Homily on the 3rd Sunday of Advent
December 12, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
WHAT can transform our present world that is rife with suffering and evil into a paradise of love, justice and peace? Time was when many people, given the evils attendant upon Industrial Revolution, thought that Socialism and Communism would usher in a new paradise, the classless society, with the Proletariat as the Messiah; but in the end, the paradise turned out to be the Gulag archipelago. Karl Marx’s Communism was obviously a disappointment. That was why others were hoping for the destruction of the USSR, believing that the fall of the “evil” empire would usher in world peace. Today, however, the Russian empire has disintegrated, and Communism and Socialism have been defanged, but the world has not substantially changed for the better. We are still faced with the prospect of nuclear exchange, and we have problems of hunger and poverty, the exploitation of the poor by the rich, the foolish wars and the rape of the environment. Many people and probably some countries looked to terrorists and their network for salvation, but if the fallout of their attacks is any evidence, it would seem that the world has gotten no better off than before.
Which brings us to the question: given the persistence of evil experiences, who is to free us from them and offer us a new life and a new world? Of course, to those who belong to the Christian Churches and civilization, faith teaches that Jesus Christ is the Messiah, i.e., God’s anointed One who brought salvation to the world through his entire life, but especially through his passion, death and resurrection. We, Christians, identify him with “the one who is to come” (Matt 11:3)—he is the one we long for to save this world from all forms of evil. This belief in Jesus’ Messiahship is already expressed in the early post-Easter reflection, where he is recognized as the Davidic Messiah who is enthroned at the resurrection: “God made both Lord and Messiah this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:34).
But whether all of us act on that belief, that is to say, whether our belief in his Messiahship is seen in the way we live our day-to-day lives, is another question. For, one simply wonders whether the name of Jesus the Messiah is invoked in our efforts to establish peace and justice, whether his teachings matter whenever we try to resolve problems of hunger, war, poverty, and the destruction of the environment, and whether the way we do politics and economy is informed by what the Messiah has to say. Indeed, if the war against terrorism is any indication, it would seem that many Christians—or at least those who hold power in governments—look to other Messiahs. Like High-Tech Military Power.
We raise this point because it seems that many of us do not exactly understand the role of Jesus in the realization of salvation. We seem to think like John the Baptist who had his own notion of the Messiah and asked in this Sunday’s Gospel (Matt 11:2-11) whether Jesus fit his conception. In the Gospel of Matthew, John described the coming of the Messiah in terms of clearing the threshing floor, gathering the grain into the barns and burning the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt 3:10), that is to say, in terms of God’s anger and His judgment (Jer 7:20). The Messiah, as John the Baptist saw him, would be a stringent judge. But when Jesus arrived on the scene, he proved to be a disappointment to John the Baptist. Instead of eliminating transgressors from the face of the earth, for example, Jesus welcomed tax collectors and sinners (Matt 9:10-13; cf Luke 15:1-2). He engaged in a healing ministry (Matt 11:5; Isa 35:5-6). While John looked for judgment pronounced on evildoers, Jesus pronounced the endless love and mercy of God the Father (Luke ch 15).
Jesus, in other words, did not match John’s preconception. Not surprisingly enough, in today’s Gospel, John sent deputation to inquire as to Jesus’ Messiahship: “Are you ‘He who is to come’ or do we look for another?” (Matt 11:3). Indeed, there seems to be a John the Baptist in each of us. In the face of the enormous problems we are confronted with, we look not to Jesus but to politicians, Rambos, foreigner mercenaries, terrorists, and even magic and sorcery to solve them! To deliver us from political and economic evil, we run to politicians, economists and technocrats, even if experience has shown that the country has never substantially improved with the solutions they have offered us in many years—the poor keep on multiplying, the powerful still control the economy, real service is still undelivered in the way it should, the rich become all the more rich.
