Bible Study and Reflection

by Ed de la Torre

31 January 1993 -- Part III

Text: Matthew 9

It’s always difficult to judge what importance to give the editorial contexts of any text in the Bible. We know how texts undergo so many changes. You are tempted to find too much meaning in the location of the text in relation to others.

The text appears in a collection of various sayings and disputes. What I found remarkable on the text itself are two things: its location in the middle of Matthew 9. Reading it, I was struck by the fact that it talks of miracles, John’s disciples questioning, "Why don’t your disciples fast like we do. We sacrifice. Your disciples are having a good time." And He says, "I’m still with them. When I go they will mourn." And then He adds, "No one puts unshrunken cloth onto an old cloak and no one pours new wine in old wineskin." Towards the end, there is that bit about, "harvest is abundant but the workers are few." I’m trying to grapple with this remarkable collection of seemingly unrelated stories.

First, a dispute on the two images of the disciple. One image of disciplined, fasting, grim and determined disciples. The other of celebrating, "Many, many people. Not enough disciples." Maybe there is some link to that. I am not sure. This chapter is like a patchwork of texts from so many sources that do not really form one neat, coherent set of sayings.

Second, and which I will read finely; Luke’s version is very interesting (Luke 5:33-39). The same context about the Pharisees saying, "John’s disciples complaining." He has the same answer. And he speaks in a parable, "No one patches an old garment with a patch taken from a new one, or else he will tear the new and also the old patch will not match the new; no one pours new wine in old wineskins, otherwise the new wine will burst the skins and run out and the skins will be ruined. New wine should be placed in new wineskins... And no one used to drinking old wine wants new wine right away."

Now, I think that is a nice text for URM. A reminder of how we deal with change and transformation. As usual, I do not start with textual analysis. I yield that to better scholars. I tend to react by remembering contexts or texts that speak to this text, offer them to you and then see whether they say something to one another.

There are three sets of interpellations with this text that I like to pose this morning. First is from St. Augustine’s "In the City of God". When I first read this, I was a young and romantic novice of the Society of the Divine Word. I was 16 years old, trying to understand religious life, even shedding my intellectual faculties for one year. Later I said, "Novice, masters. They either have the highest place in heaven or the deepest place in hell." Because you are like putty in their hands. You come saying, "I. don’t know religious life, I want to put myself in your hand and so the masters introduce us to religious life." This was one of the texts we reflected on.

You are ready to give everything. A radical break from your former life.

And I read Augustine’s reflection on the "Pilgrim Church"" It’s a good image for URM. The movement versus the institution, always on the move, very attractive when one is young. Don’t stay put. Go out. Move. Move. Still a good image to challenge the churches with. Go to the frontiers.

But even pilgrims don’t move all the time. At the end of the day, they check into inns. His idea was - that’s institutionalization. You rest and settle down. The problem is when it’s time to go, people sometimes don’t want to leave the inn. Maybe they’d rather have breakfast in bed. That is the spirit of the discussion. This tension between moving, pilgrims traveling with little luggage, and then settling down, consolidating, institutionalizing.

I remember in mid- 1960s, in Vatican II, a group of Third World Bishops issued a statement in relation to capitalism and socialism, saying, "It’s time to move on, to look for another inn perhaps." And when I first read that, I thought let’s pursue the image without reading too much into it. Thus, a difference between knowing you have to move on and dalliers who say, "Should we not take along things of value? Should we just abandon these and leave them?" When I was young and angry, I thought there was something wrong with this polarization going on in the seminary - - between the youth attacking the old, satisfied, complacent vested interests and the not so young who say, "Don’t we carry forward what is of value from our experience?" That was the time I went into scholastic philosophy in Greek -- What is change? Continuity?

I was thinking of that, a life of 25 years of struggle for change, and wondering about continuity. Of struggling for a radical break but also wondering about linkage. That’s the first image.

