Friday, August 30, 2013

God’s Kingdom as an Unmerited Gift and Our Solidarity with the Poor



An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 14:1.7-14, September 1, 2013

ALTHOUGH WE EAT and drink to nourish our bodily systems, yet, when taken in a party, banquet or dinner, there is more to food and drink than mere nourishment. In such a context, eating and drinking is a form of communication.  It says something about the host, the guest and even the atmosphere in which the dinner is held.  As Bruce Malina points out, “just as the material used for communication in speech is language, so the material used for communication in a festive meal is food and drink and their setting.  Thus the type of food and drink chosen, their mode of preparation, method of service, and setting or reclining arrangements all say something about the inviter’s assessment of those invited (cf Luke 14:7-11).”  For one to be invited to a party, for example, reflects the importance a host gives to him, for he is clearly set apart from those who were not invited, even if the inviter knows them by name.  But even among the invited, it often happens that they are not treated equally.  We do mind the dignity society accords to people of note and prominence.  Some are seated at the presidential table, others are not.  There is always a protocol to be observed.  At the time of Jesus, it was customary to seat guests according to their dignity and rank, not according to age.  And the most prestigious places in a banquet are those to the right and to the left of the host.  The farther one is from the host, the lesser he is in the latter’s eyes.

            In today’s Gospel, we are told that when Jesus was invited to dine at a Pharisee’s house, he noticed how the Pharisees chose the first places for themselves.  According to Luke, these people were rigorous when it comes to the law (Luke 6:2), and sometimes did more than what it required (Luke 18:12).  Precisely because of their effort to strictly keep the law, they had reasons to think that they had a great dignity before God and of course before men.  If the Gospels portray them as lovers of the first seats in the synagogues, craving for the special greetings in public places, this should be thought of as a natural consequence of the dignity they claimed for themselves.  It is thus natural on the whole that they sought the best places in the banquet to which a Pharisee invited them together with Jesus.   In our society of unequal wealth and status, one could always find sympathy with the Pharisees.  At our formal dinners, we more often than not have a list of guests to be seated at the presidential table.  We know that the seating arrangement provides much indication of the social standing not only of the guests but also of the host himself.   Tell me who are your visitors, and I will tell you who you are.  Of course, social climbers have been known from Adam.  Indeed, how often we emphasize the importance of knowing the right people, especially because what is of consequence nowadays in not so much what you know as who you know.  Unlike the Pharisees, though, we do consider dignity not in terms of following the law, but in terms of power and wealth.

            In the Gospel, Luke portrays Jesus as setting rules for guests and host at a banquet.  At first blush, it would seem that Jesus was giving the invited Pharisees and their host a worldly wisdom with regard to seeking out position of prestige, meant at the same time as a warning against embarrassment in social functions.  As it appears, Jesus’ teaching about seeking the lowest place at a banquet echoes an Old Testament wisdom: “Claim no honor in the king’s presence, nor occupy the place of great men; for it is better that you be told, ‘Come up closer,’ than that you be humbled before the prince” (Prov 25:6-7).  We do not know if historically Jesus was concerned with proper decorum in this episode; but there is much reason to think that the intention of Luke is not limited to social etiquette.  For one thing, Luke clearly states that this is a parable (Luke 14:7), and in Luke a parable is usually about the Kingdom of God.  For another, one finds it strange that in the entire gospel, it is only in these sayings that Jesus concerns himself with social etiquette.  One may not be mistaken in regarding the gospel text not as rules of etiquette or social graces but, most likely, as matters on social behavior used to teach us two important points about the Kingdom of God.

            The first lesson concerns the composition of the Kingdom of God.  From his observation on guests competing for the best places at table to show their status before other guests and the host, Jesus draws the lesson that membership in the community of the Kingdom does not depend on one’s merits, social standing or economic status.  Unlike in many marriage banquets, these count nothing in the Kingdom of God.  We do not save ourselves by these means.  Salvation is the work of God in the first place.  Hence, those who consider themselves worthy of high places in the Kingdom, like the Pharisees in Jerusalem who expected the best seats as reward for their meticulous observance of the law, will find themselves humbled to take the lowest places.  After all, they have received their reward in the honor that banquets brought them.  Rather, membership in the Kingdom, which can be identified with one’s salvation, is given as an unmerited gift to those whom God in Jesus calls.  He invites those who acknowledge their unworthiness before him.  It is these who will ultimately find themselves raised up to high places.  This reversal of fortune is best expressed in Mary’s canticle: “He has deposed the mighty from their thrones and raised the lowly to high places” (Luke 1:52).

