Homily on the Fourth Sunday of Year A (Matt 5:1-12)
January 30, 2011
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
REACTING to an article “The Free Market for Hope” in Newsweek, Indranil Chaudhuri of Culcutta, India concurred with George Soros that it is poverty and a sense of desperation that lie at the root of terrorist carnage. “The problem is that this simple truth has been overlooked for decades by affluent nations. Though there has been much oohing and aahing regarding the profit-maximization achievements of financial markets the world over, there has never been an adequate trickle-down effect from the miraculous growth of the free-market economies of the ‘core’ nations to the ‘periphery’ nations. Instead, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has widened more than ever. Unless this anomaly is given utmost consideration, the menace of terrorism can never be wiped out.” It seem, of course, that the rich nations do not care for the poor ones. As Maharaj Muthoo of Rome, Italy, complains in his letter to the editor of Newsweek, “who,” for instance, “talks about the millions of people living on less than a dollar a day in forest-dependent communities? They are voiceless and powerless.” In a dog-eat-doing society like ours, it may be difficult to find a rich country truly altruistic, generous enough to care for the needs of the poor ones. But for a Christian, there is a more fundamental question to ask: does God care for the poor?
One of the points that the readings—all the readings—make is that God cares for the poor. But which poor, to begin with? Are they the descamisados (shirtness ones)? Does the word refer to the hungry who are mesmerized by the beauty of an Evita? Can they be identified with the mobs who marched in the Edsa III, now known as the rebellion of the dispossessed, and who remain the constituents of populist politicians? In the Bible, the poor are the needy, without power, and abused by those with power; they are lowly because their “power wavers” (Lev 25:35); they do not have the capacity for provide for themselves the essentials of life. Behind such poverty lies economic conflict (Eccles 4:1), the intensity of which is reflected in the prevalence of slavery (Neh 7:66-67), since this is the lot of those who lose in the economic struggle (Amos 2:6-7) (C. Mott, “Poor” Harper-CollinsBible Dictionary). But the meaning of the word, as used in Matthew, is not solely related to the economically disadvantaged; by adding the word “in spirit,” the evangelist emphasizes the moral dimension: economically poor, but humble. This is what the Hebrew word anawim or amhaarets means. The poor understood sociologically is not synonymous with the poor understood theologically. However, the former would seem to be the precondition of the latter. The poor people mentioned in the introduction are therefore the most fitting candidates for becoming the anawim—all they need is their humility and their dependence on God; they must become a humble and lowly people (Zeph 3:12, First Reading).
To these people who are poor—no matter if society looks at them as wretched, starving, lost, useless, defenseless, worthless—yet humble, God has a good news for them. They are blessed or fortunate, because God is establishing a kingdom for them: “How blest are the poor in spirit; the reign of God is theirs” (Matt 5:3). What is this reign of God? If we take the meaning from the Old Testament images, God’s kingdom is one where the sound of weeping shall no longer be heard, where people shall not build houses for others to live in or plant for others to it; it is where the wolf and the lamb shall graze alike (Isa 65:17-25). According to the New Testament, it is where God dwells with men, where he wipes away the people’s tears, and removed death and mourning (Rev 21:1.3-4). In other words, the Kingdom of God answers the longings of the poor; it is where they will find integrity and meaning of their lives, which the present society denies them. With the promise of the Kingdom, God in effect is liberating them from their misery, and is giving them a new life; he will bring about a new era of salvation. This is what the beatitudes mean. If the poor only humble themselves, God will bring about a new order, for he will bring an end to their suffering.
In pronouncing these blessings, Jesus makes it known that God is a “God of the lowly, the helper of the oppressed, the supporter of the weak, the protector of the forsaken, the savior of those without hope” (Judith 9:11; see also Deug 26:5-9; Ps 68:5-6). He loves the poor, not because they are morally better than the rich, but because God himself is good: “God chose the world’s lowborn and despised, those who count for nothing, to reduce to nothing those who were something” (1 Cor 1:28). It is for this reason that to mock to poor is to insult God, their maker (Prov 17:5). As their defender, God will punish those who oppress them (Amos 4:1-3). Hence, their situation of poverty calls for justice. Indeed, their poverty is not God’s will, but an evil (Deut 1:11) that needs correction. Which is why God opts to take up their cause. It is only from the vantage point that we can understand why God, in taking the human flesh, lived in poverty. Jesus could have been born to the aristocratic families of priestly or Sadducean lineage—there is no theological difficulty in that—but he did not. To the contrary, he even took on the life of a slave, being born in the likeness of men (Phil 2:6-7). He did not merely preach to them; he feed them, healed them, and took on their condition. He opted for them in terms of orientation, life, word and deed.
