Wednesday, February 21, 2007

The First Temptation - Bread: First Sunday of Lent (C)

The Judean Desert: "A great and terrible wilderness,
an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions" (Deut 8:15)
photo grab:

Here's my commentary on Luke 4:1-13, the Gospel Reading for the First Sunday of Lent Year C:

The Text (NAB)

Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned from the Jordan
and was led by the Spirit into the desert for forty days,
to be tempted by the devil.
He ate nothing during those days,
and when they were over he was hungry.
The devil said to him,
"If you are the Son of God,
command this stone to become bread."
Jesus answered him,
"It is written, One does not live on bread alone."
Then he took him up and showed him
all the kingdoms of the world in a single instant.
The devil said to him,
"I shall give to you all this power and glory;
for it has been handed over to me,
and I may give it to whomever I wish.
All this will be yours, if you worship me."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"It is written:
You shall worship the Lord, your God,
and him alone shall you serve."
Then he led him to Jerusalem,
made him stand on the parapet of the temple, and said to him,
"If you are the Son of God,
throw yourself down from here, for it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you, to guard you,
With their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone."
Jesus said to him in reply,
"It also says,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test."
When the devil had finished every temptation,
he departed from him for a time.

Tests and temptations are common in the Bible. The primordial test in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3:-1-7) is a serious warning that human beings must not be too confident of themselves. They can fail a test as the first pages of the Bible inform us.

Great people underwent tests and overcame them: Abraham (Gen 22), Hagar (Gen 21:9-21), Moses (Exod 34:28; Deut 9:9), Elijah (1 Kgs 19:4-8) and Job (chaps. 1-2). No wonder a late book of the Old Testament (around 300 years before Jesus’ time), the Book of Sirach, shares his piece of wisdom when he compares a tested righteous person with a “gold tested by fire” (2:5). More than 400 years later, a leader of the Christian community encourages the followers of Jesus to "rejoice" in the midst of various trials "so that the genuineness of your faith-- being more precious than gold that, though perishable, is tested by fire-- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed" (1 Peter 1:7). The Hebrew word for "test" nissah means literally to "lift up" The noun nes means "flag". The rabbis then explain that the purpose of testing is to "lift up" the righteous like a flag, quoting Psalm 60:6 "You have given a flag (nes) to those who fear you, that it may be displayed because of truth".

Israel’s forty years of struggle in the wilderness (Deut 8:2-6) appears to be the background of Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness. Notice that Jesus quoted three times the Book of Deuteronomy (8:3; 6:13; 6:16). There are two significant differences in these two episodes. While Israel failed the tests a number of times, Jesus prevailed over them. It was God who tested Israel, while it was Satan who tempted Jesus. Perhaps, a better background to this would the series of tests that the "adversary" (satan in Hebrew) conducted on Job (in the first two chapters of the book). Nonetheless, the New Testament uses the wilderness trials of Israel not only to depict the temptation of Jesus but also the trials of the Church (1 Cor 10:1-10). It is no wonder that the Church reflects on this common human lot every first Sunday of Lent when we read a Gospel account of Jesus in the wilderness.

The typical place of tests is the wilderness. More than half of the Land of Israel is desert. The desert is unforgiving. Rain is rare but when it rains it is in a sudden storm causing dangerous flashfloods. The Book of Deuteronomy describes the desert as a "great and terrible wilderness, an arid wasteland with poisonous snakes and scorpions" (8:15). Scholars, however, wonder which desert he was tested in. There is no desert in Galilee (northern region of Israel) and thus locate it in the Judean desert in the south.

The three synoptic Gospels attest to this tradition of temptation albeit with reasonable differences—Mark is the shortest (1:12-13); Matthew has three separate temptation moving from the desert to the pinnacle of the Temple to a high mountain (4:1-11); Luke reverses the last two temptations so that the climax occurs at the Temple, where his Gospel begins and ends (4:1-13). A text in the Letter to the Hebrews also mentions that Jesus "in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin" (4:15).

John does not have a temptation in the wilderness narrative but he recounts a number of tests that Jesus had to face in his public ministry (6:26, 30-31; 7:3; 12:20, 27). The most obvious is the temptation to make more bread (6:30-31).

