Homily on the 33rd Sunday of Year C
November 14, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
Every time a catastrophe occurs, self-proclaimed prophets and diviners arise and immediately deduct apocalyptic conclusions. When the two commandeered commercial planes crushed into the World Trade Center, some people, for example, became instant numerologists, pointing to the recurrence of the number eleven: the tragedy occurred on September 11, exactly 111 days before the year ends; the passengers were on the American Airlines flight No 11; the twin-towers look life No. 11 from a distance; and both have 110 floors; Sept 11 is the 254th day of the year, and 2+5+4 equals11; and if you write Sept 11 in numbers and add them up (9-1-1), the sum you get is 11. That is to say that the calamitous event—for those who see apocalyptic meanings in numbers–was not accidental; the exact time came for it to pass, it being a part of a larger plan cooked up in heaven that only God knows. Others were no less ingenious; they referred to an alleged prediction by the 16th century French astrologer and seer Michael de Notredame (Nostradamus): “In the City of York there will be a great collapse, twin brothers torn apart by chaos. While the fortress falls, the great leader will succumb. The third big war will begin when the city is burning.” One notes, of course, that the “prediction” is almost so accurate that it could have only been a creation of an imaginative Nostradamus enthusiast.
But the Bible has been inexhaustibly used in the apocalyptic deductions from current historical events, and this is very true of the Gospel reading (Luke 21:5-19) today and its parallels. This selection is a discourse on the destruction of the temple and its distinction from the end of the world and the eventual return of Christ. In it Jesus said that before the Judgment Day nation would rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and that there would be earthquakes, famines, pestilence and signs from heaven (vv 11-12). Many, however, read this out of context, and in association with the books of Daniel and Revelation, used it to interpret fearful events and catastrophes and began to claim to have discovered the exact date, concealed in Scriptures from the many but known only to a privileged few like them, when the world comes to an end. In 1991, a TV channel in the US, in one of its religious programs, calculated that the beginning of the crack of doom coincided with the crisis in the Persian Gulf on the basis of Daniel and the apocalyptic discourse of the Lord. Of course, in recent history, we have this long line of prophets who pretended to have known the exact date of the Lord’s return. One recalls, for instance, William Miller who set the date of the second coming in 1843, and then on October 22, 1844, awaited by some 50,000 Adventists, and they were greatly disappointed. Or Charles Russell, founder of what became the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who taught that the end would come in 1914, during the First World War, confident that “millions now alive will never die.”
It is of interest to note that all these predictions are based on a certain reading of Scriptures. But for one not initiated to studying them, what is puzzling is that, even when these claimants to prophetic knowledge read the same scriptural text, they give different interpretations and dates. And what is more baffling, they always get it wrong, as the fact that we are still alive proves. The reason for this is not difficult to determine, however. In the first place, these attempts to date the end of the world are founded on an overly literal and symbolic interpretation of the Bible. But even more fundamental than this, they rest on a failure to understand the nature of the biblical book or the Bible itself and the intention of the writer of the book or passage on which they anchor their predictions. To begin with, what a particular passage means depends on the nature of the form of literature. Unlike scientific history, for example, a fable cannot be taken as historical. What poetry conveys cannot be put on the same level as what prose has to say. That is why we speak of the truth of poetry, the truth of history, and the truth of fiction—all of them conveying a certain truth, but not in the same way and degree. When a lover says, “I can give you my whole heart and soul,” that is poetry which cannot be put in prose without distorting its meaning.
The same is true with the present scripture text. If one were to interpret Luke 21:10-19 literally, one might say that the second coming, clearly distinct in Luke from the fall of Jerusalem, would be preceded by wars, earthquakes, plagues and famine, fearful omens in the sky and persecutions. When such events happen, one may not be surprised that many, with a literalist interpretation, will raise the question of whether they are seeing the fulfillment of the Lord’s prediction. But the text is not about prediction of the things to come; rather, it is about interpretation of events Luke’s community was confronted with. That interpretation is clothed with a literary genre called apocalyptic, found in such books as Daniel, Isaiah and Revelation, among others. In this genre, the interpretation of an event is characterized by an extravagant use of various images, symbols, signs and figures of speech, taken from contemporary literature. It usually deals with cosmic transformation that precedes the day of the Lord, with the assurance that those who remain faithful to the end will participate in God’s victory, even if the present realities seem to show the powerlessness of God over his enemies, and those who persecuted his people will face the inevitable judgment. Thus the 1st Reading: “The day is coming… when all the proud and all evildoers will stubble… but for you who fear my name, there will arise the sun of justice with its healing rays” (Mal 4:1-2a).
