Saturday, October 26, 2013

Do Our Achievements and Self-Righteousness Help Us Justify Ourselves Before God?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Thirtieth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 18:1-4, October 27, 2013

A DECADE OR SO ago, an evening television show featured the Mangyans in Mindoro.  At one point, the reporter asked one of their chiefs if they had any desire to improve their situation by, say, making more money in order to buy elegant clothes, construct beautiful houses, and own the latest vehicles.  The chief answered that it was not in their culture to accumulate and concentrate wealth and that they were happy the way they were.  His answer was, of course, flabbergasting to us.  But that is because we were brought up in a culture far removed from the one in which the Mangyans live and survive. 

Culture largely defines our values, and therefore the way we look at people.  But our culture has largely been defined by the West.  And if we ask: who is acceptable to our community that has been shaped by Western values, the answer would be entirely different.  Before the judgment seat of our culture, one must not only be good, but even more important, he must have an achievement—political, economic, cultural, religious—in order to be considered praiseworthy.  No wonder, precisely because of our cultural make-up, many people parade their stockholdings, land titles, bank accounts, palatial houses, academic degrees tacked to their names and framed citations, among others.  How they display their assets!   Of course, these are important.  To have bank accounts, academic degrees, land titles, framed citations—one needs them in order to live what people brand as respectable life.  To live without them—how would one appear before our people and society if not a destitute, with nothing to survive on in this competitive world?

It is interesting to note that such outlook has been transferred, or at any rate can be found, in our life of faith.  In the realm of religion, it is likewise important for many people that one must have something before God.  In today’s Gospel (Luke 8:9-14), this is well illustrated in the prayer of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  What the Pharisee was able to accomplish made himself respectable, and obviously he lived within a circle of people whose social stratum and achievement no one at the time of Jesus would criticize: he did not extort, did something unjust, nor committed adultery.  On the contrary, he did more than what the law required: he fasted in food and drink twice a week (Monday and Thursday), although fasting was obligatory only on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16:29-31; Num 29:7); he tithed all his purchases, which was more than what the law stipulated (Deut 14:22-29).  He would be like a Catholic who never transgresses any of the Ten Commandments, fasts Tuesdays and Fridays, and contributes much to the Church.  God would certainly be pleased with such religiosity! 

On the other hand, almost at the extreme end of the cultural and religious spectrum in Jesus’ day was the tax collector who had nothing to his name.  A known collaborator with the Romans who were the enemies of the Jews, he was avoided by his own people and excluded from the company of respectable men in the Jewish society.  An extortionist, he would have to make restitutions for his ill-gotten wealth before he could ever hope to be forgiven, if one goes by the teaching of the Pharisees.  Of course, even in our own society, any person like this particular tax collector would have difficulty in being accepted.

The Gospel today tells us that these two went to the Temple to pray, the Pharisee reciting a catalogue of his achievements and a litany of his own praises, the tax collector an inventory of his faults and a recital of his lack of achievements.  But in telling this parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector, Jesus surprised us with his concluding comment.  What transpired was a reversal of fortune, which would not have been acceptable, since normal Judaism took for granted that the Pharisee was a justified person, and the tax collector could only be such if he made retribution in addition to giving one-fifth to all those whom he had swindled, and reformed his life.  Hence the question: What went wrong?  Does the parable mean that God is happier with a sinner provided he repents, than with a virtuous man with all his merits and achievements?

On the surface, one may readily affirm that if God accepted the tax collector despite his sinfulness, it was because he is a God who loves the humble and despises the proud and the disdainful (Luke 1:51-52).  One’s achievements in religion could become a cause for pride and contempt for men and women who cannot come up to what common religiosity requires.  It often happens, for instance, that those who go to church Sundays, fast, contribute sizable amount to the parish projects and programs and practice virtues think that they have enough reason to be proud of themselves as Catholics who belong to a stratum formed by the elite in religiosity and, as a consequence, to criticize those who do not reach their standard.  This happens, too, in the secular world.  Many think that they form an elite enclave within the greater society on account of their wealth, education and upbringing.

