Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Deep Longings of the Poor in the Light of the Petition, "Hallowed Be Thy Name"

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 11:1-13, July 28, 2013

 SOMETIME IN FEBRUARY 2001, a large number of poor people—the shirtless and the shoeless, the urban poor, the riffraff, the pro-Estradas among the masses—gathered at EDSA (Epifanio de los Santos Ave.), and after a few nights, eventually marched toward the MalacaƱang apparently with the end in view of restoring the unlamented former President Joseph Estrada to power.  One might easily dismiss the ESDA III, which is what many call that political gathering at EDSA in protest against the Arroyo dispensation—a product of political agitation, propaganda and manipulation, greed and opportunism, but what one cannot deny is that it was, if misdirected, a disturbing manifestation of social discontent.  It was an attempt to articulate what the poor expected the government to give them—alleviation from misery.  They dreamed of a better deal from the government and they thought, rightly or wrongly however, only their idol Estrada could give it to them. 

      In the Philippines, such a dream, of course, is nothing new, as the history of rebellion and revolution in the country shows.  Rebels, the deluded, demagogues and politicians envision a society in which they are liberated from their historical pain and suffering.  At the close of the Spanish regime, for example, Felipe Salvador, otherwise known as Apo Ipe, who founded the Santa Iglesia movement in Central Luzon, warned that soon there would be rain of gold and jewels for his followers after the “second flood,” in which all unbelievers would be destroyed.  The Dios-Dios movement in Samar island in the 1880s promised not only freedom from taxes but more significantly, a mountain of gold for those who joined their rebellion against the Spaniards.  In recent memory, Marcos had his Bagoing Lipunan (The New Society), Ramos his Philippines 2000, Estrada his Erap para sa Mahirap, (Erap for the Proletariat),  Arroyo her Strong Republic, and Aquino his Matuwid na Daan (Straight Path)—all of them promising a new world for the poor. But looking at all these as a whole, one might ask whether they went beyond being mere promises.

          Today’s Gospel is about Jesus’ vision for the poor.  Of course, in its context, this Sunday’s 3rd Reading is about prayer, and although we are not told where or when Jesus prayed on this particular occasion, Luke probably inserted this in a series of episodes that transpired while Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51) to bring home the point that this is about discipleship—a disciple of Jesus must a man of prayer.  And that is probably the intention of this selection in the liturgy.  But for our purpose, we can look at the Gospel not as a lesson on prayer, but an introduction to what Jesus wanted for the poor by examining the meaning of its some parts.  In this prayer which Jesus taught his disciples, we are given a general idea of his dream for the poor—it is the vision of the Kingdom of God.  Earlier in the Gospel, Jesus announced a macarism for them: “Blessed are you poor, the Kingdom of God is yours” (Luke 6:20).  Those who were oppressed, taken advantage of, economically deprived and had nothing to lean on except God, he called blessed, because their misery would come to an end.  The kingdom of God would answer their dreams and their longing would be satisfied.

            But what precisely is this vision for the poor?  This vision is described in Luke’s Gospel in various ways, but if we limit ourselves to the Lord’s Prayer, we can already see some characteristics of that vision, the fulfillment of which his public ministry was directed.  In the Lord’s Prayer, all the petitions describe various aspects of that vision which Jesus expected to be realized in the future for the poor.  That is why, in New Testament studies, the Our Father is often called an eschatological prayer, because it is a prayer that speaks of something that will happen in the final times.  For the nonce, however, it suffices to focus on the first petition: “Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2b).  In invoking God as Father, Jesus made it clear that the fulfillment of the hope of the poor does not consist in the abundance of land, livestock, money or material satisfaction—that would be too ephemeral—but can be found in the ultimate community in which all acknowledge God as their Father who loves and cares for them and their needs, and in their being his sons and daughters (cf Deut 1:31; Hos 11:1; Is 49:15).

