transfiguration: Glory through Suffering and Death

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 9:28-36, February 24, 2013

TODAY’S GOSPEL FOCUSES on Luke’s narrative on the transfiguration of Jesus.  Readers of the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) will easily recall that the transfiguration story tells of an event that took place near the end of Jesus’ public ministry in which his external appearance changed.  In the presence of Peter, James and John atop a mountain, Jesus’ clothing became dazzlingly white, and with him appeared Moses and Elijah who spoke with him.  Peter was so overwhelmed by what took place that he suggested that three tents be made: one for Jesus, one for Moses and another for Elijah.  Then after a cloud overshadowed them, a voice was heard identifying Jesus as his Son, who must be listened to.  Then Jesus and his three disciples went down the mountain to be with the people.  Noting that the event offered the disciples an experience of the true identity of Jesus, many preachers follow a line of interpretation that stresses the need to follow up our “experience of the divine” with the practical aspect of spirituality, which is service to the people we meet every day.  They say that we cannot just contemplate on the divine; for that would be empty if divorced from action on behalf of the poor.

            While such line of preaching has something to commend it, yet it fails to take into account that each evangelist has a different way of understanding the event.  If we look at the version of Luke, we find that he has some theological insights that are not shared by other evangelists, and one of them relates to the content of the conversation between Jesus, Moses and Elijah: “They appeared in glory, and spoke of his passage which he was about to fulfill in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:21).  To understand what Luke means by this, it may be recalled that earlier on, Jesus asked his disciples who did crowds say he was.  It appears that they had come to uncover the reality of what he was through the public confession of Peter who addressed him as the “Messiah of God.”  But when Peter used this title to describe him, there is scarcely any doubt that he understood this title in the Jewish sense of an expected Messiah, the anointed one, sent by God in the Davidic, kingly or political tradition.  He would be a political figure identified with the “Messiah of Israel” (1QS 9:11) in the Qumran community.  In effect, having seen how Jesus healed and performed miracles, Peter thought that Jesus was really God’s anointed to restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory.

            It is for this reason that Jesus tried to explain to them the meaning of his messiahship by means of the prediction of his passion:  “The Son of Man,” he said, “must first endure many sufferings, be rejected by the elders, the high priests and the scribes, and be put to death, and then be raised up on the third day” (Luke 9:22).  And to make sure that his disciples, who frequently misunderstood him and his teaching, fully realized the implication of his words for those who wished to follow him, he continued his instruction on discipleship:  “Whoever wishes to be my follower must deny his very self, take up his cross each day and follow in my steps” (Luke 9:24).  We do not know how, according to Luke, the disciples reacted to Jesus’ teaching, for Luke records none of it, unlike in Mark where we find Peter remonstrating with the Lord (Mark 8:33).  But one could make the educated guess that his declaration would have proved a disappointment to them, assuming they understood it.  After all, even after Jesus’ death, the disciples, according to Luke, thought that Jesus would free Israel from the Romans and restore its political and economic glory (Luke 24:21).

            The story of transfiguration, therefore, functions as a corrective of Peter’s faith in Jesus’ messiahship and confirms what Jesus said in the prediction of his passion.  The presence of Moses and Elijah, whic fulfills the requirement for witnessing in Luke’s theology (cf Simeon and Anna in the Infancy Narrative of Luke), serves to indicate that the Law (Moses) and the Prophets (Elijah) testify to the identity of Jesus as the suffering Messiah.  Understandably enough, Luke—and no other synoptic evangelist—says that the two heavenly figures “spoke of his passage, which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).  In the Greek Bible, the term translated in English as “passage” is exodos, which could also mean departure, the Exodus.  Since the use of the word no doubt echoes the Exodus of Israel from Egypt to the land of milk and honey, what Jesus would accomplish in Jerusalem (Luke 9:31) was a new redeeming action for his people.  That is to say, just as the Exodus of old freed the people from slavery to Egypt, the new Exodus in Jerusalem would free the people from slavery to sin. 

           The Exodus then refers not only to Jesus’ passion and death, as some writers tend to think, but also to his resurrection and ascension, as all these events took place in Jerusalem.  Since the passage that Moses and Elijah spoke of includes the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the transfiguration serves also to correct the impression that Jesus was only a suffering Messiah.  For Luke, he is also the Messiah of glory.  Which is why unlike other synoptic writers, Luke says that the disciples had a glimpse of the glory of Jesus (Luke 9:32).  Of course, the term “glory” in Luke is to be connected to the risen status of Jesus, his being the Son of God.  His identity as Son of God that the disciples had a glimpse of was made explicit by the voice from the clouds, declaring him as God’s Son, his Chosen One (Luke 9:35).