At its marrow, however, the story is not simply about how we pray, but really about our justification before God.  As J. Fitzmyer observes, “one achieves uprightness before God not by one’s own activity but by a contrite recognition one one’s own sinfulness before him.”  The reason why it was the tax collector who was ultimately pleasing before God is that, before his judgment seat, human achievements, both in religion and in the secular world, are not decisive, however important they may appear to our Western culture.  God is not a God who can be controlled by any human achievements.  Quite the contrary, man cannot claim to be just on account of his achievements, because these do not count before him in the first place.  “What man thinks important, God holds in contempt” (Luke 16:15).  It is not man who makes himself just.  It is God, who gives justice as a gift.  Man does not attain it through his own effort.  What is ultimately decisive is that one puts his trust in God, abandons himself to him.  And this is what the tax collector did.  In terms of religious achievements, he had accomplished nothing to present before God.  But by acknowledging his sinfulness, unworthiness, and nothingness, he allowed God to give him the gift of being right before him. 

The parable, therefore, teaches us about the failure of human achievements and of self-righteousness to justify oneself.  It is God who justifies us sinners, and justification is always received as a gift from him.  We have nothing to boast before him.*

Friday, October 18, 2013

Will the Poor and the Weak Ever Get Justice in a Society in the Hands of the Moneyed and the Powerful?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 18:1-8, October 20, 2013

OBSERVING HOW PREVALENT evil exists in the world, its power sometimes overwhelming, philosophers of old used to ask whether this is the best of all possible worlds.  But those who experience evil do not merely look at the present and offer an explanation; rather, they look toward the future and ask whether there is any hope that we will ultimately triumph over it.  For example, after years of praying that the problems of violence and war in the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Eastern Africa, Afghanistan,  Southern Mindanao and other hot spots be solved, is there any guarantee that an era of peace will finally dawn for the poor in these places?  In a history of exploitation and oppression, will the poor ever get a fairer deal from a society in the hands of the moneyed and the powerful?  In a society in which efforts to obtain greater justice for the majority meet vigorous opposition, is there hope that the cause of the poor will ever be vindicated?

These questions appear contemporary, but they make us understand the background of today’s gospel.  As in other synoptic gospels, Luke portrays the Kingdom of God as an experience of a community in which people are freed from hunger, thirst, persecution, injustice, poverty and other evils, and enjoy the blessings of justice, love and peace.  This summarizes the central message of Jesus.  It seems, though, that after years of practicing their faith in Jesus, that faith of the Lukan Christians was being challenged by the hostile environment in which they lived.  Luke’s believing community experienced persecution, injustice and violence from those who did not share its faith.  Understandably enough, the members raised question that affected their faith in the context of the adverse situation: when is the Kingdom of God coming so that the poor will come into their own (Luke 17:20-21)?  When will Christ return so that Israel will be reconstituted and the poor Christians will be rewarded (Luke 17:22-37)?  When will the poor believers finally obtain real justice on this earth (Luke 18:1-8)?

When there is no glimmer of dawn in sight, it is easy for the poor members of the Christian community, who have everything but the positive experience in life, to lose heart.  This is especially so when people observe that the overwhelming forces of evil seem to make headway, despite all efforts to ward them off, and when every move toward obtaining deliverance from an oppressive situation seems to end in disappointment.  But the Gospel today (Luke 18:1-8) has a word for them: Christians who find themselves in that or similar situation should not lose heart (Luke 18:1).  To bring home this point, Luke preserved for us the parable of unjust judge.  The story characterizes the judge as unsympathetic, with no regard for what either God or man said about him—which explains his attitude toward the widow.  The judge delayed in his decision.  Some suggested that the widow was a plaintiff in a case she brought to court against a wealthy opponent, and the judge did not speed up the case in order not to offend the defendant.  Others, however, in keeping with the character of the judge, surmise that the judge refused to give an immediate decision in the hope that the widow could raise the sufficient bribe!  But these suggestions are not essential to the story.  For central to the parable is the widow.  And in the normal circumstances at the time of Jesus, widows were poor, marginal, not influential, and were economically deprived.  They were part of the déclassé in the Israelite society, and being powerless, they leaned on God for protection.  The widow, in other words, symbolizes the poor in the community of Luke and in our Christian communities who look on God to vindicate their cause.

Powerless and marginal though she might be, yet the widow in the parable succeeded in obtaining justice from the corrupt judge through relentless persistence.  But if she so got on the nerves of the judge that he was forced to vindicate her, how much more would God vindicate his faithful people, if they only pray persistently, even though he seems to delay (Luke 18:7).  This is the message that Luke tries to convey.  In other words, the point of the parable is that, even though they find themselves in a situation in which hope for a better future seems unobtainable, Christians are not to be discouraged or give up.  On the contrary, as followers of Jesus, they are to be persistent in their prayer, trusting that God will act and vindicate his cause and the cause of the Christian community.  The Kingdom of God will come, and if one is not vindicated at the moment, he will certainly be vindicated with the advent of the parousia, and justice will surely be served.