            Second, in the Kingdom of God, fellowship is of great value. After all, salvation is about living in fellowship with the Triune God and the saints.  But this will not be realized without having to cultivate fellowship with those who are in the lower brackets of society.  It may be recalled that the Pharisees refused social contact with those who could not fulfill the requirements of the Pharisaic piety.  This gave the impression that, if the Pharisaic practice was an indication of the Kingdom of God, those who formed part of the lowest rung of the Jewish society, were to be excluded from the communion in the eschatological banquet.  But it is precisely against this tradition that Jesus’ words about hosts at banquet are directed: “When you hold a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind” (Luke 14:13).  Indeed, merely to associate with those who belong to one’s social circle or standing, or with those whom one wishes to be with reinforces the inequality of society.  For Jesus, to be generous toward those who are excluded by standard piety constitutes a required behavior in a community that reflects the Kingdom of God.  This recalls Jesus’ sermon: “If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?” (Luke 6:32).  He illustrates this by saying that those who belong to the Kingdom of God cannot but show solidarity with the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind by sharing with them the festive table.  When they do this, the Pharisees would show that they have been converted to the values of the Kingdom.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Is History Merely a Repetition of the Past?



An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-First Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 13:22-30, August 25, 2013

EVERY TIME NATIONAL elections come, we hear of almost the same issues: eradication of poverty, misuse of pork barrel, concentration of wealth in the hands of a few cronies of the administration, eradication of graft and corruption, increasing crime rate, etc.  The opposition brings charges against the administration, that were exactly raised in the previous elections.  This could mean, of course, that nothing has substantially altered in terms of delivering the goods to the people, but it could also signify that whoever is in power behaves no differently from his predecessor. We have the same dog, but now with different collar.  Whatever it is, one thing is certain: nothing changes. “What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done.  Nothing is new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9).  It was Karl Marx who pointed out in his The Communist Manifesto that history is a mere repletion of class struggle. Oswald Spengler, in his philosophy of history, The Decline of the West, compared history to a living organism: a civilization is born, achieves something but eventually declines. Such of view of history is somehow reflected in the title of Renato Constantino’s second volume on Philippine history: The Philippines: The Continuing Past.  But is history merely a repetition of the past? 

            The first reading this Sunday denies this.  History is not a recycling of previous happenings.  There may be a seeming repetition of issues, there may be variations of the same theme, but it is not aimless.  It may not exactly correspond to the schema of St Augustine, but for a man of faith, history has a definite term, precisely because God is its origin and goal.  According to Isaiah, “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.  On this mountain he will destroy the veil that veils all peoples, the web that is women over all nations; he will destroy death forever, the Lord God will wipe away the tears from all faces; the reproach of his people he will remove from the face of the whole earth” (Isa 25:6-8”; see also 1 QSa 2:15-22).  History culminates in a banquet in the New Jerusalem, a symbol of life in union with God and the saints.  Isaiah prefers to describe it in traditional terms: victory over enemies, abundance of food, absence of sorrow and suffering, eternal joyous celebration.  Liturgy for the dead sometimes uses the term “eternal rest” but far from signifying the absence of joy, it simply connotes a permanent rest from the suffering on earth.

             But how many will sit with God and the saints in the banquet at the New Jerusalem?  The question is as relevant today as at the time of Jesus.  In his time, the question gave rise to debates, and there were various teachings: “Sinners cry out when they see how resplendent they [the virtuous] are” (1 Enoch 108:15); “the Most High has created the world for many, but the world to come for few”(2 Esd 8:1; “all Israelites have a share in the world to come” (m.Sanh 10:1).  Today, Born-Again Christians may not have a problem about this, for they think that once they have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they feel that are already saved; but most Christians who are not sure of their salvation because they have to appropriate in their lives what Jesus did in his life and death, the question continues to bother them.  Other sects and denominations are also concerned with the question.  For the Iglesia ni Kristo, the number 144,000 in Rev 7:4, 14:1 is very important in determining the number of the saved; others are even cocksure that those who will enter heaven will not go beyond that number.  The Jehovah’s Witnesses prefer to talk about those who belong to the anointed class and those who belong to the other sheep.  The Mormons have a place for all, though in various kingdoms, while the Unification Church of the Rev Sun Myung Moon stresses the importance of getting married as a requirement for entering the eternal bliss.
           
