Friday, June 28, 2013

One Who Follows the Road to Jerusalem--Luke's Portrait of a Disciple

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 9:51-62, June 30, 2013

“ACCEPT JESUS AS your personal Lord and Savior, and you will be saved.”  How often one hears street preachers and tele-evangelists say this, with the implication that this is all one has to do in response to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus.  And of course, such texts as Acts 16:31 and Rom 10:9 are often tacked to it in order to buttress the claim.  How easy salvation would be if this were true!   There would be no need for the Church, the Eucharist and the sacraments, prayers and holiness of life—which is exactly what many born-again Christians claim!  Unfortunately, however, what is almost always overlooked is that such statement about man’s response to God’s offer of salvation is, as found in the texts, already a formula which must be explored, bearing as it does a long history—therefore, with many presuppositions and implications.  Hence, unless the statement is taken in its proper context, chances are that the interpretation will be off-tangent.  For this reason, it has to be seen in the light of other ways in which it is described. 

Today’s Gospel on the cost of discipleship (Luke 9:51-62) is an example of how the response to God’s offer in Jesus is depicted differently, because of a different theological purpose.  For Luke, as for all the synoptic writers, the central message of Jesus is the Kingdom of God, and man’s response to that offer is discipleship.  But who is a disciple?  In all the synoptic Gospels (Mark, Mathew and Luke), hearing and acting upon the Word of God is the essential note of discipleship: “Any man who desires to come to me will hear my words and put them into practice” (Luke 6:47; Matt 7:224-27; cf Mark 3:35). 

In the theology of Luke, however, there seems to be two distinctive features that are not found in the other synoptic Gospels.   First, quite apart from hearing and doing the teaching of Jesus, one identifies himself with the life and destiny of the Master (Luke 9:23); he must walk in his footsteps.  Second, discipleship culminates in one’s membership in the community of brothers and sisters: “My mother and brothers are those who hear the word of God and act upon it” (Luke 8:71).  That community is realized in Jerusalem, to which Jesus firmly resolved to proceed (Luke 9:51), and which is the city of his rejection, betrayal and death.  It is there where a community of one heart and one mind is established (Acts 2:24).  These two are inseparable: so one may become a member of the family of God, he has, following Jesus, to take his own journey to Jerusalem, where he will be rejected and killed.

            Today’s Gospel focuses on the first element—journey to Jerusalem: “As the time approach when he was to be taken up from this world, he firmly resolved to proceed toward Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51).  In this verse which begins Luke’s Travel Document (Luke 9:51-19:27), the word “taken up” does not simply mean Jesus’ ascension, but the entire complex of passion-death-resurrection-ascension.  Luke would like to tell us that at this point, Jesus began this complex by heading to Jerusalem—his determined objective.  And to embark on such a journey—the journey every disciple must undergo--is not easy.   On the contrary, it is costly. 

The requirements are set in three sayings.  First: To one who said “I will be your follower wherever you go,” Jesus replied, “Foxes have lairs, the birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).  Discipleship entails complete renunciation of what one usually strives after: honor, money, power and comfort.  While it is an invitation to wholeness, integrity and meaning, yet all this becomes possible if one is ready to renounce himself—if his personal ambition and comfort recede to nothingness, and if one strives after the values of the Kingdom.  Jesus, after all, had no security and comfort.  He depended on others’ generosity and hospitality (8:1-3).

 Second: When someone told him he would follow him provided he would first bury his father, Jesus replied, “Let the dead bury their dead” (9:60).  This demand is not to be taken negatively, that is to say, it does not mean that Jesus was anti-familial.  What he meant to say was that burying the physically dead should be left to those who are spiritually dead.  But to be a disciple, one has to transcend one’s physical family and be eager to accept all as brothers and sisters in order to establish family of God where there is no Greek or Jew, male or female, black and white, but all are one as brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:27-28).  In question of loyalties, the realization of this community of the Kingdom must prevail. 

And third: After one told him he would follow him, but he would first take leave of his people at home, Jesus answered, “Whoever puts his hand to plow but keeps looking back is unfit for the Kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).  (This saying recalls the 1st Reading [1 Kgs 19:16b, 19-21] where Elisha asked permission from Elijah to kiss his parents goodbye.)  Just as one, while looking back, cannot plow straight furrows, so one cannot be a disciple if his commitment is half-hearted.  Commitment cannot be made on weekly basis, for it is a lifetime commitment.  It is easy to be dedicated at the start of any endeavor, but to sustain the commitment requires more than a youthful enthusiasm.