If the Church is the sacrament of Christ, the Church must be a Church of the Poor. The Church in the Philippines realizes this. At the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines (1991), it declared that “in order credibly to witness to the love of God in Christ Jesus, we need to become the Church of the Poor.” And last year, at the National Pastoral Consultation on Church Renewal (NPCCR), among the pastoral priorities identified is the “Active Presence and Participation of the Poor in the Church.” Says the CBCP President Orlando Quevedo in his final message: “In order to make authentic our commitment to becoming a Church of the Poor, we must be evangelically poor. Therefore, we shall seek to liberate ourselves from mentalities, values, behavior and lifestyles that discriminate against the materially poor. We shall listen to them and with them create conditions in which they are heard and can enjoy the blessings of God’s creation. As poor among the poor, with the poor, we shall understand, live, celebrate, and share our common faith in Jesus Christ crucified and risen.”
It is not difficult to see how relevant it is to our society for the Church to become a Church of the Poor. Ours is a world divided into the majority who are poor and the minority who are rich, and by becoming a Church of the Poor, we will show that such division is utterly wrong. Of course, this is not to make judgment on the rich, but simply a recognition that as Christians we are striving toward a community where the poor are not exploited, abused, taken advantage of, or oppressed. We are trying to establishing the beginning of the kingdom where the rich do not dictate the life of the poor (Jas 2:1.5-7). We are looking forward to a society in which there is a sharing of resources (Acts 4:32-54), since a community without it is a scandalous community (1 Cor 11:22). Perhaps, if the Church becomes truly a Church of the Poor, it will become a credible witness not only to the presence of God in his love for the poor, but also to the whole world that the form of this world is passing away and that, ultimately, material riches do not count.
Homily on the Third Sunday of Year A (Matt 4:12-23)
January 23, 2011
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
IT is not easy to unite a fractious nation such as Afghanistan that experienced more than two decades of bloodletting, where various ethnic groups vie for power, and the military has a well-entrenched control over the people, surrounded by foreign powers that seek to influence its internal affairs. But what the UN special envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi did almost decade ago, after the American and British forces virtually flushed out the Taliban government from the rugged country, was probably the best one can expect in an emergency situation. Picked up to head the interim government was Hamid Karzai, a respected tribal leader from the Pashtuns, an ethnic group that regarded itself the traditional leaders of the country. Former King Mohammed Zahir Shah was given a role, if symbolic, in presiding over the grand assembly of elders. Representatives from the ethnic Tajiks are members of the cabinet, to which a Shiite Muslim was also appointed. Other groups were also represented: the Northern Alliance, the loyalists from the ex-king, the Pakistan-backed Peshawar group, the ethnic Hazaras and the ethnic Uzbeks. Afghanistan became whole again.
If a nation cannot survive if it remains fractious and divided, neither can a Christian community be faithful to its call if fracas and division are characteristic of its life. No wonder, when Paul received in Ephesus messengers from Chloe that some groups were creating factions in the Church atCorinth, each claiming that its own leader was superior to the rest, he was quick to act (1 Cor 1:10-13.17, First Reading). Although there is no indication that the factions that torn the community originated in doctrinal differences, Paul considered the problem so serious to warrant a letter. Indeed, that a community is divided into several cliques, each claiming the patronage of a great leader in the Church (“I belong to Paul”; “I belong to Apollos”; “Cephas has my allegiance”; “I belong to Christ” [ 1 Cor 1:12]), this is a great scandal. A situation of division is also envisaged in the Gospel according to Matthew. Many scholars think that the Matthean community in the city of Antioch was a mixed group, though most of the members were Jewish Christians; and in a mixed community, tensions cannot be avoided. It seems that some were of the belief that membership in the Church was not open to all; the Gentiles were to be excluded from the community. That a mission to the Gentiles was rejected is reflected in some texts. One recalls, for instance, the prohibition to engage in mission to a pagan territory: “Do not visit a pagan territory and do not enter a Samaritan town. God instead after the lost sheep of the house of Israel” (Matt 10:5b-6).