             It is interesting to note that in today’s Gospel, Jesus sets aside the question. Rather than inquisitiveness about the number, what matters for Jesus, if one is really interested in sitting with God and the saints in the eschatological banquet, is the decision that he should make in response to his proclamation of the Gospel.  His prophetic saying is, of course, addressed to the Jews of his time, but what does it mean for us Christians?  As Christians we have become members of the people of God.  Just as the Jews became members of the covenant at Sinai by means of circumcision, so Christians become part of the covenant in Jesus through baptism.  Like the Israelites of the Old Testament, we are the sons of Abraham in the New Testament.  Like them, we are in a privileged position; we are the insiders.  Unlike other world religions and sects, we have the complete means of salvation.  But we cannot rely merely on this privileged status.  We cannot claim, to use Luke’s words, “We ate and drunk in your company and you taught in our streets” (Luke 13:26).  For though it is true that we are saved by Jesus, yet we cannot just sit back and relax, we have to “strive to enter through the narrow gate” (Luke 13:24). 

             Striving to enter the narrow gate is our response to what God has done in Jesus to save us.  In the phenomenon of love, the reality of it is not complete if only the man professes love for the woman, but the latter does not reciprocate that declaration.  The phenomenology of salvation is like that.  It is not complete if only the action of Christ is present, and the Christian does not fully respond to his saving work.  Says the Second Vatican Council: “He is not saved, however, who, though he is part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity.  He remains indeed in the bosom of the Church, but, as it were, only as a ‘bodily’ manner and not ‘in his heart’.  All the sons of the Church should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ.  If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word, and deed, not only will they not be saved, but they will be the more severely judged” (Lumen gentium 14).  While those outside the Church partake of the banquet (Lumen gentium 16; Luke 13:29), the sons of Abraham, those inside, are cast out.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The Christian Mission to Bring Sword or Division


An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twentieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 12:49-53, August 18, 2013

IN 1938, NEVILLE Chamberlain (1869-1940), British Prime Minister from 1937 to 1940, thrice went to Germany with the end in view of preventing the outbreak of a general war in Europe over the demand of Adolf Hitler that Czechoslovakia cede its northern region to Germany.  By virtue of the Munich Agreement signed on September 30, Chamberlain, together with Premier Edouard Daladier of France, gave in to almost all the demands of Hitler.  By pacifying the German Dictator and by preventing the outbreak of hostilities, he was able, in his own description, to achieve “peace with honor”, “peace in our time.”  When he returned home, England quite expectedly gave him a hero’s welcome. The Britons thought that they could now sleep soundly, without having to fear that they would wake up to the sound of drums and cannons.  He was an instant celebrity in Europe. In the eyes of many, he was a peacemaker. 

            What about Jesus?  Of course, Jesus was expected, if he was the Messiah, to bring peace.  That precisely was the longing of the prophets.  According to Isaiah, his reign will be characterized by peace: “they will name him Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, Prince of Peace; his dominion is vast, and forever peaceful” (Isa 9:5).  For Zechariah, he will proclaim peace to the nations (Zech 9:10b).  Luke, of course, sees in Jesus the fulfillment of what the prophets proclaimed.  It was expected that Jesus would bring peace.  At his birth the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).  Jesus was a peacemaker.

            But to bring about peace, Jesus had to unmask effort to cultivate the appearance of peace by taking the bull by the horns.  The problem with the kind of peace that Chamberlain sought in Munich was that it did not go to the root of the problem.  The Munich Conference never treated the real situation, perhaps because the participants were scared to displease the Dictator.  That “peace” was short-lived, of course.  Hitler seized the rest of Czechoslovakia, and when he attacked Poland on September 1, 1939, Chamberlain found himself making a declaration of war with Germany.  Understandably enough, when “peace in our time” is recalled, historians tend to identify Chamberlain with the word appeasement—describing his policy toward Hitler on the eve of World War II.  It was peace at a great price.  How often it happens that we cover up the real situation out of fear of displeasing the powerful, of being unpopular before the people, or of losing our personal interests. 

