Friday, September 27, 2013

Why Stark Inequality between the Rich and the Poor among Christians Is Scandalous

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Sixth Sunday of Year C, Luke 16:19-31, September 29, 2013

A FEW YEARS ago, the problems of praying in the classroom or at graduations and of placing Christmas trees in government offices were brought to some US Courts.  Protesters against such religious practices complained that these violated the principle of separation between Church and State.  Hearing the oral arguments in courts, one could not help making a mental note that such questions would not have been raised had the protesters viewed religion as embracing social attitude and behavior.  But if the issues tell us anything, it is that they tend to imply that for those against the exercise of religious practices in schools and offices, religion is merely an private affair, something that transpires only between God and the private individual.  And we will not be surprised if, out of consistency in their outlook and position, the same protesters go to court to ask for the removal of the words “In God We Trust” in the American dollar.

            But to confine religion to the privacy of the individual is to make a caricature out of it.  As this Sunday’s readings indicate, our faith in God is intimately linked with matters affecting the society.  And one of these matters concerns the question of wealth and poverty.  In an unprecedented statement about the situation in the world, the l97l Synod of Bishops questioned “the serious injustices that are building around the world of men a network of domination, oppression and abuses which stifle freedom and which keep the greater part of humanity from sharing the building up and enjoyment of a more just and more fraternal world.”  That millions, for example, starve in Somalia and other eastern African countries while those in the West have more than enough of almost everything is simply not morally right.  It is unjust.  So is the situation in the Philippines in which, in the words of the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (PCP-II), “the poverty and destitution of the great mass of our people are only too evident, contrasting sharply with the wealth and luxury of the relatively few families, the elite top of our social pyramid.”

            It is against this background that today’s Gospel on the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31) must be viewed.   The story, probably based on an Egyptian tale, adapted in Judaism, and retold by Jesus, concerns two characters: a rich man (erroneously named Dives in some translations) who indulged in a very luxurious life fit for kings and princes, and a poor man called Lazarus was so poor that he could only hope that he could eat his fill of the scraps from the rich man’s table, and so weak that he could not even defend himself from the dogs that licked his sores.  But the reversal of fate after the two died is utterly shocking: the rich man went to Hades, while Lazarus rested on Abraham’s bosom—a fortune which would be difficult to accept in a culture that sees God’s blessing in wealth, and his curse in poverty. 

But why the reversal of fortunes in the next world?  Though it is tempting to assume that the rich man must have lived a sinful life, whereas Lazarus was virtuous, the parable does not make even the slight suggestion about it.  Most likely, it is simply that the rich man wallowed in wealth, whereas Lazarus was in misery, and that the stark inequality in their living conditions was utterly wrong.  This could only mean that to enjoy the luxuries of life while millions starve in scandalous poverty is not morally right.  Which is why it is not difficult to understand when we hear in the 1st Reading Amos the prophet upbraiding the rich, viewing their extravagance as morally intolerable: “Lying upon beds of ivory, stretched comfortably on their couches, they eat lambs taken from the flock, and calves from the stall, improvising music of the harp, like David, they devise their own accompaniment.  They drink wine from bowls and anoint themselves with the best oils; yet they are not made ill by the collapse of Joseph!” (Amos 6:4-6).

            The Bishops of the Philippines, in their Pastoral Exhortation on the Philippine Economy, bring home the point raised by Jesus’ parable and Amos’ woes.  After enunciating the principles of the universal purpose of the created goods and private property, equitable distribution, the use of productive property for the common good, the duty to preserve the environment and responsibly use the natural resources (nn 47-48), they declared: “In our Philippine situation such principles would certainly reject situations like the continuing concentration of economic power in the hands of a few; particularly oligopolies; the pervading presence of absolute poverty; the flight of financial capital especially in times of national crisis; and legislation that sacrifices the good of the many in order to preserve the vested interests of the few. The same principles would mandate the ethical directions that businesses and investments should take: Create jobs in the local market, open to the public ownership of corporations, especially those related to our natural resources; and invest in the rural and poor areas for the sake of the poor, even when profits are less.”