If today’s Gospel, therefore, speaks of wars, cosmic changes, and persecutions, they are not to be taken as signs of the impending end, but as literary medium, taken from contemporary literature, to express the theological message that those who carry on the cause of Christ, amid threats, persecutions, and imprisonment, can always expect to suffer setbacks, and they can even experience the feeling of the absence of God when they cry for help. Ultimately, however, they have the assurance that, for all the appearance of the forces of evil gaining the upper hand, the triumph of what is right and salvation for those who remained faithful to the end is certain. For this reason, those who take up the cause of God in Christ must hold fast to the end. “By patient endurance you will save your lives” (Luke 21:19). Consequently, they must not be afraid to bear witness to God’s love. On the contrary, the assurance of victory should animate them to labor for the coming of the kingdom of God. It is relevant to point out that the Second Vatican Council says something to this effect: “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on, for it is here that the body of a new human family grows, foreshadowing in some way the age which is to come” (Gaudium et spes, 39).
Homily on the 32nd Sunday of Year C
November 7, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
As a consequence of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States when three hijacked commercial planes toppled the twin-towers in Manhattan and wrecked havoc on the Pentagon, the only Superpower in the world launched large-scale operations against Osama bin Laden, his al Qaida organization, and the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan, who were being blamed for the suicide attacks. The US campaign was ostensibly directed toward destroying international terrorism, but from another point of view, the campaign could also be seen as aimed at the survival of America as a nation. Survival, after all, is one of the basic instincts of women, men peoples and nations.
Indeed, that we do everything within our possibilities to assure that our health does not fail, that we normally look at suicide with repulsion and not, despite the enormous problems we face, as a good exit (except for a few who some would judge as not in their normal state of mind)—that merely indicates that we all love life, however miserable it might be, and we wish to survive. In fact, many of us cling to life so much that, even in the face of the inevitability of death, we devise means by which to prolong it: operation, transplant, expensive medicine, to mention a few. It may be noticed, too, that we construct monuments, sire children and create masterpieces in the hope that, consciously or not, our name and honor will live on long after we have expired. Our human desire to live on and be remembered by perpetually is probably inseparable from our belief that there should be life after death. The pyramids of Egypt, judged from their structure, function and content, testify to that belief in survival after death. In some countries in Africa, time was when the wives, slaves and servants of kings were buried alive with them in the belief that they would still serve them in the next life; hence, the grave of kings were provided with rooms. Of course, in our time, there may be some people who do not believe that one survives after physical death, but one can be sure that even they devise means to perpetuate their memory. They will not want to die like dogs.
That there are individuals who deny that there is life after death—this is nothing new under the sun, of course. In Israel at the time of Jesus, the Sadducees, a religio-political “party” largely drawn from the priestly class of the Jewish society, but which included many lay aristocrats, were such. They did not accept teachings not found in the five books of Moses, like the resurrection of the dead, which represents a later development in the Jewish faith. They rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees, which included that belief. For them, if God rewards a human person, he does so in the present life, and they felt that they were blessed by God, what with their position of power and privilege in economy and in social life. There can be no reward after death since there is, they claimed, no after life. In today’s Gospel (Luke 20:27-38), Luke mentions them for the first and the last time. He portrays them as coming to Jesus with a mocking question with the intention of ridiculing the teaching of the resurrection, which Jesus shared with the Pharisees.
To demonstrate how absurd that very belief was, some Sadducees cited a hypothetical story that reflected the practice of the time—the story of a woman who was able to marry seven brothers in succession, since, according to the stipulation of the levirate law (Deut 25:5-10), if a husband died childless, his brother would have to marry his wife. For the Sadducees, the levirate law made the belief in the resurrection ridiculous, for it assumes that there would be a fight in heaven over women to whom brothers have been given in marriage. To stress their point, they asked Jesus whose wife the woman would be in the resurrection (Luke 20:28-33). In response to their question, Jesus used two arguments—and a third may be added–that would have been convincing to the Jews. The first one was drawn from the nature of resurrection life. He distinguished two modes of human life—earthly existence and resurrection life. In the former, it is essential that men and women marry to assure perpetuation of species in face of the inevitability of death. In the latter, procreation is no longer appropriate because all will live like angels, and the problem of successive marital relationships is thus rendered irrelevant.