In the 1st Reading, for example, we are told that the People of God were in a precarious situation.  The Babylonians, under king Nebuchadnezzar, were so powerful that going against them would seal the doom of Israel.  But the ministers of King Zedekiah refused to recognize the gravity of the situation, afraid as they were of losing their interests and privileges.  They tried to pressure the King to revolt against the Babylonians.  It is not infrequent that leaders are not able to see the state of the nation because the cordon sanitaire makes it impossible for them to obtain the correct knowledge and judgment, even as people around them always try to protect their privileges and interests, even if these do not coincide with the interest of the whole nation.  Advisers and ministers often speak of words that the leaders wish to hear because this is advantageous to the latter’s sycophants and favorable to their self-interests.

            Under such a situation, anyone who speaks the truth, engages in a correct reading and assessment of the situation and attempts to suggest a correct approach to the problem is liable to become unpopular, ostracized, criticized, or even killed.  Thus, when Jeremiah, who had nothing in mind but real peace for the whole nation, informed King Zedekiah that by going against the Babylonians the people would be hopeless, he was ultimately accused by the King’s ministers of desertion and treason, for his diatribe, according to them, destroyed the will of the soldiers to resist their enemy, even if the King himself had sympathies for the prophet.  No wonder, in the Gospel, Jesus said that he came not to bring peace but division.  For the peace that Jesus brought, shalom, wholeness, is not one that can be bought at any price.  It is a message that attacks the subterfuge of peace, the fa├žade of the establishment whose leaders profit from the injustice and violation of rights that are being committed under the name of tranquility of the social order.  It exposes the falsity and evil in the light of God’s word.  The hearers are placed in a situation of crisis, in which they must decide for themselves whether they are for the message or against it.  As a consequence, the message becomes a source of conflict not only between groups but even within families: “from now on a household of five may be divided, three against two or two against three” (Luke 12:52).

Of course, when truth is proclaimed, the messenger himself becomes part of the casualties, though people and those who go against him suffer in the end.   Jeremiah was imprisoned (Jer 37:11-16) and later, because of his announcement of defeat to the revolt, left to die in an empty cistern (Jer 38:1-13).   In the Gospel, Jesus speaks of “the baptism which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished” (Luke 12:50).  By baptism, Jesus must have referred to his death; he would have foreseen that from the way the people and the religio-political authorities react to his message his death was inevitable.  Such anticipation of his fate as a prophet is well expressed in his lament: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you” (Luke 13:34a).  This was the consequence of the rejection of his message by the people.  They turned against him.  “When I gave bread to the poor,” says Bishop Helder Camara, “they call me a saint.  But when I ask why the poor have no bread, they call me a communist.”  Just as Jeremiah suffered much in the hands of those who wanted to silence him, so Jesus suffered from those who wished to choke his message.  Still, the baptism of Jesus, like the sufferings of Jeremiah, was necessary in order that real peace may be established.  In the words of Isaiah about the Servant of God, “he was pierced for our offenses, crushed for our sins, upon him was the chastisement that makes us whole [i.e., shalom, peace], by his stripes we were healed” (Isa 53:5).

Friday, August 9, 2013

Real Wealth: Allowing God to Rule Our Life and Our Society



An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 12:32-48, August 11, 2013

WHERE, INDEED, DO true riches lie?  In last Sunday’s Gospel, we saw that although secular culture and media of social communications drive home the point that true life lies in bonds, stocks, and bank deposit, Jesus denies that equation; instead, one must follow him in discipleship (Luke 18:22b) and grow “rich in the sight of God” (Luke 12:21).  This, however, raises the question: if one must grow rich in God’s sight, what is our real wealth, in the first place?  And how is it acquired?