Such exhortation is relevant, because in the face of opposition to all efforts to obtain justice, even time can erode enthusiasm and faithfulness.  Constant suffering and oppression can destroy hope, and give the impression that God is really asleep.  Which recalls the experience of the Psalmist: as the people of Israel were being despoiled, God remained silent before their real pain, even though they were not conscious of any sin against the covenant: “Yet for your sake we are being slain all day, we are looked upon a sheep to be slaughtered.  Awake!  Why are you asleep, O Lord?  Arise!  Cast us not off forever!  Why do you hide your face, forgetting our woe and our oppression?  For our souls are bowed down to the dust, our bodies are pressed to the earth” (Ps 44:23-26).

But at the same time, this serves to correct an impression on the way God answers our needs.  Too often, when one sees on television big prayer rallies in parks and auditoriums, one often wonders whether the participants’ understanding of these prayer rallies makes sense.   For what is often portrayed is that, one who has accepted Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior easily obtains answers for the petitions he makes.  All he has to do is to raise his wallet and money will come in, or raise his passport and he will find employment abroad, or hold high his umbrella and graces will flow.  But if the Gospel has anything to teach us, it is that one does not easily obtain the favor he asks, that justice is not always served, that peace is not easily given.  There is a need to knock too often, to pray persistently, to wait for long, to suffer in silence, and to stand in prayer, even when praying seems meaningless and useless.  A Christian may not easily obtain the favor he asks, but he can always take comfort in the thought that he is not totally helpless before God, and is entirely dependent on him, and that God will, in his own, time, answer his prayer, even though not always in the form that he wants or expects.*

Saturday, October 12, 2013

On Recognizing that God Brings Healing and Provides Experience of Salvation

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year, C, Luke 17:11-19, October 13, 2013

 WHEN THE TWO commercial jets that terrorists had hijacked brought down the historic World Trade Center in New York, leaving in its wake thousands of casualties and tons of debris, bringing havoc to the American psyche, a number of people went to the nearby St Patrick’s Cathedral to thank the Lord for having been absent in the vicinity of the twin-tower when the tragedy struck.  They attended Mass in gratitude to God who saved them from the disastrous attack.  But events of course are not always as mind-boggling as the assault on the World Trade Center.  And what is or has become ordinary does not normally make a dint. Understandably enough, when one becomes accustomed to an event, however momentous it may be, it becomes so normal that he misses to see even its significance, still less perceive the meaning that has yet to be uncovered in the long run.  A sacristan, for example, may tend to regard the change of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ to be just an ordinary part of the rite, no different from the making of the sign of the cross at the beginning of the mass.  Indeed, sometimes it takes the inquisitive mind of a little boy, who wishes to have his first communion, to make us realize the profound significance of the ritual.  At other times, it requires the touch of God’s finger to make us aware that what is happening is far from ordinary, as in the miracle of the Eucharist in Lanciano, Italy.  And only then are we conscious that the hand of God is behind what is happening before our very eyes.

            Today’s Gospel about the healing of the ten lepers (Luke 17:11-19) provides us an example of that experience.  At the outset, it may be noted that leprosy was a general term in the ancient world to cover a variety of skin anomalies. from rashes, acne, boils to actual Hansen’s disease (Lev 13).  In instances of actual Hansen’s disease, the afflicted were ostracized from villages, although they lived near enough on the outskirts to receive alms.  Their isolation, which was regulated by Lev 13:45-46 (see also Num 12:15; 2 Kings 7:3-4), was bridged by warning the people of their approach by shouting “Unclean!  Unclean!”  Whether the ten lepers in the present story had Hansen’s disease or not, the data do not enable us to determine.  At any rate, the episode seems to be a miracle story, in which the lepers called out for pity and mercy, and Jesus answered their plea by healing them while they were on the way to the priests to present themselves for examination (Lev 13:49).  One gets the impression that here Luke shows Jesus as a healer who meets the needs of those who cry for help.  He is portrayed as a liberator who frees the afflicted from the slavery to evil condition and restores them to the community of Israel.