            It is difficult to see how a sharp contrast between wealth and poverty can be reconciled with a community that calls itself Christian.  Of course, from a human point of view, it does not befit humanity.  As Helder Camara noted, “poverty makes a person subhuman, excess of wealth makes a person inhuman.” But from a Christian point of view, two reasons may be advanced why such stark inequality is morally wrong.  First, according to Paul, we form one body (1 Cor 10:17; 12:12), and it is scandalous to celebrate one Eucharist, one bread and one cup, while the contrast between superfluous wealth and grinding poverty remains unchanged in our situation (1 Cor 11:18-22).  It is contempt for the Church of God.  As Edward Schillebeeckx puts it, “the great scandal is the intercommunion of rich Christians who remain rich and poor Christians who remain poor while celebrating the same Eucharist, taking no notice of the Christian model of sharing possession.”  Second, we cannot continue to speak of love if we, as a community, remain divided into the rich who are few and the many who are poor (1 John 3:17).  In fact, our faith is without life if we close ourselves and be blind to that division (Jas 2:15-27).  We must share because, according to the Second Vatican Council, God destined the earth and all it contains for all humanity and all peoples so that all created things would be shared fairly by all humankind under the guidance of justice, and tempered by charity (Gaudium et spes, 69).

Friday, September 20, 2013

If Christians Were Only More Enterprising about Discipleship

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Fifth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 16:1-13, September 22, 2013

IN THE LATTER part of his Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx says that philosophers have hitherto explained the world; the point, however, is to change it.  The maxim might well be paraphrased and applied to being Christian.  To be Christian, it is not enough to explain the world in terms of Christian faith; it is more important to use that faith in changing the world.  It is appalling to note that many people see what is wrong with our world today, but even as Christians, they do not do anything to contribute to the transformation of the world so that it may conform to the Christian vision.  They are satisfied with their own lives, living isolated existence untouched by what is happening around them.  This, however, is far removed from the teaching of the Church.  As Vatican II, in Gaudium et spes, notes, the Christian community is truly and intimately linked with the world and its history.  And the 1971 Synod of Bishops, in Justice in the World, even says that participation in the transformation of the world is a constitutive dimension of the Church’s mission.

            In changing the world, the Christian knows of course that it must begin with the change of attitude of people who maintain the world.  After all, economic, cultural and political structures are simply consequences of human outlook and attitudes. In the 2nd Reading (1 Tim 2:1-8), St Paul speaks of leading “undisturbed and tranquil lives in perfect piety and dignity” (v 2) which, in his own cultural context and time, could be achieved by peaceful relationship with the Emperor and those in authority (vv 1-2); but in our own context, we can lead really peaceful lives if we are able to acquire outlook and values that are not foreign to Christian ones.  At present, the world is still far removed from authentic tranquility because many people still think that happiness and undisturbed life can be secured by making a god out of money.   But far from bringing us peaceful lives, such an outlook brings about the opposite.   As Paul observes in the same letter, “those who want to be rich are falling into temptation and a trap.  They are letting themselves be captured by foolish and harmful desires which drag men down to ruin and destruction.  The love of money is the root of all evil.  Some men in their passion for it have strayed from the faith, and have come to grief amid great pain (1 Tim 6:9-10).

            The 1st Reading (Amos 8:4-7) provides us some examples of the staggering toll when one has such an outlook and makes accumulation of wealth the purpose of his existence.  It leads to unscrupulousness and dishonesty: “We will diminish the ephah, add to the shekel, and fix our scales for cheating” (v 5b) (Which reminds us of the trader who keeps his thumbs on the scale!)  It brings about injustice against the poor: “We will buy the lowly man for silver, the poor man for a pair of sandals; even the refuse of the wheat we will sale” (v 6).  It virtually results in the thought that religion is an obstacle to making money: “When will the new moon be over and the Sabbath that we may display the wheat?” (v 5a).  Today, the effects of such an attitude are even more lamentable.  In his Centesimus annus, John Paul II speaks of the radical capitalist ideology which is unconcerned about marginalization and exploitation of the poor.  And the Bishops of the Philippines see these words realized in what is happening at present: jobless growth, without new opportunities for employment; ruthless growth, benefiting mainly the wealthy; voiceless growth, without extension of democracy or empowerment; rootless growth that causes cultural identities to wither; futureless growth that destroys the environment (CBCP, Exhortation on the Philippine Economy).