Why is this so? Why do we not look to Christ, if we indeed believe that he is the Messiah? The reason is that, like John the Baptist, we seem not to believe that Jesus’ way is the correct way. We lack faith that in Jesus we have the ultimate answer to the problem of salvation. We think that Jesus’ words lack wisdom, and his teaching will not work. Probably at the back of our minds, we believe that he is “an obstacle and a stumbling block,” even if we profess with our lips the opposite. We are practically disbelievers in God’s word (1 Pet 2:8). A Christian will always condemn terrorism, but it will be difficult for him to find any Christian basis for an almost relentless bombing on a poor country, where millions who are poor live, even if it is an enemy. That might be a reasonable, sensible action, politically correct, but one doubts whether it could be considered Christian. The main problem, in other words, is that we lack faith. To conquer the enemy, one has to forgive, if one goes by the Gospel, but who would believe that? If one slaps your right cheek, give him the left as well—is that reasonable?
Hence, in today’s Gospel, Jesus says: “Blest is the man who finds no stumbling block in me’ (Matt 11:6). To believe that Jesus’ way is the right way calls for a leap of faith. It is a faith that allows God to do what he wants; we do not dictate how God should act in us, even though this is what we would like to happen. On the contrary, all we do is just listen to him, as the experience of Israel proves, when the Lord saved his people from the Egyptians at the crossing of the Red Sea (Exod 14:14). This means that before anything else, we must believe, and then we can be sure that our hope will not be disappointed: “Behold, I am placing in Zion a stone to make men stumble and a rock to make them fall; but he who believes in him will not be disappointed” (Rom 9:33).
Homily on the 2nd Sunday of Advent A
December 5, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
“Eat Bulaga!” is a noon-time variety show in the Philippines aired by GMA Network. That it is the longest running television show in the country and broadcast worldwide through GMA Pinoy TV is an indication that the program is a success. Aired from Monday through Saturday, it gives excitement to the viewing public because it is bristled with surprises. This year, 2010, it celebrated its 31st anniversary. But to stay at the top, Joey de Leon, Tito Sotto and Vic Sotto cannot merely sit back and relax; they cannot just bask in the sunshine of phenomenal success. If they are not to wake up one day and find out that their show has been toppled, they must always make an effort to make it unmatched.
Just as Tito, Vic and Joey cannot merely bask in their being number one in the noon-time show industry but have to exert efforts to maintain their rating, so a Christian cannot simply assure himself that his being part of the Church is enough guarantee of his salvation. And the Gospel today’s cautions us against that frame of mind by telling us about the outlook of the Pharisees and Sadducees. The Sadducees and the Pharisees were sort of interest groups within Judaism, and although they had differences in their beliefs and interpretation of the law, both were proud of their being part of God’s covenanted people, who descended from Abraham. As can be gathered from rabbinic literature, the Jews believed that to be inserted into the Abrahamitic lineage was an assurance of protection against God’s wrath and, as may be gleaned from other sources (Luke 16:24; John 8:33-39), an assurance of salvation. The consolation of Zion or Jerusalem finds its basis in the share of Abraham’s blessings (Isa 51:2-3). No wonder, being an heir to Abraham’s blessings (Gen 12:2-4) was Israel’s national pride and boasts, for they were sure of salvation on the basis of the merits of Abraham (Test. Levi 15:4). Indeed, some even believed that although one may depart from the ways of God, one could still share in the everlasting kingdom on account of his belonging to Abraham’s lineage; after all, God cannot be unfaithful to his promise to Abraham and to his descendants.
In today’s Gospel (Matt 3:1-12), John the Baptist repudiates such an outlook. It may be recalled that John preached the imminence of the Kingdom of God. Both Pharisees and Sadducees believed, of course, in the coming of the Reign, but with a difference. For the Sadducees, who were elitist, comprising the Jewish aristocracy that maintained the Temple and its rituals, the Reign of God is merely the continuing rule of God that existed from the dawn of creation, and all they waited was its perfection. The Pharisees, on the other hand, taught that the Kingdom could be hastened through meticulous observance of the law and a superior morality. But John the Baptist shared none of these; the coming of the Kingdom is imminent, and people had to be prepared for its coming. Of course, for the common people who looked forward to their deliverance from the Roman yoke, the coming of the Kingdom was a fulfillment of their dream.
