Saturday, March 30, 2013

The Life That Jesus Now Lives Is Given to Those Who Believe

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Easter Sunday of the Lord’s Resurrection, Year C, Luke 24:1-12/John 20:1-9, March 21, 2013

‘DIVIDE ET IMPERA” (Divide and rule)—so advises ancient wisdom that if one wishes to conquer, he has to divide the enemy.  However invincible one appears to be, it is simply impossible to fight on many fronts and win, as Adolf Hitler realized too late.  If one wishes to reform the nation, he cannot therefore afford to antagonize the people, quarrel with the political establishment and go up against the religious establishment.  Once he does these, he will virtually be a goner.  Nothing is in store for him except defeat.  The fate of Jesus appears to be like this.  From the Roman and Jewish point of view, Jesus, who had invited the people to repent and enter the Kingdom of God, had to die.  Because of his teaching and behavior, the Jewish leaders accused him, among others, of threatening to destroy the Temple (Mark 14:58), of leading people astray as a false prophet (John 7:12; Matt 27:63), and of assuming divine prerogative (Mark 14:64).  These charges, of course, would not make sense in a Roman trial.  This is why the Jewish leaders brought him to Pilate, the Roman governor, on charges of insurrection: subverting the nation, opposing tax payment and pretending to be king (Luke 23:3).  And it is almost historically certain that Rome gave the verdict: capital punishment.

            But the end of Jesus was not defeat.  Those who opposed him never triumphed.  He was not a goner, after all.  For God reversed the verdict.  He raised Jesus from the dead (1 Thess 1:10; Rom 10:9).  The Jewish and Roman leaders took his life; God gave him a new one.  This is the Easter Gospel.  Resurrection, however, is a metahistorical event; it transcends time and space.  It is not like a resuscitation to an old life, as in the raising of the widow’s son at Naim (Luke 7:11).  It is a new form of existence.  Hence, in Luke’s resurrection narrative, only a negative witness could be provided.  When the women entered the tomb, they did not find Jesus’ body (Luke 24:3).  But the empty tomb is not an apodictic argument for the resurrection.  It could be interpreted differently.  In Matthew, for example, the chief priests claimed that the disciples stole the body (Matt 28:12; cf John 20:2).   Some claimed that the empty tomb was simply a product of wishful thinking.  Others alleged that Jesus merely swooned on the cross and subsequently extricated himself from the bands and the tomb.  Hence, faith in the resurrection cannot rest on an incontrovertible empirical evidence.

            How then, according to Luke, do we know that Jesus rose from the dead?  First, God himself told us in the mouth of two men in dazzling garments who said to the women:  “Why do you search for the Living One among the dead?  He is not here; he has been raised up” (Luke 24:5b).  (According to Jewish law, this testimony is conclusive because two witnesses made it [Deut 19:15]).  Second, Jesus himself prophesied it:  “The Son of Man 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” (9:22,24; 12:50; 17:35; 18:31-33).  For Luke, the guarantee of resurrection is the trustworthiness of Jesus’ words.  Thus, at the instance of the two men, the women disciples (Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, etc. [24:10]) remembered his words.  Of course, they remembered because they had accompanied him in his Galilean ministry (8:1-3), and they witnessed the crucifixion (23:49) and burial (23:55).  In Luke’s theology, what the women heard was crucial in interpreting the empty tomb.  Because of it, they took the empty tomb as a sign that Jesus is alive.  Faith thus comes from remembering what is heard (cf Rom 10:17).  With this faith, they began to proclaim the Easter Gospel (24:8-9).

            What is the significance of the Easter Gospel?  The resurrection of Jesus lies at the heart of Christian faith.  If he was not raised from the dead, our faith is empty (1 Cor 15:14).  God vindicated the persecuted Jesus—he was not a false prophet, after all.  On the contrary, he is the Savior (Rom 4:25), the living Lord (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3), the Son (Acts 12:33; Rom 1:34).  In fact, all the books of the New Testament were written from the point of view of his resurrection.  But not only that.  Because God raised him, he will also vindicate those of us who followed him (1 Cor 4:14).  Those who died with him will live with him (2 Tim 2:11).  Moreover, even in the here and now, the life that Jesus lives is given to us who believe (Rom 8:12).  This is made possible through our baptism (Rom 6:4-12).  We acquire a new being (2 Cor 5:17-21).  Christ lives in us (Gal 2:20).  And in Luke’s Gospel, the first beneficiary of this new being in Christ is the repentant criminal:  “I assure you, this day, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43).