It is relevant to be reminded of what happened in the early Church because today the Church is seeing the rise of various communities and groups within itself. In the Philippines, for example, quite apart from what were traditionally called “mandated” organizations, one can point to the phenomenal growth of the El Shaddai, the Couples for Christ and other Charismatic communities, the Neo-Catechumenate and the Basic Ecclesial Communities. Given this phenomenon of the existence of various communities and movements, there is a danger that one, for example, might think that to be really a Christian, one has to be a member of a certain charismatic group; otherwise, he does not belong to the true Church. Such thinking will result in the formation of independent groupings in the Church, each claiming to represent the true expression of being Church, the others being mere phonies. Or worse, it could degenerate into a Church merely of a dominant group, barring others from its membership. Does not one in the parish hear of complaints, accusing one community of being worse than the other?
Given the existence of various communities in the Church, what does Scripture say? In directly confronting each of the factional groups in Corinth, Paul reminded the Christians of their basic unity in Christ: “I beg you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to agree in what you say. Let there be no factions among you; rather, be united in mind and judgment.” (1 Cor 1:10). The theological basis of this unity is well explained by Paul or probably his disciple: “Make every effort to preserve the unity which has the Spirit as its origin and peace as its binding force. There is but one body and one Spirit, just as there is but one hope given all of you by your call. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of us all, who is over all and works through all and is in all” (Eph 4:3-4). In the Gospel, Matthew says that the Church cannot be an exclusive group merely of Jewish Christians; the Gentiles cannot be barred from the ecclesial community. He demonstrates that the inclusion of the Gentiles is a thrust in the ministry of Jesus. For one, our Lord preached in Capernaum, in Galilee, which was predominantly populated by Gentiles (Matt 4:13).
That these people cannot be excluded from the Church is, Matthew means to tell us, is not simply the evangelist’s own idea; rather, it is a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah (Isa 9:1, First Reading), and therefore a divine decree. In quoting the Isaian text on Zebulun and Nephtali, the Galilee of the Gentiles, and in placing the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry in that place, Matthew underscores the universal mission of the Church; it cannot just be a Church of the Jews. To stress this point, he reworked the quotation from Isaiah for this theological purpose. For example, in the Isaiah oracle, the sea refers to the Miditerranean; in Matthew, to the sea of Galilee. In that oracle, “Galilee of the Gentiles” designates the foreigners who conquered the area and deported the population; in Matthew, the same phrase has become an official name for the district. And to fit the Isaian quotation, Matthew added “Zebulun” in v 13, even though Capernaum was in the territory of Nephtali. Thus, Matthew shows that the Gentiles are related to the public ministry of Jesus, and at the end of the Gospel, he presents Jesus as commanding that the Gospel be preached to all the Gentiles (Matt 28:19).
This has a great lesson for us. Given the diversity in the Church, no one really has the right to say that his community represents the true Church, and that others have to be excluded from it, or that an individual is a true Christian to the extent that he does not join some other movement or body. We ought to work for the unity of all, as Paul reminds us in the first reading. For one thing, there is no single body in the Church that fully expresses the reality of being Church. The Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs), for instance, do not exhaust the Church and its possibilities. That is why their proponents are humble enough to claim that it is only “a way of being Church.” The Charismatic communities, however much they approximate the life of the early Church, cannot be identified with the real Church. We are still moving toward the goal of its perfection. For another, every movement or body in the Church has something good to offer and each of them has a value to the Church. In face of these realities, the best thing is to accept the value of diversity in the Christian community. Says the Second Vatican Council in its Constitution on the Church: “If everyone in the Church does not proceed by the same path… if by the will of Christ some are made teachers, dispensers of mysteries, and shepherds on behalf of others, yet all share in a true equality with regard to the dignity and to the activity common to all the faithful for the building up of the Body of Christ” (Lumen gentium, 22).
