Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Investing for Eternity

Eighteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Everyone is concerned about having some security in life. We do this not only for ourselves but also for those whom we love – our family members, our children, our aging parents. We buy insurance policies, we make investments, often thinking about our financial future and the future of our children.

Are today’s readings telling us that we are to avoid such preparations? Certainly not. Jesus understands our yearning for security but he wants to put this yearning in proper perspective. In the gospel, we have the parable of the rich farmer who goes through so much trouble to “store up treasures for himself.” The rich farmer has had a good harvest and has made plans for further expansion. He congratulates himself for a job well done. He has security or so he thinks he may have. He has proved himself to be a clever businessman, a good planner, and man respected by society. And yet, God calls him a fool.

What did the rich farmer do wrong? The story does not tell us that he had cheated anyone or had obtained his wealth through some dishonest means. What then was his mistake? He was greedy. He was “storing up treasures for himself.” Just before telling this story, Jesus gives us this warning: “Avoid greed in all its form.” A man may be wealthy, but his possessions do not guarantee him life.” Greed leads a person to rely solely on material possessions for his security. Having material possessions makes him think that he is in control of his life. He depends only on himself for his security, forgetting that he has obtained all this riches only through the grace of God. He forgets that his life is in the hands of God.

Greed also prevents the rich farmer from thinking of others and sharing what he has with others. The rich want to become richer. The amount of wealth which he accumulates could be shared with others, but he fails to do that. Instead, he has plans to build more store houses. He only thinks of “storing treasures for himself” and for no one else.

By telling this story, Jesus is not condemning riches. But Jesus is telling us to share our riches and our possessions. The evil does not lie in possessing things but in ‘hoarding.’ The lesson given by the story which Jesus tells is simple and clear: We can’t bring our riches with us when we die. Live should be spent investing in things that really do matter, in things that will last. In the words of St. Paul, “you must look for the things that are in heaven.” This is our true security.

Let us look at our own lives. We work so hard to save money for ourselves and our families. We work hard to make our lives more comfortable. We accumulate things – cars, money, houses, and so many other things. Sometimes, when we are so busy making money, we forget about God, we forget about Church and we forget about our own families. We pressure our own children to study hard and to get good jobs. These things are important but they should not be the most important thing in our lives. We should never let our ambition and our need to acquire money and things control our lives. When this happens, we become slaves to money and worldly possessions. Always remember, we can never bring any of these things with us when we die. Many Chinese think they can – by burning paper cars, paper TVs, paper money. But all of these will be wasted. We entered into this world without having anything and we will leave this world without bringing anything.

Let us stop and reflect over our own lives. Let us look at what are the important things in our lives. Is it money or things? Or is it our family, our friends, and our own soul? I believe that you will know what is ultimately more important.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 6

Paul, the Hellenist

Although, Paul was in every sense a ‘Jew,’ he was undeniably also a Hellenistic Jew who wrote in Greek, used the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and was certainly influenced by Hellenism. According to Grant, his Judaism (although he was zealously devoted to it) was not the orthodox variety current in Palestine. “Instead it was the Judaism of the Western Diaspora, already tinged with Hellenism through the use of the Greek language and the consequent adoption of certain Greek modes of thought.”(1) From his own account and as was noted earlier, Paul was born in Tarsus and would have lived in this cosmopolitan city during various intervals of his life. If the latter was true, then Paul would have grown up in an atmosphere in which he was as familiar with Greek and Roman thought as he was with the Jewish thought of his own race and nation. To what extent or in what way was Paul influenced by the prevailing Hellenistic culture? The tendency in the past was to say that a Hellenistic milieu explained the emergence of Paulinism. This view is not generally held at present. Still the thought world of Paul and that of contemporary Hellenistic culture had much in common. In his writings and speeches as recorded in Acts, Paul’s theology did contain certain elements of Greek culture as is seen in his use of concepts and ideas like freedom, reason, nature, conscience, sobriety, virtue and duty.

An example of Paul’s familiarity with Greek philosophy and rhetorical methods can be seen in his address at the Athens (Acts 17). The main arguments of the speech (17:24-29) building on the common ground of Jewish, Christian and Hellenistic sources, make a case for the nature of the one true God and a case against idolatry. Hansen argues that Paul’s connection with early Greek philosophers is strengthened by the way that Luke weaves several allusions to Socrates into his narrative.(2) Like Socrates, Paul engaged in dialogues – “… in the market place he debated every day with anyone whom he met” (Acts 17:17). Also like Socrates, he was charged with proclaiming ‘foreign gods’ (17:18). So like Socrates, Paul was put on trial to give account of his ‘new teaching’ (17:19). Luke, according to Hansen, is trying to indicate the favourable reception which the Aeropagus address should receive from his readers in the Greek world by this association of Paul with Socrates.