 This implies, of course, that all women and men recognize their status as brothers and sisters in the family of God.  In Luke’s theology, this is begun here on earth when people hear and act on the word of God in Jesus (Luke 8:21), and eventually form one family under the Fatherhood of God. (Extra-Lucan reflection would teach that this is made possible by the Holy Spirit through whom the disciples of Jesus become adopted sons and daughters [Gal 4:5-7; Rom 8:14-17].  These disciples share the life which God himself communicated to Jesus [2 Pet 1:4]).  In this family which is being realized here on earth, each member, like the Samaritan, treats his brother with love and care, without discrimination and greed; and his action, like Mary’s, springs from listening to Jesus.  In that family, there is no longer any place of agitation, propaganda, disinformation, and manipulation to which the poor are very often subjected; on the contrary, they will receive the freedom of the sons and daughters of God.

            It is a family in which God’s name is held holy.  To be sure, many people often take “hallowed be your name” to mean that we are to praise, magnify and glorify the name of God.  Since the Charismatic Communities praise the name of the Lord in their prayer meetings, it is sometimes claimed that they are the ones who really understand the meaning of the petition.  That might be true, but the thought that in this petition the disciples are to honor the name of God by praising and glorifying it is obviously of secondary significance.  The meaning of the passage, rather, has to do with the action of God.  It is not we who sanctify, but God himself who makes holy his name.  The community of disciples prays that God bring about a situation in which all peoples and individuals recognize his name.  This particular text harks back to the vision of Ezekiel (Ezek 36:22-26) in which God rehearses the wickedness of Israel, and out of his zeal to sanctify his name, gathers all Israel from their exile and leads them back to their land.  He reorders the people and creates a harmonious society, freed from impurities and idols, and liberated from foreign oppression, the people given a new heart and new spirit.  Thus, in praying for the hallowing of God’s name, Jesus envisioned that God would vindicate his name by gathering those who believe in him into a family of disciples.  In that family, there would be an end to all evils which desecrated his name: exploitation of the weak by the powerful, cheating and manipulation of the poor by the rich and the clever, discrimination in social relationship on the basis of sex, creed, color, work, etc.  The poor would certainly be vindicated in that form of community.

          That is the picture of the hoped-for society that Jesus prayed for, and that is the alternative vision of society that we hope God will give us whenever we pray, “Father, hallowed be thy name.”  That is the kind of community that is in store for us in the final times.  And precisely because the Lord’s Prayer is the only prayer that Jesus taught his disciples, it is a prayer which only we Christians can, and must pray.  It is our identity.  That is what we wish to be: a community of life and love, shared with God and our fellowmen.  It is a community freed from all forms of evil, and for service and love for one another.  It is also our mission.  We have to engage in the realization of this hoped-for community.  At the same time, if we believe that God is our Father, then we must behave as brothers and sisters to one another.  If we believe in the holiness of his name, then we ought to work for the gathering of all Christians—no matter their color, social status or nationality (cf Gal 3:26-28)—so a Christian world will become the evidence for the sanctity of his name.  By so doing, we share in the task of establishing God’s reign on earth.  That reign more than satisfies the longings of the poor, but not necessarily in the manner poor people might think.  But they have to learn the ways of God in fulfilling their hope and satisfying their needs.  That is why they need to become “poor in spirit” (Matt 5:3).

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Priority of Listening to the Word of God

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 10:38-42, July 21, 2013

OURS IS A society that values doers. We award the fastest runner, give plaques and pin medals to the contingent that overruns an Abu-Sayyaf camp, take picture of the local politician who inaugurates infrastructural projects, and idealize the parish priest who builds a new church, rectory and multi-purpose hall.  We applaud the achiever—The Outstanding Entrepreneur, The Outstanding Farmer, The Outstanding Congressman, etc.  In today’s Gospel (Luke 10:38-42), Luke presents us two women of different temperaments: one is a doer named Martha, and the other a listener called Mary.  When Jesus came to their village (Bethany?), Martha welcomed him at her home, and being a doer, she became busy with the details of hospitality.  Just as, in the 1st Reading (Gen 18:1-10), Abraham entertained his guests with all the virtues expected of Bedouin hospitality, so Martha displayed her best in meeting the rules that hospitality required.  It is most likely that she, for example, provided water for the physical comfort of Jesus, aside from preparing the meal.  Luke does not say it, but if some disciples accompanied him, she would have to prepare not just a simple meal; and one who values people who really work can sympathize with her for voicing out her feelings, “Lord, are you not concerned that my sister has left me to do the household tasks all alone?  Tell her to help me” (Luke 10:40b).

