Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rising beyond what is required

Have you ever wondered how honest Christians would be if they were to fill out a “Self Assessment Sheet” on how truthful they are or had been in living out their Christianity? Would they be in a state of indecision or confusion? Will they be tempted to put down “Excellent" or “Very Good” or will they be honest enough to put down “Poor”, “Hardly” or “Never”?

We all know that if they’d only be honest, they’ll never score high in this. And that may look as bad news but then there’s also good news and that is , that it doesn’t exist! And if ever there is, it’s never one that Jesus would have designed so that he’ll have an idea whether we should be getting the blessings or “benefits” for having become his followers or not.

That’s already a given. Christ the Lord has already offered this gift once and for all to those who truly believe in him. What needs to happen, however, is for us to continue to show forth in the flesh those characteristics which should aptly distinguish us from others. What needs to happen is for us to reflect through our actions and manifest in our lives our being part of the Beloved Community; an envisioned community where justice, mercy and forgiveness are meted out not as prescribed by the Law but as the outpouring of the Love founded in Christ Jesus. What needs to happen is for us to be the Christians that we are.

Lately, we had been hearing some of Jesus’ teachings, neatly lumped together in a setting known as The Sermon on the Mount. We have part of those sayings as our Gospel lesson for this Sunday (cf. Matthew 5:38-43). In this passage, we are enjoined to go further than what is required of us by the Law and to make that paradigm shift in the name of Love, “to infinity and beyond” thereby placing us “beyond” the margins of what we normally consider as convenient, tolerable and expedient.  

To illustrate this invitation to such a shift, Jesus used a well known rule of retributive justice called lex taliones or “law of retaliation” popularized by the phrase “an eye for an eye” or “a tooth for a tooth”.
Jesus tells his disciples, and us, for that matter, that, indeed, the law guarantees that in situations where a party is offended by, say, an injury to the eye, the just retribution should be equal to the incurred injury and nothing more or less; hence, the saying an eye for an eye. The said law, known to the people at that particular time and place, is thereby set in order to protect the parties involved from escalated forms of retribution. Under this rule, this means that once you’re hit in the arm by a club, you could hit back but only hit his arm; not by killing him. In this case, an arm for an arm.
Will that work? Probably yes but most likely, not. Our tendency is to use the principle of lex taliones and put an addendum to it as in lex taliones plus roughly translated as lex taliones and much more.  You got my eye? I’ll take two of yours and your nose and your ears and your head and much more, how’s that for retribution, huh?

Do you see now the advantage of lex taliones? It should guarantee fairness, yes; but it could also go wrong, way too wrong. And that’s where the limitations of the law can be so ineffective.  So Jesus dares his disciples with his new teaching. I could imagine him saying: “OK. We all know about this wonderful law of retributive justice. We’ve all heard the famous “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”. We know that’s  fair. But we also know things could go wrong. So what if you just don’t resist the evildoer, huh?

Jesus used three common practices that could be viewed either from the lens of retributive justice or from the lens of love; a different approach and outside of the usual box of “convenience, tolerance and expedience”.

In his first example, Jesus says: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” In Jesus’ cultural setting, getting struck on the right cheek usually mean being hit with the backside of someone’s right hand which, in itself, was an insult and would imply the recipient’s inferiority. It could also mean being hit with the palm of someone’s left hand; an allusion to further degradation brought about by the ‘unclean’ hand. Either of the two would have been an extremely humiliating insult, not to mention an act of violence. 

The language of retributive justice tells you that if someone strikes your right cheek, strike him back too, also in his right cheek. Lex taliones tells you that’s the fair way of dealing with the subject. But Jesus knew it does not have to stop there. He knew that the language of love and forgiveness could bring about a much healthier and more meaningful relationship than by just calling it even. So he says: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”

The second example stems out of another familiar norm in Jesus’ days.  In that cultural milieu, most people wore two garments, the coat, worn next to the skin and the cloak, worn on top of the coat and serves as blanket and other uses as well. The coat and cloak were then symbolic of what an average person basically has. Jesus used this practice to illustrate his dissent from the said fair rule of retributive justice. According to the rule of lex taliones  if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, you should give your coat. Coat for a coat. Nothing more, nothing less. That’s fair, according to the law. But then Jesus pushes the envelope and wants us to take this “to “infinity and beyond”, figuratively, that is, and said: if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well”.  Give him more than what the rule of retributive justice would most likely suggest. Jesus says “Not just your coat but your cloak as well”.