Homily on the Feast of Santo Niño (Matt 18:1-5.10)
January 16, 2011
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
IN a section on the life of Brother Juniper, one of the original companions of St Francis of Assisi, the book The Little Flower of St Francis relates that one day, when Brother Juniper saw many pilgrims going to a solemn celebration taking place in Assisi, the spirit of self-contempt came over him. He stripped himself stark naked without his breeches, and went through Spello and two other villages, and passed through the center of Assisi and all the crowd, and came to the friars’ Place. Very much shocked and scandalized, the friars rebuked him, calling him a lunatic, a fool, and a disgrace to the order of St Francis, and declaring him to be put in chains as a madman. The General, who was staying at the Place, gave Brother Juniper a harsh and severe scolding in the presence of the community of friars. Then he said: “Your fault is so great and serious that I don’t know what penance I should give you.” And the Brother replied: “I’ll tell you Father, that I came here naked, so as penance I should go back naked along the same road to the place from which I came to this festival.”
This anecdote enables us to peer through the life of some of the original companions of St Francis, a life characterized by a blatant disregard for social status. Of course, only a fool, or one who considers himself equal to one, would walk naked through the city streets, and fools, like the scum of the earth, are the expendables of society, whose presence hardly anyone gives a hoot about, and whose death hardly anyone mourns. We recall this biographical incident in the life of Brother Juniper because it goes against what people in our “normal” society strive after—social status. To be candid about it, most people probably want to be important before the eyes of society, and to feel important. They want to be number one. That is why some become sad when others, for example, surpass their level importance in the estimate of society. No wonder the rich exploit the poor, the intelligent take advantage of the simple, men lord it over women, the white oppress the black. It is most likely that this culture has seeped in through Matthew’s community. In the Gospel of Mark, we are told that upon returning to Capernaum, the disciples were arguing “who was the most important among them” (Mark 9:33-34). In Matthew’s Gospel, however, we are not told of the setting; he simply relates that the disciples came up to Jesus to ask the question: “Who is of greatest importance in the Kingdom of God” (Matt 18:1).
That such question is raised merely indicates that the Christian community has not been immune to this disease called striving after prominence. That is why Matthew preserved for us this episode in order to warn us of its dangers. For one thing, when it has members who want to get ahead of the rest and be recognized as number one, the community suffers and is divided, with the result, for example, that there arises a stiff competition among them. Relationships are, of course, affected. Some would refuse to talk with those they compete with. Snobbery passes for virtue. The community in the end imitates people in the secular world who are caught up in a social order that values only the rich, the powerful, and the prestigious. Because such a culture harms the Christian community, Jesus offers an alternative social order where man is respected not because of what he has—prestige, money, power—but because of what he is. His alternative, which is God’s will for our society and community, is the Kingdom of God. Under the rule of God, a new set of values is provided. And Jesus does this by setting the child as the greatest in the Kingdom: “Whoever makes himself lowly, becoming like a child, is of greatest importance in that heavenly reign” (Matt 18:4).
But why a child? The reason for this is that a child in the Jewish culture of Jesus’ time was a social nobody. In practice, he has no legal rights. His words do not count. This implies that in the social order that Jesus anticipates, which is the Kingdom of God, one no longer thinks in terms of social hierarchy or status. What matters is not one’s credentials or what he has, but what he simply is—a child of God. St Paul puts it this way: “There does not exist among you Jew or Greek, slave or freeman, male or female” (Gal 3:28). What Vatican II says is of relevance: “There remains a true equality with regard to dignity and the activity which is common to all the faithful in the building up of the Body of Christ” (Lumen gentium, 32). We know of course that in the secular society, the bond of the community suffers precisely because members vie for the most prominent place; others even destroy each other just in order to be in that place of prominence. Moreover, if Jesus chooses a child as model for the society of the future, it is because he envisages a reversal of outlook: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will not enter the Kingdom of God” (Matt 18:3). Changing and becoming little children mean the same thing here: both refer to an abandonment of the standards and values of the secular world and acceptance of God’s values. In other words, the saying involves a change of values and a reversal in the direction of our lives. This means, for example, that greatness lies in one’s being unimportant. And what the world holds as valuable has no importance at all before the judgment seat of God.