    Far from being found in earthly treasures, our true wealth is the kingdom of God.  “It has pleased the Father to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32b).  Not surprisingly enough, the Matthean Jesus admonishes: “Do not lay up for yourselves an earthly treasure.  Moths and rust corrode; thieves break in and steal.  Make it your practice instead to store up heavenly treasure, which neither moths nor rust corrode nor thieves break in and steal.  Remember, where your treasure is, there your heart is also” (Matt 6:18-21).  The point, of course, is not that one should not have treasures.  After all, we are all earthly beings in need of earthly goods to survive.  Rather, we are admonished not to make material wealth the primary concern in our life.  For when we do, we not only forget all about the supernatural realities, but we also become involved in greed, social injustice, oppression and violence.  There is much truth to the maxim of Honore Balzac that behind a great wealth is a crime.  One can be super-rich only over the broken bones of many.  Moreover, one may be wealthy, and have enough of this world’s luxuries, but that is not a guarantee of a tranquil life.  He may fear bankruptcy, thieves, and the Mafia.  Though he will certainly make it to the society page, he may still be deprived of wholeness in his very own being and in his relationship with others.  Wealth does not guarantee a life of love.  That is why the richest man is not necessarily the happiest, even if his wealth can provide him much pleasure in life.

      Our real wealth is the kingdom of God.  For Jesus, this should be the primary concern of our life.  When we speak of true riches, though, two things are to be remembered.  First, it is God who gives us this wealth: “It has pleased the Father to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:32b).  It is not acquired through our own efforts, unlike material wealth, which largely depends on our own toil.  Heaven is not acquired by our own achievement—it is not our achievement.  By contrast, in true wealth, it is God who acts.  We can do nothing without him. Second, all we seek is that God establish his kingship over us: “Seek out instead his kingship over you, and the rest will follow in return” (Luke 12:31).  Our role is passive, but it is exercised in active passivity.  We allow God to rule our lives and our society.  Not what you and I want, but what the Lord wants—this is what prevails in our daily life.        

 And what does the Lord want us from us?  Today’s Gospel gives us two specific instructions.  First, he wants the rich to make a radical renunciation of their wealth, and share it with the less fortunate or the disadvantaged: “Sell what you have and give alms” (Luke 12:33a).  This will show that their heart, far from being a slave of possessions, is devoted to God alone and the kingdom, which is the only real treasure (Luke 12:34).  It is obviously scandalous that billions of dollars are spent on lethal weapons, on star wars, when millions of people starve to death.  It is not morally right that one man has an abundance of almost everything in life, while the man next door is starving.  “I ask you, how can God’s love survive in a man who has enough of this world’s goods, yet closes his heart to his brothers” (1 John 3:17). 

Second, the Lord wants us to allow him to establish fragments of his kingship through our service to others (Luke 12:36). Today’s Gospel, in which Luke introduces Peter who asks about the applicability of Jesus’ exhortation to vigilance (Luke 12:41), makes it clear that this especially pertains to those invested with authority.  Instead of seeking to lord it over others, or dominate them (Luke 12:45), they are to serve the Lord who is of course present in those they serve (Luke 12:43).  Thus Jesus: “Earthly kings lord it over their people… Yet it cannot be that with you.  Let the greater among you be as the junior, the leader as the servant” (Luke 22:25-27).

    In short, we allow God to establish the fragments of his kingdom when we share and serve.  This will prove that his reign is the only treasure our heart hankers after, which is the real wealth (Luke 12:34).  And for Jesus, we are to be faithful to this only treasure, every day in our life until he comes: “The servant is fortunate whom his master finds busy when he returns” (Luke 12:43).  We need to be vigilant lest we fall back to greed and acquisition of earthly riches.  Loving wealth is like riding on a lion: one eventually falls—to the delight of the lion.  We need to be faithful instead to the service of the kingdom every day in our lives. This is especially directed to leaders of communities and nations who have greater opportunities to corruption and accumulation of wealth.  

     This invites us to think: suppose, for example, instead of building weapons of mass destruction, the rich take care of the poor, the homeless and the disadvantaged; suppose the United States and other first world countries seek the lifting of the poorer nations from misery by, for example, writing off their debts—will not the result be a world order that is entirely new, as the poor partake of the goods of this world?  After all, these countries have much share of the world’s goods, and like leaders, much is certainly expected of them, for “much will be required of the person entrusted with much, and still more will be demanded for the person entrusted with more” (Luke 12:48).  If we are faithful to this, there is no doubt that we will be allowed to sit in the banquet of the kingdom (cf Luke 12:37) where we will find true life.