In the third example, Jesus made reference to another common practice that, as in the two previous scenarios, could also be viewed either from the lens of the law or the lens of love. As an example of what it means to be “lorded over”, Roman soldiers at the time were allowed to subject civilians into carrying their military gear for up to one mile. This was clearly set by Roman law. Needless to say, many civilians who were made to do this were not very happy about it. It was believed then that a Jew would take the exact distance of one mile from his house and mark it. On those “one mile” occasions, it had been observed that once he reached the one mile mark, he drops the gear. Period. No more, no less. You’ll get the mile that the language of law would require and nothing more.

Jesus, however, tells us to do that “second mile”, symbolic of any add-ons given not by virtue of prescriptions or ordinance but because of the love from the heart of the giver. This “second mile” manifests itself in cases such as when we set our foot and out of our way to help the distressed; when we remember as our own the welfare of others while we kneel to offer our prayers before the Everliving God and when we stretch forth our helping hands to raise the fallen. We are invited by no less than Christ the Lord to make this "second mile" in the discharge of our respective duties to God and our neighbors.

Indeed, that paradigm shift is achievable. If ever there was that "Self Assessment Sheet" we can score high. But for now, we are hereby enjoined that we should strive all the more so that our lives as Christ’s  followers will truly reflect the character of the new person living in us, one whose foundation in life is none other than Christ Jesus, the chief cornerstone. With this cornerstone, we can then go beyond that which the language of law directs us, proclaim the language of love and rise beyond what is required.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Choices we've done and left undone

Making choices is something distinctive of our nature. In the hierarchy of creation, we are up there and what makes us qualify to be in that spot is our ability to make choices; our ability to enter into a purposeful assessment of a given choice and its wider implications on all that are impacted by it. While that faculty is meant to aid and assist us in our deliberations of which option is best, the reality is that it does not get to its potential. There are quite a number of cases when such faculty has had stunted growth. Therefore, when opportunities of choice present themselves before such impaired faculty, the end results do not reflect sound judgments. This is the reason behind the allegation that a choice has been made by reason of insanity. There are choices that had been done in the past which were arrived at, not through a healthy mental faculty but as results of affections and passions that had not been tempered by reason. Also, there had been choices made not only because of impaired judgment but by simplemindedness as illustrated by the choice made while singing the nursery rhyme, “Eenie, Meenie, Minie, Moe”.

Indeed, the entire process of making choices could be quite complicated, even on the average. A healthy, sound and unimpaired mental faculty does not always function without disruptions; as there are factors that continually compound the level of difficulty. Unsurprisingly, they become even more challenging if we add to the equation the issue of accountability – to ourselves; our fellow creatures and to God, the source of our well-being.

I’d like to believe there are those of us, who, quite regularly, have reflected on how those choices have impacted our lives and those of others. Our life is the result of all our choices.  Most of those choices have made positive contributions to our journeys of living lives that befit our nature as children of God but some, unfortunately, have been quite detrimental.

On this regard, we could be tempted to look at the past and focus on the reasons behind those erroneous choices and wander off to the world of “what-would-my-life-be now”.

What would my life be now if my mother had decided that the distress of pregnancy and childbirth was not worth the effort? What would my life be now had I listened to the suggestions of my parents to be careful in choosing friends? What would my life be now had I considered the future of my children rather than the perks of my job? What would my life be now had I observed the lessons taught me by my faith community? And more “what-would-my-life-be” scenarios flash before us letting us wander off farther and farther away from our reality. That, by the way, is not a healthy exercise. We cannot do much to change our past, although they could prove useful in our future choices.  

The Book of Ecclesiasticus lends some insights on the issue of choices. Writing in the 2nd century B.C.E., Jesus ben Sirach, the author of the Book of Ecclesiasticus, also known as the Book of Sirach, tells how important it is to choose rightly, to use our free will for good rather than for evil. Whereas Genesis deals with the origin of sin in all of creation, Sirach is interested in the individual and how that individual makes choices. Sirach sees God as the one who uplifts the righteous and keeps him or her from sin.  He sees sin as the product of each individual’s free will.

Again, for Sirach, God is not a God who forces us to make decisions. Rather, He is a God who allows us and the whole of His creation to make choices in life, choices that are out of our own free will and accord.

Every choice, borne out of that free will, brings with it a corresponding consequence. In the Book of Sirach15:15-20, there we read of the options “to choose between fire or water, death or life”: good images representing the fundamental choices in life.

In these seemingly easy options, the preferred choice seems quite evident.  To stretch hands over water is way better than touching fire and Life is to be preferred than Death. But would water be really the better choice if one is lost in a damp and cold forest? Will fire be a better choice? Will life still be the better choice for a loved one who merely exists because of the attached contraptions and by the aid of a respirator? Will that kind of life be preferable knowing that he or she is in a vegetative state?