The second argument was taken from a passage of a book that was acceptable to the Sadducees, because it was part of the Pentateuch. After all, it was from the Pentateuch that they tried to justify their case. According to Moses, whose authority the Sadducees accepted, God is a God of the living, not of the dead (Exod 3:6), and if the Pentateuch calls God the Father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, it follows that the threesome are alive, not dead. But as the three have died long ago, God must have resurrected them, if Moses’ claim, which the Sadducees submitted to, is true. The 1st Reading (2 Macc 7:1-2.9-14) puts forward another argument for resurrection. It raises the question of justice. When Antiochus Epiphanes systematically persecuted the Jews, introducing Hellenistic beliefs and practices in the process, many Jews were martyred for their opposition to his program of Hellenization. The death of these martyrs, however, gave rise to the question of how God could give justice to their lives, as they were murdered for their faith in Yahweh. The answer found in the belief that God would vindicate them in the resurrection of the just. Thus, the fourth of the seven brothers who were tortured with whips and scourges by the king to force them to eat pork in violation of God’s law says: “It is my choice to die at the hands of men with the God-given hope of being restored to life by him; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life” (2 Macc 7:14b).
For Christians, of course, such arguments may not be very necessary. The evidence—and our assurance—that there is life after death is the resurrection of Jesus himself. That Christ is alive—this is the source of our hope, for in Christ all will be made alive: “Christ is now raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. Death came through a man; hence, the resurrection of the dead comes through a man also. Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again, but each one in proper order: Christ is the first fruits and then, at his coming, all those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:20-22). Our resurrection is thus linked with the resurrection of Jesus: “If we have been united with him through the likeness of his death, so shall we be through a like resurrection” (Rom 6:5). In view of this, we can state that to raise monuments, raise children and leave a memorial behind may be important to remember us by, but what is decisive is to live, after our sojourn on earth, forever with Christ. Consequently, it is really out of character of the Christian hope to engage in large-scale operations and kill many people in the process with the end in view of surviving on this earth. Under the species of eternity, our earthly survival is very short. Rather, what we should work for with more intensity and strive after is our life after death—compared with which our survival on earth is but a moment.
Homily on the 31st Sunday of Year C
October 31, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
In the ministry, I have encountered many Christians who are of the belief that being saved is a matter of one’s being sinless. They think that if a person does nothing wrong, he will eventually be saved. And for them, to sin is usually identified with transgressing any of the Ten Commandments. How often have I heard some of them being comfortable with themselves, self-assured as they were that they had really nothing to confess since they had followed the Decalogue. Their claim to clean living, in a culture that identifies sin with transgression, could hardly be disputed, of course.
However one may agree with that claim, though, Luke would probably hesitate to go along with that kind of reasoning. Today’s Gospel is a pericope on Zacchaeus the tax collector (Luke 19:1-18). But prior to this narrative, Luke tells us the story of a man from the ruling class who has been faithful in following the Law. Asked by Jesus about the commandments, he replied: “I have kept all these since I was a boy” (Luke 18:21). Walking before the Law, he was certainly blameless. But he could not be saved, for all the blamelessness of his life, because he would not part with his wealth. Challenged by Jesus to sell all he had and distribute to the poor, he became sad (Luke 18:23), and Luke would have us understand that the ruler refused to comply with Jesus’ demand. Which elicited a comment from Jesus: “How hard it is for those who have riches to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Luke 18:24).