We also see hints of Paul’s contact with Greek philosophy in some of his writings. For example, Paul, like the Platonists before him, wrote to the Romans that human reason is a way of coming into contact with the absolute Good, but of course he gave that ‘good’ the name of God: “For what can be known about God is perfectly plain to them, since God has made it plain to them. Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind's understanding of created things. And so these people have no excuse” (Rom 1:19-20). But Paul had also to temper the thought of the Platonists. They were too pessimistic about the body and the material world. He wrote to the Corinthians: “But if Christ is preached as raised from the dead, how can some among you say there is no resurrection of the dead? … What (the body) is sown is contemptible but what is raised is glorious; what is sown is weak, but what is raised is powerful” (1 Cor 15:12, 43). The Platonists were also too optimistic about self-knowledge. Paul wrote likewise to the Corinthians: “Any one of you who thinks he is wise by worldly standards must learn to be a fool in order to be really wise. For the wisdom of the world is folly to God” (1 Cor 3:18-19). Against Stoicism, Paul offered Christian insights into a personal God, into an eternal afterlife, and into an active love of others rather than passive self-interest. But like Stoicism, Paul also affirmed the mystery of Divine Providence and provided glimpses into the unity of the human race and of all of creation. In Corinthians, we see that he especially liked the Stoic concern for self-discipline in ethics: “Do you not realise that, though all the runners in the stadium take part in the race, only one of them gets the prize? Run like that -- to win. Every athlete concentrates completely on training, and this is to win a wreath that will wither, whereas ours will never wither” (1 Cor 9:24-25). In Thessalonica Paul found something to affirm the philosophy of the Epicureans, though, he had other purposes in mind: “… we do urge you, brothers, to go on making even greater progress and to make a point of living quietly, attending to your own business and earning your living, just as we told you to, so that you may earn the respect of outsiders and not be dependent on anyone” (1 Th 4:10-12). Still, Paul warned the Corinthians about Epicurean hedonism: “If the dead are not going to be raised, then Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall be dead. So do not let anyone lead you astray, 'Bad company corrupts good ways” (1 Cor 15:33-34). Verse 33 of 1 Corinthian 15 may actually be a quotation from Menander.(3)

As important as philosophy was to culture of Paul’s cities, it was centered on the individual and gave little sense of community. To those alienated in the society – especially the freed persons and salves, but even others who were uprooted from their native lands – philosophy brought no sense of belonging or of salvation. Since the state religions were in decline, some people turned toward magic, many others toward ‘mystery religions.’ These were a way of getting control over life or to influence the powers who did have control. The Galatians and Colossians were both tempted to such practices and Paul warns them: “whereas now that you have come to recognise God -- or rather, be recognised by God -- how can you now turn back again to those powerless and bankrupt elements whose slaves you now want to be all over again?” (Gal 4:9). The people who were entering mystery religions or cults also yearned for a saviour God, for acceptance by an intimate community. Here too, Paul met their needs, preaching Jesus as the true saviour, stressing Christian life as a community in Christ with its initiation by baptism and its sacred meal of the Eucharist. Still, Paul also had to encourage them to ethical concerns beyond a feeling of salvation and to an open community without secrets. In fact, this Hellenistic influence is detected more in Paul’s ethical teaching than in his theology proper.

What of Paul’s style of writing? Certainly he was completely at home in the Greek language, which would only support the presupposition of his Hellenistic background and education. Although he does not write literary ‘koine’, his style betrays a good Greek education. In fact, Greek was the language of commerce and government in the eastern parts of the Roman empire. But although Paul’s style is individual, recent studies prove beyond doubt that Paul knew and used the methods of the Greek orators of his time. Even if Paul had not been trained as a professional rhetorician, his mode of composition and expression often reveals the influence of Greek rhetoric. Again and again the structure of his letters conforms to models set forth by Quintilian and other ancient rhetoricians. In dealings with his opponents in Second Corinthians he resorts to the types of arguments and emotional appeals that we find in Socrates and in the whole Socratic tradition. The apparent digressions that have puzzled commentators in such a letter as First Corinthians had a definite and recognized rhetorical function. In defending his policy not to accept financial support he argued like a Cynic philosopher. His writing sometimes reflects the Cynic-Stoic diatribe (Rom 2:1-20; 3:1-9; 9:19; 1 Cor 9). His catalogues are similar to the catalogues of vices and virtues put forth especially by Stoic philosophers (Gal 5:19-23). The content of his ethical teaching may be Jewish, true-and-true, and the theological basis and motivation of it are certainly Christian, but in persuading his hearers Paul often uses ‘commonplaces,’ i.e. standard topics and examples to be found in Hellenistic philosophy, such as the athletic metaphors (Phil 2:16).