These are some of the difficulties we face when we make choices in life. And this difficulty surfaces in our lives in situations that necessitate a consideration of what the implications are in our relationship with our God.  Christian theology teaches us that poor choices end up with alienation from God and the poorer our choices are the greater our alienation become. We are therefore encouraged to be careful when making important choices in life. We should not only consider how pleasurable they could get or how they could be advantageous to us or how far they could advance us in our position in our workplace but more importantly, how such choices will prohibit us from that possible alienation from God.

There will surely be those occasions for making choices and while they could be difficult at times, let our consolation be that we have the faculty and the ability to do it.

Someone once told me that he thinks the reason why God put the head above our heart is for us to be guided accordingly; by free will and a well nurtured faculty by which we consider things relative to our present, as well as our future happiness and so it can temper our passions while we make those choices. Not to be unfair to the heart, I retorted that, perhaps, it was there for the other noble reason; that the workings of the mind need to be supported and upheld by the murmurs of the hearts so that those choices become reflections of the love harbored by the heart. Let our choices therefore be guided by both; each in support of the other.

Making choices will surely come our way; at times, difficult, at others, with relative ease. They could be as profound as in the choice between life and death. They could be as binding as in making poor and malicious choices or as in choosing the ones characterized by goodness.  May they all be welcomed as opportunities for us to make good use of such a brilliant gift; one that only the God of Wisdom can offer; allowing His people a chance of becoming who they truly are; a thinking and loving creature.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Which way shall you travel?

      The current socio-political unrests in countries like Tunisia, Lebanon and Egypt are good examples of how the quest for political freedom and the emancipation from the claws of economic inequality continue to propel concerned groups to seek drastic ways of ending oppressive regimes.
     I intentionally used the word “continue” because the conditions that paved the way for those recent upheavals had surfaced in the past and recurred with some degree of regularity. If we were to mark the current decade as our start date and work backward, we will surely notice that every so often, thru the annals of history, similar unrests had sprung in one place or another. And in each of those uprisings, the common thread that weaves them is the quest for freedom and equality, prompted usually by a unifying voice and a more pronounced sense of justice.
In many of those affirmations to fight for justice, the risk of losing limb had almost become a normal feature. Indeed, when the downtrodden get lifted up; when the poorest of society is given partiality, the impending danger cannot be unnoticed. Those who speak and act on their behalf often find before their path the biggest danger imaginable.
     Faced by this threat, some have opted to be silent rather than be silenced; others have opted for the opposite, to continue being the Voice and the Conscience that hopefully will be instrumental in the disestablishment of instrumentations of oppression. For those who choose the second option, there is something sacred in their struggle, especially if it is for the kind of justice that enables those in seats of leadership to render unto every man his just due without distinction. If such struggle, armed or otherwise, is meant to be along this noble path, those who are in it have then followed a beacon towards a meaningful engagement in their own version of prophetic ministry. 
     Should such options appear before you, I’d like to ask which way will you be heading. Will it be the path of comfort, ease and convenience? Or perhaps, you’ll dare venture to face the dangers on that “rough and rugged road”, the end in view of which might include something like freedom and emancipation and perhaps, transformation. 
     Which way shall you travel

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What's with the name?

Indeed, what's with this name? "pulpitandgavel" alludes to two symbols of authority and responsibility; with the former, the pulpit, as my choice of place from where I preach my Sunday homilies and the latter, the gavel, as my constant reminder of the instrument I once wielded when I presided over the Lodge I was tasked to "govern and rule".

Their being symbols of authority are quite obvious. In my many years in the ordained ministry, I have yet to see a regard different than the one which views the pulpit as the people's visual link to the Holy One being proclaimed and on whose behalf I stand and preach. In a similar fashion, the gavel, with which I governed my lodge, was an emblem of power and with it, I sat in the Oriental Chair, the lodge's exalted station.

The pulpit and gavel are also symbols of responsibility. I fully realize that the pulpit, as the people's visual link, can point to a completely different understanding of God when used with grave irresponsibility and for wrong and selfish reasons. It, therefore, has to be approached with special care and to be used for the singular reason that your message is not just yours but of the One you speak for. As with the gavel, it is intended to be wielded for the great good yet, at times, also wielded for a greater evil. Hence, it has to be borne with the utmost care and a deep sense of responsibility.

My wish is to have "pulpitandgavel" speak about the same issues that I would be speaking of when I am at the pulpit; as well as matters relative to my journey with my fellow "Travelers". 

Hence, the name "pulpitandgavel".