Juxtaposed with the story of the man who belonged to the ruling class is the narrative on Zacchaeus. According to Luke, Zacchaeus wanted to see Jesus when he went to Jericho, and unable to see Jesus on account of his small stature, he climbed a sycamore tree. When Jesus saw him, he told him to hurry down because he would stay at his house, and Zacchaeus welcomed him with delight (Luke 19:1-5). It may be noted that like the young ruler, Zacchaeus was wealthy, but probably unlike him, if we judge simply on the basis of the gospel data, Zacchaeus was not blameless. On the contrary, probably almost every contemporary of Jesus would have described him like any other tax collector: a person of greed. Small though he was, he was big with ambition and greediness. In a poor country like Israel in Jesus’ time, it would have been difficult for a man like him to be rich without using people, disregarding our concept of justice and rights. Of course, as a tax collector, he was notorious, for the occupation of tax collectors at that time was base in the popular estimation. For one thing, they were considered traitors, working for a hated foreign power that oppressed the Jewish people. Why would Zacchaeus secure employment from the Romans if not for the dirty money? For another, tax collectors were in charge of deciding how much each family had to pay, and usually they raised the tax assessment so they could keep for themselves the difference between the money collected and the amount they had to turn over. No wonder the Jews ostracized them. That would have included Zacchaeus. He was rich, but at the expense of his own people. That is why, the righteous, like the Pharisees and the scribes, murmured against him. Practically, he was a thief, one who, unlike the young ruler, could not claim to have followed the Law.
And yet, unlike the rich ruler, Zacchaeus experienced salvation: “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). What happened? How could the rich young man, who was known to be blameless since he followed the Law since childhood, could not enter the Kingdom of God, whereas Zacchaeus, equally rich, but avoided and despised, and never bothering about the commandments, could attain eternal life? Why is it that Zacchaeus suddenly became a parable that the rich can be saved? The reason is that, unlike the young ruler, Zacchaeus allowed God to work in him; he became a host to Jesus who was bringing salvation to his house.
For, as the 1st Reading and the Responsorial Psalm state, it is in the nature of God to be merciful to those who welcome him in their lives; he overlooks their sins (Wisd 11:23; Ps 145:8-9). Understandably, Jesus the living parable of God’s forgiveness, sought out Zacchaeus the sinner, even as the Son of Man came to seek not the righteous but sinners (Luke 15:4.7). What God does is allow “the scoundrel forsake his way, the wicked man his thoughts; let him turn to the Lord for mercy; to our God, who is generous in forgiving” (Isa 55:7). It may be recalled that it was important for Jesus that the community of Israel experienced wholeness. For this is what salvation, the reason for his coming into the world (1 John 4:14), means—the experience of integrity and wholeness by the community. And in allowing Jesus to enter his house and his life, Zaccheus experienced forgiveness and liberation. He knew wholeness—a new freedom from the world of greed, avarice and trickery.
Because he allowed Jesus to come to and work in his life, he vowed to stop his greed and became generous. Thus, he promised to give half of his property to the poor and, if he defrauded anyone, to pay him back fourfold (Luke 19:8), an amount far more than what the Law required (Lev 6:1-5). It appears thus that even though Jesus said that it was easier for a camel to enter the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God (Luke 18:25), yet Zaccheaus became an example of a rich man—notorious at that—who experienced salvation. Precisely because he allowed Jesus to enter into his life, he became generous to the poor, unlike the rich ruler who could not give up his wealth. Thus, he became an example of a saved rich person, becoming a new creation in Christ (2 Cor 5:17). The old Zacchaeus, along with his old values and lifestyle, passed away.
Salvation, then, is not simply about being unblemished or about doing nothing wrong. It is really about permitting God to enter into our lives, and changing us into loving persons, generous to the poor and the disadvantaged. And in our time, he has provided us an opportunity to come to our lives as members of the Christian community—he comes to us in the Eucharist. He is with us in this sacrament because we are sinners. In the Eucharist he is there, in the form of bread and wine, to seek and save the lost. That is why we begin the Mass with an acknowledgment of our sinfulness before God. The Mass then is not simply a communal worship of God. It is also a personal and communitarian encounter with Jesus. What a blessing would it be, if all of us who come to the Eucharist experience this personal encounter. For it is in this encounter that Jesus himself gives us the grace of salvation. Of course, the proof that we really received that grace, that we really encountered him in the Eucharist, is when, like Zacchaeus, we experience liberation from the world of greed—we go home after the Mass as changed persons and communities. We go home, bringing with us the lesson of breaking the bread; we break our bread with the poor
Homily on the 30th Sunday of Year C
October 24, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
Last September 2001, 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.