The second image. I’ve been trying to recall since a month ago and I can’t trace the origin anymore of a spearhead and a shaft. You have an object you want to puncture. You want to rend it, to open it. The spearhead, by its character, is pointed and sharp because it needs to penetrate and break out. Like missionaries, you like to be sharp to penetrate the world. But if you have only a spearhead and no shaft, the spearhead goes through and out and the hole closes. And so they say, "He really was ahead of his time." The change is not sustainable. You have one prophetic outburst and literally, you are out. Then the hole patches itself up. On the other hand, you have the spear with a shaft staying embedded and making changes.

Maybe we need to see the two as a parallel. Something that is sharp breaks through, goes out and the shaft stays in, greater power, balance, strength stays in. This is an image provoked by the text.

The last image is very political from the Philippine experience.

1992 is the 100th anniversary of our Katipunan, a radical movement that started the armed struggle against Spain and that fought for independence. Now, the importance of that year for me in relation to the text is the fact that before the Katipunan, raised the flag of independence in 1892, our national hero, Jose Rizal, whom the Americans and other conservative tried to counterpose to Bonifacio, had spent a lot of time lobbying in Spain for reforms. He talked of "people getting the government they deserve". Look, we have to educate ourselves. He was less confrontational. He gave up after so many years and decided to come home to the Philippines and then founded La Liga Filipina, the Philippine League, whose goal was to unite all the people into a nation rather than to seek independence. But this lasted three days. Rizal was arrested and the thing collapsed. What was interesting is Bonifacio, the radical leader, was one of the first recruits of La Liga Filipina, its main organizer and formed the biggest number of chapters. So that when Rizal was arrested and the Liga broke up, he had a ready-made Katipunan. And another group that called themselves, Cuerpo de Compromisarios, in Spanish it means Body of Committed (in English it’s terrible, Body of Compromisers), were the elite who struggled for reforms and committed themselves to struggle for reforms. The latter strained and broke up.

What is its relevance today? I am engaged in a debate today in the Philippines. We should celebrate the Katipunan and ask how the revolution should continue in the Philippines. That is not a troublesome issue. There is a Katipunan in the Philippines today, there is a guerrilla army, there is a radical movement. The problem is, do we have a Liga? Do we have an organization that can put together revolutionaries and reformers? Because that’s the only force big enough and powerful enough not only to confront the problems but also to represent the sentiments of those who want change. It is not to say that the debate is between Revolutionaries and Reformists. Reformism is different. It means being stuck with small changes, scared of large ones in principle. While a reformer wants to change things. I want manageable change. I am not against revolution. If there is a difference between a reformist and a reformer and if you can have unity between revolutionaries and reformers, why call us reformists? So I say are the revolutionaries pulling a fast one here? Is there no excess or mistake here? Even among revolutionaries, there are infantile and mature. Maybe there should be a term for revolutionist, for those who say they must be the most radical at any given time. They must be the most spectacular and fastest, maybe the bloodiest."

The reformers say change should be very contextual. You keep your vision, you struggle for change but it is not a matter of what is right is always, what is risky, harshest or more painful. There’s a kind of a danger when you are young or devout -- to say what hurts most is the most moral. Carl Runner, in 70s, tried to develop that. It was valid in the German context, a theology of risk is an important message. He says what is most risky is most correct, more moral.

In URM, I propose to revise, reread "new wine in old wineskin". I wonder in actual process of change, are we always sure we want new? The old is quite good. Do you know what is new? Is it better? The actual process of change is not a leap between one paradigm and a new one. It is a process of patching up, struggle within, breaking forth, in terms of a critique, not yet a whole new reality and at one point everything, all pieces fit together.

But pieces are not all new. Many of these pieces are old, rearranged. A Brazilian sociologist has an interesting quote about learning. To Peter Burger (?), "What does learning mean? It means we all have this framework that tried to explain the world. And more data comes in. You try to fit them in the framework. if they don’t fit, you make another framework. Learning happens when you develop a more adequate framework to incorporate this new phenomena that you cannot explain coherently in an old framework." When that happens, you learn. Only the learner can learn. A teacher can challenge, offer, create the atmosphere, but in the end learning is when you can say - Ah, now I have a framework where more of my experiences phenomena makes sense. At that moment, you have ecstasy, moment of learning, recognition.