            For Christians, the message is clear: if we, as individuals and as community, wish to live tranquil lives, we should stick to the Good News: God is One, and One also is the mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ (1 Tim 2:5).  At the heart of our lives is thus the One and Only God, and therefore we cannot substitute another god, the money-god.  The proper attitude to life is to place God above everything else, and our chief concern is not how to further accumulate wealth, but how to lead a life that is pleasing to God. The pattern of that kind of life is given in the life of Jesus himself—he gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Tim 2:5).  Once we make the One and Only God our true God in life, once we make the life of Jesus the pattern for our lives—one that is lived for the sake of others—then salvation and tranquility of life are possible. 

In such a life, what happens to our wealth?  It ceases to be an end; on the contrary, it will be used in a way that is in accord with one who has made the life of Jesus a pattern for his life—that is to say, it will no longer have a special place in our heart.  For such a life is diametrically opposed to the one lived for the sake of Mammon, wherein one is fraudulent, treads upon the poor and even goes to war for the sake of it.  Deep in our heart, we know that these two concerns of our lives—for God and for Mammon—are so opposed to each other that we cannot give ourselves to God and money at the same time.  The reason for this is that “no man can serve two masters.  Either he will hate the one and love the other or be attentive to the one and despise the other” (Luke 16:13a).  This being the case, the right attitude toward wealth is therefore to make good use of it so as to reap eternal reward or, as Luke would have it, to have a “lasting reception” (Luke 16:9).

The problem today, however, is that, if the world economy, wars and the poverty of the Third World are any index, those who make a god out of money—and the power that goes with it—seem to be more enterprising than us Christians who ought to make Jesus’ life a pattern for others.  Yet we can learn from them.  In today’s Gospel (Luke 16:1-7), Jesus told us the parable of the cunning manager who, to solve the crisis he brought upon himself, reduced the amount his clients owed to his master to the effect that these accepted him after losing his managerial position.  In recalling this parable, Luke wanted to bring home this point—if Christians would be more enterprising in proclaiming and living the message about a life patterned after Jesus’ than the sons of darkness in furthering their self-interest, we can certainly change the world, make it a better place to live in, and thereby realize some pockets of the Kingdom of God here on earth.  And peace, which assures tranquility of life, will be within our reach.

Friday, September 13, 2013

The Church as a Community of Mercy and Compassion

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 1:1-31, September 15, 2013

HOW DO WE understand ourselves as a Christian community?  It is strange that people usually are proud of their parishes or communities of faith on account of their achievements—a good retreat house, an elegant church chapel, and a flourishing cooperative.  We say that it is strange because the picture of a Christian community that appears in the New Testament is not one that is concerned with its achievements, but one that is concerned about its very life, and the quality of that life. 

In his letter to the Colosians, for instance, St Paul wrote: “I want you to know how hard I am struggling for you and for the Laodiceans and the many others who have never seen me in the flesh.  I wish their hearts to be strengthened and themselves to be closely united in love, enriched with the full assurance by their knowledge of the mystery of God, namely, Christ” (Col 2:1-2).  In these words, Paul virtually described the identity of the Church: it is a community united in love, enriched by the knowledge of Christ.  Of course, this implies that there is no such a Christian as an individual one; to be a Christian is to belong to a community.  And what unites it is not so much law and authority as love and knowledge in Christ.  It is this love relationship that identifies the Church.  If it is asked how are we, the Church, to be recognized as Christian, it is not by the badge we wear, the idiom we use, but by the love we profess in the community.  As John puts it, “this is know all will know you for my disciples: your love for one another” (John 13:35).

Obviously, though, the individuals who form the community are far from perfect.  They are people who are all too human.  There are always failures in love within the community.  It would be presumptuous of its members to profess that they are set apart from the rest of humanity in virtue of their perfection.  In the Old Testament, God constituted Israel a chosen people; but as the 1st Reading notes, after Yahweh solemnly made a covenant with them, displaying his mighty power at Sinai as he gave them the Ten Words, the Israelites committed apostasy by creating for themselves a molten calf (Exod 37:7-8).  Paul himself is an example of a Church member who is far from perfect.  In the 2nd Reading, which is an excerpt from his letter to Timothy, he said, “I was once a blasphemer, a persecutor, a man filled with arrogance” (1 Tim 1:13); he claimed to be the worst sinner (1 Tim 1:15).  In today’s Gospel, Luke prefaces the three parables with these words: “The tax collectors and sinners were all gathering around to hear him, at which the Pharisees and the scribes murmured, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (Luke 15:1-2).  It is possible that Luke’s community demanded the exclusion of sinners, or at least some stringent requirements from them.  Anyhow, the parables clearly indicate that there were sinners in the community.