The influence of a Hellenistic culture is also seen in his use of images and terms derived from a city-culture (note that Jesus uses images drawn from the rural countryside): ‘commonwealth’ (Phil 3:20) and ‘fellow citizens’ (Eph 2:19) are Greek political terms; ‘account’ (Philemon 18) is a Greek commercial term; ‘will’ (Gal 3:15) is a legal designation and ‘slave-free’ (1 Cor 7:22) is an expression drawn from the slave-trade found different parts of the Roman Empire. He employs the Hellenistic ideas of ‘freedom’ (Gal 5:1, 13) and ‘conscience’ (1 Cor 8:7, 10, 12; 10:25-29; 2 Cor 5:11; Rom 2:15), and the Stoic ideas of ‘sufficiency’ or ‘contentment’ (2 Cor 9:8), and ‘nature’ (Rom 2:14).

Though it is easy enough to underestimate the influence of the Hellenistic culture on Paul’s life and thought, it is not easy at all to define its extent. Indeed, the phenomenon of ‘Hellenisation’ was so extensive in Hellenistic Judaism (and even in the Judaism as practiced in Palestine) that it is often difficult to segregate and label concepts as either Jewish or Hellenistic. Whatever may have been the actual influence of Hellenism over his theological thinking, we cannot deny the fact that he was born and sojourned in a Hellenistic city, a crossroad of the Empire, a center of Greek learning, and that he was a citizen of Rome. These factors would certainly have contributed to a universal vision, to his becoming par excellence apostle to the Gentiles. In many ways, then Paul addressed the world of his times. He moved Christianity from its Jewish roots to the Gentiles. This would lead to great struggle between Christians of Jewish background and the Christians of Gentile background, an issue that we will see recurring in his letters and recorded in Acts.

1. Frederick C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962) , 146.
2. G. Walter Hansen, “The Preaching and Defence of Paul” in Marshall (ed),
Witness to the Gospel, 310.
3. Menander, Thais, frg. 218, Joseph Fitzmyer, “Pauline Theology” in Raymond E. Brown et al (ed),
The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 1382-1416, cf. 1385 n. 82:12.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Prayer is not Magic

Seventeenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

“Ask and it will be given to you…” This is a powerful promise given to us by Jesus. But our experiences often indicate an opposite conclusion. We know that sometimes when we pray for something, even when it is for a good cause – e.g. when we pray for someone who is sick to get better. - our prayers do not get answered in the way that we want.

How then can we understand this phrase of Jesus – “Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find, knock, and the door will be opened to you”? The key to understanding this saying of Jesus can be found in the first half of the Lord’s Prayer:
“Our Father in heaven, holy be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread.”

What does all of this mean? It means that whenever we pray, we are praying that whatever happens would glorify God and not ourselves. We are praying that God’s kingdom be established and that his will be done and not that our own personal kingdom be established or our own will be done. We are praying that we will become so dependent on him for our well-being that even our daily sustenance should be seen as a pure gift from God. This is the content and the goal of our prayer. This is the prayer that God will never refuse.

Sometimes, we think that we can manipulate and control God through our prayers. For example, if I attend a number of novenas or recite a certain amount of rosary, we may believe that our prayers will certainly be answered. Prayer is not magic. Prayer does not allow us to control God. Rather, true prayer brings about conversion on our part so that we can learn to let God take control of our lives.

We must remember that God does indeed answer all prayers. But his answer may not be according to what we may have envisioned. Sometimes, God says ‘Yes’. Sometimes he says ‘No.’ Sometimes he says ‘now’. Sometimes he says ‘later.’ Sometimes he says ‘this way.’ Sometimes he says ‘that way.’ Whatever be the outcome, God knows best.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Receiving God's Hospitality

Sixteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

Sometimes we feel we need to do so many things for God. We may start to think that without us, many things would not be done. People need to be saved, others need to be counseled, still others need help from us.

This was the problem of Martha who was working in the kitchen. She had been working very hard to make Jesus feel welcomed in her home. She’s the sort of person who cannot sit down and must always be working because there is always someone to take care of – whether its her brother Lazarus or her younger sister Mary or Jesus or some other guest. Certainly, there is nothing evil or bad about Martha. She’s doing her very best thinking that that her very best is what the Lord wants of her. But Jesus will give her a lesson in humility.

Its not what Martha can do for Jesus or for God or for anyone that matters. What really matters is what Jesus can do for her. And this is what Mary had allow Jesus to do. Mary sat at the feet of Jesus – seemingly useless and doing nothing. But she was actually allowing Jesus to be Jesus – Jesus the Teacher, Jesus the Guide, Jesus her Lord.