            Luke’s understanding of the transfiguration should be obvious.  If the disciples saw Jesus in his glory as God’s Son, it is to affirm that Jesus, far from being a Messiah in the political tradition of his day, is one who enters into glory through suffering, death and resurrection in the holy city (see Luke 24:26).  (In that sense, Luke shares John’s view that death and glorification is a single event, though, as Schweizer notes, Luke stresses the death aspect of the event, while John emphasizes the glorification.)   The disciple of Jesus, who must listen to him and him alone, is to share and follow the same passage—death and glorification.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Christian Attitude in Face of Temptation of Wealth, Power and Honor

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the First Sunday of Lent, Year C,  Luke 4:1-13, February 17, 2013

IN CHRISTIAN TEACHING we become children of God through faith and baptism (John 1:12; 3:5).  Because we are God’s children, we have to behave as such.  In biblical studies, we call this indicative-imperative contrast.  Thus, because Christians have been made holy, they must therefore act like holy people: “Since we have these promises, beloved, let us purify ourselves from every defilement of flesh and spirit, and in the fear of God, strive to fulfill our consecration perfectly” (2 Cor 7:1). 

          But what should be the basic attitude of a Christian, how should he act, in a social context in which there is so much wealth, power, privileges and honor, and opportunity to abuse them?  As God’s children, our guide is none other than Jesus himself.  In the first chapters of his Gospel, Luke shows us that Jesus is God’s Son (Luke 1:35; 2:11).  As such, he is the representative of all the sons/daughters or children of God—the people of God in the New Covenant.   In today’s Gospel, Luke gives as a summary of his whole life.  That life relives the life of the people of God in the Old Covenant.

            In the Old Testament, Israel is called God’s son (Exod 4:22; Hosea 11:1).  But to know the heart of the people of Israel, his first-born son, God tested them (Deut 8:2).  So, they wandered in the desert for forty years, afflicting them with hunger (Deut 8:3).  Despite the seeming failure of natural means, he showed his care for them because he loved them. “It was he who led them forth, all the while performing wonders and signs in the land of Egypt, in the Red Sea, and for forty years in the desert” (Acts 7:36).  Despite his paternal care for them, however, the people became ungrateful.  Instead of worshipping the true God, they even made for themselves a molten calf and offered sacrifices to it (Exod 32:1-9).  They complained in the hearing of the Lord (Num 11:1-3); grumbling against Moses and Aaron, they wanted to return to their slavery in Egypt (Num 14:1-3).  Some of them even staged a rebellion (Num 16).  Because of their rebellion and disobedience, God did not allow them to enter into the Promised Land.  Israel was a people of erring heart; they did not know the ways of God (Ps 95:10-11).
            In today’s narrative on the testing of the Son of God, Luke presents Jesus—being God’s Son and representative of God’s renewed people—as reliving the life of Israel in the New Covenant.  Just as the people of Israel, in their exodus from Egypt, sojourned in the desert for forty years and were tested (Deut 8:2), so Jesus, in the new exodus, was in the desert for forty days and underwent temptations (Luke 4:1-2).  The order of the three temptations in Luke is different from that in Matthew.  In Luke, the temptations conclude on the parapet of the temple in Jerusalem, where Jesus will ultimately face his destiny (Luke 13:33).  Nonetheless, the content is the same: the temptation to turn the stones into loaves of bread (Luke 4:3), the temptation to worship Satan in exchange of domination over the kingdoms of the world (v 7), and the temptation to throw himself from the parapet of the temple (9). 

In the first temptation, Satan wanted Jesus to use his powers for his own purposes, rather than fulfill his messianic role as planned by the Father.   In the second, he attempted to persuaded Jesus to give him allegiance, rather than God.  And in the third, he asked the Lord to test the word of the Father, rather than fulfill his mission on the basis of faith in that word.  In all these, Satan tried to make Jesus, the Son of God, break his filial obedience to the Father.  He even misused the Scriptures (v 6), but Jesus used the same Scriptures to show his fidelity (vv 4,7,10).  Thus, unlike people of Israel of Old who manifested their disobedience, Jesus, far from succumbing to the three temptations, remained faithful to God (Deut 6:8) and emerged victorious over them.  That way, he, the true Israel and the true Son of God, showed himself faithful to God the Father.

The temptation story, then, poses this question to us: have we been faithful to the vows we made at baptism, when through the faith of the Church, we become adopted sons of God?  Of course, many of us are faithful sons for lack of opportunity to be otherwise.  Some officials have been honest, because there had been no occasion to be corrupt, but when a chance is given, we find them doing what their predecessors have done.  Would we be surprised if an oppositionist who used to denounce political dynasties winds up making his own, or if a politician who before the elections lambasted others for receiving the 10% SOP ends up asking contractors almost 40% of the budget for a project?   They fight temptation by easily giving in to it.