Why bread? There is an expression "staff of bread" (Lev 26:26; Ezek 5:16; 14:13) which implies that bread enables one to “walk”. It means that as bread is essential for one's physical sustenance, it is also needed to conduct and direct oneself properly and wisely. Mens sana in corpore sano ("a healthy mind in a healthy body"), as the old Latin adage says. The devil does not only tempt Jesus to satisfy his physical hunger, but also to seduce him to reorient (or better, disorient) his life according to the devil’s way. No wonder Jesus' retort is also metaphor: "One does not live by bread alone" (cf. Deut 8:3).

Bread in the wilderness is a contradiction of term. Expect no bread in the wilderness (see Luke 9:12). There is bread when there is enough rain to cause the wheat or barley to produce grain. The devil is tempting Jesus to transform the desert into a fertile land or at least to an oasis. What is wrong with this? In fact, the devil is proposing a practical solution to the economic problem of Israel--lack of food because of lack of rain, long before the invention of the trickling irrigation system as used today in the Judean desert. In this way, the mission of Jesus to “bring glad news to the poor” will get moving (Lk 4:18).
Every spring, the wilderness blossoms in the Judean desert-
but for a short time (see Isa 40:8)
photo grab:

In ancient Canaanite religion (the religion of the neighbors of Israel), the one who causes the rain is the god Baal as he is called the "god of thunder". The temptation apparently is not only about an instant satisfaction of hunger after many days of fasting, but it is about turning to Baal rather than to YHWH, or even perhaps attempt to make Jesus Baal ("baalization" of Jesus). This temptation is reflected later on when the devil is called, Beelzebul (literally "Lord Baal" in Lk 11:15) and when Jesus is accused to be the incarnation of Beelzebul (Lk 11:18-19). Thus , the second and the last temptations carry the theme of worshipping the true God who is YHWH.
Baal, right arm raised.
Bronze figurine, 14th-12th centuries,
found in Ras Shamra (ancient Ugarit)
photo grab: wikipedia

Monday, February 19, 2007

"When you give alms": Almsgiving in the Bible (An Ash Wednesday Reflection)

Tobit burying the dead
Andrea di Lione (Italian, Neapolitan, 1610–1685)
(photo grab:

Here's an article on the biblical understanding of almsgiving. The text was first written on Ash Wednesday of 2003.

Every Ash Wednesday, through the Gospel reading from Matthew (6:1-6.16-18) the church exhorts us to observe the three traditional Jewish acts of piety namely, almsgiving (vv. 2-4), prayer (vv. 5-15), and fasting (vv.16-18). In Greek, the word,"piety" is dikaiosýnē, its Hebrew translation, sedaqa, means, "justice".

In other words, these traditional acts of piety are also acts of justice. As faithful Jews, Jesus and his disciples could have observed them especially on Yom Kippur ("the Day of Atonement"), an annual Jewish festival celebrated on the 10th day of the 7th month (Lev 16:29; 23:27). It would be interesting to know what the Bible says of almsgiving, prayer, and fasting, so as to guide today’s Christians who, with sincerity to follow the Gospel’s exhortations, would want to observe these three acts of piety especially on Ash Wednesday, the Christian version of Yom Kippur.

In this post, let me deal wth the first, almsgiving.

Almsgiving as charity to the poor is a common practice in the Bible. Every three years, tithes are reserved to the poor (Deut 14:28-29) and at every harvest, some portions are allotted to them (Deut 24:19-22). It is, however, in later books of the Bible (Greek period) that almsgiving becomes one of the principal works of charity (Prov 3:27ff.; Sir 7:10; Dan 4:24). A book in this period, the book of Tobit which has a number of passages on almsgiving so that it can be called “the book of charity” (e.g. Tob 1:3.16; 4:7-8), states that even burying the dead is considered an act of charity (Tob 1:16). Almsgiving became an increasingly valued practice in Hellenistic and rabbinic Judaism. Likewise, the early Christian community gives special importance to almsgiving. The gentile commander of the army, Cornelius (Acts 10:2ff.), and a woman, named Tabitha (Acts 9:36), are known in the community for their acts of charity. Paul speaks of fulfilling the duty of almsgiving in Jerusalem(1 Cor 16:1-3 and Acts 24:17).