This, according to Luke, is all it takes to undergo a journey to Jerusalem in response to God’s offer of salvation in Jesus.  This is the Lukan portrait of discipleship; one follows the road to Jerusalem that Jesus treaded.  This is why Luke—and only Luke—placed this episode at the start of his travel account so we can understand that discipleship implies walking in the very footsteps of Jesus to Jerusalem, which is obviously more than accepting in one’s heart Jesus as personal Lord and Savior, however psychologically fulfilling such acceptance might be.  Indeed, discipleship is not taken under fair weather.  Jesus or the Kingdom of God takes precedence over comfort and security, family loyalties and personal interests.  He offered no bargains.  But then, one is assured of one’s place in the community of disciples in Jerusalem, where one experiences integrity and wholeness.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

How Does One Discover the Real Identity of Jesus?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 8:18-24, June 23, 2012

IN UNDERSTANDING JESUS’ identity, it is not uncommon to approach the problem theoretically by asking whether he is God or man.  Thus, we may begin with a certain idea of God and see if this could be applied to Jesus.  Such an approach, however, is not without peril, because the idea of God is itself problematic, to begin with.  In the Gospel of Luke, the people’s observations on his words and works led them to ask who he was.  After the calming of the tempest, the disciples inquired, “What sort of man can this be?” (Luke 8:25).  When Herod heard about what Jesus was doing, he said, “Who is this man?”  While these questions were never answered, the people’s perception of him, on the basis of his speech and action, was diverse: he was John the Baptist raised from the dead, Elijah or one of the prophets of old risen (Luke 9:7-8.19). If anything, the effort to know Jesus from what he said and dead does not succeed, either.  How, then, do we know his identity? 

            It would seem that the best way to approach the problem of Jesus’ identity is to have a personal encounter with him.  If Peter was able to approximate the truth about Jesus’ identity, it is because he has been following him.  He followed Jesus from the beginning of his ministry, and shared in that ministry.  This explains why in much the same way that a wife’s knowledge about her husband is from removed from those of her acquaintances, so Peter’s perception was different from that of the crowd, “You are  the Messiah of God” (Luke 9:20).   In making this confession, Peter, of course, understood Jesus in the Jewish sense of an expected anointed agent in the kingly, Davidic tradition.  Having witnessed Jesus’ ministry of preaching, healing and working miracles, he recognized him as the anointed to free Israel from the yoke of Rome and restore the kingdom of Israel (Acts 1:6). 

            Since Peter’s encounter with Jesus was limited only to the latter’s public ministry, it is understandable that he did not have a full knowledge of Jesus’ identity.  Although he correctly applied to Jesus the title “Messiah,” yet his understanding of that title was still far from being entirely correct.  Which is why, Jesus rebuked him as well as the other disciples (of whom Peter was the spokesman) and directed him not to tell anyone about his identity.  As a corrective to that understanding, Jesus added, “The Son of Man must suffer greatly and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, be killed and on the third day be raised up” (Luke 9:22).  In other words, Jesus’ real identity is the Son-of-Man Messiah who, in obedience to God’s plan of salvation, must be repudiated and suffer many things.  But all this was not yet fully disclosed to his disciples.

            His identity was fully revealed when, after Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples themselves followed him in his footsteps.  In discipleship, his followers had a full encounter with the risen Lord.  For this reason, his messianic identity was no longer concealed.  Indeed, the disciples were already being asked to be witnesses to it: “Let the whole house of Israel know for certain that God has made him Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36).  Logically enough, Jesus asked those who wished to really know him to disregard themselves and take up their crosses daily on account of the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:23).  Only those who lose their life for the sake of Christ will really come to a true knowledge of Jesus’ real identity (Luke 9:24).  A good example is Paul who did not preach anything save the crucified Messiah.  Notice how his knowledge of Christ is intertwined with his sharing in the Jesus’ suffering: “I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in the sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death” (Phil 3:10).  In the contemporary age, probably no one knows the Lord’s identity better than St Francis of Assisi; his stigmata and his poverty are witnesses to his encounters with the risen Lord.

Friday, June 14, 2013

An Extravagant Display of Love and the Grace of Forgiveness

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Eleventh Sunday of Year C, Luke 7:36-50, June 16, 2013

IN THE FAST-PACED movie of adventure and fantasy, shown in theaters two years ago, entitled “Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time,” set in an imagined kingdom of Persia in the fifth century, one of the characters that caught the attention of the audience was Dastan, played by Jake Gyllenhaal.  Dastan was an orphaned scamp who went about the market place.  But the King of Persia, Sharaman in the person of Ronald Pickup, caught sight of him; and shown by Dastan’s valor in fighting those who pursued him, he adopted him as his son.  Grateful to the King’s benevolence, he distinguished himself as an able commander of the Persian Army.  Accused of murdering the King, he never turned against his step brothers who sought him; rather, he tried to prove his innocence to them at his own great peril.  Indeed, he sacrificed so much in order to save them from the evil machination of their uncle, Nizam, played by Ben Kingsley, who, salivating after the royal throne, was the culprit of the plot to eliminate the king.