But precisely because the quality of its life is important, the Christian community should be a community not only of love, but also of mercy and forgiveness.  The community cannot deal with sinners by isolating them, or excluding them from the fellowship of God’s people.  One does not preserve the sanctity of the community by punishing sinners; that would in the end reduce the community into thin air.  On the contrary, it is the combination of love and mercy that makes the community whole.  Even though he claimed to be the worst sinner, Paul confessed that God has treated him mercifully (1 Tim 1:13b).  As for Israel’s idolatry, God allowed himself to be persuaded.  He relented in the punishment he had threatened to inflict his people (Exod 32:14).  In the parables of the Gospel today—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son—the same point is being driven home: the Christian God is a God of mercy and compassion.  These parables were taught to explain why Jesus accepted the tax collectors and sinners into his company: God does not seek the destruction of sinners, but their acceptance to the community of the rule of God; all he wants is to save the lost, and celebrate their finding in joy.

This message is not without relevance.  The last time I went to the US, I was struck by a regular TV show, “People’s Court,” where cases were resolved in a jiffy.  Having seen many episodes, I got the impression that if the show tells us anything, it tells us that many people have no tolerance for the slightest human mistake.  That we think we are always right, and that we value money more than forgiveness in human relationships and healing of broken bonds—this seems to be the bottom line of the show.  Indeed, how often it seems that we have little tolerance for the spiritually or morally lost!  We have very few nice things said about them.  But today’s readings have one message: If God showed mercy and compassion to the people of Israel despite her idolatry, if he forgave Paul despite his claim to being the worst sinner, so Jesus calls us now to show mercy and compassion to the lost, and rejoice in their return to the fold.   

At the heart of every member of the Christian community should be mercy, compassion for the wayward members, and joy in their conversion.  We cannot be indifferent even to a single sinner.  We cannot be assuaged by the thought that we can exclude them, since there are still many members who are faithful and good.  The life of each one, sinful though he may be, is important.  We can never give up a lost member.  After all, the Church is not a community of self-righteous people.  If it is a community known by the love that prevails among its members and by their knowledge of the Lord, then it must love and have compassion for everyone, including the lost.  According to Paul, our vocation is to be an example to those who would later have faith in Christ, and gain everlasting life (1 Tim 1:16b).  And we cannot be that kind of community if we are quick to condemn sinners, and separate ourselves from them.  On the contrary, that would even make hypocrites out of us.  Which is why, every time we celebrate the Eucharist, we pray: “Lord, look not on our sins, but on the faith of your Church.”   More positively, we say in the Roman Canon (Eucharistic Prayer I, 1970 text): “Though we are sinners, we trust in your mercy and love.  Do not consider what we truly deserve, but grant us your forgiveness.”

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Can We Really Live Together?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 14:23-33, September 8, 2013

A FEW YEARS ago, after the riot in Los Angeles, California, Time Magazine asked: Can we live together?  Of course, there has been much progress in the relationship between the Whites and the Blacks (or the Colored) since the time of Martin Luther King, Jr, thanks to the civil right movements, but racism has not vanished into thin air.  In the international scene, the struggle between the Third World countries and the First World has still to see a definitive resolution.  It was Karl Marx who said, “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.”  One may dismiss his philosophy of history, but one cannot deny that the relationship between masters and slaves in ancient times was not substantially different from the relationship between the lords and serfs in the medieval ages, and the workers and the owners of the means of production in modern times.  And there is the difficulty of some peoples to look beyond ethnic boundaries.  The question is not quite irrelevant: can we really live together?