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Jesus: The Innocent One Who Extends God's Mercy Till Death

An Exegetical Reflection on the Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord, Year C, Luke 22:14-23:56, March 24, 2013
SO CENTRAL TO all the synoptic gospels (Mark, Matthew and Luke) that the stories of the Lord’s passion, not without reason, have been described as passion narratives with an introduction.  (By passion narrative we mean the sections of the canonical gospels which recount the last days of Jesus, beginning with his entrance to Jerusalem and ending with his crucifixion, death and burial.)  But although they basically agree in the general outline of the story of the passion, yet they differ in many details and in their theological emphases.  This year, we read the passion narrative according to Luke (22:14-23:56), whose unique features are the lack of any formal night hearing (22:54) and a separate hearing before Herod (23:6-11).  But its theological interest lies, among others, in presenting Jesus as the innocent righteous one who suffers and extends God’s mercy until death.

            That the innocent suffers is one of the enigmas of human life.  That the guilty should go to jail, suffer and even die for his crime is logical as it is moral.  But, for the innocent to suffer for a crime he did not commit—that is beyond human understanding.  Reason does not provide any basis for it.  That is why it is beyond comprehension why Jesus should undergo his passion.  The Jewish leaders, according to Luke, lodged three accusations against Jesus: subversion, opposition to the payment of taxes to Caesar, and claim to kingship (23:2).  The plot, of course, makes us understand that these accusations were false.  In an episode which is found only in Luke, Herod declared Jesus innocent (23:6).  Jesus’ innocence runs like a refrain in the utterance of Pilate: “I have examined him in your presence and have no charge against him arising from your allegations.  Neither has Herod who therefore has sent him back to us; obviously, this man has done nothing that calls for death” (23:14b-15; see also 23:4,22).  One of the criminals crucified with him likewise recognized Jesus’ innocence: “We are only paying the price for what we’ve done, but this man has done nothing wrong” (23:41).  When Jesus expired, the centurion, having seen what had happened, exclaimed:  “Surely, this was an innocent man”(23:47).  Of course, in Luke’s Gospel, more than innocence is implied here—Jesus is the righteous one (cf 23:50; 20:21).
            Innocent though he was, Jesus was made to suffer and die.  Luke portrays Jesus as a rejected prophet, which he already indicated in the pericope on Jesus’ visit to Nazareth (4:16-30).  In the passion narrative, soldiers taunted him to prophesy (22:64).  Herod and his guard treated him with contempt and insult (23:11).  At the crucifixion, Jewish leaders kept jeering at him, soldiers made fun of him, one of the criminals blasphemed him (23:35,36,39) and the crowd called for his death (23:21).  Now fulfilled was what the prophets foretold:  “He was counted among the wicked” (Isa 53:12).  Here, Jesus is depicted as the suffering servant of Yahweh, the innocent servant who suffers on behalf of many, and the reference to the drinking of the sour wine implies that he was the suffering innocent, righteous one (Ps 69:21).  Of course, Jesus accepted his suffering and death as the will of his Father: “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  This was part of the plan of God (24:43,46).  He was faithful to the end, dying as God’s righteous Son.
            Despite the fraudulence involved in the trial and the travesty of justice, Jesus never harbored any ill feeling toward those who brought him suffering and death.  When, during his arrest at the Mount of Olives, his companions asked whether they would use sword, he said “Enough!”  He even healed the high priest’s servant whose ear was cut off (22”49-51).  On the contrary, he continued to offer the mercy of God: “Father, forgive them; they do not know what they are doing” (23:34).  Such an attitude on the part of Jesus is consistent with his teaching on loving one’s enemies, on prayer for those who maltreat him (6:27-28) and on forgiveness (17:4).  Even the criminal who was crucified with him received compassion: “Today, you will be with me in Paradise” (23:43).  Clearly, Luke portrays Jesus as the embodiment of God’s mercy, the One who took the initiative in the work of reconciliation between God and man, and between man and his fellow man.

            Far from being meant as an objective account of what actually transpired, Luke’s passion story is intended to present a Christology that invites the Christian reader to participate in the salvific event.  Unlike Simon of Cyrene had to be forced to carry the cross (23:26), the disciple follows the way of faithfulness and forgiveness voluntarily and from the heart.  Of course, the invitation exacts a high price for discipleship.  For in this way of following Jesus, one has to go beyond an ethic solely based on the Ten Commandments.  To forgive and pray for those who hate us, freely to suffer for them even though one is not conscious of any guilt, to repay injustice with absolute pardon, to seek their salvation when one is being condemned—and still be consistent in all these—that is what is distinctively Christian.  A costly demand, it is true, but not impossible.  This, however, requires a deep spirituality whereby one follows no longer his own will, but that of the Father, and really serves people.  It assumes that one has been touched by the Spirit, which enables him to empty himself of his own desires, wants and needs, if only for the sake of others, especially the scum of the earth.