This was also the experience of Abraham in the first reading. Abraham thought that he was extending hospitality to these three men, not knowing that God was in his midst. He thought that he was doing his guests a favour by his overwhelming hospitality, but it would be his guest, God in actual fact, who would be doing that favour for him. Abraham, who had been childless for so many years, would now have a child – a gift from God.

We must always remember that God invites us to participate in his work of salvation. What ever our contribution, it is always still God’s work – not ours. We must not begin to delude ourselves that we should take credit for all the people that we’ve helped. People are helped precisely because God has chosen to use us as his instruments to help them. If we fail to recognize this or if we fail to recognize the difference between the instrument and the One who uses the instrument, then we will be building our own kingdom rather than God’s kingdom. And this kingdom of ours will easily crumble when we encounter failure, or setbacks or criticisms. But if it is God’s kingdom that we are helping to build, we know that the work will continue in spite of our own personal failure. God keeps on working even when we give up. God never fails even if we think we have failed.

This is the reason why Paul can speak with such hope and joy even in the midst of suffering and personal failure. He writes the letter to the Colossians when he is in jail. He will soon be sent to Rome where he will meet his death. Paul can speak with hope and joy because he realizes that he is only a servant of the Church and of God. Paul understands that he is only one small piece in that whole plan of God for the salvation of mankind. He is confident that even with his arrest and his death, the mission and work of God will continue through the ages. God keeps on working even when our work seems to have come to an end.

Let us praise God and gives thanks to him. Let us continue to place our trust and our hope in him because he is the source of our strength. Let us always remember that it is his kingdom that we are building – not our own. With this hope, we shall never be afraid of failing because God will never fail – his kingdom will be established. Jesus has already won us salvation.

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 5

The Hellenists

We have seen the essential Jewishness of Paul; and we must now turn to the other side of the picture. But before we can consider this other facet of his life, something must be said about Hellenism and the Hellenists. Acts 6 tells of a dispute that arose in Jerusalem between the so-called Hellenist and Hebrews. The descriptions do not indicate clearly who are intended but the context has helped scholars decipher these two specific designations. The Hebrews were most probably the Aramaic-speaking Jews who had become Christians. Their Judaism was indigenous to the land of Israel, was centered on the Temple, and was more resistant to Greek culture and to the acceptance of Gentiles into Judaism. Consequently after conversion to Christianity, these Hebrew Christians were inclined to maintain the importance of Jewish practices even as an expression of Christian faith (Acts 3:; 5:12). As one commentator would observe, we already “find world salvation in the horizons of the Aramaic speaking church of Jerusalem but we do not find there the enabling conditions of a mission to the world.”(1) Acts tells us that this world mission would only take place through the mediation of Greek speaking Jewish Christians whose perspectives made a mission to non-Jews possible and whose initiative made it actual.

These Greek speaking Jewish Christians would come to be known as the Hellenists. They appear to be Jews of the Diaspora, with a background of Hellenistic Judaism; i.e. they spoke Greek as their primary tongue, used the Septuagint, were comfortable in Greek culture and were willing to accept Gentile converts into Judaism. But, long before the Christian era, the phenomenon called Hellenism had already exerted its influence even on that bastion of intransigent conservatism, Judaism. Not only were the scriptures translated from Hebrew into Greek, but the very core of the Jewish religion felt in varying degrees and in many subtle ways the effects of Hellenistic ideas and philosophies. These Hellenists probably came out of the Greek-speaking synagogues that existed even in Jerusalem, catering to Jews who had emigrated to Jerusalem from outside the Holy Land. Since their perspectives originated in the Diaspora, where there was not much opportunity to get to the Temple regularly, they were less impressed about the importance of the Temple in Jerusalem When these Jews became Christians they carried over their openness to the Gentiles and their ambivalent feelings toward the Temple. The more radical among them (e.g. Stephen) began to feel that Jewish practices (especially the Temple) no longer had significance for any Christians, thus laying the foundation for the Christian mission to the Gentiles without prior initiation into Judaism.