No wonder that John’s preaching evoked a very strong response from the hoi polloi living in Jerusalem, Judea and around the Jordan. Because his message was one of judgment, he invited people to submit to his baptism of repentance, a ritual cleansing that recalls the message of Zechariah (“On that day there shall be open to the house of David and to the inhabitants of Jerusalem a fountain to purify from sin and uncleanliness” [Zech 13:1]), as he challenged people to acknowledge their sinfulness and change their lives, their lifestyle, in preparation of the coming of the Kingdom. They must turn to God and institute a moral revolution in their lives and in the way they related to one another.
But the Pharisees and the Sadducees would not hear of his message of repentance. They saw no need to submit to the baptism of repentance; after all, they were sons of Abraham (Matt 3:9; cf John 8:33,39). Which elicited a retort from John: “You brood of vipers! Who told you to flee from the wrath to come? Give some evidence that you mean to reform. Do not pride yourselves on the claim, ‘Abraham is our father’” (Matt 3:7b-9a). In the mind of Matthew, God is not bound by the law of lineage. He can, according to John the Baptist, “raise up from these stones (‘abnayya) the children (benayya) of Abraham” (Matt 3:9)—a response that probably alludes to a comment in Isa 51:1-2 that though Abraham is like a lifeless stone, God can raise up descendants from him. This striking resonance or play of Aramaic words means that the Jews could not rest secure in their Abrahamitic lineage, for in God’s creative act, he can form a new people. Matthew’s perspective on this score is that the people of Israel have become divided with the coming of John and ultimately of Jesus. Whereas some put their faith in the Man from Nazareth, others refused to believe. For this reason, even families were sharply divided (Matt 10:21-22). But the nation as a whole did not come to believe in him; on the contrary, its leaders brought him to the cross. Therefore, Israel forfeited its privileged status as God’s people. That privilege has now been given to the Christian community, the Church. Judgment has fallen on Israel and God has raised a new people from these stones (‘abnayya)—the new children of Abraham.
But as we, the new children of Abraham, await the coming of the Kingdom, we cannot rest in complacency. Being God’s people is both a gift and a task. It is a gift because we, the Gentiles, did not deserve it. If it was given to us, it was not on account of our being superior to the Jews in any respect. Before God, we are stones (‘abnayya), dead and incapable of saving ourselves. It was simply because of his unmerited love (cf Rom 5:8) that created us into his own people. And for this very reason, it is at the same time a task, since we must maintain that divine election both in our belief and in our life. For it could happen that with this feeling of self-assurance, we will just sit back and relax, but without realizing that, in the end, that trust in our election as the new sons of Abraham is only a beginning. God demands something more in order that we may ultimately receive the reward of joining the community of the saints.