Iconography of Tabitah (or Dorcas), a woman
devoted to "good works and acts of charity"
here being raised back to life by Peter
(see Acts 9:36-42)
(photo grab:

The social background of the practice of almsgiving is the increasing number of poor people and the widening gap between the rich and the poor during the Greek period. The obligation incumbent upon the rich to give alms to the poor arises in the context of a culture that considers all goods as limited in supply and already distributed. Anyone with a personal surplus will normally feel shame and/or considered greedy (Lk 12:15) or rapacious if that surplus is not shared with less fortunate "neighbors" (Lk 11:41). Another reason to give alms is to remind the Jews of their humble and poor beginning, " slaves in Egypt", and care for the poor is a concrete gesture of gratitude to God who liberated Israel out of Egyptian bondage (Deut 5:12-15). This two-fold basis of almsgiving can be perceived in the Filipino values of paglingon sa pinanggalingan and pagtanaw ng utang na loob.

The technical word for almsgiving in Greek is poieîn éleēmosýnēn (hence the word, "limos") and it means literally "to do an act of mercy". By doing an act of mercy or almsgiving, the human being performs a divine act inasmuch as one of the attributes of God in the bible is mercy (Exod 34:6; Eph 2:4). It is no wonder then that Jesus exhorts his disciples to practice almsgiving. However, he warns them that almsgiving must not be an act done to draw the attention and admiration of others which is tantamount to a fake and insincere care for the poor.

The warning of Jesus against "blowing a trumpet" provides such scene (Mt 6:2) which is a simple metaphor for broadcasting to the public one's donations. The Jews did not have trumpets announce donation, contrary contrary to what we usually hear in the church from popular preaching. Jesus calls those who act in this way as "hypocrites". The word, hypokritaí originally denotes the Greek stage actors who performed behind their masks. In other words, these people have hidden motives. In the end, they are not giving, but buying. They buy people’s respect and admiration. The Filipino term for this is "pakitang-tao"—one who renders help to others but whose motive is not really to help the person in need but to be praised by others (and gain more votes in the next elections). Social scientists label this religious syndrome as "split-level Christianity".

A shofar made from the horn of a kudu,
in the Yemenite Jewish style
(photo and citation grab: wikipedia)
In contrast, the disciples must give alms in complete secrecy, which is expressed by the hyperbole of the ignorant left hand (v.3). The left hand is probably a metaphor for one’s best friend, as in a contemporary Arabic proverb, implying that even one’s closest friend must not know when one gives alms. The reason is that genuine deeds of justice are done "in secret" where only God, "who sees in secret," which is to say that only God knows the heart (Fil. loob). The twelfth-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides advocated secret almsgiving as the second-highest of his eight levels of "tzedakah."

The good deeds of Christians will of course be seen by others. According to Mt 5:16, the followers of Jesus should let their light shine "before others so that they may see your good works." Although this may seem to be a contradiction, the passage goes on to say: "that they might glorify your Father who is in heaven," which is in bold contrast to the desire of the hypocrites that "they might be glorified by others" (6:2). The basis then for eschatological reward is good deeds done ad maiorem Dei gloriam ("for the greater glory of God").

R. Bultmann, " e'leoj e,lee,w e,leh,mwn e,kehmosu,nh a,ne,leoj a,neleh,mwn " in TDNT II, 477-487.
D. Hagner, Matthew 1-13 (WBC 33A; Dallas, Texas: Word Books, 1993).
J.Pilch – B. Malina (eds.), Handbook of Biblical Social Values (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson, 1998).
J.L. McKenzie, Dictionary of the Bible (NY: Macmillan, 1965).
J. P. Meier, Matthew (New Testament Message 3; Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, 1980).

Thursday, February 15, 2007

7th Sunday in Ordinary Time C: "Love Your Enemies"

photo grab:

Here's a reflection on the Gospel reading this coming Sunday (Feb 18, 2007). An edited text is also found in the SVD Bible Diary 2007 (all copies sold, I heard).