         To Martha’s complaint that Mary merely seated herself as his feet, while she was distracted with so much serving, Jesus said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and upset about many things; one thing only is required.  Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it” (Luke 10:41b-42).  At first blush, it would seem that Jesus’ comment is baffling.  After all, Mary never lent a hand in doing the household chores.  That one sympathizes with Martha is understandable.  Since he was their guest, it was natural for Martha to fret about the demands of hospitality.  “If Martha had imitated Mary, Christ would have gone without dinner,” says St Theresa.  Moreover, did not Jesus tell us to imitate the Good Samaritan who was concerned with the details of taking care of the victim (10:33-35)?  Did not he speak of being of service to others (22:27)?  What exactly was Jesus trying to convey?

            The pericope should be understood in the light of Luke’s theology of discipleship.  For him, to hear and act on the word of God in Jesus constitutes the foundation of discipleship:  “Any man who desires to come to me will hear my words and put them into practice” (6:47).  And as we noted in the story of the Good Samaritan (10:25-37), God’s word is not confined to the Law; among others, it is present in the person in need, and to respond to his need is to act upon the word.  But more fundamental than doing the word is listening to it.  In the story about Martha and Mary, it seems that Luke does not portray Martha as hostess, despite the impression given and Luke’s description that she was busy with the demands of hospitality.  Rather, as in the story of Zaccheus (19:1-10) and the two men from Emmaus (24:13-32), Jesus himself is the host.  (After all, Jesus did not come to be served [22:27]).  And central to the story is not Martha offering a table of material food but Jesus offering a table of the word.  While Martha offers food for daily sustenance, Jesus offers food for eternal life: the word of God.

            Small wonder, then, that Jesus said, “Mary has chosen the better portion and she shall not be deprived of it” (10:42).  More basic than acting on the word is, as we noted, hearing it.  Mary chose to listen to the word of God in Jesus. That Jesus praised her—this is meant to underline that action, like Martha’s or the Good Samaritan’s, should ultimately spring from listening to God’s word.  This is the proper response to God’s offer in Jesus—one’s personal adherence to his person and words.  If doing were enough—well, even Communists can take care of people in need; one need not be a Christian to do it.  In fact, that is the rallying slogan of activists, revolutionaries and rebels: action for the poor!  But that is the heresy of action.  The story, then, is not intended to praise Mary at the expense of Martha, but to point out that in discipleship, our action should issue from God’s word and an embodiment of it.  Here true discipleship begins.  Lending support to this interpretation is the depiction of Mary as seating herself at the Lord’s feet.  “To seat at a person’s feet” is actually a New Testament expression for being a disciple of that person.  Luke, for example, describes Paul’s education as being seated at the feet of Gamaliel (Acts 22:3).

      For centuries, the story has been used to argue that contemplative life, which Mary supposedly represents, is better than active life, which Martha is said to symbolize, or that religious life is better than the life of the lay person who is involved in the world.  That interpretation, however, is very much wide of the mark.  The pericope is really about discipleship, which brings true beatitude: “Blest are they who hear the word of God and keep it” (11:28).  Hearing and doing the word of God cannot be separated, however.  Martha is no less important than Mary, since one cannot exist without the other.  Discipleship needs both of them.  Which is why Luke gives us portraits of two temperaments; they may be different, but they need one another.  Action, however, must result from listening.  It is not enough to be like the Samaritan; of more primary is that one first listens to, and is guided by the word of God in Jesus.  This point is even accented in the liturgy.  Before we partake of the Eucharistic Food (Liturgy of the Eucharist), and before we are sent on mission (“go, the mass is ended,”), we are first served with the word of God (Liturgy of the Word).  For how can our life proclaim the gospel if it has not been nourished first by the word? 