We cannot therefore put off the question of daily conversion to God, for the “ax is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt 3:10). There is thus a need for an on-going conversion, a complete turnabout of our orientation to sin and our daily decisions that arise from that orientation. As Paul puts it, “the lives of all of us are to be revealed before the tribunal of Christ so that each one may receive his recompense, good or bad, according to the body” (2 Cor 5:10). As the new children of Abraham, we cannot be complacent; we must show in our personal and community life the saving deeds of God in Jesus. The spiritual dangers which beset the Pharisees and the Sadducees—and the people of Israel—are no less real to us.*
Homily on the 1st Sunday of Advent A
November 28, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
NOT so long ago, America was bullish about itself. For all the laying-off of workers in some giant corporations, Americans enjoyed an unprecedented prosperity that was probably unmatched in 20 years or so. The only world power was confident that it would continue to dominate the world of politics, business and economy. No wonder it was complacent, or so it would appear. But like a balloon, America burst on September 11, 2001. The terrorists, alleged to be part of Osama bin Laden’s al-Quida network of Islamic radicals, reduced to rubble the World Trade Center twin-towers in Manhattan and damaged the Pentagon in Washington DC, sending the entire country into a state of shock. Stock markets dipped, shops closed down, schools were shuttered, buildings evacuated, planes grounded, and the entire nation was quite literally paralyzed. It was the day America cried. No one could have ever thought that a small but determined band of terrorists could have inflicted so much havoc on the symbols of American prosperity and military might, theAmerican people and the American psyche. The only powerful nation in the world, with its superiority in military intelligence and power, had its Achilles’ heel, after all; and the terrorists demolished the invulnerability of America. When one considers this particular catastrophe, he might make a mental note that despite the sophistication of its defense plan, there was obviously a failure in America’s intelligence network. The terrorists caught them flat-footed.
Advent is a time of vigilance; every time we celebrate it, the liturgy always exhorts us to get ready so that we may not be caught flat-footed when Christ’s return in glory. That is why, in this 1st Sunday of Advent (Matt 24:37-44), the themes of the Gospel are: being prepared for God’s coming in history and living accordingly. But what is this object of expectation, in the first place? Is it like a terrorist attack that is something to be feared, and so we always have to stand in readiness? If we confine ourselves to the liturgical readings, the Day of the Lord is not something to be scared of. In a vision of prophet Isaiah that we come across in the 1st Reading (Isa 2:1-5), all the nations will converge on Zion, the goal of their pilgrimage, which Yahweh made into his place of abode, the place of his special protection, and from which he will offer instruction on the right way of living. Of course, this is a Jewish way of understanding the future, but there we have the fundamental message of the things to come: it is the hope that all men and nations will belong to the renewed Israel, God’s people. In the vision wherein nations make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where they would share with the Jews the same worship and the way of life, the law, as God’s people, the prophet shows his conviction that if all the nations recognize and accept the instruction of Yahweh as the right way of living, there will be world peace. Because the sound judgment of God prevails, there would be renunciation of warfare; swords will be beaten into ploughshares. In other words, the object of our expectation is world peace among nations and the brotherhood of all men—that is what will be established when Christ returns. It is not, therefore, something to be feared; quite the contrary, it is one that must be approached with joyful expectation both because it always eludes us however much we try to pursue it, and because it fulfills our dreams and human longings.
And the Gospel asks us to get ready for it. To bring home the point, Matthew tells us the parable of the sign of Noah. In its original version, the story of Noah emphasizes that the flood was a punishment for the people’s wickedness (Gen 6:5-7). In Matthew’s use of the story, the warning about the flood does not point to immoralities committed by the victims; rather, it simply cautioned them that they were engaged in their ordinary activities, like eating and drinking, which were innocent in themselves. If one were to speaking of sin at all, it is that they never gave a thought to the impending catastrophe. In utilizing the Noah story, therefore, Matthew wants to admonish us that to prepare for the day when the Son of Man comes, we cannot imitate the contemporaries of Noah who went about their daily secular business and were blind to the imminent disaster. Considering that we do not know either the day or the hour (Matt 24:36), when the Son of Man comes, even as he will appear swiftly and without notice, much like the slamming of the two commercial planes against the twin towers of the World Trade Center, we can only pursue our interest with the parousia in mind.