Friday, March 15, 2013

The Encounter of the Miserable with the Merciful

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C, John 8:1-11, March 17, 2013

IT MAY BE NOTICED, if one cares to observe people closely, that the most compassionate and merciful persons to those who have fallen into such mortal sin as murder, adultery and apostasy, or those whom society reject are those who lead holy lives.  One, for example, need not doubt the compassion of the late Mother Theresa for the scum of the earth.  On the other hand, those who easily condemn people who commit mistake and who cannot easily forgive those who wrong them are those who are self-righteous.  The latter usually demand high standards that they themselves are not able to meet.  Nowhere is this true than in the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, which relates an incident about a woman who was caught in the very act of adultery (John 7:53-8:11).  (This story, it may be observed, seems not a part of the original Gospel of John.  For one thing, it is not found in all the best manuscripts.  Those that contain it place it after 7:36, others at the end of the Gospel.  Moreover, other manuscripts have it in the Gospel of Luke.  Many scholars note that the style is more Lukan than Johannine.  But there is a point to the opinion that the narrative took a long time before it could be included in the Gospel because of the quick and uncomplicated forgiveness of the woman, which seems to contradict the harsh and rigorous penitential discipline in the early Church.  But it is an authentic story that goes back to the historical Jesus.)
            In the Gospel of John, it may be noted that the preaching of Jesus had such an impact that the Jewish leaders plotted his death (5:18; 7:1).  In their determination to expose him as a false prophet and thereby condemn him, they tried to score a point in law.  While Jesus was teaching in the Temple area, the Scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery.  They thought of putting him in a dilemma: if he should agree to have her stoned, he could appear as an enemy of Rome, which alone had the authority over capital punishment.  If he would not, he could break the Jewish law, which prescribes stoning for adulterers:  “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death” (Deut 22:22-23; see also Lev 20:10).  (The dilemma resembles to the one on the question of paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17).  If Jesus favors the paying of taxes to the Emperor, the common people would reject him, for they saw the paying of taxes as a violation of the commandment that there is only one Lord who gave Israel their land.  But if he counsels non-payment of taxes, the Roman would mark him a rebel.)
            Poor woman!  Dragged out from the experience of personal intimacy, she must have been distraught and disoriented to find herself amid men pointing their accusing fingers to her!  She must have covered her head to escape recognition.  But what is odious here is not simply that they exposed her shame.  It is rather the motive of the Pharisees and Scribes.  And they justified their means with it.  They were simply using her in their controversy with Jesus over the Jewish law.  In fact, they were not even interested in the law.  All they wanted was to pin Jesus.  They had no qualms about dragging a woman through the mud, treating her as an object to parade their zeal for the law.  But the God that Jesus preached is not a God of legalism.  He is a God who puts priority on the human person over the law.  Before him, who really is without sin?  (“All men have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” [Rom 3:23]).  Who does not stand under condemnation?  If God were to judge us according to his Word, who would survive?  (cf Ps 130:3). 
As in the story about the question of paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus in this narrative threw the burden of the problem to the questioners by his advise: “Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7b).  In uttering these words, Jesus exposed the self-righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Thinking over these words, they must have realized their unexposed, hidden faults, and under the gaze of Jesus, became ashamed of them, as one by one they drifted away, beginning with the eldest (John 8:9).  For one thing, how in the world they knew adultery was going on?   By going away without a word, they admitted that they were no less sinful than they woman the dragged out.  Which is enough to disqualify them from judging her.  “By your judgment you convict yourself, since you do the very same things” (Rom 2:1b).  But as we noted last Sunday, God is a God of love and compassion.  He loves us even in our sinfulness:  “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
            Jesus avoided the dilemma by raising the issue from mere legalism to what really matters.  In sharp contrast with the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus faced the woman as a human person, an object of God’s love, compassion and mercy.  It must have been a liberating experience for the woman to realize that all her accusers have walked away; she, who was miserable, was left alone to face Jesus who embodied the mercy and compassion of God.  In the famous words of St Augustine, Relicti sunt duo: misera et misericordia.  The Lord--even though he could have judged because he had no sin, unlike those who wished to stone her-- never uttered a word of condemnation.  All he offered was the love of God, and that love would have enabled her to start a new life: “You may go, but from now on, avoid sin” (John 8:11).  Sin in society is not stamped out by killing sinners; that would only multiply sin.  To kill criminals is to perpetuate murder and criminality.  The community grows when all realize that they are all a party to sin, and when sinners are given the chance to repent and experience the love and mercy of God.