In practical Christian living, this means that instead of aspiring for one’s prominent place in the Christian community, a Christian ought to think in terms of what he can contribute to it. As we saw, the community of believers is one body, members of one another (Eph 4:25b). Such being the case, one’s behavior always affects the whole community. If the head, for instance, gets all the food, and some parts do not function, the whole body will suffer. There are two important implications of this interconnectedness. First, because one must think not in terms of one’s individual concern but of the whole body, to be a child means to serve others, rather than one’s self: “Anyone among you who aspires to greatness must serve the rest, and whoever wants to ranks first among you must serve the needs of all” (Matt 20:26-27). It is through serving one another that we express our equality, and our being children in one family of God. Second, since one ceases to think of himself, to be a child means self-effacement. One is able to assume the lowest rank before the eyes of the secular society, and accept one’s nothingness. This is what Jesus precisely did: “Though he was in the form of God… he emptied himself and took the form of a slave, being born in the likeness of men. He was known to be of human estate, and it was thus that he humbled himself, obediently accepting even death, death on the cross!” (Phil 2:7-8). In Jesus we see the humiliation of God, not so much unlike Brother Juniper who received insults for walking naked!
Earlier, we noted that in the face of our society that values being number one, Jesus offers an alternative society. In this community, there is equality of all the members, as they are all children of God, and there is unity, as they are all members of one another. But what make this possible are the service of one another and the humiliation of each member. Since they go together, these two are inseparable—there is no real service without humiliation of self, and humiliation is meaningless unless it is accompanied by service.
Homily on the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord (Matt 11:2-11)
January 9, 2011
By Msgr. Lope C. Robredillo, SThD
BY a newspaper account, kidnap gangs in Mindanao and Sulu, including the Abu Sayaf, have increasingly targeted priests and sisters working in missionary areas since 1986. Killed among the priest-captives were Rev Roel Gallardo, Rev Benjamin Inocencio, and Rev Rufus Halley. Because of the kidnapping and abduction cases, the Catholic bishops of Mindanao at one time were reported to have “called on all priests, especially those assigned in areas of conflict, to resist any abduction attempts—at all costs. Some priests have interpreted the call as tantamount to ordering them to arm and defend themselves from kidnappers.” However, the same report said that the Vatican’s ambassador to the Philippines at that time, Abp Antonio Franco, “frowned upon suggestions that priests assigned in areas of conflict in Mindanao should be armed.” Ferdinand Zualosa, in his article “Arming of Priests Rejected” quoted the Nuncio as saying that “arming our priests is a crazy idea.” Must priests, and any Christians for that matter, armed themselves in their mission?
Today’s Gospel (Matt 3:13-17), which is about the baptism of Jesus, can help shed light on this problem. Matthew’s account of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist exhibits an editorial reworking of his Markan source principally in the insertion of a dialogue between John and Jesus. It seems that by the time Matthew wrote his Gospel, Christians were already wrestling with a problem: If Jesus, who is God’s Son, is sinless, how come he submitted himself to John the Baptist’s baptism of repentance? Does his submission to John’s baptism imply an acknowledgment of John’s superiority, as John’s disciples seem to have claimed? By inserting the dialogue between these two characters, Matthew makes two points. First, John is made to recognize the superior of Jesus: “I should be baptized by you, yet you come to me” (Matt 3:14). Secondly, though superior to John, Jesus submitted himself to John’s baptism not because he needed repentance–which is what baptism of repentance implies—since he was sinless, but “in order to fulfill all righteousness” (Matt 3:15b). It may be noted that in Matthew, “to fulfill” does not simply mean “to obey” or “to do”; it usually means to fulfill a prophecy, and while “righteousness” can mean moral conduct in keeping with God’s will (cf Matt 5:10), in the present context it seems to mean the saving activity of God, as in Matthew 6:33 (“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides”). The crucial text therefore means that Jesus allowed himself to be baptized by John the Baptist in order to fulfill the prophecies and thereby fulfill God’s work of salvation. If Jesus came, in other words, it was to fulfill God’s purpose in salvation history, and his baptism by John was part of God’s saving plan that Jesus had to do. But what did God demand in the prophecies for the salvation of the human race?