Indeed, his coming will be so swift than we would not ever have time to prepare for it at all; therefore, now is the time to get ready so that so we might not be caught napping, or with our pants down. To stress this point, Matthew gives us another brief parable: the parable of the prudent householder (Matt 24:42-44). Here, Jesus compared the arrival of the Son of Man to the digging of a thief through the house (v 44). One is of course surprised by the use of the word “digging” but this is because the typical house at the time of Jesus was made either entirely or partly of clay bricks, and the easiest way to get in is to dig through the wall. And when a burglar does so, he does not of course serve notice to the owner of the house that he is coming in, much like today’s bank robbers who could pull a heist in five minutes and cart off millions of pesos. The approach of the parousia, in other words, will have no signs that could be discerned, and therefore we who await him must act like a householder who watches throughout the night. If the American military intelligence was always on the alert, the September 11 tragedy could have been prevented. The parable therefore is an exhortation that we have to we behave as if the Son of Man is coming at any moment today.
That means of course that we are caught up in an eschatological expectation. In fact, this is how the early Christians lived. Convinced that Christ would be arriving at any moment, they lived in joyful expectation. Just like a householder who is on the watch lest a thief breaks through his house at any time, and therefore who has with him everything that is necessary to defend the house from any burglary, so the Christians tried anticipate the future in the present. Thus, in the 2nd Reading, Paul gives us an example of an eschatological exhortation which insists that we are now living in the eschaton, in the end time: “It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep, for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith. The night is far spent; the day draws near. Let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us live honorably as in daylight; not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual excess and lust, not in quarreling and jealousy. Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ and make no provision for the desires of the flesh” (Rom 13:12b-14). For Paul, to live in the eschaton is to live in and for Christ; but for Matthew, that life would be expressed in discipleship—listening to Christ and putting his words into action.
Homily on the Solemnity of Christ the King
November 21, 2010
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
TWO decades ago or thereabouts, I read a book entitled Night, written by a Hungarian Jew—was it a certain Wiesel?—about the execution of three men by the Gestapo in front of thousands of spectators in a Nazi concentration camp (in Auschwitz? Buchenwald?). The three were mounted onto the chairs, and when the nooses were placed on their necks, two of them shouted, “Long live freedom!” while the third, a child, simply kept silent. Then someone from among the crowd commented, “Where is God?” presumably asking why such a cruel fate should befall on the threesome. At a given signal from the head of the camp, the chairs tipped over, and in a jiffy, two of them were dead. The small boy, however, was still alive, and for about an hour, he hung there, suspended between heaven and earth, suffering the agony of dying slowly. Then, the same man from the crowd, who probably could not comprehend why such a child should suffer agony, asked again, “Where is God?” Then in answer to the question, a voice was heard, “Where is God? There he is—hanging on the gallows.”
That one sees God in a condemned child hanging on the gallows, that is something concealed from the eyes of many, for one does not normally associated God with defeat, or condemnation in the hands of sinful men. Our image of God is one who is always triumphant, always in control of everything, and ever above human contingency and suffering. The same may be said of Kingship. In our common understanding, a reigning king is always associated with absolute authority and power. A ruling king who acts like a slave, is treated as a slave, who is in fact a slave—that is something beyond imagination. But that precisely what Jesus is: a servant-king. It is therefore understandable that, in today’s Gospel (Luke 35-43), the Jews could not believe in the kingship of Christ. If anything, he was, in their perception, exactly the opposite. That is why the leaders mocked him; if he were a king, they thought, God would not have allowed him to die just like that; if he were God’s anointed, he should have saved himself (Luke 22:35). The soldiers, too, mocked him in the same vein, placing an inscription over his head: “King of the Jews” (v 36). And one of the criminals derided him, convinced as he was that Jesus could not have been the Christ for he was powerless; to prove his messiahship, Jesus should have saved himself and the two of them who shared his fate (v 39).