   This recalls what John Paul II says in his apostolic letter, Novo millennio ineunte concerning the priority of listening to the word of God for the Church’s work in the new millennium: “It is above all the work of evangelization and catechesis which is drawing new life from attentiveness to the word of God.  Dear brothers and sisters, this development [in devout listening to Sacred Scripture and attentive study of it] needs to be consolidated and deepened, also by making sure that every family has a Bible.  It is especially necessary that listening to the word of God should become a life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of lectio divina, which drawns from the biblical text the living word which questions, directs and shapes our lives.  To nourish ourselves with the word in order to be ‘servants of the word’ in the work of evangelization: this is surely a priority for the Church at the dawn of the new millennium.”

Friday, July 12, 2013

Responding to God's Word by Transcending Legalism

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fifteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 10:25-37, July 14, 2013

HOW CAN ONE achieve the good life?  In a secular society where people value wealth more than any other, it might be said that it is important that one has to be included in the small circle of friends who have access to the corridors of MalacaƱang, owns a mansion in a beach resort, is in possession of a good number of dollar accounts in several banks both here and in Switzerland, has investments abroad, and has a beautiful wife and kids studying in Boston or in London.  That would probably be heaven on earth. 

But first-century Jews did not have that outlook.  In the Jewish social world at the time of Jesus, what was most important was to be included in the new age, when the Messiah would come to establish a reign of justice and love; in other words, to be part of God’s people.  That is the sense of the lawyer’s question in today’s Gospel (Luke 10:25-27): “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” (v 25).  In answer, Jesus pointed to him what was contained in the Law.  (The law was the Five Books of Moses.)  Of course, Jesus and the lawyer were familiar with the Torah, and there was nothing in their conversation about it that was unknown to them.  For the Jews, the Torah was the fundamental law of existence.  It was the foundation of the entire Jewish social and legal system, and of the way of life of the individual and society.  Understandably enough, Josephus, the well-known Jewish historian, said that the whole life of every Jew was dominated by law.  The Torah defined his Jewishness, gave him a system of values, and a sense of integrity.  It is not surprising, therefore, that in the Gospel, Jesus referred the lawyer to some injunctions in the law: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18; Deut 6:5).

       But is the observance of the Torah sufficient for one to be part of the new age of the Messiah?  From the point of view of Luke’s community, such a claim cannot be sustained.  Following the Law is not enough for the new age.  To stress this point, Luke tells us the vignette on the Good Samaritan.  The Jews would have found the story stunning because the hero is their hated enemy.  The Samaritans, who had bitter tension with the Jews, were descendants of a mixed population occupying the land after its conquest by the Assyrians in 722 BC.  They opposed the rebuilding of the Temple and Jerusalem, and set up their own temple on Mount Gerizim.  The Jews considered them as ceremonially unclean, social outcasts and religious heretics.  They were the exact opposite of the lawyers who were known for being knowledgeable about the Torah. 

But Jesus told the story about a certain man who, on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho, was stripped, beaten and left half dead by bandits (Luke 10:30) precisely to bring to the fore the insufficiency of merely knowing and obeying what the Law commanded.  He likely wanted to stress that the priest and the Levite, who were religious and knew the Law, did nothing for the man not because they were heartless or insensitive to human misery, but because they were following the injunction that says: “Everyone who touches a dead person, whether he was slain by the sword or died naturally or who touches a human bone or a grave, shall be unclean for several days” (Num 19:16).  They probably thought that the poor man was dead, and the law, which required ritual purity of priests, forbade them to touch a corpse, if they were to take part in the temple service.  In other words, these privileged members of the Jewish society were observing the law by having nothing to do with the man lying on the road.

       With this parable Jesus says to us in effect that the Law is not enough for one to be part of the new age.  Only God’s word is.  Though the Torah is a concretization of the word of God in which the Law finds its roots, yet the word is not exhausted by or confined to the law.  To obey the word of God, there are times when one has to transcend the law.  God’s word—hearing and doing which constitutes one’s real happiness (cf Luke 11:28)—is present in the events of our life, in women and men in the world.  It is also present in the man in need.  Hence, one’s acceptance or rejection of the needy is also his acceptance or rejection of the word of God. 