With the execution of Stephen, one of the leading men among the Hellenist (Acts 7), the conflict and persecution of the Christians by the Jews began to broaden quickly. It is interesting to note that the first mention of Saul-Paul is found here. “Saul approved of the killing. That day a bitter persecution started against the church in Jerusalem, and everyone except the apostles scattered to the country districts of Judaea and Samaria” (Acts 8:1). Apparently only the radical Hellenist Christians (those who opposed the traditional Jewish institutions like Stephen) had to flee. The Hebrew Christians, although not specifically mentioned, while sometimes criticized by the Jews in the early chapters of Acts, remained largely tolerated in their Aramaic-speaking Jewish synagogues, since their Christian faith did not diminish the importance of their Jewish practices. That is why Acts records the fact that the Church in Jerusalem scattered except ‘the Twelve’ (who were Hebrew Christians). We would later find that this persecution was indeed a blessing in disguise, for it marked the beginnings of the mission to the Gentiles (Acts 11:19-21). The Hellenists, therefore were of decisive significance for the spread of Christianity, “both because they first formulated the gospel message in Greek, the common language of the eastern Roman Empire, and because they took their gospel from Jerusalem to other cities, and shared it with non-Jews.” Therefore, “if the (Hebrews) were the link of the earliest community with the past of Jesus, the (Hellenists) by their self-understanding made themselves the link with the future.” Ironically, although the Hellenist Christians were the most active proselytizers, the Hellenist Jews (Paul before his conversion must be counted among them) were the most active opponents of the Christian gospel (cf. Acts 6:9ff; 7:58; 9:1; 21:27; 24:19). For example, it was members of the Synagogue of Freedmen (6:9), most probably the Hellenist Jews, and not the Palestinian Jews (the ‘Hebrews’) who opposed the preaching of Stephen, instigated the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem to arrest him and finally to execute him.

We would also find in Acts the record that the apostles are closely associated with Jerusalem and the Jewish People (3:12, 25f; 4:2, 8, 10; 5:12f; 20, 25; 10:42; 13:31). Their witness and teaching is crucial to the foundation of the church among the Jews. It is not they, but ordinary believers who, due to persecution are scattered throughout the region of Judea and Samaria and who go about evangelizing (8:1, 4). Eventually these disciples travel as far as Antioch, where some of them begin to speak to Greeks also (11:19ff). Although Luke emphasizes Peter’s conversion of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, as a special breakthrough for the mission to the Gentiles, Luke did not suppress the historical circumstances that the initiative for preaching to Gentiles did not come from Peter. In fact, as this has already been pointed out above, this mission to the Gentiles goes back to the dispersion of the Jerusalem Hellenists (cf. Acts 8:4). At Antioch Paul and Barnabas later teach and preach the word of the Lord ‘with many others’ (15:35; cf. 13:1). Neither evangelism nor teaching the word is confined to a select few. For example, like the apostles, Stephen does great signs and wonders among the people (6:8) and gives a Spirit-filled exposition of the scriptures with prophetic authority (6:10; 7:2-53). Philip proclaims Christ, performs signs and miracles, experiences the leading of the Spirit and expounds scripture to lead his audience to faith in Jesus (8:5, 26-40), just as the apostles did. Even an ordinary believer like Ananias sees a vision, and is sent by the Lord to lay hands on Saul (9:10-19). Luke, however, portrays Paul as having a distinctive role in the mission to the Gentiles, comparable to that of Peter and the Eleven in relation to Israel. Luke is concerned to portray the unity of his mission with that of the mission of the Twelve (cf. 9:27-29; 15:1-35), just as in the Gospel he emphasized the unity of the missions of the Twelve and the Seventy.(2)

The transition from a pure mission to the Jews to a mission to the Gentiles conducted by Hellenists should be understood not as a one-time event, but rather as a process.(3) First, they turned their attention to Greek-speaking fellow Jews (other Hellenists – cf. Acts 6:9). The first more organized mission outside Judaism in the narrower sense occurred among the Samaritans (8:4-25), who could, however, still be viewed as members – albeit partially apostate – of the holy people Israel. From these Greek-speaking synagogues, the Hellenists then reached the circle of ‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 8:26-39), that is, those Gentiles standing in variously intensive connections with Judaism.

The Hellenist Jews of the Diaspora generally found themselves also within all the classes of Greek society, having settled widely within these territories as far back as 587 B.C., when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and sent many of the Jews into exile. The Jewish communities had learned to live in such cities by separating themselves from others, although there would have been relatively more interaction with the non-Jewish Gentile population and Hellenist culture than would the Jewish communities in Palestine. It was clear that the Hellenistic Jews were much more exposed to the contemporary philosophies of the Roman Empire than their brothers in Jerusalem. Greek philosophy had been flourishing for at least four hundred years before Paul. Philosophic discussion was, of course, prevalent among the aristocracy in important centers like Athens and Tarsus, but it was an important topic in all the cities of the empire and, in popularized version, was part of the conversation at all levels of society.