I personally think looking at the Bible as a whole is the Good News. Christ reminds us of the old. New things challenge us. "Yeah, it makes sense!" Whether it is in the form of images of the kingdom, yes, it is exciting!

I feel URM is at that stage. There is a recognition all around even in the WCC. There are more things we had not seen. Some things have to change. What is this framework that incorporates the best of our memories, traditions, connections and clearly comes to terms with you that cannot be justified in terms of the old. Mission. Movement. If the church does not move, well, sorry. Movement is people, struggling, moving ahead. In Asia, it means being pluralist. Different identities. Secular. Multi- religious. How do we deal with this? This has been posed before. Let us pose it in new light. Religious pluralism, is the URM expression of mission. What happens when we have succeeded? I worked myself out of job. Do I find a new meaning? New mission? Companionship? To contextualize the text, I have three reflections.

In 1987, during the 25th anniversary of URM in Manila, I said something mischievous. I had just come out of prison in 1986. My relation to the Roman Catholic church had always been a fluid one. I was never quite in but never quite out. I was ordained in 1968. In 1969,1 was up for election to our Provincial Council. In 1974,1 got arrested. My own provincial, to his credit, before I got arrested, met me somewhere - like Nichodemus in the night (I don’t know who was Nichodemus, who was Christ. I thought I was Nichodemus, he thought he was Nichodemus, so we had a problem.)

He said, "I don’t know if what you’re doing is right. But this church must face the fact that things are changing. We don’t have all the answers. We need people who will explore. I give you 6 months and you report back. Technically, I was on leave. I was a fugitive during this 6 months. Then I got arrested. So they said we have to make a final decision, we are in solidarity with you. You are a member in prison. After 5 years, I got released, went to Rome and then I had a debate with my General Council because first they said, "Ed, we don’t think you are preaching Christ anymore. You are preaching Mao." I was so angry I said, "Well, at least Mao is Asian!" It was a 3-hour debate.

And to their credit they say, "You are still a Christian. Somewhat controversial, but a Christian. However, you belong to a conservative order. And you might jeopardize the work in the Philippines if you continue doing political work and in Europe and if we are seen to be supporting you. I think if I struggle within the institution I can create space, a Commission on Justice and Peace, Mission on New Ministries perhaps. My dilemma is, I need to work with migrants and with solidarity movements. At the same time I can’t do both equally well. So I understand there is not enough space. I hadn’t struggled to create it in the institution."

I knew what they were moving towards. But since I was just out of prison they could not fire me. They would look stone-hearted. So I asked, "You want me to go on leave?" "Yes." So I wrote a one-sentence note to the Vatican, "I am asking to go on leave for a year on the grounds that my political involvement is not acceptable to my congregation." So I went on leave. After one year, we were supposed to decide whether I leave or stay. I went to the Philippines and got arrested again. So for 4 years, I’m in that status again. In 1986, my leader said we can still work together. God walks on two legs. The spirit among people is there before churches even existed. And even when churches came, God did not decide he will give up that option. That continues. He works outside the churches too.

I don’t think God has abandoned the churches yet. Although some would shake the dust off their feet and call the church whitened sepulchers. The joke among radical Roman Catholics is that they still believe in the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Holy Roman Catholic church otherwise there is no logic that it still exists; it’s so flawed and corrupt. I think personally, that is the tension that the URM has tried to put together. How to take people seriously, whether linked to churches or not, and to discover mission there not as the church giving, but also the church discovering. Taking churches seriously even with its flaws, its sinfulness, obtiousness, its problems, at the very least, because it’s there. You can’t ignore it.

A Christian, in whatever tradition (even individualist tradition), can’t avoid the issue of community and some structure. To sort out and work out a community, we need many models not just one. How does India UIRM communicate itself to Korean URM and vice versa? Or Sri Lanka URM to Philippine URM and vice versa; Burma and all that?