The parable of the Good Samaritan gives us an example of what it means to go beyond what the law says.  Though he was regarded as a person who does not properly observe the law, and for that very reason was despised and ridiculed, yet his action on behalf of the man in need—dressing his wounds, hoisting him on a beast, bringing him to an inn and caring for him (Luke 10:34)—was a loving response to God’s word.  He proved to be the neighbor of the man in need.  Unlike the lawyer who wanted to know who, from the point of view of the Torah, was his neighbor, the Samaritan was not interested in the fine points—the minutiae—of the law; he was more interested in responding to God’s word in the man in need, which is the spirit of the law.  He went beyond the narrow legal definition of neighbor.  Luke is thus giving us the impression that the lawyer’s question “Who is my neighbor?” is entirely wrong.  For a man who listens to the word of God, the correct question should be, “To whom can I be a neighbor?”, for every man in need is a neighbor, and God’s word to him.  As D. Bonhoeffer puts it, “neighborliness is not a quality in other people; it is simply their claim on ourselves.  We have literally no time to sit down and ask ourselves whether so-and-so is our neighbor nor not.  We must get into action and obey; we must behave like a neighbor to him.”  Thus, this despised Samaritan is presented as a moral paradigm of one who lives the word of God and, hence, who is truly part of God’s people.

       In effect, contrary to the thinking of many Christians that following rules will ensure one’s place in God’s kingdom, achieving eternal life—which Christian religion is concerned with—is far from being all about laws.  God’s word cannot be wholly identified with them.  God’s word is rather about life, about people in need who are our neighbors because God’s word is uncomfortably present in them.  People in need—those who are wounded psychologically, who have no power to lean on, who are forgotten by the dominant society, or who are even our enemies—they are God’s word to us, inviting our response that does not issue from the pressure of law’s demand.  We must therefore go beyond legalism.  We must transcend the thinking of our law-oriented institutions.  If not, then we will feel comfortable even in face of uncomfortable situation, because we rest on the mantle of law.  If not, we can always assure ourselves that we remain respectable and good people without doing anything concretely commendable simply because we do not transgress any law at all.  That is why the word of God challenges us to look beyond the system we are confined to by seeing the word of God in other people, places and things.  Like the person in need we encounter in the ordinary event of our lives.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Peacemaking—Not an Optional Commitment but a Requirement of Discipleship

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 10:1-12.17-20, July 7, 2013.

EVEN IF ONE just limits his reading to newspaper headlines this month, it will not take him more than a minute to conclude that this is not a peaceful world.  The provocative acts of China against small Asian countries, the firefight between the Abu Sayyaf and the military in Mindanao, the tribal bloody conflict in Darfur, the tension between North Korea and South Korea, the war against terrorism in Afghanistan, the drug crimes in Mexico and the unrest in Thailand—these stories may not prove Marx correct in his theory that ours is a history of struggle between the rich and the poor, but they do indicate that our history continues to be characterized by confrontation, conflict and hostilities.  But despite these endless happenings of violence and war, people—especially those who experience war and those who are victims of human rights violations, of disinformation and blackmail—know the need and long for peace. 

In today’s 1st Reading (Isa 66:10-14c), Isaiah speaks of peace that God will bestow on his people who suffered strife, defeat and humiliation.  But what is peace?  For the prophet, peace is not merely the absence of war.  One does not create a desert and call it peace.  Using the image of the New Jerusalem as a mother who consoles the returning exiles at her breast and dandles them at her lap, the prophet describes peace in terms of the mournful experiencing comfort, prosperity spreading over the land, and all inhabitants being joyful in mind and heart.  Isaiah’s imagery expresses in another way the Old Testament idea of peace as an experience of wholeness and integrity in the life of the people and community—the right relationship among the members of the community and nation and the right relationship between the people and God.