In general, the Hellenist Jews were an accepted part of the Roman Empire and participated actively in city life, though they were not always fully understood and sometimes shunned behaviour that they could not accommodate to their beliefs, e.g. participating in emperor worship; entering military service; support of local pagan temples etc. The gathering places for these Hellenistic Jews were the synagogues, which served not only as places of worship, but also as schools and community centers. They also provided places of contact for visitors to a city and for travelers in search of work. The strong moral standards of the Jews and their monotheism also attracted Gentiles toward the religion, and the Hellenist were much more open to converts than were the Hebrew or Aramaic speaking Jews in Jerusalem. Thus, there were frequently Gentile sympathizers worshiping with the Jews in their synagogues. It must be noted that not all these Gentiles formally converted to Judaism. Those who did were called proselytes and they underwent official initiation into Judaism (for men this meant circumcision). Those who did not were called ‘God-fearers’ (cf. Acts 8:26-39) and they shared in Sabbath worship or other Jewish activities without becoming Jews. Thus, through the synagogue we may envisage that Paul’s preaching reached beyond the Jews to begin touching even the Gentile world.

1. Ben F. Meyer, The Early Christians: Their World Mission & Self-Discovery (Wilmington: Michael Glazier Inc, 1986) 67. For a detailed discussion of the Hellenists, see Chapter V.
2. Andrew C. Clark, “The Role of the Apostles” in I. Howard Marshall & David Peterson (Ed),
Witness to the Gospel: The Theology of Acts, (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmaans, 1998) 182.
3. Rainer Riesner,
Paul’s Early Period: Chronology, Mission Strategy and Theology (Grand Rapids: W.M. Eerdmans, 1998) 109.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Law of Love

Fifteenth Ordinary Sunday Year C

As Catholics, we seem to live under so many laws and restrictions. We cannot eat meat on Fridays. We must fast one hour before meals. If we have committed a serious sin we cannot come for communion. We must go to church every Sunday. We must do this. We mustn’t do that, and the list goes on and on.

Is Christian living all about keeping laws? Yes and No. Christian living demands that we keep one Law – the most fundamental Law of all, which is Love. The Law of Love must be the basis of all other laws. If one strictly keeps all the other laws but fails in the law of love, then one has failed in everything. The law of Love defines all other laws and gives them their proper meaning.

In the gospel, we have the famous story of the good Samaritan. The earlier two persons who walked passed the person in distress were not really ‘bad’ people. In fact, they were considered ‘holy’ persons, who took great trouble to keep the law. They were most likely heading back home after visiting Jerusalem where they had performed their religious duties. To touch someone who was covered in blood would be to touch someone considered ‘unclean.’ The Jews were very concerned about religious purity. By keeping their bodies clean, they wished also to keep to their spiritual lives clean. It may seem strange to us, but the priest and Levite were actually trying to being good Jews.

Jesus then gives us the example of the Samaritan. He is an outsider, a non-Jew. Among Jews he is considered ‘unclean’ and Jews would compare Samaritans with ‘dogs’ and ‘demons.’ Yet, it is this Samaritan who reaches out to help the man in need. He not only helps in a minimal way but goes out of his way to make sure that the man’s well-being is taken care off till his recovery. This generosity exemplifies the love which Jesus speaks about.

The priest and the Levite kept the Jewish law but forgot the law of love whereas the Samaritan, who failed to keep the Jewish law, fulfilled the greater obligation – he lived the law of love.

Love is not like any other kind of law. The Law of Love is never imposed from the outside – it is written in our hearts, as the first reading tells us. If we honestly examine love, we can never see it as a piece of ‘law’ which compels us to do things against our will. That is the beauty of love. It is always freely given and freely received. When a parent stays up all night to take care of his sick child, is it reluctantly done out of obligation? No, it is done out of love. When a man gives up his own personal hobbies so that he can spend more time with his wife and children, is it done out of obligation? No, it is done out of love.

Love never forces itself onto the will of anyone. It must be freely given in order to be true love. Jesus became the perfect example of this love. By becoming man and dying on the cross for us, Jesus gave us the most perfect expression of love. He could always choose to remain as God. He could always choose not to die. But he didn’t. Instead, he freely chose to become one of us and to die for us so that we may live. In his life and in his death, he was faithful to the greatest law, the greatest commandment of all – Love.