In 1981, when I came back to the Philippines debating this, I remember Roman Catholics and Protestants had very differing ideas. We Catholics were scared to publish anything which could give officials a chance to say you are schismatic, heretical. The Protestants would always tell us, "You Roman Catholics, if you don’t like Roman Catholicism, you can always found a new one." Well, that’s not how we were patterned. We have been given this teaching. It’s in our bone. In fact, one said if you have to break, then break. No, we will not break. We will struggle with it to transform it. It’s easier said than done. When you have limited resources. Specially if you have limited energy and spirit. I’d better invest my time in something that produces something.

Our resolution then was to be inside and outside the church. Among the nuns, we created a new group called, New Missionaries, which was a Special Task Force of full-time nuns working in rural areas and doing social action. The key was the partnership between a sister who was "in" church and a sister who was "out". Sister "Out" comes "in" and gives fresh words from the World, a new pace, an anger which if she were the only one to speak of might shake, rattle and scare the church. The Sister "In" starts explaining it by alluding to congregational principles through the Bulletin Board, the Retreat Master.

Can we talk of those two crucial locations? It’s rare to find one who can shuttle in and out and who can articulate adequately well. Within URM, you have people whose principal location is outside formal institutions and those whose principal location is within, not necessarily at the heart of the institution. It would be good if they were on top or at the heart of the institution.

It would be good to sharpen this image. It’s there and that’s precisely what URM and CCPD have tried to articulate.

What is the role of the church as base for mission that is not a traditional one -- committed principally to empowering people in movements, whether believers or not?

What is the power of the church besides its moral, theological, financial power? It has social, political power that can be harnessed if we work out a strategy and a linkage so that its not simply a linkage of fragile, emerging power of people and other powers, parties, unions, etc. and also this church. This demands more work. It’s not fresh work. We have accumulated so much experience. We haven’t put them together, really. We haven’t quarreled enough to arrive at ecstasy. What learning have we got of the 25 years? Some people are at the mood of unlearning. We have to agree first on what we have learned. At least, we hand it over to a new generation. It gives us fresh meanings and energy to be part of the new generation.

The last item is a favorite text of mine, First Peter. In 1980, there was a Catholic seminar on justice and peace in Britain that attempted to develop a theology of liberation. And the formula was to bring Third World theologians there, let them talk to a lot of British activists put them together, shake and you have a theology for Britain. Tissa Balassuriya was there. Jon Sobrino. Bonino. I was invited. So I remember saying, "Theology of liberation, connotes national liberation -- Exodus, Israel emerging from Egypt." It was very difficult for the British to think that way. Maybe the Welsh and Irish can think of their exodus. But I said may be the British should read the Exodus from the point of view of the Egyptians. After all, when the Israelites were gone, some people still had to make the bricks. Shouldn’t the Egyptians try to remove their Pharaohs? The Egyptians are not all such a bad sort. Moses was saved by an Egyptian woman. Third World images of theology of liberation means something else to the North. Through this, Bonino said something worth remembering: "Always ready to account for the hope that is in us. With gentleness and respect." In ecumenical circles with radicals and conservatives or liberals or in political circles with radicals, conservatives and reformers, let us ask ourselves to account for the hope that is in us.

It is a wisdom worth repeating.

Gentle doesn’t mean not firm. Respectful doesn’t mean uncritical. But to be gentle and respectful in accounting for the hope that is in us, is a nice URM tone.

To account for the hope is the principal one. We account for our weaknesses and our failures with no dissatisfaction nor complacency and with no desperation. We know we deserve better.

Why do we account with gentleness? Because we cannot force anyone to learn. We can offer food on the table, praise it, extol it, but it is the eater who must decide to eat.

Let us grant a minimum of goodwill to those who differ with us. They are also trying to sort out this rough passage. There is a strong painful process going on now in the Philippines. There is mutual recrimination but also casting doubts on motives of people who ask questions and who really have very differing opinions. I’m tempted to take positions but I keep reminding myself, it will be difficult to explain well. It will be difficult to judge and criticize the concepts and methods of the movement, if you start with bad-mouthing the motives of others. When that happens, there is no more room to discuss.

The message of new wine and new wineskin is that, yes, there will be something new but right now, we have to sort out the elements of the old and bring them together. That comes before the new.

[This Bible Study was presented at the 24th URM Committee Meeting held in Hong Kong from 28 January - 1 February 1993]