            It seems, however, that—as Luke narrates it—this is not the main point of the Gospel story.  For one thing, the narrative ends with a pronouncement: “Your faith has been your salvation” (Luke 17:19).  Secondly, the Samaritan’s faith is praised, obviously in contrast with that of the nine other lepers, and the gratitude of the former is starkly set over against the ingratitude of the latter.  One is tempted to say, therefore, that Luke’s point revolves around the act of salvation that Jesus performed.  Let us uncover what this means.  To be sure, the healing of leprosy was not distinctive of Jesus.  There were many miracle workers in the Near East at that time, and the Greeks called them theios aner, divine men.  Which is why one can assume that although the nine Jewish lepers showed faith in Jesus, as evidenced by their shouts for help, yet they must have viewed their restoration to health as no different from the various healings that miracle workers performed in Israel.  Their mindset was completely that of an Israelite who lived under the Law of Moses.  It was for this reason that they were content with fulfilling the prescription of the Law, which stipulates that those cleaned of their leprosy must show themselves to the priests so they could be restored to the community of Israel (Lev 13:49).

            But for Luke, the healing was not ordinary.  Although the nine lepers were blind to the salvific act involved in the healing, it took a Samaritan—a social outcast and religious heretic in the eyes of the Jews—to recognize that what happened to all of them was more than a miracle of healing and restoration to the community.  For the Samaritan, the healing was over and above all a miracle of coming to faith in Jesus, and an experience of the salvation that comes from him.  The nine Jewish lepers were completely blind to this.  In the theology of Luke, Jesus is the bringer of the messianic salvation; he proclaims the Kingdom of God, makes it present in the salvific acts he performs, and invites men to experience the blessings of salvation.  But to experience and participate in the messianic blessings, one must come to faith in him.  That precisely happened to the Samaritan.  It is for this reason that Jesus said to him, “your faith has been your salvation” (Luke 17:19).  In other words, in contrast with the nine Jewish lepers, the Samaritan was more than healed; he was saved.

            Consequently, in contrast to the comportment of nine Jewish leprous who did not show gratitude to Jesus because of their blindness, the reaction of the Samaritan to his experience of the messianic blessings from him, made possible by the eyes of faith, was one of thanksgiving.  He recognized that Jesus was God’s agent who not only healed but brought or shared the experience of salvation.  Hence, he came back to thank him, and glorified God through him.  In contrast, the nine Jewish lepers did not recognize this; it was, therefore, understandable that they were content with simply carrying out the command of Jesus to show themselves to the priests.  For lack of the perception of faith, they were simply healed, but never saved.  They were never converted to Jesus; they remained under the Law.  Hence, they did not feel the urge to thank him.  They were unlike Naaman, an army commander from the Arameans in the 1st Reading (1 Kgs 5:14-17) who-- despite his being a pagan and, like the Samaritan, despised by the Jews—having been cured of his leprosy, recognized the superior power of the God of Israel at work in the prophet Elisha, and returned to give thanks, again like the Samaritan.   Thus, the story anticipates the gradual blindness of Israel to God’s work of salvation in Jesus, and the growing acceptance of it by the Gentiles, whom the Samaritan represents.  For Luke, this Samaritan exhibits the basic element of discipleship: faith in Jesus.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Why Does God Permit Acts of Senseless Terrorism?

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Twenty-Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, Luke 17:5-10, October 6, 2013

IN THE UNITED STATES, the World Trade Center, a 110-floor twin towers in lower Manhattan, New York, was symbolic of America’s economic prosperity, while the Pentagon in Washington stands to remind us of her military might.  Twelve years ago, on September 11, 2001 to be exact, no sooner had people warmed their seats than two commercial planes, hijacked by terrorists, brought down the twin towers without warning, and another wrecked havoc on the Pentagon.  The damage, in terms of lives, not to mention property and their impact on the American psyche, was so enormous that the death toll was, in the words of New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, “more than we can bear.”  A political analyst may look at these horrific attacks in terms of imperialism and hegemony, but for a man of religion, they raise questions about God’s power and his government of the world.  Why does he permit such acts of senseless terrorism?  Why does he let injustice and violence run their course?

            The first reading (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4) raises almost the same questions.  At the time of Habakkuk, the Chaldeans have replaced the Assyrians as the masters of the ancient Near East in the early 6th century BC.  There was turmoil in both the international scene and in the land Judah which was rife with confusion, disorder, intrigues and idolatry. Seeing the violation of human rights in the anarchic regime, while God seemed to be unmoved by the disorder, the prophet questioned the ways of God, complaining why he, who was supposed to save his people, tolerated the injustices against the innocent: “How long, O Lord?  I cry for help but you do not listen!  I cry out to you, ‘Violence!’, but you do not intervene” (Hab 1:2).  One is, of course, reminded of the questions of the skeptic on the problem of evil in theodicy: Why does God not prevent evil in the world?  Is he not capable of it?  If he is and he does not, can he still be a holy and just God?  Is he not malevolent?  If he is not able to prevent it and will not, is he powerless and resentful?  But if he is and he will, why does he let terrorism and injustice have their way?