Let us pray for ourselves during this Mass that we would follow the example of the Good Samaritan, that we will follow the example of Jesus, so that we will not blindly follow the laws of men and the laws of the Church while forgetting to follow the greatest law of all – the law of Love.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

St Paul - Jew or Hellenist? Part 4

Paul, the Jew (Part 2 of 2)

The beginning of Paul’s apostolic career and foundations of his missionary career can be traced to his conversion or call experience on the road to Damascus. The event is narrated three times in Acts (9:1-19; 22:3-20; 26:4-18) and is also described briefly by Paul himself in Galatians 1:11-17 (there are certainly some differences between these two source accounts and even discrepancies between the three accounts in Acts, although all point to the same reality). It appears that Paul was secure and content under the law as a Jew, and lived as a good Jew as can be seen in this text: “If anyone does claim to rely on them (the prescriptions of the Law), my claim is better. Circumcised on the eighth day of my life, I was born of the race of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrew parents. In the matter of the Law, I was a Pharisee; as for religious fervour, I was a persecutor of the Church; as for the uprightness embodied in the Law, I was faultless” (Phil 3:4-6). So good was he, that he was zealous enough to challenge those who threatened his religion. Paul’s conversion, then, was not from a sinful life to a religious life, but rather “a major shift from one religious perspective to another.”(1) Whatever Paul saw or heard (the different accounts in Acts and Galatians differ) – if there were any external manifestations at all – it is certain that he encountered a Christ whose very life was shared as his own. This encounter with Christ helped Paul see the continuity of the revelation of God which he knew from his Jewish traditions. His God was still active in history, but now in the raising of Christ (Rom 3:1-26). The eschatological kingdom anticipated by the prophets and the Old Testament had indeed come, at least in its first fruits in the Risen Christ (1 Cor 15:20-28). Finally, the experience of the Risen Christ showed Paul that the good things that the Law was given to achieve were in fact achieved through Christ (Rom 8:3-4) and that “it is not being circumcised or uncircumcised that matters; but what matters is a new creation” in Christ” (Gal 6:15). Therefore, while Paul had been nurtured in a world where the distinction between Jews and Gentiles was fundamental, the essence or at least the outcome of his conversion experience was the realization that in Christ “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom 10:12). “His conversion meant the abandonment of a set of convictions that was rooted in a fundamental Jew-Gentile distinction and the adoption of a new set in which this distinction was of no continuing significance, having been eliminated or transcended in Christ.”(2)

The Law or Torah remained the fundamental pre-occupation of the Pharisees. The Law meant to the Jews the sum and substance of all that is good and beautiful, of all that is worth knowing.(3) The Law was their guide, their stay, their goal; yet it was more than a code of law; it was teaching, revelation, the Word of God. Being a Pharisee, Paul was not merely a devout Jew but one who had foresworn all normal activities in order to dedicate his life to the keeping of the Law (thus meaning of the title ‘Pharisee’ – ‘Separated One’), and he had kept it with such meticulous care that in the keeping of it he was blameless (Phil 3:6). The basic problem in interpreting Paul’s Christian view of the Jewish law is that he seems to say both positive and negative things about it. For example, apparently negative statements include the following: “So then, no human being can be found upright at the tribunal of God by keeping the Law; all that the Law does is to tell us what is sinful” (Rom 3:20). “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin comes from the Law” (1 Cor 15:56). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law …” (Gal 3:13). But on the other hand, we must consider these positive statements: “So then, the Law is holy, and what it commands is holy and upright and good” (Rom 7:12). “The only thing you should owe to anyone is love for one another, for to love the other person is to fulfil the law” (Rom 13:8). “… be servants to one another in love, since the whole of the Law is summarised in the one commandment: ‘You must love your neighbour as yourself’” (Gal 5:13-14). What then can we surmise from this seemingly conflicting and contradictory position? According to Horrell, Paul has taken up thoroughly Jewish themes, themes known from the Jewish Scriptures, and developed them in the light of his new conviction that God’s saving grace is now manifest in Christ. From this Christian perspective, Paul reasons that the law itself cannot save, and thus have to rethink the purpose for which God gave it. Paul rejects the idea that God (or God’s law) is directly the agent of sin; he remains insistent that God’s purposes are being worked out, and that the law played its part in the cosmic drama of salvation that now finds its culmination in Christ.(4) To Paul, “Christ was the ‘end’ of the Law (Rom 10:4), not merely its abrogation but its final goal and consummation, its ‘τέλοϛ’ in the total purposes of God.”(5)

The tension between the confining ‘Jewishness’ and the Hellenistic universalism of Paul can also be discerned from his attitude towards Israel and the Gentile world. It is clear that Paul claims for the Christian believers, both Jewish and Gentile, the status which Israel claims as her own. In particular, Paul spends some time in Galatians arguing that the true descendants of Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, are those who have faith, specifically faith in Christ (Gal 3:6-4:31). Certainly for Paul, as in the case of any other Jew, Abraham is central to Paul’s argument here and also in Romans 4. But Paul then moves away from the exclusive understanding of the Jews when he claimed for his Christian converts the status of children of Abraham, and simultaneously denied that exclusive status to those who conventionally claim it, the Jewish people. This was indeed a radical departure, demonstrating once again the seemingly contradictory themes of continuity and discontinuity. We see here as in the case of the Law, Paul wrestling with theological dilemmas: attempting to hold together his belief concerning the need for people to turn to Christ with his belief in God’s promises to Israel and his conviction that God’s sovereign plan of salvation will ultimately be unstoppable; attempting to do justice to both human responsibility and the sovereignty of God. Moreover, Paul insists on holding on to 2 basic convictions, thought they stand in some considerable tension:
1. That salvation is available to Jew and Gentile, without distinction, only in Christ; and
2. That God’s promises to Israel – the people of Israel, the Jews – are irrevocable.