But Jesus’ kingship can be perceived only by those who have faith. Only one who has faith can see the kingship of Jesus in powerlessless, weakness, pain and suffering. And precisely because he is a king—a crucified king—Luke is subtly suggesting that rather trying to understanding the kingship of Jesus in terms of what we know from kings who ruled in history, we have to understand what it really means to be a king in terms of the kingship of Jesus. That is to say, the analogue by which we judge what actions are proper to a king is none other than Jesus himself. It is the way Jesus rules that gives us the standard and meaning of kingship. Kings stand or fall on their conformity or non-conformity with the life of Jesus. Because Jesus is a king, as the inscription over his head itself reads, his kingship from the cross is thus a critique of how secular kings and leaders must comport themselves. In today’s Gospel (Luke 23:35-43), Luke focuses on the declaration of faith by the good thief. Unlike the bad thief who shared his fate on the cross, but who uttered blasphemous words to Jesus, demanding that the latter should prove his messiahship by saving them from the cross, he looked on Jesus with the eyes of faith. Because of this faith encounter, he was moved to acknowledge his sinfulness, and appealed to the compassion of Jesus: “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). He could make this appeal because he knew, through the eyes of faith, that Jesus is the real King who could grant him salvation. And his hope was not disappointed: “Truly I say to you, today, you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). This recalls the words of Jesus to Zacchaeus, “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Both Zacchaeus and the good thief were notorious and lost, but, by their faith and by opening their lives to Jesus, they received salvation. And because he could dispense salvation to those who have faith, Jesus is thus a king.
At the same time, Jesus’ comportment is actually a scathing critique of leadership, both secular and ecclesiastical. Luke seems to be saying that now we have a new paradigm of leadership: to be a leader is not to subjugate and dominate people or do them violence, subtle or not; leadership is not about the exercise of absolute authority and power: “Earthly kings lord it over their people. Those who exercise authority over them are called their benefactors. Yet, it cannot be that way with you. Let the greater among you be as the junior; the leader as the servant” (Luke 22:25-26). Leadership is rather about searching for the lost and saving them, like the good thief and Zacchaeus, the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son, the woman of ill-repute, etc. It is about forgiveness. It is about service in the manner of a slave (Luke 22:26). Far from doing violence, a real leader allows himself to be derided, or even crucified for the sake of the lost (Phil 2:11). As can be gleaned from the 2nd Reading (Col 1:12-20), Jesus is a leader who frees people from the power of darkness and brings salvation to them by his own death, not by absolute power or force: “He rescued us from the power of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of his beloved Son. Through him we have the redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Col 1:13-14).
Understandably enough, the attitude of the Bible toward human kingship or leadership is ambiguous. Although there is a tradition that approves of the institution of kingship over Israel (1 Sam 9:1-10:16; 11), a different strand of tradition altogether rejects it. Precisely because it saw how kingship was exercised by its pagan neighbors, Israel rejected it; in Jotham’s fable, only a useless person would accept it (Jdgs 9:8-20). Historically, of course, Israel had bad leaders (1 Kgs 16:25-28.30-33), as did Judah (2 Kgs 16:2-5). An example of a despotic monarch who was guilty of apostasy and lawlessness was Manasseh (2 Kgs 21:1-18). That is why some prophets like Samuel were not in favor of its institution (2 Sam 8:101-8), and Jeremiah minced no words in his indictment against Jehoiakim: “Your eyes and hearts are set on nothing except on your own gain, on shedding innocent blood, on practicing oppression and extortion” (Jer 22:11). Of course, Israel looked on David as an ideal leader, one who shepherds the people of Israel (2 Sam 5:3, 1st Reading), but that is because the Jews were of the belief that David approximates the leader that God had in mind: “He tended them with a sincere heart, and with skillful hands he guided them” (Ps 78:72).
To be sure, Jesus, who in Luke is David’s son (Luke 18:38; 20:41), is the ideal king and leader. More than David, he is the Leader God had in mind, because the Spirit of God is with him; in him all the qualities that a leader must have reside in him. And as crucified leader, who gave his life for the salvation of all, he continues to be an embodiment of God’s critique of our present dictators, presidents, prime ministers, chief executives, leaders in the Church and powers-that-be who continue to take their rule in terms of power, privilege and domination, not in terms of suffering and servanthood.