As the campaign period has begun (at least for senators), we hear again the oft-repeated saying in politics: "No permanent friends, no permanent enemies, just permament interests." But enemies there are, and very often politics of greed and envy begets violence.

"You have enemies? Good", says Winston Churchill."That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life." All of us have enemies. As the great Tagalog Filipino poet writes: Sa paligid ay maraming/ Mga kaaway na lihim ("The surrounding is full/ of secret enemies").

Even Jesus has enemies (Lk 19:27; Phil 3:18). Jesus does not then command his disciples not to have enemies but what to do when they have enemies. That is, "Love your enemies". In this Gospel reading, he gives three applications of the principle of love for enemies (vv. 29-30):

1) Turn the Other Cheek. Striking a person on the cheek is a form of insult as it is today. An insult is "sampal sa mukha" (a slap on the face). To shame him, the soldiers slap the face of Jesus (John 18:22). Turning the other cheek then is a dramatic and physical sign of non-retaliation that breaks the cycle of violence.

photo grab:

At the funeral of the murdered Abra congressman, Chito Bersamin: Fr. Nilo Peig, outgoing diocesan administrator, is seen here presiding in the funeral mass. Abra is submerged in politically motivated violence earning the title, "the murder capital of the North". For an interesting and striking article on the violence in Abra, please click on this. May Jesus' command of loving one's enemies dawn in this first mission area of the SVD Philippines.

2) Do Not Withold Your Shirt. At that time, people usually wear two pieces of clothing, an undergarment and an outer garment. The outer garment is multi-purpose: to indicate one’s social status, to cover the head, to use as a blanket at night, to carry kneading bowls, and to serve as a pledge or collateral for one’s debts (Exod 22: 25-24). In this Gospel reading, loving one’s enemies is readiness to pay one’s debts by not withholding one’s outer garment. That’s a practical wisdom especially to those who have bunch of enemies because they don’t pay their debts!

3) Give to the One Who Asks of You. Those who ask are the poor, the beggars in particular. Loving enemies means then loving the beggars. During that that time (even today), beggars are considered practically as "enemies" because they are outside the circles of community and friendship.

This recalls an old story about St. Lawrence the Deacon. He was the treasurer of the Church of Rome in the 3rd century A.D. The Roman authorities, thinking that the Church was wealthy, commanded Lawrence to bring to them the Church’s treasures. After three days Lawrence returned. "Where is the treasure?" the Romans demanded. Lawrence led them to the entrance of the hall and threw open the great doors leading to the courtyard. Outside was assembled a great crowd of poor, beggars, blind, and crippled humanity. "Behold, the treasure of the Church," said Lawrence.

Renovated chapel of SVD Retreat House blessed

A day before the so-called Valentine's day, Fred Saniel, SVD, rector of Divine Word Seminary blessed the just renovated chapel of the SVD retreat house. It is now more spacious. SVD fathers Eli "Cute" Yance and Ed Fugoso are the present administrators of this wonderful place of prayer and meditation. They accept group as well as private retreats. Contact number is 046-4130-340, ask for Tess.

Why you should take a retreat at the SVD Retreat House, please click on this post.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

6th Sunday in Ordinary Time C: "Like a Tree"

Arucaria trees guard the Arnoldus Library

Here's a reflection on the Old Testament reading of this coming Sunday's liturgy, from Jeremiah 17:5-8).

The Text:
Thus says the LORD:
Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings,
who seeks his strength in flesh,
whose heart turns away from the LORD.
He is like a barren bush in the desert
that enjoys no change of season,
but stands in a lava waste,
a salt and empty earth.
Blessed is the one who trusts in the LORD,
whose hope is the LORD.
He is like a tree planted beside the waters
that stretches out its roots to the stream:
it fears not the heat when it comes;
its leaves stay green;
in the year of drought it shows no distress,
but still bears fruit.

Milenyo, that awful typhoon that ravaged Metro Manila and Southern Luzon last year, proved its name right, "thousand". Milenyo had felled thousands of trees. In the seminary, a number of fruit bearing trees like the Lanzones, Rambutan, Pili, failed to withstand storm signal no. 4. But among the trees that were standing tall and unbowed by Milenyo were the Arucarias (Araucaria columnaris) , a surprise, since these trees look lean and too tall not to snap at the whisk of a storm.