            Dastan’s behavior recalls how the sinful woman in today’s Gospel (Luke 7:36-50) conducted herself before Jesus.  How explain her extravagant demeanor?  There’s certainly no doubt about it, what the woman did was an expression of hospitality and great love—her kissing of Jesus’ feet, her bathing them with her tears, her drying them with her hair, and her anointing them with perfume from an alabaster flask.  The problem lies in the correct interpretation of v 47a, which is ambiguous. The new Vulgate renders it thus: “Remissa sunt peccata eius multa, quoniam delixet multum.” “Her sins, which are many, are forgiven, for she loved much” (RSV).  “Her many sins have been forgiven—for she loved much” (NIV).  By itself, the verse could mean that her multitude of sins was forgiven on account of the love she had demonstrated to Jesus.  But the preceding parable of two debtors, in addition to the second segment of v 47 (“He who was been forgiven little loves little”), excludes this interpretation.

            This brief parable allegorizes the divergent behaviors of Simon the Pharisee and the sinful woman toward Jesus.  The Pharisee was quite stingy with his hospitality, in contrast with that of the woman which was lavish.  While Simon never gave attention to the details of hospitality, even though he was the host who invited Jesus to dinner, the prostitute, who was uninvited, was hospitable to Jesus to the highest degree.  This only shows that although Simon knew Jesus, he remained blind to him and his significance to his life; he remained in his self-righteous attitude.  In reality, he did not even recognize Jesus as a prophet.  On the other hand, the loose woman certainly recognized Jesus as more than a prophet, for she accepted his word of forgiveness.   (Luke hints that Jesus is more than just a human being, since the guests wondered why he was able to forgive sins.)  Having received divine grace, she became a changed woman, and it was in the house of Simon that she was able to give thanks and demonstrate her love on account of the forgiveness she received.  In effect, the story assumes that she encountered Jesus and received forgiveness prior to her meeting with him at the house of Simon.  Because she realized her need for forgiveness, and received that gift from Jesus, it was natural that she would be generous in her response.  On the other hand, if Simon violated the rules of Palestinian hospitality, it was because the logion, “the one to whom little was forgiven, loves little (v 47b),” applies to him.

            The attitude of the sinful woman is therefore somewhat similar to the attitude of Dastan in the film.  Just as the King’s benevolence resulted in a warrior who remained faithful to the King’s family despite the dangers that he encountered, the Lord’s forgiveness lavished on the woman brought about a generous love for him, in spite of the fact that her action would have left the guests in consternation.  St Paul is the best illustration of this episode in concrete life.  As he himself declared in his letter to the Corinthians, “I am the least of the apostles; in fact, because I persecuted the church of God, I do not even deserve the name.   But by God’s favor, I am what I am.  This favor of his to me has not proved fruitless.  Indeed, I have worked harder than all the others not only my own but through the favor of God” (1 Cor 15:9-10).  Paul was conscious of his sinfulness, but he recognized the grace of God’s forgiving love that came from Jesus.  That is why he knew that if he was chosen as an apostle, it was not because of any good thing he did, or any merit on his part, but it was because of God’s loving and forgiving grace for him.  This grace produced a humongous result—Paul devoted himself to the preaching of the Gospel to the pagan world until the end of his life, and became a living Word of Jesus’ life.  This grace was the energy that propelled him in his missionary labors.

            The sinful woman, therefore, is a model for us on what it means to receive grace from God despite our unworthiness.  Unlike the Pharisee who paraded himself as righteous, she was never ashamed to accept herself and to be known by others as a sinner.  But this recognition worked all the better for her, because she came to admit her need to be forgiven, to encounter Jesus as the bringer of forgiveness and salvation, and on account of that encounter, she became a new person in Christ.  This pericope is a good reminder for some who want to parade as holy men and women, even though they know they are not, and use their power to silence, demote, and punish those who they surmise might turn out to be a threat to the cover-up of their corruption, and invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit in the use of that power.  They are the present-day Simons in our midst.  Holiness begins with the recognition that we are all sinners and in need of forgiveness. That recognition not only makes us free; it makes us human and enables us to really walk in real love and gratitude to God.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Eucharist Envisions a Society that Brings about Solidarity with the Poor and the Disadvantaged

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ, Luke 9:11-17, June 2, 2013

IT HAS BEEN noticed that there is a growing popularity of perpetual Eucharistic adoration in the country.  Probably there is no diocese in the Philippines where one cannot find one or two adoration chapels.  And if one asks those who frequently visit them, he will likely be told that it is there that they pour out their hearts before the Lord, offering their thoughts, actions, asking favors from him, or simply enjoying the nearness with him.  The devotion is of course a praiseworthy custom, because the adoration of the Sacred Host in these chapels is firmly founded on the belief that the Lord is truly, really, and substantially present in it.  However, it would be even more praiseworthy if we, Christians, are led to a wider understanding of what the Eucharist is all about.  For example, we can be taught that the Eucharist is an experience of the presence of the Risen Lord who wants us to reach out to others, especially the poor and the needy, in loving service.

