Warning, Jesus’ Style

A Commentary on Luke 11:42-46 by Fr. Randy Flores, SVD

[Here’s a commentary on the Gospel Reading for October 16 (Wed) which I submitted to the Propaganda Fide for the Extraordinary Month of Mission (October 2019).

“I can’t see the point of being a missionary and laying low. It is a part of our Christian calling to speak the truth.”

This was the reply of the Sr. Patricia Ann Fox to the question whether missionaries should lay low in the Philippines in the face of the the government’s threat of deporting foreigners who are suspected to engage in political rallies. The 71-year old Australian nun of the Sisters of Sion has been already a missionary in the Philippines for 27 years. In the wee hours of April 16, 2018, she was detained at the of Bureau of Immigration on allegations she participated in political activities and anti-government demonstration thus violating the conditions of her missionary visa. Few days later, no less than the President of the Philippines announced in public that he personally ordered the investigation of the nun for “disorderly conduct.” Nine days after this incident, Sr. Patricia was told to leave the country in 30 days. In an official statement from her, she explained that what she had been doing all along for 27 years are activities of what a Christian missionary is called to do: involvement with “projects, such as training in organic farming, to uplift the livelihood of farmers, but also to advocate with them for their rights to land, livelihood, peace, justice and security, all universal human rights which the church sees as integral to her mission.” News about her case triggered discussions in the country on what it “missionary” means (e.g. in the Philippine Senate, see also the column “Missionary” by A. Pamintuan in The Philippine Star, April 27, 2018).

Thanks to the Philippine President, what many missionary congregations have been trying to promote in the country—missionary awareness—received a free advertisement nationwide and worldwide.

Pope Benedict XV must have been prophetic when he praised in the missionary document, Maximum Illud, the nuns “who have gone to pursue their vocations in the missions” and hoped that they “further efforts on behalf of the church” (no. 30). Could he have foreseen that hundred years later, many sisters all over the world are doing the kind of mission that Sister Patricia Fox does?

When we turn to the New Testament, the evangelist Luke, author of the third Gospel and Acts of the Apostles, is known for his accounts of women who are “prophetic”: Mary in the Magnificat, the prophetess Anna, the women supporters of Jesus (8:1-3), the anonymous brave woman who blessed Mary (11:27-28), the sisters Martha and Mary; the women in the Acts of the Apostles: Lydia, the seller of purple-dye; Candace, the queen of Ethiopia; the disciple Tabitha or Dorcas; Priscilla, who with her husband were expelled from Rome (cf. Romans).

Similarly, Paul in his Letter to the Romans (from where today’s First Reading is taken), has commissioned the deaconess Phoebe as her emissary to the church in Rome (16:1-2) to hand-carry a letter of prophetic content. Paul who is in Corinth writes to the Christians in Rome, a community he had hoped to visit because of his desire to correct some of their errors. “Do you suppose,” Paul argues, “you who judge those who engage in such things and yet do them yourself, that you will escape the judgment of God? (Rom. 2:1).” Paul intends to do a fraternal correction to members of the Christian community in Rome whose self-righteous attitude is causing divisions. “None is righteous,” he would later say, “not even one!” (3:10). The expulsion of the Christians from Rome in AD 49 could have been due to the infighting within the community which created disturbances in the city (cf. Priscilla and Aquila).

Speaking out the truth especially in the service of justice distinguishes a true from a false prophet. We see this in the prophetic ministry of the prophets of the eighth century B.C.: Amos, Hosea, Isaiah of Jerusalem and Micah. The false prophet is the one who does not prophesy the truth but only “speak smooth things” (Isa. 30:10). Prophet Jeremiah, two centuries afterwards, has continued this prophetic tradition shown for instance in his courageous speech at the gate of the Temple (cf. 7:1-15). Temple worship must go hand in hand with acting justly for the alien, the orphan and the widow (vv. 5-6).

Self-righteousness then is not only a problem of the ego but is also anti-poor. That seems to be the point of Jesus when he speaks with similar boldness and sarcasm in today’s Gospel Reading (Luke 11:42-46).

Jesus’ speech consists of six “woes” (number six being a symbol of imperfection in the Jewish gematria; Matthew has eight “woes”) which are equally divided: three each for the Pharisees and lawyers (nomikoi). The charge is righteousness spelled as hypocrisy, a destructive “yeast” that must be avoided (cf. 12:1) and a temptation that is felt strongest by religious people even today.

The paying of tithes, for instance, is just for a show with the more important things neglected: acts in behalf of justice which is a concrete proof of loving God (cf. 11:42). The evangelist Luke would give us later a clearer example of hypocrisy as sin against the poor when, in Jerusalem, Jesus takes to task the scribes (20:45-47) for their hypocrisy in the form of ostentatiousness. “They devour [katesthiō] the widows’ houses” (v. 47). The crime implies cheating the widows out of their property while pretending to be pious by saying kilometric prayers. The succeeding story of the Widow’s Mite (21:1-4) mirrors further how a hypocritical attitude affects the poor: “she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (v.4).

The use of “woe” then betrays the Luke’s understanding of Jesus both as a prophet and a sage (cf. Isa 3:11 and Sir 41:8) and the evangelist’s warning to the Christian community of the danger of hypocrisy. It can “kill” the poor as well as the Christian community (“Better to be an atheist than a hypocritical Catholic!” Pope Francis once said in a jest).

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