Among the many retreat houses, religious institutions, hotels, and restaurants in the city, what makes Divine Word Seminary unique is the thousand amazing columnar Arucaria trees guarding and towering over the compound. Nowhere can you find in Tagaytay such imposing trees except in this seminary. Beholding these trees alone, their unstoppable height, their strength, their evergreen pines forming a pyramid pointing towards heaven, one cannot but raise one’s mind and heart to their Creator. I wonder why not so many retreatants of the seminary come back to witness this miracle.

Arucaria crowd waiting for a tennis game
In the Old Testament, trees are more than what they are. The narrative of two trees, the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil and the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden tells us how significant trees can be to the relationship of the human and the Divine (Genesis 2-3).

Some are sacred trees. For instance, whenever the oak tree is mentioned, it is always in connection with holy places and cultic activities. If you would like to be near to God, live among the trees. So Abraham pitched his tent by the oaks of Mamre (Hebron) and even built an altar of the Lord under those holy trees (Gen 13:18).

There is an interesting verse in the book of the prophet Hosea where God likens himself with an "evergreen cypress tree" (Hos 14:8). With this image of God as a tree, what would those who attack the Catholics for venerating wooden images have to say?

Trees symbolize also the life of a country. When trees bear fruit, the country is under Yahweh's blessing; if the fruit harvest fails, it represents a curse. It is no irony then that even if more than half of the land of Israel is desert, it is a "land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey (Deut 8:6)". In Ezekiel, the image of a better future in which human beings can hope for is a place where there is a river making grow all kinds of trees for food. "Their leaves will not wither nor their fruit fail, but they will bear fresh fruit every month, because the water for them flows from the sanctuary. Their fruit will be for food, and their leaves for healing" (Ezekiel 47:12).

In Psalm 1, a tree, planted by near streams of water, whose leaves do not wither and yields its fruit in season, is an image of righteous person who studies (“meditates” in some translations), the Torah of the Lord day and night.

So when Jeremiah, in the first reading of this Sunday, wants to illustrate the person "who trusts in the Lord, whose hope is in the Lord", at once, he uses the image of a tree transplanted beside the waters, its root stretching out to the stream, whose leaves are evergreen and, despite the heat, bears fruit. In Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain, the Beatitudes (Gospel Reading, Luke 6:17, 20-26), such a tree becomes the "kingdom of heaven".

For a quick introduction to the Book of Jeremiah, click on this.
One of the best English commentaries on Jeremiah is Robert P. Carroll, Jeremiah (Old Testament Library; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1986).

For further reading of the different meanings of trees in the Bible, see K. Nielsen, There Is Hope for a Tree: The Tree as Metaphor in Isaiah (Sheffield, 1989).

Saturday, February 03, 2007

More on SVD Ordinations 2007

"Where are we to get enough bread in the desert
to feed so great a crowd
?" (Mt 15:33)
--part of the thousands of visitors at the ordination reception

On the eve of Ordination, there was a "subdued" (after dinner cocktail) for the SVD confreres held at the Garden of Providence. Among those who present were:
(photo credit: J. Sepe, svd)
seated from left: Loi Ebisa (parish priest in Kalinga);
John del Rosario (former SVD now works as personnal manager in Trece Martires);
standing from left: Jerome Marquez (director of St. Jude Catholic School and Assistant Provincial of PHC);
Romy Benitez (parish priest in Kalinga);
Ondoy Espuelas (USC Girls' High chaplain);
seated at the back from left: Joey Sepe (PhD candidate DLSU-Manila);
Flor Camacho (former president of Holy Name University, Tagbiliran);
Roger Solis (parochial vicar in Zamboanga Sibugay).

Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales ordains 13 SVD Seminarians

Cardinal Rosales of the Archdiocese of Manila has just ordained to the priesthood 13 SVD deacons here at Divine Word Seminary Chapel, Tagaytay City. Close to 200 priests are concelebrating and more than 2ooo relatives, friends, and acquaintances including religious sisters and brothers are witnessing the priestly ordination. Here are some stills taken from the ongoing eucharistic celebration which began around 9:00 in the morning (Manila Time).