            But will we ever experience it?  In the theology of the New Testament, such peace—it is experienced—is often elusive.  This is because, viewed according to the Jewish symbolic universe, evil forces are at work.  An example of this explanation is given in a scroll found at Qumran caves: “All dominion over the sons of perversity is in the hand of the Angel of darkness; they walk in the ways of darkness.  And because of the Angel of darkness all the sons of righteousness go astray; and all their sin and iniquities and faults, and all the rebellion of their deeds, are because of his dominion…  And all the blows that smite them, all the times of their distress, are because of the dominion of his malevolence.  And all the spirits of his lot cause the sons of light to stumble; but the God of Israel and His Angel of truth succour all the sons of light” (1QS 3:20-25a). 

The influence of Satan’s power is vast and difficult to eradicate.  This is evidenced in, among others, personal rifts and social and political conflicts where, it is assumed, he dominates.  According to this symbolic universe, illness and physical handicaps are results of the activity of Satan’s power.  Also, if there is no harmony and prosperity in the land, it is because his demonic power controls not only the life of the individual but also the relationship within the nation and among nations.  In the light of this view of reality, one can claim that the power of Satan lies behind the proliferation of prohibited drugs, the uncontrolled jueteng, the kidnappings for ransom, and other evils that plague our present society.

            With Jesus, however, came new and full power (cf Matt 28:18).  Through his cross and resurrection, he vanquished the powers of this world: “thus did God disarm the principalities and powers.  He made a public show of them and, leading them off captive, triumphed in the person of Christ” (Col 2:15).  Because he defeated the forces of evil, peace is now possible.  Of course, during his public ministry, he already anticipated this victory over evil and triumph for peace through his healings and exorcisms. “For with what authority and power he commands the unclean spirits and they come out” (Luke 4:36).  By undoing Satan’s work, Jesus challenged the demonic power and its influence. 

That is why, in today’s Gospel (Luke 10:1-12.17-20), the seventy-two disciples, who were given power by Jesus, could exclaim in triumph: “Master, even the demons are subject to us in your name” (Luke 10:17).  They penetrated into the territory of Satan who, unseen by men, exercises influence over people and events in the world.  Thus, even in his public ministry, the power of Satan to sow evil was already being broken.  As Jesus himself said, “I watched Satan fall from the sky like lighting” (Luke 10:18).  Though the eschatological battle between the forces of good and evil has begun, now the ultimate victory over Satan is being won, with the rising of Jesus to new life.  In the words of the Johannine Jesus, “Now has judgment come upon this world, now will this world’s prince be driven out, and I—once am lifted up from earth—will draw all men to myself” (John 12:31-32).  And as Paul puts it, “then the God of peace will quickly crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20).

            But what does the Gospel wish to teach us about peace?  We all long for peace, for wholeness, integrity and well-being--which is meant by the Hebrew word shalom, but in order to establish this peace not only in our individual lives, but also in our community, in the nation and in the world, Jesus needs men to spread it.  It cannot be privatized as if it were an individual possession, with the bearer unmoved by the events, vicissitudes and concerns in this life.  Peace always involves relationships within communities and between peoples; it is always about their unity and harmony.  If Jesus gave his peace to his disciples (cf John 14:27), his disciples must bring it to men.  This is why in today’s Gospel, Jesus sent his disciples for the mission to spread peace: “On entering any house, first say, ‘Peace to this house’.  If there is a peaceable man there, your peace will rest on him” (Luke 10:5-6).  What Jesus meant here is not a simple greeting that one gives to people he meets on the way, but an announcement of the peace that the salvation of Jesus brings. 

We, Christians, must be peace-bearers.  We are to be vehicles of peace—for it is only through the communities of disciples will real peace come upon earth.  We have to be involved in the peace-process.  In our time, that process would include not only maintaining the balance of power, but even more important, safeguarding of the goods of persons, free communication among men, respect for the dignity of persons and peoples, and assiduous practice of charity (CCC 2304).  And it may be stressed that to spread peace is not a work of mercy—it is rather demanded by our status as disciples of Jesus.  “Peacemaking is not an optional commitment.  It is a requirement of our faith.  We are called to be peacemakers, not by some movement of the moment, but by our Lord Jesus” (NCCB, The Challenge of Peace, 333).