            Though such questions may make sense in philosophical gymnastics, they are foreign to the Scriptures.  If anything, it would seem that the problem does not lie with God.  On the contrary, it seems to be a question of man’s attitude toward God in the face of the mystery of evil, and its concrete manifestations in history---as in the assault on the American nation.  For a man of religion, one’s attitude toward God in the face of negative experiences in the world is one of faith.  This is the message of both the 1st Reading and the Gospel, although the meaning of the word is not identical in both instances.  In the 1st Reading (Hab 1:2-3; 2:2-4), in his response to the questions that the prophet raised, God said that even in the perilous and confusing times, one must trust and hope in him, confident the future belongs to him.  And he who is just, because of his faith, shall live (Hab 2:4).  Here faith means fidelity and steadfastness.  In the Gospel (Luke 17:5-10), the saying about faith is placed in two contexts that have to do with discipleship.  On the one hand, there is the larger context which is the journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51), which would have been difficult for the disciples to comprehend, for a crucified Messiah would have been opaque to their understanding.  Consequently, if in today’s Gospel they asked Jesus to increase their faith (Luke 17:5), it could signify the lack of commitment on their part to follow the Lord in his journey to the cross. 

On the other hand, there is the immediate context, namely, scandals and wrongdoings that inevitably arise in the community (Luke 17:1).  In Luke’s theology, the community that Jesus intended to establish is one that loves, cares and forgives.  Experience shows, however, that in the Church and in our faith communities, there are people who scandalize, are unrepentant and unforgiving.  There are some who serve as stumbling blocks to others (Luke 17:1-4).  Considering the havoc they create in the community even to the point of engendering factions and divisions, one wonders why God allows such problems and people to be part of his very own community.  If Jesus came to defeat the powers of Satan and to establish the reign in the community, why does he not remove those community members who stifle the growth of the Kingdom?  Does he not care about what happens to the communities and movements of faith that are, for example, placed in the hands of leaders who set bad examples to others, scandalizing even the most innocent members?  Why does he not place millstone around their necks (cf Luke 17:2)?

But it is precisely in the face of such realities within the community that faith is necessary so that Jesus’ followers can grasp the divine wisdom.  Faith is the disciples’ response to God’s call to belong to the community of love.  In this context, faith means an act of abandonment and trust in God.  It means putting everything in the hands of God, knowing that, despite what appears to be human foolishness, the wisdom of God will prevail.  If the disciples have this kind of faith—authentic faith—not matter how small, they can certainly achieve great things, and transform the community into one that cares for the spiritual and material needs of its members.  It is in this sense that Jesus used the exaggerated image of the power of faith so his teaching can sink well into the mind of his listeners: such faith can uproot the mulberry tree!  In other words, many miracles can happen in a community whose members have that kind of trust in what God can accomplish.  If human wisdom were left to itself, many people would probably think and suggest that those who are unforgiving, those who are trouble makers and those who are scandal-causing members of the Church should be excommunicated and written off!  But human wisdom is folly before God.  The wisdom of God dictates that forgiveness, tolerance and sufferings are necessary for the transformation of the community.  And to believe in that wisdom obviously requires much faith.  Hence the petition of the disciples: “Increase our faith” (Luke 17:5).

With this in mind, a disciple cannot therefore claim that when, for instance, a tragedy strikes the community, as in the despicable assault of the twin towers in Manhattan and the Pentagon in Washington, God has abandoned his people or does not care about them.  One cannot question the ways of God.  What happens to the community may not make sense to human wisdom, and human wisdom may even appear to present better solutions to solve the problems that the community encounters.  But as a hearer of the Word, the disciple remains faithful to God and to his Word, even when the Word does appear not to make sense at all.  Hence the response to the 1st Reading: “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”  Whatever evil may befall on the community, one’s faith in Jesus assures the disciple that God’s Word will ultimately emerge triumphant, because he knows that God is faithful to those who believe in him, and he cannot be deceived nor can deceive.  All that he needs when the going gets tough is to ask the Lord to increase his faith so it could accomplish miracles!