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.

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