If we come to the brass tacks of it all, we will see that we find it difficult to live together because most of us do not want to give up anything that belongs to us.  If economic war happens, it is because no one wants to renounce wealth.  There is ethnic cleansing because we cannot tolerate the presence of people other than us.  We refuse to share with the Colored because we deny them the right to be human.  That is why today’s Gospel speaks of renunciation.  Of course, for Luke, God’s will is that we live together—even here on earth, we have to realize God’s kingdom where everyone experiences wholeness, a sense of belonging, fellowship in the community.  But according to Luke, this is possible only if we as a community enter into discipleship.  By this is meant the renunciation of self, familial relationship and possession, and the unconditional and total commitment to Jesus by all the members of the community.  This is evidenced by our total conversion to Jesus’ life, words, and works.

            At the center of the community life in discipleship is Jesus himself.  It is to him that we give our undivided loyalty.  He is our principle of unity.  What should ultimately bind us together is not law, political party, power, or economic interest, but the person of Jesus himself.   Should there be a conflict between our ethnic allegiance and our allegiance to Jesus, it is the latter that ought to prevail.  Hence, Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me without hating his father and mother, wife and his children, his brothers and sisters, indeed his very self, he cannot be my follower” (Luke 14:26).  Each of us lives in a network of loyalties—loyalty to family, clan, school, political party, friends, business partners, corporations, etc.—but the claims of Jesus precede all of them.  Since Jesus is the center of one’s life and that of the community, all other ties are reformulated in terms of our relationship to Jesus.  To emphasize this priority, Luke uses the Semitic expression “to hate” which does not mean to loath or to consider oneself as a scum, but which means to turn away from, to detach oneself from, to renounce oneself and family ties and surrender oneself totally to Jesus. Matthew, instead of retaining the original hyperbolic form, tones down the force of the saying by paraphrasing it: “The man who loves his father or mother more than me” (Matt 18:37).  Still, the point is that one forgoes the security of family ties so he can be totally united to Jesus.  But here, it is not only a question of loving; it is rather a question of making Jesus the center both of one’s individual life and of community life.

            This brings us to the next point.  Since it is a question of making Jesus not only the object of love but also the center of the life of the individual and the community, a deeper meaning of discipleship is unraveled.  To be a disciple is to undergo a transformation which is seen in one’s new way of life, since Jesus’ words, works and life constitute a new principle that defines and informs one’s life.  This means that Jesus’ way of life becomes our way of life.  It is for this reason that Jesus added, “Anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27).  The saying is of course metaphorical.  The cross was an ancient instrument of torture and execution for disreputable persons, like slaves, thieves and rebels.  People like them forfeited life and honor.  Jesus’ words are therefore an invitation to give up personal life and honor and embrace a life of suffering, even to the point of martyrdom.  Such a life is certainly devoid of self-assertion and self-interest.  Consequently, it is a life that surrenders everything one has: “none of you can be my disciple if he does not renounce all his possessions” (Luke 14:33).

            One’s life is thus so transformed that his outlook, behavior and relationships are concentrated on Jesus; at the same time, Jesus defines one’s outlook, behavior and relationships. The second reading (Phil 9b-10.12-17) provides us an example.  Philemon, a resident at Colossae and man of substance, had a slave named Onesimus.  At that time, slavery was a social institution in which a person was legally owned by a master as property to be used at will and counted nothing in the social scale.  Onesimus then was a man of no rights.  In the present letter, Paul asked Philemon to receive his slave as a brother (vv 16-17).  To receive a slave as a brother in the Lord is a manifestation of what having Jesus as the center of personal and community life entails in a divided social relationship between master and slave.  Of course, Paul did not abolish the institution of slavery—that would have been impossible; but making Christ the center of community life is irreconcilable with the institution of slavery, since in Christ “there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free, man and woman” (Gal 3:27-28).  Such principle transformed the social relationship between Onesimus and Philemon, and one is not surprised that people in the long run realized how incompatible the institution of slavery with Christianity was.

            In the Old Testament, this transformation is called wisdom (Wisd 9:13-19, 1st Reading).  When such a change happens, one can be certain that division is overcome, self-interest is emptied of itself, and the possibility of living together is removed from the realm of dreams.  Yes, we can live together—if we make Christ as the center of our community life in discipleship.  And when that happens, the Kingdom of God is realized, however partially.