One of the prophets who spoke of the work of God’s anointed was Isaiah. In the 1st Reading today (Isa 42:1-4.6-7), he describes the Messiah’s person and mission: “Here is my servant whom I uphold, my chosen one with whom I am pleased, upon whom I have put my spirit; he shall bring forth justice to the nations, not crying out, not shouting, not making his voice heard in the street; a bruised reed he shall not break, and a smoldering wick he shall not quench, until he establishes justice on the earth; the coastlands will wait for his teaching” (Isa 42:1-4). It is this Servant that Matthew has in mind when in his account of the baptism of Jesus the heavenly voice confirms Jesus as the Son of God whom God delights in (Matt 3:17; Isa 42:1). In other words, for Matthew this Isaianic prophecy finds fulfillment in Jesus. According to Isaiah, in fulfilling the mission God gave him, the Messiah assumes the role of the Servant of Yahweh; it is he of whom God said, “I have called you for the victory of justice” (Isa 46:6). For this reason, he receives the Spirit of God (Isa 42:1b; Matt 12:18), takes up our infirmities and endures our sufferings (Isa 53:4; Matt 8:17), and gives his life as a ransom for all (Isa 53:6-12; Matt 20:28). As such, he is the paradigm of a righteous sufferer, on account of which he accepts the good portion, the portion of the chastised; he takes sides with the poor and the powerless, even as he is being delivered into the hands of the mighty and the powerful. His mission is not only to bring Israel to righteousness, but also the deliver justice to the nations. This is what it means to be God’s beloved Son (Isa 42:1; Matt 3:17). For Matthew, it appears that the baptism of Jesus by John is no less than an epiphany—it proclaims the identity of Jesus as the Servant of Yahweh.
Since in Christian theology it is by baptism that we share in the mission of Jesus which the Father gave him, today’s message is a big challenge to all of us. In our time, much has been said about changing the world, about bringing justice and peace to it. In fact, many of us take up good causes to make this world a better place to live in; we protest against suppression of human rights, environmental destruction, dictatorial regimes, lopsided economy and many other issues. As the Second Plenary Council of the Philippines puts it, we exercise our share in the kingly mission of Christ whenever “we make the world a place more worthy of the children of God, whenever by our work we improve the world and permeate it with the values of Christ, whenever we are able to overcome sin in ourselves and in the environment and allow the grace of God to break through into the world.” But often enough, we are scared of the toll, the cost of giving ourselves to these causes. Some of us do not want to suffer. We are afraid of ridicule, of dismissal for refusing to compromise higher values. Indeed, many of us do not want to die for the mission. We are simply scared of dying.
Of course, it is not easy to die for the mission; but still, the Nuncio is correct when he says that arming the priests is a crazy idea. For a priest to arm himself with a gun, or think that power comes out of the barrel of a gun, is inconsistent with his calling to share in the kingly mission of Jesus. If the vocation to become servants of Yahweh has anything to tell us, it is that we have to prefer being killed to bearing arms and that we can effect change in the world only if we are willing to stick out our necks, to suffer for others. This is God’s offer of salvation. It is always good to recall that in the old Russia, there were people known as “fools for Christ.” In some part of that empire, we are told that those who commit murder, rape and other crimes received severe beatings. But these “fools for Christ” volunteered to be whipped in place of these thieves, murderers and rapists. We might think it is a crazy idea, but listen to their logic: When these criminals are punished, they utter invectives, shout out hate, and the atmosphere is filled with hatred and enmity. Men breathe insults, hatred and despair. But when the fools received the beatings, they do not shout; they keep silent, not uttering any words of complaint, because they are not conscious of any guilt, and their silence fills the world with love. And it is this atmosphere of love, when it envelops the whole world, that will save it from sin, suffering and death. Consequently, even though bearing arms may be logical to our normal society, as baptized Christians we must be Christ’s fools, preferring suffering to bearing arms, even though it would appear, in the eyes of our secular society, foolish to do so.