Yet, even those who do not have the opportunity to be otherwise may forget their promises at baptism if only because being faithful does not offer much rewards in this life.  That a teenager could auction her virginity in order to go to college says much of our values today.  How many could resist the temptation to receive the filthy lucre in exchange for voting a candidate who by any standard does not even qualify for the position he is running for?  Ultimately, of course, being faithful to sonship in God is a question of values, and commitment to them.  For a person who regards God’s concerns as the ultimate values, and who is committed to them, temporary enjoyment and gratifications are not difficult to set aside.  Despite poverty, suffering and deprivation, he remains faithful in the face of opportunities to privileges, power and wealth.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

The Preacher of the Word--Sinful, But Touched by the Lord

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 5:1-11, February 10, 2013
WHAT QUALIFIES AN EVANGELIST?  If we go by popular standard, we would think that only those who are clean of heart deserve to be called ministers.  If this is the way we think, it is because, when we are in the realm of religion, we seem to approach the problem of ministry by considering who God is, and once we are able to identify him, we start talking about the person who is fit to serve him.  For many, God is all-powerful, without sin, and incapable of error.  We attribute to him almost all the qualities that are exactly the opposite of ours.  And so, we believe that the stronger, the less sinless and the more correct a person is, the more he deserves to be God’s minister.  So true is this that when we know of someone’s skeleton in the closet, we immediately question his qualification to preach the Gospel.  Typical of this line of thinking is the assertion of a former ambassador, made at an interview on ABS-CBN News Channel, that the Church has no business speaking about morality in politics, unless it first cleans its own backyard.

            Today’s readings, however, give the lie to that impression.  In the 1st Reading, Isaiah describes himself as a man of unclean lips (Isa 6:5).  In the 2nd Reading, Paul tells us that he was formerly a persecutor of the Church, and hardly deserves the name apostle (1 Cor 15:9).  Finally, in the Gospel, Peter, who denied Jesus thrice, is described as telling Jesus to stay away from him because he was a sinful man (Luke 5:8).  And yet, these three men were proclaimers of the Lord’s Word.  In light of this, it would be wrong to say that only those who are good deserve to be preachers, for in these three we have almost the exact opposite of goodness.  This point is worth emphasizing because many of us think that, because the Church is holy, it does not have a place for sinful people.  How often we distance ourselves from those we perceive to be sinful members!  We do not accept them as members of religious organizations or faith communities in the parish!  Yet, Isaiah was chosen by God to be a prophet to Israel for many years; despite his betrayal, Peter became the first head of the Church; and Paul became an unrivalled missionary to the known world at that time.
            What gives?  If we go back to the readings, we will notice that there is one thing common among the three: they experienced the Lord.  The Lord touched their lives.  Isaiah was probably an aristocrat, because he could get near to the King.  One time he went to the Temple, and there he was overwhelmed by a vision of God.  He saw him, and that experience touched his life.  From then on, he became a proclaimer of God’s Word.  Paul had a vision of Jesus, while he was on the way to Damascus.  Before he entered the city, he was struck by a vision, and from then on, he became a different man.  In the Gospel, Peter encountered God not in a place like the Temple, but in an event.  He experienced the presence of the Lord in the abundant catch of fish.  The point of all these is that we will truly become spokesmen of the Lord only if we have an experience of him. (No wonder that, because of this lack of experience of his presence, many of us look for him in astrology, feng sui, born-again sects, transcendental meditation, and new age movements, and we consult all kinds of charlatans just to encounter him.)

            But how do we know we had an experience of the Lord?  The authenticity of our experience, at least from the standpoint of the readings today, is verified in two acts.  First is the consciousness that we are sinful, and therefore ability to accept the sinfulness of others. ”Leave me, Lord, I am a sinful man,” said Peter (Luke 5:8).  “Of these [sinners],” confessed Paul, “I myself am the worst” (1 Tim 1:15).  Indeed, it would seem that only a person who is able to see the depth of his sinfulness can say that he has truly experienced the presence of God.  The opposite is completely true.  If a person comes parading that he is very good, and criticizes others for their need of conversion from sin, and sets himself apart from sinners, he has hardly any credentials to a claim of a personal encounter with God.  And second: having experienced the Lord and having gone into the depth of his sinfulness, one begins to proclaim the Word of God, and nothing can stop him from doing it.  He may even leave everything that made him secure.  Isaiah left the comfort of wealth and the company of powerful men.  On the contrary, he even experienced persecution because of the Word he proclaimed.  Having seen the vision on the road, Paul became a Christian and nothing could stop his missionary activity.  “Woe to me if I do not preach the Gospel” (1 Cor 9:16).  He left the comfortable life of a Pharisee, and in his ministry as missionary, he was often flogged, stoned, and placed in dangerous situation.

            The vocation to be a minister of the Word requires more than a vast reserve of accumulated knowledge about the Scriptures.  It would seem that if few of us persevere in proclaiming the good news and have the zeal in doing the mission, despite our initial interest and training, it is because the Lord has not yet touched us.  That is why, no amount of seminars and lectures can motivate us to be zealous ministers, unless we are first given this initial push, this divine touch.  What matters, in the end, is not really who we are.  It does not matter whether we are persecutors of the Church and public sinners, or whether we are equipped for the ministry or not.  What matters is the finger of God, the touch by the Holy Spirit.  Of course, there are people for whom this is not acceptable.  They are even afraid to commit mistakes; they want to be like God so that nothing bad could be said of them.  But such a life misses the whole point of what life is all about.  We cannot be like God through our own effort in the first place.  What is ultimately decisive is that we allow the Spirit to move us.  And after that, nothing in us really matters, not even ourselves.  Besides that is probably hypocrisy.