Other examples of Paul’s Jewish theological background can be seen in these instances. First, Paul’s view of man is essentially Hebraic and he derives it from the Prophets (e.g. Isa 40:6 cf. Rom 8:7). Secondly, Paul has inherited the prophetic intuition of the living God (Rom 4:17). The ‘holiness,’ the ‘otherness’ of God was as vivid to him (2 Cor 5:11; 7:1; Phil 2:12) as it was to the psalmists and Isaiah. Thirdly, Paul has certainly been influenced by the Jewish apocalyptic. The pre-occupation with the day of the Lord in 1 Thess 4:13-5:11; 2 Thess 2:1-12, the evocation of the wrath of God in Rom 1:18-20, the sense of the end of the world has come in 1 Cor 7:26, 29, 31; 10:11; 11:32 and the general resurrection in 1 Cor 15, all bear out Paul’s debt to the apocalyptic.

We had already noted the abundant use of the Old Testament in Paul’s writings. At times, he accommodates the OT text or gives new meaning to passages he cites (e.g. Hab 2:4 in Rom 1:17 or Gal 3:11; Gen 12:7 in Gal 3:16; Exod 34:34 in 2 Cor 3:17); he may allegorize a text (Gen 16:15; 17:16 in Gal 4:21-25) or wrest it from its original context (Dt 25:5 in 1 Cor 9:9)(6). Paul’s use of the Old Testament does not conform to our modern ideas of quoting scriptures, but it does conform to the contemporary Jewish way of interpreting and must be judged in that light. Acts 22:3 tells us that Paul was a student of the famous rabbi, Gamaliel. Paul may probably, therefore, had been trained in the rabbinic exegetical methods. A few examples of this method are noted hereunder:(7)

1. Homiletic application of a text - in 2 Cor 6:2, Paul applies the text from Isa 49:8 (which refers to deliverance from exile) to Christ and the Christians.
2. Deduction from a biblical text – in 1 Cor 14:21-22 the text of Isa 28:11-12 is appropriated and applied to the gift of tongues.
3. Drawing a conclusion from the strict meaning of the word – in Gal 3:16, Paul plays on the word ‘offspring’ found in Gen 12:7 to arrive at his own conclusion.
4. Typological exegesis – Adam in Rom 5:14 is a type of the ‘man’ who is to come, Christ.

As a trained rabbi, Paul was also familiar with the rabbinic traditions, e.g. the existence and mediation of angels (Acts 7:53); that the Law was given 430 years after Abraham (Gal 3:17); the miracle story of the rock that followed the Israelites during the Exodus (1 Cor 10:4). Furthermore, when Paul uses the Old Testament, he uses it as a Jew would use it. Again and again he introduces an Old Testament quotation with the phrase: “It is written.” That was the normal Greek legal phrase for a law or an agreement or a condition that was unalterable and inviolable. Paul’s view of scripture as the voice of God, however, was a Jewish view.(8)

1. Anthony J. Tambasco, In the Days of Paul: The Social World and Teaching of the Apostle (New York: Paulist Press, 1991), 30
2. Terence L. Donaldson, “Israelite, Convert, Apostle to the Gentiles: The Origin of Paul’s Gentile Mission” in Richard N. Longenecker (ed), The Road from Damascus: The Impact of Paul’s Conversion on His Life, Thought and Ministry (Grand Rapids: W.B. Eerdmans, 1997) 70.
3. Matthew Thekkekara, The Letters of St. Paul: The Face of Early Christianity (Bangalore: Kristu Jyoti Publications, 1997), 19.
4. David Horrell, An Introduction to the Study of Paul (London: Continuum, 2000), 90.
5. Frederick C. Grant, Roman Hellenism and the New Testament (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1962) 147.
6. Joseph Fitzmyer, “Pauline Theology” in Raymond E. Brown et al (ed), The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1990) 1384 n. 82:10.
7. Thekkekara, 18-20.
8. William Barclay, The Mind of St. Paul (London: Collins, 1958), 14