            Today’s Gospel on the miracle of the loaves can enlighten us on this aspect. To begin with, the account of the feeding of the five thousand (Luke 9:11-17) is the only miracle story of Jesus’ Galilean ministry that is recounted in all the four gospels (John 6:1-15; Mark 6:30-44; Matt 14:13-21).  It is obviously a symbolic miracle.  With his inauguration of the Kingdom of God, Jesus now provides a foretaste of the Old Testament promises about God feeding his people in the Kingdom: “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples a feast of rich food and choice wines, juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines” (Isa 25:6).  In the story that gives us a glimpse of what the Kingdom is all about, Jesus is the host, welcoming the uninvited and intrusive crowd.  In unfolding the meaning of the Kingdom, he cares for his people who suffer from hunger and want.  The kingdom of God is thus not wholly spiritually; it is a community where all bodily and material needs are satisfied.  Luke brings home this point by linking the miracle to the Eucharist, which is the microcosm of the Kingdom of God.

            To be sure, the linkage between the account of the miracle of the loaves and the Eucharist can seen in the way Luke describes the feeding of the five thousand and in the way he narrates the institution of the Eucharist.  The parallels are so obvious that one is led to conclude that the eucharistic liturgical formulations colored the account of the multiplication of the bread.  The wording matches almost verbatim with that in Luke’s account of the institution (Luke 22:19).  The sequence of the verbs “having taken,” “he blessed,” “he broke,” “he gave,” immediately recalls the Eucharist.  Moreover, the sequence could be compared with the meal scene that concludes the encounter with the Risen Lord at Emmaus which is doubtless eucharistic (Luke 24:29-31:35).  This implies that for Luke the meaning of the Eucharist is to be seen in the feeding of the five thousand.  Equally important, one should not fail to point out that the blessing and the breaking of the bread which Jesus did in Bethsaida (9:11) is, as Luke recounts, continued in the practices of the early Church: in the agape meals where sharing is the common feature (Acts 2:46) and in the distribution of goods to those in need (Acts 4:35).  These reflect the responsibility given by Jesus to the apostles to nourish the Christian communities: (Luke 9:13).

            What is Luke’s point in linking the miracle with the Eucharist?  The evangelist seems to be saying that as part of the realization of the kingdom of God, the community of the reconstituted Israel, God’s people, is not only being healed psychologically and spiritually, but also being nourished eucharistically.  There are three interconnected meanings of eucharistic feeding, but all of them have something to do with what ought to happen in the community in which God’s kingdom is being realized.  First of all, the life of the community is centered on the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist, but this celebration cannot be isolated from the ministry of feeding the hungry; otherwise, the liturgy will be reduced to a ritual that is divorced from life. 

               For this reason, it is not enough to receive communion without mortal sin; it is equally important that the reception leads to the sharing of resources with the hungry and those in need.  Second, this also means that satisfying the hunger of the community members is not in itself a Christian ministry.  Even Communists, who do not believe in God, still less in Jesus, feed the hungry.  Rather, action on behalf of the hungry, the poor and the disadvantaged must be motivated by the Eucharist and one’s faith in it.  And third, the feeding is done in the manner of the Eucharist: it is really a breaking of one’s bread, not just an act of giving that one does simply because he no longer needs the resources.  Rather, it is a form of giving in which part of the giver dies, just as the Eucharist symbolizes the dying of Jesus.

             In view of this, the miracle of the loaves teaches us that the Christian community must express the life of the Kingdom in the sharing of resources among the members.  When resources are shared, miracles happen.  Hoarding, monopoly, exclusivity may be commended in the business world, but they do not have any place in the Christian community, for they are anti-Christian values.  To partake of the Eucharist is to imbibe the value of sharing, of giving, of losing and of dying.   Without these values, the Christianity of the community is a sham.  In fact, the reason why Paul in the 2nd Reading (1 Cor 11:23-26) upbraids the Christians in Corinth is that, in their agape meals, the rich do not share with the hungry poor (1 Cor ll:21).  Selfishness destroys the community; it is an anti-Kingdom value.  It depreciates the significance of the Eucharistic celebration.  Indeed, selfishness robs the Eucharist its meaning (11:20), is a contempt for the community and an embarrassment of the poor (11:22).  The purpose of sharing, of course, is not to have Christians who are filled, but to create a society where those who have share with those who do not have.  That the Eucharist is central to our faith demands that we envision a Christian society that brings about solidarity with the poor and the disadvantaged as well as universal brotherhood.