Friday, March 8, 2013

God's Merciful Love for the Lost and the Self-Righteous


An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 15:1-3.11-33, March 10, 2013

HOW DO WE TREAT the members of our community who do not behave according to the standard of the dominant society?  In today’s Gospel, we have an example of such a person: a prodigal son who, selfish and extravagant, got his inheritance and squandered his money with whores and on dissolute living.  Having become destitute, he even longed to eat the husks that were fodder for pigs, but no one gave him anything (Luke 15:12-16).  Philosophers might describe him as a short-lived epicurean—“Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die”—but we who have no leisure for the abstract would call him profligate.  Obviously, such a man has nothing to contribute to progress and development.  On the contrary, if his behavior were conducted at a national level, he would ruin the economy.  We really have no use for him. How do we treat people like him?   In our society, we expect him to be in jail, if merely to ignore him would not suffice.  Of course, he has nothing that we can be proud of; we would disinherit him for shaming us.  Such is our usual thinking and attitude.  But as Christians, how do we deal with such a person?
            The parable, which is traditionally known as the parable of the prodigal son, provides two answers we can learn from.  The first one is given by the elder son.  Having learned that his profligate brother was back, he did not even bother to see him, still less join the merrymaking.  For him, since his brother was unredeemable, dissolute and sinful, the book should be thrown at him.  He should suffer the consequences of his action.  Having squandered his share of the estate and therefore having lost his rights to partake what now belongs to him, why should he receive ring, the finest robe and a new pair of shoes?  Why give a party and kill the fatted calf?  (Luke 15:22-23). Since he sinned seriously, he did not deserve this royal welcome.  There is simply no justice there, especially in view of the fact that his Father did not even give him, the elder brother, so much as a kid goat to celebrate with his friend, even though he never disobeyed his orders (Luke 15:29). Logically enough, he would not join a sinner in a party.  The thinking and attitude of the elder son is easily identified with those of the Pharisees and Scribes.  They criticized Jesus for welcoming sinners into his company, and eating with them.
            The second one is given by the father.  In the parable, the Father of the two sons was so loving to his prodigal, younger son that he did not even allow him to finish his prepared piece.  What was important to him was that he was back, and so it was time to hold feast.  He overlooked the sinfulness of his son; instead of severely reprimanding his son, he embraced him without any criticism, recriminations, but with total forgiveness and mercy.  The fact is, he had been longing for his son to come back (Luke 15:20a).  And now that he was back, it was time to put the past into oblivion and to make merry:  “Let us eat and celebrate because this son of mine was dead and has come back to life.  He was lost and is found” (Luke 15:23).  Such an attitude and behavior may be, in our very human, all too human thinking, very inappropriate, for we usually think that one must first pay his debts before he could be accepted to the normal society.  But God’s behavior is different from ours.  And that is how he wants us to behave and treat the sinful members of our community.  That explains why Jesus welcomed sinners and ate with them.  God is generous and extravagant in his love.  Like the father in the parable, he takes the initiative in reconciling himself with sinners.  Paul explicitly asserts: “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).  In Christ, he even went to the extent of identifying himself with them: “For our sakes God made him who did not know sin to be sin, so that in him we might become the very holiness of God” (2 Cor 5:21).  That is why it is preferable to title this story as a parable of a father’s love, instead of the parable of the prodigal son, for the focus, no doubt about it, is God’s love for sinners.  His love is so different from ours!
            It is worth emphasizing that God’s love is not only shown to the outcast of society, like the prodigal son.  He also loves the self-righteous, like the Pharisees and the Scribes, whom the elder son represents.  In the parable, the elder son resents that his father, instead of punishing him for wantonness, gave his brother ring and new clothes and threw a party for his coming back.  It is as if he did not like that his brother was entirely forgiven.  He was righteously indignant that his father wholly welcomed his wayward brother.  When we are righteous, we are often jealous that God cares for sinners.  But the truth is, we are no less sinful, because we are trapped in our own righteousness.  That is why the father in the parable sought the elder brother, too!  He said that everything he had was his.  Thus, he reminded the elder brother that everything the latter had comes from him.  Moreover, what the elder brother needed was a lesson on fraternal charity and forgiveness.  
             A community, of course, does not grow merely by following the rules of society.  There may be order, which is the purpose of law, but that would not create an atmosphere that is conducive to authentic living.  For a community grows when there is love, which law cannot give.  Law without love is like a body without spirit—it is dead.  But when there is love, there is also forgiveness and reconciliation, and the good of the beloved is sought.  A society that kills its sinful members will end up killing itself—none will be left, for we are all sinners.  But when there is love and forgiveness among the brothers, even what seems to be impossible emerges.  A new man, a new community looms in the horizon.